Friday 21 June 2024

Lewis and Saturn in the 41st Millennium

If at the height of heaven Saturn's
cold and harmful star were lighting his black fires.....

Pharsalia, Bk 1, Lucan, trans. Susan H. Braund length old Saturn lifted up 
His faded eyes, and saw his kingdom gone,
And all the gloom and sorrow of the place....

Hyperion, Keats

I made a long comment on this post on Monsters and Manuals. noisms invited me to expand on it. 

1) noisms suggests an approach to Warhammer 40,000 - at least as far as roleplay is concerned - rooted in the theology of Christian speculative fiction authors as Lewis, Tolkien and Gene Wolfe. This wouldn't necessarily be apologetics, but would round out some of the ideas suggested by the setting. A 40k roleplaying game in which the PCs 'try to do good'. Wolfe (not unreasonably) is suggested as the most obvious point of comparison.

2)  It's tempting, taking that 'try to do good' remark, to imagine levering Pollyanna into the Grim Darkness of the Far Future. I would say noisms doesn't mean this, and further that the proposed 40k RPG would want to be of a tone with existing 40k. Further, I would suggest that there is a degree of material that can be found in the work of C.S. Lewis that fits this rather well. 

3) For completeness, I shall mention that Lewis did write about dystopian future states - notably in the lecture series collected as The Abolition of Man. As interesting as that might be, the future state of controlling pallid intelligences and hollowed-out underlings is a poor match with the Medievalism and decay of the 41st Millennium. An age of chains, not an age of rot; a panopticon-world, not a dungeon-world. 

Now, there's a quiet tendency to talk about the Chronicles of Narnia in terms of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The events, tone and theme of that work are (relatively) bright. The instantly recognisable scene of Mr Tumnus contributes to this, as does the inclusion of Father Christmas and the repeated phrase of  'Always Winter, Never Christmas'. Narnia is peopled by talking animals, not human beings. While this tone isn't consistent through the entirety of LWW, this has a touch more of the childlike in it than later Chronicles. Where we might look is to that final work, The Last Battle.*

4) The theologian and literary critic Michael Ward wrote a book in 2008 called Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. This is not an entirely obscure work - I'm not revealing anything very special here - the BBC made a documentary based on it and Ward himself is moderately prominent. 

Anyway, Planet Narnia lays out much of Lewis's writings on the seven heavens** of Medieval Cosmology - the Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Certainly Lewis (as one who taught Medieval and Renaissance literature) knew of these and wrote about them in non-fiction - see Ch. 3 of The Discarded Image. He wrote poetry on them - in part, it seems, as an intellectual exercise. The Cosmic or Ransom Trilogy was written in the 1940s, after the discovery of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto but focuses on the Medieval planets (the one reference seemingly to them makes it appear that they are older and have ceased to support life or relevance). The various planetary geniuses that go by the term Oyéresu (singular Oyarsa) have in them a resemblance to the Classical deities as rendered by Medieval minds.

Ward's thesis is that the varying tones in the Chronicles of Narnia are attributable to each book being connected to one of the seven heavens. 

--At this point, some of you may be wondering which book is connected with which planet. Well, if I may - please don't look that up now! Even granted that I've given the game away regarding Saturn in my original comment and in this post, I would be fascinated to know what your guesses would be. Answers in the comments.

I don't propose to lay out his full argument here, but it's a fascinating lens to examine them through. Some of you may be mulling over at this point 'Does this mean Lewis believed in astrology?' - Ward, of course, answers this. I might compress his response and my own thus: more than someone who refers to a person or thing as 'Lawful Evil', 'Chaotic Good', &c, but less than he did in the Trinity or Newton's Laws of Motion.

5) So, The Last Battle is Saturnine. What does that mean?

Myn is the ruine of the hye halles, 
The falling of the toures and of the walles
(Incidentally, thanks to the Middle English in Traitor General and the presence of a pardoner in The Armour of Contempt I'm pretty certain that Abnett knows his Chaucer.)

Quoting Lewis in The Discarded Image, we get : 'In the earth his influence produces lead; in men, the melancholy complexion; in history, disastrous events....He is connected with sickness and old age.....A good account of his promoting fatal accidents, pestilence, treacheries and ill luck in general occurs in [Chaucer's] The Knight's Tale....sometimes called The Greater Infortune, Infortuna Major'

'My dere doghter Venus,' quod Saturne, 
'My cours, that hath so wyde for to turne, 
Hath more power than wot any man. 
Myn is the drenching in the see so wan; 
Myn is the prison in the derke cote; 
Myn is the strangling and hanging by the throte; 
The murmure, and the cherles rebelling, 
The groyning, and the pryvee empoysoning: 
I do vengeance and pleyn correccioun 
Whyl I dwelle in the signe of the leoun. 
Myn is the ruine of the hye halles, 
The falling of the toures and of the walles 
Up-on the mynour or the carpenter. 
I slow Sampsoun in shaking the piler; 
And myne be the maladyes colde, 
The derke tresons, and the castes olde; 
My loking is the fader of pestilence.

