Michael Ward is an Anglican minister who has caused a lot of excitement among his fellow academics and others by his claim to have ‘found the key’ to C S Lewis’ fiction writings. The books he has in mind are the Narnia Chronicles (which he calls ‘the Narniad’ and the Ransom Trilogy of science fiction books. Many have enjoyed Lewis’ works without ever concerning themselves with the search for a ‘key’ but academics have frequently criticised Lewis for the ‘hotch potch’ of conflicting ideas and the lack of apparent order in the Narniad in particular. Even friends of Lewis criticised his entry into ‘children’s fiction’ and thought that, as a writer, he had missed his mark.
Michael Ward suggests, in what was originally a doctoral thesis, that there are unspoken themes to Lewis’ works of fiction. Others have also made this claim and suggested various linking themes but none have received as wide support as Ward. Lewis was known to be ‘a man who liked his secrets’ and Ward claims that this is why they were hidden for so long.
Lewis’ chosen field of expertise was medieval literature and Ward claims that Lewis has used a medieval philosophical framework for his fiction even though the apparent stories are set in a fairy-tale world or in interplanetary space. Lewis has used the medieval mind-set to create a subliminal mood or atmosphere that was, in a sense the real story, and which was more important than any of the apparent allegorical details. Lewis, says Ward, was creating an atmosphere which in its overall effect cannot be examined too closely without losing its essence. The ‘hidden key’ to these subliminal moods is the medieval concept of the seven kingdoms of the seven planets.
These planetary influences are not the planets or spheres of Copernican astronomy but the Ptolemaic and ‘astrological’ influences of the medieval world. Lewis found a beauty and order in the pre-Copernican cosmos which he preferred to the factual order of the Copernican cosmos. The wise man, he said, does not only think in categories of factual truth but also of beauty. In this sense the Narnia Chronicles are a literary equivalent of Holst’s Planets Suite, each of the seven ‘heavens’ giving its own key to a different Narnia chronicle.
Ward coins the word ‘donegality’ which he describes as a work of art in which a spiritual essence is intended by the artist but inhabited unconsciously by the reader. The author is consciously trying to create an atmosphere that he wants the reader to experience sub-consciously. It was designed by the author to remain ‘implicit’ in the text itself and not intended to be ‘visible’, nevertheless it was intended to impact the reader and to awaken sub-conscious truths that are common to mankind. For example, says Ward, Lewis attempts to awaken the sense of ‘Jupiter/Jove’, the kingly, magnanimous, festive, full-blooded, enjoyable aspect of God. This is the mood, expressed in the adjective ‘Jovial’. A survivor of the Great War, Lewis saw life and culture as having become dominated by the ‘Saturnine’ influences and sought to awaken ‘Jupiter’ in the hearts of his readers.
This is a book intended for academics but not restricted to such. Lewis described himself as reading ‘as a native, texts that his students read as foreigners’. Lewis’ personal world and mind-set was medieval. His stories consequently have a level at which they are patchwork quilt of ‘puns’ and ‘quotations’ from the world of medieval literature. To fully appreciate what Lewis is doing the reader would need more than a passing knowledge of Classical literature, Shakespeare and Dante! In his ‘Preface to Paradise Lost’ Lewis had written ‘an influence which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep’. Ward contends that the Narniad and the Ransom Trilogy are Lewis’ attempt to create such a deep influence; to reawaken forgotten concepts of God and his ways. Ward’s theory is not complicated but his elaborate proof of his theses is very comprehensive and thereby not a book to be read by the pool on a hot summer’s day!
Does Ward carry his case? I believe he does. If you are prepared for your mind to be stretched… gently by a very readable writer this book will fascinate and enlarge your next reading of Lewis’ world of fiction.
This gains 4 stars in my estimation. (or should that be planets?)
Planet Narnia: Michael Ward.
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: OUP USA (3 Mar 2008)