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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

codes and Narnia

First of all, Ashes to Ashes was really fun last night. They have given Alex Drake hope that she might be saved. And they have made things more complicated. It looks good.

On Sunday night, I finally started to watch The Narnia Code. I adored the Narnia books when I was growing up and was interested. About half way through, I turned it off. The theological Phd student Micheal Ward who *discovered* this code obviously has never written a fictional novel, particularly not one for children. Neither did he bother to read CS Lewis's letter to his stepson -- the one which says that he never set out to write seven books. He started with one and they grew. It is difficult to have an overarching code where each book is devoted to a planet if you didn't intend to write Narnia as a set of seven. It would meaning starting out, then writing a sequel (Prince Caspian) and then the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And then seeing that ah, I have done this, so I will continue. That is very difficult on a subconscious level. If it is on an overtly conscience level, why was the Planet code not discovered in his notes and papers?

Also, because in these books, the story is paramount, it would be very difficult to weave in that amount of symbolism where each book is devoted to a different planet (planet as defined by medieval cosmology). The stories, particularly the later stories would have felt forced, particularly the imagery. The Horse and His Boy which is one of the last ones that was published is at its core an adventure story. You get more overtly Christian symbolism with the final two books.

Equally, if he had done that, Lewis would have had a precise ordering to the books. There are two different orderings. Lewis himself is on record as saying that it does not matter in which order the books are read. Given Lewis's deeply held Christian beliefs, if he did have a code, then he would have made sure that the one devoted to the Sun was the first book in one of the orderings. This is because the seven planets are also related to the seven days in medieval cosmology. In the Christian calendar, Sunday is the first day of the week. It is also called Dimanche (or the Lord's day) in French. It is easier to see the correlation between the days and the planets if you use a Latin based language rather than English.
And why choose to start this code with Jupiter and Mars? Because if you believe Lewis, he had only started off to write two books.

As an aside, apparently one of the clues that Ward to his conclusions was in the picture of Mr Tumnus carrying Christmas parcels when he first meets Lucy. This shows a deplorable lack of knowledge about British shopping habits in the early 20th century. As a visit to the Co-op at Beamish Museum shows, ordinary shopping was wrapped up in brown paper and tied with string. They did not use paper bags...Equally I am not certain how much control Lewis had over the pictures. Authors often have far less control over such things than readers imagine.

And then Ward mentioned the trees moving and the fact that the moving trees only appear in Prince Caspian. Actually, they also appear in The Lion,The Witch and the Wardrobe. Going from memory, Mr Tumnus says to Lucy that some of the trees are on the Witch's side. The Magician Nephew also has something about the trees, and the tree that Digory planted moving along with some of the trees in Narnia. It is out of this tree that the wardrobe is created. Personally I always figured that Tolkien and Lewis both were drinking from the same well with the trees.

Anyway, interesting theory but I doubt it. it is looking at stories from the outside in rather than inside out As McKee makes clear in his book, Story, this sort of analysis does not really start until the early 1970s/late 1960s. Lewis worked on the books in the late 1940s/1950s when the literary theory about structure was paramount. So he would have been thinking about plot, structure, conflict rather than the language.

And people should just enjoy the books rather than searching for third meanings.

Literary theory should look at how storytellers write stories before pronouncing on codes. Attempting to give order to randomness can lead to false assumptions.
Browning's statement about once Browning and God knew the meaning of the poem but now only God knows always has struck me as an accurate representation on how writers work.


Kate Hardy said...

I think I'm very glad I missed that programme. Sounds very pompous.

As you say, the man can't have created anything. I often write a book and suddenly one of the secondaries will take over and demand his/her own story - and, as I'm an uber-planner and know exactly where my books are going before I start writing them, this is all subconscious stuff and NOT planned.

I remember having to write pastiche Renaissance sonnets as an undergraduate exercise. "Black outshining white - very bold," was my tutor's comment. Er: I did it for rhyme purposes...

Just goes to show how easy it is to overanalyse something!

your sister said...

Bravo, Michelle!

Michelle Styles said...

Glad you approve.

Michael said...

The programme gave only a very brief account of my discovery. And if you saw only the first half of the programme you would have received an even briefer account!

Take a look at the FAQ page on my website:

Perhaps that will encourage you to read the book itself and come to a more considered judgement. I certainly hope so! With kind regards, Michael Ward.

Julie Cohen said...

This is a really interesting post, Michelle. I haven't seen the programme (or read more than two Narnia books) so I can't comment on the conclusions that you're discussing. But as a writer and a student/teacher of literature, I have to sort of disagree with this statement:

And people should just enjoy the books rather than searching for third meanings.Literary theory should look at how storytellers write stories before pronouncing on codes. Attempting to give order to randomness can lead to false assumptions.

For many people, searching for meanings is a huge part of enjoying books. I actually like looking for subtexts, or symbolism, even if the author didn't consciously mean to put them in. I'm not so big on "codes" because it can so often seem like bending facts to suit a theory rather than otherwise, but it can still be an enjoyable exercise that lends extra resonance to a text.

I really believe that an author can do as s/he will, but the act that creates the true meaning of a book is when it's read. Readers create their own relationship with a text, and it's just as valid, if not more so, than what the author overtly meant to do. That's one of the many magical things about reading, IMO.