C. S. Lewis’s secret system in “Chronicles of Narnia”: Book review of “Planet Narnia”

Planet Narnia was a Goodreads recommendation based on my Favorites shelf that is clearly dominated by the works of C. S. Lewis. I haven’t read a book by C. S. Lewis for a good two years now, and I was wanting to rekindle some of the spiritual insights I had gathered while reading his works. But first, a little background on why Lewis has become my favorite author.

The first book I read by C. S. Lewis was The Screwtape Letters in my tenth grade Honors English course. I was instantly hooked. I nearly highlighted the whole thing. It was a spiritual feast. I had never found someone who I felt took the gospel as seriously as did Lewis. Not that Lewis seriously believed that all humans have a personal tempter sitting on their should trying to come to the dark side; rather, the story of conversion that it records, the identification of logical fallacies that we put up to guard against belief and our own little hypocrisies for the first time revealed to me that the gospel was meant to be lived on a daily basis. The most poignant passage to me was a new anthropology of man as an essentially divided being:

Humans are amphibians…half spirit and half animal…as spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time, means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation–the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.”

I read everything I could by Lewis after that. Lewis was the first author I found to whom I felt a spiritual kinship, that broke the Mormon monopoly on truth that we claim. We do tend to give lip service to truth found elsewhere, but it is usually directed to those joining the church rather than those already here, like this quote from Gordon B. Hinckley:

Let me say that we appreciate the truth in all churches and the good which they do. We say to the people, in effect, you bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it. That is the spirit of this work. That is the essence of our missionary service.

Or the other thing that makes me cringe a little, when you suggest that Mother Theresa or C. S. Lewis are examples of good Christians, one Mormon will have to chime in that they are probably already Mormon on the other side. As Mormons, we have a hard time thinking that there is inherent value in different worldviews, because we feel that it threatens the validity of our own, or introduces an element of moral relativism.

Our search for truth is always turned inward. But I would argue that Joseph Smith’s vision of truth was turned outward. It is best expressed in the thirteenth Article of Faith: “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” Joseph Smith claimed truth as his own from whatever source it sprang. I think this is a good model to follow, and obviously one that our general authorities follow as well. I loved it when Dieter F. Uchtdorf quoted The Little Prince, Thomas S. Monson’s love of poetry (“My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure“), and D. Todd Christofferson’s recounting of Jan ValJean’s soul being claimed for God.

The key to Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia was actually one of the last set of books I read by C. S. Lewis. That and his Perelandra trilogy. I had been caught up by his beautiful doctrinal treatises in Miracles, The Problem of Pain, and Mere Christianity. Novels and fairy tales take more work to appreciate, or so I thought. And I liked them, but I had a hard time grappling with them. I had also heard that The Chronicles were supposed to be symbolic. For instance, you can tell that Aslan is supposed to be a symbol of Christ. But other than that, I found a hard time identifying a system of symbols. I did find some more obvious Christian elements that I found absolutely inspiring: the witch in The Silver Chair trying to explain away the sun as a fantasy as a symbol of materialism (“You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream“), and the apostasy from truth present in The Last Battle. But I thought there had to be a more cohesive answer to what Lewis was trying to get at.

Aslan.jpg

And that is what Michael Ward puts forth here in Planet Narnia: he has uncovered the whole key to The Chronicles. Now, don’t be frightened off here: you may think this is just another scholar putting up another theory of what the author “meant.” Plenty of others have tried to explain The Chronicles as symbols of the seven sacraments, or portrayals of Shakespeare’s plays, or some other system. This one I feel has both internal and external consistency, and feels true given Lewis’s background.

The secret to The Chronicles is the Ptolemaic model of the cosmos, with the earth at the center and the seven plants orbiting them: Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn. Each book takes on the qualities of a god or goddess associated with each planet. It isn’t explicitly stated, but the quality or essence of each permeates the book.

chronicles

First, you have to realize that Lewis was a Christian, but he was also a writer. And not just any writer; he was a medievalist. His first love was mythology before he was ever a Christian. We as Christians perhaps get a little uncomfortable when he starts introducing “pagan” elements: I know I was surprised when Mars and Venus actually appeared in Perelandra, right in the middle of the re-telling of the story of the Garden of Eden. Ward comments on this effect:

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis ponders ‘who loves Dante as a poet and who loves him as a Thomist.’ A similar question could be asked in the field of Lewis studies: ‘Who loves him as a writer and who loves him as a Christian?’ His status as a Christian too often causes Pavlovian reactions of approval among his co‐religionist readership; his interest in astrology gets overlooked in the rush to lionise him. As in all schools of study, there is a tendency to concentrate on those elements in the author’s writings that harmonise best with critics’ existing interests, rather than a willingness to swallow him tout à fait.

