Becoming Acquainted with “The Inklings”

“It was a pleasantly ingenious pun in its way, suggesting people with
vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien[1]

The Oxford Inklings have long held a fascination for me—a group of great literary authors meeting weekly to share their poetry and fiction, and discuss their ideas and beliefs. A meeting of the minds who, at different points in their careers, produced The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Poetic Diction, The Place of the Lion, and multiple other works across a great range of genres and topics. How did these writers come to know each other? How much did they influence one another’s work? Such questions as these are addressed by Humphrey Carpenter in his biographical work The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends.

The InklingsIn many ways, Carpenter’s The Inklings is primarily a biography of C.S. Lewis, with the lives of Tolkien, Williams, Owen Barfield and others woven in when their narrative threads cross paths with Lewis’s. Yet this is perhaps an entirely appropriate approach considering the group that called themselves the Inklings ultimately orbited around Lewis—the meetings took place in his Magdalen rooms, and his friendship was what the members of the group held in common. Nonetheless, Carpenter’s weaving together of these many, and often disparate, biographical threads produces a compelling tapestry that displays a historical picture both complex and deep, inviting one into the nuanced differences of multiple intellectual and creative lives.

Certain aspects of this interwoven narrative particularly shone forth for me, such as the descriptions of the shared feeling between Lewis and Tolkien when reading certain myths and stories of familiarity with the unfolding tale, a sense of longing and nostalgia as though one has somehow participated in this story before. It is a feeling with which I also am familiar, becoming apparent to me the first time I heard The Hobbit read aloud. Names such as Rivendell, Middle-Earth, and Dale, the songs and laughter of the Elves, all felt deeply familiar from the first time I heard them. Tolkien was able to imbue his own stories with that same essence that he and Lewis felt and found so richly compelling in the myths of Northern Europe.

Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship could really be seen as the core of the Inklings, as it was they who were the most consistent members throughout the duration of the informal literary group. Another moment I found particularly touching and unique to their characters was when Lewis first critiqued a poem of Tolkien’s, but instead of simply writing a commentary in his own voice he rather chose to execute his narrative creativity by annotating the poem “as if it were a celebrated piece of ancient literature, already heavily studied by scholars with such names as ‘Pumpernickel,’ ‘Peabody,’ ‘Bentley,’ and ‘Schick;’ he alleged that any weaknesses in Tolkien’s verses were the result of scribal errors or corruptions in the manuscript.”[2] Their creativity is coming through even in these most simple of interactions, giving the reader a greater sense of the imaginations able to access the worlds of Narnia and Middle-Earth.

Perhaps my favorite chapter in the whole of the book was the one entitled “Mythopoeia.” It centers around Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, first through his recognition of a divine presence when he, in his words, “admitted that God was God,”[3] and ending with his belief in the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The key to his conversion was a recognition of the truth of myth, as articulated both by Barfield and by Tolkien. Barfield’s book Poetic Diction had a major impact on both Lewis and Tolkien, in which he describes the way in which language has evolved to show a correlated evolution of consciousness, from mythical perception to rational intellect. In Carpenter’s narrative: “In the dawn of language, said Barfield, speakers did not make a distinction between the ‘literal’ and the ‘metaphorical,’ but used words in what might be called a ‘mythological’ manner.”[4] One of the examples Barfield uses to illustrate this is when we translate the Latin word spiritus into English it can mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit” depending on the context. Yet for the ancient speakers of the word spiritus it meant all three of these words, and perhaps more, all at once—they were a unified whole in which the physical is indistinguishable from its psychical, ensouled presence. This is also the perspective from which Tolkien argued when he and Lewis entered into debate about the truth of myths. To quote Carpenter’s narrative at some length:

[Lewis] still did not believe in the myths that delighted him. Beautiful and moving though such stories might be, they were (he said) ultimately untrue. As he expressed it to Tolkien, myths are “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”

No, said Tolkien. They are not lies.

Just then (Lewis afterwards recalled) there was a “rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.”[5]

Tolkien goes on to illustrate his point with what surrounded them in that moment, the trees and night sky overhead. I find it significant that in this pivotal moment it is as though the world itself is speaking, to offer its subtle yet powerful evidence to the words Tolkien says. No, myths are not lies. They are all around us. The rush of wind, spiritus, makes its presence known. The men hold their breath, spiritus. Spirit is present.

To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of “trees” and “stars” saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music.[6]

I would even alter Carpenter’s language further in keeping with what both Tolkien and Barfield understood. The stars were not “as living silver” they were living silver. Not only did the first humans to speak of trees and stars “see” them differently, they were different because they were in participatory relationship to these ancient people.

