Monday, April 20, 2009

The Narnia Code

The Narnia Code, inspired by Michael Ward’s book Planet Narnia, was broadcast on BBC1 last week. It was on quite late so I recorded it and watched it over the weekend (the link takes you to the show). The show brought back to me just how important a figure C.S. Lewis is.

The show started with a brief review of Lewis’s life up until he began to write the Narnia chronicles. It was illustrated by some poignant vignettes from his life such as the death of his mother, being tutored by the Great Knock and the Inklings arguing in the Eagle and Child pub. These dramatic reconstructions worked extremely well and I could have happily sat through a much longer programme just telling the story of Lewis’s life. Most of the material was based on Surprised by Joy, the autobiography of his early life which I have always felt would make an excellent film.

What of the Narnia code itself? Ward’s thesis is that each of the seven Narnia books is modelled on the attributes of one of the seven planets in the medieval universe. These are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun and the Moon. We learnt from the programme that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe represents Jupiter (the bringer of joy as Holst fans will recall), Prince Caspian represents Mars (the god of war), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader represents the Sun and The Silver Chair the Moon. I was slightly annoyed we were not told the planets of the other three books (unless I missed that part) since I had them laid out before me and wanted to know if my guesses were right. I would have thought The Horse and his Boy was Venus, The Last Battle was Saturn and The Magician’s Nephew Mercury, but it has been a long time since I read them.

The experts on the show disagreed about whether Ward’s theory is right, but as I’ve said before I think it is plausible. Like most medievalists, I learnt about the worldview of the Middle Ages at Lewis’s feet, from reading The Discarded Image. One question that the show did not address was why Lewis never let on what he was up to. But then, the really good ideas don’t just provide answers, they also raise interesting new questions. Michael Ward’s theory of the planets is like that.

The last part of the show featured Professors Polkinghorne and Gingerich on the stupidity of seeing science and religion in conflict. This was all very commendable (and Polkinghorne looks good on TV) but looked like padding. When there was so much rich material directly relevant to the thrust of the show, it was not necessary. Instead, we could have seen a debunking of the flat earth myth (a subtle point in the context since Narnia is flat); Dante’s cosmology or references to Chaucer and his astrolabe. It was a good opportunity to talk up the Middle Ages which was not entirely grasped. Michael Ward himself was also a good TV presenter (my wife was very impressed by his smile and manner). Perhaps we will see some more of him in the future.

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