The Knight's Tale, Chaucer
(Try reading it aloud.)

But Saturn is not Satan. Exactly. (Likewise, Jove is not God). See Bernardus Silvestris.

...the Usiarch Saturn, an ancient to be most strongly condemned, cruel and detestable in his wickedness savagely inclined to harsh and bloody acts. As many sons as his most fertile wife had borne him he had devoured newly born, cutting short the beginning of destructive a threat he would pose to the future race of men by the poisonous and deadly property of his planet. While Nature, after observing his labours, judged him harsh and treacherous, yet she believed that the old man must be respected, as it was said that Chronos was the son of eternity and the father of time.

Cosmographia, Bernardus Silvestris, (Microcosmus 5.5-6),  trans. Winthrop Wetherbee

There is no avoiding Saturn, though one may escape the grasp of the Devil. His influence is more woeful than foul. 

Of course, this picture is complicated by Virgil - the Aeneid in Book VIII has a passage describing a Golden Age brought about by Saturn, as does Eclogue 4. These appear to be images that pre-date the melding of Roman and Greek myth. On a practical note, the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum was the state treasury - one doesn't place one's treasure in the keeping of a loathsome god. See also the Saturnalia, the festival with a brief return to an age of plenty and equality.

To turn (naturally) from Virgil to Dante, we ascend to the Paradiso. Dante and Beatrice pass through the spheres of Paradise, each associated with a Planet. Saturn is not named - Longfellow refers to the 'Seventh Splendour' in his translation (Canto XXI). His sphere is that of contemplatives - Dante meets with St Benedict and St Peter Damian.

There are also some fascinating extracts on Saturn from the astrologers/astronomers of the Islamic world (as Abu Ma'shar al-Balkhi), that were transmitted into Christian Europe. Some of these are familiar enough in terms of their content (melancholy, misfortune, cold, plague), though the level of detail is different to the literary uses of Saturn.*** Book Three of the Picatrix or Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm, however, (in addition to the claim that the image of Saturn is 'the shape of a black man wrapped in a green cloak with a dog-like head and a sickle in his hand') makes the claim that his is the 'retentive virtue' (Cf. Mars and the 'attractive virtue', or Jupiter and the 'augmentative virtue'). This is interesting as a Saturnine neutral quality, and applies itself equally to Time gnawing away at men, and to the holding or maintaining of wealth.

6) I doubt Lewis read the Picatrix - literature, not magic was his field - but it's an interesting contrast and part of the wider scheme. Either way, let's talk about Lewis's Saturn. 

By his own account, Lewis's own generation - who fought in the Great War and then wrote an awful lot about it - were born under Saturn. However, he denied the final authority of Saturn, the claim of the universe to be 'Saturnocentric'. Quoting Ward, that quality which Lewis called Saturnocentric 'means astringent, stern, tough, unmerry, uncomfortable, unconciliatory, and serious, though not necessarily profound or virtuous.' 

40k has of course, been quite willing to make reference to the Great War.

That Hideous Strength features a scene with the decent of the planetary influences into the manor at St Anne's. The introduction to Saturn goes like this:

All thought of that [the cold outside]: of stiff grass, hen-roosts, darks places in the middle of woods, graves. Then of the sun's dying, the Earth gripped, suffocated, in airless cold, the black sky lit only with stars. And then, not even stars: the heat-death of the universe, utter and final blackness of nonentity from which Nature knows no return.

Meanwhile, at the focus of Saturn's descent, things are different.

Saturn, whose name in the heavens is Lurga, stood in the Blue Room. His spirit lay upon the house, or even on the whole Earth, with a cold pressure such as might flatten the very orb of Tellus to a wafer. Matched against the lead-like burden of his antiquity the other gods themselves felt young and ephemeral. It was a mountain of centuries sloping up from the highest antiquity we can conceive, up and up like a mountain whose summit never comes into sight, not to eternity where the thought can rest, but into more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers. It was also strong like a mountain; its age was no mere morass of time where imagination can sink in reverie, but a living, self-remembering duration which repelled lighter intelligences from its structure as granite flings back waves, itself unwithered and undecayed but able to wither any who approach it unadvised. [Characters] suffered a sensation of unendurable cold; and all that was strength in Lurga became sorrow as it entered them.