Lewis’s conversion to Christianity came about later that night when Tolkien explained first that “not merely the abstract thoughts of man but also his imaginative inventions must originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth,”[7] and then later not only is “the death and resurrection of Christ . . . the old ‘dying god’ story all over again,” but that “here is a real Dying God, with a precise location in history and definite historical consequences. The old myth has become fact.”[8] Tolkien’s recourse to myth, first by showing the truth of it, and then by showing how myth entered history in the story of Christ, is what led to Lewis’s conversion, and hence to his many works of Christian apologetics and allegorical fantasy.

The Inkling with whom I was the least familiar, but whose life and personality I felt completely charmed by and engaged with, was Charles Williams. The portrait Carpenter draws of him feels so alive, I was amazed I had somehow gone so long without an introduction to Williams and his work. In Carpenter’s words:

He would treat someone’s personal worry with the same vitality that he showed in [his] lecture, the same grave courtesy and fiery vision; so that it was easy to go home feeling that this was what it would have been like to meet Dante himself, or Blake, or even Shakespeare.[9]

Williams seemed to be an immensely complex and nuanced figure, always holding in balance perspectives of light and shadow: “Behind every bad thing he could see something good, and also behind every good thing he could see darkness.”[10] Furthermore, “He was able to embrace everything—belief and doubt, hope and disillusion, love and hatred—within the secure irony that he had developed.”[11] Meeting Williams through biography first, rather than through his fiction, has left me simply with the wish that I might have met him.

Carpenter’s biographical style flows best when he is able to paint a narrative picture, as though one were really present, for example, at a particular meeting of the Inklings. He does this in a chapter entitled “Thursday evenings,” in which he combines quotations from works and letters with multiple reports of what the evenings were like to give a fictional portrait of an Inklings gathering (he does this also in his book J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography in which he narrates a sample day of Tolkien’s life in Oxford). The effect is absolutely enticing, making the reader feel almost as if they were there, and wish that to do so were really a possibility.

Perhaps my most pervasive feeling as I read The Inklings was a continual desire to have been able to participate in this group, wondering what it may have been like to listen to the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings when it was still titled “The New Hobbit,” or to hear Barfield and Tolkien discuss language, or Lewis and Williams on poetry and theology. And this longing actually brought forward an unexpectedly painful realization as I continued to read about this group of writers, at least one of whom has fundamentally shaped who I am and how I think, feel, imagine, and engage creatively with the world. All of the Inklings were men, and a woman was never permitted to be present at a Thursday gathering, or invited to join in the conversation at the Bird and Baby pub on Tuesday mornings. I realized that at the table of my intellectual forebears I, as a woman, would not have been welcome.

It was Lewis who held the most, to be frank, misogynist views, but I was pained to find the ways in which Barfield and Tolkien also agreed with him. Lewis has said that

“the husband is the head of the wife just so far as he is to her what Christ is to the Church” adding: “If there must be a head, why the man? Well, is there any very serious wish that it should be the woman?” And elsewhere: “Do you really want a matriarchal world? Do you really like women in authority? When you seek authority yourself, do you naturally seek it in a woman?”[12]

I had hoped such views might have been confined to Lewis, but Tolkien has also written:

“How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp the teacher’s ideas, see his point—and how (with some exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him. It is their gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male.”[13]

I do recognize that such sexist views are, in large part, a product of the time in which these men lived. Yet I also cannot help but feel their words with pain, and recognize the countless women whose voices have been silenced, again and again, by such mistaken and degrading beliefs. It is an injustice to recognize at once how much Tolkien and so many other male writers have shaped who I am through their words and imaginal creations, and then to know that they regarded “the female mind as inferior to the male.”[14] If somehow I were able to go back through time and arrive at Lewis’s Magdalen door on a Thursday evening I would not have been permitted to cross the threshold because of my gender.

There is some comfort to know that perhaps Williams might have made an argument for my entry if such a situation were to occur (and it would be far more likely to occur in the supernatural fluidity of space and time in Williams’ novels than elsewhere). Williams once said that it would be likely that “any principle of the relations of the sexes will be wrong, since there are, after all, no such things; there are an infinite number of women and an infinite number of men.”[15] Williams, it seems, would have at least based his admission on individual merit rather than blind gender exclusion.

Perhaps because of these statements from Lewis and Tolkien I was particularly delighted to meet on the page the woman who became Lewis’s wife later in his life, Joy Davidman.

