Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Planet Narnia: Part 1

A couple of years ago I read Michael Ward’s bookPlanet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis”. I never got round to doing a blog post on it; I was in fact reminded to do so as a result of recently reading William Thompson’s dual volume At the Edge of History/Passages about Earth”. Ward, Lewis and Thompson all tread the mystical realm of mythology and their works have significant points of contact, points of contact I wish to explore in a series of posts.

The main thesis of Ward’s book is that C. S. Lewis wrote the seven Chronicles of Narnia as way of capturing the touch and feel of the medieval seven planet astrology. It seems that the secretive Lewis never let on that this was one of his purposes in writing the Chronicles and this is why, according to Ward, the superficial reader perceives them as a weird assortment of scenes, characters and plots, apparently unconnected by any coherent underlying idea. That was basically my perception of the Narniad and one reason why, hitherto, I’ve not been interested in them. But Ward claims to have rumbled the hidden code that pervades the pages of these books.

I’m not very familiar with Lewis or the literary world in which he was immersed. I’ve read some of his books and watched a couple of productions taken from his Chronicles. Ward, needless to say, is steeped in Lewis. Not surprisingly then my rather cursory acquaintance with Lewis handicapped my reading of Ward’s book: My lack of familiarity with its many literary allusions and authors made it heavy going in parts. However, I ploughed on through it determined to get to the end of it especially as I sensed that this book impinged upon my interest in the modern paradigm changes that have left the mediaeval world well behind, its sea of faith long since departed, leaving many of Christianity’s modern manifestations high, dry and floundering.

Ward has had to work against a very natural and understandable bias against the kind of thing he is doing: The field of revealing hidden meanings and cracking secret codes has an unfortunate history of being the stamping ground of cranks, conspiracy theorists and extremists. Nevertheless, in my rather inexpert opinion Ward presents a very convincing case for medieval astrology being the underlying and hitherto hidden theme that makes sense of Lewis’s work. In medieval times each planet had associated with it its own particular range of motifs and ideas such as colour, metals and general ambiance. These motifs, in due course, make their appearance in their respective book of the Chronicles. For example, according to Ward Prince Caspian is associated with the planet Mars and Martian motifs can be found scattered throughout the book such as “perpendicularity” which is “a manifestations of Mars's masculinity” (pp 80-81), and also a military regard for orderliness (p92). Mars's metal is “iron”, a metal which, given its history, goes together well with a warlike and mechanistic disregard for painful effects (p79) and this metal makes an important appearance in Prince Caspian. (p92)

Given that this kind of thing is repeated for all seven books it all seems too much of coincidence for it to have happened by chance, especially as it is well known that Lewis was awestruck by the mystery of mediaeval astrology and he wrote much about it.

It was in large part through his love of Dante that Lewis grew to be so enchanted by the Ptolemaic universe (p41)
As for astrology, the foregoing chapters have shown that Lewis’s imaginative fascination with it was life-long and deep. (p247)

After reading Ward’s book the only mystery left seems to be why this underlying theme wasn’t spotted long ago given the proliferation of clues to be found in the Chronicles, starting with the number of books; seven. In fact Ward himself wonders why he has been privileged to make this discovery when so many others have spent so long mulling over the enigma and occasion of Lewis seemingly incoherent Narniad. Ward puts some of this down to the modern attitude to astrology:

And the final reason is that those critics who were looking for a third level may not have been open to the subject of astrology as his work really requires, for as I have pointed out, astrology, a subject disdained by academics, tends to be given a doubly wide berth by Christian academics. Since most Lewis scholars have been Christian or well-disposed to the Christian tradition, there was an in-built improbability that researchers would fully understand his most successful work. (p245)….. His status as a Christian too often causes Pavlovian reactions of approval among his co-religionist readership; his interest in astrology gets overlooked in the rush to lionize him. (p246)

In this connection it is worth noting that Lewis also had a high regard for pagan religions:

