Monday, July 29, 2013

Michael Ward's NARNIA CODE

So, I've been watching the dvd devoted to Michael Ward's theory that the seven chronicles of Narnia are meant to subliminally resonate with the seven planets in the Ptolemaic system. I'm pretty dubious about the theory, but I'll keep it in mind if (more likely when) I need to re-read the Narnia books somewhere down the line.

What's more interesting than the claim itself is that it casts Lewis as exactly the kind of writer he himself publicly disparaged: he denounced writers whose works can only be understood with private knowledge about the writer which he or she withholds. I suppose it might be argued that Lewis buried the evidence within the work, but that seems to me special pleading, given that Ward reads CSL's alliterative poem "The Planets" as key to 'breaking the code' -- a work never published with the Narnia books or in any way connected to them by Lewis. Even the circumstantial evidence from Lewis's lecturing on the Ptolemaic system (in his lecture series written up as THE DISCARDED IMAGE) relies on outside biographical evidence of exactly the sort Lewis disdained when criticizing T. S. Eliot.

Be that as it may, this documentary brings together a constellation of Lewis scholars and wd be of interest for that reason alone, to put faces to those familiar names. In addition to Ward himself, who is ubiquitous, there are James Como, Brian Sibley, Alan Jacobs, Jerry Root, Don King, Walter Hooper, and others whose names are unfamiliar to me: Francis Spufford, John Wilson, Malcolm Guite, Eric Metaxas. We also get to see a lot of interesting places, like the Kilns, Magdalene College (though not Lewis's rooms therein), Addison's Walk, the Eagle and Child (inside and out), WWI trenches (hadn't realized any of these survived), the Wade Center, Lewis's grave, etc.

So, how big a deal is Ward's theory? Well, in addition to this documentary [2009?] it's been featured in two books (PLANET NARNIA [2008] and THE NARNIA CODE [2010]), one of which won the Mythopoeic Award. And if this were not enough, I gather from a recent news article that Ward, along with recent Lewis biographer McGrath and Prof. Susan Cooper, who holds Lewis's chair at Cambridge, will be taking part in the ceremonies to mark Lewis's commemoration in Poet's Corner later this year. So, within Lewis scholarship it's been a big deal, or at least that (ever-increasing) part of it devoted to Narnia studies.

Two passages I found myself in disagreement with:

First, Ward claims that Lewis was incapable of slapdash or careless writing as a result of his training in argument by The Great Knock. Hence, if the Narnia books seem sloppy, that surface confusion can't reflect the reality of the work: any flaw lies in the reader (i.e., his or her insufficient knowledge), not the book being read. That seems to me wrong-headed. It also I think mistakes rhetorical gifts (which Lewis had in abundance) for literary ones (which he also had in abundance, and the further he kept the two apart, the better the result). Ward's presupposition that the Narnia books are superlative, and hence we must search until we find the missing element that will make them so, I think begs the question.

Second, Alan Jacobs assertions that
(a) when Lewis returned to Oxford after the war, he found himself much older than his fellow undergraduates (true enough, but only if one excludes all his fellow returning veterans, of whom there were many)
(b) unlike other skeptics and atheists, Lewis had a love of learning (this is simply insulting to all scholars and scientists who are not also theists -- like, say, the Great Knock)
(c) When Lewis tried to teach philosophy he discovered he cdn't because he didn't have a philosophy of his own (so much for the years of developing his position through the 'Great War' with Owen Barfield).

For me the highlights of the piece were threefold.
First, I really enjoyed the three scenes in the re-enactments that featured Tolkien (played by Rbt Hickson, with Anton Rogers as CSL). I've now discovered, rather to my surprise, that these are apparently all taken from an earlier documentary (CSL: BEYOND NARNIA, circa 2005); thanks to Jessica Yates for letting me know. The three re-enactments in question were  (1) that fateful night on Addison's walk (T, L, and an unnamed third [=Dyson]), (2) Dyson's 'bloody elf' episode, and (3) Tolkien calling out Lewis on Narnia.

