“(Re)Considering the Planet Narnia Thesis”: My Article in An Unexpected Journal

Popular readers of C.S. Lewis and A Pilgrim in Narnia may be surprised that I have not been won over by Michael Ward’s thesis in Planet Narnia. It is an elegant, sophisticated, symmetrical, and well-argued idea about how C.S. Lewis constructed The Chronicles of Narnia. It is also, I think, one of the most important resources we have for reading Narnia.

I just happen to think his thesis is wrong.

Readers are often puzzled by my response as they are obviously won over by the beautiful synchronicity of Ward’s argument. “How can you not believe this?” I am asked when people find out that I don’t believe Michael’s argument in The Narnia Code and Planet Narnia. Often enough, people are baffled. One person cried, though people are usually more curious than anything else.

It is true, I am not won over. I have not voiced abroad my concerns about the work, but neither have I kept it as a secret. The academic world of Lewis studies, which is pretty small and supportive, has apparently picked up my thoughts. When they wanted to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Planet Narnia, the editors of An Unexpected Journal reached out to me for a response to the book. Most of the articles in celebration volume are laudatory (as one would hope), and they wanted a counterpoint from someone who was not won over.

Now, there are plenty of reasons why I should not write such an article.

First, the Lewis studies world is tiny. By example, I was having dinner with Michael Ward in Oxford just a few hours after I polished off my rough draft of the article. It was a good dinner and we were part of a good discussion afterward. I am friends with his friends. I like the work he does and the contribution he has made. Why would I take him on?

Second, An Unexpected Journal has an interesting core design. Here is the first line of their About page:

An Unexpected Journal is the endeavor of a merry band of Houston Baptist University Master of Arts in Apologetics students and alumni.

If you take a look at the last few editions, they have done some pretty interesting things. They have taken literature, pop culture, and theology and elevated the student conversation beyond a blog collective to an engaging e-zine. Well done.

But notice who teaches in the MA program at HBU?

That’s right, this guy: Michael Ward. The AUJ editors (and many of the readers) are students of Prof. Ward.

Third, I don’t want to take time in my life to be a controversialist. I don’t have time, frankly. And I don’t like the feeling of controversy. It eats at my mind. I worry about it. The disagreement sits in my gut. There are loads of wonderful fans of Michael’s books, films, classes, and podcasts who have been transformed by his work. The idea of disappointing them–or looking like I’m trying to slay their friend and master–sits poorly with me.

Moreover, as an emerging scholar, my choice to take on a leading light in the field is a bit peculiar. Asking for trouble is not wise.

So why did I do this thing? My reasons are weak but numerous.

First, frankly, I was won over by the title of the collective project, An Unexpected Journal. Very cool, and I have thought of submitting something for some time. I imagined it would be an Inklings inspired poem or speculation, but they approached me about the PN celebration edition.

Second, I am not being sardonic or falsely gracious when I say that Planet Narnia is an essential reading resource for Narnia. Not just Narnia, actually. I think it is even more valuable as a resource for the Ransom Cycle. I hope, actually, to someday teach a high school semester of English using The Narnia Code and the Chronicles. Planet Narnia has helped me clarify my thoughts about C.S. Lewis’ work and helped me root myself more deeply into the soil of Lewis’ imagination. In short, Michael’s work has helped me read closely and can help others to do the same.

So in writing, I am not just honouring Michael’s work, but suggesting where we can move forward with it. I think there is a better way to read Michael’s “data”–a better way to put the text of Narnia in conversation with the medieval world that gives light and colour to much of the work.

Third, I had already organized a series of blog posts for January and February 2019 where I break down the different parts of the argument. Basically, I had the article written when the request came in. An Unexpected Journal showed up and gave me a chance to publish a 4000-word argument in a single article. Then I can use my blog to attend to various parts of the thesis, hopefully in conversation with the other contributors and readers.

So this article works well to launch a Considering the Planet Narnia Series. In 2019, I will be dealing with questions like:

  • What is the Planet Narnia Thesis and Why is it Important?
  • What do we do with the Planet Narnia conspiracy theory?
  • Why I think C.S. Lewis would have rejected the Planet Narnia Thesis?
  • What is a better way to read Planet Narnia‘s main argument?
  • With all the fans, why has so little academic attention been paid to the Planet Narnia Thesis?
  • Am I Just Resistant to New Ideas? (i.e., am I just a jerk?)

Then I will open the blog to you, dear readers, so you can show me why I am still wrong.

Because of interest, partnership, helpfulness, and the hope to honour in disagreement–these are the reasons I took on this task. Meanwhile, I hope that you will look at the 2018 Advent edition of An Unexpected Journal, where you will see some guest bloggers to A Pilgrim in Narnia, as well as authors we’ve discussed here. Perhaps you can even turn the digital page to my own article, “(Re)Considering the Planet Narnia Thesis.” Perceptive readers of Planet Narnia will see some puns that I’ve hidden throughout the piece, including the title. I hope you enjoy, and maybe I’ll win a few over to my dark side. Even if I don’t, I do hope that I help people in critically considering how we read, how we do research, and the way we deepen our reading of a classic text.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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34 Responses to “(Re)Considering the Planet Narnia Thesis”: My Article in An Unexpected Journal

  1. frank4man says:

    Once I attended a lecture by Gary Friesen (who used to teach at Multnomah and now works in a seminary in Kigali, Rwanda. He disagreed with the thesis also and pointed out several dozen contradicting examples.