Lewis was astonished by her. “Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard,” he wrote of her. “Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it. It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening. How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure of being exposed and laughed at.”[16]

That such a woman came into his life and made the powerful impact she did felt long overdue as I was reaching the later pages of Carpenter’s book. But the role Joy Davidman played in Lewis’s life was indeed significant, and one that seemed to make a lasting imprint.

Both Lewis and Tolkien were resistant to having their personal lives explored in the context of their literary works, likely because they did not want the work to be psychoanalyzed and picked apart in search of biographical details and hidden personal truths. My sense is that this desire in part comes from their belief—shared at least after Lewis’s conversion—that myths ultimately are true. Because the source of myth is beyond simple human invention, but is rather the divine imagination creating through the human artist, the personal lives of the creators should not be looked to for the source of the stories. A human being is simply the container for them, the vessel into which the divine inspiration pours. And while such myths may be “partially spoiled in each writer by the admixture of his own mere individual ‘invention,’”[17] the hope is that we as readers, as fellow explorers of imagination, can see past those personal faults, and truly “glimpse” the reality of “Other-worlds.”[18]

Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, qtd. in Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006), 67.

[2] Carpenter, The Inklings, 30,

[3] C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 40.

[4] Carpenter, The Inklings, 41.

[5] Carpenter, The Inklings, 43.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Carpenter, The Inklings, 44.

[9] Ibid, 74.

[10] Ibid, 80.

[11] Ibid, 90.

[12] C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 164.

[13] J.R.R. Tolkien, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 169.

[14] Carpenter, The Inklings, 164.

[15] Carpenter, The Inklings, 171.

[16] C.S. Lewis qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 237.

[17] Carpenter, The Inklings, 138.

[18] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 64.

A Review of “Planet Narnia”: Finding the Hidden Gods

Many critics have said that C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia seem to possess “little apparent coherence in design,” no clear continuity of tone or characters, or even consistent level of Christian allegory. Yet somehow these seven stories, penned “by an unlikely novice,” have gone on to “become some of the best-selling and most influential fables in the world.”[1] In a book that started out as his doctoral dissertation, Michael Ward lays out what he believes is the underlying scheme present in The Chronicles: each of the seven short novels is an homage to one of the seven planets of the ancient cosmos, expressed through the atmosphere and tone of each book. Not only does this provide an account for the great variations between each of the stories, it also offers a much greater depth of insight to The Chronicles as a whole, and also to the author who dreamt them into being.

Planet NarniaUpon completing this book, I was entirely convinced by Ward’s argument, and as someone who seeks to keep my own archetypal eye open to the astrological manifestations in our world, I could clearly see how each of Lewis’s books expressed the planetary aura in a subtle and implicit way. As Ward writes, this aura or atmosphere must “remain hidden, woven into the warp and woof of the story so that it comprises not an object for Contemplation but the whole field of vision within which the story is experienced.”[2] Ward’s methods for understanding the characteristics of each planet, as far as I could tell, were based entirely upon Lewis’s own expression of the planetary qualities in his other works, from his literary scholarship, to his Ransom Trilogy comprised of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, to his poetry—particularly the poem entitled “The Planets,” which Ward was reading when the insight came to him about the underlying theme of The Chronicles. Ward did not draw on medieval sources of astrology, nor any contemporary works. Thus Ward’s depiction of the planetary archetypes was entirely through Lewis’s own perspective on them, which led to some interesting archetypal combinations that I will explore forthwith. Not only do each of The Chronicles of Narnia appear to subtly correlate to each of the ancient planets, as Lewis understood them from his breadth of knowledge about Medieval and Renaissance literature, but the expression of those planets is characterized by how they are each aspected in Lewis’s birth chart, which includes the archetypes of the three outer planets, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.

C.S. Lewis’s Birth Chart
C.S. Lewis’s Birth Chart

The planetary correspondence to each novel (in the order Lewis wrote them) Ward has identified as follows:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe ­– Jupiter
Prince Caspian – Mars
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – Sun
The Silver Chair – Moon
The Horse and His Boy – Mercury
The Magician’s Nephew – Venus
The Last Battle – Saturn

Painting by Jeremiah Briggs
Painting by Jeremiah Briggs

The first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, expresses the Jupiterian archetype through its Jovial turn from winter to summer, the kingliness of the divine lion Aslan, the crowning of the four children and their peaceful rulership of Narnia, and many other subtle expressions that Ward points out. Lewis particularly favored the planet Jupiter, and it is interesting to note that while he is not born with Sun-Jupiter, as one might expect from his feeling of its centrality to his personality, he does have five planets in Sagittarius (six if including Chiron) which is the zodiac sign ruled by Jupiter. But another aspect that is interesting to note is that Lewis is born with Jupiter square Mars, and the theme of triumphant and victorious battle plays a major role in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Furthermore, Lewis is also born with Jupiter trine Neptune, which can be seen not only in the explicit religious and spiritual themes expressed in the novel, particularly in the self-sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan, but also in his choice of re-telling the Gospel story in the form of a fantasy novel. The story concludes by the shores of Narnia, by the great ocean ruled by Neptune, a symbol of the eternal realm. As Ward writes,

