STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 08/19/2008
Too Heavenly Minded? Michael Ward's Astronomical Idea
by Sørina (Kulberg) Higgins '02
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.
C. S. Lewis' spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy is an account of one of the major themes of his life, an intense yearning he called "joy" (17). Lewis believed God had sent this longing to draw him to Himself--that the heavens and the earth, poetry and friends, logic and conscience proclaimed God's nature. Throughout his life Lewis employed increasingly subtler, more imaginative representations of God in his fictional works, trying various images for the true Object of his longings. In 1935 he disguised God as seven cosmic deities in the poem "The Planets"; in the 1950s he pictured the source-object of joy as a kingly lion. According to Dr. Michael Ward's brilliant reading of The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis' longing found its most complete, complex and cryptic fulfillment in the planets all along--or, to be more precise, in the collective personalities and symbolic possibilities of the Ptolemaic universe in which the heavens were the glory of God, incognito.
I first heard Dr. Ward lecture in the summer of 2006 and was instantly both a fan and a skeptic. His theory of a secret meaning governing The Chronicles of Narnia was fascinating, beautiful, and--so I thought--implausible. Since that time I have read his book, heard him speak in person and enjoyed lively dialogue with him. Dr. Ward is a compelling speaker and persuasive writer; his discovery is worthy of comparison with the deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes or the code-cracking wizardry of Robert Langdon. He writes from inside Lewis' head, quoting effortlessly from Lewis' oeuvre, tying together disparate elements with ease and grace. His memory is prodigious, his writing clear and organized, his interpretation of the Narniad lovely, plausible, scholarly and useful.
What is this astronomical discovery? While working on his doctorate, Ward turned from The Discarded Image to Lewis' poem "The Planets." The lines describing Jupiter mention the end of winter and the healing of sorrows, which Ward thought resembled The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Chasing that thought through the poem, he found that each of the seven planets of the Ptolemaic system appeared to correspond to one of the seven chronicles. Through four years of exhaustive research into Lewis' writings, he decided these apparent correspondences were not only actual but intentional.
Planet Narnia, then, is an exciting hybrid of careful literary criticism and racy mystery story. The scholarly apparatus (copious endnotes, comprehensive bibliography, neologisms, precise technical vocabulary) attest to a firm foundation of research and support a framework of intricate code breaking. Ward's first task is to describe Lewis' permanent interest in medieval astrology. In each chapter he outlines the personality of a planet via its appearances in Lewis' professional writings, poetry and The Space Trilogy (since Lewis goes to great lengths to show the inaccuracy of the word "space" and since the last volume takes place on Earth, The Space Trilogy is a singularly unapt name for Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Better appellations include The Cosmic Trilogy, The Ransom Trilogy and The Interplanetary Trilogy). Through incisive readings, Ward describes the characteristic attributes and associations of each planetary intelligence and reveals the centrality of planetary imagery in Lewis' imagination.
Once the ubiquity of Lewis' planetary interest is established, Ward proceeds to detail how the Narnia books correspond to the seven heavenly bodies. He demonstrates that each has a prevailing mood or atmosphere attributable to the influence of a planet; this atmosphere works on a reader's subconscious to provoke an archetypal imaginative response. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is "jovial" (inspired by Jove/Jupiter), climaxing in springtime, resurrection and coronation. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is dominated by an eastward quest into the sunrise. The Last Battle is morbidly "Saturnine" with an inordinate number of deaths but ultimately redemptive as Aslan uses Father Time to usher in eternity. Read Planet Narnia to discover the other correspondences!
In addition to painting a seven-hued portrait of the many-heavened Narnia chronicles, Ward musters an impressive army of details to defend his interpretive cause. Each planet has its traditional metal, color, animals and objects, which appear manifestly or obscurely in their proper volume. Rank after rank of etymologies, quotations, historical references and cryptic comments made by Lewis line up neatly to present the septet in Ptolemaic orbit.
Orbit around what? The preCopernican planets orbited Earth; in the Narniad, so it would seem, Lewis manipulated the seven discrete personalities of the planets into a Christocentric model of the universe. For, Ward argues, each planetary divinity may be read as a symbol of certain aspects of Christ's person or work, and Lewis carefully shapes each presentation of Aslan under the influence of one planet.
Planet Narniaoffers an intriguing reading of Lewis' entire body of work; furthermore, Ward's discovery augments the already high status of the Narnia chronicles. Even if he is mistaken (although his carefully gathered evidence leaves little room for doubt) and Lewis did not construct the septet around a sevenfold cosmic system, the planetary reading is valuable for many reasons.
First, scholars can now study the Narnia chronicles through a new set of lenses. Whether academics applaud or attack Ward's reading, what he has seen cannot now be ignored; what he has made visible cannot again be made invisible. Ward has opened the field for fresh treatments of The Chronicles from any number of critical stances. Narnia may be read by cultural historians as a 20th-century response to the disillusionments of science and technology. Theologians and students of religious ideologies in literature may consider these seven "children's books" as serious, multifaceted doctrinal works. Narnia can still be enjoyed as the product of a mind on holiday, but now readers can see what work Lewis took with him on that vacation: these fairy tales appear to be an academic's presentation of his Oxbridge lectures in an imaginative form.
