Thursday, March 08, 2012

On Intuition, Narnia, and a little mediaeval astrology...

I don't recall how old I was when I first read the Narnia septet by CS Lewis. I know that I was captivated by the series at a young age, and read them regularly.

I do, however, remember a thrilling moment when I was perhaps ten or eleven. I was re-reading the books, and had reached the end of 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader'. Aslan the Lion appears as a lamb, and invites the children to a breakfast of roast fish. Then he tells them that he is in their world too, by another name.

It seems odd in retrospect - the Christian imagery in the books is so well-known, and so obvious to me now - but until that point I had not made the connection. I had grown out of hoping that I might find Narnia myself in the back of an old wardrobe; I no longer believed in fauns and talking mice. But I did wish, with an intense longing, that Aslan could indeed be found in our world. I suppose it was a classic moment of Introverted Intuition, when it all suddenly made sense. Aslan was Jesus. I went from a deep wish to a deep insight within a few seconds, and was then able to see the allegorical nature of the books - or, at least, the metaphors which were well-known to me at that age such as Creation in 'The Magician's Nephew'; Good Friday and Easter in 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'.

It was a great moment, and I'm glad that nobody made the mistake of explaining it to me before I was ready to find it for myself.

Over the forty-odd years since then, I've picked up and read the books again and again. It has occasionally occurred to me to wonder why they seem such a disparate set of books: 'The Lion...' is almost a classic fairytale story of good conquering evil with the Redemption story at the heart of it. It's uplifting, cheerful, and probably still my favourite of the books. It's also the best-known. I never particularly liked its sequel 'Prince Caspian', which is filled with battles and conversation in the forest. It brings the children back to Narnia, but in a disappointing kind of story, even though it ends well enough.

On the other hand, I very much liked 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', in which Caspian is a little older and on a quest over the sea. It has a lighter feel to it, several instances of people overcoming different temptations, and the beautiful ending which first gave me the insight into the Christian nature of the series. The only chapter I didn't like at all was the one called 'Two Narrow Escapes', where the company visited an island with a dangerous pool.. when reading the book, I used to skip that chapter. On the other hand, the amusing chapter about the Dufflepuds is one of my favourites in the whole series.

'The Silver Chair' has a different feel to it again - of swamps and gloom, of another kind of quest, this time to rescue a missing prince. I loved Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, but found the story increasingly tense even on the tenth or fifteenth time of reading.

I would usually read those four books in order, then 'The Magician's Nephew', even though that is chronologically the first, dealing, as it does, with the creation of Narnia. It always felt to me like an add-on, a book to explain how the other books came about, with a lot more set in the real Earth than in any of the others. Then there's 'The Horse and His Boy', a book which never felt to me as if it fit with the others at all. It's the story of a boy taking an important message, learning about Narnia, realising his courage, and discovering some surprising roots. I like it - but it seemed very much like a misfit, with no forays at all into our world.

Then there's 'The Last Battle', a final book if ever there was one, with graphic pictures of 'end times', taking us to the very end of Narnia and the hope of Heaven. I don't much like that one, either, but would always read it as the last in the series.

A year or so ago, Amazon recommended that I read 'Planet Narnia', in which Michael Ward, a learned scholar, had apparently found a new 'key' to what he calls the Narniad. Something to do with mediaeval astrology. I read reviews, which were mixed, and might have thought no more; but then a friend read it, and felt that it was worth reading. Then I saw it referred to elsewhere, and became increasingly curious.

I've finally finished reading it.

The author makes an excellent case for an underlying theme which Lewis did not spell out to anyone. He quotes extensively from his works, and from his early study of mediaeval planetary images. He also goes deeply into the explicit use of planets-as-archetypes which Lewis employed in his science fiction trilogy. He makes his case well, and it felt like another piece of the jigsaw, or perhaps a sight of the picture on the box of a puzzle, helping the whole to slot into place.

The theory, in a nutshell, is that each of the seven mediaeval planetary archetypes influences the writing of one of the Narnia books. Sounds unreal? Yes, it did to me at first. Michael Ward sums up his theories on the FAQ page of the Planet Narnia site - and they are quite appealing.

In five of the seven suggestions he advances for a planetary theme for each of the Narnia series, I agree entirely.

The planets are not the ones we know today; indeed, two of them (Sol and Luna) are the bodies which we know as the Sun and the Moon. Uranus had not yet been discovered in the mediaeval times from which Lewis takes his imagery, nor is Earth included. She seven 'planets' are: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Sol and Luna.

While I have some knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman myths, I was impressed at the thoroughness with which Michael Ward went into detail about each planet. Detail is really not my thing, but I did very much like a term he coins early in the book: 'donegality'. This is taken as the essence or theme of something, the underlying tone of a book, the 'big picture' one retains when the particulars have vanished from memory. For each of the books Ward gives us his understanding of its 'donegality', linking it with one of the mediaeval planetary deities, and then picking out a lot of fine detail to reinforce his point.

