Planet Narnia reads a bit like a PhD thesis. (And may well have been exactly that in fact. I haven’t done any research to find out.) But if you like your books full of references and with a very precise structure you are in for a treat. And it is a double treat if you like a rather tortured academic style of writing.
The trouble is that as the subject matter is the writing of C.S.Lewis, the academic style seems more than a little misplaced. Don’t get me wrong, I am a great lover of Lewis’ writing, and I know very well that he was himself a considerable scholar by any standards. It’s just that for me his writing is not really the kind of stuff that calls for in depth analysis. It is entertaining and enjoyable, which is about the hardest thing to achieve when you are putting words together. But it was written for the general public with a very clear purpose to put forward a particular point of view. I don’t begrudge Lewis his opinions and I like that he writes about them so enthusiastically. I just think that it is all straight forward enough and not really in need of any further interpretation.
Or so I thought. But it turns out that the Narnia series in particular but Lewis’ writing more generally has held a secret that nobody prior to the author has picked up on. Why are there seven books in the Narnia series? (I am sure Lewis himself would find the notion of referring to them as the “Narniad” just as vomit inducing as I do.) According to the author’s proposal, each corresponds to one of the celestial deities of the classical cosmology. For example The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is devoted to the god Jupiter and many of the themes in the book reflect the personality of Jupiter himself.
It is an interesting idea and it seems to fit the facts well enough. I am quite prepared to believe it. I grew up with Lewis – the Narnia books were much in vogue when I was a kid and I had read them all by the time I was 12 some of them several times. It always seemed to me that his Christianity was a bit at odds with the official version. It seemed a lot richer and deeper, and absolutely crucially seemed to require a lot more personal effort than what we got in Sunday school and assembly. I always felt that Lewis was taking it back to basics a bit more than the representatives of Christianity I met in real life. And as to writing stories about mythical creatures, well that seemed not just unorthodox but positively going against the grain of organised religion. So I have never regarded Lewis as a pure Christian. To discover that he was in fact a bit of a closet neoplatonist suits me just fine.
Is Planet Narnia correct in its assertion? The case is well made in the sense that lots of evidence has been marshalled to support its central argument. And it all seems to work on examination. It even explains the otherwise rather bizarre Horse and his Boy, which has never really fitted into the narrative of the rest of the books. I recommend this book to anyone with a deep interest in Lewis. You will find it illuminating and thought provoking. But as a book it is a nightmare. It is hard to follow and much too convoluted. It is hard work to read. I have a feeling that Michael Ward probably could write a much more readable version if he put his mind to it. And to do justice to Lewis, whose easy to read to prose is his biggest asset, this book really should have been written in a much more readable style. But these are quibbles, Planet Narnia is definitely worth a read.