Written by Karl Johnson

Karl Johnson

Founder

Karl Johnson received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Cornell University. Karl previously served as the Dan Tillemans Director of the Cornell Team and Leadership Center, a division of Cornell Outdoor Education. Karl was recognized as a 1999 Academy of Leisure Sciences Future Scholar and has received several writing awards, including the 2014 Literary Award of the Christian Society of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies. His interests include human relations with the natural landscape, from wilderness to urban environs. Karl currently serves as Chief Strategist for The Octet Collaborative, the center for Christian study at MIT.  Beginning in January 2021, he will serve as the Director of the Consortium for Christian Study Centers.

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Apr 23, 2008

C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are among the best selling books ever. With over 100 million copies sold, what new could possibly be said about them?

In his recent book Planet Narnia, Lewis scholar Michael Ward makes the seemingly preposterous claim that “Lewis secretly based the Chronicles of Narnia on the seven heavens of the medieval cosmos.” Ward offers a concise essay on the theme in the January/February issue of Books and Culture entitled “C.S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem.” His thesis, simply put, is that each of the volumes in the Narnia series corresponds to the seven “planets” of the medieval cosmos–Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. And that this symbolic correspondence, everywhere present but nowhere explicit, determines the cosmological and Christological significance of each volume.

According to Alan Jacobs, author of The Narnian, such a claim causes the sensible reader to erect “a castle of scepticism.” Or, as Tom Shippey put it in his review (“Planetary Influences”): “If the ‘Narniad’ has had a hundred million readers . . . what are the odds on the hundred-million-and-first suddenly stumbling on the truth?”

Does Ward pull it off? Against all odds, the emerging consensus seems to be yes.

“My own castle [of skepticism],” Jacobs writes “was gradually but utterly demolished as I read this thoughtful, scholarly, and vividly-written book.” Likewise, Shippey concludes that “This is an outstanding guide not only to Narnia but also to Lewis’ thinking as a whole, and to the ‘genial’ medieval worldview which Lewis so much loved and wished to restore, not in fact but through fantasy.” Others are no less effusive. Eric Metaxas calls it “mind-blowing” and “one of the most spectacular literary discoveries of our time.” Prolific Lewis scholar Walter Hooper contributes this blurb: “I cannot contain my admiration. No other book on Lewis has ever shown such comprehensive knowledge of his works and such depth of insight. This will make Michael Ward’s name.”

The question that is implicit in all of this, of course, is “Who cares?” Beyond the intrigue, what is the significance of it all? According to Ward, the theory makes explicit the “atmosphere” of the books, which readers have always felt, albeit unconsciously. Like all good criticism, then, it contributes to a fuller reading of the books–something Lewis himself surely would have appreciated. More than that, however, the theory reminds us that there is merit in traveling to other “mental universes.” That is why even New York Times columnist David Brooks weighs in on the matter. “We tend to see economics and politics as the source of human motives,” Brooks writes, “and then explain spirituality as their byproduct. But in the Middle Ages, faith came first. The symbols, processions and services were vividly alive” (“The Great Escape”).

Brooks is right to make a connection between Lewis and British aesthetician John Ruskin; both were anti-modernists. Anti-modern maneuvers, including the Arts and Crafts Movement associated with Ruskin and Morris, Chesterton’s fascination with fairy tales, and Lewis’ “astrology,” were common in the late 19th and early 20th century–a time when science (among other factors) induced a credibility crisis among persons of faith. These maneuvers were not a rejection of science, but they were a rejection of scientism–of the disenchantment that came with a purely materialistic or naturalistic way of seeing and experiencing the world. Although the science-faith dialogue has improved considerably in recent years (a few vocal critics such as Dawkins notwithstanding, few scientists or religionists now consider the tired metaphor of “warfare” a helpful characterization of the relation of science and faith), disenchantment with the world remains a problem. Brooks is right that in a world of email, voicemail and other always-on media (including, of course, blogs like this one), “communication is swift, Blackberry-sized and prosaic.” We sometimes feel enclosed in a tunnel and “Entire mental faculties go unused.” (For a long-winded but insightful treatment of anti-modernism, see T.J. Jackson Lears’ classic No Place of Grace: Anti-modernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920.)

It is for this reason that Michael Ward’s work is indeed a word in season. Christians have long worked on the exegesis of Scripture, and are improving their exegesis of culture. But the exegesis of nature–of interpreting “Creation” as more than mere “Nature”–remains difficult work for those of us who are downstream of the Enlightenment. Consider our response to passages of Scripture that suggest trees clap their hands (Is. 55:12), or passages such as Ps. 19: 1-3: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.” Another insightful essay from Books and Culture put it this way: “We tend to read this as encouraging a vague, greeting-card appreciation of nature, but the medieval imagination was more risky and specific. Mountains speak. Water sings. Trees talk, and they won’t shut up. Medievals weren’t frozen by fear of Enlightenment snickering or duped into mathematizing creation. All of creation was a poem” (Douglas Jones, “Reading Trees”).

Can anything good come out of pre-Enlightenment thinking? Of course. The fruits of visiting pre-Enlightenment mental universes may include the re-enchantment of the world and the re-invigoration of our imaginative faculties, in which we just might discover the renewal of our very selves.

 

 

“They who believe in the influences of the stars over the fates of men, are, in feeling at least, nearer the truth than they who regard the heavenly bodies as related to them merely by a common obedience to an external law.”

George MacDonald, Phantastes

 

“It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought… the Everyman
edition of Phantastes, A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a
great frontier… the whole book had about it a Sort of cool, morning
innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death,
good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise
(that was where the Death came in) my imagination… The quality which
had enchanted me… turned out to be the quality of the real universe,
the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all
live.”

C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, An Anthology

Chesterton House Painting