Saturday, March 29, 2008

Review of Michael Ward's "Planet Narnia"

Last November I learned that a new scholarly work on The Chronicles of Narnia was coming out. Michael Ward had written an article promoting his book, Planet Narnia, in the December 2007 Touchstone Magazine. (The book was released in January of 2008.) I came across the article online while searching for news articles about the coming Prince Caspian movie. I was immediately intrigued, and wrote up a report for the Narnia News Blog I write for HollywoodJesus.com. (For more on the premise of Planet Narnia, see by Blog report and Ward's web site.)

One reason I was so intrigued is that scholarly works on The Chronicles of Narnia are few and far between. Ever since Walden and Disney announced they were working on the movie The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, there has been no shortage of books written about Narnia, but few of them would qualify, in my estimation, as scholarly. Certainly, these books have their place, and I'm sure many readers are grateful for the help they have received. But Planet Narnia portended to go deeper, beyond the fluff and quickly recognizable "lessons" that can be learned by the books. (Not that we don't need to be "hit over the head" with the obvious once in awhile.)

Don't let Ward's "deepness" intimidate you, though. As should be obvious to anyone who has ever read any of my articles, I am a person of not much more than average intelligence, yet I was able to follow the book very adequately. I do admit that some of the literary references were a bit over my head, and Ward's vocabulary is much more advanced than my own. But I was not more lost than I imagine an American motorist touring in Paris would be--the words on the street signs might be difficult, but the International symbols would be enough to give direction. He paints a vivid enough picture that you can figure out the "foreign" words--especially if you have a good dictionary handy. Armand M. Nichol put it this way in his endorsement of the book (from the back of the dust jacket):

Michael Ward presents an absorbing learned analysis of C. S. Lewis's best-selling and beloved series, The Chronicles of Narnia. Readily accessible to the average reader, Ward's book reads so much like a detective story that it's difficult to put down.


I had exactly that experience when I read the book. Having recently re-read the Chronicles myself, my reaction on page after page was "Yes. I see. I understand exactly what you mean. That makes so much sense."

The other reason that the book intrigued me is that it included a part of Lewis's life we do not hear much about. There have been books after books written about C. S. Lewis's Christianity, but little about his great love of poetry and medieval literature. The book centers around Lewis's fascination with the medieval concept of the Heavens. His poetry is filled with the Seven Planets, and his science fiction space trilogy (especially the last book, That Hideous Strength) is filled with medieval Planet imagery. How Lewis imaginatively integrated this love for the medieval cosmic understanding with his Christian beliefs is nothing short of amazing. It gives me a sense of what a genius he really was.

Not all Lewis fans are thrilled with Planet Narnia. In an interview Douglas Greshem, Lewis's step-son, did for Family Christian Stores, he called the idea that the Chronicles are based on The Seven Heavens "nonsense." Unfortunately, Greshem's objections seem to be based on a misimpression of what Ward is saying. I sincerely doubt that Greshem could have read the book. Ward does not believe that the books are "based" on the Seven Heavens, or Seven Planets, but that the Planets are purposefully hidden elements in the books. They provide atmosphere without being explicit.

Devin Brown, author of Inside Narnia and Inside Prince Caspian, apparently does not agree with Ward's premise at all. In an audio interview available from The Christian Studies Center at the University of Kentucky, Brown ridicules the "hidden element" concept. He likens this to someone noticing that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe uses W's repeatedly and concluding that Lewis intentionally used W's as some sort of literary device to write his story. This seems to me to be a pile of straw. Ward's conclusions about Lewis's "imaginative strategy" (Ward's words from page 4 of the book) were based on Lewis's interests and writings, not just on patterns found in the 7 Chronicles. Lewis was not interested in something as insipid as basing a book on words beginning with W. He was definitely interested in medieval astronomy and hidden elements in Romance literature. I must conclude that Brown's reactions are based on an incomplete knowledge of Ward's book.

If you are interested in learning more about C. S. Lewis from someone who has studied his works much of his life, this book may be just what you are looking for. You will want to find a nice quiet place to read with no distractions, as this one will make you think. And it will make you appreciate the creator of Narnia more than you could have imagined.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello, Mark,

Thanks for the lively discussion of Planet Narnia. I know that my audio comments are perhaps hard to access since they are buried in with the rest of the interview.

