A Warm Cup of Conversation: “That took place Sunday November 24, 2013. The C.S. Lewis Foundation hosted a celebratory tea at The Kilns as a gathering place after the milestone event of Lewis being given a place in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.” Image © Lancia E. Smith

  1. Since Planet Narnia was first published, you have spent a full decade crossing the globe to deliver lectures, lead workshops, and teach classes about your discovery of Lewis’s ‘secret’. How has this experience affected you, in terms of your life’s trajectory, your academic interests, and your spiritual awareness? 

In terms of ‘trajectory’ it has opened up all sorts of speaking opportunities that might not otherwise have come my way. In terms of academic interests, it has validated and consolidated my focus on theological imagination. As far spiritual awareness goes, it has continually reminded me of the importance of ‘Enjoyment’ in the spiritual life, as distinct from ‘Contemplation’—the need to develop one’s connaître knowledge of God, not just savoir knowledge.

More generally, I think a chief effect it has had is to make me more aware of the reach of Lewis’s legacy—or we might even say, ministry. He has impacted so many people (young, old, simple, educated, Christian, non-Christian), in so many places (I’ve spoken to date in about a dozen different countries and in nearly forty of the fifty U.S. States), and at so many levels (intellectual, imaginative, spiritual). It’s a great privilege to ‘travel in his wake’, as it were, to have an opportunity to follow in the aftermath of his influence with the (far smaller and less diverse) gifts that I have myself been given. So I feel I have a responsibility to honour and extend Lewis’s legacy in that regard.

I also feel a responsibility to Planet Narnia itself, if that doesn’t sound like a strange thing to say. But I say it because of something the Inklings scholar, Diana Glyer, once remarked to me about her own (excellent) book, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. It’s not enough just to write a book and get it published, any more than it would be enough just to conceive a child and give birth to it. You then have a responsibility to give your work ‘a good start’ in the world (by giving talks, recording interviews and podcasts, signing copies, responding to readers), and to do what you can to tend its mid-term development in appropriate ways. In my case, that has involved the writing of the shorter, simpler version, The Narnia Code, and presenting the BBC documentary of the same title. You get to shepherd your own work for a while, which hopefully increases the chance it will gain a wide and fair hearing and accordingly be able to stand more and more on its own feet. So that has taught me a lot about the job of being a writer; it involves much more than just writing! Of course, the long-term future of anything you produce is not in your hands. At some point, you have to let go and see whether the book sinks or swims. And then you just hope and pray that whatever’s good in your work will survive and thrive, even though it’s now no longer under your direct parental care.

  1. How have you seen Planet Narnia affect C.S. Lewis studies?

I’ve been pleased to see in recent years what I think is a greater appreciation among Lewis readers and scholars of the subtlety and sophistication of his imaginative work and of the unity and coherence of his output. His academic expertise is now seen as much more fully relevant to his creative writing and apologetics than hitherto. I dare to suppose that my work has played a part in that development because I made a deliberate attempt to canvass the whole of his output in Planet Narnia—not treating him as merely an ‘apologist’ or ‘fiction writer’ or ‘medievalist’, as many students of Lewis before me had tended to do, but as all three together, and other things besides (e.g. as a poet, and simply as a man, a biographical subject). With regard to treating him as simply ‘a man’, I was greatly assisted by the publication of the collected letters—the three volumes of which came out between 2000 and 2006. I, like everyone else with an interest in Lewis, owe a huge debt to Walter Hooper in that respect. The increasingly holistic approach to Lewis in scholarship is much more due to Hooper’s work than to mine.

Speaking more personally, I think the fact that Planet Narnia was published by Oxford University Press and did well, both critically and commercially, meant that Cambridge University Press were more interested in a ‘Cambridge Companion’ about Lewis than they might otherwise have been. Indeed, CUP told me and my eventual co-editor, Robert MacSwain, that they had turned down two or three previous proposals for such a Companion. Now, the reason they accepted our proposal had a lot to do with its breadth of scope and the distinguished names we got on-board (for which Rob MacSwain deserves much of the credit), but I think the success of Planet Narnia also made it easier for CUP to feel confident that Rob and I would do a fair job. And the publication of The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, though not representing any kind of sea-change in Lewis studies, was nonetheless a significant milestone, a sign that it was an increasingly ‘respectable’ line of intellectual enquiry. At least Rowan Williams suggests that that is the case (see The Lion’s World, x). And I think that has had a knock-on effect with the upcoming generation of scholars. At any rate, I’m now supervising a couple of Lewis-focused doctorates within the Theology Faculty at Oxford[1]—and they are the first two such doctoral studies ever to be undertaken at his old university. There had been one doctorate on Lewis in the English Faculty at Oxford (completed by Andrew Cuneo in the late 1990s), but these are the first in Theology.

