Oxford £16.99

Planet Narnia, By Michael Ward

Were the seven Narnia Chronicles based on the seven planets of medieval cosmology? It's a fascinating thesis

Endlessly generous though he was, C S Lewis, the author of the Narnia chronicles, found it hard to suppress a lively scorn for those critics who attempted to uncover the roots of his labours. So it's not difficult to conjecture what he would have made of this, a study of Narnia that claims to have exposed a secret hidden from his closest acquaintances, his generations of fans and his detractors. He had no patience with attempts to reveal "truths" about people from the past who were strangely opaque to those who actually knew them. This book does precisely that, in great depth, and on the basis of two "tantalising hints" in Lewis's letters. That's right, just two. Alternative Shakespeares, "real" Atlantises and "historical" Christs have been built on more. It is, to all appearances, a gamble of presumptuous proportions; but it pays off, powerfully and persuasively.

Much has been made of the theological concerns apparent in the seven chronicles of Narnia: how Aslan represents Christ or how The Last Battle anticipates the Coming of the Antichrist. But Michael Ward has identified another element: the influence of the planets. The Narniad (as he terms it) is not just a charming and moving saga for children, nor is it a simplistic Christological allegory. It was designed on the model of the seven spheres of Ptolemaic cosmology. As Ward puts it: "He had translated the planets into plots, and the music of the spheres could be heard silently sounding... in each work."

He makes a marvellous case for this. "In The Lion [the Pevensie children] become monarchs under sovereign Jove; in The Dawn Treader they drink light under searching Sol; 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; and in The Last Battle they suffer and die under chilling Saturn." It is an interpretation painfully vulnerable to mockery, yet with logic, eloquence and learning, Ward convinces you that his discovery is, at the very least, a valuable analytical key.

So how did he come to this conclusion? Simply put, because it all fits: Lewis's love of medieval and Renaissance cosmology; his understanding of the principle of hiddenness; his specific understanding of "atmosphere" in fiction; the overwhelming influence of the planets in his science fiction; his belief that astrological and even pagan beliefs can serve the Christian writer better than mere allegory; his refusal to patronise the past even when its notions have been superseded; the stars as God's choir; Jovial Jupiter as his own star sign, cruel, cold Saturn as his imaginative nemesis. Aslan is not the only type of Christ in Narnia: the planets themselves carry aspects of the Christlike, and are Aslan's ministers. In each chapter, Ward goes into intimidating detail to support his thesis.

None of this represents proof as such. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, a host of "evidence" will march out at the call of an unfalsifiable theory. Yet Ward has earned the right to speak of evidence: his profound understanding of Lewis's thought in other areas makes this reader, at least, eager to accept his conclusions in this one.

In the course of this study, a very different Lewis emerges from the portly reactionary of educated prejudice: less beefy, less blustery, more open-minded, indeed, "counter-suggestible", in the author's words. Lewis loved the old myths and preferred them in some ways to the one he ultimately adopted. Yet he was fiercely alive to their limitations: the old daemons of the New Testament turn from ideals to idols once they are worshipped in their own right. Baptised, they can become messengers of glory. So it is with the stars. The evidence suggests that Lewis was not himself a believer in astrology, but he saw great beauty in the pre-Copernican system, a beauty lost in later paradigms. He had no difficulty with a scientific universe, but he could not accept a mechanical one.

Ward accounts for the popularity of the series in various ways, some subtle, some obvious. That Lewis dealt in archetypes I think we all know; that he shows a world in which children are led to their best destiny by the patient, humble encouragement of the wardens of the sky is a revelation.

The author could have taken a leaf out of Lewis's book and been a bit more "jovial" himself: a cheerless pedantry sometimes invades ("Our task at present is to..."). Then again, we must remember that he has chosen to unpick the spider's web of Lewis's imagination, and there are no tools in criticism subtle enough for such work. Also, a lot must be forgiven an author who can come out with phrases so striking. The Last Battle reveals "a saturnised Narnia"; "[Lewis] hears the voice of Christ in the music of the spheres"; romance was "a way of explaining his case to himself in imaginative form".

As Lewis himself was at war with the "Saturnine" tradition of Donne and T S Eliot, which endlessly emphasised humanity's dying fall, so is Ward at war with the reductive dismissals of Tolkien and A N Wilson, Lewis's biographer. Tolkien felt that Narnia was an ill-conceived hotchpotch; Wilson that it showed Lewis retreating from theological exposition after his most cherished beliefs had been questioned in an Oxford debate. Both Tolkien and Wilson were wrong. The Narniad was intricately conceived, and, if anything, revealed Lewis defending theology, not fleeing from it.

This is not a light read. Philosophical, theological and scientific theories litter these pages. Yet Planet Narnia is not simply one for the fans. Lewis had, and has, many enemies. This brilliant study may not persuade them that he was right, but it should convince them of his extraordinary subtlety.

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'