Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Some Reflections on Planet Narnia

Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

One of my most fondly remembered childhood adventures was when my father took me gold panning. At the start of the trip, I remember wondering why my father never thought of quitting his job, since he knew where there was gold lying about for anyone to come and dig up. I never asked him this question but kept it in mind until I found the answer for myself: after a day’s panning, if one was lucky—and thankfully I was—one could return home with some treasure, a few rare and slender flakes of gold, but the ratio of gold to dirt was not high enough to make a commercially viable project out of it. As someone who spends considerable time reading literary criticism, I sometimes find it like gold panning, sifting carefully through vast amounts of muck for a few scraps of glitter. But when I do find glimmers of treasure, the excitement of it far outweighs the toils in getting there. Taken in terms of profitability, the intellectual income per unit-of-time spent, hard-headed people will never see literary criticism as anything but a waste of time. But for the treasure hunters, the excitement of the chase and the ecstasy of that rare find is what drives the hunt.

   Every reader has different ‘finds’, those moments where an old favourite becomes something new. One of my best ‘finds’ was William Empson’s observation, in Some Versions of Pastoral, that death jokes pervade the Alice books of Lewis Carroll. The implications of this one observation were legion. Suddenly, these books became something new; they became more complex and a shade darker than they were the last time I had read them. This comment changed forever the ‘feel’ of these books for me. That is the sort of experience that I look for in literary criticism. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: the Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, which offers a key to the Narnia Chronicles, envisioning each book in terms of a correlating planet, has many such ‘finds’. One random example: in The Horse and His Boy, Ward connects the twins Cor and Corin to the mythological twins Castor and Pollux, who together form the astrological sign Gemini (153). Castor is a breaker of horses and Pollux a boxer, which is entirely suitably to the twins of Archenland.
   Ward, however, did not write Planet Narnia to provide parcels of insight here and there, but to present what he believes to be C.S. Lewis’s own secret imaginative scheme, which lurks behind each book of the Chronicles of Narnia and further serves as a unifying element. The secret key is the influences of the planetary spheres of medieval astrology, a topic that Lewis writes about in his scholarly work, The Discarded Image. The planetary scheme for the books is as follows:
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe....Jupiter
Prince Caspian.........................................Mars
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.............Sol
The Silver Chair....................................... Luna
The Horse and His Boy.............................Mercury
The Magician's Nephew............................Venus
The Last Battle...........................................Saturn
A couple of notes: firstly, envisioning each book in terms of a planetary influence is supposed to compliment, not supplant, the Christological design of series:
This theological disposition is worked out in each of the Chronicles as the children, who by common grace of ‘nature’ are already part of a planetary world, become more so by special grace as they follow the planetary deity’s leading. Thus, in The Lion they become monarchs under sovereign Jove [Jupiter]; in Prince Caspian they harden under strong Mars; in The ‘Dawn Treader’ they drink light under searching Sol; in The Silver Chair they learn obedience under subordinate Luna; in The Horse and His Boy they come to love poetry under eloquent Mercury; in The Magician’s Nephew they gain life-giving fruit under fertile Venus; and in The Last Battle they suffer and die under chilling Saturn (237).
Secondly, the planets are supposed to provide a sort of intuitive and pervasive influence on each of the books, seamlessly holding the series together; they are not supposed to appear bludgeoned into the narrative by the hammer of allegory.
   Ward claims that his book holds answers three key questions: why were the Narnia books written? ‘Why is the series not uniformly allegorical?’(4) And why are these books so popular?
   In chapter eleven, ‘The Music of Spheres’, Ward tackles third question. Personally, Lewis’s works have followed me through life. One of my earliest memories is watching an animated version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, while now, conducting my own work on medieval and Renaissance literature, I walk past Lewis’s old college at Cambridge almost every day on my way to the library. I loved the Narnia books when I was young, profited much from Lewis’s apologetics in my teens, and profit still from his highly opinionated but highly readable literary criticism. My interest in Narnia, however, has never been consistent. I like Narnia for different reasons now than at the age of eleven, but the reasons I had at eleven were perfectly valid then as those I have now are valid for the present. I don’t enjoy Narnia more, I enjoy it differently. At