01 February 2008

Planet Narnia Review

You are invited to meet the author of Planet Narnia and to hear him discuss his hermetic reading! Read this earlier post for details. If you’re interested, you can also read my previous short review. 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.

“The Heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Psalm 19:1-4a.

Building on the premise that the Heavenly bodies do indeed speak eloquently of God’s glory, and that C. S. Lewis quite brilliantly coded that speech into fantasy in The Chronicles of Narnia, Dr. Ward piles brick on brick of intuition, quotation, association, and application to persuade the skeptics of the accuracy of his new reading. I first heard Dr. Ward speak back in the summer of 2006, and I was instantly both a fan and a skeptic. His theory about the reason for seven Chronicles of Narnia is fascinating, beautiful, and—so I thought—implausible. But since Dr. Ward was a very compelling speaker, I bought the book.

So now I have finished reading Planet Narnia, and would like to offer some responses and evaluative thoughts. I’m just about convinced. I’m not 100% convinced, for reasons discussed below, but I’m probably 95% convinced. And I agree with Alan Jacob’s comment on the back of the book, that if Dr. Ward is wrong, it doesn’t even matter, because his reading is completely lovely, plausible, useful, scholarly, and thorough. He seems to write from inside of C. S. Lewis’s head, thinking Lewis's thoughts after him, quoting from all Lewis’s works easily and naturally, tying together apparently unrelated elements. His memory is enormous, his scholarship admirable, his writing clear and organized, his theory fresh and compelling.
While researching for a doctoral dissertation on Lewis, Ward began to suspect that each of the seven Narnia books matched up to one of the seven planets (according to pre-Copernican astronomy). After four years of studying all of Lewis’s works, he decided that Lewis had intentionally structured his children’s fiction that way. Planet Narnia, then, is an interesting mixture of careful scholarship and exciting mystery tale. Each chapter describes the character of one of the planets according to how it appears in Lewis’s professional writings, poetry, and the “Space” trilogy. Then he goes on to explain how one of the Narnia books matches up to that planet. And, not to keep you in suspense, here’s a list:
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—Jupiter/Jove
Prince Caspian—Mars
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader—the Sun/Sol
The Silver Chair—the Moon/Luna
The Horse and His Boy—Mercury
The Magician’s Nephew—Venus
The Last Battle—Saturn
Besides just presenting the personality of the planets in these seven books, Ward claims, Lewis also used each planet as an emblem of certain aspects of Jesus Christ, and shaped Aslan’s appearances in each book to emphasize the different roles Jesus has played in history and in the lives of Christians by means of planetary metaphors.

If Ward is right, and I think he probably is, he has just proven that the Narnia Chronicles are even more complex and well-crafted than anybody ever suspected. He has revealed new depths to Lewis’s imagination and new associations in his theology. Perhaps most importantly, he has shown that the realm of Narnia is a consistent, self-containing, theologically profound, ideologically ingenious world worthy to stand as Philip Pullman’s valid rival. Indeed, if Ward is right (and I hope he is!), then all of Pullman’s criticisms of Narnia are wrong, and Lewis’s own writing escapes from all of the narrative and polemic faults that plague His Dark Materials. But we suspected that all along, yes?

I hope that you are intrigued and fascinated, and that you rush out to buy this book right away! It’s available on amazon, and you can even get it used.

But let me just give you a heads-up: if this book persuades you that Narnia, as a subcreated work of genius, is without flaws, well, Planet Narnia is not. There are a few pretty serious problems with the logic that underpins this book.

First of all, there’s what we literary critics like to call the “intentional fallacy.” Granted, not all critics agree that’s it fallacious to make a claim about authorial intention, but lots see that it’s tendentious at best, completely un-provable at worst. We can’t go and ask Lewis if this theory is right, because he’s dead. And 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! Which I definitely do not recommend. Anyhow, it’s a little coy to make up a theory that’s totally unverifiable and that kinds of enjoys its own un-verifiability as a features of its intentional secrecy. But Ward is absolutely convinced himself that this is not a theory, it’s manifestly the work of Lewis, and his proofs are so well organized and so many that it’s hard to disagree. Plus, he has a rather endearing humility throughout the book about being the lucky fellow who stumbled about this reading—until the end, when he boldly claims that the burden of proof now rests on those who would suggest his reading is wrong. Another self-supporting, unverifiable claim, perhaps?

Secondly, there’s a kind of circular reasoning that results from almost exclusive reliance on Lewis’s own writing. It goes like this: CSL says in The Discarded Image that such-and-such a planet had these characteristics, and in “The Planets” poem he uses these phrases, and in this Chronicle he uses those characteristics and those phrases or their associated images, so therefore he is modeling this Chronicle after that planet. Sure, this might prove that the planetary ideas were essential Lewis, and it might even prove that the Narnia chronicles were designed to follow the Medieval schema, but it doesn’t prove that they are modeled after the Medieval planets themselves. Of course, Ward didn’t set out to criticize how well Lewis presented the planets, just to convince us that he did. But I for one would have enjoyed a history of each planet: it’s original identification with a god or goddess, the development of its individual personality, its absorption into the Roman Catholic worldview as a perfectly acceptable astrological science, and so on. Maybe Ward will have to write seven more books, one on each of the planets!!

And third, I believe that Planet Narnia would have been a better book had it been more focused. Ward seems to suffer from the totalizing urge: trying to do too many things at once. It’s not enough to show that each book matches up to a planet: he has to go on and show how Aslan matches up in each book, and how the Chronicles as a whole were a response to Margaret Anscombe’s debate, and how all of those things really fit together into one extremely complex whole. Whew! It’s kind of exhausting. I think Ward should have left out the whole Anscombe idea and saved it for an article or another book.

But on the whole, this book is extremely valuable and interesting. It gives literary critics and rabid Lewis fans a new way to read the Chronicles. It adds another field of interest for non-Christians to appreciate Narnia (I wonder if I should send this book to my astrologist Aunt?). It a level of complexity that proves Narnia is not just for kids, but at the same time kids find it really fun to match up the planets. I’ve had my students do that; those in the 10-14 year old range enjoyed that matching game the best. And this study is quite relevant for current trends in literary criticism (studying works historically for their contexts and predecessors) and popular media (the Narnia movies). Indeed, I wish the media would listen up a bit and incorporate some of Ward’s idea on imagery into the movies. And I hope Philip Pullman reads Planet Narnia!

1 comment:

matushkadonna said...

This book is on my list-- such interesting things in your review, I'm more eager than ever to get hold of it!