Friday, October 08, 2010

Planet Narnia

How did we miss it? Okay, how did I miss it? The answer to the latter question may give some insight into the first.

Imagine assembling one of those jigsaw puzzles of a photograph. In this case, one of those artsy B&W photographs like this favorite of mine by Brassai. As they sometimes do nowadays, in addition to the usual snap-together pieces there are outlined objects: the Eiffel Tower; a loaf of bread and a wine bottle; a cafe chair - that sort of thing. You might think "Oh how cute, how clever. There are all these Paris-thingies in it," but more likely you would just think lame. Some of the embedded objects might not be immediately recognisable, and as you identify them you feel a bit proud of yourself. But you don't have any sense that they have really added to the picture, which was fine all on its own. The objects are in fact an intrusion, swimming around unnecessarily and distracting from both the beauty of the photograph and the assembling of the puzzle.

Now further imagine that the light changes - you see the puzzle at an angle in the early morning, or someone flips the switch of an overhead, and you see suddenly that this is a color photograph. No, better still: the switch is flipped and things begin to move - it is a Pool of Galadriel or TL Sherrod's time-viewing machine in "E For Effort." More than a film, we are looking into the thing itself, Montmarte in 1936. We are brought down the steps somehow, and the wine bottle piece and breadloaf piece turn out to be exactly where they would be if we were carrying them. The Eiffel Tower piece is at the spot where we can turn and see the structure itself. The embedded objects are not, in fact, random, but integral to the work, and the scene only appears to be black-and-white because it is early morning.

First, is Michael Ward convincing that each of the seven books in the Narniad are built around a planetary influence, as the medievals understood such things? He is absolutely convincing. I was highly skeptical when I first heard the idea - following Lewis himself, who deplored all the variety of things that people "found" in his books, and remembering my hitchhiker years ago who had said "Oh, Narnia. That's about tarot cards." Even learning that some highly credible sources, such as Walter Hooper, Don W. King, and Alan Jacobs, had been convinced, I still imagined it was only going to be those embedded objects in the jigsaw puzzle, floating around and making an annoying game out of a work of literature.

Also, I had never much liked Greek and Roman mytholgy, even in its medieval adaptations. Having started on Tolkien, I expected heroic fantasy to be northern - Germanic, Wagnerian. Also from Tolkien, I expected fantasy worlds to be entirely self-enclosed and self-sustaining, not requiring any intrusions from our world to inflate them. Especially, planetary influences from our own solar system, not the Narnian heavens, had no business mucking about in other worlds. They made sense in Lewis's science fiction series, which takes place in our solar system, but not another world. Let them have their own gods and goddesses.

Thus, even though I had long liked the Narnian series somewhat, and certainly found it amazingly useful to illustrate any number of thorny theological ideas, I had always found it pale in comparison to LOTR. From the outset, I found myself recoiling at elements: Dammit, not a faun. Fauns are boring. And later, Get those blasted (a medieval term weighted with meaning - but I likely used a more Anglo-Saxon adjective) dryads out of here!* I now see that in bringing false expectations, I had misunderstood an enormous amount of what was before me.

I take some comfort in the thought that Tolkien missed it as well, and for much the same reason. It must have been hard for Lewis to bite his tongue. Perhaps I still won't be able to enter in to the stories - I remain unimpressed with centaurs and may not be able to unlearn that - but at least I'll have another go.

Lewis's intent was not to drop some lunar or saturnine items into a Jesus-story, but to compose each tale so that it had the feel, right down to its bones, of the quite real and identifiable forces in the universe that the Romans happened to name Jove, or Venus. Lewis believed in their reality in much the same way that a medieval would. He is in some ways not a medievalist, but something close to being a medieval writer, and we need to read him that way. As children, we get served up a boring Apollo = Sun, Mars = "God of War" listing when we are taught mythology, with perhaps a story or two about a chariot or a spear. We don't enter in to the idea, don't suspend our disbelief, and find it frankly incredible that intelligent people, no matter how long ago they lived, could be much moved by it. But to previous peoples, Mars was not simply a god of war but of forests and growth, or verticality with implied phallicism, the god of necessity that you turned to for strength when the job was hard or impossible but simply must be done. His metal was iron, his hardness morally neutral. Today he would be the god of construction, and even guys who considered themselves more under the influence of Sol or Saturn might turn to him while at Lowe's.

If the Narnia stories had come down to us from medieval times, in verse and not aimed at children, we might have seen. We might have applied the rules of observation that cause us to read "Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne" and get some sense of the atmosphere Chaucer was trying to create. But none of us are steeped in the knowledge of medieval influences, in the planetary sense. We are not cultrually trained to step inside them and experience them - Lewis would say Enjoy them in a specific sense that means "participate in them." The companion piece to the Narniad should be The Discarded Image, which Lewis wrote just after completing the series.