But a much more substantial reason for Lewis’s love of the Ptolemaic cosmos, despite its factual inadequacy, has to do with some of his most deeply held religious beliefs. As a boy he had been told by his schoolmasters that Christianity was 100 percent correct and every other religion, including the pagan myths of ancient Greece and Rome, was 100 percent wrong. He found that this statement, rather than bolstering the Christian claim undermined it and he abandoned his childhood faith ‘largely under the influence of classical education’. It was to this experience that he owed his ‘firm conviction that the only possible basis for Christian apologetics is a proper respect for Paganism.’ Therefore Lewis was not troubled by the similarities between, for instance, the pagan Jupiter and the Hebrew Yahweh. He takes pleasure in pointing out,  in ‘Miracles’, that ‘God is supposed to have had a “Son”, just as if God were a mythological deity like Jupiter' . The resemblance ought to be present, given that God works through human myths as well as through His own true myth, the historical story of Jesus Christ. Since God is the Father of lights, even the dim and guttering lights of paganism could be ascribed ultimately to Him. Christians should feel no obligations to quench the smouldering flax burning in pagan myths: on the contrary they should do their best to fan it in to flame. Lewis, with Spencer, believed that 'Divine Wisdom spoke not only on the Mount of Olives, but also on Parnassus' Of course, the Parnassian wisdom was not as complete or as sufficient as that offered in Christ, but it should be honoured as far as it went. (p28)

Lewis’s religion was not a upas tree in whose shadow nothing else could grow. If paganism could be shown to have something in common with Christianity, Lewis concluded ‘so much better for paganism’ not ‘so much the worse for Christianity’ (p28)

Lewis had a high view of the pagan gods (234)

Interestingly, I got a very unfavorable reaction when I quoted the pieces above to a conservative Christian. The reaction was entirely emotional, irrational and final: It was clear that no further thought was going to be expended on Ward’s careful nuancing and instead a mindless knee jerk response was deemed sufficient to deal with the matter; even though on many issues Lewis is quoted favorably by conservative Christians. It all rather bears Ward out. It is an irony that conservative reaction so often resembles the superstitious dread of the pagan religionist toward that which is deemed to be ritually unclean. This reaction betrays the downside of pagan religious attitudes that still very much suffuse conservative Christianity (Compare Romans 14:14 and context).

In order to handle Lewis’s work Ward develops a significant concept that probably embraces much of Lewis’s thinking. Ward coins the term “Donegality” (after Donegal in Ireland; see p16 and p75) to act as the seed for the crystallization of an idea that Lewis himself refers to as the “kappa element” (“Kappa” for the first letter of the Greek word for ‘hidden’ or ‘cryptic’; p15) in literature; that is, the mood and atmosphere a literary piece conjures up:

He (Lewis) thought that literary images, like musical motifs, should be richly expressive of mood, existing ‘in every possible relation of contrast, mutual support, development, variation, half echo and the like’ (p74)

Terms that Lewis himself used to express the kappa element were ‘flavour or atmosphere’, ‘smell or taste’, ‘mood’ and ‘quiddity’ (p16). My understanding of “Donegality” is that it is not an intrinsic property found in the articulated description of the connection itself – that is, in its logos, but rather it is an extrinsic reactive property resulting of the mood feelings it evokes in us – basically, its mythos. I suspect that this has much to do with how our moods and feelings map to the mixes of chemical concentrations in the brain which, like many smells, are all but unique to a stimulus situation. Lewis objective then is to create the Donegality of the mediaeval astrology. The touch and feel of this astrology can’t be experienced by simply describing it but only by immersing oneself in its ambiance and this ambiance is recreated by replicating the general motifs of the ethos and mores that stimulate it.

According to Ward (and he has convinced me) medieval Ptolemaic Donegality is the single most important concept needed to understand Lewis’s chronicles of Narnia, a concept that many have missed:

It is not as though the Chronicles were utterly incomprehensible without this donegalitarian key, and many readers were content to accept that the septet’s apparent lack of homogeneity was evidence of hasty writing, not a sign of an unidentified inner meaning. (p245)
The donegalitarian interpretation seems to me to account for so many things that I would even dare to suggest that the burden of proof now rests with those who would dispute it. (p215)

...to be continued