Why would Lewis choose to use a medieval understanding of the universe as Christian symbols? You’ll have to read the whole book to find out, but I liked these two ideas that Ward draws upon. First, Lewis understood that he was a part of a great literary tradition:

Lewis had a high view of the pagan gods and he was not averse, in fact he was wholly committed, to using them for literary purposes. He held this view largely because writers he respected had held it before him. ‘Gods and goddesses could always be used in a Christian sense’ by a medieval or Elizabethan poet; paganism was not just ‘plumb wrong’ to their minds. The redeemed gods could perform all sorts of good, true, and beautiful tasks, as was recognised by Dante, Sidney, Spenser, and Milton, for all of whom ‘the gods are God incognito and everyone is in the secret.’ Paganism, in Lewis’s view, was ‘the religion of poetry through which the author can express, at any moment, just so much or so little of his real religion as his art requires.’ He coined the term ‘transferred classicism’ for those poets who imagined their Christianity under classical forms, where ‘God is, in some degree, disguised as a mere god’ and the reader enjoys seeing ‘how well Christianity could produce the councils, catalogues, Mercuries, and battlepieces of ancient epic.’

Second, I loved this idea of taking an idea that wasn’t originally part of the Christian understanding and “baptizing” it:

If we cannot say that he believed in astrology, we can say that he found it difficult to disbelieve. He once noted how the Venetian Franciscan, Francesco Giorgi, in his De Harmonia Mundi Totius (1525), had ‘made his religion entirely absorb his astrology.’ Lewis’s own attitude could be characterised in the same way: he did not uncritically accept the practice, but nor did he utterly disown it; rather, as if it were a fellow sinner, he ‘baptised it’ and put it to use in theologically imaginative ways.

This reminded me of the quote by Gregory Nazianzen, on how part of Christ’s mission as a mortal was to make mortality itself holy:

“Perhaps He goes to sleep, in order that He may bless sleep …; perhaps He is tired that He may hallow weariness also; perhaps He weeps that He may make tears blessed.”

God is good at appropriating things for his own purposes, it seems, and Lewis was just following the model of his Master.

“Looking along the beam”

Now, where do the planets even show up in the books? They only rarely are mentioned directly, so as not to draw attention to themselves. For instance, Father Time pulls the stars from the sky in The Last Battle, but Father Time is just another name for Saturn or Kronos. It is much more often subtly done. It isn’t just using words of objects associated with each planet (e.g. lead, unfortunate events, old age and ugliness with Saturn; life, fruit, vegetation, love, sexuality with Venus; etc). Rather, the entire book is permeated with a “quality” of that planet. Michael Ward refers to it as “donegality”, and asserts that Lewis has developed a new literary device:

Again and again, in defending works of romance, Lewis argues that it is the quality or tone of the whole story that is its main attraction. The invented world of romance is conceived with this kind of qualitative richness because romancers feel the real world itself to be ‘cryptic, significant, full of voices and ‘the mystery of life.’’ Lovers of romances go back and back to such stories in the same way that we go ‘back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for … what? for itself; to a region for its whole atmosphere—to Donegal for its Donegality and London for its Londonness. It is notoriously difficult to put these tastes into words.’

Ward spends great detail documenting this concept of “Donegality” into much more that a literary device, but a separate state of consciousness. This was something I had already found very profound with Lewis, but I hadn’t connected it to his writing style. My favorite quote that I was aware of before reading Planet Narnia comes from Surprised by Joy:

In introspection we try to look “inside ourselves” and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortunately this does not mean that introspection finds nothing. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment or track or by-product for the activities themselves. That is how men may come to believe that thought is only unspoken words, or the appreciation of poetry only a collection of mental pictures, when these in reality are what the thought or the appreciation, when interrupted, leave behind—like the swell at sea, working after the wind has dropped. Not, of course, that these activities, before we stopped them by introspection, were unconscious. We do not love, fear, or think without knowing it. Instead of the twofold division into Conscious and Unconscious, we need a threefold division: the Unconscious, the Enjoyed, and the Contemplated.

Ward begins his discussion of “Enjoyment” with an earlier source from Lewis where he uses a metaphor about light in Meditation in a Toolshed:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch‐black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety‐odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

In The Chronicles, Lewis is trying to get us to look along the beam. He wants us to experience these different aspects, these different symbols of Christ’s divinity, rather than consciously analyzing them or even being aware of them. That was part of the reason that Ward posits that Lewis kept his system a secret.

Now that I have read Planet Narnia, I have new-found respect for this other less-acknowledged side of Lewis, his writings, and his faith. I intend on re-reading The Chronicles in the future with these aspects in mind. I also want to read some of his works associated with his medieval scholarship that I haven’t got to quite yet, such as The Discarded Image and Studies in Words. If you are a lover of all things C. S. Lewis, or if you just loved Narnia, this is a great read for you.

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