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Planet Narnia

Michael Ward
Oxford University Press, 347pp

Planet NarniaC S Lewis's Narnia chronicles rank as some of the most popular fiction ever written. This popularity is unique in its breadth: male and female, children and adults read them all over the world. The popularity of these books is, according to the Rev. Dr. Michael Ward, one of the three puzzles that confront any thoughtful reader. Why should a series of children's books so apparently rooted in a particular culture and time have an appeal that seems to transcend age, time and culture? Alongside this puzzle of reception, Michael Ward thinks that there are also the puzzles of occasion and of composition. Why should a middle-age, childless Oxbridge academic in medieval and Renaissance literature suddenly turn to writing children's fantasies? And what is the internal coherence, if any, of these seven books?

Much of Planet Narnia addresses the puzzle of composition. From the beginning, the reader is conscious of being in the presence of someone who has thoroughly mastered the entire oeuvre of C. S. Lewis: theological and literary, academic and popular, prose and poetry. Wearing this learning lightly but skilfully, Ward sets out to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the seven planets of medieval cosmology - the moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - are the secret templates used by Lewis. In particular, each volume explores the Christ figure via the characteristics of one of the medieval planets, beginning with the kingly Jupiter in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and ending with the aged Saturn in The Last Battle.

Similarly, the plots reflect the atmosphere of the planets: 'In Prince Caspian they harden under strong Mars; in The Silver Chair they learn obedience under subordinate Luna; in The Horse and His Boy they come to love poetry under eloquent Mercury; in The Magician's Nephew they gain life-giving fruit under fertile Venus.'

Lewis held that what each planet symbolized to the medieval mind was something of permanent value, even though medieval cosmology had long been displaced by Copernicus. In the central chapters, Ward guides the reader through the seven planets in parallel with the volumes of the Narnia chronicles, judiciously drawing on examples from Lewis' other writings. It will be impossible (and unjust) to try to give even a brief summary here. Suffice it to say that I have found Ward's suggestions invariably illuminating (I particularly enjoyed the exploration of language and the symbolism of Mercury), his arguments always clear, and his disagreement with other points of view unfailingly courteous.

'Secrecy' is an important theme. Ward shows that Lewis was a secretive man, resorting at times even to dissimulating about his marriage. More importantly, Ward demonstrates that secrecy, or hiddenness, of a certain kind was central to Lewis' literary and theological thinking. In his literary criticism, Lewis repeatedly opined that the essence of a good romance was to convey a certain hard-to-describe 'atmosphere'. Readers go back to it time and again for this je ne sais quoi 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.'

These literary sentiments of Lewis find a theological counterpart in his strongly held belief that God's presence in the world was also of a hard-to-capture kind. The most often cited Bible verse in Lewis' works, Ward notes, is Christ's cry of dereliction from the Cross, 'My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?' God's presence can be that hidden! We hear echoes of these words in Tristan's cry in The Last Battle:

And he called out, 'Aslan! Aslan! Alan! Come and help us now.'
But the darkness and the cold and the quietness went on just the same.

The wide appeal of the Narnia chronicles justifies Lewis's belief that these medieval symbols offer something of lasting worth; what they capture is archetypal. That is the je ne sais quoi that generations of readers keep going back for, the 'Donegality' of these books. Such is Ward's solution to the puzzle of reception.

Finally, Ward makes the case that Lewis started to write this series of books (initially not planning seven) as an answer to his theological critics, including public comments from a fellow Oxford philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe, to Lewis' book Miracles. Thus, far from being the 'escape' of a Christian apologist who thought he had failed (this is apparently the opinion of some critics), the Narnia books represent Lewis' sustained attempt at working out his deepest literary and theological belief. If God's hidden presence in the world was hard for Lewis the lay theologian to capture by direct argumentation, then Lewis the fiction writer was going to create a romance to which readers could return time and again to find the divine je ne sais quoi. Lewis clearly had amply succeeded. And we have Michel Ward to thank for revealing this, one of the best kept ever literary secrets, to us. This is a wonderful book. Tolle, lege!

Wilson Poon