The ‘Kappa Element’ of Stories: Michael Ward (Planet Narnia) Explains Narnia’s Father Christmas – and the Importance of Literary Alchemy?

Yes, I know this is not a C. S. Lewis weBlog or a Narnia discussion zone. But so much about the Narnian casts revealing light on the Harry Potter stories, especially Lewis’ use of literary alchemy, that I find myself returning to him again and again.

Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia, has written an article for Grist posted at the Touchstone Magazine website, called Narnia’s Secret: The Seven Heavens of the Chronicles Revealed. In it, he attempts to explain the disturbing figure of Father Christmas, seemingly a syncretic drop-in totally removed from the mythos of the story, in the context of Lewis’ astrological artistry. In so doing, he points to the meaning of Ms. Rowling’s alchemical artistry as backdrop and scaffolding to her Harry Potter novels.

I urge you to read the whole article, of course, but here is an appetizer or small bite if you are stuffed from your Thanksgiving feasting:

The second context for a proper reading of the Chronicles has to do, not with theology, but with literature. In 1940, at a literary society in Oxford, Lewis read a paper entitled “The Kappa Element in Romance.” (“Kappa” is the initial letter of the Greek word meaning “cryptic” or “hidden.”)

The thrust of the paper was this: Stories are most valuable for their quality or atmosphere, not simply their plot. The example he uses is The Last of the Mohicans.

When the hero of the story is half-sleeping by his bivouac fire in the woods while a Redskin with a tomahawk is silently creeping up on him from behind, what makes for the essence of the scene is not simply peril, but the whole world to which this kind of peril belongs: the snow and snow-shoes, the canoes, the wigwams, the feathered headdresses, the war-paint, the Hiawatha names. A crook with a revolver would have conveyed a significantly different experience to the reader, even though the danger he represented might have been greater.

Stories earn our allegiance, Lewis argues, by conveying a distinct and coherent qualitative atmosphere. “To be stories at all,” he says in “On Stories,” stories

must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series—the plot, as we call it—is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or a quality.

James Fenimore Cooper gives us the state or quality of “redskinnery.” Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers gives us no such intrinsic atmosphere or spirit. His story is just plot, without any kappa element, and to that extent is, in Lewis’s view, a failure. We should remember his criteria of success and failure when approaching the Chronicles.

Thesis: The ‘Kappa Element’ is at the foundation of Lewis’ “occult” imagery — and Ms. Rowling’s alchemical artistry. Class, discuss.

Extra Credit: Note the references to Dante’s planetary sphere transcendence in Paradiso discussed in Dante post (B) earlier this week. There is no escaping Dante and the Commedia.

Comments

  1. If I had known literature was so fascinating I would have selected my electives so much more carefully during my 10 years of scientific training! As such I’m not sure what I can contribute to this particular discussion other than I am enjoying what I am learning to the extreme! What I appreciate so much from this post and the ones on Dante is that the great literature of the past was steeped so deeply in seemingly “occultic” traditions such as alchemy and astrology, yet the writers were always pointing toward Christ. It is so ironic that this fact seems to be so lost on the part of Christian Harry critics!

    I did at least manage to draw what could be a hat-tip to Lewis’ astrological “Kappa Element” though. In Michael Ward’s discussion of Lewis’ admiration of the planet Jupiter, he refers to it as “Fortuna Major”. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe this was used in one of the Potter books as a password to get by the Fat Lady portrait.

    Happy Thanksgiving All!

  2. I think I summed up a lot of the Kappa element of Romance with my Dracula essay. It was beautifully similar in setting. Very Romantic. Too numerous to name. I am now understanding the no escaping of The Commedia also.

  3. sleepingdragons says:

    Thank you for pointing out this article. It is wonderful. It put into words why I have always loved C.S. Lewis: he had the sense that God is right here, in this everyday world of ours, calling to us, waiting for us to put on eyes that can see.

    I have had a similar sense as I read Harry Potter. It is clear that you are right about the alchemical artistry in Harry Potter. I have only to read your predictions about the elements you expected to find in books six and seven, to know that you are right. Before six came out, you said to look for silver and lots of moisture. You were dead on. And before seven you said that there would be lots of red and gold. There was, of course, and at very important times. Harry comes to the decision to choose the horcruxes rather than the hallows as he views a sunrise. And, of course, the redish sky turns to blinding gold, during the final defeat of Voldemort.

  4. Perelandra says:

    Fascinating! I’ve already got Ward’s book on pre-order.

  5. JohnABaptist says:

    Fascinating article!

    And…it also provides fodder for another discussion that has been raging [sputtering?] on this blog–to what extent should we feel bound by the author’s statements in interviews and letters.

    Michael Ward is quite persuasive that there is a reason and logic behind each volume that requires from a very early stage there be exactly seven volumes in the series.

    Yet in this article a letter from C.S. Lewis is cited in which he states that he thought The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe would be a single volume. He states he was not sure until quite late in the game exactly how many volumes there would be in the entire series.

    So where does that leave us? Quite possibly with the fact that Lewis was writing something according to a design that he felt, but which did not quite rise to the level of a “conscious” plan. That his overall series outline might in fact have been a Kappa Element even to himself.