I could see instantly that according to this theory, 'Prince Caspian' is connected to Mars, the Roman god of war. Woods and battles are the donegality of the book as far as I'm concerned; Mars, apparently, was also supposed to have an affinity with trees and vegetation. There are themes in the book of chivalry, knightliness and 'necessary' wars to overcome evil, and I found myself actually liking it more in the context of the planet Mars.

Perhaps the next most obvious one is 'The Silver Chair', which is connected with Luna, the moon. Her colour is silver, her light reflected. Much of the story takes place underground, or in the marshes, giving a feeling of half-light. There is discussion of 'lunacy', too, and much more. Then 'The Last Battle' is evidently about the passing of time and its ravages, fitting in well with Ward's theory that this final book in the series was written with Saturn in mind, known in some circles as 'Father Time'.

There are long chapters dedicated to each of these, of course; I'm only touching on what I perceive as the 'donegality' in this post.

Ward also contends that 'The Lion..' was written with the influence of Jupiter in mind, and that 'The Horse and His Boy' relates to Mercury. These are not quite so obvious at first glance, but as I read the relevant chapters, I could see that they make sense. Jupiter - also known as Jove - features jollity, feasting and kingliness, as well as winter becoming spring. Father Christmas, who always seemed like a bit of an oddity in the first book, suddenly fits in rather well with the image of a genial giver. Mercury, by contrast, is known as the message-giver, and master of language and liguistics. Of all the books, 'The Horse and His Boy' is most concerned with language - with Bree the talking horse, and Calormen poetry, and the importance of getting words correct. Mercury is also related to twins, something else that leaps out of the book.

This brings me to the remaining two books, and here is where I find myself in disagreement with Michael Ward. He matches Venus with 'The Magician's Nephew', citing the great fertility of the newly-formed Narnia, and the apple which Digory plants. And he matches Sol, the sun, with 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader'. There's a sense of light, and mention of gold in the book which seem to back this up.

But although I was prepared to accept Michael Ward's explanations, I didn't find either of those two chapters convincing. And while I hesitate to disagree with such extensive research, I would personally put them the other way around.

Ward claims that the name 'Dawn Treader' suggests the sun. To me, it suggest Venus, the 'Morning Star'. Moreover, the word 'Voyage' is one used in the alternate title for 'Perelandra', the second of the science fiction trilogy ('Voyage to Venus'). In 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', most of the action - like that in 'Perelandra' - takes place in a watery world peppered with islands. Venus is the island goddess, her home planet supposedly one covered with water.

There are temptations galore in 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', including Lucy's temptation to make herself more beautiful - similar, again, to one in 'Perelandra', and surely related to Venus, once more, rather than Sol. Moreover, it seems that the simple (and very low-key) romance Caspian finds at the end of the book is much more appropriate, in a children's book, than Ward's mention of carnality at the creation of Narnia, notwithstanding Frank and Helen's future children and grandchildren.

What of 'The Magician's Nephew'? As I said above, I don't have much of a 'feel' for the book as a whole, but if I must have a nutshell image, it is of suns.. the dying sun in Charn, the daylight in the 'real' world, and the newly formed sun of Narnia. The scenes at the end involving the apple tree and Digory's mother are used by Ward to add to the Venus image, but it seems to me rather more appropriate to Sol; besides that, the idea of a Tree of Life is surely an overt reference to the temptation of Eve in the book of Genesis. According to the Planet Narnia post about Sol, his influence makes people wise and liberal: this is what Aslan asks of Frank and Helen when he crowns them as the first King and Queen. And I'm quite sure Lewis's choice of name for the first Queen is not an accident: 'Helen' is derived from the Greek word for sun.

Finally, Ward makes much of Sol's metal being gold, and points out various references to gold in 'Dawn Treader'. Undoubtedly they are there, but in re-reading 'The Magician's Nephew', I found just as many. Significantly, most of them were referring to Aslan himself, whereas in 'Dawn Treader' they are more related to the temptations of wealth (such as the dragon's lair, and the 'Deathwater' island). Venus the goddess is associated with sweetness, warmth and laughter. The ship's company in 'Dawn Treader' find warmth and sweet water at the end of their journey; and while there is certainly some laughter in the creation of Narnia, it's not nearly as amusing as the 'Dawn Treader' chapter featuring the Dufflepuds.

So, while I cannot begin to emulate any of Michael Ward's scholarship, and am well aware that I may be totally wrong... my feeling and intuition tell me that 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' is more connected with imagery of Venus, and 'The Magician's Nephew' with Sol.