Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Planet Narnia: Michael Ward - 4 stars

Michael Ward is an Anglican minister who has caused a lot of excitement among his fellow academics and others by his claim to have 'found the key' to C S Lewis' fiction writings. The books he has in mind are the Narnia Chronicles (which he calls 'the Narniad' and the Ransom Trilogy of science fiction books. Many have enjoyed Lewis' works without ever concerning themselves with the search for a 'key' but academics have frequently criticised Lewis for the 'hotch potch' of conflicting ideas and the lack of apparent order in the Narniad in particular. Even friends of Lewis criticised his entry into 'children's fiction' and thought that, as a writer, he had missed his mark.

Michael Ward suggests, in what was originally a doctoral thesis, that there are unspoken themes to Lewis' works of fiction. Others have also made this claim and suggested various linking themes but none have received as wide support as Ward. Lewis was known to be 'a man who liked his secrets' and Ward claims that this is why they were hidden for so long.

Lewis' chosen field of expertise was medieval literature and Ward claims that Lewis has used a medieval philosophical framework for his fiction even though the apparent stories are set in a fairy-tale world or in interplanetary space. Lewis has used the medieval mind-set to create a subliminal mood or atmosphere that was, in a sense the real story, and which was more important than any of the apparent allegorical details. Lewis, says Ward, was creating an atmosphere which in its overall effect cannot be examined too closely without losing its essence. The 'hidden key' to these subliminal moods is the medieval concept of the seven kingdoms of the seven planets.

These planetary influences are not the planets or spheres of Copernican astronomy but the Ptolemaic and 'astrological' influences of the medieval world. Lewis found a beauty and order in the pre-Copernican cosmos which he preferred to the factual order of the Copernican cosmos. The wise man, he said, does not only think in categories of factual truth but also of beauty. In this sense the Narnia Chronicles are a literary equivalent of Holst's Planets Suite, each of the seven 'heavens' giving its own key to a different Narnia chronicle.

Ward coins the word 'donegality' which he describes as a work of art in which a spiritual essence is intended by the artist but inhabited unconsciously by the reader. The author is consciously trying to create an atmosphere that he wants the reader to experience sub-consciously. It was designed by the author to remain 'implicit' in the text itself and not intended to be 'visible', nevertheless it was intended to impact the reader and to awaken sub-conscious truths that are common to mankind. For example, says Ward, Lewis attempts to awaken the sense of 'Jupiter/Jove', the kingly, magnanimous, festive, full-blooded, enjoyable aspect of God. This is the mood, expressed in the adjective 'Jovial'. A survivor of the Great War, Lewis saw life and culture as having become dominated by the 'Saturnine' influences and sought to awaken 'Jupiter' in the hearts of his readers.

This is a book intended for academics but not restricted to such. Lewis described himself as reading 'as a native, texts that his students read as foreigners'. Lewis' personal world and mind-set was medieval. His stories consequently have a level at which they are patchwork quilt of 'puns' and 'quotations' from the world of medieval literature. To fully appreciate what Lewis is doing the reader would need more than a passing knowledge of Classical literature, Shakespeare and Dante! In his 'Preface to Paradise Lost' Lewis had written 'an influence which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep'. Ward contends that the Narniad and the Ransom Trilogy are Lewis' attempt to create such a deep influence; to reawaken forgotten concepts of God and his ways. Ward's theory is not complicated but his elaborate proof of his theses is very comprehensive and thereby not a book to be read by the pool on a hot summer's day!

Does Ward carry his case? I believe he does. If you are prepared for your mind to be stretched... gently by a very readable writer this book will fascinate and enlarge your next reading of Lewis' world of fiction.

This gains 4 stars in my estimation. (or should that be planets?)

Planet Narnia: Michael Ward.
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: OUP USA (3 Mar 2008)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0195313879
ISBN-13: 978-0195313871

6 comments:

  1. It's amazing how a man could take a secret like that to his grave without even flinching.

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  3. Unfortunately I don't know if Michael Wards' book will be available in Holland. However hearing about this publication and also because of the recent cinema presentation of C S Lewis'writings, I decided to loan the ' Cronicles of Narnia ' from the local library. In the past I read most of his non fictional works dealing with his personal christian beliefs and I found them to be very interesting. I must admit that I am struggling a bit through this book, for fantasy is not a theme I enjoy reading. It reminds me a bit of Tolkiens ' the Lord of the ring ', which is lost on me too.

    To come back to the theme of this post, Michael Wards' book, I have to say that I am a little perplexed about the hidden meaning he claims to have found in Lewis'writings. If it is true that Lewis was a man who liked his secrets and that his knowledge of medieval concepts, like the seven kingoms and the seven planets, is weaved in with his writings, then why are these stories heralded as edifying for christians? Surely no christian would advocate astrology, but if Michael Ward is right then the Ptolemaic and 'astrological' influences of the medieval world are part of the key to C S Lewis' fiction writings. My question is this. When J K Rowlng's Harry Potter books came out many christans were against them because of the connection with magic. There is similar imagery in Lewis' writings, so what is the difference between the two works of fantasy? The Cronicles of Narnia in the library is allocated to a section under the heading magic. The staff even put a sticker depicting a witches hat on the cover. I want to understand why many christians like the book so much, but I can't help having a lot of reservations about it. I am open to suggestions though.

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  4. Hi Fred.
    Michael Ward has a section of whether or not Lewis believed in 'astrology' and concludes that he did... to a certain extent. However in Lewis use of myths he would be able to use the 'idea' of astrology as a tool for communication even if he didn't believe in the 'reality' of astrology. Not saying I agree with him, just trying to say how Michael Ward would view it.
    As regards C S Lewis.. I have often been concerned at the undiscerning way that evangelical Christians have rallied around Lewis. He was certainly not an evangelical and his views on the Atonement were 'woolly' to say the least. I think as a kind of pre-evangelism his writings are provoking; his theology I would certainly not endorse.

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