You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia thesis is controversial. You may, like me, have needed little “proof” beyond the Jove stanza of the “The Planets” poem (“of winter passed / And guilt forgiven,” “The lion-hearted,” “Just and gentle, are Jove’s children,” etc.) and a brief sketch of the various planetary associations Lewis makes in The Discarded Image from which you were easily able to make the connections with the corresponding books. Reading or watching The Narnia Code or Planet Narnia only confirmed what you already believed was probably true. But other scholars—among them some very serious and respected Lewis scholars—are not so easily satisfied. They raise several objections to the thesis with varying degrees of severity. This paper aims to categorize and summarize the objections made to Ward’s Planet Narnia thesis, sketch out responses to the objections, and propose a theoretical framework to better evaluate the thesis.

Ward’s thesis can be briefly summarized as follows: “The Narnia stories were designed to express the characteristics of the seven medieval planets—Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn. Lewis constructed the Chronicles so that in each book the plot-line, the ornamental details, and the portrayal of the Christ-figure of Aslan, all serve to communicate the governing planetary personality.”[1] For a fuller exploration of Ward’s argument, see Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, The Narnia Code: C.S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens, or visit www.planetnarnia.com/planet-narnia.

The objections to Ward’s thesis can be broken down into two broad categories: de jure objections which hold that a thesis like Ward’s is simply out of court to begin with, and de facto objections which hold that Ward’s thesis, while possible, is not born out by the facts of the books themselves.

De Jure Critique

Rejection of the “Code” Language

Some critics, such as Devin Brown or James Como, object to the Planet Narnia thesis on the basis that the Narniad does not require a code and that the suggestion of a code implies that Lewis’s work is somehow insufficient without it.[2] A ‘code’—by their thinking—would mean that either the books cannot be properly appreciated without knowledge of the code or that the literary quality of the books itself depends on the existence of an interpretive key. As devotees of Lewis, they reject either possibility and are particularly bothered by Ward’s invocation of the “problem of composition” in the introductory chapter of Planet Narnia, in which Ward lists off a number of critics who believe the Narnia books lack a unifying theme or coherent structure.[3] Ward’s critics think he gives too much credit to Lewis’s critics.

Falsifiability

Other critics have held that Ward’s thesis is too ad hoc to be rigorously tested or applied. They believe Ward cherry picks his evidence—taking the battles from Prince Caspian as evidence of Mars’s influence while dismissing the scene of Aslan staring up at the moon or taking the verdant garden in Magician’s Nephew to indicate Venus while downplaying Digory’s vision of Jupiter as he descends through the world pool. It troubles his critics when Ward begins quoting Lewis, saying “all the planets are represented in each,” or “in a certain juncture of the planets each may play the other’s part,” or that the gods “flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river.”[4] If it is all nebulous, the thesis cannot be worth all that much as a key to understanding the Chronicles.

The Artistic Critique

Some critics, including Brown, reject the notion that Lewis, when crafting a particular scene, would limit himself to structures that evoke the correct planetary imagery, rather than availing himself of anything that makes for the best scene possible. According to them, that is simply not how writers write. Additionally, they point to the fact that Lewis describes his own writing process as being spurred by recurring images of lions, queens in sledges, and fauns under lamp posts. This planetary theme doesn’t square with the creative process that would be required if Ward’s thesis is true.

Why Would Lewis Hide It?

A common critique regarding Ward’s thesis is this: If Lewis was engaged in the grand project of embedding medieval planetary imagery and atmosphere into all of his stories, what reason could he have to hide it from the public, let alone his closest friends and even his own stepson?

The “So What?” Objection

Some who hear Dr. Ward’s thesis respond with what they believe to be the damning question, “So what?” If a thesis is true, it ought to really change the way we see and appreciate something. It ought to be revolutionary. If we follow the thesis and not much changes about how we read the books, then it must not be true.

