Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis
by Michael Ward
Oxford University Press, 384 pages, $29.95
Late one night, a young scholar at Cambridge named Michael Ward reads “The Planets,” a minor poem by C.S. Lewis. In it he encounters a curious phrase about the influence of Jupiter: winter passed / And guilt forgiv'n. This, he notices, is exactly what happens in one of Lewis' most famous works, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Could the poem and the book be connected somehow?
Ward quickly begins to notice connections between other books in Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series and other planets in the poem. He remembers a line from Father Silouan, the nineteenth-century Orthodox monk, about how prayer is a participation in the Holy Spirit, and he hears an echo in Lewis' own words—“In prayer, God speaks to God.”
“I did not shout ‘Eureka!' and run naked down the street like Archimedes,” Ward explains, “but I did jump from my bed in a state of undress and begin to pull books from my shelves, chasing links from work to work.” Indeed, he writes, “I immediately and instinctively knew, though it took much longer to understand with clarity, that Lewis had cryptically designed the Chronicles so that the seven heavens spoke through them like a kind of language or song. He had translated the planets into plots, and the music of the spheres could be heard silently sounding (or tingling, as he would have said) in each work.”
In other words, in 2003, Michael Ward discovered the secret key to the Chronicles of Narnia, a key no one had found before: Each of the seven planets of the ancient celestial hierarchy provides the atmospheric superstructure for each of the seven books in Lewis' series of children's books.
The sensible reader's first reaction to this revelation will be that it is, basically, nutty. Why has it taken someone fifty years to find this? And why didn't Lewis inform anyone of his secret? His friend J.R.R. Tolkien, like many others, had criticized Lewis for being a literary magpie, plucking elements from innumerable sources to create a slap-dash mythology for his fictional world. Who could imagine that a method, in fact, lay hidden in this madness? For that matter, why should we care? Most critics consider Lewis' fiction as, at best, an introduction to theology and literature.
Michael Ward, however, dismantles our initial skepticism with great winsomeness, persistence, and lucidity. Making his way through each of the Chronicles, he analyzes the deployment of a particular planet's imagery and then assesses the theological messages expressed by that deployment. In the end, the reader is convinced, or at least intrigued—a major accomplishment given such a surprising beginning.
Ward opens with the correspondence between Jupiter and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Jupiter—both as planet and as spirit—seemed to be Lewis' favorite, and it appears more than any other planet in Lewis' scholarship, poetry, and fiction. Lewis believed that we need to recover the joviality of past ages as an antidote to the saturnine disenchantment that hangs over modern culture. The plot of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tells the story: the return of Jupiter, the breaking in of joy and feasting, the arrival of Aslan, and the fall of the White Witch—winter passed / and guilt forgiv'n.
In “The Planets,” Lewis describes Jupiter's kingly, magnanimous, and festive influence. Jupiter, the poem claims, inspires the “lion-hearted,” and, sure enough, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Aslan provides the four children with courage. Along the way he strengthens another lion, too (the only other living lion to appear in the Chronicles). Jupiter is also the master of “jocund revel,” a trait prominent in the suggestions of feasts and laughter throughout the novel.
Most of all, Jupiter is the planet of kingliness, and kingship plays an enormous role in the book, whether it be the illegitimate rule of the Witch or the coronation of the children as the kings and queens of Narnia. Jovial imagery also appears in the form of the oak, the minotaur, and the color red. Ward offers the first convincing explanation of how Father Christmas fits in the novel—for the jolly, red-faced character can appear only if he is in Narnia to augment a general atmosphere of joviality and not as part of a coherent mythology. By the end of the novel, Ward writes, the children “become saturated with joviality. . . . Their bodies, their clothes, their pastimes, their very patterns of speech become regal as they increasingly submit themselves to Contemplation of Jove and to Enjoyment of the kingdom of his heaven.”
