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Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (2008)

by Michael Ward

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I found this very illuminating. The Chronicles were some of my favourite books as a child and although I was aware of their Christian interpretation, Ward's book brings a whole new level of meaning to them. And it all fits. His argument that each novel represents one of the planets of the mediaeval cosmos is well researched and convincingly argued. He doesn't stop at simply examining the Narniad either, but traces the planetary influence in Lewis's other works, his poetry and apologetics as well as the Ransom Trilogy.

Coming at it from an atheistic point of view I can still have some sympathy with Lewis's contention that, post Copernicus, the Universe was reduced to a mere mechanism, thus stripping it of its ancient wonder as the home of the Gods. As Lewis states, a mediaeval person looking up at the stars had a very different view and understanding of the Heavens than we do today. I can't help thinking that we lost something along the way.

A scholarly yet readable book which I feel is the definitive statement on the reasons behind Lewis's sudden detour into children's literature. Recommended. ( )
  David.Manns | Nov 28, 2016 |
This is a mind-blowing book on several levels. It proposes that there is a unifying key to the Narnia septet: that they are each influenced by one of the mediaeval 'planets': Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Luna and Sol (the latter two being respectively the moon and sun).

The author is an academic who has devoted decades to the study of CS Lewis, and his arguments are persuasive. Having said that, they are perhaps too extensive for my tastes, full of detailed references and quotations, some of which went a little over my head. I found that I could not read more than about ten or twelve pages at a time without taking a break, so it has taken me a couple of weeks to finish this book, which isn't a bad thing since it enabled me to ponder the theories in some depth in the meantime.

I believed fairly quickly in the overall argument. Ward coins the useful term 'donegality' to refer to the essence of each book; the overall 'big picture' feel of it which, he claims, is influenced by one of the seven planetary archetypes. Thinking about the Narnia books, I could immediately sense the planetary influence as suggested by Ward in three of them, and was easily convinced by his arguments about another two. I am very dubious about the two remaining ones, however, and have written at some length about the theories on a blog post here: http://suesabstractions.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-intuition-narnia-and-little.html

Anyone wishing to get a feel for the theories without reading this tome could check the author's site at http://www.planetnarnia.com/frequently-asked-questions - but for an in-depth understanding, and (in my view) new light on the entire series, I would recommend the book. Just don't expect to read it in one sitting. ( )
1 vote SueinCyprus | Jan 26, 2016 |
Sure, I thought, maybe there's some fuzzy little thread of ancient and medieval cosmology stuff running through the Narnia books. Then I read the first chapters of Ward's book and had the rug ripped out from beneath me. I've been reading the Narnia series since I was a kid, over and over - how can it be that there was a whole other level (another galaxy)of meaning there that I'd missed? But it most certainly is there. - Adam
  stephencrowe | Nov 11, 2015 |
This book is a bit dense. Written in the style one would propound to a college class rather than for the general public. If you are interested in learning more about C.S Lewis this is not the book to check out. This is a scholarly analysis of the middle ages spiritual view of the heavens and how it is manifest in the Chronicles of Narnia and Lewis' other writings (the sci-fi trilogy gets plenty of analysis too). The author subsequently published another book called The Narnia Code that is supposed to be more accessible to the general public and I plan on checking that one out.

The author asks why the Chronicles of Narnia have been so beloved? Why did Lewis write them, a childless never married older man, were they a response to the difficulties he encountered in his debate on his book Miracles or was it an escape from the difficulties of apologetics? If there is a tie between the medieval idea of the cosmos and these books why didn't Lewis ever talk about it?

The initial and most of the chapters making up the book are pretty dense as he talks about each individual planet in the medieval cosmos and each of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia. But the closing chapters draws it all together very well.

I purchased my copy used and was happy to note it is autographed by the author. ( )
  Chris_El | Mar 19, 2015 |
I have been on the look-out for Michael Ward’s study of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia ever since his 2009 BBC TV documentary The Narnia Code (also the title of a condensed version of Planet Narnia published in 2010). The seven titles of the so-called Narniad have garnered praise and criticism in almost equal part, frequently fixated on the author’s Christian subtext. Sometimes there have been attempts to ascertain Lewis’ grand design for the Chronicles: why seven? Does each have a distinct theme? Is there a hidden meaning other than that obvious subtext?

Michael Ward has come up with a closely-argued and fully-referenced proposition that Lewis, long enamoured with classical and medieval literary traditions, fashioned his sevenfold book series according to the seven pre-Copernican heavens, each ruled by a ‘planet’. The Narniad (as the sequence is sometimes known) “was a literary equivalent of Holst’s Planet Suite; each one of the seven heavens gave the key to a different Chronicle” (page 251). Above the earth in the pre-Copernican universe were a set of concentric spheres: those of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Above that were the stars, the Primum Mobile and the Abode of God. Each book of the Narniad is based on the mood, atmosphere and characteristics of one of these bodies as personified in pagan mythology and appropriated by medieval Christianity. Lewis, so Ward suggests, wanted to suffuse each book with those planetary aspects that he had assigned to them, such as joviality, saturninity, mercurialness and so on.

