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Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...

 

Go read: Planet Narnia

There is a verse in Proverbs that says it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out. Well, since all creators of books are made in the image of a creative God, I think its safe to say that sometimes it is the glory of an author to weave a mystery in the symbols of his story. There is in some books, a unity, a power of image, a spiritual atmosphere that cannot easily be described, yet drives the wonder of the story. I believe it is the glory of a thoughtful, engaged reader or scholar, to seek out the secret that gives that unforgettable flavor of wonder to some of the world's best stories. This is just what Michael Ward has done in Planet Narnia. He takes C.S. Lewis' famous Chronicles of Narnia and asks what ought to be an obvious question for so popular a series. What is the unifying theme of the Narnia books? Is it an allegory of the life of Christ? Is it the tale of the world from Genesis to Revelation? Why are there so many disparate elements of myth or legend in the series? Why a very modern Father Christmas in one, with centaurs in another, and a sort of Poseidon river god in the next? Lewis was a first rate, Oxford-trained scholar of literary and classical history. He was far too thorough a master of mythology to carelessly mishmash Greek gods with modern fairy tales with Celtic legends and biblical symbols. So what was the theme behind his books, the deep sense of beauty and even unity that has drawn generations of readers, despite the random appearance of giants and dwarves, talking stars, and heroic fauns?

The answer is planets, according to Michael Ward. Planet Narnia claims that Lewis based each book on one of the seven planets or "heavens" in the medieval model of the cosmos. Lewis was professor of medieval literature at Oxford, and was a lifelong lover and teacher of medieval thought and literature. He thought the medieval view of the heavens and their influence upon the earth was quite beautiful. Before Copernicus and others dismantled the idea of an earth centered universe, the cosmos was seen as a living place where stars cried glory. Seven planets held sway over the earth in different seasons and times, stars shed their laughter over people and times. Each planet was a symbol, a personed force (often based the gods of Greek and Roman mythology), with a distinct spiritual atmosphere. (I'll stop here as I'm not yet articulate enough to tell it all right... but I will be soon!) Lewis saw this model of the universe, this idea of the heavens as full of stars and planets singing the glory of God as a deeply Christian one, while also aesthetically satisfying to the soul.  As an accomplished academic, a lover of mysteries and medieval thought, and quite a secretive man when he wanted to be, why wouldn't Lewis base his series of children's literature on one of his favorite subjects of study? Why not leave it as a mystery for future readers to discover?

Regardless whether you agree or not,  you will find Planet Narnia a lively discussion of Lewis' work. And if, like me, you hunger to understand literature and it's study, to grasp how great stories are formed, you'll find it a fun, but educational glimpse into literary scholarship and criticism. You'll find offshoots of spiritual discussion, philosophy, and history that add to the worth of this book. Another excellent reason to read this book is if you want to understand the depth of creativity present in any good story. The more I study, the more I am convinced that no great work of literature, especially of the fantasy or fairy tale sort, springs into being intact just from the brain of its author. Lewis and Tolkien were both great scholars, and their famous works of story are filled with evidence of their study into ancient culture, myths, and legends. Some scenes in The Two Towers are meant to directly recall Beowulf to the savvy reader. Tolkien's language was based on his study of Old English and Norse. MacDonald wove Celtic themes into his tales, Merlin appears in one of Lewis' fantasies. As a writer, I am learning to understand that every story I read, every book I study, every myth and legend I find, adds texture, depth, and subtlety to the stories I will someday create. Joel has discussed this with me when it comes to music - as he studies the structures of melody and harmony wrought by great composers, his own capacity for creation gains depth and intricacy.

So. Read Planet Narnia and decide for or against the planet theory yourself. My brother, Joel, gave me this book for Christmas two years ago, and it has been in my to-read stack ever since. It's a thick book, and the sort of learned tome that many readers will need to experience with the occasional help of a dictionary. The Rabbit Room posted a review and video with the author which caused me to set it as next in line on my stack. I am now two chapters in and thoroughly captivated. I am also inclined to agree with the author's claim, especially since the medieval planetary theme is so much part of Lewis "adult fairy tale" That Hideous Strength. (A surpassingly strange book, but one of my favorites. If any of you have read it, I'd love your impressions.) This is probably a very bookwormish post, but I'm assuming most of you are bookworms too. All that to say. Ah, the glory of great books and ah, the glory of newly discovered mysteries, and ah the wondrous fun of being a reader!

(Oh, and if you like, you can visit Michael Ward's official site here. If you have questions, you'll probably find quite a few answers there.)