CS Lewis’ fictional descriptions helped me understand the qualities of the five classical planets because he retained pagan elements in the Medieval worldview that he studied and loved.
I have written before about why I prefer other forms of divination over astrology, but for some of my recent lessons in the Order of the White Moon, astrology became important, so I set out to become at least minimally more familiar with it. In the process of doing so, I made a strange discovery: some of my deepest visceral understanding of astrology draws on the work of Christian apologist CS Lewis.
Specifically, it comes from the final book in Lewis’ Space Trilogy, an attempt at a sort of sci-fi Christian allegory. At heart, though, Lewis is a medievalist, and like Dante, he has to make space for those virtuous pagans and their ideas that he could not bear to leave behind. (Please note that I use lowercase for classical paganism or what Bonewits described as paleo-paganisms.)
In The Discarded Image, Lewis’ book on medieval cosmology, he says, “Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination.” (203) He goes on to admit: “I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors. Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree.” (216) While he admits that there is a tiny problem in that the old cosmology was scientifically inaccurate, but being well aware of the changes in scientific ontology and epistemology around the turn of the 20th century, he feels free to use the fall of positivism as a defense for his romantic fascination.
A much more serious concern for him is that the truly classical worldview, rediscovered in the medieval period, was not Christian. He integrates his beloved Model with Christianity by, among other things, characterizing the spirits of the planets as a kind of angel, fitting them neatly into the Great Chain of Being without disrupting its hierarchical structure, following the lead of many thinkers both medieval and modern who concluded that they had found in Christianity the name of the Aristotelian Prime Mover.
The Space Trilogy reads to me as an extended series of musings on how the hybrid vigor of this revitalized (and redeemed?) medieval mythology might play out in today’s world(s). It starts out with establishing the cosmos and Earth’s place in it; the second book reimagines a new creation-redemption myth; the third brings the consequences back to Earth with a quasi-apocalyptic tale that fuses the trippy imagery of Arthur C. Clarke with the assurance of epic meaning through spiritual warfare of Frank Peretti.
Lewis was trying to work with sci-fi, but the result reads more like fantasy kludged with his contemporary technology. Since his protagonist, like himself, is a scholar of languages and liberal arts, neither of them has any interest in the science and the narrative takes pains to spare the reader any potentially boringly-detailed discussions of the technology. Much more interesting are his interpretations of the angelic beings of different orders; he dwells lovingly on the sensations of being near them and speculates about how they might exist, using all the best medieval metaphors, such as “vibrations.”
Throughout it all runs the deep certainty of the apologist and the massively kyriarchical assumptions of the utterly privileged. To me, there is also a whisper of the sense that readers can vicariously enjoy the protagonist’s place at the center of universe-shaking action in lieu of their own frustrated desires to have a more important role in the epic narrative their theology lays out for them. With all of this in mind, I should point out that That Hideous Strength, the third in the trilogy, is a deeply weird book and not one I recommend to the casual reader – but…
For me, Lewis certainly succeeded in his project to bring a deeper understanding of the Medieval cosmology to the modern mind. Near the end of That Hideous Strength, the powers that inhabit the five classical planets descend to Earth, and Lewis chronicles the effects each of them has on a core group of characters. Those accounts stuck in my mind as the most vivid ways of understanding the influences of each of these planets, much more clearly than any information gleaned from the original myths, perhaps because Lewis does write from the human perspective.
Mercury brings puns and “plays upon thoughts, paradoxes, fancies, anecdotes, theories laughingly advanced yet (on consideration) well worth taking seriously…skyrockets of metaphor and allusion.” (318) Lewis’ own allusions to the qualities of literal mercury lead to him describing how “all the fragments – needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts – went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves,” much as is experienced when poetry brings “the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision.” (319)
Lewis is more sparing in his descriptions of Venus’ effects, sparing the delicate sensibilities of his English readers. We do see that Venus brings warmth, comfort, and sweetness; good scents and a feeling of being rocked on the ocean touch “the inconsolable wound with which man is born.” (320) The effect is one of desire, but holy desire, which can never be fully satisfied in the sublunar realm.
The arrival of Mars stirs discussion of courage in terms that are the essence of British masculinity in the World Wars. The people are unafraid to die, and the martial splendor overwhelms any petty concern with dangers. Interestingly, here Lewis also alludes to Northern European mythology by syncretizing Mars with “Tyr who put his hand in the wolf-mouth.” (322)
Saturn comes next, with cold, the cold of the depths of space where even stars fizzle themselves out into the heat-death of the universe. It is the embodiment of time, “more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers.” (323) This mastery of the depths gives Saturn a kind of immovable strength, but all its power is suffused with sorrow.
Last, in Lewis’ descent of the gods, is Jove. I get the impression that he is placed there because he is the only spirit which can overmaster Saturn, and Lewis is too much of a storyteller to leave readers on the ending without a conclusion that Saturn creates.
Lewis first describes Jove as “one whose influence tempered and almost transformed to his own quality the skill of leaping Mercury, the clearness of Mars, the subtler vibration of Venus, and even the numbing weight of Saturn.”
The further account was the first to make me understand how the adjective “jovial” was originally meant to combine kingly dignity and hearty revelry; Lewis says that under Jove’s influence, “Though you were a cripple, your walk would have become stately: though a beggar, you would have worn your rags magnanimously,” (323) and that all the characters feel as if they are at some royal festival.
The vividness and human perspective of these interpretations was what helped most as I was trying to make sense of different planets’ roles in astrology, so I can honestly say that Lewis, bless his Christian medievalist heart, was the first to teach me astrology, and his lessons remain with me today.
This sort of connection through preservation of earlier knowledge is an example of how Neo-Paganism can justifiably count paleo-paganism among its spiritual ancestors; what it means today is what we have to create for ourselves – not even the stars can tell us that.