    Nor, for that matter, do I believe that C.S. Lewis would deny the possibility of an unseen Hand pressing him onward when he thought his work was done.

    Given the impetus of this article, can anyone see elements of the “seven ancient planets” in the seven volumes of Rowling’s work? Certainly Deathly Hallows has a great “Final Battle” that might qualify as a Saturn reference, but what of the other six?

    Thanks for the extra Thanksgiving Feast John…

  6. I hope this doesn’t get me kicked off the board — but I have never read any C.S. Lewis — YET. I read a LOT as a child and am not sure how these books escaped me — but I would like to read The Chronicles of Narnia now. I’ve looked into buying a boxed set on Amazon.com, but am overwhelmed by the choices.

    Can any of you HogPros recommend a certain box set? I prefer hard cover books over paperback. There are several sets on Amazon — and in the reviews there is a bit of controversy about the order to read the books. Any advice is welcome!

  7. Perelandra says:

    Besides the boxed sets, there’s also a handsome all-in-one volume with colored illustrations that Harper-Collins did for the 50th anniversary.

    MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW is first in chronological order but some people make a fetish about reading the series in the order of publication. Suit yourself.

    Pauline Baynes also did a pair of exquisite companion books, all in color: THE BOOK OF NARNIAN and THE LAND OF NARNIA.

  8. Reflection says:

    Scoobs,

    If you can, get the Collier Books boxed set priced at $11.11 from THEKATSMEOW that shows up in Amazon’s list (I searched for Lewis, C.S. and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the set showed up as item #11 in the list, but this may vary for you). If you click on the item, it will show you several choices, some extremely cheap. This one is the best described and the only one that explicitly says it’s the whole set.

    This is also probably the best edition. Lewis made some changes for the American edition in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, that sharpened the point of the Dark Island episode. This edition is also numbered correctly; I am on the side that considers the renumbering of recent editions a mistake. The mistake is based on a misinterpretation of a remark Lewis made in a letter to an American child.

    The renumbering tries to force readers to read the stories in the order of the events rather than the order in which the books were written. It’s important, the first time you read them, to read the books in the order they were published, which was: (1) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, (2) Prince Caspian, (3) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, (4) The Silver Chair, (5) The Horse and His Boy, (6) The Magician’s Nephew, and (7) The Last Battle. The renumbering wants you to read The Magician’s Nephew first, then The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, then The Horse and His Boy. But if you read them in publishing order, you will see that The Magician’s Nephew is CLEARLY a flashback (so is The Horse and His Boy), and that it assumes that the reader already knows some things that happened in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And the gradual introduction to Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian is important. If you read The Magician’s Nephew first, that will be spoiled. (Afterwards, of course, you can reread them in any order.)

    I know it’s not hardcover, but it’s still probably the best text. I had the Collier set, and gave it away when I bought a hardcover set, published by Collins, in England about 10 years ago. (I wanted hardcovers, and I wanted ALL the Pauline Baynes illustrations, some of which were omitted from the paperback edition.) Then I was horrified to find the Collins text absolutely riddled with stupid typographical errors (for Pete’s sake, didn’t anyone proofread it?). Luckily, I was able to get another set of the Collier paperbacks after that.

    Susan

  9. I think your thesis is spot on. Lewis and Rowling, it seems to me, share a view of the fantastical/folkloric/mythological creatures included. I got Lewis vibes throughout the series, specifically because of the mythological elements, and I’ve not heard arguments that he’s an occultist (although I imagine some are foolish enough to think so)- and Deathly Hallows had huge Lewis overtones (admittedly I’ve seen the latest Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe film in the past year, but I haven’t read the book in several, and the Stone Table echoes were practically ‘deafening.’

    I think something to consider is that our world is very scientific– which is not bad or good in itself, but has had the unfortunate result of making everything rather ordinary, I think. Even the wonders of nature are explained away rather than understood. I was seven or eight when I read The Chronicles of Narnia, and I think it was reading that series and others like it that didn’t treat the world like an equation that gave me a sense of awe at God’s creation. The question of immanence is important. Is God a distant being, as far above and separated from us as the ‘Divine Clockmaker’ of the ‘enlightened’ Deists? I can’t think so. “And the Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us.” “And He shall be called Emmanuel, God with us.”

    Of course, many mythological religions went beyond this to pantheism, where all things are god. But as Christians, we should not go beyond this to the other extreme, where God is unreachable (the Incarnation and Resurrection weren’t for nothing, even while we know that God is the Summit, is Truth and Goodness). My 10th grade theology book suggested that Catholicism is panentheistic (which was stressed by the Celtic church- hat tip to Josh here). That is, things aren’t God, but God is in all things– I guess it’s just going back to creation, really. When a craftsman makes something beautiful, naturally he is not whatever object he has made, but we may say something like, “He puts himself into his work,” or “He puts a lot of love into every piece.”

