Piranesi: a book review

Piranesi (2020) by Susanna Clarke

I have been reading a fabulous new book called Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The title of her new novel is drawn from the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and it takes place within an enormous and magical flooded House that is reminiscent of some of Piranesi’s art. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite,” Susanna Clarke writes. Adding to the enjoyment of this wonderful novel has been a series of podcasts by Joy Marie Clarkson (starting here).

The Prisons – A Wide Hall with Lanterns by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1745)

There are multiple references to the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis. One example is the similarity of the Albatross scene to the one in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Another is the way that “Valentine Andrew Ketterley” of “an old Dorsetshire family” (Part 4) suggests Uncle Andrew Ketterley from The Magician’s Nephew: “The Ketterleys are, however, a very old family. An old Dorsetshire family ….”

Working through this novel, I’ve been repeatedly struck with a strange sense of déjà vu. Either Susanna Clarke and I read the same books, or she is revealing to me something that, in an inarticulate way, I already knew. Or possibly both. That said, some of the echoes I see to other books are, no doubt, coincidence.

Some fan art of mine, prompted by the novella Rain Through Her Fingers by Rabia Gale, which is set in a flooded city that Piranesi reminds me of

I am reviewing the novel here on ScientificGems because it has a lot to say about Science, Knowledge, and how to relate to the World: “I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery. The sight of the One-Hundred-and-Ninety-Second Western Hall in the Moonlight made me see how ridiculous that is. The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.” (Part 2). This recalls something that C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man: “For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men …” Indeed, Susanna Clarke makes us ask “is Science truly our friend?”

More specifically, Susanna Clarke argues against Reductionist views of the world, and the need to approach the objects of study with Love: “It is a statue of a man kneeling on his plinth; a sword lies at his side, its blade broken in five pieces. Roundabout lie other broken pieces, the remains of a sphere. The man has used his sword to shatter the sphere because he wanted to understand it, but now he finds that he has destroyed both sphere and sword. This puzzles him, but at the same time part of him refuses to accept that the sphere is broken and worthless. He has picked up some of the fragments and stares at them intently in the hope that they will eventually bring him new knowledge.” (Part 7)

One may count the petals of a violet, for example, and grind it up to extract the ionones and anthocyanins responsible for odour and colour. But something has been lost in so doing, and the resulting description does not exhaust everything that can be said about the flower. This problem is amplified for those who do not themselves experience the flower, but rely on descriptions by others.

The novel also references Plato and the importance of universals: “You make it sound as if the Statue was somehow inferior to the thing itself. I do not see that that is the case at all. I would argue that the Statue is superior to the thing itself, the Statue being perfect, eternal and not subject to decay.” (Part 6). As Lewis would say: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!

Expanding on a statement by Tertullian (c. 160–225), Galileo famously said: “[Science] is written in this grand book – I mean the universe – which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.” (Galileo, Il Saggiatore, 1623, tr. Stillman Drake)

This is true, of course, but the House does not speak to us only in mathematical language.

Plato in the Musei Capitolini, Rome (photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

There is much more to be said about this wonderful novel. It concludes with a repetition of the words: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” There is a whole philosophy of Science there.

Goodreads rates the novel as 4.3 out of 5, and reviews of the novel are mostly glowing. The Guardian calls it an “elegant and singular novel” while the LA Review of Books says “a work of intellectual intensity.” It made the top ten fantasy novel list for the 2021 Locus Awards (although it did not win). I’m giving it four and a half stars. And let me say to my readers: “may your Paths be safe … your Floors unbroken and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty.

4.5 stars
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: 4½ stars

A Narnian Timeline

I’ve been on a bit of a Narnia binge recently. Continuing that theme, here is a timeline of the Chronicles of Narnia (click to zoom). The Terran time axis has varying scales (although piecewise linear), since 5 of the 7 Narnia books (53% of Narnian history) are set during 1940–1942. For simplicity, I also assume a piecewise linear mapping of Narnian time to Terran time (see graph below), although the text of the books indicate that the mapping is more complex than that. For Narnian events in the chart, only the vertical position has meaning (the sideways curve is only there to create space).

