Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Narnia Code

We have reported news that the material in Michael Ward's book Planet Narnia is being made into a movie. There's now a website about the video, with a link to Youtube so you can see a trailer. The website is: http://www.narniacode.com/ . We don't yet know when this will be available for the public, but we'll keep you posted.

1 comment:

Devin Brown said...

A Review of Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia

Let’s say that with the coming release of the second Narnia film, you decide to read or reread Prince Caspian. You get to the scene in chapter ten where Trumpkin and the four children are asleep beside the fire, and Lucy wakes to hear a voice calling her name. Lewis’s narrator makes a point of telling us, “She was looking straight up at the Narnian moon, which is larger than ours.” As you come across these two seemingly random details about Lucy and the size of the Narnian moon, you might briefly pause and wonder why Lewis chose to include them.

Later, in chapter fifteen, after the great victory feast, everyone again nods off by the fire, and we find another somewhat odd inclusion: “But all night Aslan and the Moon gazed upon each other with joyful and unblinking eyes.”

At this point you might wonder whether Lewis just threw in these two sets of images haphazardly or if he intended to give Prince Caspian a special association with the moon. If you favored the second explanation, you would be thinking along somewhat the same lines as Lewis expert, Michael Ward, but with a major difference.

In his book Planet Narnia and at his website planetnarnia.com, Ward argues that C. S. Lewis deliberately based each of the seven Chronicles of Narnia on the imagery (or characteristics) of a different one of the seven medieval planets: Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn. One difficulty is that Ward disregards these two prominent moon images in Prince Caspian. For him, The Silver Chair is the Chronicle which Lewis gave a special association with the moon.

All right, you say—despite these two prominent moon images, Prince Caspian is not associated with the moon. You continue reading and get to chapter eleven where Aslan returns to Narnia with the two most jovial characters in all of literature—Bacchus and Silenus. Their appearance leads to a huge romp that goes on for three pages and then starts up again in chapter fourteen where it goes on for another eight pages. And so, you might speculate, given all this joviality, maybe it was Jupiter that Lewis wanted to associate Prince Caspian with.

Wrong again. Ward argues that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the book that Lewis associated with Jupiter, and as part of his evidence points to Father Christmas—“the Jovial character par excellence”—who appears there for three pages.

So, according to Ward, which of the seven heavens is Prince Caspian associated with?

Ward claims that Lewis used characteristics from the planet Mars to guide his writing of Prince Caspian, and as evidence points to the military theme which appears at various times in the story. But, you might wonder, isn’t there a military theme in other Chronicles? And aren’t many of the chapters in Prince Caspian not very martial but rather quite pastoral?

The answer is yes to both questions. And here lies the first main problem with Michael Ward’s thesis: planet-related imagery does not stay rooted in its “home” book, but appears scattered randomly in all seven Chronicles. For every image that fits Ward’s scheme, we can find one that does not. Ward proposes his Planet Narnia system as a solution to what he calls the “hodge-podge” of Narnia, but in fact, his hunt for planet imagery only proves the series to be even more hodge-podge than previously thought.

It should be noted Michael Ward is one of the world’s best Lewis scholars, and a very fine writer to boot, and that his description of Lewis’s works itself is easily worth the price of the book. It should also be pointed out that Ward himself graciously acknowledges that imagery from any planet may appear in any book—not just in the one his theory says it should be in. He admits that Lewis “was unlikely to have been perfectly successful” in carrying out his secret plan. Ward’s argument then is one of degree, that while in each of the stories there will be characteristics from other planets, there is always one certain planet that will dominate so that its imagery is “pervasive and governing.”

For this claim to be convincing, however, Ward must do more than anecdotally choose certain images to mention (and certain ones to ignore). To prove that one planet’s imagery is pervasive or governing in any given book, he must first define what it would take for us to declare this and then provide some sort of quantitative evidence. In the end he might tell us that, for example, 59 percent of the imagery in a certain book can be associated with one of the medieval planets.

If the first problem with Ward’s thesis is the jumble of planet images that appear in each book, the second problem is deciding what counts as a planet image. For example, under Jupiter images, we find the expected association with kingliness (which, by the way, seems to be at least as present in Prince Caspian as in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). But Ward also insists that the passing of winter, festal garments, lions, revels, justness, gentleness, long fur coats, and minotaurs must be associated with the planet Jupiter and no other. Ward finds ways to use Lewis’s other writings to make these connections, but even with the references he provides, many of his associations may seem farfetched to some. For example, oak trees are connected with Jupiter, but tree imagery in general is connected with Mars (as are woodpeckers, horses, and, believe it or not, Edmund’s flashlight).

There is a third and final problem with Ward’s argument. Even if we accept his premise, for many readers it may not pass the “So what?” test. So what if Lewis used mostly Jupiter imagery in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Does it make any difference in our enjoyment? Does it change our understanding of the story? Does it change the role that the Narnia stories have played and continue to play in our lives? For many readers the answers may be no, no, and no.

Now that Ward has boldly claimed to be the one person on earth to have realized “the secret, governing imaginative scheme underlying the Narnia Chronicles,” we may expect other scholars to come forward with their own claims of having discovered the hidden secret to Narnia. Perhaps someone will attempt to show that the color white was Lewis’s clandestine governing scheme in the first Narnia book.

Someone else may point out the wardrobe, the war in England, Narnia’s winter, the woods, the great wolf, the White Witch, her wand, and the Wooses, Wraiths, and White Stag, and claim that the first Chronicle is secretly dominated by the letter W. No matter that we can find other colors and letters in the first book—in particular the color red and the letter L. No matter that white and W’s both appear throughout the other volumes.

These two imaginary proposals of Color Scheme Narnia and Alphabet Narnia do not justice to Michael Ward’s thoughtful and carefully detailed look at Lewis’s imagery. But, for those who remain unconvinced of his premise, they may not seem any less plausible.

In a recent interview, Lewis’ stepson Douglas Gresham stated, “A very nice man and a friend of mine, Michael Ward, has recently written and published a book all about how Narnian Chronicles are all based on the seven planets of the medieval astronomical system. I like Michael enormously, but I think his book is nonsense.” Gresham further suggested, “People do go out of their way to try to find all kinds of hidden meanings. We seem to be a species that loves conspiracy theories.”

As more people have a chance to carefully examine the arguments put forward in Planet Narnia, it will be interesting to see whether more of them will agree with Gresham or with Ward.

--Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and a Professor of English at Asbury College, where he teaches a class on C. S. Lewis. He is the author of Inside Narnia (Baker 2005) and Inside Prince Caspian (Baker 2008). This summer he will serve as Scholar-in-Residence at The Kilns, Lewis’s home in Oxford. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky with his wife Sharon and Mr. Fluff, their 15-pound cat.