Planet Narnia by Michael Ward, New York, Oxford University Press, 2008; 347 pp.; finished 4/17/8; Rated: 10
At first I thought my review of this book should simply say, “Words cannot express.” And leave it at that. That’s probably what I should say. But I’ll say a bit more.
I started reading the Narnia books at the age of 16 (that’s 33 years ago for anyone who’s counting) and I have kept reading them since then. I have read them to my children. I have shared them with others. I have taught classes on them. I have read practically all the other books about them. For heaven’s sake, I used to own a hairstyling shop called “Aslan’s Lair”. But NOTHING prepared me for Fr. Michael’s (he is an Anglican Priest) magnificent discovery which he shares with the rest of us in Planet Narnia.
The reason I hesitate to review this book is for fear that someone will read my review, say “So what?” and then not read Ward’s tome. Here it is, in a nutshell: the author discovered (quite by accident – a “Eureka!” moment; his discovery was, he writes, “entirely unexpected and fortuitous”) that Lewis has a hidden theme that joins all the works together. Scholars have long looked for this link. Some have said the stories retell the Christ story through the character of Aslan the Lion. And while Aslan is a Christ figure, and some of the themes of the Christ story are found in the stories (especially in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), Lewis was not fond of allegory and these stories are not allegories of the events of the life of Christ.
What, then, ties them together? Most have concluded the link doesn’t exist. Ward shows the link is – get this – medieval cosmology! What? Yes, medieval astronomy/astrology (the two weren’t separated until modern times). It all started when late one night before retiring to bed, Ward, who was doing his doctoral thesis on Lewis’ Christology, took down Lewis’ book of poems and read “The Planets”. In the “Jupiter” section of this poem Lewis writes of that planet’s effect:
…Of wrath ended
and woes mended, of winter passed
And guilt forgiven, and good fortune
Jove is master…
The phrase leapt out at him: “winter passed”- the White Witch’s winter in Narnia brought to an end! “Guilt forgiven” – Edmund’s betrayal healed by Aslan’s sacrifice!
A few lines further the poem speaks of Jupiter’s children:
…”helps and heroes, helms of nations,
Just and gentle, are Jove’s children”.
Didn’t the four children enter Narnia to help, and to be heroes? Weren’t they made “helms” (heads) of nations? Wasn’t Edmund named by Aslan, “Edmund the Just” and Susan was called by him “Susan the Gentle“?
Ward scrambled to his books and started looking for other clues and found them all! In medieval cosmology the Earth was the center, and there were seven “planets” which moved through “the heavens” (ever heard of “the seven heavens”?) influencing (not controlling) life on our planet. The seven planets (and the seven heavens “ruled” by the planets) were:
Luna (the moon)
Sol (the Sun)
We get the names of the seven days of the week from these planets. And Lewis uses their qualities and effects as the “atmosphere” or “mood” of the books:
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Jupiter
Prince Caspian: Mars
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Sol
The Silver Chair: Luna
The Horse and His Boy: Mercury
The Magician’s Nephew: Venus
The Last Battle: Saturn
The poem “The Planets”, written in 1935 (years before the Narnia tales), serve as a kind of “key” to the books and their cosmic connections. And the “qualities” of the Planets (so strongly seen in Lewis’s “Space Trilogy”) saturate the books in the Narnia series.
Two more things: First, the footnotes are a book in themselves; I have underlined the footnotes almost as much as the main text. And second, you can read more at the author’s website: www.planetnarnia.com.
The day after I finished the book I had the good fortune of meeting Michael Ward and hearing him lecture. We conversed momentarily and I thanked him for forever enhancing my love and appreciation for Lewis as a craftsman. I will never read these stories in the same way again. A new light has been shed on them which makes them all the more beautiful and joyous. Ward signed my well-marked book for me: “To Ken: With Jovial regards, from Michael Ward”.
I enjoyed your review. One of the English teachers where I work is currently reading this book and has said good things about it (they teach the Narnia books in the English program here), but after reading your review, I’m thinking of reading it after finals next week.
Thank you for the response to ‘Planet Narnia’. Like you, I feel ‘words cannot express.’ I’ve had a good email correspondence with Michael; I wish I hadn’t just missed him here in Oxford; I walked into OUP bookshop and found the book a month or so late. But what a find. Everything I read and think about seems to come back to Narnia, as it always did, but now more so than ever. I’m seeing A Winter’s Tale in Bodleian quad tonight: the statue coming to life; even the name of one of the characters, Camillo, is the name of the hare in PC. This afternoon back to Magdalen College (so beautiful and uplifting) to see if I can spot the statue of Grammar overlooking the cloisters! By the way, another book you mention , ‘How to talk so people will listen’, is an obvious nod to ‘How to talk so kids will listen ….’ by Faber & Mazlish – I’d recommend this. Presently reading Bill Bryson’s ‘A short history of nearly everything’ because I wanted to learn more about the cosmos, following ‘Planet Narnia’. Here I find worlds within worlds, just like the inner Narnia. I re-read my childhood copy of the Odyssey, where I find Odysseus taking arms from his store chamber, and plucking the string of his bow, like the beginning of PC in the ruins of Cair Paravel. Have you ever noticed TS Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ is Tashbaan? ‘The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,/And the silken girls bringing sherbert.’ I could go on. I was truly astonished by ‘Planet Narnia’; the depth of insight, the sheer brilliance of the reading of Lewis’s works, and it’s all there in the text. How modest Jack was, a little different from Pullman, I think! Oh, Jack, how brilliant you are! Now Michael Ward has opened the door. Thank you both so much. Nearly time to read it all over again ( as I have done already …)
With very best wishes,