The middle of these, meant to represent a typical Inklings meeting, is the most interesting: it takes place in the Eagle and Child (whereas the read-aloud sessions really all took place in Lewis's or Tolkien's rooms) and is well-attended, with perhaps eight or nine Inklings present. Barfield, Lewis, Tolkien, and Dyson are identified by name; Warnie can also be identified (partly by the mustache and partly by the fact he walks Lewis home afterwards).* After Barfield begs off reading anything this time, Tolkien admits to having 'added to his manuscript'. As he gets ready to read, he has the following quick exchange with Dyson:

'Dyson': Ah, no, Tollers, not another bloody elf!
'Tolkien': You can cover your ears, if you want"
'Dyson': I may do just that.

Rather than the fraught exchange depicted by some biographers, this re-enactments presents it as good-humored chaff, with the other Inklings chuckling at JRRT's rejoinder. An interesting take on a rather murky episode.

Ironically, the other two highlights are both to be found in the Extras, not in the documentary itself.

(1) reminiscences by three men who actually knew Lewis; a bishop who was a chaplain at Cambridge when Lewis first came, a man whom Lewis gave a tea set to as a wedding present (they show the teacups), and Lewis's literary executor and editor of most of his posthumous works, Walter Hooper.

The bishop is interesting in that he describes Lewis as a v. secretive man, which accords well w. McGrath's recent interpretation (and, as Janice points out, Lewis was secretive for a reason: he had things to hide, first re. Mrs. Moore and later re. Mrs. Gresham). He also mentions one time he disagreed with a point Lewis made and received a withering full-bore oratorical assault that he said was quite bullying -- and, despite which, he knew full well that Lewis was quite wrong in the point he was so emphatically asserting.

The passage with Hooper is interesting both for its length (a full ten minutes) and because Hooper shows Ward the typescript for THE SILVER CHAIR, which I hadn't known survived (and, apparently, in Hooper's possession, rather than in the Bodleian, unless he'd borrowed it for this occasion). He said he now thinks he and others overstated the degree to which Lewis destroyed his own manuscripts, and instead now believes many of them were burned by Major Lewis in the famous bonfire, THE SILVER CHAIR typescript being among the items he (Hooper) carried off that day. Interesting to see the bonfire story has now fully re-surfaced, having been eclipsed for a while in the '80s and '90s.

(2) Ward himself giving his whole theory in one single long (fifteen-minute) exposition. This is the best chance to take it in as a whole and see how it all hangs together, relating each of the seven books to the Ptolemaic body he thinks it corresponds to, and detailing why. Unfortunately the timing was a bit off, so the voice and video were slightly out of sync, but that didn't affect the coherency of his argument. Having listened to the whole, have to say I'm unconvinced (a) that Lewis had such a plan --the Mercury/HORSE AND HIS BOY connections seem particularly weak -- and (b) that it matters if he did.

The theory is ingenious, but I find myself put off by the documentary's focus being on Ward, not Lewis or his works, and also by a statement Ward makes in his book, where he argues that his theory is so compelling that he considers the burden of proof to be on those who disagree with him.** That is, that his theory shd be accepted as true until disproven. That's not the way scholarly research works.

In any case: an interesting documentary, if a bit quirky. I'm surprised it hasn't shown up on The History Channel.

--John R.

*in the later similar session, there's a much younger man behind JRRT who I think is meant to be Young Christopher

**PLANET NARNIA, p. 215: "[This] interpretation seems to me to account for so many things that I would even dare to suggest that the burden of proof now rests with those who would dispute it."


Anonymous said...

I also disagree with some aspects of Ward's theory. Read my book review of VDT. He ridicules Lewis's schemata that says this novel is about the spiritual life. Ridiculous!

David Bratman said...

To disprove Ward's point, it is necessary not merely to prove that Dawn Treader depicts the spiritual life, but that the other Narnian books don't.