[Lewis] tells us that the waves break “for ever and ever,” as if they belong to an eternal realm; and this is indeed what he is wanting to evoke, what the whole book has been intended to evoke: a glimpse of supernatural reality, a window onto an aspect of the divine nature.[3]

We see Lewis’s Jupiter-Neptune expressed here in the depiction of an eternal realm, the supernatural reality, and the divine nature, all within the Jupiterian context of the novel that Ward has already laid forth.

Interestingly, in the summer of 1948 when Lewis began to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he happened to be undergoing a long transit of Jupiter conjoining his natal Mercury—perfect for writing a novel with a strong Jupiterian theme.

Painting by Ludek Pesek
Painting by Ludek Pesek

The second book written in the series, Prince Caspian, is an expression of the planet Mars, run through with martial themes of war and violence. The entire story centers on the War of Deliverance that liberates Narnia from the tyrannical rule of the usurper King Miraz, with the Old Narnians and Prince Caspian aided by the four Pevensie children who first appeared in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Yet many of the themes Ward draws forward that illustrate the Martian atmosphere of the story actually have a more complex Mars-Saturn quality: discipline and obedience in the chain of military command, the necessity of war, steadfast strength in battle, the integrity of the true warrior. And it naturally follows to mention that C.S. Lewis is born with Mars trine Saturn in his natal chart. As Ward concludes the chapter on Mars he writes the primary themes present in Prince Caspian: “Discipline—obedience—faithfulness—strength—growth.”[4] All of these qualities are manifestations of the planetary archetype of Saturn, but they are expressed through the Martian realm of the warrior in battle as portrayed in Prince Caspian. Thus, while the book is indeed an homage to Mars, it is Mars as seen through Lewis’s own Mars-Saturn complex.

SunThe Voyage of the Dawn Treader is clearly an expression of the Solar journey, as the heroes embark upon a sea voyage into the utter East, the land of the rising Sun. However, while much of the imagery in the tale is actually Neptunian—the atmosphere of the eternal ocean, the spiritual quest—many of the episodes within the story are Plutonic, which resonates with Lewis’s natal Sun-Pluto opposition (he does also have a very wide Sun-Neptune opposition). Much of the Solar imagery is alchemical, focusing on the transmutational and transformative power of the Solar gold. Ward writes about the “connection in [Lewis’s] imagination between Solar influence (improperly received) and the will to power;”[5] the will to power is a clear manifestation of Pluto. Much of the story is about the transformation of one’s personal greed, ambition, and desire for power, all qualities associated with Pluto, into service for a higher good. Furthermore, a central piece of the story is Eustace’s journey of being turned into a dragon—an expression of the Plutonic underworld demon—and being transformed into a better person for the experience. The Solar ego with which Eustace enters the story constellates the Plutonic dragon energy within himself, transforming his very being into a monster, and when he is reborn from the discarded scales of the dragon, like a snake shedding its skin, he is reborn as a new Solar hero, humble and able to be in service to the whole.

Painting by Oscar Nilsson
Painting by Oscar Nilsson

The Moon is the underlying theme of The Silver Chair, yet much of the imagery present in the story has little in common with an archetypal understanding of the Moon as an expression of emotion, feeling, caretaking, relationality, family, and nourishment. Indeed, the story is far more expressive of the two planets Lewis has in conjunction with the Moon: Neptune and Pluto. The story is darker than the previous three, and much of it is set in a dangerous land inhabited by vicious giants, and in Underland, the underworld realm of the witch reborn. The Neptunian theme is also carried throughout in the form of water and wetness, from rain and fog, to marshes, tears, and an underground lake. Prince Rilian, who the heroes are attempting to rescue, is under an evil (Pluto) enchantment (Neptune) cast by the vile (Pluto) sorcery (Neptune) of the witch-queen, who transforms (Pluto) into a giant, terrifying serpent (Pluto) through her magical (Neptune) powers (Pluto). Most of the Lunar imagery is distorted through the Plutonic lens with which Lewis perceived it, and Ward spends much of the chapter on The Silver Chair defining the Moon by its relational submission to the Sun—a repression of the Lunar that is not only evident in Lewis’s chart but in the patriarchal culture that shaped his views, a culture that has elevated the Solar at the expense of the denied and relegated Lunar. Interestingly, one way in which the Lunar is able to shine through in this story is when the young girl Jill asks if she may return home at the end of the narrative, the only character to make such a request in the entirety of the Narniad. Lewis’s own struggle integrating the Lunar archetype in his life is clearly present in its expression in The Silver Chair.