De Facto Critique

The Bean Counter

Justin Barrett made a serious attempt to quantifiably test Dr. Ward’s thesis.[5] How could we test such a thesis quantitatively? He suggests tabulating every word Ward mentions as associated with each of the planetary influences and then statistically analyzing how frequently each of those words appears in each of the seven books. Barrett certainly did his due diligence in compiling his data. He accommodated the page length of each of the books into his frequencies, and also ran the test both with the absolute frequencies of word references, and the relative frequencies of particular words — for example, does a given book have a higher frequency of the collective total of jovial words, and does a book have higher frequencies of specific jovial words? He found that there are strong correlations between the planetary words with the books Ward’s thesis predicts in four out of the seven books, and a weak correlation for a fifth book, Prince Caspian. He found the correlations did not align for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with Jove and The Last Battle with Saturn.

The “Planets Everywhere!” Critique

A less precise but possibly more compelling criticism is that the planetary influences are not sufficiently distinct in each of the books. How is it that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the jovial book and Prince Caspian the martial book when Peter and Edmund are knighted after their battles in the former and the latter is all about establishing the true king of Narnia and ends with a bacchanalia? What about the dozen references to the moon in The Horse and His Boy and the presence of Father Time (i.e. Saturn) in the caves of the underworld in The Silver Chair? Critics with this view may greatly appreciate Ward’s exploration of the presence of medieval cosmology in Lewis’s work but reject the “strong” version of Ward’s thesis that would assign a planet to each book.

Responses

The first thing to note in responding to the criticisms is that neither the “Code Critique” nor the “So what?” critique are sufficient defeaters for Ward’s thesis. It is entirely possible to reject the “problem of composition”—that is, to believe the books are perfectly fine as a set without Ward’s thesis to bind them together—while still holding that Lewis worked in the seven planetary themes into the seven books. The rooms of a house may be functionally laid out in relation to one another and in relation to the particular views of the landscape outside their windows. Far from slighting Lewis’s genius, Ward’s thesis, if true, marks Lewis out to be an even greater and more subtle literary craftsman than previously thought.

Additional responses are required for the “So What?” critique. One is tempted to respond that the failure to find significance in the thesis lies with the deficient imaginations of the critics rather than with the thesis, but this would be ungenerous and not in keeping with the nuance of Ward’s argument. Not everyone who is familiar with Ward’s thesis will necessarily enjoy reading Narnia more because of it. If Ward is right that Lewis smuggled different aspects of medieval cosmology into each of the Narnia books, then the planetary images and themes have always been present in the books effecting the way people have read and enjoyed them. The Planet Narnia thesis is not primarily aimed at enhancing our enjoyment of the books, but rather offering us a rubric to better contemplate the source of our enjoyment. It is like when a layman is moved by a particular piece of visual art and an art major comes along and explains the various methods used to produce the effects the viewer is experiencing. The art major’s explanation may have little effect on the layman’s enjoyment of the piece of art, but that does not mean the art major is wrong in their assessment of the artistic method employed.

Understanding the possible symbolism and meaning in the story may not produce any significant or new enjoyment of the texts — it may even lessen it if we turn all our attention to it — but it may help us better appreciate the genius of the author. While valuing the author as an author is far from the goal of enjoying a good book, it is not a bad practice in which to engage if one is trying to better appreciate the craft of writing.

The “Artistic Critique” might be more destructive if it were not so poorly developed to begin with. In his article “Planet Narnia Spin, Spun Out,” Devin Brown quotes the Planet Narnia website where Ward asks, “Why does the Christ-like figure of Aslan enter the story among dancing trees in Prince Caspian? Why does he fly in a sunbeam in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Why is he mistaken for two lions in The Horse and His Boy? Why does he not appear in Narnia at all in The Silver Chair?”[6] Ward’s implied answer is that in each of these scenes, Lewis is surrounding Aslan’s presence (or absence) with elements reminiscent of the planet in whose character each book is written. In response Brown writes, “Dr. Ward would have us believe that on each of these occasions, Lewis did not simply ask what would be the best element for the story but instead asked, ‘What can I do here that will fit with this book’s planet?’”[7] But of course this is a false dichotomy. If Ward’s thesis is true, then what best fits with the book’s planet is what would be the best element for the story.

