Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward

One of the things one wonders about as one approaches the end of the collected letters of C.S. Lewis is how he words his negative replies to inquiries about more Chronicles of Narnia. He speaks as if the idea is exhausted; there can be no more Chronicles than the seven written; as if he had a good and perfect reason that he simply doesn’t bother to go into. And it leaves one wondering because it would seem that he can’t have run out of good things he might say, and since the Chronicles evidence such a higgledy-piggledy sloshing together of the disparate things his learning and catholicity of appreciation gave him access to all charmingly fused by his great storytelling capabilities, why not? Why quit like that when these books are successful and loved and doing a lot of good? He could write about the adventure of another set of kids in a different part of Narnia, or expand on the reign of the Pevensies or do a complete biography of Tumnus, Reepicheep or even Jadis. Lewis was asked more than once from what we can see in the surviving correspondence, and by children, to write more, but he didn’t.

When I started Planet Narnia and realized what Ward was proposing, I reacted the way Alan Jacobs describes on the blurb on the back of the dust jacket. “Noting Michael Ward’s claim that he has discovered ‘the secret imaginative key’ to the Narnia books, the sensible reader responds by erecting a castle of skepticism.” By the end of the book, my castle was demolished too. The argument is persuasive.

Here is what Ward is doing: he claims to have discovered an underlying unity Lewis never spoke about directly, but which is all over his published work and can be demonstrated by analyzing the Chronicles. There was an imaginative idea which at the end of seven Chronicles was played out, which is why Lewis could say categorically there would be no more Chronicles once the seventh was published. And he never told people about this. We know he was doing other things with the Chronicles, but this is the deepest and most profound aspect of what he was doing—something he kept a secret.

Why? That is the question Ward has to take head on; and he does: he starts there. He also ends there, and I have to say he structures his last reason very nicely. But he takes the thing on from the start knowing that nobody is more skeptical of special hidden meanings in the works of C.S. Lewis than the people who are most influenced by those same works.

The answer to the question why is twofold. On the one hand, it actually is something Lewis would do; not in the kooky sense of leaving cryptic messages but in the sense of leaving a great achievement modestly concealed and even unrecognized. Think of Till We Have Faces. Nothing cryptic or especially esoteric there; but it was his greatest work and it was one of the worst received ever. Read how he felt about it in his letters (Hint: use the index). On the other hand—answering the Why of what Ward finds—it has to do with how Lewis communicates. For this Ward coins the term donegality (I know how it seems at first, but the term grows on you, and I wonder if Ward himself, since his concept and his book are that way, isn’t that way in person as well: he grows on you).

Donegality has to do with a very important distinction in the thinking of Lewis (and reasonable people everywhere). It is the distinction for which Ward uses the words enjoying and contemplating. The second is more of analysis, detached, watching from the outside. The first one is about personal, participatory knowledge (Ward gets into Barfield sufficiently to satisfy me even on Barfieldean grounds, though he doesn’t list Saving the Appearances in his bibliography, which is odd from a few conclusions he later draws; apparently he gets all he needs from Poetic Diction and The Rediscovery of Meaning). Donegality is when a story is full of the quiddity of a thing; it is to communicate by a sort of gestalt. Don’t think of it as something peripheral here, think of it as central, though it is like a hovering presence all around. When Ward explained donegality, I grew excited but my skepticism was not dispelled till he demonstrated the Jovial donegality in Lewis’s scholarship, poetry, fiction outside of the Chronicles, and then finally in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

So Jupiter, Jove, has the jovial donegality, Mars the martial, Sol the solar, Luna the lunar, Mercury the mercurial, the adjective for the influence of Venus alas is venereal and that of Saturn is saturnine. Seven Ptolemaic planets with all their ancient and medieval associations to communicate in each book the peculiar donegality through the influence each planet has. There is a gestalt of Jove you don’t express except through atmosphere and the accrual of symbols. You don’t state it, you suggest it with all the elements working in concert, including the plot, the details, the characters involved (such as Father Christmas). And when that is done, the series is done and the organizing principle all used up. You see? No more planets, at least not with a richness of ancient and medieval associations on which to build.

What Ward also does at the end of each chapter on each planet is to speak of the logos, the theological importance. It ties in the work of donegality with that of pre-evangelism Lewis explicitly mentioned. And what Ward does after all that in a chapter dealing with the debate with Anscombe and the flaw in the first edition of Miracles and Lewis’s thoughts on apologetics did much intrigue me.

This is not an idea calculated to win over those who are incapable of appreciating the Chronicles: donegality. But if you are one of the lovers and re-readers of Narnia, then this will add to the enjoyment, because it leaves everything you’ve ever had and opens up new possibilities along lines that are true to what you already have and appreciate. Which is what makes me think that this book can’t help those who don’t already appreciate to appreciate: it just is not part of how donegality works. You have to be inside the building to get to the door this key unlocks.

Let me tell you, what Ward does is amazing and I am a believer. Ward has been studying and thinking about Lewis for decades, apparently, and he’s also a theologian and a good one from what I can tell. The book was apparently conceived while he was working on a Ph.D. and there is perhaps a bit too much of the academy about the thing still, but the idea is so exciting one forgives him.

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