MercuryMercury, particularly in the form of Gemini (which is ruled by Mercury), is the god present in The Horse and His Boy. Ward shows this clearly in the multiplicity of twin imagery, and that the whole story orients around the delivering of a vital message. Yet Ward also points out that the ongoing patterning of the story is about two merging into one, whether it is the separated twins reconnecting, or the mistaken belief that the main characters were being chased by two lions when really it was but one. This theme of merging within the Mercurial context can be seen in Lewis’s natal Mercury-Neptune opposition, as Neptune has the capacity to dissolve boundaries and to unite all things into oneness. Furthermore, the Mercury-Neptune theme can be seen in Shasta’s encounter with Aslan, who is named simply “the Voice” in the text—a clear expression of Mercury within the divine Neptunian context.

The Magician’s Nephew, now placed as first in the series but published sixth, is an expression of Venus, but in a way complexified by the many aspects Lewis has to Venus in his natal chart, and the ways those aspects manifested in his life. Two of the major themes in the story are the near-fatal illness of the main character’s mother, and the birth of a new world, Narnia itself, sung into being by Aslan. Lewis is born with a Venus-Saturn conjunction and lost the first primary love relationship of his life at a young age, for his mother died when he was but nine years old. The shadow of this lost love is present throughout the story, as the character Diggory hopes to find some way of curing his mother’s illness. On the other hand, the creation of an entirely new world, sung into existence by the musical artistry of Aslan, is a reflection of Lewis’s natal Venus-Uranus conjunction, with the generative creativity of Uranus birthing through song (Venus) a verdant and vibrant world ringing with “newness” and “vitality.”[6] Sweetness also plays a role, whether in the sweet taste of the healing apple Diggory brings to his mother, or the “sweet natural sleep”[7] she enters into after eating it—a reflection of Lewis’s Venus-Moon opposition. This aspect is also present in Lewis’s seeming conflation of the Venusian and Lunar archetypes, describing Venus as motherly, fecund, fertile, and nourishing—qualities usually attributable to the Moon. (Because we do not know Lewis’s exact birth time, his Moon may be in tighter opposition to both Venus and Saturn if he was born earlier in the day—this would correlate to the death of his mother at an early age, a clear expression of the Moon-Saturn combination.)

VenusYet the Venusian imagery is complexified further in the character of Jadis, the beautiful yet terrible queen of the dying world of Charn, a world destroyed by her own hand, who becomes the first evil present in Narnia. Jadis is the witch we meet later in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Here one can witness Lewis’s Venus-Pluto opposition in the evil and destructive power (Pluto) of this beautiful queen (Venus).

Ward brings up an issue in this chapter that shows the clear influence of patriarchy on Lewis’s creative imagination. Each story expresses the planetary archetype most clearly through the character of Aslan, so Ward asks why in The Magician’s Nephew, as an homage to Venus, Aslan is not portrayed as female. He is taking the gendered imagery of the planets as gods and goddesses in the Hellenic pantheon quite literally in this question, ignoring the fact that the archetypes all express themselves in male and female form through each one of us. Ward writes, “Lewis was of the belief that major imaginative difficulties arose when one attempted to depict God in feminine terms.”[8] Besides the inherent sexism in this statement, an interesting point is being addressed: when the Divine is depicted as feminine, or as both masculine and feminine, the imaginative implications ripple through all levels of reality. Ward quotes Lewis as saying, “a child who had been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian child.”[9] I actually agree with this statement, but not in the way that Lewis meant it. What a different world we might live in if the feminine aspect of the Divine had been given equal devotion as the male, or if the female, male, and non-gendered aspects of each planetary archetype were given equal recognition. Ward concludes by saying that the feminine aspect of Venus is still expressed through Aslan, but not by changing the lion’s gender.

. . . Aslan is feminized, but not to the complete expulsion of the masculine. And this is a fair representation of Venus, for Venus may be properly understood as containing a masculine element alongside her feminine ones.[10]

If only Lewis, and Ward, could have seen the way each archetype contains feminine and masculine elements, as they both recognized in relation to Venus.

