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A Critical Essay on Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia

Lauren Bujaky

In his critical essay, “On Stories,” C.S. Lewis remarks upon the notion that books are specimens of escapism, “In the same way the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual.”[1] To this effect, Michael Ward proposes in his book, Planet Narnia, that The Chronicles of Narnia are Lewis’s depiction of an ‘preposterous’ world, in which this world’s deepest reality is illustrated. Ward understands that the deepest reality gained from the Narniad is God’s presence in and through Christ, yet it is through the symbols of the seven pre-Copernican planets, i.e. Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Moon, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn, that this presence is realized.[2] Ward supports this claim by analyzing the composition, occasion, and reception of the septet, believing the seven planets of the seven heavenly spheres are essential to ‘looking along the beam’ at the imaginative world of Narnia. How does Ward divine such meaning from the Narniad, and do these ‘preposterous’ symbols of Narnia speak to the ‘actual’ world of the reader?

I. Narnia as Atmospheric

Ward’s thorough analysis of the Narniad’s composition convincingly illustrates the importance of the ‘atmospheric’ nature of Lewis’s imaginative world. Atmospheric is defined as “a description of ‘concrete imagination’ in practice, the full tasting of a work of art on the imaginative palate.”[3] Or, what Lewis deemed “kappa elements.” Using the image of a dark, sun-streaked toolshed, Lewis denotes the difference between ‘looking along the beam’ of light and ‘looking at the beam’ of light. The former action is ‘enjoyment,’ a participatory knowledge. The latter is ‘contemplation,’ an impersonal knowledge.[4] Valuing the atmospheric, Lewis imbibes the Narniad with the inhabited quality of participatory enjoyment. Ward notes: “Lewis argues that it is the quality or tone of the whole story that is its main attraction.”[5] For Ward, this unintelligible atmosphere is the pre-Copernican planets and their cosmological characteristics.[6] Before I contend that these seven symbols are inessential to the Narniad’s atmospheric nature, Ward’s argument for an atmosphere is convincing because he emphasizes the necessary weight of ‘enjoyment,’ which Lewis himself deemed essential.

Though Ward’s argument grants atmosphere as necessary for the seven planetary symbols, I aim to suggest that this indefinable atmosphere itself is essential to understanding Narnia as a whole and thus The Chronicles as entities of that whole. Before examining how Ward’s analysis is unnecessary, I will illustrate the shape of the atmospheric in Lewis’s Narnia. As atmosphere is ‘enjoyed’ rather than ‘contemplated,’ it is vital to inhabit and not just analyze the world of Narnia. For instance, Lewis begins each Chronicle with a reference to something beyond the narrative events themselves, using word phrases that denote a feeling of historicity, i.e. “this story,” “Golden Age,” “in those days.”[7] The quality, or ‘kappa element,’ that is evoked with such phrases implies that Narnia is a historical world, one with a remembered past, singular present, and unknown future. Ward expresses the key element of this atmosphere: “[This Enjoyment consciousness] is, by its very nature, though knowable, not explicit.”[8] This twofold quality of eternal and temporal invites the reader to enter the ‘preposterousness’ of Narnia

II. Narnia as Planetary? As Christ?

The Narniad is thus atmospheric in nature, yet can we necessarily conclude, as Ward does, that this ineffable quality of the entire septet is itself a symbol of seven pre-Copernican planets? Lewis’s purpose for the Narniad was explicit and void of planetary references: “The whole Narnian story is about Christ,” or Christ as He is ‘supposed’ in the lion, Aslan.[9] To combat our modern tendency to allegorize all of Lewis’s work and therefore believe the whole of Narnia is Christocentric[10], Ward addresses the difference between Lewis’s understanding of symbol and allegory. Where symbol denotes “find[ing] that which is more real,” allegory denotes “choosing to talk about . . . the form of bodies that [are] ‘confessedly less real.’”[11] Contending that the Chronicles fall somewhere between the heuristic knowledge of the symbolist and the true sense of the allegorist, Ward suggests that Lewis constructs both planetary symbolism and Biblical allegory.[12] Or, the seven planets are symbols that constitute the Narnian atmosphere, ultimately illustrating Biblical allegories of Christological import with their cosmological qualities. Did Lewis mean for Narnia’s atmosphere to be symbolic for something beyond Christ, or is the Narniad’s atmosphere simply about Christ?

III. Narnia’s Atmosphere as Aslan

Because Lewis no longer graces the streets of Oxford, Ward’s argument for the planetary symbolism of Narnia’s atmosphere will never be verified as either true or false. As such, I cannot critique the veracity of the scholar’s literary analysis of The Chronicles, but I can critique his emphasis that the planet’s qualities are essential to ‘enjoy’ Narnia. If we do not allow Ward’s representation of the Narniad to be the essence of the atmospheric, then the atmospheric itself becomes the meaning of the imaginative world. As Ward notes that Lewis himself, a lover of romance, “[went] back and back to such stories in the same way that we go ‘back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for . . . what? for itself.’”[13]

Following Lewis’s statement that “the whole Narnian story is about Christ,”[14] I will examine the birth and redemption stories of this imaginative world (The Magicians Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) to divine their ineffable compositional qualities or to divine Christ. Though my critical analysis of The Chronicles will never be verified as either true or false, I pursue such analyses in order to faithfully adhere to Lewis’s Christocentric understanding of his own work. Unlike Ward’s estimation that the seven planets are symbols of the Narniad’s atmosphere, Aslan is Narnia’s atmosphere. This mysterious union between the ‘taste’ of Narnia and its creator is best illustrated when Aslan’s song ushers in the creation of Narnia:

A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardy even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it.[15]

