At A Pilgrim in Narnia we have an occasional feature called “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.
For today’s Throwback Thursday I’m returning to a post I wrote from 2013 after I read C.S. Lewis’ poem, “The Planets,” in my chronological reading of Lewis’ work. Reading this poem began for me a long struggle with Michael Ward’s breathtaking thesis that the seven Narnian chronicles are patterned directly after the seven “stars” of medieval cosmology–a thesis suggested by Ward’s reading of “The Planets.”
I have been wanting to do a blog series follow-up of an article I did for An Unexpected Journal where I lay out what I think is the most substantial critique of Ward’s thesis to have yet emerged, including a more careful consideration of the argument and the testing of its limits–as well as a look at the “Planet Narnia Phenonemon” itself as Ward has won the day in popular and academic opinion (with some resistance). Part of that phenomenon is the relationality of Lewis studies. I have met Michael Ward. He’s a strong critical thinker who believes fully in his argument, and has worked for nearly fifteen years to refine it. Moreover, I like him, and want him to do well. This is an important feature of Lewis studies to think about. Alas, it seems that I will never get this series complete, though I have one or two pieces that may emerge.
I did want to rewrite this blog post, however, which has been viewed 15,000 times and remains the 2nd most popular C.S. Lewis post on A Pilgrim in Narnia. I have also created a resource–a “Planet Narnia Chart”–that I hope will be helpful to devoted fans of Narnia, classroom and college teachers, as well as people who are using Planet Narnia as a study tool. If I had any design capability I would have made it a great infographic; a chart will have to do for now. But I do like charts! (see here, and here, and here, and of course here and here). And I have added a good interpretation of the full suite Holst’s “Planets”–a clear, early influence for Lewis (and John Williams, as Star Wars fans know). And, as in the original, there is a full printing of Lewis’ original poem–published first as a metrical experiment, but clearly a poem of value to understanding Lewis’ love of medieval cosmology as it appears in his fiction.
Click Here for the PDF resource: A Planet Narnia Chart by Brenton Dickieson
It does not take long for a serious reader of C.S. Lewis to realize that he was in love with cosmology—the planets and the stars as they sit within the vast expanse of space. His first popular fiction was science fiction, with characters visiting the planets of Mars and Venus. References to the cosmos fill his poetry, and all the characters in Narnia look up to the heavens at one time or another.
Intriguingly, Lewis doesn’t draw our attention to a scientific understanding of the universe–the chemical composition of Neptune or the distance to the nearest star or the gravitational symmetry of planetary orbits. He would not be very interested in the debate about whether Pluto is a real planet or how to colonize Mars. Lewis’ interest was not in the real science of the skies, but in medieval cosmology—how Europeans in the middle ages understood the “seven heavens.”
In a series of books and lectures that have become quite famous, Michael Ward has suggested a winsome way of reading The Chronicle of Narnia that argues that each of the Narniad matches one of the seven “planets” of the medieval world. Here is how he describes the cosmology:
“The seven planets of the old cosmology included the Sun (Sol) and the Moon (Luna), which we now don’t regard as planets at all. The other five were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter [Jove], and Saturn.”
While Lewis knew that the Earth wasn’t the centre of the universe and that the moon and the sun were not really “planets,” he thought the seven planets of the medieval worldview had important symbolic value. Our seven days of the week are named after the seven planets (e.g., Sunday, Monday, Saturday), and some of our English words still remember the spiritual or symbolic value of the planets as heavenly personalities. Jove (Jupiter) pops up as the word, “jovial,” and captures the nature of Jupiter as a character. Mars in mythology and art is properly “martial” (warlike), and Venus still retains elements of being the goddess of love in our poetry and literature.
It is certainly true that this medieval cosmology informed so much of Lewis’ work. His book, The Discarded Image, is a series of lectures introducing the old cosmology and how the medieval worldview influences literature. His Ransom books, in particular, play with the heavenly characters of the seven heavens, though taking them up in particular ways. In Out of the Silent Planet, it is Earth that is the martial planet, while Mars is the peaceful world. And in Perelandra, Venus is characterized as an Ave-Eva figure, a combination of the Virgin Mary and Eve, birthed in a watery world of beauty and love.
Put briefly, Planet Narnia argues that Lewis intentionally structured the seven Narnian chronicles around the seven planets of medieval cosmology, so that each ‘star’ influenced a particular book in character development, wordplay, symbolic layering, Christological imagery, biblical intertextuality, and central theme. Lewis used medieval cosmology not only for imagistic interest or narrative energy, but carefully structured the Narniad around the seven planets. Moreover, he kept that sophisticated design a secret for his entire life, intentionally cloaking the central organizing feature of the Narniad. My Planet Narnia Chart above is meant to capture that thesis in a brief visual form and work as a resource for reading.
It took me a number of years of thinking and research and reading, but I finally decided to take on Ward’s Narnian thesis. In a piece called “(Re)Considering the Planet Narnia Thesis” in An Unexpected Journal, I argued in two directions.