SaturnThe Narniad concludes with The Last Battle, a tragic homage to the final planet of the ancient cosmos, Saturn. Lewis’s natal Saturn-Pluto opposition is deeply apparent in his depiction of Saturn’s domain. Ward writes that for Lewis “evil was perceived as a merciless power in his younger days; as weakness, sorrow, and death in his later years.”[11] The Last Battle is indeed tragic and filled with death (Saturn) and the destructive (Pluto) ending (Saturn) of the Narnian world. “Under the planet who is responsible for ‘fatal accidents,’” Ward writes, “everyone who is alive at the beginning of this story is dead by the end of it.”[12] Yet Lewis, and also Ward, seem unable to recognize the gifts and nobility of the Saturnian archetype, desiring rather to return to the Jupiterian themes that began The Chronicles of Narnia. This depiction of only the negative side of Saturn is also a reflection of how Saturn was understood by Medieval and Renaissance sources, which naturally shaped Lewis’s understanding of the archetype. The ending of The Last Battle begins to shift toward images of spring and rebirth, an awakening into a radically different world—the true Narnia where all the characters from previous ages are reborn and living in peace. Ward sees this as Saturn deferring to Jupiter, writing “the spirit of the sixth sphere [Jupiter] is also the spirit which dominates the universe beyond the seventh [Saturn].”[13] He goes on to say later in the chapter, “Indeed, it is only by virtue of his deferral to Jove that Saturn can exert his true influence, making his patients into contemplatives who see beyond sorrow.”[14] I would argue rather that this is not Saturn deferring to Jupiter, but rather Saturn being seen all the way through in the entirety of its archetypal spectrum, moving from sorrow and death to the contemplative wisdom granted by sitting with the inherent grief of such challenges and obstacles. Saturn’s medicine can be found still within the seventh sphere, without having to turn elsewhere for its gifts.

Although The Chronicles of Narnia, from Ward’s perspective, are an expression of the ancient Ptolemaic cosmos, the archetypes of the three outer planets are still present implicitly throughout the series. This is most apparent at the end of The Last Battle when there are clear intimations that there is a world beyond the threshold of Saturn. Ward writes, “Sorrow comes, but it is not total, not ‘full,’ there is something ‘beyond;’ Saturn does not have the last word.”[15] Indeed, Saturn does not have the last word, but not because there is a deferral to Jupiter; rather the threshold is at last crossed and we are able to enter the transpersonal realm of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. These three archetypes are all present and interwoven in the final pages of The Last Battle, as all of the characters enter into a radically new world, a true paradigm shift (Uranus) in a transcendent, heavenly, ideal realm (Neptune), because each character, indeed all of Narnia, has gone through a powerful cycle of death and rebirth (Pluto).

To conclude, I would want to both critique and compliment Ward for the insight of the project he undertook, searching for a hidden underlying theme that unifies the entirety of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. As I have hopefully made clear here, I feel he has really hit the mark with his analysis, perceiving the archetypal qualities of the ancient planets as expressed by each of the seven tales—although those archetypal qualities are complexified by their expression through the lens of Lewis’s own natal chart aspects. Yet my critique of Ward’s book is of the way in which he expressed his profound insight. For he opens the book by stating his assurance that the planetary theme was one clearly devised by Lewis but intentionally kept secret for the rest of his life. Before laying out any of his evidence Ward writes, “I believe that I also have discovered a genuine literary secret, one that has lain open to view since the Chronicles were first published, but that, remarkably, no-one has previously perceived.”[16] His self-assurance, which echoes throughout the book, actually has the opposite effect upon the reader, casting into doubt his argument before the evidence has even been presented. Ward asserts again and again that the theme was intentionally created by Lewis and then kept as a guarded secret for decades. While it is clear from the evidence that The Chronicles do indeed express the planetary archetypes, I feel that the evidence would have stood more confidently on its own, without the investigations into Lewis’s reasons for keeping the theme a deeply hidden secret. The secrecy may indeed be so, but the pure literary evidence Ward puts forth actually speaks louder than his arguments—and there is a humility in the simple expression of the evidence when not overlaid by assertions of correct discovery. But perhaps that is my own stylistic preference.

As can be seen in the above analysis, even if Lewis consciously chose to offer each one of The Chronicles to the altar of its own planetary god, the other gods are still intermingled throughout the novels. For even when we try to contain the gods in their archetypal purity, our own biased lenses, influenced by our particular birth charts, will naturally shape how the gods choose to express themselves. As was carved above the doorway of C.G. Jung’s home: “Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit.” Called or not called, the god is present.

Work Cited

Ward, Michael. Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008.

[1] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 4.

[2] Ward, Planet Narnia, 18.

[3] Ward, Planet Narnia, 76.

[4] Ward, Planet Narnia, 99.

[5] Ward, Planet Narnia, 107.

