Book Review: Planet Narnia

Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, by Michael Ward

In C.S. Lewis’ essay ‘The Grand Miracle’ there is the following quote, which is quoted in the introductory material to this book: “There then comes to you a person saying, “Here is a new bit of the manuscript that I found; it is the central passage of that symphony, or the central chapter of that novel. The text is incomplete without it. I have got the missing passage which is really the centre of the whole work.” The only thing you could do would be to put this new piece of the manuscript in the central position, and then see how it reacted on the whole of the rest of the work. If it continually brought out new meanings for the whole of the rest of the work, if it made you notice things in the rest of the work which you had not noticed before, then I think you would decide that it was authentic (vii).” In a very strong way, that is exactly the sort of task that this book is engaged in, and those people who are looking for something deeper within the Chronicles of Narnia and who are willing to see children’s literature as possessing something far deeper, and perhaps far more disturbing [1], will find much to enjoy this book. As my friends know that I am someone who is capable of reading all kinds of dark readings into literature designed for children, I am well-primed to respect such arguments myself, I must candidly admit.

Having read of this particular book in several of the biographies [2] that point to this book as having decisively argued for Lewis’ use of the heptarchy of planetary spirits as a fundamental organizing principle in the Chronicles of Narnia, I was pleased to see that my local library carried this book so that I was able to read what the fuss was for myself. It was worth the read, although it must be admitted that this is a book that delves deep into Lewis’ views of astrology and his enthusiastic adoption of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology. Admittedly, the astrology of Lewis’ writings (and not only the Chronicles of Narnia) is a bit disconcerting, but the real wonder is that given the frequency by which Lewis defended the view of the universe that could be read in Spenser and Dante and Lyly, with their elegant masks and their odes to the music of the spheres that no one else was able to figure out this argument first. As a work of textual criticism, this is an important one in that it manages to demonstrate its thesis clearly and persuasively without being so tedious about hitting the reader over the head that the reader loses track of the bigger picture—and that was that the Chronicles of Narnia were written by a childless bachelor as a way of engaging people with unfamiliar worldviews through their imagination rather than through polemical apologetics. The argument is a convincing one.

In terms of its organization and structure, the author begins by discussing Lewis’ penchant for secrecy and silence, his love of elegant layering of multiple meanings within texts, and his fondness for the discarded worldview of the earth at the center of the universe in cosmology, as a way of preparing the ground for his provocative argument that each novel of the Chronicles of Narnia relates to a different ‘planet’ in the medieval worldview. The author then discusses the importance of planets in Lewis’ writings, in his often-neglected works, in his essays, which defend the importance of the medieval worldview despite the fact that they are not technically true, and in his Ransom series, which shows a similar astrological interest in the planets—two of the books of which take place in our planetary neighbors of Mars and Venus (Out Of The Silent Planet and Perelandra, respectively). The author then discusses the seven Chronicles of Narnia in order of composition, showing that The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe best fits Jupiter, Prince Caspian fits Mars, The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader fits Sol, the sun, The Silver Chair fits Luna, A Horse And His Boy fits mercury, The Magician’s Nephew fits Venus, and The Last Battle fits gloomy Saturn. Over and over again the author shows an astute knowledge of the medieval texts that Lewis knew and treasured so well, and his own writings, showing how details from trees to metallic elements to colors matched the planetary symbolism that the author wishes to present, even showing how seemingly disparate elements like Father Christmas and Father Time match the symbolism of the planets, each of them showing Aslan in a different light. After this the author makes some tentative comments about the occasion in which the Chronicles were written, as a way of engaging with critics of his belief in rationality as a self-refuting argument against materialistic worldviews. One can agree with the argument and appreciate the canny design of the Narnia novels without finding Lewis’ beliefs in astral significance to be pleasant or enjoyable to read. There is one thing for sure, though, and that is that no one who reads this book will ever read the Narnia books the same way again. Whether that is a good thing or not, I leave it to the reader to decide.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/book-review-elinda-who-danced-in-the-sky-an-estonian-folktale/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/the-surprisingly-dark-worldview-of-the-princess-in-black-series-a-case-study-in-childrens-literature/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/book-reviews-the-princess-in-black-the-princess-in-black-and-the-perfect-princess-party-and-the-princess-in-black-and-the-hungry-bunny-horde/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/a-little-princess-revisited/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/book-review-c-s-lewis-eccentric-genius-reluctant-prophet-a-life/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/book-review-the-narnian/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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