A Problem with Harry Potter
Due to the news that in the latest Harry Potter film the snake Nagini is revealed to be a human woman transformed, there has been a recent popular re-evaluation of the seven novels which originated the franchise. Many of the observations that I’ve seen on Twitter have focused on Rowling’s troubling use of racist stereotypes and her very Anglocentric errors. I have little to add as far as that goes because anything I’d have to say has been said already by others; the most relevant Twitter threads are Alexandra Erin’s and Shivam Batt’s. There is an assumption in some of these threads, however, that the world of Harry Potter could be or ought to be logically consistent in much the same way that our own is, which I consider to be mistaken. Take, for instance, questions of scale: of course it is logical nonsense that a school the size of Hogwarts is the only wizarding school in Britain given what the population of wizards in Britain seems to be in the books. And by the standards of something like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods series or G. R. R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire, which have admirably plausible, intricate, and well-developed worlds, that’s a problem. The assumption that fantasy worlds must be built on some sort of logical or plausible structure is very characteristic of how mainstream fantasy1 does often operate, but I think it is worth observing that there have always been other kinds of fantasy which do not share this assumption: Barrie’s Peter Pan books, Carrol’s Alice books, and Baum’s Oz books come most readily to mind. These books’ lack of logical consistency does not mean that they lack any internal consistency; rather, they may have consistency of a wholly different kind. I think the best way to begin exploring this other kind of consistency is by examining Michael Ward’s interpretation of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, which I will spend the rest of this post doing. In a subsequent post I will speculate about possible consistencies in Harry Potter and other fantasy.
I have two brief notes before I begin. First, if any of you are interested in the particular conversation I had with Derek Spencer and K Chen about this topic, leading to this blog post, you can find that here. Second, my copy of Ward’s book is packed away in boxes at the moment, so I will be relying on memory; fortunately, I have read Ward’s book three or four times now, so I think I’m sufficiently familiar with it that that shouldn’t be a problem.
The Planetary Themes of Narnia
Ward frames his book Planet Narnia with a problem that I think many readers have had with the Chronicles: the world of Narnia and the events within it seem to be very inconsistent. The literary sources from which Lewis draws are heterogeneous, including fairytales (talking animals, a Snow Queen), Classical mythology (fauns, centaurs, dryads), Classical geography (the Dufflepods), Norse mythology (the wolf Maugrim was named Fenris in the earliest editions), English and Welsh folklore (giants), chivalric romances (knights and lists), and popular hagiography (Father Christmas). To modern audiences, this kaleidoscope of sources is not necessarily remarkable—Dungeons and Dragons casts a far wider net in its Monster Manual—but to readers like J. R. R. Tolkien, it was an unpalatable inconsistency. I do not recall that Ward mentions what to modern audiences is a far worse inconsistency: that the explanation for these elements feels arbitrary at best and that books published earlier often make less sense in light of books subsequently published. Sure, The Magician’s Nephew (MN) explains how Jadis got to Narnia and how the Lantern Wastes got their lantern, but it also makes it a lot harder to understand how Jadis recruited the army she commands in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (LWW), since none of those monsters were created in MN. LWW is also strict about the necessity for human sovereignty in Narnia, of which MN also makes a hash: there are only two humans remaining at the end, so the royal lineages which issue from them are supplemented by wood nymphs and so, which is fine if we’re willing to be loose about what counts as human, but it is not consistent with LWW’s strictness about humanity. These are two of many examples.
Ward does, however, mention an inconsistency that I had not noticed, and which might be the key to the whole problem: the character of Aslan acts differently in each of the novels. While in LWW he rallies an army and he participates in the battle against the White Witch, in Prince Caspian (PC) he spends most of his time in hiding, only teasing the Pevensies with occasional glimpses. He is even more remote in The Silver Chair (SC) and The Last Battle (LB), rarely appearing in Narnia at all, and he is even more present in MN than he is in LWW. In A Horse and His Boy (HHB) he attacks one of the children protagonists; the closest he comes to such a thing in the other books is when he claws the dragon off of Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (VDT), which has a much different mood. All told, the series’ literary influence, Narnia’s internal logic, and Aslan’s character are all inconsistent, and to some—perhaps many—people they are unpalatably inconsistent.