    Like

  2. meldenius says:

    Over drinks in Oxford not terribly long ago, I surprised Michael Ward with the news that I was not convinced. Genuine surprise on his part. Such a great guy, and such a great book. But, like you, I have reservations. This is not to say I cannot be convinced. But … I’m not there. Eager to read your thoughts on this.

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    • Great, I’d love your feedback. When I told Michael he was mostly pleased to see it was getting some critical pushback. A short essay can’t do it all but might do a bit.

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      • meldenius says:

        Having now read the article, I appreciate the respect you offer Ward as a deserving scholar who has done some vastly intriguing and fascinating work. A few rapid reactions: I’ve felt, as you stated, that Lewis’s fiction is crafted from the vast storehouse of his prodigious memory and reading, sometimes unconsciously, other times deliberately. But when he is deliberate, he is not shy of telling us about it. On that note, if he had been intentional in a planetary design, he would have said so (to my thinking). While notorious in not citing sources he expects us to recognize, Lewis was asked endlessly about Narnia. Surely a plan for its design would have slipped out? It seems the sort of thing he would have been delighted, rather than reluctant, to mention. In the final analysis, as a critic myself, I find Ward’s thesis endlessly fascinating and a wonderful model that helps the reader connect with the astonishing depth of Lewis’ creative “well.”

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        • Thanks for the nice note. I think Lewis -did- tell us what Narnia was about, what its design was. He said it was about Christ. I think the medieval element in the many literary worlds of Narnia is pretty strong. I’m glad Michael wrote the book too.

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  3. Carla says:

    Mr. Dickieson,

    Thank you so much for contributing to the celebration. I really enjoyed your article.

    And half the fun of HBU’s MAA, and the classes, and even the putting out the journal issues are the disagreements (ask Ryan about the ellipses. 😉 ) The program is lead by Catholic professors at a Baptist university and was launched by an Orthodox. We know how to disagree well and often.

    I hope you do contribute again. The dystopian issue in the Fall 2019 should be a lot of fun..

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    • Thanks for the note, Carla. I have thought about the Catholic-Baptist thing, but it seems to work well. I’ll have to think about the dystopian issue. It’s always tempting to me. C.S. Lewis’ first narrative poem, Dymer, was dystopian.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Yes, yes (if you had time), it would be jolly to see some thoughts on Dystopian Dymer! (And, probably not ‘Deestopian Deemer’…)

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        • nice play on assonance!

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          It suddenly struck me to ponder the extent to which Lewis’s published-fictional-narrative life not only began with Dystopian Dymer, but largely ended with assorted Narnian dystopias following on after the incipiently dystopian That Hideous Strength. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe begins ‘in medias res’ like crazy in a dystopia in Narnia, while, skipping down the Narnian generations, another is encountered in the north in The Silver Chair, while in the flashback or prequel of The Magician’s Nephew the prequel dystopia of Charn is encountered – and Jadis’ dystopian aspirations for Earth and Narnia in turn. Then, further down the Narnian ages, the Tashlanic dystopia of The Last Battle. Am I missing any? – which is to ask, how do ‘mere tyrants’ relate to dystopian overlords? I am thinking of the Telmarines in Prince Caspian, the pirates in The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ (and, a nice twist, the Dufflepuds’ perception of their situation), and the not-simply-‘mere’ cosmological empire of Calormen in The Horse and His Boy before it has reached the stage of The Last Battle. Interesting again, that Lewis then turns to a little earthly kingdom and a study of its monarch in Till We Have Faces, and, presumably, in aspiration, the ‘heroic age’ Mediterranean kingdoms know especially from Homer in Ten Years After. But, in how far do the character studies of the principle characters from the beginnig and end of that narrative career – in Dymer and Till We have Faces – also invite comparative consideration?

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Another interesting line of exploration here is the relation of the rather Gnostic mythologizing in Spirits in Bondage to the dystopian – in how far are Gnostic, including Marcionic and Manichean, speculations a kind of ‘cosmic dystopianism’, and how is that corrected and varied notably in the working out of orthodox (kako-)demonology as ‘Lowerarchy’ in the (Ransom-translated – ?!) Screwtape Letters?

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I suppose it has not infrequently been observed (but no specific examples spring to mind) how the Pevensies evacuated from the dangers of the attack of the dystopian Nazis – in the time of the pretty full-blooded Nazi-Soviet cooperation – on London in still-free Britain, end up stepping into the heart of a successful dystopian regime of long standing, where the physical – but even more the spiritual dangers – are suddenly much closer. (Would Edmund be as likely to develop Nazi sympathies as he is to fall for the White Witch’s guiles? Was there ever a moment when Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist Communism was less likely to appeal to school-age English folk like the Pevensies than during the Nazi-Soviet Non-Agression Pact?)

