Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis
Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. Michael Ward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. xvi + 347 pp. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-19-531387-1.
(This review originally appeared in Mythlore 103/104.)
Reviewed by Joe R. Christopher
The thesis of Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia can be stated briefly: C.S. Lewis, although keeping it a secret, used, one by one, the seven planets of medieval astronomy/astrology as artistic themes for the seven Narnian books-basically one planet per book:
- Jupiter: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
- Mars: Prince Caspian
- Sol: The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader“
- Luna: The Silver Chair
- Mercury: The Horse and his Boy
- Venus: The Magician’s Nephew
- Saturn: The Last Battle
The most obvious reason for that qualifier basically is because the latter part of The Last Battle, in the New Narnia, is no longer Saturnine. Of course, the Sun and the Moon are not today considered “planets,” but the Ptolemaic terminology is useful here.
Ward has framed his argument with two opening chapters, the first of which argues that (1) Lewis was a secretive man and (2) he believed that literary romances should have special atmospheres or tones, beyond their plots (i.e., as he argued in “On Stories”). Obviously, these set up the book’s approach. Ward has three concluding chapters; the most interesting is the argument of the antepenultimate, saying that the Lewis-Anscombe debate perhaps led Lewis to restate the thesis of Miracles as a children’s fantasy. Ward’s argument for this connection is based on Samuel Alexander’s distinction between Enjoyment and Contemplation in Space, Time, and Deity, which indeed Lewis said was an essential distinction. Since Ward has a running use of this distinction in his book (see his index), it seems odd that Alexander’s volume is not in his bibliography; perhaps he simply used Lewis’s citations. (This reviewer has argued elsewhere that Lewis would have stopped his apologetics with Miracles anyway, whatever Anscombe advanced, for Lewis had three arguments for the existence of God, and Miracles presents the third; but this reviewer’s argument is not in essential conflict with Ward’s position.)
The bulk of Ward’s book is his seven chapters on the planets and the Narniad. The chapters have this commonality: discussions of (1) what Lewis says about each planet in his alliterative poem “The Planets”; (2) what he says about them in The Discarded Image; (3) in the five appropriate chapters, what appears in connection with the descent of the planetary Oyeresu in That Hideous Strength; and, with a distinction between (4) Poeima (artistry) and (5) Logos (ideas) from An Experiment in Criticism-how the planetary influences appear in each individual book. In addition to these materials, Ward also discusses-as Lewis as provided him matter-Lewis’s use of individual planets in his other poems and other non-fiction. Mars and Venus also bring in comments about Out of the Silent Planet (OSP) and Perelandra. In short, Ward is attempting by an elaborate presentation-and successfully in this reviewer’s opinion-to show that the astrological tradition of the seven planets had a deep and long-lasting influence on Lewis’s imagination.
One of the discussions of a book can be used to show the effect of this approach. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW) is as useful for this purpose as any other chapter would be. Ward writes,
the change from winter to summer [...] conveys the peculiarly Jovial spirit, for Jupiter brings about ‘winter passed’ (‘The Planets’), ‘winter overgone’ (The Allegory of Love); he ‘overmatches’ the ‘freezing wastes’ and ‘unendurable cold’ of Saturn and defeats Frost, Wither, Winter, Stone, Steele, et al[.], producing ‘torrents of melted snow’ (That Hideous Strength [THS]). (57)
In other words, the plot chosen for LWW is one that reflects a major motif that Lewis has earlier used in connection with Jupiter. Aslan also is treated in terms of Jupiter as a King with a crown and a standard. (“Nowhere else in the Narniad is he ‘royal’” .) Likewise, the Pevensie children are crowned as kings and queens of Narnia. (Later, Ward will contrast that with the treatment of Caspian in Prince Caspian (PC)-no coronation ceremony, for PC is ruled by Mars, not by Jupiter.) Ward gives seven other, lesser significant ties of the book of Jupiter’s schema. When he turns from Poiema to Logos, Ward discusses four ways in which Lewis does a better job of presenting Joviality in LWW over against THS. Finally, he suggests that Aslan in this books is Aslan-as-Jove (as he becomes Aslan-as-Mars in the next, etc.), with some examples of Aslan’s Joviality.
The process of going through all seven books may seem structurally repetitious, but Ward is able to present some surprises in content at least. For example, he notes, with a classical citation, that Mars was an agricultural and nature god before he became a war god (cf. 82-83). This explains the emphasis on trees and grapevines when Aslan-as-Mars appears. (Another surprise is the explanation of the flaws of PC in endnote 67 on pp. 275-76.) In connection with The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,“ Ward writes:
Sol’s forerunner, the Greek sun-god, Apollo, was famously a killer of dragons. He was known as ‘Apollo Sauroctonus’, Apollo the Lizard-slayer. ‘Saura’ is the Greek word for lizard or serpent or worm or dragon (a ‘dinosaur’ is a monstrous lizard); it gave Tolkien the name of his chief villain, Sauron, in The Lord of the Rings. Lewis is clearly enrolling Sol in his capacity as Apollo Sauroctonus in the defeats of the four dragons encountered during the course of the story. (113)
Four dragons? The old dragon Eustace sees die. The dragon Eustace becomes. The sea-serpent. The Dawn Treader itself, which has a dragon’s head, wings, and tail. Ward has a clever argument about the fourth.