First, I argue that Ward’s thesis is flawed for a number of reasons. It is limited in that it is a circular argument and effectively non-falsifiable, bound up as it is in what Lewis has hidden from the world. Circularity is not a deadly problem, and if the evidence emerged that supported the theory, the secrecy argument could probably be parsed from the whole–though Michael Ward insists they are linked into the intertextual character of Lewis’ work (and Lewis is a deeply intertextual writer, as I argued in my chapter in Sørina Higgins award-winning volume, The Inklings and King Arthur).
Beyond these problems, however, based on the textual evidence, I argue that Ward has over-read the material. There are indeed links between Narnia and medieval cosmology–perhaps hundreds of them. Because The Chronicles of Narnia are so filled with planetary imagery, critically laid out so well, we can only accept that each book has its own guiding planetary intelligence by reducing that planetary influence in the other books. You can read the details in my article, but the evidence for a one-to-one link between medieval planets and Narnian chronicles is uneven: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is quite profitably read as a book about light (Sol), while The Magician’s Nephew is unconvincing as a venereal book (Venus). Moreover, there are jovial, martial, mercurial, saturnal, lunar, solar, and venereal elements in most of the books.
By pressing each planet into the frame of each book, however, Ward compresses the texts—the text of the medieval model and the text of Narnia—beyond what they can bear.
Second, while I don’t find Ward’s thesis of a secret one-to-one medieval-Narnian relationship to be convincing, I believe that Planet Narnia–bundled with the various lectures series, documentaries, interviews, and the popular book, The Narnia Code–is the single most important resource for reading Narnia that has emerged in our generation–perhaps even since Walter Hooper’s 1979 Past Watchful Dragons and Paul Ford’s 1980 Companion to Narnia (revised in 1994 and 2005). If I can use a pun that Ward would like, Planet Narnia is a “stellar book”: a detailed close reading of Narnia (and the Ransom Trilogy) that enriches our experience of the text.
Moreover, in pushing past Ward’s thesis and allowing all the seven planets to poetically permeate each of the seven chronicles, we will see that Ward is right in his approach: Narnia betrays more sophistication than we might suppose from a children’s book, adding layers of meaning that deepen our understanding of faith and life.
Beyond the particulars of Michael Ward’s thesis, his work really highlights how rooted Lewis was in medieval cosmology. As I was reading through Lewis’ work chronologically in 2013, I came across his 1935 poem, “The Planets.” It was this poem that first suggested Ward’s Narnia Code. He describes this process in his podcast with William O’Flaherty and Holly Ordway:
“I was lying in bed in 2003, I think it was, when I was halfway through my PhD on Lewis’ theological imagination. And I was reading a long poem that Lewis wrote about the seven heavens—it’s simply called “The Planets”—and when I got to the lines about Jupiter in this poem, I did a double take because the seven heavens, according to medieval thought, had a set of qualities and influences that were felt on Earth. And one of Jupiter’s influences was this, according to the poem, that Jupiter brought about “Winter past and guilt forgiven.” … That was the loose thread, you might say, that I tugged on, and which, when tugged upon, unravelled and revealed the whole tapestry, I believe, that Lewis was weaving in his construction of the Narnian chronicles.”
Whether or not Ward is correct about how specifically Lewis shaped the Narniad according to this system–I may be wrong, after all–the old cosmology certainly informed all of his work. For Narnian fans, I thought it would be helpful to post the entire poem that first stuck in Ward’s brain and created such a generative reading of Narnia. “The Planets” appears in several collections, but in the first publication, Lewis is trying to create a renaissance of a certain approach to writing poetry, namely the Alliterative Metre. The poem, which itself has no stanzas as other online editions suggest, and has each the seven planets capitalized, illustrates the power of the seven heavens in Lewis’ imagination. But Lewis’ introduction to the poem may also be helpful to us:
“In order to avoid misunderstanding I must say that the subject of the following poem was not chosen under the influence of any antiquarian fancy that a medieval metre demanded medieval matter, but because the characters of the planets, as conceived by medieval astrology, seem to me to have a permanent value as spiritual symbols…” (“The Alliterative Metre,” in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper. Cambridge University Press, 1969, 23-24).
It is that “permanent value as spiritual symbols” that interests me most and caused Michael Ward to dedicate his life to teaching us about the organic nature of Lewis’ work. Lewis’ claim to the “permanent value” of the planets “as spiritual symbols” drives us back to Lewis’ WWII-era Ransom Cycle to see how he used the old cosmology. But it also means that we must consider Ward’s thesis.
Whatever else is true, it is certain that Lewis was guided by a planetary understanding that science has long since rejected, but which we still feel even into our own age. Here is the entire poem, followed by an interpretation of Holst’s WWI-era suite, “The Planets.”