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  4. Janet Brennan Croft says:

    I look forward to reading this! I find Planet Narnia mostly convincing — but then I am well aware of my own susceptibility to tidiness and I view the times when things like this go *click* in my own mind with suspicion. Perhaps I’d be more comfortable thinking of it like the very Discarded Image Lewis wrote about: pleasing it its symmetry, an interesting way to organize the information, leads me to realize new insights, but not necessarily the only or best or even correct way to read the Chronicles. That said, I still often insist that people writing on Lewis need to reference it.

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    • Thanks Janet, yes, that’s what I love about the book, “pleasing it its symmetry.” And he is certainly right that Discarded Image and its worldview is behind Narnia! Ward should be on most Narnia (and many Ransom) biblios.

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  5. Bookstooge says:

    “The disagreement sits in my gut”

    I sympathize deeply with you on that. I know that feeling all too well. I hope it doesn’t become too bad for you.

    I am interested in the upcoming blog posts. While I’ll probably never read the book you’re going to be discussing (my nonfiction is 1-2 a year tops), I like the idea and am looking forward to what you have to write. Even if I don’t comment on them 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is a video if you can find it, and William O’Flaherty’s All About Jack podcast has a dozen episodes that cover it well. It’s fun to follow it through.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        As a slow reader, I would recommend nibbling away at it, which I finally did – also, it is well indexed, for (targeted) browsing (e.g., since he discusses lots of poetry, and, as you say, Ransom-cycle works, too).

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, and you can buy the kindle or epub. I bought the epub and then the company I bought it from disappeared! But I found another copy. I also have the PDF of the original thesis from his PhD, which is text searchable and a little more boring.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Wow! I wondered how different the dissertation was: the book is (to my thinking) packed with riches but enjoyably readable.

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  6. L.A. Smith says:

    How interesting! You’ve opened up a whole bunch of reading for me. I’ve never heard of Planet Narnia so I’m interested to read the blog and related materials. And very interested to hear your take on it. It’s not easy to be a dissenting voice. Thank you for providing that needed contrast, the sober second thought.

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  7. Fascinating stuff, Brenton, and I look forward to reading more. I enjoyed Planet Narnia very much but, as with all theses, they improve with a challenge.

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  8. Lori says:

    CANNOT wait to read more! 🤓💃

    Liked by 1 person

  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    So, the whole issue of The Unexpected Journal is available to read online (?) – for a limited time, or…? Anyway, I clicked up your paper with ease…

    So, now, I’m ooking forward to tackling your paper, soon, and to the blog series. I was afraid Michael Ward had independently come up with and superseded all my – basically unpublished – ideas about Narnia as science fiction, but, having read Planet Narnia, I think our ideas are complementary.

    “I think Lewis -did- tell us what Narnia was about, what its design was. He said it was about Christ.” And, as such, that is how I think the Planet Narnia thesis (as I understand it) can work science-fictionally…

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    • Oh, I think it is permanently free (open-source), tho for a few shekels you can get it printed on demand.
      PN as science fiction! Interesting. So you anticipated the theory?

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Nope, but encountering the theory got me thinking better in detail how Narnia may interrelate with the Ransom cycle, and how unallegorical it is, and how unproblematic some posited problems (like, ‘Eeuw, who is Aslan’s mother?!’) probably are.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Narnia is about the choice between good and evil, about grace, redemption and spiritual development. It is about the conflict between spirituality and modernist false consciousness.

    When people try to intellectualize CS Lewis or imply he was playing clever games they are missing the point. Narnia came from Lewis’ unconscious and from his experiences of exploration of very real spiritual realities that are present for children but are usually hidden from adults due to their tarnished hearts. Both Tolkien and Lewis were experienced travelers in realms of experience that are beyond conscious awareness to most people.

    It will beyond most people to benefit because we now live in a very shallow minded and superficial era, but those with a working mind and a reasonably clean heart could learn a lot about this type of exploration by reading Tolkien’s ‘Smith of Wootton Major’.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I think this is a false dichotomy – to vary the famous saying, Lewis’s and Tolkien’s fictional work involve both ‘inspiration’ and ‘perspiration’ (though I would not venture to say anything about the percentages involved). Does not Lewis say as much himself in various things he wrote about the writing of Narnia – perhaps especially in ‘Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said’ (New York Times Book Review, 18 November 1956)? And could not all of his great literary critical and historical work – The Allegory of Love, A Preface to Paradise Lost, The Discarded Image, and numerous essays, including the classic ‘What Chaucer really did to Il Filostrato’ (1932) and ‘Neoplatonism in the poetry of Spenser’ (1961) – be said to be concerned with how great Christian writers used their intellects as well as their imaginations and the ‘games’ they cleverly ‘played’ in doing so?

      With respect to ‘games’ I thoroughly enjoyed Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1938: English translations 1949 (UK), 1955 (US) ). And I especially enjoyed the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ chapter of The Hobbit even more, after having read this! (See its Wikipedia article for a link to the 1949 translation online, though I think the original would be worth learning Dutch to read, all by itself.)

      Liked by 1 person

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