As to why Lewis never mentions the planets as part of his method, Ward’s thesis is that Lewis hoped the planetary imagery and themes would be appealing to the readers at a deeper, experiential level rather than a conscious level. Lewis was not as concerned with our propositional thinking about medieval cosmology as he was with our psychological, even spiritual, reactions to it. The reader’s reactions to the planetary images and themes would come independently of their knowledge of the medieval sources behind them, and would perhaps come through more easily without the distraction or impediment of being aware of what Lewis is attempting.[8] One may still find the total secrecy to be a weak point in the overall thesis, but given Ward’s plausible explanations for Lewis’s desire to keep his project under wraps, any doubts on this ground ought to be weighed against the evidence presented for the thesis as a whole. This, of course, raises the question of how to go about evaluating the evidence.

“Falsifiability” and the “Planets everywhere” critiques can all be answered with a more rigorous criterion for evaluating the thesis. For all of Barrett’s fascinating research, the numerical approach ultimately proves inadequate on several levels. First, one hardly knows what to do with a 71.4% approval rating produced by such a method. The data does not interpret itself. Is a 71.4% a passing rate or ought it to be higher? Second, as Ward points out in his response to Barrett in his aptly titled “Quality not Quantity,” Barrett’s method of counting words cannot possibly capture the significance of the words in the context and the overall story. Ward states, “I trust him when he reports that the words ‘death’ and ‘dying’ appear as many times in The Silver Chair as they do in The Last Battle. But how many characters actually die in The Silver Chair?”[9] Additionally, in order for Lewis’s writing to trigger Barrett’s test, he would have to write in a rather overt, even grossly obvious manner, which would be antithetical to having the planets operating as the subtle influence pervading the stories.[10] Finally, I think Barrett’s efforts can easily be put to rest when we observe that, according to his method, The Silver Chair would garner the label of the most jovial book while The Last Battle fails to be most saturnine.[11] These two results—obviously absurd to anyone who has read either book— on their own are sufficient to undermine his methodology.

Bayes’ Theorem

Without proposing the introduction of any actual numbers or probabilities, I propose Bayes’ Theorem as a theoretical framework for evaluating Ward’s thesis. Bayes looks at the relationship between three elements: a hypothesis (h), evidence (e), and background knowledge (k) to assess the probability (P) of a hypothesis. Bayes asks whether or not we should expect the evidence we have, given the hypothesis [P (e|h&k)] (i.e., the explanatory power of the hypothesis), and how it compares to the prior probability of the hypothesis [P (h|k)] (i.e. was the hypothesis likely to be true given the rest of what we know), and the prior probability of the evidence [P(e|k)] (i.e., to what extent did the evidence require an explanation). The resulting formulation is:

P(h|e&k) = P(e|h&k) P(h|k)
P(e|k)

But the formula is less important than the concepts. Does the hypothesis explain the evidence? Did the evidence need explaining? Is the hypothesis independent and likely, given what else we know? All of the criticisms of Ward’s thesis can be fit into the Bayesian model.

The explanatory power of Ward’s thesis is quite strong. Apart from the mode of Aslan’s appearances described above, there are the prevailing thematic conflicts of the books: the austere queen versus the magnanimous king in Lion; the Machiavellian tyrant versus the gallant resistance in Caspian; the constant revealing and testing of the protagonists in Dawn Treader versus the obfuscating officials and the literally dark island; the competing dreams and visions, questionable sanity, and dangerous enchantress in Silver Chair; the perpetual joining and separating on a flight home in Horse and his Boy; the genocidal tyrant of a dying world versus the gentle monarch bringing life to a new world in Magician’s Nephew; and the confounding of all plans and end of the world in Last Battle. Then there are particular pieces of evidence: the Narnian Lord with a winged helmet in Horse and his Boy, the similarity between Castor—the horse-riding twin to the boxer Pollux in Mercury’s constellation, Gemini—to the protagonist Shasta whose real name we learn is Cor and who is a horse-riding twin with a brother who’s always boxing.[12] These are what we should expect to see if Ward’s thesis was true. Of course, this is also where contradictory evidence, both general and particular, must also be evaluated.

