14 December 2009

'Jove's Children'—Lewisiana News

Giving heed to the insistent pleas of my children, I accompanied them to Half Price Books yesterday. As I looked about at the shelves, hoping to find anything really good before redshield3 got there, I noticed a book resembling the one depicted here. It turns out HarperCollins is publishing a Narnia series meant to recreate the 1950 edition. From the inside flap of the dust jacket:

This book in The Chronicles of Narnia series is produced to celebrate the first edition published in 1950. The covers and content have been carefully recreated, with text and images taken directly from the early printings. The books in this series will enable you to enjoy the Narnia experience as it was originally presented.

At $7.99, I could not, of course, resist. I suppose they intend to do the whole series, though I saw only Lion and Prince Caspian and, being a little strapped for cash, bought only the former. But I thought this was a good time of year for Lion since it is now winter and shall soon be Christmas, and I plan to start reading it to the kids in the next week or two.

Which brings me to a matter of larger import. For some time, particularly since reading his Touchstone article, ‘Narnia’s Secret: The Seven Heavens of the Chronicles Revealed’, I’ve wanted to acquire and read Michael Ward’s book, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford U, 2007). Here is the description from the Eighth Day Books catalogue (which just arrived as I was working on this!):

Though critics have tried to link the Chronicles to the seven virtues, the seven sacraments, the seven deadly sins, and even the seven books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, none have publicly considered that Lewis might have built the Narniad upon what John Donne called ‘the Heptarchy, the seven kingdoms of the seven planets’. This concept from medieval cosmology, with its rich and innately religious symbolism, fascinated and nourished Lewis. It was, in his words, a universe ‘tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine’. Anglican priest and Lewis aficionado Michael Ward believes he stumbled upon this imaginative framework and sets out to elucidate how these seven stories, ‘authored by an unlikely novice and possessing little apparent coherence in design, should have become some of the best-selling and most influential fables in the world’. His careful scholarship, copious notes, and articulate prose turn what might have been bland criticism into a fascinating reevaluation of Lewis’ whole literary and theological outlook. (p. 138)

Here is the description from the Oxford University Press website:

For over half a century, scholars have laboured to show that C.S. Lewis's famed but apparently disorganised Chronicles of Narnia have an underlying symbolic coherence, pointing to such possible unifying themes as the seven sacraments, the seven deadly sins, and the seven books of Spenser's Faerie Queene. None of these explanations has won general acceptance and the structure of Narnia’s symbolism has remained a mystery.

Michael Ward has finally solved the enigma. In Planet Narnia he demonstrates that medieval cosmology, a subject which fascinated Lewis throughout his life, provides the imaginative key to the seven novels. Drawing on the whole range of Lewis’s writings (including previously unpublished drafts of the Chronicles), Ward reveals how the Narnia stories were designed to express the characteristics of the seven medieval planets—Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn—planets which Lewis described as ‘spiritual symbols of permanent value’ and ‘especially worthwhile in our own generation’. Using these seven symbols, Lewis secretly constructed the Chronicles so that in each book the plot-line, the ornamental details, and, most important, the portrayal of the Christ-figure of Aslan, all serve to communicate the governing planetary personality. The cosmological theme of each Chronicle is what Lewis called ‘the kappa element in romance’, the atmospheric essence of a story, everywhere present but nowhere explicit. The reader inhabits this atmosphere and thus imaginatively gains connaître knowledge of the spiritual character which the tale was created to embody.

Planet Narnia is a ground-breaking study that will provoke a major revaluation not only of the Chronicles, but of Lewis’s whole literary and theological outlook. Ward uncovers a much subtler writer and thinker than has previously been recognized, whose central interests were hiddenness, immanence, and knowledge by acquaintance.

To those who may be sceptical, the always sensible Alan Jacobs writes, also at the Oxford UP website:

Noting Michael Ward's claim that he has discovered ‘the secret imaginative key’ to the Narnia books, the sensible reader responds by erecting a castle of scepticism. My own castle was gradually but utterly demolished as I read this thoughtful, scholarly, and vividly-written book. If Ward is wrong, his wrongness is cogent: it illuminates and delights. But I don’t think he is wrong. And in revealing the role of the planets in the Chronicles, Ward also gives us the fullest understanding yet of just how deeply Lewis in his own fiction drew upon those medieval and renaissance writers he so loved.

As for myself, what struck me so impressively in the Touchstone article was Ward’s citation—in the course of arguing for the ‘assignment’ of Lion to the sphere of Jupiter—of part of the description of that sphere in Lewis’s 1935 poem, ‘The Planets’ (Poems, ed. Walter Hooper [San Diego: Harcourt, 1992], p. 14):

. . . Of wrath ended
And woes mended, of winter passed
And guilt forgiven, and good fortune
Jove is master; and of jocund revel,
Laughter of ladies. The lion-hearted,
The myriad-minded, men like the gods,
Helps and heroes, helms of nations
Just and gentle, are Jove’s children,
Work his wonders. . . .

As Ward notes, the phrase ‘winter passed / And guilt forgiven’ alone ‘seems to provide an intriguingly neat summary of’ Lion.

One can thus, perhaps, understand my excitement that the author, Michael Ward, who is Chaplain of St Peter’s College, Oxford, is coming here to Oklahoma City to speak at a conference organised by the C.S. Lewis & Inklings Society (see the call for papers and announcement of the plenary speakers here). I encourage readers to attend or even to submit papers, and I also encourage anyone in the Oklahoma City area to get involved in our local Society meetings (6 pm the third Monday of every month at All Souls Episcopal Church). We are planning to read and discuss Ward’s book in the next few months.

Addendum: Having attempted and failed to find a copy for order online of the edition I was sure I'd seen of Prince Caspian which corresponded with that of Lion mentioned here, I returned to Half Price Books to get to the bottom of it. It turns out Half Price is selling—for only $5.98!—copies of the UK edition. Presumably it will soon be released here as well, but for now, the only way I know of to obtain a copy outside of a Half Price Books is here, through amazon.co.uk.

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