eleven I loved the terror of the White Witch in her various incarnations, and the imaginative potential for creating my own stories set in the marshlands of Puddleglum or the strange underland and sunless sea in The Silver Chair. I now mostly enjoy Lewis’s hints or allusions to myth and literature, along with the pure adventure. There are even things I see differently: the hodgepodge of myth and nomenclature infuriated me at eleven as I found it distracting from the illusion of reality, whereas now I find it delightful. I was twenty before I experienced anything like what Lewis in Surprised by Joy calls ‘joy’ in reading about Narnia. Ward thinks his scheme explains the popularity of Narnia. Such a claim is incomprehensible to me; I cannot even see anything irreducible or consistent in my own experiences in Narnia.
   Ward’s second question about the series’ uniformity occupies the bulk of the book, but we will return to it. The question of why Lewis wrote these books is treated in chapter ten, entitled ‘Primum Mobile’. Ward thinks that the occasion for the composition of the Narnia Chronicles arose from the debate between C.S. Lewis and Elizabeth Anscombe at the Oxford Socratic Club in 1948, when Anscombe criticised the arguments against naturalism that Lewis had made in his latest book Miracles­­­. According to some sources, this outcome of this debate humiliated Lewis and at least one of Lewis’s biographers has claimed that the humiliation of the debate caused Lewis to turn away from writing apologetics to writing children’s books, as a form of psychological regression, turning Anscombe into the White Witch and so forth. This argument has many flaws, however, the most glaring one is that Lewis did not turn from apologetics to imaginative fiction after the debate: on one hand, Lewis continued to write apologetics, and even modified Miracles to account for Anscombe’s criticism, and on the other hand, the Narnia Chronicles were neither Lewis’s first nor last attempt to explore Christian Truth through imaginative fiction. When one, however, reads through Lewis’s various essays, one sees that he had in fact made his same arguments against naturalism in print quite often, and if in finding them refuted by Anscombe, Lewis was not at least a little disconcerted, he ought to have been. Ward revises earlier arguments that Lewis turned to an imaginative fiction after the debate, arguing that Anscombe ‘had reminded him [Lewis] of the generic deficiency of apologetics that rational argumentation can never convey the concrete realities of spiritual experience’ (221). The composition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe chronologically follows the publication of Miracles and his debate with Anscombe and therefore Ward has some ground in maintaining that this debate set the occasion for Narnia. That is, Ward could be correct in claiming that Lewis wrote the Narnia Chronicles in order to articulate an imaginative response to Anscombe’s criticism. But while Ward is certainly correct in summarising the advantages of an imaginative approach with difficulties with apologetic writing, I still do not see the necessity of drawing the connection with the debate. Reading through Lewis’s collected essays and collected letters one sees Lewis ruminating over philosophical and theological concerns that he addresses in Narnia over a space of several decades. Certainly it is better to see the occasion for Narnia in terms of years spent in contemplation of Christian Truth and his practical experience and difficulties in teaching it to various audiences through books, radio broadcasts, personal letters, lectures and conversation, rather than hitching it all on to one event. The arguments of Mere Christianity are as present in Narnia as those of Miracles. It is not that Ward does not find interesting parallels in presenting The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a sort of revision of Miracles in light of Anscombe’s critique, but he no doubt would have seen more interesting contrasts and parallels between Lewis’s apologetics and imaginative writings if he had taken a broader scope and not hinging the writing of Narnia on one event in Lewis’s life of arguable importance. But this would not serve Ward’s purpose in using his analysis to answer a wider question. That is, if Ward had engaged in a fuller account of Lewis’s approaches to imaginative fiction and apologetics, he would have to abandon the claim that he was discovered the occasion for Lewis writing about Narnia.
   The bulk of Planet Narnia, argues that planetary scheme, already mentioned, serves as a unifying function for the Narnia books. When I first read of Ward’s alleged discovery, I—as I suspect was the case with many others—was sceptical. The first things that came to mind were various passages from Lewis’s own literary criticism, in which he himself warning against this sort of reading. But this sort of counterargument not really fair, as Ward’s thesis ought to be tested on its own merits, and not dismissed on the grounds that Lewis might not have approved. After I read Planet Narnia, I was undecided whether Ward had proven his thesis or not; he does make a lot of persuasive points. It was only after I reread the Narnia series with Planet Narnia in hand, that I became thoroughly unconvinced by its arguments. Although Ward deserves credit for showing the presence of cosmological symbolism in the Narnia books, I cannot believe that Ward’s imaginative scheme is correct.
