Planet Narnia: A Book Review
Learning to Hear the Music of the Spheres
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I heard about Michael Ward’s seminal work, “Planet Narnia” a few years back, but only recently got around to reading it. In reviewing it, I want to take it from a few different angles: Lewis’ secret aim in writing the Chronicles and my personal delight in Ward’s discovery, the book itself, and the benefits and danger points of this volume.
First, I’ve always noticed that each book in the Narniad seems to have a different quality or flavor; I could never put my finger on it, but there always seemed to be something underlying each story. Many others throughout the years since the Narnia books were published have felt the same, and many have taken guesses as to what was underpinning the stories. Ward makes the case for the fact that C.S. Lewis, as a true medieval man, loved the ancient view of the cosmos, and so he built each Narnia book upon the qualities and imagery associated with the seven different planets of the seven heavens of ancient astronomical understanding. I would have to say, after reading this book that I think his “discovery” is spot on!
Lewis was saddened by how the discoveries of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein were changing our imagination of what was “out there.” Whereas the ancients had the notion that the heavens were full of life, music, warmth and beauty, the modern scientific discoveries were destroying such notions and construing them instead as “sentimental” and the stuff of fairy tales (which all good modernists know could not be true). So, modern scientific discoveries were replacing the imaginative wonder of the ancient view with the cold, hard “facts” that space is empty, cold, lifeless. Lewis felt the tragedy of such an imaginative loss, and his life work shows his agenda to resuscitate the imaginative beauty of the ancient view of the cosmos.
Thus, each Narnia story corresponds to one of the planets from the Seven Heavens. This might sound a bit fishy, weird, and outlandish, but follow me here, and remember that in 300 years iPads will seem silly to our descendants, and in just 5 years One Direction will be “sooooo 2014.” Thus, whereas our modern, materialist mindset might scoff at the idea of planets being given sentient attributes, we are the ones who are fools for thinking that nature and material is all their is. The Bible tells us the trees of the field clap their hands, the heavens sing, rocks have the capacity to cry out; our materialistic worldview has taught us to take such statements figuratively. But what if all of God’s creation was richer, fuller and more alive than ever we imagined?
So, each book has a presiding planetary “influence” that causes each book to take a certain tone, and have a certain “set” of mythological symbols. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is built upon the attributes which the medievals associated with Jupiter: i.e. Kingliness, nobility, warmth, priestly sacrifice, tin, thrones, lion-heartedness, and majesty. Prince Caspian upon Mars, the god of warfare, military, woods, hardiness and submission to authority. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is based upon Sol, or the Sun, and thus gold, light, dragons, wisdom, and sweetness all leave their imprint. The Silver Chair is based on Lunar imagery (i.e. the Moon), and paleness, lunacy, silver, wetness, underworld and confusion, but also faith without sight are the chosen elements. The Magician’s Nephew was constructed to bring to life the virtues of nurture, fertility, sacrifice, newness, and love as embodied in the mythology of Venus. The Horse and His Boy are marked by Mercury’s attributes of speed, haste, language, words, messages, and oneness. The Last Battle concludes with Saturn’s notorious sorrow, ugliness, death, finality, end, tragedy, etc. and yet concludes with a return to Jovial merriment and joy; which is a profound picture that Saturn must always make way for Jove. In essence, sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.
That is my own summary of Ward’s book and discovery. The hidden cleverness of Lewis is revealed for the first time, and it is intriguing to think that he hid this literary secret and never told a soul (although Ward shows that Lewis, did indeed leave a trail of hints). The book itself is not for the faint of heart, nor for those that are weak in conscience. The book is written at a doctoral level and thus there is plenty of need for scholarly understanding. It will certainly stretch your vocabulary! Ward might have made his writing a bit more accessible to the average reader, but in dealing with Lewis, I believe it forces one to write a higher level as well (so we won’t fault Ward too much for the scholasticism on display throughout the book). It was an enjoyable read, nevertheless, and any fan of Narnia would do well to more fully understand the purpose for which Lewis wrote the Chronicles. It isn’t an easy read, not by a long shot, but it is an instructive and inspiring one.
Finally, the benefits and dangers; I see the benefits of this book as being three-fold. First, it opens up the genius of the Chronicles like never before. You begin to see that Lewis wove a story that can be enjoyed at face value, but underneath it all is an emphatic message. Secondly, the message that Lewis is conveying is not one of astronomical or astrological focus. Rather he borrows the mythology of the heavens as understood by the ancients, and used it to make a backdrop for the stories so that the backdrop itself became the primary point of the seven tales: Christ is the preeminent over all things. In essence, what the pagans worshipped in ignorance, Lewis takes and then wields the virtues of their dead gods and goddesses to declare unto a generation swept away by materialism that in Christ all things hold together. Third, rather than telling us what he was doing, Lewis gently ushers us into what he believed was a picture of the universe that was far more full of beauty, life and love than our modernist worldview could offer.
Understanding this ancient view of the heavens is, I believe both helpful, and–as with anything helpful–laden with cautions. For Lewis, he believed that all stories were variations of the True Story; thus, he had no problem taking the ancient Greece, Rome, and Norse myths and using them to point to the fact that Christ alone is the full perfection of all that is lovely and worthy of worship. Ward shows how Lewis embodied Christ in the figure of Aslan and then placed that magnificent lion into seven different stories, with seven different sets of imagery, based on the traditions connected with the seven planets and thusly made the case that the glories and the virtues which the ancients revered and worshipped in their pantheon of gods were all found in, as Paul declared to the men of Mars Hill, Christ alone. The unknown God must be declared, for man will mistake all the attributes of God Almighty and make idols of His attributes. Christianity, however, recognizes the sum of all virtue and goodness and beauty and glory are in Jesus Christ.
I believe that our modern generation would do well to learn from the insights and imagination of the medieval era, and yet we must also avoid the dangers which they fell into. We must never worship the created thing, but recognize that all of creation (whether natural or in man’s imagination) is to be used not as a destination in itself, but as a vehicle to the great End. Lewis makes an interesting statement in the Dawn Treader, when he gives us this conversation between Eustace and Ramandu:
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”
Scripture itself would point us to see all creation as more than just material, but rather, as Psalms 19:1-3 tells us “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.” We would do well to listen to what the book of God’s created work has to say, and in so doing, learn to more fully know our Savior and our God! I believe that the Chronicles of Narnia are great servants along the way, but even they must step aside and make way for the Bridegroom. If Christ is exalted and reigns supreme everything else finds its proper place and becomes a servant to our growth in Him; if lesser things reign, it is certain we shall never enjoy the blessings of Christ’s salvation!