  1. What has been the biggest misconception or roadblock you have encountered from your audience while expounding the Planet Narnia thesis?

Probably the biggest, or most frequently encountered, misconception is that my thesis is somehow controverted or at least challenged by the fact that Lewis did not have the whole seven-part series mapped out in advance. One person described this as “a massive problem,” which surprised me because it doesn’t strike me as a problem at all, and indeed I thought I had sufficiently addressed this issue within the pages of Planet Narnia (5, 222). The planetary scheme for the series grew incrementally, starting with Jupiter because Jupiter was his favourite planet, the one he said he himself had been born under, and the one he seemed to regard as especially in need of imaginative rehabilitation in the all-too-Saturnine twentieth century. Then he decided to do a second; then a third; and so on. It was a cumulative project.

Another blockage that I’ve noticed some people have is with the notion that I have ‘cherry-picked’ my examples, selecting those pieces of evidence that support the thesis while ignoring those which might subvert it. Again, I felt I had given enough of a defence on that point, when discussing “the insulating power of context” (232). “iconographical ambiguity” (64), polyvalence (148), and the fact that “in a certain conjunction of the planets each may play the other’s part” (232). But I now think I should have said more to cover my back on this point, as it evidently presents a difficulty for some readers.

The thing I have been most often quizzed about is something I never imagined would particularly pique readers’ interest and that is the connection between Jupiter and Melchizedek (50). Lots and lots of people have written to me about that. I now point them in the direction of his helpful page put together by James O’Fee: http://www.impalapublications.com/blog/index.php?/archives/3458-Melchizedek-and-Jupiter,-by-James-OFee.html

There have been no serious, detailed scholarly interactions with my work, as far as I’m aware, apart from that by Justin Barrett. He subjected my thesis to “quantitative analysis” and I wrote a response to his paper. Both essays were published in the online supplements to Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review and can be read on the website of the Wade Center at Wheaton College (supplements to volumes 27 and 28): https://www.wheaton.edu/academics/academic-centers/wadecenter/publications/vii-journal/contents/online-articles/

  1. Some time after publishing Planet Narnia you began teaching imaginative apologetics at Houston Baptist University. What are the connections (if any) between your work on Planet Narnia and the work you have been doing at HBU?

The main connection is that both in Planet Narnia and in my work at HBU I talk about the need for literary atmosphere in imaginative apologetics. Propositional and argumentative apologetics are clearly much needed; they have an important place. But that’s not the kind of apologetics I’m principally interested in. I want to emphasize the apologetic value of fiction, poetry, drama, and the vital importance of metaphoric appropriateness and winsome tone in such imaginative works. Christianity is more like a story than it is like an argument, and the best stories have atmospheres and an aesthetic coherence to them, not just a workable plot. In Phantastes, the work that “baptised” Lewis’s imagination, George MacDonald wrote this: “As the lights and influences of the upper worlds sink silently through the earth’s atmosphere . . . so doth Faerie invade the world of men.”[2] The same can be said of the effect of Christian fiction and drama and poetry; it can envelop your mind, and heart, and soul, and does so most successfully when it is all-inclusive, paying attention to apparent minutiae and holistic questions of ‘flavour’ and ‘quiddity’ and ‘quality’, as well as sheer narrative logic. Atmosphere is particularly important for serving what Newman called “the illative sense,” the faculty we have in our minds and souls for apprehending the relevant conditions and determining how best to make inferences in a given situation. Most people don’t come to faith under “laboratory conditions”; laboratories are too anti-septic, too artificial for that. Of course, laboratories—and their apologetic equivalents—definitely have their uses, but they are relatively limited, I believe. The rounded, all-encompassing gestalt embrace is what’s more usually needed, apologetically or evangelistically speaking, and when a great author manages to communicate that coherent embrace, it can be hugely liberating to the imagination and, as may be, to the intellect and the will and the heart in turn. That’s what Lewis in Narnia and Tolkien in Middle-earth achieved so well, and that’s why their works are so central to the courses I teach at HBU.

In the case of Narnia, the way in which the children respond to the various manifestations of Aslan, becoming progressively more Jovial, Martial, Solar, etc, is Lewis’s attempt to communicate imaginatively the otherwise incommunicable process of learning the divine nature by acquaintance or Enjoyment. Non-Christians, he says, “cannot be expected to see how the quality of the object which we think we are beginning to know by acquaintance drives us to the view that if this were delusion then we should have to say that the universe had produced no real thing of comparable value . . . That is knowledge we cannot communicate.”[3] When he says, “That is knowledge we cannot communicate,” I think he means “cannot communicate directly.” There are some things that have to be communicated indirectly or holistically; they can’t be reduced to particular, identifiable terms; they won’t survive forthright articulation. Nonetheless, we can sense them and be influenced by them, often in very profound ways.

