23 February 2008

Planet Narnia follow-up

In an earlier post, I reviewed Dr. Michael Ward’s new book, Planet Narnia. Since then, I have heard Michael speak twice and have enjoyed lively conversation with him about his astronomical discovery, both in person and via email. He was kind enough to take the time to respond to my review, so now I would like to summarize and answer his responses here. But please, dear reader, do not read this post without reading my previous one that praises this book, or else you’ll get the wrong impression! And there are detailed posts on the Oxford Inklings blog about each planet: here is the first of the series. And here is Dr. Ward's homepage. Also, keep an eye out from my review articles in Stillpoint, the alumni magazine of Gordon College, and in Sehnsucht, the new C. S. Lewis Journal edited by Grayson Carter. And above all, read the book!

1. I said that “Ward claims that Lewis was intentionally keeping it secret, and would probably lie to you even if you drew the circle, kindled the blue fire, and called up his unquiet ghost.” Well, I should be more careful. Ward doesn’t claim that Lewis would lie. However, Ward does claim that Lewis was intentionally keeping the planetary secret, and purposefully steered conversations in another direction if they came dangerously close to discovering his hidden theme. For example, Lewis told his former student Charles Wrong that he “had to write three volumes, of course, or seven, or nine. These are the magic numbers.” (Ward 13, quoting Charles Wrong, “A Chance Meeting,” in James T. Como, ed, C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences. London: Collins, 1980. 113). Ward writes, “I suspect that Lewis was deflecting Wrong from asking questions about this [planetary] idea” (Ward 14). Roger Lancelyn Green, once Lewis’s student and then a life-long friend and literary companion, recounts that the two of them “planned a story of a trip to Mercury—but couldn’t get very far with it.” Ward interprets this to mean that Lewis “was anxious not to pursue the theme because it would have involved constant avoidance of his own recent attempt to write a story [The Horse and His Boy] which had the Mercurial characters as its hidden inner meaning” (Ward 152, quoting Green & Hooper’s biography, London: HarperCollins, 2002. 310). Ward cites other times when Jack either told lies or deliberately held back the truth; he lied to his father about his relationship with Mrs. Moore (before he became a Christian) and didn’t tell even some of his closest friends about his civil marriage to Joy. On page 14 Ward says that Lewis was “laying a false trail (or at any rate, a trail that was not completely dependable)” whenever he talked about his inspiration for or meanings in the Narniad. And I know there’s one other place in which Ward relates something Lewis wrote about Narnia, then discusses whether Lewis was mistaken or just telling “a little white lie.” But now I cannot find that place in the book!! If I find it, I’ll come back and add it.

And let me just say here that this really doesn’t matter! I’m not accusing Lewis of the sin of deception. He might very well find some clever way to steer any curious questioners away from the topic, as he did with Green and others. That’s part of his playful personality.

On the other hand, maybe Lewis would be thrilled that someone has at last discovered the secret and can explain all those hidden depths.

Or maybe there’s another reading altogether. My husband thinks that perhaps Lewis was not keeping a secret at all. Rather, Lewis could have been so deeply immersed in the Medieval Model of the Universe that he just couldn’t stop writing about it (he wrote about it with increasing subtlety in his scholarship, fiction, and poetry) and so just decided to try writing stories in which only he knew about the planetary idea. No so much that he was hiding this meaning, but that he was trying a literary experiment for his own sake, not for anyone else’s. Maybe he just wanted to see what would happen if he put himself into a “Jovial” frame of mind and wrote a story from that mental place—and wasn’t either keeping it a secret or hoping anybody would discover it. That’s a thought to consider, anyway!

2. I asserted that Ward’s argument was “totally unverifiable and …enjoys its own un-verifiability as a features of its intentional secrecy.” I also say that it employs “circular reasoning that results from almost exclusive reliance on Lewis’s own writing.” Well, I should now clarify, now that Michael and I have discussed this. He pointed out to me that there is good circularity and bad circularity. There’s reason that is fallaciously circular, such as, oh, I don’t know, such as dating the age of a rock based on what layer of sediment it’s found in, and dating the age of the sediment based on the types of rocks that are found in it. But then there’s reasoning that completes the circle. Ward’s reasoning completes the circle: Lewis loved the planets (which is verifiable in his scholarly work) and described them in a certain way, with certain characteristics. Now look at each of the Narnia chronicles; each one displays the set of characteristics that Lewis associated with one planet, so therefore he must have designed those books to match up to the planets. So that is not fallacious reasoning; it’s just complete. And Michael pointed out to me that whenever he can he breaks out of that kind of circularity and subjects the argument to other sorts of tests. For example, he reproduces a page of the unpublished typescript of The Silver Chair, in which Lewis called Father Time “the god Saturn.” Michael went on to say to me, “Because the typescript is not within the ring of Lewis's published works and he didn't know that it would ever become public, I think this counts as extra-circular.” I agree.