Second, Ward's astrological reading opens the Narnia chronicles to nonChristians. While atheists, agnostics and neopagans have always been invited to this mental feast, now they may find a dish seasoned to please their palates. As Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy, pagan mythology foreshadowed Christianity, and "all who had danced and sung and sacrificed and trembled and adored--were clearly right" (235). In these seven celebratory volumes, Lewis presents dances, songs, sacrifices and adorations galore; presided over by seven pagan deities. He invites all who attend preChristian orgies to come and feast, and to find the festive King to whom those planetary harbingers were pointing all along.
Third, Planet Narnia confirms many readers' chronic suspicion that something profound lurks beneath the surface of these apparently juvenile tales. Ward reveals a carefully planned structure, replete with conscious ornamentation and deliberate subconscious effects. As many fans thought all along, the Narnia books are not just for kids!
However, the fourth advantage of Ward's reading is that this kind of interpretation is delightful for children. If The Chronicles were ever in danger of losing their popularity with children and teenagers (which I doubt), the ideas undergirding this study will rejuvenate interest. I have presented these ideas to four classes of students ages 10 to 18, and they have responded with enthusiasm in matching up planets with books and asking intelligent questions about Lewis' compositional process. They will never read The Chronicles the same way again; their reading is the richer for this new perspective.
Yet the Narnia books are clearly not losing popularity, and the final reason Ward's study is valuable is its timely release. There are two trends in American popular culture in this first decade of the 21st century: artificial realism and supernatural fantasy. Television shows, films and young adult fiction offer a proliferation of either reality TV and stories of excessively mundane, ordinary people's daily lives or fantastical, magical, wand- and wizard-filled worlds in which power and manipulation are available via incantatory words or semisacramental objects. My experience with middle and high school students suggests that the larger appetite is for the fabulous. Ward reminds us (if we needed reminding) that Lewis' creation is worthy to stand with the best of this genre, head and shoulders above Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials in theological profundity and scope of religious vision, side by side with The Lord of the Rings in consistency and complexity. How apt that Planet Narnia is unveiled along with major film productions of Pullman's, Tolkien's and Lewis' fantasies!
These simultaneities are ironic. Pullman calls Narnia "one of the most ugly and poisonous things I have ever read" and complains "They have no shortage of nauseating drivel" (quoted by Alan Jacobs on Audition, the Mars Hill Audio podcast "On Philip Pullman"). This might seem surprising given the parallels between His Dark Materials and The Chronicles of Narnia: young, female protagonists--with the consonant names Lyra and Lucy--enter wardrobes, then discover alternate worlds. Talking animals, witches, semidivine beings, journeys, quests, and magical or emblematic objects feature prominently. Both series culminate in terrestrial battles that usher in new modes of human existence. Both writers display dazzling feats of imagination in creating secondary worlds. But there the similarities end. Pullman has been called the "anti-Lewis" and told an interviewer "I hate the Narnia books, and I hate them with a deep and bitter passion . . . with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are a falling-away" (quoted by Adam Holz in "Sympathy for the Devil" on Focus on the Family's website, pluggedinonline.com). Ward deftly parries many of Pullman's accusations in Planet Narnia. For example, he shows that sexuality and maternity are vividly celebrated in The Magician's Nephew (the Venusian book) via the creation of Narnia and the healing of Digory's mother. More importantly, Lewis did not allow preaching to weaken his storytelling as Alan Jacobs argues Pullman does in The Amber Spyglass (Audition podcast). Indeed, the communication of medieval archetypes is subtle, accomplished by means of atmosphere and ornamentation rather than didactic statements.
Yet even Lewis' close friend Tolkien thought The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe "was almost worthless, that it seemed like a jumble of unrelated mythologies" (George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis, 312-313) and wrote: "It is sad that Narnia and all that part of C. S. L.'s work should remain outside the range of my sympathy" (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 352). What a pity that Tolkien did not live to read Planet Narnia; it would have revealed to him a fundamental consistency--a single mythology--governing each apparently arbitrary choice of characters.
When you head to the theatre in May to watch Prince Caspian, watch for "martial" moments (inspired by Mars): war, antiquity, a horn, knighthood, trees, vegetation, wolves, horses and torches. While the filmmakers may not intentionally deploy this imagery, Ward demonstrates that "the Heavens declare the glory of God," Mars pours forth speech about warlike and vegetative aspects of God's authority and creativity, and Lewis' second chronicle proclaims the work of God's hands in history, mythology and astrology. Thus Lewis located his longing in the person and work of Mars-Aslan-Christ, and communicated both the longing and its fulfillment in an extremely complex, coherent, brilliant series of seven books suitable for children, adults and literary critics alike. And nobody guessed this for 50 years. I wonder what Michael Ward would make of the seven Harry Potter books?
Sørina (Kulberg) Higgins, M.A., and her husband, Gary, live in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she teaches language arts, music and philosophy. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Sehnsucht, Relief, Innisfree, Studio, Perspectives, Alive Now, Windhover, Bible & Spade, idiom and The Encyclopedia of Christian Literature. Her poetry chapbook, The Significance of Swans, will be published in August 2008. She is cowriter of a blog on the arts and faith, iambicadmonit.blogspot.com.
Michael Ward's website: www.planetnarnia.com