  1. In chapter twelve of the book, you describe your ‘eureka’ moment in nearly mystical terms. You mention, for example, how a musical rendition of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe keyed you in to the non-verbal “musicality of the tale,” how the subject of wordlessness in a discussion with Rt. Revd. Simon Barrington-Ward charged the atmosphere around you and made it palpable, and how you were so excited the night you read about Jupiter in Lewis’s poem that you began pulling books off of the shelves in your pajamas. Ten years later, what are your reflections concerning that set of experiences? Have you a theory on what are the essential ingredients for attaining such insights (spiritual, literary or otherwise)?

As I reflect on it now, it still strikes me as one of the most significant events of my life. Significant in itself, I mean, quite irrespective of what it led to. At the time, of course, I didn’t know all that it would lead to, but immediately after it happened I felt as though I’d been struck by a kind of lightning. I walked around Cambridge in a daze for about two weeks; it was like being concussed—but in a good way!

I watched a documentary a few years ago about the mathematician Andrew Wiles and how he proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. As Wiles recounted the moment when he finally realized he’d “got it,” he became rather choked up, and I understood exactly what he was feeling. Of course, cracking “the Narnia code” is nothing compared with proving Fermat’s Last Theorem, an intellectual puzzle that had stood unsolved for over 350 years, but there’s a similarity in kind, if not in degree. When you suddenly see clearly what has baffled you for so long, there’s a beauty to it, a blessed relief, a joy. It overwhelms you. In short, it’s like an experience of the numinous, and though you can now begin to understand the mystery, you can’t understand why it’s you who should have first understood it. So it leaves you feeling awe-struck, like Mole and Ratty before Pan.

As for my thoughts on what are the essential ingredients; well, the first thing I’d say is that it’s a gift. It’s a grace. You couldn’t have expected it to happen and you can’t count on a similar thing happening again in the future. So it seemed to me then and so it seems to me now. I view this discovery as a Godsend, and accordingly I understand the work it has enabled me to do (this connects with my answer to Question 1) as something of a vocation.

Nevertheless, grace usually builds on nature, and at the natural level, I can now see that there were various foundations that had been lain down over many years that led to the grace-filled moment. First of all, I’d been reading the Chronicles for nearly thirty years, and reading them really attentively, noticing all their idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. Second, I’d been progressively immersing myself in Lewis’s total corpus, so that I was becoming more and more familiar with all the contours of his thinking. And third, I’d spent eighteen months examining in depth what he meant by implicit communication, how you say something without saying it directly. So those three things had prepared me, I now realise, to be in the right place at the right time and standing at just the right angle to receive the bolt when the lightning struck.

A friend of mine who used to teach at Wheaton College told me he was once asked by a student how you “go about making a discovery” like this. He answered his student by saying, “You have to love what you’re studying. Love is the great opener of eyes.” And I think he’s right. He’s certainly in good company, because Owen Barfield says a very similar thing in Poetic Diction: “Love is the begetter of intimate knowledge; for what we love it is not tedious, but delightful, to observe minutely.” I had loved what I was studying so much that I wasn’t content with a mere superficial understanding; I wanted all it had to give me and I wasn’t going to rest till I’d broken through to a deeper level. I’m not saying, of course, that I now thoroughly grasp all that the Chronicles have to offer; there are many things that remain mysterious to me and even what is now clear is still itself, with its own independent integrity, not something I can reduce to a mere toy that I dominate or control be exerting exegetical power over it. One’s relationship with a text is like a relationship with a person: only if you love them can you truly get to know them. Without loving them you might know them with savoir knowledge (you could know facts about them, all the biographical data), but never would you come to the intimacy that’s provided by connaître knowledge (knowledge by acquaintance, personal knowing).

  1. Most of us at AUJ are completely convinced by your analysis of the Chronicles and C.S. Lewis’s ‘hidden’ imaginative blueprint. But are you still convinced? Would you make any changes if you could? What part of your argument could be strengthened, or where could more work be done, in your view?

I’m in no doubt that Lewis  did indeed use the planets as his imaginative blueprint, but yes, I would make a few changes if I were ever to produce a second edition. I would, for instance, make stronger defences against those objections I mentioned above in my answer to Question 3. I would also further develop the case I make in Chapter 11 where I discuss what may have prompted Lewis to write the first Chronicle. I think there’s more that can be said to show how Lewis’s case against Naturalism may inform The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For example, Lewis did not just argue (in Miracles and elsewhere) that naturalism is self-refuting (a point I did make, on page 217), he specifically said that naturalism “cuts its own throat” (see his essay “Religion Without Dogma?”), a line I did not include, but which I now consider extremely telling. In a new edition of Planet Narnia, I would draw much more attention to the way Lewis builds up tension in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as the White Witch readies herself to murder Edmund:

“Prepare the victim,” said the Witch. And the dwarf undid Edmund’s collar and folded back his shirt at the neck. Then he took Edmund’s hair and pulled his head back so that he had to raise his chin. After that Edmund heard a strange noise: whizz – whizz – whizz. For a moment he couldn’t think what it was. Then he realized. It was the sound of a knife being sharpened.