And in response to my claim that the theory is unverifiable, Ward pointed out to me that although (of course) we cannot simply ask Lewis if this is what he meant, we have the only and the best proof available: the texts themselves. If I, as a literary scholar, do not believe that I can prove or disprove a theory by looking at the evidence of the text itself, I’m not only in trouble as an English teacher and literary critic, but as a Christian. If we cannot know what a text means, then we cannot know what God has said to us in His written word.

Tangent: Which is the danger of nominalism and deconstructionism, neither of which I understand thoroughly enough to discuss further here, but whose effects I have felt personally in my secular literary studies. They also pose exciting challenges and interpretive adventures, but that’s another story.

So now I need to either retract or rephrase my objection. I choose (from sheer stubbornness or true conviction, or both) to rephrase it. I will now say that Ward’s theory is self-validating. It goes something like this: “Lewis wanted to keep this planetary theme a secret, so the very fact that there is no proof is itself proof, since that proves Lewis wanted to hide the theme.” Hum. Now, let me anticipate two quite valid objections to my assertion of self-validation. First, Ward tries to get out of that circle whenever he can, too. He cites two hints that Lewis dropped about a hidden meaning. One was to Charles Wrong, when Lewis said he “happened to have an idea he wanted to try out, and by now, having worked it out to the full [after 7 books], he did not plan to write any more” ((Ward 13, quoting Charles Wrong, “A Chance Meeting,” in James T. Como, ed, C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences. London: Collins, 1980. 113). The other was to William Kinter, who had suggested that Lewis’s books could be arranged like a cathedral. Lewis thought this was an excellent metaphor, and wrote back, “I’d make Miracles and the other ‘treatises’ the cathedral school: my children’s stories are the real side-chapels, each with its own little altar” (Ward 236, quoting Letters vol. III, 28 March 1953). Ward takes these hints to mean, first, that Lewis’s secret idea needed seven books for full expression, and, second, that each is in service of its own god (as it were) and then those gods “serve” Christ by representing Him; if the entire series were just “about Christ” in some simple sense, why would there be seven separate altars?

So there again Ward breaks out of the self-validating circularity. And the second logical objection to my accusation that it’s a self-validating argument, you could say, “So what?” I’m no logician, but there doesn’t seem to be anything fallacious about a self-validating argument per se: I’m just suspicious of it. The skeptic in me says that if something is too tidy to be true, it probably isn’t true.

On this point, Michael wrote to me: “Lewis says… that we accept the Incarnation as the central passage of history because it explains so many things; even though it introduces certain new problems we still accept it as true because of its explanatory power in other areas. In short, it's a paradigm shift: it 'saves the appearances' better than the old explanation. The tidier it is, the more we would be likely to accept it.” Perhaps another way of looking at this is through Occam’s razor: If we know Lewis was a skillful writer (which we do), and we know that the Narnia books seem superficially disorganized or like a hodge-podge (which many have argued that they do), then the simplest explanation is that there is an underlying skillful organization that we’ve missed. And Ward’s theory is the most coherent reading in favor of coherence that has yet appeared—and it is simply to assume that Ward is right than to imagine that the 7 books accidentally happen to match up to the planets or (as somebody suggested to me in conversation) that God divinely ordered the books this way without Lewis’s conscious knowledge or participation!!!

If there’s no way to disprove an argument, because disproof is in itself a proof, I get kind of squirrelly and think there must be some sleight-of-hand going on that my slow eyes aren’t quick enough to catch.

But this probably says more about why I am not an apologist than it does about whether or not Ward’s theory is correct! And Ward doesn’t really use disproof as proof; he just points out that is it what one would expect (as he kindly pointed out to me in an email just now!) So let’s move on.

3. I said, “[Ward] boldly claims that the burden of proof now rests on those who would suggest his reading is wrong.” Well, he doesn’t exactly do that. On page 215 he says that his “interpretation seems to me to account for so many things that I would even dare to suggest that the burden of proof now rests with those who would dispute it.” So there’s still that rather endearing humility (dare to suggest). So that’s nice. And I don’t have any proof to offer that he could be wrong, and have no desire to do so, since I love this reading!