Ward’s argument, however, is that there is a different kind of consistency at work: each book is governed thematically by one the planets of medieval astrology as Lewis understood them. Take a look at the chart below, and then I’ll explain in greater detail.
|Novel||Planet||Thematic Elements||Narrative Elements||Theological Elements|
|LWW||Jupiter/Jove||Just sovereignty, magnanimous and jovial figures (like Santa), lions, spring, “ease and empire”||“Winter past and guilt forgiven”||Sacrificial king securing forgiveness|
|PC||Mars||War, the obedience appropriate to soldiers, horses, trees, iron, forests, ruins, history||Substantial flashbacks for the god of history||The obedience of Christ and obedience to Christ|
|VDT||Sun/Sol||Light, gold, dragonslaying, anti-cupidity, liberal spending, the liberal arts||Approach the east (rising sun), bright punctuated by dark||[Don’t remember—something about monotheism?]|
|SC||Moon/Luna||Darkness, barrier b/w heavens and fallen earth, silver, water, madness, descent, illusion||V-shaped narrative: down some layers, then back up||Following heavenly instruction in fallen and miasmic world|
|HHB||Mercury||“Fission and fusion,” twins, eloquence, quicksilver, thievery, messengers, merchants, haste||Uniting, separating, re-uniting||The one-in-three and three-in-one of the Trinity|
|MN||Venus||Mothers good and bad, paired-off animals and royals, fruit, Uncle Andrew’s lust, creation||Infertile world (Charn) –> fertile world (Narnia)||Neoplatonic stuff in the Wood Between the Worlds|
|LB||Saturn||Death, time, fate, astrology, coldness, disintegration, destruction, ruin and calamity||Apocalypse||Destroying the fallen world to make way for a new one|
Before Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, he wrote what is called the Ransom series, a trilogy of sci-fi novels which involved travel to Mars and to Venus, the attempted colonization of the moon, and the descent to Earth of various celestial spirits of the planets; before Lewis wrote the Ransom series, he wrote frequently about medieval astrology, including a poem called “The Planets.” In Lewis’s view, medieval astrology was scientifically false but spiritually true: the seven planets all reflected theological truths about God. All of this earlier writing allowed Ward to determine with a great amount of detail what Lewis thought about medieval astrology and its planetary images, and he observed various correspondences between them. His argument is detailed, archival, multi-faceted, and far too much to summarize; the book is worth reading and, in my opinion, the argument is compelling. I think he’s correct. I believe Lewis did write these books to have these correspondences. Let’s look at some examples.
The first book published, LWW, is Jovial. According to Ward, Lewis was frustrated by the Saturnine mood of most post-war writing, and he thought what the culture needed was an infusion of Jovial and Martial spirit. Lewis’s ideas about this are on record. Ward’s thesis is that LWW was the first infusion and PC was the second. Lewis may not have begun LWW with a plan to write one book for each planet, but by the time he finished LWW it is likely that he had the idea to do so. (For example, Lewis began writing drafts for the Venereal MN immediately after LWW, despite completing it second last.) Therefore the first two books only imperfectly correspond in comparison to the rest, but they would still make a good case study.
In “Planets” Lewis identifies Jupiter as king of the gods, yes, but also the god of imperial peace (along the lines of Pax Romana and Pax Britannica), of winter thawed, of the forgiveness of sins and the righting of wrongs, of the imperial mantle, of the luxury and largess that comes from a kingdom rightly ruled. Therefore it is appropriate that LWW concerns itself with overthrowing a usurper and the coronation of the true kings and queens, with the transition from winter to spring, and with the forgiveness of various guilty parties (Edmund most obviously, but also several other collaborators like Mr. Tumnus). It also has a final chapter indicating the various luxuries associated with having the right sovereigns on the throne, including hunting (which often appears in medieval depictions of Jupiter).2 Magnanimity, in the sense of largess or generosity, is also an important trait associated with Jupiter, and so Father Christmas appears as a Jovial figure giving the Pevensies presents which are indicative of their true authority as kings and queens of Narnia. One of these gifts even allows Lucy to cure those who had been turned to stone, a fitting image for forgiveness and thawing that Lewis lifted from A Winter’s Tale. Jupiter was also associated with lions, which Lewis includes not only in the figure of Aslan (who is a lion, after all, in the other books, though the Jovial book being the first makes it sensible that the Christ-figure would therefore be a lion) but also in an auxiliary lion freed from the White Witch’s palace.