If anyone would like to read my written review, it is posted at:

http://www.narniaweb.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=18401&PID=1114133

Mark said...

Thank you for the link. I will have to assume Devin Brown is the one who left the comment with the link to his review, since it is "anonymous." The review on narniaWeb.com is much more detailed than the comments Brown made in the audio interview, but, in my opinion, based on the same flawed logic. Ward never says Lewis based the 7 books on the seven planets, but that they are hidden elements that provide atmosphere. The linked review asks why lunar elements are found in Prince Caspian (the martial book), etc. I think Ward answers this more than adequately in the 11th chapter of his book. Pages 232 and 233 have a section entitled "Why Is the Scheme Not More Perfect?" I will try to briefly summarize his points, but do try to read this section if you have access to the book: 1. The dominance of one planet does not exclude the other six. Lewis talked about the interaction of the planets. 2. Remember the context. For example, the combat in The Last Battle does not have the "order, gaiety, knightly reticence" of "the War of Deliverance" in Prince Caspian. 3. Lewis's was human--he could have made mistakes. (Ward admits this is the weakest argument for why there might be "imperfections.") 4. Literary criticism has its limits. "If, as I maintain, the Chronicles are poetic... it would be impossible for any critic... to suck out the heart of the mystery."

Devin Brown said...

Hi, Mark,
This is Devin Brown checking in again. (I inadventaly left an Anonymous comment previously.)

Actually, Ward DOES say exactly what you insist he does not. You state, "Ward never says Lewis based the 7 books on the seven planets."

At his web site planetnarnia.com, under frequently asked questions, Ward writes:

2. What is the essence of this secret?
C.S. Lewis deliberately based the Chronicles of Narnia on the imagery of the seven heavens.

This, I think, is the essence of Ward's thesis: that Lewis BASED the Chronicles on the images of the 7 heavens.

I am not sure how taking Ward's exact words makes my logic somehow "flawed" as you label it, or as you suggest in your earlier post implies that I have "an incomplete knowledge" of Ward's book.

Thanks for your forum and the chance to exchange ideas. This is the exact kind of give-and-take conversation that the Inkling's loved.

Best Wishes,

Devin Brown

Mark said...

I stand corrected. It surprises me that Ward states his answer exactly this way on the web site. I do not think that statement is made in the book (although I have been wrong before!). The impression I got from the book was that Lewis used the planets as background--as ambience, not as the basis for the stories. Perhaps it is my interpretation of your/his word "based" that is the problem. We know that the first book was "based" on a picture Lewis had in his head of a faun carrying an umbrella in the snow. Actually, I would say that Lewis's stories have many bases, which I am sure Ward would agree with. I hope you understand what I'm trying you say. See also my comment above about the section of Chapter 11.

Anonymous said...

The way OUP summaries and even Dr. Ward's summaries fail to reflect the breadth and depth of his actual argument is rather annoying. They can be blamed, I think, for a lot of the out-of-hand rejection of Dr. Ward's thesis.

Anonymous said...

If you think Planet Narnia is good check this out: Tolkien did it first, and better, in LOTR!
Check out this on imdb where it is detailed:

http://www.imdb.com/board/
bd0000072/thread/135915631

What do you think of that?

Mark said...

Anonymous:

Dr. Ward addresses just such a response as yours in his book. This is not a Tolkien vs. Lewis thing, and I doubt the documentary portrayed it that way. (I am in the U.S., so I was not able to see it, but I do know someone who did.) But I'm sure you know much more about this then the Lewis scholars that were interviewed on the show. LOL

Instead of going around the Internet and posting your drivel, why don't you go to Dr. Ward's website and ask him about this yourself? Here is the url: http://www.planetnarnia.com/contact

Mark said...

For those of you who might be quick to dismiss Dr. Ward's theory, take a look at the list of scholars that have given glowing reviews of the book. These include JRR Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey, and C S Lewis scholar Joe R. Christopher. For a list of reviews, check out the Planet Narnia website at this link: http://www.planetnarnia.com/reviews/critics-reviews