The Crucifixion of Jesus is included as a significant Terran event, since its Narnian parallel is the key event of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Some scholars date this to the year 30, rather than 33.

The chart was produced using R. The curved lines are plotted with colours from colorRampPalette(). Images were added using png::readPNG, as.raster(), and rasterImage(), with circles using plotrix::draw.circle(). For the title, the extrafont package was used.

Planet Narnia: a book review

Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (2008) by Michael Ward

More than a decade ago, on a blog that no longer exists, I reviewed Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis by Michael Ward (written a few years before Ward converted to Catholicism). Ward’s thesis was that C. S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia based on a secret plan linking the seven novels to the seven classical planets (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). This plan was allegedly so secret that Lewis shared it with none of his friends.

People are still reading Planet Narnia, so it’s worthwhile re-stating my opinions, especially since I’ve done some recent analyses that are relevant.

While Ward’s book has been widely praised, not everybody has agreed with his thesis. In an interview, Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham stated, “A very nice man and a friend of mine, Michael Ward, has recently written and published a book all about how the Narnian Chronicles are all based on the seven planets of the medieval astronomical system. I like Michael enormously, but I think his book is nonsense.

Devin Brown is one scholar who is critical. Brenton Dickieson is another. In fact, in a letter to a child, Lewis himself is quite clear that there was no plan: “The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last, but I found I was wrong.

There is something terribly seductive about correspondence theories like Ward’s. Plato, for example, argued that the atoms of the “four elements” (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water) corresponded to four of the Platonic Solids. Earth atoms were cubes, because cubes can be stacked to form shapes. Water atoms were icosahedra, because water flows and icosahedra are the roundest of the Platonic Solids. Fire atoms were tetrahedra, because fire burns, and that’s obviously a result of the sharp points on fire atoms. And by now we’re basically just assuming the hypothesis, so we simply state that air atoms are octahedra. Plato was a great philosopher, but that isn’t how reasoning is supposed to work.

In a similar vein to Justin Barrett’s “Some Planets in Narnia: A Quantitative Investigation of the Planet Narnia Thesis” (Seven, vol. 27, Jan 2010), I have explored the frequencies of 20 words or word groups associated with the seven planets (I allow for variations in word endings). The 20 bar charts show the frequencies, adjusted for the total word count of each book (but the small white numbers show actual counts). The bars list the seven Narnia books in order of internal chronology (i.e. The Magician’s Nephew first). The stars mark the book that Michael Ward thinks is associated with the relevant planet; the star is black if the relevant bar is indeed the highest.

One might add the exclamation “By Jove!,” which occurs only twice in the supposedly “Jovial” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but 5 times in Prince Caspian and 4 times in The Silver Chair. Looking at the chart, we start well with two “hits” linking the Sun with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but then there are only four more hits (and most of those can be explained purely on the basis of plot). All up, 6 hits out of 20, when we would have expected 20/7, or just under 3. This is not statistically significant.

It is also worth noting that we know how Lewis wrote when he was making connections to the planets. For example, Lewis’s Perelandra is based on Venus, and Lewis throws in 7 references to the metal associated with her: “coppery” (3×), “copper-coloured” (3×), and “coppery-green” (1×). There are no such references in Out of the Silent Planet, and just one in That Hideous Strength (and that is in a reference to Venus: “I have long known that this house is deeply under her influence. There is even copper in the soil. Also – the earth-Venus will be specially active here at present.”). However, there is only one mention of copper in The Magician’s Nephew, which Ward claims is also linked to Venus (“The feathers shone chestnut colour and copper colour.”). That is to say, an important Lewisian reference to Venus is not present in any significant way in The Magician’s Nephew.

Now Ward gets around these and other problems by claiming that Lewis didn’t always follow the plan: “Nevertheless, for all its apparent ungraciousness, we can bear in mind that Lewis was unlikely to have been perfectly successful in carrying out his own plan” (p. 233). But if Lewis didn’t follow the plan, one questions what kind of “plan” it was.

