When I was a kid I readThe Chronicles of Narnia because they seemed like cool fantasy adventures. I liked them, and read them more than once. They weren't as cool asThe Lord of the Rings, but they were way more cool than a lot of other books I'd read, and my memories of Reepicheep, Tirian, Shasta, and Edmund were strong enough to prompt me to read the books right before heading East to go to college.
This time I couldn't stand them. Sure, the writing was good, and there was adventure, and some of the characters were appealing in a condescending sort of way, but they didn't make any sense. In one book a bunch of people were sailing in a ship for a largely indiscernible purpose, and in another Father Christmas was showing up with weapons in his bag. Apparently I wasn't the only one who had this opinion—C. S. Lewis's friend J. R. R. Tolkien didn't like the series, either.
Some time passed. I read a lot of Middle European literature. My literary tastes became increasingly sophisticated and non-Chronicles of Narnia-y. And then I came across a book called Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis by Michael Ward, an Oxford guy. I was dubious going in, but by the time I'd finished I couldn't wait to get my hands on those seven little fantasy novels again and see exactly what I'd been missing all along.
And what everyone else had been missing too, apparently. Until Ward, all schemes failed to explain and interpret the Chronicles of Narnia. Many possibilities were suggested, but none worked, at least not in the way one would expect of a literary and intellectual genius of Lewis's stature. Ward's method is compelling because he actually works it out through the entire series, showing how to apply his scheme to the series as a whole and as individual parts.
So what is his interpretive framework? The subtitle says it all. Ward believes Lewis envisioned and executed these beloved fantasy novels around the model of the seven heavens of Classical astronomy and cosmology, and that he used this framework to tell his readers about Jesus Christ and the Christian worldview. But he doesn't just assert this, he explains why it's valid, why no one discovered it till now, and what it means for the novels themselves.
Chapters 3-9 of Planet Narnia are the meat of the book, and in many ways the most fun. Though a sense of literary mystery permeates the entire work, in these chapters Ward takes each of the seven Classical planets and explains how their place in mythology, history, and religion makes them perfect templates for Narnia stories. Jupiter is at the center of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Mars is the planet associated with Prince Caspian, and so forth.
If this doesn't make a whole lot of sense, don't worry. Ward doesn't expect his readers to be literary critics or philosophers, and he explains his findings and theories clearly at each step. Basically, in Classical astronomy each of the planets represented a mythic figure (a god or goddess), and in subsequent Christian thought these figures were used to explain or illustrate truths peculiar to the Christian faith. Being a Classicist himself, Lewis appropriated this framework for his books.
Or so Ward contends. He is obviously conscious that his claims are revolutionary, especially since he's the first to propose them in the past sixty years, and spends the last few chapters unofficially addressing concerns. For instance, if the key to the Chronicles is so obscure, how have they remained so popular for so long? Why did Lewis write them in the first place, and why did he choose the model he did without telling other people? And how on earth did Ward figure all this out?
None of these questions are ignored or dismissed. By the end of the book, it's virtually impossible for any non-specialist to question either Ward's thesis or his support for it, and while specialists might be able to, the support for Ward's book from the academic world has been solidly positive. Whether you love the Chronicles of Narnia already, decidedly don't like them, want to like them, or are indifferent, Planet Narnia is essential reading, if for no other reason than that you'll come away with newfound respect and love for one of the world's great fantasy classics.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
Did you find this review helpful?