Book Review

"Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis" by Michael Ward

Jordan Easley
Friday, February 27th 2009
Mar/Apr 2009

The Chronicles of Narnia have been a puzzle to C. S. Lewis scholars for decades. Most of them admit that the books are excellent children's stories, full of rich fantasy, memorable characters, and vivid settings. But there is a lingering concern behind the praise: What is the organizing framework? While the reader may find the golden Aslan, courageous children, and talking creatures throughout the Narnian corpus, there seems to be no guiding theme, no pervasive arc that holds them all together. Moreover, how does one account for the seemingly random appearances of characters like Father Christmas, Bacchus, or the Snow Queen into the Narnian landscape? In fact, J. R. R. Tolkien called them a mish-mash of "various mythologies… carelessly and superficially written" (8) and, for this reason, disliked the Chronicles altogether. Yet in spite of the criticism, Lewis's books continue to delight new generations of readers, both young and old. So what is their secret? Planet Narnia has finally proposed an existentially and intellectually satisfying answer.

In Michael Ward's brilliant new book, he contends that Lewis arranged The Chronicles of Narnia through the creative matrix of medieval cosmology. Lewis, after all, was a professor of medieval literature. So it should not be surprising that the medieval configuration of the planets-one of his favorite subjects of academic study-would be the "imaginative key" that unlocks the secret to his children's stories.

According to Ward, each of the seven medieval planets-Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn-correspond to the seven Chronicles of Narnia (in publication order). Every book takes on the traits of a different planet, traits that communicate both the personality and atmospheric influence of that planet. Of course, the skeptic may be asking, "The long-lost imaginative key to Narnia? Is not Michael Ward simply reading medievalism into Lewis's stories?" But Ward is ready with an answer.

The first two chapters of the book provide the background to Lewis's thought concerning medieval cosmology. They address Lewis's reasons for secrecy, citing primarily his preoccupation with "atmosphere": "Atmosphere is…the full tasting of a work of art on the imaginative palate. If we are properly to enjoy it, we must 'surrender ourselves with childlike attention to the story'" (18). According to Lewis, enjoyment of atmosphere can be described as "participant, inhabited, and personal" (17). In other words, the mood and feel of the Chronicles becomes apparent only when one is no longer looking for them, when the reader has moved from the realm of observation to participation. A good atmosphere is not meant to be found.

In conjunction with the idea of "atmosphere," the chapters address Lewis's love for mythology. In particular he liked the notion that the planets, following the character of their mythological counterparts, exert influence upon the earth. For example, if a kingdom is preparing for battle, then it is probably under the sway of Mars, which is both the name of the planet and the name of the Roman god of war. Ward writes, "Lewis naturally considered pagan religions to be less true than Christianity; but, regarding them without reference to the question of truth, he felt they possessed the superior beauty" (27). His desire was to take this beauty and redeem it by incorporating it into the Christian worldview. He found his outlet in the Chronicles.

In the next seven chapters, Ward describes how each of the seven Narnian books has a different "atmosphere" under the influence of a different medieval planet. He also examines the places where each planet appears in Lewis's scholarship, in his poetry, and in his space trilogy. In fact, the further one reads, the more apparent it becomes that medieval cosmology was not just a Narnian oddity but a driving spiritual symbol in Lewis's life. Instead of attempting to give each planet a cursory glance, it will be better to examine one planet and one Chronicle in detail. Jupiter is an excellent place to start. It is the pre-eminent planet in Lewis's thought, appearing both in his earlier works and in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the beloved first book of the series.

Jupiter, or Jove, is a kingly planet. Ward cites several sources that elaborate on this definition. In The Discarded Image, Lewis writes, "The character that [Jupiter] produces in men…[is] expressed by the word 'jovial'….We may say it is Kingly; but we must think of a king at peace, enthroned, taking his leisure, serene….When this planet dominates we may expect halcyon days and prosperity" (43). This idea of kingly prosperity also appears in That Hideous Strength. In this text, the noble archangel of the planet Jupiter descends upon the earth and "at his coming there was holiday" (52). Yet, the truly Narnian aspects of Jove, as Ward points out, appear in one of Lewis's early poems called "The Planets":

Of wrath ended
And woes mended, of winter passed
And guilt forgiven, and good fortune
Jove is the master. (54)

Major themes from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe emerge here.

Ward discovers Jovial imagery throughout the first book. When Aslan is "on the move," one hundred years of the Witch's winter pass into summer (57). By Aslan's death Edmund's guilt is forgiven. When Aslan appears, he arrives as the king of the Beasts, shaking his royal, golden mane, wearing a crown, and holding council under a great pavilion (60). The very name of Aslan stirs courage within the children and "according the poem, Jupiter inspires the 'lion-hearted'" (63). Likewise, "Jovial nations are 'just and gentle.'" (64). Thus, Aslan gives titles to two of the children: King Edmund the Just and Queen Susan the Gentle. Even Father Christmas has his place. The "loud-voiced, red-faced, jolly" symbol of holiday is the perfect figure of joviality. Indeed, the reader is certain that he falls under Jupiter's sphere with his final words: "Long live the true king!" (66).

Lewis, however, was not merely concerned with clever imagery; Jupiter's realm carries theological weight as well. Aslan, who is the Christ-type, is the "king of kings" (67). Indeed, as Ward observes, Aslan is a king who "makes the imagination royalist…[because] good kings…are a reflection at the creaturely level of an aspect of the divine nature which naturally attracts respect" (68). He teaches people how to worship God as King. Yet Aslan in his kingliness (after Christ) ultimately finds his honor by submitting to the commandments of the higher king and, in turn, consigns this honor to lower kings who rule over creation in his stead (69). This type of kingliness beautifully demonstrates how humanity is made in the image of God. People are his vice-regents upon the earth. Ward draws more insight from the Jovial influence, but there is no need to be exhaustive.

Ward handles each successive planet with the same skill and clarity, extracting both imagery and theology from Lewis's medieval framework. He concludes the book with three chapters resolving various speculative questions such as: "Why did Lewis write the Chronicles at all?"; "Why is the scheme not more perfect?"; and "Did Lewis believe in Astrology?" Ward readily admits that his answers to these questions are by no means comprehensive, and there are times when he enters into speculation himself. Yet, overall, he speaks with his characteristic level of precision and humility.

Michael Ward is an excellent writer, and his lifelong study of Lewis is evident throughout this fine book. Although unpretentious, he writes with clarity and with content, and his research is thoroughly academic (with almost sixty pages of endnotes). For all who are interested in the mind of C. S. Lewis or who want to enrich their enjoyment of The Chronicles of Narnia, I highly recommend this book.

Friday, February 27th 2009

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