May 30, 2008

Gratuitous Llama Lliterary Praise

Buy this book right now:


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

Now I'll confess that the author had me from his initial remarks about the Ptolemaic Universe and the Music of the Spheres, the latter of which concepts I especially believe in, but this is turning out to be a seriously seriously good study of the Chronicles of Narnia (or the Narniad, as it is often called). Many scholars have tried to find a pattern linking all of the Narniad books together - references to the life, death and resurrection of Christ, allegories on the Cardinal Virtues or the Deadly Sins, and so on. But while there are certainly many elements of these throughout the Narniad, trying to piece all of them together uniformly under any one design just doesn't work out.

Ward's theory is that Lewis built the Narniad in a different way, namely by basing both the poiema (that is, the "feel") as well as the logos (that is, the actual story) on the elements and attributes associated in the Medieval mind with each of the seven planets of the pre-Coperinican system (that is, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). Ward supports his theory with many, many references to Lewis's other works (both fictional and non-fictional), to his literary antecedents (particularly his favorites Spencer and Dante) and, of course, to the Bible.

For example, Ward posits that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe represents the "Jupiter" of the Narniad, associated as it is with themes of kingliness. Here's what Lewis himself had to say about Jupiter:

Jupiter, the King, produces in the earth, rather disappointingly, tin; this shining metal said different things to the imagination before the canning industry came in. The character he produces in men would now be very imperfectly expressed by the word 'jovial,' and is not very easy to grasp; it is no longer, like the saturnine character, one of our archetypes. We may say it is Kingly; but we must think of a King at peace, enthroned, taking his leisure, serene. The Jovial character is cheerful, festive, yet temperate, tranquil, magnanimous. When this planet dominates we may expect halcyon days and prosperity. In Dante, wise and just princes to to his sphere when they die. He is the best planet, and is called the Greater Fortune, Fortuna Major.

- From The Discarded Image, Chapter 5.

(Personally, I prefer the adjective "Jovian" to "jovial" - the latter, in my mind, has become too closely associated with mere jollity and merriment, and lacks the power and majesty associated with the true kingliness of Jupiter that Lewis is talking about.)

Ward, by the way, is an Anglican priest and, so far as I can tell, appears to be proof that not all of them have gone insane. Here is a small snippet of what he has to say about Lewis, this theme of Kingliness and Christianity in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe:

[..I]t was Lewis's belief that 'the world of Christianity', no less than the world of fairy-tale, 'makes the heart and imagination royalist.' Lewis accepted the scriptural understanding of Christ as 'the King of kings' (Rev. 17:14; 19:16) and was of the view, with Hooker, that 'the universe itself is a constitutional monarchy.' If he had lived to learn of Philip Pullman's 'republic of heaven' he would not have regarded it as a satisfactory alternative to the traditional monarchical conception of the divine dwelling-place; he would have thought it an imaginative solecism because it is anthropocentric. A 'republic of heaven,' presumably with its own elected President, would be a Feuerbachian example of religion as projection, the creation of God in the citizens' own image.

Christianity makes the imagination royalist, in Lewis's view, because human kins (that is, good kings - things are defined by their perfection) are a reflection at the creaturely level of an aspect of divine nature which naturally attracts respect. 'Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served: deny it food and it will gobble poison.' By the nature of their office, elected prime ministers and presidents could not elicit honour in the same manner as kings, Lewis thought, because their status is temporarily meritocratic, not innate or confirmed by religious sanction. However politically desirable a republic might be, it remains unable to compete imaginatively with monarchy because monarchy in principle more completely mirrors the nature of divine authority. One of the great imaginative advantages of the genre of fairy-tale or romance is to allow for the presentation of such a principle. In fairy-tale the author can leave behind the shallows of the 'realistic' novel, and it free to show the reader something better than mundane norms. What might it be like if human kings really did exhibit perfect kingship? The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe attempts an answer.

Incidentally, I finally and succinctly realized when reading this passage why I have always been a royalist at heart.

I'm only now making my way through the chapter on Jupiter and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and have yet to reach Ward's application of his thesis to the other six books, so I don't know how it will hold up, or indeed whether I even believe it (although I find it perfectly plausible so far). But the combination of subject matter and scholarship is making this a truly wonderful book. As I say, go buy it. Now.

And speaking of buying, reading this book is going to cause me to buy a whoooole lot of other books by Lewis himself, including, finally, all three of his space trilogy. I've read Perilandra before, but never Out of the Silent Planet or That Hideous Strength. For all that Ward talks about them, I almost feel I have no real choice in the matter now.

On the musickal front, I'm also going to have to buy a performance of Gustav Holst's The Planets. Most of its movements are quite tedious to me. However, I think that Holst captures very well that air of Jovian jollity discussed above, and I've had that particular dance running through my head for the last couple days now. (I also like his treatment of Mars and his driving remorselessness. I'll be interested to see if and how that matches up with Ward's discussion of Mars, Lewis and Prince Caspian.)

UPDATE: BTW, here's Dr. Ward's website if you want to visit for more details.

Posted by Robert at May 30, 2008 08:43 AM | TrackBack

Interesting stuff.

What's funny to me is how politics is discussed in terms of mythic kingship, usually by folks on the left. I am always nauseated by how Kennedy's rather mediocre presidency is always characterized by the press as being some sort of benevolent monarchy, Camelot, and so forth. We're seeing the same sort of mythic interpretation of Barack Obama, even to the point where he is taking on Mosaic/Christological aspects -- he will save us, transform us, and lead us out of bondage to the evil Pharoah, Bushitler. It's Christological because we are being asked to accept Obama's abilities simply by virtue of his person, without any criticism of his beliefs, philosophy, resume, lack of any apparent achievements, etc. Like Christ in the Bible, we Pharisees who ask such questions of Obama clearly do not recognize who He is, because we lack the gift of faith. At least in the Gospels, Christ gave us signs -- miracles, healings, exorcisms, etc.

Barack wants the aura but until they give us a myth or a miracle that explains his authority over this world (Barack pulled the sword from the stone, Barack healed the lepers) I'm not buying any of it.

I could live in a monarchy, I could live in a republic, but the confusion of archetypes between the two always leaves me mistrustful. The left wants a monarchy. It wants King Arthur. Or better yet, it wants good King Richard to return and banish evil King John. That's their fantasy.

Posted by: The Abbot at May 30, 2008 10:00 AM

Read the SF trilogy as a teen, which probably means I didn't really understand them, but I thought "That Hideous Strength" was the most entertaining of the three.

Posted by: mojo at May 30, 2008 10:09 AM