    But in our culture’s worldview that mistakes facts for Truth, well, is it any wonder we don’t have much wonder? If I wanted to show that every bit of the world around us was part of God’s wonderful creation, that every bird in the sky, every twig on the ground witnessed to God’s glory, I think I should have to at first write a world where, having suspended the ‘normal rules’ I could show something wonderful. I imagine I was far from the only little girl who wondered if her closet might be a doorway to another world. In this way can we begin to rediscover the uncommonness of our ‘ordinary’ world.

    I would never have considered myself a fantasy reader– in a way, I still don’t. But having read Narnia and The Lord of the Rings and now the Potter series, I feel very much like fantasy is one of the most effective ways in our times to point to truth. While tethered to our world, anything that points to truth, virtue, sacrifice, etc., the way those books do would be called trite, naive, idealistic, unrealistic, childish… But by creating different worlds, even those that overlap like Lewis and Rowling, the authors can avoid the critique and show us how wonderful our world is, and how “fearfully and wonderfully made” we are.

    The irony of this whole thing is that few people who are so tied to the ‘real’ world realise just how much of a colored lens that is. So-called realism is as much a form of escapism as idealism is considered to be– realism enables people to use what is as a shield from their responsibility to create what ought to be. Lewis, Rowling and Tolkien have all dashed that barrier in their fiction by taking the reader into another world and showing us how virtue matters there– and then we return through the wardrobe and have to figure out what it all means for us back in the ‘real’ world.

    geez, I’ve really prathered on. Last note to scoobs– Lewis wrote the books in one order, but chronologically The Magician’s Nephew is first. I read them in written order (Magician’s Nephew 6th), but either was is fine– it’s not that big a deal. I read the set my dad had growing up, by my mom bought him a new one from HarperCollins. I think it may be this one- click here to find out if I’m not totally useless at HTML. 😀

    hope everyone had a great thanksgiving!
    ~Nzie

    hope everyone

  10. JohnABaptist says:

    Hi Scoobs,

    If you check the link in my post immediately above yours, the article referenced in the link was on the precise subject of the order in which the books should be read.

    I think the consensus opinion, including that of the author is that you may choose publication order, or order by internal chronology of the story…either one is fine. Lewis seems to be leaning toward the second [internal chronology] order. But read the article and choose the road that feels best to you.

    Someone else will have to advise you on the best boxed sets however…I have no idea there.

    Happy Reading!

  11. Perelandra says:

    Incredible as it may sound, there are strange folk who decry Lewis and Tolkien as occultists. Wht they were high level initiates of the Ordo Templi Orientalis and Aleister Crowley used to attend Inkling meetings. This sort of nonsense was already abroad in the ’80s. Harry-hating merely amplified it.

    That spin-off volume was THE BOOK OF NARNIANS.

  12. Thanks for all the tips — I will read them in the original published order based on the input. I’m going to check out your recommendations and get a set as an early Christmas present to myself 🙂

  13. Perelandra says:

    The question of “proper” order doesn’t invalidate Donald Ward’s thesis, because the planetary associations don’t match the days of the week whichever way you arrange the books, even if any list must end with Saturn in THE LAST BATTLE. The Eighth Day is the eternal Easter, life in the New Creation.

  14. Are the medieval heavens supposed to conform to the days of the week? I hadn’t thought so. The days of the week are kind of a mishmash of pantheons (panthea?) anyway.

  15. i appreciate reading all the interesting comments and information. thank you very much. i especially liked the explanation about panentheism in Nzie’s interesting post.

  16. Perelandra says:

    The gods of the days of the week originated in ancient Mesopotamia and the planetary assignments remain consistent across Latinate and Germanic languages. The iconography does differ so that in Arabic and Arabic-influenced Italian art the planets have different attributes than the Greco-Roman set. For instance, the Sun appears as a judge, like Chamash. (See Jean Seznec, THE SURVIVAL OF THE PAGAN GODS). But you’re right, the order of the days of the week (Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn) doesn’t correspond to the planetary spheres ( Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) or to the order of the proposed planetary Nania associations.

    Susan (or somebody) had to be dropped so that only seven former Earth children go back to Narnia in THE LAST BATTLE. But which female gets to be equivalent to a feminine-dominant hermaphroditic Mercury?

  17. Arabella Figg says:

    First, Scoobs, I suggest published order. I think The Lion gives you such a sense of wonder that would be diminished by reading MN first.

    Nzie, loved your post. Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian helped me understand the effect of modernism on spirituality and how we think about and live God. Finally I understood how mechanical we make God but really, how organic and fluid God is. And this being so, he leaks into and shines forth from so many things, even things not directly related to him or acknowledging him.

    For example, when I hear Tony Bennett sing, I feel God’s presence. I don’t know what Bennett’s personal beliefs are and don’t really care. His voice is a glorious instrument that practically screams (in a bel canto, of course) “this is what God made for you to enjoy! Hear his beauty in it.”

    Hannah Hurnard was “accused” of pantheism, too. It’s an easy word to throw around, yet God is in microbes and Mt. Everest. He is not those things, nor are those things him, yet he created them and they glorify him.

    We deny ourselves great pleasure in God’s creation when we label parts of it Christian or nonChristian and choose/deny accordingly. Now that my antennae are up at full tilt, I enjoy God so much more.

    Kitties and other animals are our glimpse into the innocence of Eden…

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