I was up early again this morning to check out another astronomical wonder: a total lunar eclipse.

Apart from the faint blood hue towards sunrise, a casual observer wouldn’t have noticed too much difference from an ordinary moon. Except for the first fifteen minutes, that is, when it really did look as if a huge bite had been taken out of it. No wonder the Vikings of old believed a ravening wolf was chasing the moon.

They called the moon, Mani, and considered it to be one of those giants I’ve looked at in earlier posts in this series. One of the stories about Mani tells how he captured a pair of children, Hjúki and Bil, who had gone to a well to fetch some water. They carried a bucket on a pole laid across their shoulders. This tale of Hjúki and Bil is sometimes said to be the origin of our nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill.

The Dictionary of Non-Classical Mythology says nineteenth century mythographers considered Jack and Jill were two asteroids captured by the moon. Imagine—a world in which the moon was circled by two moons of its own! And then somehow, in some ancient cataclysm, they were drawn into earth’s gravitational well and spun out of control to a watery splashdown in one of earth’s oceans. Through most of the twentieth century, this scenario was regarded as verging on impossible within historical times—but in the twenty-first, it’s coming into favour again.

Jill Pole is, of course, one of the major characters in The Silver Chair. She arrives in a watery splashdown, dropping into Narnia after an astronomical fall. Perhaps I should retract my assertion The Silver Chair is about giants, Jupiter and Thursday, rather than—as Michael Ward suggests in Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis—the moon.

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Giants in the Earth

I was up early last Tuesday morning, taking a last lingering look at the line-up of planets in the pre-dawn sky. Although it wasn’t a conjunction in any real sense any longer, it was—in many ways—the most spectacular sight of the last month. Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter were visible; a new moon was momentarily caught in the branches of my neighbour’s tree; twice I saw the incandescent streak of a meteor and, to cap it off, although the cloud veil seemed too thin for a storm, lightning flashed across the sky several times.

It was a bit of a worry, really. If I up and move to another country shortly, it won’t come as a complete surprise. Seven years ago I looked out my kitchen window at a new moon around this same time of year and—as a direct consequence—wound up living in New Zealand. I worked at the high school in a tiny town nestled against the Blue Mountains of West Otago: Tapanui, the edge of the rainbow.

On my first major trip around the South Island, I headed down to Gore, round to Queenstown and Arrowtown, where I visited several movie locations from The Lord of the Rings, before returning through Central Otago.

Michael Ward talks about donegality in Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis. By it, he means a defining but ordinary quality. As I drove through Central Otago with its strange rock formations, bleak uplands, steep stony chasms and snowgrass, I didn’t know the word ‘donegality’. But I did have the strongest sense that, if any place on earth really encapsulated Ettinsmoor from The Silver Chair, this was it.

It felt like giant country.

As I drove into Ettrick, the very name of the town seemed to confirm that sense of ettins nearby. When I investigated the local legends shortly afterwards, I wasn’t surprised to find the Māori equivalent of the ettin: Kopuwai, a brutish giant able to step from one mountain to another but now petrified as a pillar of rock on top of the Obelisk Range. 

Just before I left for New Zealand, my first fantasy was published by Evergreen Books. And do mean ‘just before’: the publisher received the shipment of Merlin’s Wood the day before I left. Merlin’s Wood contains some barely-disguised ettins: I was sitting at my computer dithering about to call the alien creatures I’d just ‘invented’ when my eye lighted on The Silver Chair. Thus the giant green giraffe-like horses in Merlin’s Wood became the ettii.

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The Deeps of Time

One day I’m going to sneak four words past my editors. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage it because so far they’ve caught me out every time. They delete the four words and almost invariably add a comment: ‘What on earth does this mean?’

I figure that, if they have to ask, then I haven’t managed to convey the sense at all. Yet as far as I’m concerned the four words make one of the most striking phrases in all literature. Dulcet and fragrant, honeyed, caressing and achingly beautiful: they appeal to all the senses. If only I could convince my editors they form an unassailably glorious combination… But no, foiled again!

The words aren’t mine. They’re a quote from the opening chapter of JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Perhaps I’m influenced by a halo effect; that chapter is utterly exquisite in describing angelic immortals who are given power by the Creator to body forth the cosmos and give shape to history through their singing. A dark theme distorts and deforms their symphony when one of the immortals uses it to weave corruption into the fabric of the universe. But the Creator takes even this damage and reshapes it to even greater magnificence than before. The chapter ends with mankind being established in ‘the Deeps of Time and amidst the innumerable stars.’

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Dance of the Planets

I woke up very early last Thursday morning and padded out to the kitchen for a drink of water. As I stood at the sink and looked out the window, I had to blink in disbelief. Three bright stars were clearly visible in a tiny triangle. What’s more, as I looked closely, I realised they weren’t twinkling. They were planets.

Thrilled, I looked even more closely: yes, there was Venus and Mars, and… was it Jupiter? And was there a very faint fourth planet? Mercury or Saturn?

I hadn’t been aware there was a conjunction of planets coming up, so to see them so unexpectedly was a marvellous and utterly serendipitous treat. I was reminded of the Chronicles of Narnia.  In Prince Caspian, Dr Cornelius takes Caspian up a tower to view the salutation of the stars Tarva and Alambil as they greet each other in the Great Dance.

Inevitably, my thoughts turned to Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis, a wonderfully compelling investigation into the hidden code that author Michael Ward believes he has discovered in CS Lewis’ most famous work. Ward contends that each of the seven stories in the Chronicles of Narnia focuses on one of the seven planets of the medieval cosmos. His thesis is that behind the eclectic, almost chaotic mix of folklore, myth and legend, there is a grand orderly dance—an extraordinary synthesis of astronomy and literary allusion.

Ward makes a persuasive case. During the twenty years I coordinated Camp Narnia, there were several times when the team raised suspicions there was a hidden secret embedded in the stories. I remember a lengthy discussion after our herald, Karen, made the point there was a curious mistake in Caspian’s flag in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We all agreed that Lewis was too astute a scholar to have made the error of placing heraldic ‘metal’ on ‘metal’: a golden sun on a white background. It was obviously a clue—but it was beyond our ability to decode it.

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