Michael Ward and Malcolm Guite: “Michael and Malcolm stopped for a quick portrait together at the 2011 C.S. Lewis Foundation Summer Institute outside of Great St. Mary’s in Oxford.” Image © Lancia E. Smith

Like so many other readers of Ward’s magnum opus, I have found in Planet Narnia a great work of literary criticism, an account of Lewis’s works that sends me back to the originals with renewed insight and delight. But over the decade since its publication, I have come to realize that it offers something more than that. Planet Narnia turns out to be a book about much more than the Narniad, or about the seven heavens, or even about the truth of imagination; it is also a book about the art of writing.

Ward shows how Lewis relished, and wished to capture in his writing, the intrinsic and distinctive quality of people and places, even of books, which Lewis called ‘Donegality’—a private word derived from his sense that there was something distinctive about Donegal that differentiated it from the rest of Ireland: its ‘Donegality’. What Lewis wanted as a writer was to give each of his chronicles a unique ‘Donegality’, a flavour and atmosphere of its own, and through that distinction to make each of his books the “local habitation” for distinctive but elusive spiritual qualities which might otherwise drift past us as an “airy nothing.”[1]

What Ward demonstrates is that, rather than invent a private language or symbolic system, Lewis availed himself of what was already “out there” (quite literally): the discarded image, the long-neglected lore and poetry, the symbolic system of the seven heavens. By working with these ‘given’, indeed archetypal symbolic systems, Lewis was essentially working collaboratively. He was effectively summoning Dante and Spenser to his side, drawing from them, conversing with them, and re-tuning their resonance to harmonise his own particular work. Paradoxically it is this very collaboration which set free in Lewis the creative flair and originality which has given his work its distinctive flavour and its staying power.

This approach to the art of writing is entirely consistent with his critical theory, his defence of Stock Responses against I. A. Richards, and his brilliant analysis of how Milton achieved his effects by drawing on what was already ‘given’ in his own sources, the Bible and Virgil. Lewis is not so much working as a private isolated writer making his own separate creation but more as a mediaeval mason adding to, enlarging, and gracing with detail a much bigger ‘cathedral’ of poetry and symbol which is the ongoing work of many hands and many generations. This is not only a good account of poets in the past, it is good news for contemporary poets and writers in other genres too.

Looking back on my own writing practice since I read Planet Narnia, I realise I have been emboldened and encouraged to draw more freely and frankly on the clusters of symbol and meaning, the beautifully articulated emblems which are our common inheritance, and especially on those planetary symbols which are the subject of Planet Narnia.

In particular, there are two poems in my collection The Singing Bowl, which I think could not have been written in the way they were without the inspiration of Planet Narnia. I am happy to offer them afresh in this Festschrift, with a grateful acknowledgement of Michael Ward’s role in preparing my mind to write them.

The first, “The Daily Planet,” is playful lyric, but with perhaps a more serious undertone, which takes the tropes around Venus and Mars and voices them for relations between the sexes, influenced, among other things by Ward’s reading of Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy in which a ‘Mars’ book is followed by a ‘Venus’ book and then the two are tied together in a third book whose opening word is ‘Matrimony’.

The second is a ‘solar’ poem from my sequence “On Reading the Commedia,” a sequence of nine poems in terza rima offering a ‘reader response’ to Dante’s Divine Comedy. The eighth poem in that sequence, responds to the ‘Solar’ Cantos in the Paradiso, the cantos in which Dante meets the philosophers and theologians, amongst them Boethius, Bonaventure, and Aquinas. My response is set not in the fourth Heaven but in contemporary Cambridge and describes what it has been like to delight in discovery and to avail myself of the consolations of philosophy. My encounters with Michael Ward in person in Cambridge as well as in print have been part of that delight in discovery, and I am happy to dedicate both of these poems to him now.

Malcolm Guite is a poet and priest, working as Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge. He also teaches for the Divinity Faculty and for the Cambridge Theological Federation, and lectures widely in England and North America on Theology and Literature. He is the author of What do Christians Believe? (Granta 2006), Faith Hope and Poetry (Ashgate 2010, paperback 2012), Sounding the Seasons; Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year (Canterbury 2012), The Singing Bowl; Collected Poems (Canterbury 2013), The Word in the Wilderness (Canterbury 2014), Waiting on the Word (Canterbury 2015), and Parable and Paradox (Canterbury Press 2016). He contributed the Chapter on Lewis as a poet to the Cambridge Companion to CS Lewis (CUP 2010)

 

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Citation Information

Malcolm Guite. “Planet Narnia as Creative Inspiration.” An Unexpected Journal 1, no. 4. (Advent 2018): 49-51.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/the-circle-dance/


 

Endnotes:

[1] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.I.

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