We’re not told that the Witch intends to cut Edmund’s throat; Lewis leaves us to deduce that for ourselves. But how interesting that the Witch plans to kill her victim in this particular fashion, rather than poisoning him, say, or hanging him, or drowning him! It’s indicative, I think, of the connection in Lewis’s mind between his case against naturalism and the story he’s unfolding in Narnia. What he described metaphorically in “Religion Without Dogma?” he here dramatises literally. In turning against Aslan and allying himself with the White Witch, Edmund has adopted the position of a naturalist (so to speak), a position that is self-refuting; it saws off the bough on which it sits. Edmund’s rejection of true kingly authority (i.e., the authority represented philosophically by Idealism and theologically by Theism and Christianity, as described in Miracles) will result in the cutting of his throat, unless he is saved by the real King of that world—a salvation which of course does indeed happen as Aslan’s troops come rushing to his rescue in the nick of time. I think this tell-tale parallel about throat-cutting helps support my contention that The Lion is the imaginative re-working of Lewis’s argument against naturalism, but I hadn’t spotted that link before Planet Narnia first came out.

  1. What has the response been to Planet Narnia from creative types (artists, authors, poets, etc.)? Have you been able to see the influence of your own work?

It’s been marvelous how many and various have been the responses. Here are a few of the more notable examples.

The actor, Jamie Parker (now best known for playing the lead role in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), got in touch with me to say that reading Planet Narnia had clued him into atmosphere and symbolism in such a way that he now understood much better his role in As You Like It, which he was then performing in at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. He later went on to take the title role in Henry V and deliberately shaped his performance round the planetary language (e.g. “a largess universal like the Sun”) that Shakespeare uses for the King.

The artist, Toni Jessop, was inspired to paint a series of planetary-themed pictures and mounted a three-week exhibition at a gallery in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia.

The composer, James Whitbourn, wrote a musical portrait of Lewis for the Belfast Philharmonic Choir entitled “The Seven Heavens” (more here: https://vimeo.com/129144613). Another composer, Joel Clarkson, is working on a setting of Lewis’s poem “The Planets” which he plans to premier at The Sheen Center in New York City in 2019. I’ve been honoured to collaborate with James and Joel on both these projects.

The poet, Malcolm Guite, has not only written a sequence of poems entitled “Seven Heavens, Seven Hells” but has had them set to music by Marty O’Donnell, and both poetry and music have been illustrated in a video sequence that will soon be forthcoming. Here’s a taster of the Moon movement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mrDRsB6O_0

Most amusingly, the set-dresser for the BBC’s hit television series, Sherlock, decided to put a copy of Planet Narnia on the bookshelves lining the studio mock-up of 221B Baker Street. (I found out because a keen-eyed viewer took a screenshot of all the books in Holmes’s personal library and posted it on Facebook.) Bizarrely, Sherlock likes literary criticism about theologically imaginative uses of medieval cosmology! But as someone pointed out, it’s just possible that there is a clever allusion here to what Holmes says to Watson in The Study in Scarlet: “You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

Of other responses, let me mention just three. First, an Oxford doctoral student wrote to tell me that thinking about Lewis’s donegalitarian scheme had brought a whole new perspective to his study of the Old Testament Books of Samuel. Second, a young suitor sent me a copy of the planetary-themed love-poem he had addressed to his girlfriend shortly before they got engaged (they’re now married). Third, and perhaps best of all, an already-married couple notified me that they had named their new-born daughter Jovi, after ‘Joviality’. Lewis’s love of Jupiter is now not just known by the literati, it has taken flesh and is walking among us on two legs!

Citation Information

Michael Ward. “Seven Questions: AUJ with Michael Ward.” An Unexpected Journal 1, no. 4. (Advent 2018): 9-22

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///seven-questions-auj-with-michael-ward/


[1] One of Dr. Ward’s doctoral students has also contributed an article to this issue. Read Jahdiel Perez’s piece here: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///where-paradoxes-play-michael-ward-on-christian-orthodoxy/.

[2] George MacDonald, Phantastes, A Faerie Romance (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 85.

[3] C. S. Lewis, “On Obstinacy in Belief,” The Sewanee Review, accessed December 3, 2018, https://thesewaneereview.com/on-obstinacy-and-belief/.