Message written in the stars

by
13 May 2008

Mike Starkey enjoys alook at Narnia — through a telescope

Planet Narnia: The seven heavens in the imagination of C. S. Lewis
Michael Ward

Oxford University Press £16.99 (978-0-19-531387-1)
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

C. S. LEWIS’s Narnia stories have been loved by generations of children, but loathed by many critics, who accuse them variously of racism and sexism (Philip Pullman), of being carelessly and superficially written (Tolkien), or of being a childish world into which Lewis retreated after defeat in debate by the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (A. N. Wilson).

Michael Ward, in contrast, believes that the seven tales combine to make a much more subtle and shaped whole than even Lewis’s most fervent defenders have realised.

At one level, Planet Narnia is a scholarly defence of C. S. Lewis the writer and thinker against his cultured despisers. But the central thesis of Ward’s book is bound to raise the eyebrows of even the most devoted Lewisophile.

It is well known that the stories operate on two levels. They are rattling good yarns in the grand tradition of children’s literature; at the same time, they are a vehicle for exploring Christian themes. The lion Aslan is clearly a Christ-figure; The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is about atonement; The Last Battle about judgement and the defeat of the Antichrist.

Ward believes he has identified another vital interpretative key to the series: each of the stories expresses the astrological “personality” of one of the seven planets known to the medieval world: Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn. At first glance, the theory seems doubly ludicrous: that works of Christian edification for children should be soaked in medieval astrology; and that such a vital key should have been missed by everybody until 2008, and never even hinted at by Lewis himself.

But Ward builds up a painstaking case based on Lewis’s other writings, particularly his works on the medieval world-view and his “planetary” trilogy. And a compelling case it is, too, built on exhaustive evidence of the way in which Lewis the Christian convert still found the imaginative universe of paganism and medieval astrology rich and allusive.

While it would be wrong to say Lewis believed in astrology, it held a lifelong fascination for him. He loathed the scientism he saw disenchanting the modern world. He found in both the pre-Copernican study of the skies and in the mythology of the ancient world a pointer towards the ultimate re-enchantment of the universe in Christ. Think of all those fauns, river-gods, centaurs, and nymphs that populate Narnia.

Ward makes a strong case for seeing Narnia as a literary equivalent of Holst’s Planets Suite. We shall probably never know for sure if this is what Lewis intended. But, at the very least, Ward’s painstaking scholarship should help dispel two critical stereotypes: Lewis the unsubtle Christian propagandist, and Lewis the literary Reliant Robin parked next to the Rolls-Royce that is J. R. R. Tolkien.

The Revd Mike Starkey is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Twickenham.

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