Monday, November 2, 2009

Book Review: Planet Narnia

"In our world," said Eustace, "a star is a huge ball of flaming gas."

"Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of."

(The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 14)

There was this one time in high school where me and some friends were in the car headed out somewhere, and "Higher", by Creed, came on the radio.

Can you take me higher?
To the place where blind men see
Can you take me higher?
To the place with golden streets


My one friend Brett and I immediately started talking about how "solid" it was. This one girl turned around, though, and matter-of-factly said, "What's so solid about it? It's the same four measures over and over again: it's completely unoriginal and boring. There it is again! What's so special about it? What makes it so good to you?"

Brett and I just kind of stared at each other for a minute, and then started into this explanation of the great meaning and poetry of the lyrics and how they reached a good peak just when the music did, and all this other stuff... but this girl wasn't really buying it. She was really into music and couldn't see how, musically, it was anything more than just a banal pop song. To Brett and I, there was a whole world of meaning in that little song, but it didn't excite her in the least. She didn't see it.

There is often quite a difference between what something is composed of and the feeling it evokes. To use a cliché: an object is more than just the sum of its parts. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (the third book in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia), the character Eustace is corrected on this topic. He was incorrectly associating identity and meaning with composition. Before he was gently rebuked, I don't think he would've liked "Higher" either.

I read the Chronicles of Narnia a lot when I was a kid, and I've enjoyed reading them even more as an adult. As an adult, I pick up on a lot more of the imagery, Biblical references, etc. that I missed as a child. I got the "don't be a traitor, be nice to your siblings, honesty is good" themes as a kid, but even now when I know these things I still feel a great sense of something as I read them: something that's more than just what's written there on the page, a sort of magnanimity that transcends merely the plot of the stories. But, to be honest, as many times as I read the books I still felt that they were pretty random at times. I mean, they're kind of fanciful, but it just seems like a hodgepodge of different myths and other elements, and there isn't always good resolution. And, they were popular: why stop at seven? Lewis could've continued on and given us more stories about The Golden Age of Narnia, or the beginnings of Narnia, or gosh, answering all the open-ended stories he has in there (how many times does he cop-out with a 'this isn't his story' kind of thing? A lot. C'mon, I want to know the backstory stories.)

Enter to this confusion Planet Narnia, a book released last year by scholar Michael Ward. It reads not as a book so much as an exhaustively researched thesis or dissertation, because that's what it started out as. In essence, the premise is this: the randomness that you sense when reading the Chronicles? It's not random. The hodgepodge of different myths floating in and out? Not a hodgepodge. Why seven? You'll find out. ;-) All of these questions can be answered when reading the Chronicles through a particular lens: one that is able to add to and enhance their reading. Ward admits that he's found no secret document, no hidden letter of Lewis' that had his intentions for the Narniad scribbled on them or anything - nothing like that. Instead, Ward is claiming that if you look at Lewis' entire corpus of work, especially his non-fiction Medieval books, his poems, and the Cosmic Trilogy, there are themes contained in them which appear even stronger in the Chronicles of Narnia.

I read the book a year ago and meant to put up a review then. As you can tell, I never got around to it. But, I've re-read some of the Narnia books recently and so have been thinking about it more lately. Make no mistake: it's a heady work. But, it's a must-read for anyone who's experienced inexpressible emotions when reading the Chronicles. It's so well-researched and convincing, it's not merely an approach to enjoying the books, it should be the approach to fully enjoying the books.

If you enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia because of what they say about certain virtues, or certain theologies, or anything else- if you're concerned, in other words, with what's just on the pages of the books, you should probably not read Planet Narnia. It will either go over your head, or at the very least will expose you to things that you'll wish you'd never heard of before you read it. Keep reading them on the surface for merely what they're composed of, and you'll remain content.

If, however, you enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia because of how they make you feel, you have to read this book. If you've felt something satisfying in your spirit as you've read the books, you may want to know why, and this book will help with that. I have a feeling you'll read it, read the Chronicles again, and think: "Solid!"