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The Holy Whapping relays a Telegraph article about an upcoming Beeb documentary on the “cosmic code” behind The Chronicles of Narnia.

As it happens, I wrote a very enthusiastic post about the book behind the tee vee programme back in May over at the Llamas.  I reprint the bulk of it here below:


Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Michael Ward.

Now I’ll confess that the author had me from his initial remarks about the Ptolemaic Universe and the Music of the Spheres, the latter of which concepts I especially believe in, but this is turning out to be a seriously seriously good study of the Chronicles of Narnia (or the Narniad, as it is often called). Many scholars have tried to find a pattern linking all of the Narniad books together – references to the life, death and resurrection of Christ, allegories on the Cardinal Virtues or the Deadly Sins, and so on. But while there are certainly many elements of these throughout the Narniad, trying to piece all of them together uniformly under any one design just doesn’t work out.

Ward’s theory is that Lewis built the Narniad in a different way, namely by basing both the poiema (that is, the “feel”) as well as the logos (that is, the actual story) on the elements and attributes associated in the Medieval mind with each of the seven planets of the pre-Coperinican system (that is, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). Ward supports his theory with many, many references to Lewis’s other works (both fictional and non-fictional), to his literary antecedents (particularly his favorites Spencer and Dante) and, of course, to the Bible.

For example, Ward posits that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe represents the “Jupiter” of the Narniad, associated as it is with themes of kingliness. Here’s what Lewis himself had to say about Jupiter:

Jupiter, the King, produces in the earth, rather disappointingly, tin; this shining metal said different things to the imagination before the canning industry came in. The character he produces in men would now be very imperfectly expressed by the word ‘jovial,’ and is not very easy to grasp; it is no longer, like the saturnine character, one of our archetypes. We may say it is Kingly; but we must think of a King at peace, enthroned, taking his leisure, serene. The Jovial character is cheerful, festive, yet temperate, tranquil, magnanimous. When this planet dominates we may expect halcyon days and prosperity. In Dante, wise and just princes to to his sphere when they die. He is the best planet, and is called the Greater Fortune, Fortuna Major.

– From The Discarded Image, Chapter 5.

(Personally, I prefer the adjective “Jovian” to “jovial” – the latter, in my mind, has become too closely associated with mere jollity and merriment, and lacks the power and majesty associated with the true kingliness of Jupiter that Lewis is talking about.)

Ward, by the way, is an Anglican priest and, so far as I can tell, appears to be proof that not all of them have gone insane. Here is a small snippet of what he has to say about Lewis, this theme of Kingliness and Christianity in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe:

[..I]t was Lewis’s belief that ‘the world of Christianity’, no less than the world of fairy-tale, ‘makes the heart and imagination royalist.’ Lewis accepted the scriptural understanding of Christ as ‘the King of kings’ (Rev. 17:14; 19:16) and was of the view, with Hooker, that ‘the universe itself is a constitutional monarchy.’ If he had lived to learn of Philip Pullman’s ‘republic of heaven’ he would not have regarded it as a satisfactory alternative to the traditional monarchical conception of the divine dwelling-place; he would have thought it an imaginative solecism because it is anthropocentric. A ‘republic of heaven,’ presumably with its own elected President, would be a Feuerbachian example of religion as projection, the creation of God in the citizens’ own image.Christianity makes the imagination royalist, in Lewis’s view, because human kings (that is, good kings – things are defined by their perfection) are a reflection at the creaturely level of an aspect of divine nature which naturally attracts respect. ‘Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served: deny it food and it will gobble poison.’ By the nature of their office, elected prime ministers and presidents could not elicit honour in the same manner as kings, Lewis thought, because their status is temporarily meritocratic, not innate or confirmed by religious sanction. However politically desirable a republic might be, it remains unable to compete imaginatively with monarchy because monarchy in principle more completely mirrors the nature of divine authority. One of the great imaginative advantages of the genre of fairy-tale or romance is to allow for the presentation of such a principle. In fairy-tale the author can leave behind the shallows of the ‘realistic’ novel, and it free to show the reader something better than mundane norms. What might it be like if human kings really did exhibit perfect kingship? The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe attempts an answer.

Incidentally, I finally and succinctly realized when reading this passage why I have always been a royalist at heart.

I’m only now making my way through the chapter on Jupiter and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and have yet to reach Ward’s application of his thesis to the other six books, so I don’t know how it will hold up, or indeed whether I even believe it (although I find it perfectly plausible so far). But the combination of subject matter and scholarship is making this a truly wonderful book. As I say, go buy it. Now.

UPDATED ME AGAIN: Since writing this post, I of course did finish the book and am happy to report that the thesis holds up all the way through.

There is some talk from the author in the Telegraph article to the effect that his research will put Lewis on a par with Tolkien as a writer.  It strikes me that this is a very silly comparison to attempt – apples and oranges, so far as I’m concerned.


Mink Monica sent along this nifty photo of my stomping grounds from once upon a time.  I reproduce it for your enjoyment and my own nostalgia.

Alas, poor Yorick! You’ve been cut:

The Royal Shakespeare Company has decided it will no longer use a human skull in its production of Hamlet in case it distracts the audience.

The skull of concert pianist and Holocaust survivor Andrew Tchaikowsky has been used in the famous “Alas, poor Yorick!” scene for the play in Stratford-upon-Avon, which stars David Tennant.