The explanatory power of the thesis must be evaluated in light of the prior probability of the evidence existing in spite of the thesis. It is on this ground that “Code” critics can argue that Father Christmas has a legitimate place in Narnia without the need for a jovial planetary framework. This is also where “Planets Everywhere” critics argue that we should expect plenty of planetary imagery in Narnia even if Lewis were not writing the books to conform to particular planetary virtues. But can either account for the winged helmet and the similarity between Shasta/Cor and Castor mentioned above? We can also ask whether it was possible or desirable to write a book with unique elements of a single planet to the complete exclusion of all others.

Finally, one must consider the prior probability of the hypothesis — namely, how likely it would be that Lewis would employ such a method of writing and conceal it from everyone. These questions are the subject of the first two chapters of Planet Narnia. Honest critics, I believe, must be persuaded that Lewis could and would employ such a method given his stated interests in rehabilitating the medieval model of the universe and his particular theories about how we appreciate stories. So the real conflict lies in the question of secrecy, addressed above in the response to artistic method. My own final assessment is that the explanatory power of the evidence [P (e|h & k)] is fairly high, that the prior probability of the cumulative evidence [P (e|k)] is low, and that the prior probability of the hypothesis [P (h|k)] is high enough for the whole thesis to be more than likely true. You may conclude otherwise, but before you do so, I hope that you first consider the analytical tools offered here.

Josiah Peterson is debate coach and instructor of rhetoric at the King’s College
and is enrolled in HBU’s MAA program in Cultural Apologetics. He lives in New York with his
wife Rachelle and daughter Hosanna. His primary scholarly interest is in the work of C.S. Lewis.

 

  • Buy An Unexpected Journal

    Subscribe

    This work is part of Celebrating Planet Narnia (Advent 2018). The issue is available in both print and digital format (Kindle, Nook, and epub.)

    You can purchase your own copy of this edition at your favorite online retailer, or subscribe to An Unexpected Journal and save.


Citation Information

Josiah Peterson. “A Defense of Planet Narnia.” An Unexpected Journal 1, no. 4. (Advent 2018): 79-89.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/a-defense-of-planet-narnia/


Endnotes:

[1] Back cover of Michael Ward, Planet Narnia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] Devin Brown, “Planet Narnia Spin, Spun Out,” CSLewis.com, May 13 2009, http://www.cslewis.com/planet-narnia-spin-spun-out/ .

[3] Ward, Planet Narnia, 8-14. Also refer to Michael Ward’s website at: http://www.planetnarnia.com/planet-narnia.

[4] Ibid., 226, 212, 232.

[5] Justin Barrett, “Some Planets in Narnia: A Quantitative Investigation of the Planet Narnia Thesis,” VII 27 (January 2010), accessed December 3, 2018, https://www.wheaton.edu/media/migrated-images-amp-files/media/files/centers-and-institutes/wade-center/Barrett_Narnia_web.pdf.

[6] Michael Ward, “Planet Narnia,” PlanetNarnia.com, accessed November 20, 2018. http://www.planetnarnia.com/planet-narnia

[7] Devin Brown, “Planet Narnia Spin, Spun Out,” CSLewis.com, May 13, 2009. http://www.cslewis.com/planet-narnia-spin-spun-out/

[8] Think of how much profound moral philosophy Lewis was able to get through to his secular and morally skeptical audience under the unassuming guise of “Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools.” Lewis was not beneath the tactic of employing misdirection to get through to his audience.

[9] Michael Ward, “Quality not Quantity,” VII 28 (2012), accessed December 3, 2018, 17-18, https://www.wheaton.edu/media/migrated-images-amp-files/media/files/centers-and-institutes/wade-center/vii/vii20online20articles/Ward_QualityorQuantity2.pdf.

[10] Ward, “Quality,” 7.

[11] Barrett, 6.

[12] Ward, Planet Narnia, 153.

Spread the love