Book review: Planet Narnia [Monday, Feb. 02, 2009, 6:30 pm]
So a friend gave me a book a few weeks ago (thank you!) that has proved a very interesting read, and I thought I would like to write up a little summary of my thoughts after reading it. It's been a while since I've written a real book report/review - I guess old habits die hard ;-) At least I don't have to be all that 'academic' about it.
Planet Narnia was published by Michael Ward in 2008. He starts out with a pretty bold/heretical-sounding concept: the idea that when C.S. Lewis wrote the Narnia chronicles, he deliberately based each story on one of the medieval planetary personalities. At first, I wondered if this was something I even wanted to read, but I consented after I realized that this was by no means an alternative interpretation of the chronicles, but rather meant to enhance our understanding not only of Lewis's imagination, but of his intricate use of allegorical symbols.
Ward is without a doubt an expert on Lewis's life and works. He does not approach this topic lightly or without proper research, and this is something he demonstrates throughout his argument. Of course, I was skeptical at first, but my skepticism gradually broke down as he presented his evidence in the initial chapters.
Not only has he studied Lewis's works in detail, but as a priest in the Church of England, he knows his theology as well. He is able to use this theory of his to point out ways in which Lewis used medieval mythology to present more intricate pictures of Christ in the series than one would get even from viewing it as simple Christian allegory.
"...Lewis had a low view of literary critics who attempted to discover inner meanings in his works; but I think his view of them was low because they missed their target, not because there was no target to aim for."
Indeed, many critics have attempted to find a more specific allegorical explanation for the seven novels, suggesting that they represent anything from the seven deadly sins to the seven books of Spenser's "Fairie Queene." J.R.R. Tolkien also criticized the series claiming that it was too much of a hodge-podge, mythologically, and hastily written (although compared to The Lord of the Rings, what series isn't?)
Ward suggests that there is more to this series that meets the eye - more even than the Christian allegory that is so easily interpreted. One thing about this book that helped to convince me of this theory was his examples from Lewis's other works of just how much he studied and appreciated planet mythology. Ward uses many quotes and examples from the "Ransom trilogy" also known as the "Space trilogy," which makes use of much planetary imagery. Besides that, however, he also includes excerpts of Lewis's poetry and scholarly works to first demonstrate his immense knowledge of these medieval symbols.
As a professor of Medieval Literature, Lewis had a thorough knowledge of medieval planetary characteristics. But how does this fit in with his Christianity? Ward asserts that Lewis was able to find spiritual value in things that were on their own, pagan. Rather than outlawing all non-Christian forms of imaginative deities, Lewis used these time-tested symbols as spiritual representations of Christ.
Since so many Christian readers of the series have clearly seen the spiritual "meaning" behind "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," it has been very easy for many to feel as though they already understood the allegorical intentions that Lewis had in mind when he wrote them. Aslan = Jesus. Yes, but fortunately for us, there's much more to it than that.
I'm not going to go over each story, because I'm sure you'd much rather read the whole thing in more detail. But I'll give some examples. LWW is Jupiter. Jupiter (or Jove) is the kingly god/planet, and this story contains far more references to royalty than any other. Only in two other chronicles is Aslan even referred to as a king. Jupiter is also the god of rejuvenation, hence the major event of the story, which is Aslan bringing spring to Narnia after 100 years of winter. Jupiter also helps to explain the presence of Father Christmas (Santa) in this story - he is the perfect representation of the magnanimity of Jove. There are many more similarities that I don't have time to go over, but at the same time, Ward does a good job of not taking his comparisons too deeply into the story, or grasping at straws. For example, there are references in this chronicle to oak trees, which is Jove's tree, but Ward does not rest too much weight on the more trivial comparisons.
One of the most satisfying aspects of this book is how Ward shows how each story presents a different picture of Aslan as Christ, through the lens of each different planet. I'm going to talk about two more chronicles that I found to be the most striking: "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is Sol, also known as the sun. The more I read about this, the more obvious the comparison became to me - I wondered why I'd never noticed it before. The sun is the ultimate goal of the journey, but there are numerous other references to the sun, sunset, sunrise, shining, and most importantly: gold. Not only does this feature an island with gold water and a dragon guarding hordes of gold, but Aslan is referred to many times as 'golden,' and his role in the story is different than that in the other chronicles. Along with gold comes greed, and this is the most notable area in which Aslan makes his appearances; he is responsible for restoring Eustace to his human form after greed leads him astray, and he also reprimands Caspian for greedily trying to sail further than he is intended to.
The other one I'll talk about is "The Horse and His Boy," which is Mercury, or Hermes as he is also known - the messenger god. This comparison is seen throughout the story, as there are many chases, references to running, and one of Shasta's main roles is to bring a message to Archenland. Also, Aslan's major scenes involve him following Shasta in the dark, and chasing Aravis on her horse. Also...get this... Mercury is associated with the twins Castor and Pollux. Shasta's real name is Cor. Shasta...Cor.......Castor. Yeah. The twins also end up as a horseman and a boxer, respectively - just like Castor and Pollux. That's definitely not a coincidence.
It was little similarities like that which gradually convinced me as I read about each chronicle. It became exciting just to see what little things Ward would find in each story. I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who is a big fan of the Chronicles of Narnia, especially if you're into mythology as well. However, I'd recommend that, if possible, you also read the Ransom trilogy first - I intend to read that series someday, since Ward mentions it in every chapter, so I think I would have gotten even more out of this book if I'd read that beforehand.
"Planet Narnia" has given me an even greater appreciation for Lewis's knowledge of literature and mythology, spiritual symbolism, and his ability to subtly incorporate such symbolism into his stories. He was able to paint pictures with his fiction rather than just tell stories, and this book has helped me to understand that his pictures were deeper than many critics previously gave him credit for. I can't say I'm surprised... it's just nice to be able to put my finger on that little extra something I'd never really noticed before.
Vitality - Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009