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 Gresham, Lewis’s step-son, did for Family Christian Stores, he called the idea that the Chronicles are based on The Seven Heavens “nonsense.” Unfortunately, Gresham’s objections seem to be based on a misimpression of what Ward is saying. I sincerely doubt that Gresham 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 Ws repeatedly and concluding that Lewis intentionally used Ws 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.
This article was first published on Blogspot.com in the I Have An Inkling Blog.