Above, one of my favourite sketches from Prince Caspian by the illustrator of the Narnia Chronicles, Pauline Baynes.
I haven’t yet painted my response to the planet Mars, this is because while up north in Ardnamurchan, the trees just didn’t show enough obvious signs of early spring and as I’m heading up there on the 17th May for an exhibition opening, I’ll be able to make sketches and photos of a more spring-like time.
(You can view my other paintings of Ardnamurchan Here )
Apologies if you’re just tuning in to this blog after a while and don’t know what this is about – this is a continuation of the Planets Series I’m creating this year, which takes inspiration from the planets as understood in Medieval cosmology, and the seven books of Narnia which were each inspired by the seven planets, as described by Michael Ward, author of ‘Planet Narnia’.
I’ve painted two of the series so far – ‘Saturn’ and ‘Jupiter’, viewable on this link with info on the series inspiration https://rosestrangartworks.com/2019/02/22/planets-series-open-studio-day/
I chose Castle Tioram on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the west coast of Scotland as the linking back-drop for all the paintings. It’s always seemed Narnia-esque to me, on its sandy peninsula fringed by wild trees, it reminds me of the Castle Cair Paravel, particularly in its ruinous state as described in Prince Caspian ..
Castle Tioram. (photo, Rose Strang March 2019)
As explained by Michael Ward in Planet Narnia, the early association of Mars was growth and trees, since Mars is related to March, therefore spring. In this capacity it’s known as Mars Silvanus – though the more common association with Mars is war.
I’ve also been reading books about Medieval philosophy (mostly Agrippa’s Three Books Of Occult Philosophy) and it seems that the influence of Mars is about a certain energy – a vitality or vital force, which I suppose relates to growth and spring therefore presumably fecundity, fertility and sexuality as well as new growth of crops and plants in spring. I’m wondering if the pagan image of the Green Man is related (I haven’t explored that so I’m not sure).
It’s the idea of an unleashed unguided energy perhaps, and I’m now thinking of Stravinsky’s ‘Rites of Spring’, which captures the essence of that energy brilliantly. It’s an exciting piece of music, the sinuous sound at the start is very evocative of growing trees, and sensuality, but it has a sort of unsettling violence too as it develops – and that brings us back to the war-like aggressive themes of Mars.
I’ve gone off on a tangent though, and as explained by Michael Ward in Planet Narnia, for C.S. Lewis the influence of Mars could manifest good or bad action, depending on the character of the recipient of that energy. Mars was understood as a ‘malefic’ planet, but in Prince Caspian we see its energy working both ways through the varying characters. In the end though Aslan, and the trees, decide the outcome.
C.S. Lewis understood the Mars influence as the essence of courage or fortitude – an iron will (iron is the metal associated with Mars) the ability to keep going despite pain and suffering, also courage in the face of death and destruction. People can use that energy for good or ill, as the characters do in Prince Caspian.
Prince Cspian speeding through the trees (illustration Pauline Baynes)
The four children arrive in Narnia very suddenly, by magic, whisked from a train platform on their way to school. They find themselves amidst wild trees, and making their way through they emerge on to a beach, and gradually make the discovery that they’re back in Narnia, but that thousands of years have passed and the Castle of Cair Paravel lies in ruins.
It’s spine-tingling stuff, one of my favourite passages from the Narnia Chronicles. Lewis’s writing is so evocative and atmospheric, as always. The discovery of an aged golden chess piece – a knight – with one remaining in-laid eye made of ruby is found in the grass amidst the ruins of Cair Paravel. A beautiful and poetic equivalent or image of a knight’s gauntlet being thrown down in challenge.
They take on the challenge, realising that Narnia must be re-claimed from the cruel Telamarine usurper, Miraz, and the story unfolds gradually towards the full-blown battle near the end.
As they travel back through the wild trees towards the battle-site, they become lost, then after making camp, Lucy wakes during the night believing she hears Aslan’s voice. As she walks through the trees towards the voice, she senses that the trees are almost coming to life again, they stir and seem to dance, then fall still.
Later, she does encounter Aslan, who insists that she must wake the others and make them follow though they can’t see him as yet. She expresses her fear that the others won’t believe her or follow (she’s the youngest and tends to be dismissed when it comes to leadership and decisions).
Aslan breathes courage into her, and she resolves to convince the others. It’s an obvious depiction of faith, and whether or not you’re religious, it’s a modest, yet affective description of someone discovering faith and resolution against the odds.
And on it goes, through the rest of the characters, each resolving to take on increasingly painful challenges, up to the point of battle and death, resulting in victory in the end with the appearance of an entire forest of wakened trees sweeping towards the enemy..