Audiences in Stratford were unaware it was real until Tennant revealed that Mr Tchaikowsky bequeathed his skull to the RSC because it was his dying wish to have it used for Hamlet. The Doctor Who star, who was the first actor to use Mr Tchaikowsky’s skull, will now use a fake one when the production opens in London tonight.

A spokesman for the RSC said now the secret was out it would be “too distracting for the audience”. But Mr Tchaikowsky’s former agent and friend Terry Harrison said he was “disappointed” by the decision and that his client, who died of cancer in 1982, “hated” the use of a plastic skull.

What a nifty idea on the part of Mr. Tchaikowsky and what a shame his skull has to be pulled.  On what basis did the the RSC reach the conclusion that it would be too “distracting”?

As a matter of fact, a commenter to the article nails the larger elephant on the stage:

Surely David Tennant being in Hamlet is more distracting for the audience, as I am sure most are only going to see him.

Perhaps the RSC figures that it simply can’t trust the kind of audience likely to show up just to see a pop culchah star doing Shakespeare.

How about another literary meme? If I’ve done this one before, I’ve forgotten it.  Besides, answers are bound to change as time goes on.

Which book or books are you reading now?

Currently it’s Bruce Catton’s Grant Moves South and the last book of Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music of Time.  The former I’ve read before several times.  The latter is an undiscovered country.

•What is your favourite time to read?

I read on the metro and for about two hours after dinner.  These are not necessarily my favorite times, just the ones available.

•And your favourite place?

The comfy chair in my library. This arrangement is quite deliberate.  I could do without the cat who always crawls into my lap, though.

•Who is your favourite novelist?

Has to be Evelyn Waugh, although I am also quite fond of Robert Graves’ historickal novels and Patrick O’Brian, whose Aubrey/Maturin series comes mighty close to gen-u-ine literature.

•You favourite poem?

I’m not overly fond of poetry and don’t read much of it.  Not because I don’t see its merits, but just because they don’t interest me that much.  If I had to pick some favorite poets, I would go with Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Coleridge and, um, Kipling.

•What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?

Robert Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.  Not only was it dense, it was complete bunkum as well.  I quit after not all that many pages.

On the other hand, I love C.S. Lewis.  His works, too, are extremely difficult, but it is a cleansing difficulty, one with a reward at the end that makes the struggle all the more worthwhile.  My basic trouble with Lewis is that so long as I am reading him, I can more or less follow along with his arguments.  But when I try to repeat such arguments to others?  Well, I sound like one of Jerry’s Kids on a specially bad day.

•What was the first book you remember reading?

I don’t know if they even use them anymore, but I still vaguely recollect reading the old “Dick and Jane” sort of thing back in kindergarten.  By the time I was in second grade, I was buying books by job lot from Scholastic Publishers and don’t remember which was the first I read.

•Do you have a comfort book that you re-read?

Why do you suppose God put Plum Wodehouse on this earth?  I also imitate Queen Victoria, whose favorite train reading, apparently, was E. OE. Somerville and Martin Ross’s collection of Irish R.M. stories.

•What is the most erotic book you’ve read?

I can’t remember the circs, but at some time in the past I’ve dipped into Anaïs Nin (and who hasn’t? Ha, ha).  Also, like every randy teenaged boy, at one point I knew all the hot scenes in Portnoy’s Complaint.  Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?

•Which classic should you have read?

War and Peace.  I know, I know.

•Which book did you never want to end?

I think it’s the mark of any good book that while one wants the story lines to resolve, at the same time one doesn’t.

•What is your most overrated book?

Thoreau’s Walden.  Why would anyone ever have taken that sanctimonious beatnik seriously?

•Which character could you have an affair with?

Virginia Troy from Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy.  She would have been a sparkling dinner companion and a jolly good roll in the hay, without all the snakes-in-the-head complications of other literary bad girls.

•Who is your favourite character?

A difficult call, and it depends on the criteria.  Hero? Villain? Comic relief?  I think, perhaps, that this deserves its own sub-meme.  However, if I have to choose a character who I like the most, I would go with Guy Crouchback, again from Waugh’s Sword of Honor.

•Which character do you most dislike?

Since I seem to be sticking with Waugh, I’ll say Brenda Last from A Handful of Dust.  Somebody in my blog circle compared her once to Pamela Widmerpool, but I really don’t think there’s much between them.  With Pam, there’s no delusion: If you’re a masochist, you’ll be into her.  If not, you can run, not walk to the nearest exit.  But it’s all right out there on the surface.  Caveat emptor.  Brenda is a different kettle of stinky fish, hoodwinking poor old Tony Last and eventually driving him to an undeserved hell in a manner quite beyond his comprehension.

•Which character do you identify with most?

Ah.  Well, perhaps one of the reasons that I like Waugh so much is that I feel a certain affinity with his anti-heroes: Paul Pennifeather, John Boot, Tony Last and Guy Crouchback.  They are all solid, decent chaps caught up in the absurdist whirlwind of the world around them and spun violently about.  Fortunately, most of them land back on their feet.

•Which book changed your life?

Well, he said dodging in expectation of heaved tomatoes, I would think any book worth reading changes one’s life to some extent.  On the other hand, I honestly cannot say that I have read any particular book and said, “Whoa, this changes my fundamental direction!” on any given subject.  I have tried to be very careful in charting my life course and establishing what I believe to be the correct fundamental values.  Perhaps it is because of this caution that I am not susceptable to one-off shots that might otherwise radically alter my outlook on things.   If you want to fundamentally alter my life, you need to send batallions, not single spies.


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December 2008