For example, in the first and most famous of the series — The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Ward posits that Lewis “took certain old familiar pictures in his head and threw them into a pot labelled ‘Joviality'; and as they simmered there, marinading and reducing, they began to smell somewhat of the gospel story. But only somewhat…” It would be simplistic also to suggest that Prince Caspian is only about war (Mars is also a god of vegetation) or that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is merely about the Sun (medieval cosmology and astrology were subtle arts on which Lewis apparently tried to model his creative writing); but the fundamental notes of The Silver Chair (the Moon), The Horse and His Boy (Mercury), The Magician’s Nephew (Venus) and The Last Battle (Saturn) do seem to be permeated by and resonate with the characteristics of the traditional heavens.

Has Ward found the key to the Narniad? I’m convinced by his hypothesis, more than other attempts to link the books to the seven deadly sins, the Catholic sacraments or Spencer’s Faerie Queene. Ward shows how his other work — poetry (in particular, the alliterative poem The Planets), his scholarship (such as his introduction to medieval thought The Discarded Image) and fiction (especially the so-called Ransom Trilogy, which concluded with That Hideous Strength) — prefigured or paralleled the Chronicles in the use of ideas, themes, symbolism and phraseology related to the astrological planets and their attributes. Reading the extracts and quotes from these other writings illuminates not only the seven novels but also strengthens Ward’s arguments.

Ward also tackles head on the question of why Lewis wasn’t more explicit about the way he structured his heptalogy. First he establishes Lewis’s love of secrecy, which is encapsulated in the writer’s concept of the ‘kappa’ element in literature, from the initial Greek letter of κρυπτóν (“krypton”, meaning hidden or cryptic); Lewis chose not to signpost his approach except in the most allusive of ways. Secondly Ward shows how Lewis was impressed by the essential difference between looking at a shaft of sunlight and looking along it to its source, and how it underpinned his personal philosophy and illustrated the move along a continuum from allegory to symbolism. The contrast between explicit and implicit perception which Lewis held and which Ward draws attention to can be tabulated, but I can personally appreciate it by recalling a childhood worry: that by analysing musical compositions I would lose my instinctive emotional response when listening to pieces. Of course such intellectual dissection (“contemplation” as Lewis calls it) in the longer term can deepen one’s understanding without necessarily destroying the enjoyment of the innocent ear. Ward sensibly structures his own analysis by referencing each book’s logos (explicitness) and then its poiema) (implicitness).

Planet Narnia is extremely detailed and very dense, and it’s almost impossible to do justice to it in a short review, but its very complexity echoes that of the Narniad. For example, The Horse and His Boy (a portrait of the mercurial essence) is rich in allusions to Mercury’s attributes: speed, language, twins (drops of quicksilver regularly combine and separate, reflecting the closeness of such siblings) and the trinity — Hermes Trismegistrus (“Thrice-Great”) was seen as a prefiguration of the Christian Trinity — are all adduced as evidence of Lewis’ purposes in this novel. The Magician’s Nephew, the literary embodiment of Venus, caused Lewis much grief. Though begun after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe it was the last to be completed (and the penultimate Chronicle to be published) because, Ward argues, the story of a boy trying to save his mother’s life with an apple was intimately bound up with the death of Lewis’ mother when he was only nine years old. And I can scarcely begin to summarise the several motifs that underscore the difficult Saturn-inspired final novel, The Last Battle.

This study has certainly illumined my understanding of the Chronicles, and allowed me to appreciate intellectually what makes the series tick as a whole and in its individual parts. But has it changed my personal response to the Narniad? My criticisms, quite divorced from my rejection of Lewis’ Christian ideology, were principally in three areas: characterisation, plotting and sense of place. I find that understanding has not increased my liking of the Chronicles. The characterisation remains weak: ideology cannot affect that. As for plotting, a remark by Lewis is revealing: for him, “understanding a story” is not just about comprehending a linear chain of events (explains Ward) but having the ability to discern a story’s hidden meaning, “something that has no sequence in it” (149). The linear chain of events seem to me to be subservient to each story’s kappa element, its secret or cryptic intent. Lewis draws on myriad seasonal, astrological and pagan themes to reinforce his grand design of Christian salvation, but this doesn’t seem to me enough to craft a satisfyingly plotted novel: this is the tail wagging the dog.