It’s worth lingering a moment on Aslan because a substantial part of Ward’s argument is that each book corresponds to the planets in a particular way: in each book Narnia and the world it is in have a pervasive but dispersed Jovial, Mercurial, Solar, etc. atmosphere, and also Aslan is a concentrated representation of that planet’s influence. He dubs this technique—general atmosphere + concentration in figure—donegality, for reasons idiosyncratic to Lewis. So in LWW, Aslan is kingly in a Jovial way: he is first into battle, for instance, and his imperial authority is what allows him to crown the Pevensies. In PC Aslan is different because here he is Martial rather than Jovial: he is the general of an army, in a sense, and so he delegates risks and battles to those under his command (ie. the Pevensies).
As the Martial book, PC has some fairly complicated correspondences. For instance, there are more battles and soldiers and military set-dressing in PC than in any of the other books, even the ones which feature military engagements heavily. That’s all rather obvious for Mars, the god of war. But Mars is also god of history (and therefore also ruins), and not only is Caspian’s education in history important to the story, but Caspian’s backstory all appears in flashback, a narrative representation of Mars’s historical influence. When the Pevensies appear in Narnia this time around, they arrive in the ruins of Cair Paravel, nicely indicating the passage of time and giving the novel a sense of history; at the climax of the novel, the Telmarine settlement is reduced to rubble by vines and maenads in a sort of time-capture process of ruination. These vines are indicative not just of Mars as god of history, but also of Mars Silvanus, god of forests. The Old Narnians, the remnant of historical Narnia, live in the forest, of course, but there are also more dryads and hamadryads than in the other books, and there are walking trees and the wild girls with their vines. Horses and wolves are sacred to Mars, and not only are there destriers aplenty in this book, but the Old Narnians have a significant centaur contingent. There is also a breathtakingly bloodthirsty werewolf among the three Old Narnians who try to summon the White Witch, and it functions as a symbol for those darkest martial impulses which result in, for instance, nuclear bombs.
The consistency which ties these, and the other books, together is therefore the thematic, theological, and moral associations of each of medieval astrology’s seven gods:
- Luna, the watery and silver moon who sits between the unfallen heavens and the fallen world, who reflects the sun’s light, and who produces madness and illusion;
- Mercury, the fleet-footed and eloquent messenger whose capricious nature is hard to explain but easy to intuit by playing with mercury in a dish, parting and joining, “meeting selves, / Same but sundered”;
- Venus, the mother goddess of love and procreation, especially beloved by Lewis, who saw her as a symbol for some Christian Platonist concept about how forms gain substance which I admit I don’t wholly understand;
- Sol, the golden sun, enemy of misers and slavers, who as Apollo slew a dragon, who inspires alchemy and philosophy and exploration, who makes things seen and who pierces the darkness;
- Mars, god of wars and forests and martyrs and blacksmiths and horses and wolves and masculinity;
- Jupiter or Jove, king of the gods; and
- Saturn, the grim and final planet, cold and lonely, a star-gazer, symbol for the inevitable dissolution of all things, death not as violence or as a journey but as fate itself.
This consistency, in fact, explains some of the other inconsistencies. Aslan acts so differently in all of the books because he embodies a different planet in each of them: a king, a general at war, a patron of exploration and liberality, a reflector of his Father’s glory, a fleet and mischievous messenger, a fertile creator and nurturer, a destroyer and judge.
I hope this makes sense. Ward’s is a big argument which relies on a lot of detail, making it difficult to summarize. If you are interested at all in Narnia or in Lewis’s literary, historical, and theological views, I recommend Ward’s Planet Narnia highly; in the meantime, I am happy to field questions in the comments.
Because this is running long, I will return to Carrol, Barrie, Rowling, and Baum in Part Two, but I hope you can already begin to get a sense of what another kind of consistency could, in theory, look like.
- I was going to call this “Tolkien-, Le Guin-, and Howard-descended fantasy,” but then I realized that’s not quite right. I want to put Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor and Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence in this tradition too, but their influences are not well-captured by just saying “Tolkien, Le Guin, and Howard.” There are big gaps in my knowledge here. What matters for the distinction I’m trying to make is detailed world-building that values plausibility and logical or practical consistency: the author can’t just make stuff up, but must consider how it all fits together as a system. This does not preclude using these details as symbol or metaphor as well, of course.
- Personally I find a lot of Lewis’s Jovial imagery distasteful at best. I am the sort of Saturnine person whom Lewis wanted to seduce with fantasy into a more Jovial and Martial spirit, but it doesn’t really work. Jupiter’s ideal of empire is, in my opinion, a bloody, vicious lie: the peace of Pax Romana is simply the export of Mars to the colonies so there isn’t any war at home.