Hope, Love, and Faith (photo: Anthony Dekker)

In his story “The Honour of Israel Gow,” G. K. Chesterton writes: “I only suggested that because you said one could not plausibly connect snuff with clockwork or candles with bright stones. Ten false philosophies will fit the universe; ten false theories will fit Glengyle Castle. But we want the real explanation of the castle and the universe.” In that spirit, I offer an alternate theory (the core of which was developed collaboratively) which I also blogged about more than a decade ago. Not that I think that my theory is necessarily right, just that it’s a better theory than Ward’s, and therefore casts doubt on his proposal. A theory should, after all, explain the facts better than any alternative theory.

And my theory is this: that the seven Narnia stories are linked to the Seven Virtues: Love, Faith, Hope, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice. This fits what we know about composition. Of course, if you thought you were writing just one Christian children’s book, it would be about Love. Of course the next two books written would be about Faith and Hope. Of course the four “cardinal virtues” would come last. So how does this work?

I get 11 “hits.” That’s 11 out of 25, because I discarded 5 options while producing the chart, but the match is still extremely significant, with p < 0.04%. Shields are a common Christian symbol of Faith (Ephesians 6:16) and they are mentioned especially often in Prince Caspian, which I associate with that virtue (and see also the line “We don’t forget. I believe in the High King Peter and the rest that reigned at Cair Paravel, as firmly as I believe in Aslan himself.”).

Anchors are a common Christian symbol of Hope (Hebrews 6:19) and they are mentioned especially often in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (and see also “But Reepicheep here has an even higher hope… I expect to find Aslan’s own country. It is always from the east, across the sea, that the great Lion comes to us.”). The Horse and His Boy is full of bravery in the face of fear, i.e. of Fortitude (e.g. “And now at last, brave girl though she was, her heart quailed. Supposing the others weren’t there! Supposing the ghouls were! But she stuck out her chin (and a little bit of her tongue too) and went straight towards them.”).

The Silver Chair has Puddleglum to demonstrate Prudence, and the final judgement in The Last Battle demonstrates Justice. It is really only for The Magician’s Nephew that I have failed to make my case, but there one can take Uncle Andrew and Jadis as examples of the absence of Temperance (as in “… he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.”).

Hope and anchors have a long association. This flag was embroidered by Jane, Lady Franklin for one of many expeditions searching for her lost husband (photo credit)

To quote Chesterton again: “Ten false philosophies will fit the universe; ten false theories will fit Glengyle Castle.” Another theory for the Narnia books that has been suggested to me is that they correspond to the seven liberal arts, with the first three books written corresponding to the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, in that order) and the last four books written corresponding to the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy).

We can count words as before, except that the category “long words” (corresponding to Rhetoric) includes all words of 11 or more letters, such as “crestfallen,” “unmitigated,” or “waterspouts.” We get 8 “hits” this way (2 more than for Ward’s theory). Allowing for discarded options, this is statistically significant, with p < 2%. The pairings of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with Grammar and Prince Caspian with Logic are rather unconvincing, but I think that this theory is still better than that of Michael Ward.

One can even find characteristic colours in the books, with the words “green,” “white,” “blue,” and “black” occurring particularly often in The Magician’s Nephew (52), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (59), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (26), and The Silver Chair (39), respectively.

Chesterton (or, rather, Father Brown) concludes with what is really the fundamental principle of science: “But we want the real explanation of the castle and the universe.” And I don’t think that Michael Ward has the real explanation of the Narnia books. Indeed, even if one assumes that the Narnia stories follow a plan, there are better candidates for a plan than the one that Ward suggests.

Goodreads rates Planet Narnia 4.3 out of 5, because (judging by the comments) people largely seem to believe Ward’s argument, which I find so unconvincing. However, I can really only give his book two stars:

* *
Planet Narnia by Michael Ward: 2 stars