Monday, January 24, 2011

Planet Narnia by Michael Ward

Planet Narnia by Michael Ward is something far beyond the most important work on Lewis or Narnia: it may be the most important work of literary criticism for the last fifty years. Admittedly, I avoid literary criticism wherever possible, so I don't have a good feeling for the genre, but I am confident in saying that it is totally unique. Critics delight in bringing the hidden to light, but never before has something so well hidden been so suddenly, so unexpectedly revealed.

If Ward is correct, then the Chronicles of Narnia, simultaneously beloved and belittled by all (Christian allegory—so obvious—so inartistic) have a third level of meaning so subtle and so arcane that, while each of the Chronicles is written on a certain theme, it has taken fifty years for the hidden meaning to be revealed, and the author's true genius to be made plain. If Ward is correct, the Chronicles of Narnia represent a whole new technique of story-telling, and its author displayed a staggering humility in never revealing that method to the world.

I will put Ward's thesis briefly, trying not to spoil the fun you will have when you read it for yourself. His argument is this: Lewis encoded within each of the seven Chronicles an embodiment of one of the seven planets of pre-Copernican medieval cosmology, with which he was fascinated all his life. Rather than referring specifically to the planets, he instead wrote stories marinated in those planets' attributes. Kingliness, forgiveness of guilt, jollity, the colour red, and the turn of winter to spring are attributes of the planet Jupiter, for example—can you spot the corresponding Chronicle? By doing this, Lewis hoped to immerse his readers in a distinctively medieval and Christian mindset and create on a subconscious level a recognition of the same things he came to love in his lifelong studies of medieval Christianity: a symbolic, poetic, allusive faith rather than a materialistic, sterile existence in world without metaphors. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Lewis hints at the underlying themes of his books when Eustace says that a star is only a flaming ball of gas: “Even in your world, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of,” returns the retired star Ramandu. Lewis intended to direct his readers to an understanding of how this Christian world of ours is far richer and more beautiful than we think.

Another of the medieval cultural artefacts that Lewis sought to recover in The Chronicles of Narnia was the sanctification of pagan symbols. Symbols like the old Greek gods were un-divinised by the medievals and used instead as mirrors of the True God. RJ Rushdoony has pointed out that it was compromise with Greco-Roman ideas and attitudes that brought the richness and splendour of medieval Christendom down, in the end. The redeeming of classical pagan symbols was probably related to this acceptance of Greco-Roman logic, but I believe the literary and artistic use of these symbols had no destructive effect at all insofar as they were used as metaphors to tell the truth about the True God. In Narnia, Lewis uses pagan symbols in just the same way that the medievals did, showing how the attributes of the medieval and redeemed Jupiter, Mars, Venus, &c each serve to reveal and teach about God. An interesting side-effect is that this scheme and mindset explains what so many people find strange about Narnia: the presence of pagan symbols.

In the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis does not just preach Christianity. He preaches a particular mode of experiencing it: an intensely poetic, beautiful, and metaphorical mode. Beneath the obvious allegory he hid an incredibly rich system of symbols which he successfully concealed until one scholar, Michael Ward, suddenly stumbled upon the secret.. Lewis's eventual aim was to make us understand that our own world is wonderful. Perhaps the stars do literally sing, as the Psalmist suggests (Psalm 19). Perhaps there are spirits in woods and wells; perhaps angels animate the beasts. Lewis doesn't say that all this is so. He merely suggests that we should not discount the possibility just because materialists tell us to. After all, materialists also tell us there's no such thing as a human spirit or an eternal sovereign God! Why do we believe these people? They are obviously the enemy!

Perhaps there is more to medieval Christian cosmology than meets the eye; the medievals were neither as superstitious nor as ignorant as they have been painted. Or perhaps there isn't; perhaps that old cosmology really was false. Either way, materialism is the lie of the modern era, and it's time to start fighting back.

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