In each of the Chronicles of Narnia, the Christ-figure of Aslan embodies the planetary personality of the story. He is present as the one who transcends and sustains creation, and he tangibly changes those who follow him. Prince Caspian, for instance, is a story ruled by Mars, who is manifested by soldiery and battle, and by sylvan imagery. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader focuses on the Sun, with its light, gold, and liberality evoking Christ's lofty reign over the broader affairs of the world and the lives of individual men.
Meanwhile, the Moon was seen to be watery, obscure, and silver in medieval times, and the characters in The Silver Chair spend most of their time wet and miserable in obscure places. But the Moon is also on the edge of the realm of mutability and therefore shares the Earth's imperfections. As a result, Aslan appears in the novel only outside the lunar Narnia.
In The Horse and His Boy, the imagery of Mercury includes twins (Mercury rules the constellation Gemini), theft, language, and speed. The laughter, fertility, beauty, and coupling of Venus figure in The Magician's Nephew, in which Lewis explores feminine and generative elements of God without the complications of a fully feminine Christ figure.
Finally, the old age, ugliness, cold, misfortune, death, and judgment of Saturn fill The Last Battle, allowing a literary meditation on theodicy. Death and pain may have their place in life, but they do not hold ultimate sway, and so the last book ends with the joviality that readers saw in the first book: the final triumph of joy and redemption over gravity and death.
Ward is not arguing for direct allegory in the Chronicles; Aslan is not Jupiter, and Caspian is not Mars. For Lewis, the atmosphere an author creates is a story's most important quality, the aspect that would attract and move readers to the greatest extent. Quoting Lewis' Spenser's Images of Life, Ward writes: “Lovers of romances go back and back to such stories in the same way that we go ‘back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for . . . what? for itself; to a region for its whole atmosphere—to Donegal for its Donegality and London for its Londonness. It is notoriously difficult to put these tastes into words.'”
It is this kind of atmosphere, which Ward calls a chronicle's “donegality,” that served as Lewis' overriding goal in writing the Chronicles. If a jovial atmosphere is best created by the incoherence of having satyrs and Santa Claus triumph over a Snow Queen, that is what Lewis uses. The end result is that a planet's essence presides over each story with what Ward calls a “quiet fullness.”
Over the years—particularly after his famous debate about his work Miracles with G.E.M. Anscombe—Lewis came to think that rational arguments were too rudimentary to express Christian truths in full. And so he took his idea of human beings in a world filled with hidden divine reason and argued it out in a form suited to the idea itself: Four children would be cast into a world in which the presence of Jupiter was never directly perceived but rang throughout. (The choice of Jupiter to symbolize divine reason was intentional, Ward notes: The renaissance humanist philosopher Marsilio Ficino wrote that “jovial influence is especially attracted by discursive reason.”) Narnia, Ward writes, is about “children who do not realize that they and their thoughts and their actions are surrounded and upheld by a mighty creative and sustaining spirit. Through their ignorance, Lewis symbolizes what he believed to be our common human condition: unawareness of the supernatural. He could not have disclosed that this was his intention without pulling down the whole imaginative edifice around him.”
All this is well and good for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but the weakest part of Ward's account appears when we ask why Lewis went on to write six more volumes in the series. Ward freely admits that it is one thing to argue a point of literary criticism but quite another to claim to know the author's overall purpose. For that matter, his analysis of the imagery and Christology in the Chronicles seems a bit forced at times, particularly the imagery of liberality in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the focus on Christological submission in The Silver Chair. But given the wild nature of his thesis, readers will be surprised to discover how many times the text is illuminated by Ward's work in Planet Narnia.
No one can say that Michael Ward ends the debate over the meaning of the Chronicles of Narnia, but he advances the conversation in an extremely persuasive way. And he makes it clear that this is a conversation worth having. If Ward is right, then C.S. Lewis' communication of medieval and renaissance literature to modern audiences, his interest in God's presence in creation, and his articulation of this theology in fiction make him an even more intriguing author and theologian than we thought.
Nathaniel Peters is a junior fellow at First Things.