Luna, in the medieval scheme, is at the borderline between the unfallen Heavens and the fallen Earth. Ward suggests this is why Aslan appears only in Aslan’s Country, not in Narnia, in The Silver Chair-to avoid Aslan-as-Luna becoming fallen. (The appearance before he blows away Narnia near the end is part of the process of bringing Aslan’s Country to Jill and Eustace, not an appearance in Narnia per se, Ward argues [132-33].) Mercury, in astrology, rules the constellation Gemini, the Twins. Thus, The Horse and His Boy is about twins, Cor and Corin. Ward suspects that Dar and Darin and Cole and Colin are twins also, although they are just identified as brothers (153).
In the chapter on Venus and The Magician’s Nephew, one surprise is one of Ward’s rare blunders. He refers to Charles Williams’s “The Figure of Arthur” as an “unfinished poem” (175)-it is, of course, an unfinished essay, or perhaps more properly said, an unfinished book-length piece of non-fiction. Ward discusses the Wood of Broceliande based on Lewis’s discussion of it in Arthurian Torso, arising from Williams’s “The Calling of Taliessin” (not “The Figure of Arthur”). Ward, of course, emphasizes the tie of the Wood to the Third Heaven, or the tie of Nimue to Venus. In The Last Battle, Ward takes the last part (the New Narnia) to be going beyond Saturn (in the Ptolemaic System) to Heaven. Actually, the Stellatum, the Heaven of Fixed Stars, is the first step beyond Saturn, although Ward does not say so at this point (but see his note on the diagram of the Heavens on p. 126). Perhaps the placement of the Stellatum is why Lewis emphasizes the stars leaving the sky in old Narnia-perhaps it is a way of saying that the saved do not have to go though the Stellatum also.
As long as the point is surprises, perhaps it should be mentioned that Ward, in one of his introductory chapters, does an excellent reading of “The Man Born Blind,” which makes sense of that short story as part of the “Great War” with Owen Barfield; it is “a cautionary tale about pursuing to its end the logic of realism” (34), the cosmic logos being symbolized by the light that the character Robin wishes to see, rather than seeing by (33-35).
Two final matters. Ward asks why Lewis never told anyone what he was doing with the Seven Planets (see the section on pp. 239-243). This reviewer does not find the issue as complicated as Ward does. If Lewis had explained his use of the Ptolemaic planets’ influence, his books would have been dismissed as a scholarly game, having nothing to say to the modern world.
Also, Ward asks about Lewis’s purpose in his planetary emphasis. His answer is in two sections: “The Septet Acquires New Literary-Historical Depths” (234-236) and “The Septet Acquires New Theological Depths” (236-39)-the titles suggest his approach. This reviewer sees it somewhat differently. Ward mentions A. Kent Hieatt’s Short Time’s Endless Monument as discovering 24 stanzas = 24 hours in Spenser’s “Epithalamion”-as an example of a literary secret being discovered after many years (5). But Hieatt’s numerology (which went beyond the number of stanzas) is not the best parallel. William Spencer’s “Are Chaucer’s Pilgrims Keyed to the Zodiac?” is closer. Chaucer in “The General Prologue,” besides organizing his pilgrims roughly by social rank, organized them by the influence of the Zodiac. This is not a great surprise since Chaucer’s prose works include A Treatise on the Astrolabe. He starts with the Knight, under Aries ruled by Mars, goes through the cycle to the Shipman, under Pisces, ruled by Jupiter; the second cycle begins with the Doctor, under Aries again, and ends with the Pardoner, under Sagittarius, ruled by Jupiter-three persons short of a full second cycle. (This reviewer wonders about the Host, coming a few lines later, perhaps fitting, like the Franklin, under Capricorn, ruled by Saturn; but Spencer does not discuss the possibility.) Chaucer presumably used the influence of the Zodiac in order to get a variety of human types, not to write just out of his own personality.
So here, in a general way. Ward quotes Aslan’s statement in PC that “things never happen the same way twice” (Ward 97; PC ch. 10). Likewise, Lewis turns down chances to repeat his previous ideas, as when he writes to Roy Lee of the British Broadcasting Company on 15 December 1944, refusing an opportunity to give a series of talks over the radio: “No. [...] [Your scheme] overlaps too much with talks I have given already” (Collected Letters, Vol. 2, p. 633). If Lewis had not seen a way to vary the approaches in the Narnian books, presumably he would not have written more than LWW. (This is why a spaceship was not used to get Ransom to Venus, why THS has a double plot after the single plots in OSP and Perelandra.) Yes, Ward is good on the effects-the Literary-Historical and Theological Depths that developed-but Lewis’s purpose (this reviewer suggests) was simply variety. Anyone can think of series of children’s books that basically repeat the same pattern time after time.
This reviewer has had a number of quibbles with Ward’s theses-but not with his basic one. He has made an excellent-and convincing-case for the astrological planets influencing Lewis’s presentations of Narnia. Although given to erudite locutions and a necessary (if sometimes tiring) thoroughness of argument, Ward has written one of the basic books on the Chronicles of Narnia.
Alexander, Samuel. Space, Time, and Deity: The Gifford Lectures at Glasgow, 1916-1918. London: Macmillan, 1920.
Christopher, Joe R. “C.S. Lewis’s Three Paths to God.” Truths Breathed Through Silver. Ed. Jonathan Himes. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008. 1-16.
Hieatt, A. Kent. Short Time’s Endless Monument: The Symbolism of the Numbers in Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion. New York: Columbia UP, 1960.
Spencer, William. “Are Chaucer’s Pilgrims Keyed to the Zodiac?” Chaucer Review 4.3. (1970): 147-170.