George MacDonald once wrote, “It is not the things we see the most clearly that influence us the most powerfully; undefined, yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect. It is the nature of the thing, not the clearness of its outline, that determines its operation.”
The seven volumes of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia have influenced a great many people very powerfully, and Michael Ward has discovered a previously unidentified factor in this influence. “The Narniad,” as Ward calls it, is suffused with references to the medieval mythical patterns of the planets. The seven heavenly bodies which the middle ages thought of as planets (add the sun and the moon, subtract the earth and everything beyond Saturn) had a set of characteristics, almost personalities, which Lewis knew well and thought deeply about. And the nub of Ward’s argument is that Lewis designed each volume of Narnia around one of these seven planetary moods.
Early on, Ward quotes some words with which Lewis prefaced an early poem on the subject: “the characters of the planets, as conceived by medieval astrology, seem to me to have a permanent value as spiritual symbols –to provide a Phaenomenologie des Geistes which is specially worth while in our own generation.” This is quite a claim (or, as Ward unpacks it, three claims), and the poem itself goes on to deliver a careful reading of the characteristics of each heavenly sphere. Ward builds his argument deftly, and anyone who has read a lot of Lewis begins to be reminded just how often Lewis did in fact work with these images. In That Hideous Strength, for example, the planets are personified and take speaking roles!
In fact, as soon as I began to see that Ward’s thesis was inescapable, I thought about putting the book down and seeing if I could match up all seven Narnia books with the seven classical planets. That would be some kind of test of the theory, after all. But for two reasons, I did not do the experiment. The first reason is that I don’t know medieval astrological notions well enough to describe each planet’s sphere of influence, so I would have had to go and study that –probably by reading Lewis’ The Discarded Image, about the medieval world-picture. Only then could I have competed with Lewis and Ward in the planetary literacy necessary to make the correlations intelligently. The second reason I didn’t do the experiment is that Ward’s book is too readable: it pulled me through a couple hundred pages before I knew it.
Planet Narnia is a great study of Lewis’ most popular works. All good criticism draws you further in to the work being analyzed; it extends the work’s own power of fascination. Bad criticism explains a book away, but good criticism explains a way into the book. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia is very good criticism. Ward doesn’t use his discovery to explain away the features of these beloved books. Instead he explores how the underlying planetary structure “determines the overall shape and feel of each story, governing the architectonics of each narrative, the incidental ornamentation, and also, most significantly, the portrayal of the Christ-like character of Aslan and the Spirit that he imparts.” Ward’s thesis doesn’t strip away the mysteries, but draws the reader to re-experience them more fully.
Michael Ward is speaking at Biola University tonight, Monday May 12.