Throughout all of this, there’s much pagan imagery or references to ancient mythologies – Bacchus, Sirenius, Dryads and so on. One of my favourite descriptions is of Aslan, Lucy, Susan, Bacchus and various dryads and naiads helping to free schoolchildren from punishment, or from tedious lessons. Lewis’s humour and compassion (not to mention remembrance of his own deeply unpleasant experience of school) is given full leash here!
If you too loathed school, it was an immensely satisfying read as a child I remember. What would I have given to have a bunch of cavorting mythological characters show up and interrupt me being belted, via a dryad causing the headmaster to turn into a tree!
Though Prince Caspian is a book about war and suffering, Lewis doesn’t forget to remind us there’s a better way to be, and how poetic, to halt violence through spring trees – the idea of a benevolent influence of mars.
There are a few critics of Ward’s thesis that the Narnia Chronicles are each related to the planets as understood in Medieval cosmology, and those critiques have been welcomed by Ward, since they enrich debate. No-one would argue with Lewis’s obvious fascination and understanding of Medieval cosmology and literature – all of his creative writing, including the Planets Trilogy, and many poems explored this theme.
I’m not qualified in any academic sense to refute the idea of planets corresponding to the Narniad, I simply know the books extremely well, and so it’s easy for me to immediately conjure up the imagery and ideas that related to the planets as understood in Medieval thought. I’m convinced though, because it seems so self-evident once pointed out. Reading something about Medieval cosmology or understanding the basics at least, is a requirement too, and it was becoming interested in this subject that led to me reading Planet Narnia.
So to me the ‘Saturnine’ atmosphere and blackness of The Last Battle, for example, is obvious now – the utter ending, the oppressive feel, deathly law and order, death on its way, and let’s not forget that the four characters are dead, in earthly terms, when they leave Narnia. These are all clearly Saturnine subjects and themes. Not to mention that it’s the 7th book, 7 is the number of the completion of the cycle of time, and Saturn is known as Father Time (who reaches across the sky in the Last Battle and extinguishes the sun).
Beyond 7 is 8 – the number of eternity, which is where the characters end up at the end (I’ve just learned about these numbers this moment, having seen a video Michael Ward posted about the symbology of the North Rose window in Notre Dame Cathedral).
More than ideas though, it’s the incredible atmosphere Lewis creates that I’m responding to as an artist since I’m very interested in evoking atmosphere through my paintings (the sense of what’s experienced as opposed to a postcard view)
As I explore these subjects though, I’m also brought face-to-face with the religious themes in Lewis’s work, and the fact that the bulk of academic support for his work comes from religious organisations or people.
This is challenging at times for me, I’m ever wary of organisations and institutions so religious institutions are no exception. (I do not mean to cause offense by these statements – this is about my subjective response).
The fact is, that the reason C. S. Lewis’s work and literary output has survived is due to the incredible efforts, sheer depth and breadth of study, not to mention love of Lewis’s work and the man himself, by people such as Walter Hooper and Michael Ward.
This isn’t to suggest at all that anyone’s insisting you have to be religious to appreciate C.S. Lewis! (In fact you can find some alarming Youtube videos out there with fundamentalist Christians ranting that Lewis is an evil pagan!) It’s more that in reading about the religious appreciation of Lewis by people who are dedicated (in sane, open-minded and compassionate ways that is) to their religion, I can feel slightly at odds. There’s much about it I don’t ‘get’, the Old Testament and so on. Religious dedication takes a multitude of paths of course, as myriad as the characteristics and varying beliefs of people and their interpretations of religious scripture. I don’t mean to naively or dismissively lump religion into one entity!
So I continue to be very vague about my spiritual response to the Narnia Chronicles, not because I don’t feel that aspect powerfully, but because maybe it feels easier not to define it, and perhaps I’m scared of that response being damaged or diluted in some sense. My response to landscape has been coloured and influenced by the Narniad throughout my entire life, from early childhood. At the age of nine I remember encountering a verdant marshy, mossy area between a small group of silver birch trees – it was a slightly misty morning, with the sun casting a white glow through light cloud. I took my shoes and socks off and felt the grass growing beneath my feet and wondered if I might be transported to the wood between the worlds!
Later at the age of twenty I went to the Isle of Iona because I felt the urge to explore my own spirituality. I did discover and experience something, in how I experienced nature there, but there are few people I’d discuss that experience with. If there’s one person I’d have relished the opportunity to do so it would of course be C.S. Lewis!
It took me many more years to take up painting landscape, I felt I wasn’t good enough to do justice to what I experienced. Maybe that’s the same as faith – I remain unclear about faith, but I can paint now without the sense that someone’s standing over my shoulder saying ‘hmph, call yourself an artist?!’, that’s just me saying that these days and I’ve learned to ignore myself in that regard at least!