   Alongside the Narnia books, Ward looks at the cosmological symbolism in Lewis’s poetry and science fiction. Ward’s evaluation of the planetary symbolism in Lewis’s Space Trilogy alone is well worth the price of the book. It not hindered by a governing theory and so Ward darts back and forth, unwrapping layer after layer of depth and insight. Ward’s treatment of feminine theological imagery pertaining to Venus in The Hideous Strength (171-75) gives a depth to Lewis’s treatment of female sexuality that would surprise many critics to find in Lewis’s work. Another great observation connects Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra with Jupiter: 
Almost the last words of Ransom in [Out of the Silent Planet] had been, ‘Somebody or something of great importance is connected with Jupiter.’ The very first words spoken by Ransom in Perelandra are, ‘By Jove, I’m glad to see you.’ He says this out of relief that Lewis (the Lewis in the story) has survived the spiritual barrage that had bombarded him as he arrived at the cottage in Ransom’s absence. But it is not merely a conventional expostulation it is a literally meant expression. Lewis’s survival and Ransom’s gladness at it have both been brought about ‘by Jove’ (48).
Yet it is Ward’s treatment of Lewis’s science fiction makes his treatment of Narnia all the more disappointing. Ward acknowledges that the planetary symbolism is not limited to one planet one novel, a problem Ward addresses in a section entitled ‘Why is the Scheme Not More Perfect’ (232-233) and which he answers by arguing that although one planet is the dominate influence in each book it is not the exclusive influence. If Ward was not stuck on insisting that he had solved the problem of Narnia’s unity, he could have paid more attention to the presence of different planetary influences in different books. But instead we get only the much narrower treatment of one planetary symbol per book, made worse by the insistence that this scheme somehow ‘explains’ the series.
   I have chosen Ward’s treatment of one planet and book to serve as an example of his method. According to Ward’s scheme, The Magician’s Nephew corresponds to Venus. Therefore, when, for example the jackdaw tells a joke (or is made a joke of), we are supposed to feel the levity of Venus. The book’s lightness and humour is supposed, by Ward, to stand for a sort of Homeric ‘Sweet-laughing Aphrodite’. Now, the goddess Venus does have a style of humour, there is even a Latin word for it, undoubtedly known to Lewis, venustus, which designates charming, graceful, elegant wit. But this is not the laughter of the jackdaw, the bear throwing a beehive at the magician’s head, or Jadis tossing Digory’s Aunt, which is more slapstick or jolly good fun than the wit of Venus. Jadis, Ward identifies with the cruel Babylonian goddess Ishtar, which is more than unnecessary as Venus in her Greco-Roman form could be cruel enough (178). Reading the description of the Charn as ‘that great city’ as an echo of Jonah’s description of Nineveh, where in ancient times Ishtar was worshipped, seems to me a stretch. If Charn must match a biblical city, I much prefer, ‘Standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, alas, alas that great city Babylon, that mighty city! For in one hour is thy judgment come.’ (Revelations 18:10), since there at least we have a ruined city. Other symbols of Venus include the pairing of animals, the pairing of Queen Helen and King Frank, and images of growth and fertility. The ‘erotic charge’ (181) Ward sees in the creation of Narnia is lost on me. As is the ‘Venus Anadyomene’ (Venus rising from the sea) which Ward finds suggested in the rising from pools in the Wood between the Worlds. Some foam, sea shells or nude virgins would have helped. In what I regard as utter violence to the text, Ward argues that Lewis portrays ‘Aslan as the incarnation of Venus’ (185). He even hints that one of Lewis’s  proposed titles for The Magician’s Nephew, Digory and Polly hints ‘at the “coupled” nature of this Chronicle’s presiding planetary power’ (186). That is, Digory and Polly represent the act of coitus. The question of audience is relevant here; certainly not too many children can have ever been expected to notice this. Continuing this line of symbolism, Ward says that ‘Aslan brings Narnia to birth like Venus’ (186). Does Aslan really ‘give birth’ to Narnia? This seems to me to greatly confuse Creation and procreation and, what is more, I can find no evidence of this symbolism in the text.
   Ward also claims that Lewis makes use of two images of Venus derived from the Renaissance philosopher Ficino:
It was not only Lewis’s beliefs about feminine divine imagery which made composing this story difficult, but also the general complexity of Venus’s literary history, for Lewis wanted to depict more than just ‘Venus-as-God’ in The Magician’s Nephew. He also seems to have had in mind Ficino’s two Veneres, the Angelic Mind (Venus coelistis) considered in its contemplation of Divine Beauty, and Venus naturalis, the generative power in the Anima Mundi. (187)
