steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Planet Narnia

 I just watched The Narnia Code on BBC iPlayer, where it's still available for a few more days in the UK, I think. It's all about Michael Ward's book Planet Narnia, which argues that C. S. Lewis based his Narnia books around the seven planets of mediaeval astronomy. I'd read reviews of the book when it came out, and thought it sounded utterly kooky in a Bacon-wrote-Shakespeare kind of way. Then here comes a lavish documentary, complete with dramatic reconstructions, fliights back and forth across the Atlantic, and Ward engagingly explaining how thrilled he was to have been the one to have discovered the secret key that Lewis had hidden away in his books.

Unfortunately the theory itself was squeezed into the middle twenty minutes of an hour-long programme. In summary, the proposed planetary order runs LLW (Jupiter), PC (Mars), VDT (Sun), SC (Moon), and er, they didn't bother saying about the rest. (I'm betting that LB is Saturn, though.) I'm not much the wiser, in fact, though Ward seems to have relied on some fairly obscure references to explain the imagery of the books in his terms. On the evidence as presented the theory still looks pretty kooky: I guess I'll have to go and read the book to find out whether there's more to it. But when I think of the wealth of symbolism that has accumulated around each of the planets and their associated deities, the thing that strikes me is how easy it would be to make a case of this kind for pretty much any book. (I'm tempted to try it on the novels of Jane Austen, with Sanditon standing in for the Sun - the carriage accident is an obvious Phaeton reference.) It's the kind of intoxication to which scholars are particularly prone, and probably has a name, though I don't know it.

There were some things about the presentation of the argument, though, which reminded me of my old Renaissance allegory days, and people like Francis Bacon in The Wisdom of the Ancients explaining how very very important the allegorical interpretation of myths really is. First, the programme made out that there was something wrong with the Narnia books and that everybody had always felt it - something missing, something askew, something that might give us a clue that there was a "secret key" out there if only we could find it. Brian Sibley was wheeled on to say exactly that (in fact they used the same clip twice). That's a classic manoeuvre. Here's Bacon saying the same thing four hundred years ago about the Greek myths: "But there is yet another sign, and one of no small value, that these fables contain a hidden and involved meaning, which is, that some of them are so absurd and stupid upon the face of the narrative taken by itself, that they may be said to give notice from afar and cry out there is a parable below."

But what was this problem - this nagging inadequacy in the books as usually read? The only one they came up with was the old non-problem identified by Tolkien, that Lewis mixed figures from different mythologies. But (as I've mentioned here before) Lewis was a Spenserian - 'nuff said. Were other "faults" identified? Not that I noticed.

The inadequacy argument requires the services of another, for despite the books' faults they have remained firmly in print for over fifty years while most other children's books from that period have not. Why so, if they're so badly flawed? Perhaps, one talking head speculated, child readers were recognizing their secret message unconsciously and feeling satisfied by it at a level they could not have accounted for. (This mysterious satisfaction coming despite the books being mysteriously unsatisfactory, of course.) At the same time, somewhat contradictorily, it was necessary to argue that Lewis had embedded his secret wisdom so deep that it had eluded millions of readers, including professional Lewisians, for half a century - making its eventual discovery a matter of huge significance. But also that, once it has been pointed out, it is so essential to the books' meaning that it reanimates them and even saturates the real cosmos with renewed life and meaning. And so it goes, as it always does in arguments of this kind, see-sawing between wanting things to be obvious and wanting them to be obscure, secret or accessible, visible to all or only to the cognoscenti. Scholars are rather strange people.

Tags: books, c. s. lewis
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