As the atmospheric of Lewis’s work is described as a ‘state or quality,’ ‘flavor or atmosphere,’ ‘smell or taste,’ etc., Aslan’s song is described as coming ‘from all directions’ as if the tune surrounds Digory atmospherically. This song also seemingly stems from the earth, or Aslan, as atmospheric himself, constitutes the very ground of the ‘preposterous’ Narnian world. Furthermore, Ward’s description of the atmosphere as “virtually inexpressible”[16] parallels Digory’s explanation of the song as having ‘no words’ or ‘hardly even a tune.’ Finally, to experience the atmospheric is ‘to look along a beam’ of light or to ‘enjoy’ the taste. Digory finds himself ‘enjoying,’ deeply marveling, at Aslan’s song, for he describes it as ‘so beautiful he could hardly bear it.’ Though perhaps Venial in its overwhelming sweetness,[17] Aslan’s song need not be understood as symbolic of Venus for this atmospheric quality of Christ to be entered into and ‘enjoyed.’

As the birth of Narnia in The Magicians Nephew implies that Aslan is the imaginative worlds’ atmosphere, Narnia’s redemption in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe implicates the atmospheric quality of Christ as redeemer rather than creator. As Ward’s archetypes of jollity in a pre-Jovial world[18], the beavers typify the atmosphere of Aslan, allowing the reader to inhabit and ‘enjoy’ him indirectly. When Mr. Beaver first summons the Penvensie children, he reports, “They say Aslan is on the move – perhaps has already landed.”[19] The reaction of the four, the Sons of Adam and the Daughters of Eve, exemplifies the atmospheric of Aslan:

None of the children knew how Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it has some enormous meaning – else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into word, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now.[20]

Just as Aslan’s creation song inspired atmospheric feelings in Digory that were qualitatively rich, the very name of Aslan denotes similar qualities in the Pevensie children. Like the ineffability of the ‘kappa elements,’ Aslan’s name evokes the feelings of a meaningful dream in which its ‘lovely meaning [is] too lovely to put into word.’ And perhaps most essential to the beauty of Aslan’s name at this moment is that this figurative dream is ‘so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into the dream again.’ As aforementioned, Ward explains Lewis’s affinity for romantic literature as going back to the romance for itself, for ‘enjoyment.’ Aslan as atmosphere evokes this sentiment, and as such, Narnia’s redemption is hoped for again and again. As before, the Jovial elements that constitute Ward’s argument are not essential to ‘enjoying’ Aslan’s redemptive name.

IV. Narnia as Itself

As atmospheric entities of a larger imaginative world, the books that compose the Narniad septet are meaningful as Christocentric ‘kappa elements’ of Narnia. Thus, Ward’s argument is, on the whole, not convincing, for his cosmological conclusions are not necessitated by the world’s atmospheric whole. Attempting to explain why more knowledge is always pleasurable, Ward states, “The art critic who convincingly explained [the Mona Lisa] was smiling would take something away from the painting. However, the loss [of not knowing] would surely be more than compensated for by gain.”[21] Though ‘contemplating’ the atmospheric, hidden, and spiritual elements of Lewis’s work is helpful in discerning the quality, meaning, and sacredness of The Chronicles, it is these elements in Aslan that express the Narniad’s meaning. The ‘preposterous’ atmosphere of the works, i.e. talking animals, delusionary woods, and magical wardrobe doors, imply an ‘actual’ atmosphere of creation, fall, and redemption. Or, as Aslan affirms that he is both in London and in Narnia to Edmund, he says, “This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little you may know me better there.”[22]

In one of his four quartets, “The Dry Salvages,” T.S. Eliot writes, “We had experience and missed the meaning, / And approach to the meaning restores the experience / In a different form.”[23] Setting aside Lewis’s apparent disdain for Eliot’s poetry, these lines exemplify Ward’s position and therefore undermine the atmospheric for its own sake. Unlike Eliot’s poetic lines, meaning and experience are the same for Lewis. Thus, whether Ward’s argument is correct or not, the methodology he utilizes is inherently contradictory to the imaginative Narnia as a whole. Though Ward’s estimation of Lewis’s work may advance new ‘pleasures’ at both the literary-historical and theological levels, enjoying the Narniad as meaningful is to enjoy the Narniad as experience in Christ, or in Aslan. Or, as Ward helpfully paraphrases Lewis’s words, “The ‘message’ of the book is the book itself in all its fullness.”[24]

 

Sources:

Lewis, C.S. “On Stories.” Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. Ed. by Walter Hooper. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975.

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia. London: Collins, 1998.

Ward, Michael. Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. New York: Oxford, 2008.

 

Bibliography

[1] C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, “On Stories,” Ed. by Walter Hooper (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975), 15.

[2] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia (New York: Oxford, 2008), 38-39, 4.

[3] Ward, Planet Narnia, 18.

[4] Ward, Planet Narnia, 17.

[5] Ward, Planet Narnia, 16.

[6] Ward, Planet Narnia, 22.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (London: Collins, 1998). “This story,” The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (11). “Golden Age,” The Horse and His Boy (205). “In those days,” The Horse and His Boy (205).

[8] Ward, Planet Narnia, 18.

[9] Ward, Planet Narnia, 11.

[10] Ward, Planet Narnia, 11.

[11] Ward, Planet Narnia, 30.

[12] Ward, Planet Narnia, 31.

[13] Ward, Planet Narnia, 16.

[14] Ward, Planet Narnia, 11.

[15] Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew, 61.

[16] Ward, Planet Narnia, 16.

[17] Ward, Planet Narnia, 183.

[18] Ward, Planet Narnia, 63.

[19] Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 141.

[20] Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 141.

[21] Ward, Planet Narnia, 233.

[22] Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 541.

[23] T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, “Dry Salvages.”

[24] Ward, Planet Narnia, 67.