Ward mentions at this stage the 'godly sorrow' of St Paul in 2 Corinthians 7.8-11. If there is a Saturnine human character in That Hideous Strength, it is the Ulster scientist and rationalist Andrew MacPhee - a serious-minded type, sceptical of some of Ransom's wilder claims, apparently a happily unattached bachelor. By the conclusion, he is dressed in an 'ash-coloured and slightly monastic looking robe' - once again, note the reference to contemplatives. He may be a rough tribute to Lewis's tutor William Kirkpatrick.

An adaptation of Ward's chapter in Planet Narnia on Saturn may be found here. Those who recall that work will remember the scenes of darkness and despair, the leaden weight, the deceptions, the appearance of Father Time - to say nothing of the death of so many of its characters. The Last Battle, as he notes, ends with the return of the Jovial. We may compare Aeneid VIII here - Saturn's golden age comes after his displacement by Jupiter.

7) Fine: of the Seven Heavens, Saturn may be most apt for 40k. But how do we have a virtuous struggle - and even a victory - under Saturn?

First of all, to be Saturnine is different than to be Martial. This is not just a matter of degree - Infortuna Major and Minor - but also of quality. The bracing contest and clash of arms under Mars is different to the crushing weight of years under Saturn. This also means, I would say, less chance of an ongoing series. The regiment going on to another world, another battle. The contest must be final.

The protagonists must, I suspect, be on the defensive - or a 'best defence is a good offence' endeavour. But that which it preserves must be consistent with the Saturnine. A lonely outpost of survivors, a hospital of the maimed, a hermetically sealed library or a depopulated mega-structure, its furnaces and power plants finally cooling. Player Characters should be (as in the Saturnocentric quote above) stern and unconciliatory, though for 'Let justice be done though the heavens fall' reasons. Contest of arms should be costly and uncertain. 

"I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

"Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?"

The Ballad of the White Horse, Bk. 1, GK Chesterton

I said before that this would this would involve 'a bitter struggle, despair, trudging, misfortune'. Trudging and footslogging is often rather neglected by 40k, at least when it comes to Space Marines; but for our purposes, an emphasis on fatigue and becoming overwhelmed is necessary - which takes the fun out of being a muscular super soldier. (Admittedly, the later Horus Heresy books had good moments of this.)

To repeat myself again, 'the triumph is in some distant preservation for a coming dawn (...a New Sun). Resting on the association with contemplatives and monasticism, perhaps we see an iteration of [the conclusion to] A Canticle for Liebowitz.' Interestingly, while the Imperium of Man is the natural fit for all the above, it strikes me that the Eldar would also fit quite well. Their tragedy and decline is as pronounced, of course, but we have not the short lives and brutal deaths of humanity, but the slow dwindling, like the space elves they are. 

Coupled to this is their method of preservation, the spiritstones. An Eldar soul may be retained in one of these rather than falling to Slaanesh in the Warp. They are gathered into the Infinity Circuits of their space-faring craftworlds. This does not appear to be much of a paradise, in so much as we know much of it. Death, but deliverance from damnation; an eternity of contemplation. Life for survivors among depopulated cities or amidst distant echoes of old friends - who must still be preserved. Of the craftworlds, Iyanden may express this best.

Anyway, I think that indicates ample scope for the Saturnine as a theme or mode in 40k. 

*Please assume, as in the original comment, that I am aware of some of the discourse and criticisms of The Last Battle and that I can add nothing the informed would find relevant or interesting to that here.

**Discussed and employed here before!

***See this article for some extracts. Also, the association of Saturn and the Jews, which may be the result of the connection between Saturn's day and the Sabbath. 


  1. I was wrong! (Sort of.) I thought that Lewis hadn't read the Ghayat - see the start to Section 6.

    However, per Ward (Ch. 3, p. 56) he may have been following the scheme in the Ghayat - and we certainly know that Lewis possessed and annotated a copy of Jean Seznac's 'The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art' trans. Barbara Sessions, (New York, Pantheon, 1953). Of course, the first books of Narnia were written and published before 1953. Either way, an interesting note.

    Ward also makes another Near / Middle Eastern connection with the link of Mars and the Turkish Mirikh (either the planet or a torch) - though is apparently on shakier ground here:

    1. (In writing this comment hastily, I neglected to mention that Seznac refers to the Ghayat in his work. Apologies.)