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.