Jon Kennedy
Jon Kennedy


Click to enlargeJon Kennedy's
'C. S. Lewis Overflow
'
Jon Kennedy's latest book is The Everything Guide to C.S. Lewis and Narnia, now in stores, from Adams Media, F&W Publications. This series of articles is thinking inspired by readings in Lewis's work that didn't fit into the book. Click here for a list of all articles in the C.S. Lewis Overflow series.

Review: Planet Narnia
The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis,
by Michael Ward

Though I can't claim to have surveyed all the literature on C.S. Lewis, it's safe to say this volume from Oxford University Press based on the doctoral studies of Cambridge scholar/clergyman Michael Ward is one of the most important contributions to the corpus yet released. It ratchets up the whole level of scholarship on Lewis and his work by proposing a key to understanding not only the Chronicles of Narnia (which he aptly calls "the Narniad") but also of most of Lewis's other major works.

C. S. Lewis
 portriat by Val Craig MurrayMy Everything Guide to Lewis and Narnia describes Doris Myers' discovery of a thread of the six cardinal virtues running throught the Narniad, similar especially to the same thread in Spenser's Faerie Queene, one of the seminal works in Lewis's own scholarly work at Oxford and in print. And I cite Don W. King for his observation that the Narnia Chronicles parallel William Langland's Piers Plowman, Dante's Divine Comedy, and Chaucer's The Parson's Tale by being integrated around the seven deadly sins, as many other literary works of the medieval period are.

Michael Ward and Jon Kennedy, photo by Daniel Jarvis
Michael Ward signs Jon Kennedy's copy of Planet Narnia in San Francisco. Photo by Daniel Jarvis.

But without discounting these and similar findings in the works of other students of Lewis, Michael Ward finds the strongest thread tying the seven classic children's novels to be the seven planets and their divinities, also often described as "seven heavens," as in the subtitle of his study, which have their origins in ancient pagan mythology, astrology, and which were ever-present in the literary output of the middle ages. That included the work of Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet whose writing Lewis considered the highest accomplishment in European literary history.

And though no one is claiming support for this as a biblical view of heaven or the heavens, Saint Paul's oblique reference to his own visit to the "third heaven" (2 Corinthians 12:2) is probably referring to a seven-layered view of the heavens in Jewish mysticism. And the Qur'an (written down by Mohammed during his lifetime, c. 570-632 A.D.) specifically teaches "seven heavens." In a blog sponosred by HarperOne (the owner of rights to most of C.S. Lewis's works, but not Ward's publisher), Ward says:

Lewis described the seven planets as ‘spiritual symbols of permanent value'. He thought that they were ‘especially worthwhile in our own generation'.

The seven planets of the old [pre-Copernican] cosmology included the Sun (Sol) and the Moon (Luna), which we now don't regard as planets at all. The other five were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

In the literature of the West, predating Copernicus, this structure of the heavens is so pervasive that it was obviously taken for granted by both writers and readers of the times. Ward describes his discovery of this skeleton undergirding the Narniad (and of Lewis's "space trilogy" novels) as a "Eureka moment" that came after "thirty years' exposure to the texts in question, ten years' teaching Lewis to undergraduates, three years living at The Kilns, Lewis's Oxford home, and eighteen months' work on this doctoral research." In a late-night reading of Lewis's poem "The Planets," when he came upon "The phrase 'winter passed / And guilt forgiven' sprang from the page, demanding attention. I had come across the passing of winter and the forgiving of guilt elsewhere in Lewis's writings: those things formed the centerpiece of his first Narnia tale. Could there be a link somehow between poem and Chronicle? That thought was the stray spark connecting Jupiter to The Lion [the Witch and the Wardrobe] in my mind, and one by one the other planet-to-book relationships began to be lit up in its train."

As Jupiter (also represented by the mythological god Jove) was the "spirit" at work throughout the first Chronicle, Ward found Mars to be the spirit of Prince Caspian, the Sun/Sol as the spirit of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the Moon of The Silver Chair, Mercury: The Horse and His Boy, Venus: The Magician's Nephew, and Saturn: The Last Battle. Though the connection will probably strike most casual readers of Lewis's works as reaching too far, Ward's case is impeccibly argued and supported by internal evidences. Reading that case adds depth to everything Lewis wrote, and forever dispells the claim of J.R.R. Tolkien that "the Chronicles were carelessly assembled out of incompatible mythologies" and a more general claim by some that the children's books have insufficient depth to inflame and occupy the imaginations of adult readers.

Ward has given us a quantum leap to a higher rung of Lewis appreciation.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

Click here to visit Michael Ward's Planet Narnia web site.

Note: This is the final (and fifty-eighth) installment in this series of "overflow" articles inspired by my discoveries in reading in and about C.S. Lewis. Next week, D.V., we'll return to the more mundane Jonals after the pattern of the first one thousand entries, inspired by anything from having a Sun Drop at Mitchell's to fulfilling my duties as a Grit boy at age 11. But in those, like most of the conversations I've been having for the past two years, I'm sure C.S. Lewis and his insights will frequently play a part and occasionally even occupy center stage. See you next time. — JK

 

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When you have found out, let me know which of us is escaping his own notice being an ass — for at least one of us must be.

— C.S. Lewis, in a letter to a close friend


Thought for today

How does one feel thankful?... A funny thing how merely formulating a question awakes the conscience! I hadn't a notion of the answer [when I wrote the question], but now I know exactly what you are going to say: "Act your gratitude and let feelings look after themselves." Thank you.

C. S. Lewis (1898 - 1963), in a letter to Sister Penelope


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