steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Planet Narnia redux (for C. S. Lewis anoraks only)

A while ago I posted on The Narnia Code, a documentary based on Michael Ward’s book Planet Narnia. This is a follow-up, taking into account my promise to chilperic that I would go off and read the actual book. That I have now done.

I’m not going to engage seriously with the main body of Ward’s argument. As I think I said in one of the comments to my earlier post, I don’t find it intrinsically implausible that Lewis might have had a scheme in mind that linked the various Narnian books with the different planets. Astrology is certainly a subject that interested him, and Ward produces a prodigious amount of circumstantial evidence, some of which – such as the idea that Corin and Cor in The Horse and his Boy were inspired by Castor and Pollux – I find quite persuasive. I do think it’s almost impossible to produce a knock-down argument for this sort of thing, though, given the richness of associations that exists for the various planets and their deities. The sheer abundance of material makes it too flexible for certainty.

But let’s concede for the sake of argument that Ward’s case is watertight, and that he has established that Lewis associated each book with a particular planet. The question that follows is: so what? How can he elevate this from being a particularly interesting and lengthy footnote into being “the key” to the whole sequence – as he repeatedly claimed it to be in the documentary? He does so by trying to establish that his theory solves some existing and widely-acknowledged problems. And this is where I seriously part company with him, because to my mind the problems he cites are not problems at all. He sets them out at the start of the book:

1. Why did CSL suddenly turn to writing for children – as a bachelor in his fifties, with no children of his own?

2. How can we explain the obvious flaws of the Narnia chronicles – by which Ward primarily means a) its inconsistencies; b) its being a hodge-podge of different types of mythology and c) its lack of an overall ‘unifying’ theme?

3. Why is it still so popular, given the above flaws?

1. Why did CSL turn to writing for children – in his fifties, with no children of his own?

The obvious answer to this is – why not? People don’t seem to feel the need to account for his turning to science fiction despite never having been abducted by aliens. The implication that only people with children write children’s literature is silly at best. Also, Lewis was a great tryer-out of genres: he’d already tried his hand at lit crit, popular theology, allegorical autobiography, humorous epistolary demonic dialogue, short stories, science fiction, and various forms of poetry. Lewis openly admired several children’s writers, notably Nesbit, and was certainly no snob about the form. So he wrote a children’s book. What’s to explain?

2. How can we explain the obvious flaws of the Narnia chronicles – by which Ward primarily means a) its inconsistencies; b) its being a hodge-podge of different types of mythology and c) its lack of an overall ‘unifying’ theme?

Go saddle me my hobbyhorse! I’ve said it before in passing, but I don’t know whether I’ve ever expanded on it: to my mind these so-called flaws are explained by the fact that CSL was a Spenserian, and Narnia is (as Ward, to do him credit, is aware) a deeply Spenserian set of works. By this I emphatically don’t mean, as apparently some critics have claimed, that the seven books of the series correspond to the books of The Faerie Queene. I mean that Lewis’s artistic sensibility was saturated in admiration for Spenser, and for Spenser’s infinitely subtle form of allegory. Notably, all the ‘flaws’ above apply equally to FQ:

a) Inconsistencies. Look at our first sight of Narnia. We see Mr Tumnus carrying (apparently) Christmas presents in a world with no Christmas or shops, wrapped in brown paper in a world with no paper mills, parcels whose contents and recipients are never explained or referred to again. Ward finds this kind of thing slapdash. Okay, now look at opening scene of FQ: we see a knight, a lady, a dwarf, a lamb, riding/walking across a plain. The dwarf’s presence is unexplained and he quickly drops from sight, and the lamb (which the lady is leading by a string) is never heard of after its first mention. Slapdash? Not at all. Both Spenser and Lewis are in these scenes working in an emblematic mode that valorizes local effect over the demands of continuous narrative. To call it inconsistent reveals a generic misreading. We’re quite used to this kind of convention in other genres. No one complains of ‘continuity errors’ in a Tom and Jerry cartoon just because Tom is sliced to pieces in one scene and fine again two minutes later. We need to be willing to apply the same openness to written narrative. (One of the triumphs of FQ is the way Spenser plays the emblematic off against the narrative, by the way.)

b) Narnia is heterogeneous, agreed. But no more so than Spenser’s Faerie. FQ is awash with satyrs, ogres, Prince Arthur, fairies, Wild Men, St George and the dragon, Saracens, personified Vices, Satan, Greek gods, pastoral shepherds, starving Irish mobs, and much more. And in fact, Tolkien’s objection to Narnia - “It really won't do, you know!” – was uncannily anticipated by Spenser’s own purist university friend, Gabriel Harvey, who criticized an early draft of FQ as “Hobgoblin runne away with the Garland from Apollo” – in other words, as a hodge-podge. I think both Harvey and Tolkien were mistaken, but I’m not going to go into this further now than to say that, once more, FQ sets a pretty clear precedent for Narnia.

c) As for an overall scheme, as Lewis and Ward (quoting Lewis) both point out, Spenser’s letter to Ralegh suggests that he had one – that of devoting a book each to the private and public virtues, in the context of quests given to her knights by Queen Gloriana - but that the poem as published only approximates to this. In FQ the six extant books do each have a titular virtue and a patron knight, but they’re not treated at all the same way. Red Crosse, the knight of holiness, is a neophyte who has to learn his virtue more or less from scratch. The knights of books 2 and 3 (temperate Guyon and chaste Britomart) are already exemplarily temperate and chaste by the time we meet them (and neither is given their quest by Gloriana), while the titular characters of the fourth book (Cambell and Telamond) barely appear at all. For Spenser, and I suspect for Lewis, plans were made to be diverged from.

I think we’re making a mistake if we feel that FQ or Narnia ought to have a “unifying theme”, in the sense that New Criticism would recognize it. That’s not to say that either Lewis or Spenser was careless in construction. Both were quite capable of carefully placing patterns in their work. But the fact that, say, Epithalamion contains hidden numerological sequences is not what makes it a great work of literature, and certainly isn’t what’s ensured its lasting appeal.

3. Why is it still so popular, given the above flaws?

Given that I don’t think they are flaws, this question fall by the wayside. Narnia has survived because of the books’ excellent qualities, many of which Ward identifies. But even if we accept the premise that their popularity with children needs further explanation, the idea that this explanation lies in their hidden allusions to Ptolemaic astrology is a bit of stretch. In fact, to take Ward’s argument seriously, you would have to believe in Ptolemaic astrology yourself, or at least in its power to evoke mystical archetypes that speak deeply to the human spirit. And – well, I guess I’m just a typical Aquarian sceptic in that regard. (On the other hand, I do like the idea – which Ward makes much of – that part of Narnia’s appeal lies in Lewis’s attempt to summon the essence of an experience and invite the reader to inhabit it – for which Ward coins the term ‘donegality’. But this characteristically Lewisian notion seems to me quite happily independent of Ward’s Ptolemaic superstructure.)

In conclusion, I’m afraid I’m still inclined to put Ward’s idea down as a footnote, albeit a fascinating footnote, and one I very much enjoyed reading.
Tags: books, c. s. lewis
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