I spent a fair amount of time making sense of this passage. At first I wondered why Ward gives Ficino as source of this concept, when it comes from Plato’s Symposium specifically and is present throughout Italian Neo-Platonism generally. The answer is that that Ward is working from a passage in Lewis’s book, Spenser's Images of Life (1978, pp.50-51) that mentions Ficino, which Ward must have forgotten to credit in the footnotes. In any case the passage is unclear for anyone not familiar with the concepts at stake and inaccurate for anyone who is. I have to admit that I am still at a complete loss as to how the figure of Aslan conflates divine beauty and animal sexuality; I just don’t see it in Lewis’s text. Ward writes, ‘The vivification of Narnia is brought about not simply and solely because of a single creative act by the Venereal Lion. Rather, Aslan-as-Venus achieves its creation in consort with Venus coelistis and Venus naturalis; it comes forth between them, together, at once.’ (187). I am at a loss to find what passage in The Magician’s Nephew illustrates this as happening and would be only delighted to learn what other readers make of it.
   What is most surprising about all this planet chasing is that it is supposed to make the Narnia Chronicles appear better organised. But it still does not take long before the hodgepodge nature of the books comes out. After only the first few pages of The Magician’s Nephew, for example, we have the Arthurian-named ‘Mrs. Lefay’, ancestral fairy-blood reminiscent of Anados’s ancestry in George MacDonald’s Phantastes and a box from Atlantis jumbled together in a Nesbit-style children’s story. Lewis mixes his myths; not even the alignment of the spheres can change this; love it or leave it.
   There is nothing of Venereal influence in The Magician’s Nephew that is in anyway obvious or concrete, nothing which makes the case clear-cut for Ward’s thesis. All of Ward’s arguments pile up into senseless vagaries and even then hardly pass muster. The planetary influences as Ward presents them are too abstract and could with ease be reassigned at random to different works. For example, I propose to take The Horse and His Boy as the Venus book. One could now compare Shasta’s arrival on the shore with Venus’s arrival on the shores of Cyprus. I’ll pass over the smell of fish in the first chapter. The horse is often the symbol of unrivalled beauty and thus, Bree could make a symbol of Venus. There is a pertinent description in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis:
Round-hoof’d, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs and passing strong,
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide:
Look, what a horse should have he did not lack,
Save a proud rider on so proud a back. (296-301)
There we have Bree. The sea in the second chapter appears in terms reminiscent of Venus’s birth and the venereal environment:
Before them the turf, dotted with white flowers, sloped down to the brow of a cliff. Far below them, so that the sound of the breaking waves was very faint, lay the sea.
The landscape of the novel ranges from the lush coastland of Venus Anadyomene, to the hot and heavy atmosphere of Calormen, to the tantalising ‘Valley of the Thousand Perfumes’. There are the ‘coupling’ double-romances of Bree and Hwin, and Shasta/Cor and Aravis, as well as the Rabadash’s lust for Susan. Aravis herself first appears with her brother’s armour on in the image of the androgynous figure of armed Venus (Venus armata), which paradoxically makes her a symbol of chastity while her dark features and mysterious appearance cast her as a symbol of Eros. In the form of armed Venus, Aravis meets Shasta seeking to escape from a marriage. She then abandons her armour and plays a more maidenly role in order to marry Shasta at the novel’s conclusion. In The Discarded Image, Lewis points out that Venus follows after Jupiter in governing fortunate events, appropriate to the restoration of Shasta to his family, the salvation of Narnia and Archenland, the removal of Calormen as a threat of war (since the Rabadash cannot leave his capital city) and the marriage of Shasta and Aravis. Lewis also points to Dante’s Divine Comedy, where under the influence of Venus, lovers, both in paradise and the inferno, are in ‘swift, incessant flight’, which is fitting for Shasta and Aravis as well as the Narnians trapped in Calormen. One could go on at some length like this.
   Although Ward does rightly at some points show the planets comprise a neglected layer of symbolism in the Chronicles of Narnia, his insistence on making this a unifying element does more harm than good. Nor does it provide any sense of unity out of medley of composite elements. If one argues that Father Christmas is out of place in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because Narnia cannot sensibly have a Christmas, it does not make his appearance any less incongruous by saying that Father Christmas is a jovial image, therefore think Jupiter. I would recommend Planet Narnia for all Lewis fans; the analysis of the Space Trilogy is especially fine. But as for the thesis that C.S. Lewis wrote each of the Chronicles of Narnia with a governing principle in mind, I am now more sceptical than ever. What is worst, in my opinion, is that Ward could have written a great book, he has the critical skill for it, but instead he weakened his analysis by a rather a trivial critical flaw, in thinking that he this scheme could explain: why the Narnia Chronicles were written and why they have been successful, as well as pinning down a secret design which hold the whole thing together. Less ambitious claims and closer attention to the books themselves would have made a world of difference.