[6] Ward, Planet Narnia, 181.

[7] Ibid, 183.

[8] Ward, Planet Narnia, 183.

[9] C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Ward, Planet Narnia, 184.

[10] Ward, Planet Narnia, 185.

[11] Ward, Planet Narnia, 192.

[12] Ibid, 201.

[13] Ibid, 207.

[14] Ibid, 211.

[15] Ward, Planet Narnia, 197.

[16] Ibid, 5.

Perspectives on Fairy-Story: Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, Chesterton & Clark

“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien[1]

With these words J.R.R. Tolkien introduces his readers to Faërie, the domain of fairy-story, a realm encountered through Imagination. But what, one might ask, are fairy-stories? Often fairy-stories have been construed as short tales written for children, of little weight or importance in the world of adult matters. In five separate essays, this simplistic perspective is argued against by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, and Stephen Clark, who each wrote their own defense of the genre of fairy-story. From differing yet complementary perspectives, these five authors address what fairy-story is and why it is important, exploring the relationship between fantasy and reality, Truth and Imagination, and the laws of consistency and morality that allow an true imaginal world to come into being.

Lewis opens his short essay “On Stories” by pointing out that little attention has been paid by critics to Story, or at least to the particular qualities of Story that make it alluring. The particulars, the details of the experience, that which creates the tangible atmosphere and aura, are what draw the reader into the narrative—not some abstract plot concept but rather the unique qualities of the story lure us to return again and again to certain tales. Indeed, Lewis writes,

We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words.[2]

Although Lewis here refers to children’s appreciation of fairy-story, he and Tolkien—and I would argue the other three authors discussed here as well—agree that fairy-stories are by no means exclusively intended for children. Tolkien writes,

At least it will be plain that in my opinion fairy-stories should not be specially associated with children. They are associated with them: naturally, because children are human and fairy-stories are a natural human taste.[3]

Tolkien goes on to say, “If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults.”[4] The stories that affect us most as children are usually those we read again and again long into adulthood. Such stories shape who we are as individuals, allowing us as readers to fully inhabit the emotions, experiences, challenges, and breakthroughs of a multitude of people. Through story, and the inherent awakening of Imagination, we can bring more of ourselves forth into the world and develop more fully.

To create a fairy-story worth reading, a successful fantasy, the creator must imbue it with what Tolkien calls an “inner consistency of reality,” a quality that is bestowed only by the power of Imagination.[5] The successful storyteller “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.”[6] MacDonald, as written in his essay “The Fantastic Imagination,” shares with Tolkien this perspective on internal consistency: “To be able to live a moment in an imagined world, we must see the laws of its existence obeyed.”[7] Without such laws an imaginal world could not hold, it would fall apart into meaningless disconnection. For Tolkien and MacDonald, these internal laws, the ‘inner consistency of reality,’ are given by the power of Imagination. Imagination allows one to access to Truth, and Truth is what provides an imaginal world with its own reality.

Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garment to fit her, and Fancy his journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or at most embroiders their button-holes.[8]

Both MacDonald and Tolkien reference the theory of Imagination articulated by S.T. Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria, which delineates the difference between the creative powers of the Primary and Secondary Imagination from the function of Fancy. The role of Fancy is to reassemble aggregates of remembered experience. Imagination, on the other hand, gives birth to new life: the Primary Imagination births the Primary World of creation, the Secondary Imagination births Secondary Worlds of human Art and creativity. The Primary and Secondary Imagination differ only in degree, and the Secondary Imagination is simply the Primary Imagination creating through the vessel of the human being. For this reason Tolkien refers to one who creates a Secondary World as a “sub-creator” because she or he is creating under the Primary Creator. Tolkien writes, “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[9] Human creativity is the gift of Divine creativity.

Within the heart of Faërie, as understood by these authors, is also a consistent moral law that is more pronounced than the moral law of the Primary World. Chesterton writes in his essay “Fairy Tales”: “I think poets have made a mistake: because the world of the fairy-tales is a brighter and more varied world than ours, they have fancied it less moral; really it is brighter and more varied because it is more moral.”[10] Indeed, the clear morality present in fairy-stories is a sign of their enchantment; when such connection is severed the world becomes disenchanted. Perhaps this is why, in a time when the dominant world view is largely disenchanted, fairy-stories are so alluring—even when the critics say that as adults we must put them aside. Fairy-stories allow access to Truth in a way that everyday lived experience may not. Tolkien points towards this when he writes, “The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world; but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’”[11] Shining through the fantastical narrative is that glimpse of Truth, which can be perceived more clearly through the fresh lens of fairy-story, rather than the clouded window of our ordinary, everyday perception.

