Friday, February 1, 2008


I just started reading a fascinating new book called Planet Narnia. The author, Michael Ward, argues that the main organizing principle behind C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia is in fact the seven medieval planets--the "seven heavens" of medieval cosmology. The book was actually sitting in my husband's office at--I went in for some trifle, idly picked it up, became engrossed, and just sat there reading it.

I've only read the first chapter, but I have to say it is one of the best written books I've read all year. As a great fan of the Narniad, I can't wait to see how he proves his thesis.

So this is about serendipity. I am teaching a class on the Renaissance and English Literature--way out of my field, but the professor who normally teaches it is on leave. So I am getting to read many things for the first time. One of then is Sir Philip Sidney's Defense of Poesy, a rather obscure apologia for poets (and indeed all makers of literature) in the face of Puritan attacks.

So I sat there reading Planet Narnia, and Ward is talking about why Lewis didn't just come out and tell people that there was an overarching theme for the Narnaid: his "precedents for secrecy." As a medievalist, he was naturally steeped in the ethos of the period, and (as Ward puts it) "Secrecy and polysemy were important features of the literature of that period." Earlier he quotes Owen Barfield as saying, "He [Lewis] stood before me as a mystery as solidly as he stood before me as a friend." And then a little later Ward quotes from the Defense of Poesy:

"Sir Philip Sidney neatly expressed the prevailing aesthetic temper of the period when he wrote 'there are many misteries contained in Poetrie, which of purpose were written darkly, least by prophane wits it should be abused."

Hmm... serendipity! Quoting Sidney on the same day I am reading him for the first time myself! Then I thought I'd better get back to work, so I went to the library. As I traveled the well-worn path among the stacks to the quiet mezzanine where I like to hide out and do work, the title and author of a book caught my eye: Romanticism Comes of Age by Owen Barfield. I must have walked by it a hundred times without ever really seeing it. I pulled it from the shelf and opened it at random and read the following:

"As users of language, the poet and the logician stand at opposite poles. To the logician the sound of a word means nothing at all, while to the poet it is of the utmost importance. To the logician those words are of most value which change their meaning as little as possible when they are used in different contexts; the poet likes the meanings which change most, and is always trying to change them further himself."

Another "defense of poesy." This is why I love this job!


Paul said...

For one to whom words are delicious and beautiful and replete with magicks your post is a treat. Thanks.

[I am clearly no logician.)

Diane said...

so if finding the book an example of serendipity?

I think so.

Aghaveagh said...

I think so. Why on that particular day did I see it? Why did I open t up?(it's not exactly "tolle, lege," but just makes you think about connections...)

Mary Clara said...

Library magic! It happens to me all the time.

Great post, Aghaveagh. I am definitely going to look up the Ward book, as I am an old English major, a lover of the Narnia books and also much interested in traditional cosmology.

Steve Hayes said...


And I'll be looking out for the book too.