4. I made a very clumsy and unintelligible attempt to communicate something that I’ll try to say with more clarity now. This refers back to the whole self-validating thing. Here goes. I’ll try to outline the steps as I go. First, Ward shows that Lewis conceived of the planets in a certain way (in his poems and scholarship, primarily). Each planet, for Lewis, had a certain personality. Then in the Narniad those characteristics show up rather neatly in the seven books, each where it should be. However (here’s the point I was trying to make), this does not prove that Lewis’s understand of the planets was really accurate to either the Classical or Medieval understanding. In the mythological-astrological system, for example, was Jove/Jupiter a king a rest, taking his leisure, serene? Wasn’t he a god of thunderbolts and irrational rages, the perpetrator of a chain of violent rapes? So is Lewis re-interpreting the deities for his own theological purposes, or did the Middle Ages already do that? In other words, in Planet Narnia almost all of the reader’s information about the planets comes from Lewis himself and not from his sources. But that would be beyond the book, and I also objected that Ward tries to do too many things in one book! I guess my only concern is for the theological integrity of the planetary reading. If Lewis appropriated only what he wanted to from the pre-Copernican system, as far as spiritual symbols, and left out or ignored the unharmonious elements, it seems that perhaps these omissions could damage the Kappa element he wanted to convey. If Lewis was creating a new closed system (he own reinterpretation of the Ptolemaic cosmology), well and good; if he’s trying to use the old system and failing to do so, that’s a problem. But Ward did not need to address this question of how accurately Lewis used the planets; that’s something I’ll gradually investigate on my own.

5. So then, I said that “that Planet Narnia would have been a better book had it been more focused. Ward [is]… trying to do too many things at once.” I suggested that the chapter on Elizabeth Anscombe (not Margaret, as I erroneously said earlier) could have been left out. Michael did not want to leave out that chapter, because members of his audience are constantly wondering how he can make his planetary claim when Lewis made clear that he only set out to write one Narnia book. The Anscombe chapter explains this. But I still think that Michael could have left out that chapter, published its contents as articles elsewhere, and shared its solution verbally in talks when asked. That’s just my opinion.

But I hate to leave this post with the flavour of objection in the mouth! This post is just an attempt to stimulate discussion and debate, not to criticize Ward or his beautiful theory. I’m reading The Discarded Image right now and beginning an investigation of the reception history of the heliocentric model, and these two related studies have convinced me more than ever. In my article for Stillpoint, I list five reasons that Planet Narnia is invaluable; I’ll summarize them here.

First, as Michael says in his last chapter, this reading gives Lewis scholars a new set of lenses for studying the chronicles.
Second, Ward’s reading, with its astrological aspect, might be fascinating to a whole new potential audience of non-Christians.
Third, if you’ve ever suspected that something profound was going on beneath the surface of the Narnia chronicles, Ward’s reading tells you you were right, and reveals what that “something profound” is! It’s very exciting; as thrilling to me as the first time I read the series (in published order) and found out where the wood for the wardrobe came from (which is one of the strongest moments of sehnsucht I remember from my childhood).
Fourth, kids love this reading. My students, ranging in age from 10 to 18, have had a lot of fun matching up planets with books.
Fifth, Planet Narnia came out at just the right time, culturally speaking. Young people and adults are addicted to fantasy stories and movies, and “The Golden Compass” with all its attendant conversational/worldview trappings has just been released as a film. “Prince Caspian” will be in the theatres in May. More Harry Potter, Inheritance, and The Dark is Rising movies are due out soon. So this reading is well-timed, and I hope will be long discussed, analyzed, and appreciated.

And I want to close on a personal note. I’ve been pondering what to do for any future literary studies, for years now. I always thought it would be “something with the Romantics,” but have not come up with an original line of research. I love the Romantics, but they’re a little too slippery for me. So I have a big question (actually a series of questions) that I’d like to answer, and Ward’s study has pretty much confirmed for me that this is the direction I will take in my future research, if possible. These are the questions that I would like to answer, in detail:
1. How long did it take Copernicus’s (and Kepler’s, and Galileo’s) “Revolution” to reach England?
2. How long before the common man accepted the heliocentric model of the universe?
3. How did the Anglican church respond? Did they consider this theory heresy? If so, how long before it became Orthodoxy?
Then, once I’ve discovered the answers to those question, I’d get down to the literary gritty:
4. How did English poets respond?
5. How long did it take before they wrote with certainty within the heliocentric model?
6. What did the new science do to them, imaginatively?
7. Did they feel relieved, now that they were freed from the “anxiety” of Dante’s “influence,” since he was arguably the greatest writer in the new model?
8. Or did they feel afraid, personally and poetically, of the great emptiness and asymmetry of the new model?

Those are my ideas! I’d love feedback.


Rosie Perera said...

So does Planet Narnia solve the question of what order Lewis intended the books to be read in, which you also discussed in an earlier post? I haven't read the book (yet), but what I can glean of it from other blog posts and from what I believe is the canonical order of the heavenly bodies (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter,
Saturn), Ward's work seems to throw another possible reading order into the mix: Silver Chair, Horse and His Boy, Magician's Nephew, Dawn Treader, Prince Caspian, LWW, Last Battle. What do you think of this order?

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed at people who discount Dr. Ward's book without having read it and without having read all the pertinent writings of Lewis, especially The Discarded Image!

Interesting post, anyway. :-)