The Truth glimpsed in fairy-story is the Truth that broadens one’s perspective beyond the confines of a disenchanted, materialistic world view. Clark, in his essay “How To Believe In Fairies,” writes,

It is to take folk-stories seriously as accounts of the “dreamworld,” the realm of the conscious experience of which our “waking world” is only a province, to acknowledge and make real to ourselves the presence of spirits that enter our consciousness as moods of love or alienation, wild joy or anger. In W.B. Yeats’s philosophy fairies are the moods and characters of human life, conceived not as alterations in a material being, but as the spiritual rulers of an idealistically conceived world.[12]

Clark articulates the idea that to believe in fairies, or mermaids or dragons, or other inhabitants of Faërie, is not to reduce them to some facet of the known material world—such as insects, manatees, or other mistakenly glimpsed animals—but to accept as an essential part of these beings the very mystery of what they are. Tolkien writes that Elves, and other creatures of Faërie, are “true” “even if they are only creations of Man’s mind, ‘true’ only as reflecting in a particular way one of Man’s visions of Truth.”[13] The beings of Faërie are born of Truth and mystery, and if we do not reduce them to mistaken perceptions of the physical world, or mere flights of Fancy, Truth and mystery comingle and give birth to something real.

For Tolkien fairy-stories provide a “recovery” of the Primary World, “a regaining of a clear view.”[14] Fantasy gives us the opportunity “to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness and familiarity.”[15] Returning from the pages of fantasy to one’s life, our mundane habits give way to the patterning of story. Imagination breathes new life into the simplest actions—once again we can recognize the miracle in good food, the laughter of a friend, the colors of the setting Sun. In Lewis’s words, “. . . the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life.” Yet Lewis seems to diverge from Tolkien when he says: “This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual.”[16] I do not feel Tolkien draws such a distinct line between the ‘preposterous’ and the ‘actual.’ Fantasy and reality for Tolkien cannot ultimately be separated.

On this matter, Clark seems to be in greater agreement with Lewis than Tolkien. Lewis writes “that is one of the functions, of art: to present what the narrow desperately practical perspectives of real life exclude.”[17] I would argue that real life does not exclude the fantastical with which art reacquaints us; rather habit and routine allow us to forget the fantastical inherently present in real life. Clark argues that the ‘desperately practical perspectives of real life,’ as Lewis describes them, are what allow us to fully appreciate and understand the world of Faërie:

Only those who have lived out of water know what water is. Only those whose ordinary human life is structured by ceremonial and human meaning, who know of their duties and their perils, their friends and children, can clearly conceive that form of life which is fairy.[18]

I would say that the experience of disenchantment, of seeing the world from a desperately practical perspective, is simply a forgetting of the enchantment inherent in our lived reality, the magic of the waking world. Such forgetting is its own form of enchantment. We are compelled, as Lewis felt, to return again and again to the great stories that affected our lives so deeply because some part of us knows we want to remember. We forget so that we may remember. “The primal desire at the heart of Faërie,” Tolkien writes, is “the realisation, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.”[19] We forget so that again and again we may return, through story and Imagination, to experience wonder once more.

Works Cited

Chesterton, G.K. “Fairy Tales.” In G.K. Chesterton. New York, NY: Catholic Way Publishing, 2014.

Clark, Stephen R.L. “How To Believe In Fairies,” Inquiry, 30:4: 337-355.

MacDonald, George. “The Fantastic Imagination.” In A Dish of Orts, 232-237. Hazleton, PA: The Electronic Classics Series, 2012.

Lewis, C.S. “On Stories.” In Of Other Worlds, 3-21. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Inc, 1994.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” In The Monsters and the Critics. Edited by

Christopher Tolkien. London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

Elves at Woody End - Alan Lee

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” in The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 109.

[2] C.S. Lewis, “On Stories,” in Of Other Worlds (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Inc, 1994).

[3] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 135-6.

[4] Ibid, 137.

[5] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 138.

[6] Ibid, 132.

[7] George MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination,” in A Dish of Orts (Hazleton, PA: The Electronic Classics Series, 2012), 233.

[8] MacDonald, “The Fantastic Imagination,” 233.

[9] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 145.

[10] G.K. Chesterton, “Fairy Tales,” in G.K. Chesterton (New York, NY: Catholic Way Publishing, 2014).

[11] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 155.

[12] Stephen R.L. Clark, “How To Believe In Fairies,” Inquiry, 30:4: 337.

[13] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 113, n. 2.

[14] Ibid, 146.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lewis, “On Stories.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Clark, “How To Believe In Fairies,” 349.

[19] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 116.