A Lewis quote from "The Grand Miracle," found in God In The Dock.
"I think we are rather in this position. Supposing you had before you a manuscript of some great work, either a symphony or a novel. There then comes to you a person, saying, 'Here is a new bit of the manuscript that I found; it is the central passage of that symphony, or the central chapter of that novel. The text is incomplete without it. I have got the missing passage which is really the centre of the whole work.' The only thing you could do would be to put this new piece of the manuscript in that central position, and then see how it reacted on the whole of the rest of the work. If it constantly brought out new meanings from the whole of the rest of the work, if it made you notice things in the rest of the work which you had not noticed before, then I think you would decide that it was authentic. On the other hand, if it failed to do that, then, however attractive it was in itself, you would reject it.
The quote leads the book Planet Narnia. To see where Lewis took the idea after that, see Will Vaus here.

*Leading perhaps to a new movie, "Dryads on a Plane." Double meaning, there.


Dubbahdee said...

Or course, Lewis says this more or less directly in both Perelandra and "That Hideous Strength." In THS there is a chapter titled "The Descent of the Gods" where he describes the arrival of the Oyarsae (angels/gods) named Viritrilbia (Mercury/Thoth), Perelandra (Venus), and Malacandra (Mars), Lurga (Saturn), and Arbol (Jove) in the chambers of Ransom, the central character.

His description of the character of each of the deities is Lewis at his best. Since I finally manged to grasp this book in my early 20's, this fictional cosmology has rung so true with me that I have actually held it as being quite close to what is actually going on. I think Lewis is quite the prophet in this respect.

But you are right. Few have ever seen or understood this aspect of Lewis's thought. It is too medieval for most of today's evangelicals to accept. Just as Merlin -- the "primitive" medieval wizard -- was too offensive to the characters in THS.

Sam L. said...

I read those two in my teens, and got nothing from them. Likely I was too young and inexperienced.

And I looked and and examined the photo--which doesn't match the text.

One day I shall read the Narnia books.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, Lewis has been singularly unfortunate in the illustrations which attend his works. The Pauline Baynes pen-and-inks do nothing for me, and I think some put me off a bit. The various cover illustrations of both series have been uneven, and none struck me as excellent. The newer ones don't actively bother me, anyway.

The original Tolkien paperback covers were similarly inapposite. What were they thinking?

I believe the idea at the time was a hard-sell approach to covers, to create something that would make the reader pick it up at the bookstore as intriguing, and to hell with any appropriateness of the art to the work within. The science fiction genre, which is where Lewis often got assigned, was particularly egregious on this, as anyone who saw those babes in form-fitting space suits - who turned out to be minor walk-through characters - can attest.

terri said...

I've read the essay by Lewis in which he criticizes biblical literary criticism and goes on to recount anecdotes in which people have said all kinds of ridiculous things about his work, and assumptions they have made about his motives and and intent.

He makes come interesting points but misses, or only glancingly refers to, the fact that writers write more than they mean to.

In other words, did Lewis intentionally write the Narnia series in the way in which you describe, or did it just naturally take that form because it evolved from Lewis' steeped medieval background?

Writing reveals all sorts of things about the writer that the writer may never purposely include. Psychology, point-of-view, opinions, preferences for certain story structures...they all seep through.

Unfortunately the fact that these kind of insights can be found through literary criticism also leads to a lot of bad psychologizing by would-be detectives that must be sifted out of the rest of good literary criticism.

On another note....

I have hard time imagining Lewis holding his tongue, especially with a friend and fellow writer like Tolkien!

Does Lewis hold his tongue on anything? ;-)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

terri, I started from the same assumption about holding his tongue. Ward addressed it, and I will post on that next.

Erin said...

I have always been fascinated by Narnia, perhaps because I had devoured the series several times in my childhood before moving on to Tolkien. I had heard that Tolkien had not reacted favorably to the series (I assume he found it impossible to bite his tongue), and so went into the second series with the knowledge that this would be a different landscape than the first (I must admit as much as I adore LOTR, I was at first off-put by his obsessive nerdiness in creating his world, history, lanugages, etc.). Ward mentioned in his lecture at my college that he was extremely excited about his findings and a bit bewildered as to how long he had overlooked it (and furthermore a bit bewildered that no one before had seen what he saw).

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Two posts on this follow - one probably tonight. The ideas behind Erin's comments figure prominently in the second.