Sunday, January 31, 2010

Michael Ward's Planet Narnia

Michael Ward, Planet Narnia
I thought I would mention another book that I read recently, which I like very much. This is Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, by Michael Ward. I won't spend time describing the book just now -- go to the Planet Narnia website and see for yourself -- except to say that it is a work of literary criticism that will change Lewis scholarship forever. And about time!

I found out about this book quite by chance -- I was on Graboid (a video downloading service), and trying to find copies of the TV versions of Lewis's Narnia stories that the BBC produced back in the '80s. To simplify my search, I just used the keyword "Narnia." Not only did I find the old television shows (some of them, anyway -- I'm still looking for The Silver Chair, and one or two others), but I also hit on a BBC documentary called "The Narnia Code." This was not a title to inspire confidence; "oh, no," I thought, "another crackpot theory about what the Narnia novels 'really' mean; the BBC will do anything to attract viewers." But I downloaded it and watched it -- without great enthusiasm until Michael Ward started to explain the hermeneutic key he struck on one night that unlocked a whole level of significance in the seven Narnia novels hitherto undetected by Lewis critics.

When Ward started talking about what his find actually was, I began to get interested. This was the first theory I'd heard that (a) took seriously into account Lewis's long career as a medievalist, (b) looked at the Narnia stories as an integrated part of L's overall opus (i.e., showed that he did not, by some weird aberration, suddenly turn to writing "children's stories"), and (c) answered Tolkien's famous dismissal of them as an artless hodgpodge of mythic and legendary elements, unworthy of serious attention. Then the documentary began to show some of the major Lewis scholars giving their respectful and enthusiastic imprimaturs on Ward's theory. Next thing I knew, I was searching the internet for the best price on Ward's book (after I found that my local university library did not yet have it).

Once the book arrived from Alibris, I read it section by section at the breakfast table, over the course of several weeks. Before I got through the first chapter, I realized that it was time to re-read the Narnia novels (Lewis always called them "romances," so I guess I should, too), as well as the three Ransom novels (Lewis's "space trilogy"). I read them over a month or so, while I was also reading Planet Narnia. Ward's theory has it that each of the Narnia stories is keyed to one of the major celestial bodies (sun, moon & planets, with the pagan deities they are associated with) in medieval cosmology, so I matched my reading of each of the Narnia stories with the relevant chapter in Ward's study. I found this worked quite well, reading the Narnia romance first, and then the related chapter. I was also inspired to go back and, finally, finish reading Till We Have Faces (I had begun it once years ago and got distracted before finishing; wow, that was a mistake!).

I wound up being quite impressed with how thoroughly Ward's new theory illuminates many aspects of these stories and shows them to be not an aberration amid Lewis's other published work, but rather inspired from the very wellsprings of his deepest interests and preoccupations. Although I have not read any of Lewis's poetry (Ward's reading of his poems was what inspired this theory), I am familiar with his Christian apologetics and, to a certain extent, the more popular works touching on his scholarship (An Experiment in Criticism and The Discarded Image -- which I now want to re-read). Now I would really love to read more of his literary criticism, particularly his preface to Milton's Paradise Lost.

I can see that one of the reasons, probably, why critics have hitherto failed to see the influence of Lewis's expertise in late medieval and renaissance literature on the Narnia stories is that they have been distracted by the obvious association of Aslan with Christ in the first Narnia story (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), which although clearly intended by Lewis, has served almost as a red herring. Since the Aslan portion of LWW seems to be a kind of allegory or parable of the Salvation Story, this obvious parallel has influenced far too many critics to try to find all sorts of other connections with Biblical narratives and analogues, and to overlook other allusions that are not explicitly Christian. Of course, one other reason the connection between Narnia and the medieval cosmos has remained unnoticed is that Lewis always intended it to be so -- at least, that's what Michael Ward argues, and I think he is right.

Ho-ho, any readers out there -- yes, this is meant to be a teaser. If you're a Narnia lover and want to uncover hidden depths in those beloved stories, go to Ward's Planet Narnia web site and learn more about his theory. And if the words "literary criticism" make your eyes glaze over, fear not: this is not academic gobbledygook that ordinary mortals would choke on. In fact, although Ward came up with his theory while he was working on a doctoral dissertation, his degree is not in literary studies but theology (he is an Anglican priest; one of the Lewis scholars he quotes several times is Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury). So those of you who love Lewis's work for its Christian elements should not despair to learn that the Narnia novels are inspired by the pagan gods who inhabited the planets of the medieval cosmos -- those gods themselves were, in the Middle Ages, allegories of divine attributes of the Christian God, and Ward does a fine job of showing how the various layers of significance interplay.

I'll have more to say about Planet Narnia later. I will just add now that one of the reasons (a rather unexpected one) that I'm interested in Ward's study, is that he found himself faced with a task similar to one I had in my own doctoral dissertation. Although our subjects were quite different (I wrote on Chr├ętien de Troyes' twelfth century French Arthurian romance, The Story of the Grail), I saw some marked similarities in what I will call the critical and rhetorical tasks we faced. So while I was reading Planet Narnia, in addition to appreciating the content of Ward's argument, I was watching how he structured that argument, defined his terms, built his case, overcame likely objections, etc., and taking note of ideas that occurred to me regarding structural changes I might make when I get around to revising my dissertation for publication (which I definitely want to do). I'll probably have more to say about that, too, but that will be another day.

2 comments:

  1. I will be interested to read what you have to say!

    I must second your appreciation of *Till We Have Faces* - it was one of the first books we picked up in my book club 9 years ago. It affects me still.....

    Cheers on your new project!

    Terry S.

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  2. Thanks, Terry. Take a look at my most recent (Feb. 2) post on Planet Narnia. You can also subscribe to my blog posts.

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