That leaves a ‘sense of place’, which was the most positive aspect of the series that I initially identified but an area that Ward scarcely touches on, if at all. For example, he doesn’t seem to need to explore the sort of real geography that may have inspired Lewis as much as his mental maps, places such as Dunluce Castle in Country Antrim which the child Lewis would have known and no doubt explored and which may have been a model for Cair Paravel. But this was clearly not Ward’s intention in this book, which — as a Anglican priest — he largely only directs along a fixed theological path.

As a study Planet Narnia makes its points exceptionally well. But it doesn’t make me like the Narniad any more than I did before.

http://wp.me/s2oNj1-narniad ( )
1 vote ed.pendragon | Jan 6, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
This is not a light read. Philosophical, theological and scientific theories litter these pages. Yet Planet Narnia is not simply one for the fans. Lewis had, and has, many enemies. This brilliant study may not persuade them that he was right, but it should convince them of his extraordinary subtlety.
 
But the whole book is so engagingly written, and so illuminating about medieval symbolism in general, that Planet Narnia is worth reading even if all you are going to do is disagree with it. It also does much to redress the balance of contemporary Lewis criticism, which has, for the most part, concentrated with unremitting hostility on Lewis's reactionary beliefs. (Not just his Christianity, but his perceived racism and sexism, which faults you can, if you're in a condemnatory mood, lay at the door of pretty much any author born before 1940.)
 
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To James G. Levine expert in atmospheric chemistry.
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An enquiring mind is likely to find that C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia present certain problems.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195313879, Hardcover)

For over half a century, scholars have laboured to show that C. S. Lewis's famed but apparently disorganised Chronicles of Narnia have an underlying symbolic coherence, pointing to such possible unifying themes as the seven sacraments, the seven deadly sins, and the seven books of Spenser's Faerie Queene. None of these explanations has won general acceptance and the structure of Narnia's symbolism has remained a mystery.

Michael Ward has finally solved the enigma. In Planet Narnia he demonstrates that medieval cosmology, a subject which fascinated Lewis throughout his life, provides the imaginative key to the seven novels. Drawing on the whole range of Lewis's writings (including previously unpublished drafts of the Chronicles), Ward reveals how the Narnia stories were designed to express the characteristics of the seven medieval planets - - Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn - - planets which Lewis described as "spiritual symbols of permanent value" and "especially worthwhile in our own generation". Using these seven symbols, Lewis secretly constructed the Chronicles so that in each book the plot-line, the ornamental details, and, most important, the portrayal of the Christ-figure of Aslan, all serve to communicate the governing planetary personality. The cosmological theme of each Chronicle is what Lewis called 'the kappa element in romance', the atmospheric essence of a story, everywhere present but nowhere explicit. The reader inhabits this atmosphere and thus imaginatively gains connaître knowledge of the spiritual character which the tale was created to embody.

Planet Narnia is a ground-breaking study that will provoke a major revaluation not only of the Chronicles, but of Lewis's whole literary and theological outlook. Ward uncovers a much subtler writer and thinker than has previously been recognized, whose central interests were hiddenness, immanence, and knowledge by acquaintance.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:31 -0400)

"For over half a century, scholars have laboured to show that C.S. Lewis's famed but apparently disorganised Chronicles of Narnia have an underlying symbolic coherence, pointing to such possible unifying themes as the seven sacraments, the seven deadly sins, and the seven books of Spenser's Faerie Queene. None of these explanations has won general acceptance and the structure of Narnia's symbolism has remained a mystery." "Michael Ward has finally solved the enigma. In Planet Narnia he demonstrates that medieval cosmology, a subject which fascinated Lewis throughout his life, provides the imaginative key to the seven novels. Drawing on the whole range of Lewis's writings (including previously unpublished drafts of the Chronicles), Ward reveals how the Narnia stories were designed to express the characteristics of the seven medieval planets - Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn - planets which Lewis described as "spiritual symbols of permanent value" and "especially worthwhile in our own generation". Using these seven symbols, Lewis secretly constructed the Chronicles so that in each book the plot-line, the ornamental details, and, most important, the portrayal of the Christ-figure of Aslan, all serve to communicate the governing planetary personality. The cosmological theme of each Chronicle is what Lewis called 'the kappa element in romance', the atmospheric essence of a story, everywhere present but nowhere explicit. The reader inhabits this atmosphere and thus imaginatively gains connaitre knowledge of the spiritual character which the tale was created to embody." "Planet Narnia is a ground-breaking study that will provoke a major revaluation not only of the Chronicles, but of Lewis's whole literary and theological outlook. Ward uncovers a much subtler writer and thinker than has previously been recognized, whose central interests were hiddenness, immanence, and knowledge by acquaintance."--Jacket.… (more)

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