5 comments:

  1. "Although Ward does rightly at some points show the planets comprise a neglected layer of symbolism in the Chronicles of Narnia, his insistence on making this a unifying element does more harm than good." Sadly, this is a problem for many works of scholarship. Rather than admitting their topic is only a layer, scholars attempt to come to "the truth" and lose the whole gambit in the bargain.

    I like what you said about having a work changed for you by reading criticism about it. I share that experience: when I was a child, I read as a child, and now that I have become an academic, I read as an academic. Though occasionally I'm lucky enough to read as a child again!

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  2. Here are some links that shed further light on the topic of PLANET NARNIA:

    http://www.wheaton.edu/wadecenter/Journal%20VII/~/media/EC6D52D1FD4441F7AA739C2933155EA5.pdf

    http://booksbycslewis.blogspot.com/2009/05/planet-narnia-spin-spun.html

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  3. Thank you, for the articles. For balance I would like to add that there is a website, www.planetnarnia.com, with links to reviews and blog articles offering a more favourable view of Planet Narnia.

    I cannot make anything of the second article’s quantitative analysis. The planetary symbols are not standardised enough to enable this form of analysis and the data Barrett has collected is too subjective for any statistical value. One example: Barrett takes ‘redness’ as a Jupiter symbol (Barnett 2). I double-checked this: according to Barrett’s chart, he always takes ‘redness’ as representing Jupiter (14-15). But ‘redness’ could also represent the sexuality of Venus, the ‘Red Planet’ Mars or the gold of Sol (gold in medieval or classical imagery is often reddish, rutilus in Latin). So counting each instance of ‘redness’ in the Narnia books as a point for Jupiter is going to greatly distort the results. Not to mention, objects can be red without any planetary meaning intended at all.

    I differ from most other reviewers of Planet Narnia, whereas they, whether they are convinced, unconvinced or merely intrigued by its thesis, generally agree that Ward has at least correctly applied the imagery of medieval cosmology to Lewis’s work, whereas I have tried to show that Ward does not in fact build a convincing case, but distorts the planetary symbols themselves by shoehorning them into each book.

    I deliberately did not cite Lewis's essay “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” (sometimes entitled “Fern-Seed and Elephants”) or his other comments on this sort of literary criticism because I wanted to keep the discussion on whether or not Lewis did write the Narnia Chronicles with Ward's scheme in mind not whether Lewis could or would have done so.

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  4. Im terms of alchemy, which is christian in root and follows the positions and planets, red and the transformation in Venus are all common in the power in Anima Mundi, that of the external seeking of the stone transforms the self, a theme in all the books. And the various stages of the making of the stone, the transformation including up from Nigris, or the black death into the redwork is highlighted in the underappreciated book Redwork by Canadian writer.

    Did Narnia represent the transformations of the mundi in alchemy? Why not? It is that transformation which made it so attractive to christians.

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  5. Elizabeth,

    Thank you for commenting. I would presume that if Lewis used any of this sort of symbolism in the Narnia books, he would have derived it from Neo-Platonism more generally (after a lifetime's reading of Bernard Silvestris, Ficino, Edmund Spenser, etc.) rather than borrowing it from alchemy. Alchemy itself, through Paracelsus, Agrippa and others, borrowed here from Neo-Platonism.

    Also, in the last paragraph, did you mean ‘transformations of the mundus in alchemy’ or ‘transformations of the anima mundi in alchemy’, and in any case what does that mean exactly?

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