Lady LUNA, in light canoe,
By friths and shallows of fretted cloudland
Cruises monthly; with chrism of dews
And drench of dream, a drizzling glamour,
Enchants us–the cheat! changing sometime
A mind to madness, melancholy pale,
Bleached with gazing on her blank count’nance
Orb’d and ageless. In earth’s bosom
The shower of her rays, sharp-feathered light
Reaching downward, ripens silver,
Forming and fashioning female brightness,
–Metal maidenlike. Her moist circle
Is nearest earth. Next beyond her
MERCURY marches;–madcap rover,
Patron of pilf’rers. Pert quicksilver
His gaze begets, goblin mineral,
Merry multitude of meeting selves,
Same but sundered. From the soul’s darkness,
With wreathed wand, words he marshals,
Guides and gathers them–gay bellwether
Of flocking fancies. His flint has struck
The spark of speech from spirit’s tinder,
Lord of language! He leads forever
The spangle and splendour, sport that mingles
Sound with senses, in subtle pattern,
Words in wedlock, and wedding also
Of thing with thought. In the third region
VENUS voyages…but my voice falters;
Rude rime-making wrongs her beauty,
Whose breasts and brow, and her breath’s sweetness
Bewitch the worlds. Wide-spread the reign
Of her secret sceptre, in the sea’s caverns,
In grass growing, and grain bursting,
Flower unfolding, and flesh longing,
And shower falling sharp in April.
The metal copper in the mine reddens
With muffled brightness, like muted gold,
By her fingers form’d. Far beyond her
The heaven’s highway hums and trembles,
Drums and dindles, to the driv’n thunder
Of SOL’s chariot, whose sword of light
Hurts and humbles; beheld only
Of eagle’s eye. When his arrow glances
Through mortal mind, mists are parted
And mild as morning the mellow wisdom
Breathes o’er the breast, broadening eastward
Clear and cloudless. In a clos’d garden
(Unbound her burden) his beams foster
Soul in secret, where the soil puts forth
Paradisal palm, and pure fountains
Turn and re-temper, touching coolly
The uncomely common to cordial gold;
Whose ore also, in earth’s matrix,
Is print and pressure of his proud signet
On the wax of the world. He is the worshipp’d male,
The earth’s husband, all-beholding,
Arch-chemic eye. But other country
Dark with discord dins beyond him,
With noise of nakers, neighing of horses,
Hammering of harness. A haughty god
MARS mercenary, makes there his camp
And flies his flag; flaunts laughingly
The graceless beauty, grey-eyed and keen,
Blond insolence – of his blithe visage
Which is hard and happy. He hews the act,
The indifferent deed with dint of his mallet
And his chisel of choice; achievement comes not
Unhelped by him – hired gladiator
Of evil and good. All’s one to Mars,
The wrong righted, rescued meekness,
Or trouble in trenches, with trees splintered
And birds banished, banks fill’d with gold
And the liar made lord. Like handiwork
He offers to all – earns his wages
And whistles the while. White-feathered dread
Mars has mastered. His metal’s iron
That was hammered through hands into holy cross,
Cruel carpentry. He is cold and strong,
Necessity’s song. Soft breathes the air
Mild, and meadowy, as we mount further
Where rippled radiance rolls about us
Moved with music – measureless the waves’
Joy and jubilee. It is JOVE’s orbit,
Filled and festal, faster turning
With arc ampler. From the Isles of Tin
Tyrian traders, in trouble steering
Came with his cargoes; the Cornish treasure
That his ray ripens. Of wrath ended
And woes mended, of winter passed
And guilt forgiven, and good fortune
Jove is master; and of jocund revel,
Laughter of ladies. The lion-hearted,
The myriad-minded, men like the gods,
Helps and heroes, helms of nations
Just and gentle, are Jove’s children,
Work his wonders. On his white forehead
Calm and kingly, no care darkens
Nor wrath wrinkles: but righteous power
And leisure and largess their loose splendours
Have wrapped around him – a rich mantle
Of ease and empire. Up far beyond
Goes SATURN silent in the seventh region,
The skirts of the sky. Scant grows the light,
Sickly, uncertain (the Sun’s finger
Daunted with darkness). Distance hurts us,
And the vault severe of vast silence;
Where fancy fails us, and fair language,
And love leaves us, and light fails us
And Mars fails us, and the mirth of Jove
Is as tin tinkling. In tattered garment,
Weak with winters, he walks forever
A weary way, wide round the heav’n,
Stoop’d and stumbling, with staff groping,
The lord of lead. He is the last planet
Old and ugly. His eye fathers
Pale pestilence, pain of envy,
Remorse and murder. Melancholy drink
(For bane or blessing) of bitter wisdom
He pours out for his people, a perilous draught
That the lip loves not. We leave all things
To reach the rim of the round welkin,
Heaven’s heritage, high and lonely.
C.S. Lewis, “The Planets”, in the essay “The Alliterative Metre,” Lysistrata 2 (May 1935). Reprinted in Poems and Selected Literary Essays, both edited by Walter Hooper, and C. S. Lewis Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, edited by Lesley Walmsley and available in non-American settings.
The original has metrical notes and no stanzas, and capitalizes the planets as we first meet them (e.g., Lady LUNA, VENUS voyages, etc.).