What if there was a secret cipher that unlocked a meaning behind C. S. Lewis’ beloved Chronicles of Narnia? What if Lewis used a concealed template to map out each book in the series, with a specific contextual aim that can be completely missed unless you know exactly what to look for? That is the intriguing premise of Michael Ward’s much-praised book Planet Narnia.
As an unofficial Lewis aficionado, my wife recently read through Ward’s book, pausing between chapters to relay what she had learned to me. The material in Planet Narnia provided for many a night of excitement, discovery, and discussion. Even as someone who has digested most of this book’s thesis second-hand, I find myself convinced by Ward’s paradigm-shattering work.
Understanding the key to Lewis’s true and foundational intent for The Chronicles of Narnia unlocks the secret to numerous mysteries about the books:
- Why does Father Christmas make an appearance in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?
- Why is there a bacchanal (i.e. a party very heavy on the wine) in Prince Caspian?
- Why is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the only book with dragons in it?
- Why does Aslan never actually enter Narnia in The Silver Chair?
- What’s the point of the emphasis on twins, doubles, and symmetry in The Horse and His Boy?
- Why is The Magician’s Nephewmore comical than any of the other stories?
- Why is The Last Battle the only book with an adult protagonist?
So, what is the key that unlocks these (and many other) questions? Simply this: the seven Narnia books are heavily – indeed, primarily – influenced by the concept of the Seven Heavens. In medieval cosmology, there were seven planets, each with its own personality and characteristics. In Lewis’ view, these planets embody spiritual symbols of permanent value.
As Ward explains, the seven planets determine,
“the basic plot of each story, countless points of ornamental detail, and, most significantly (from the theological point of view), the presentation of the Christotypical figure of Aslan.”
The planet Lewis assigned to each book, as laid out by Ward, is as follows:
- Jove (Jupiter): The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
- Mars: Prince Caspian
- Sol (the Sun): The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
- Luna (the Moon): The Silver Chair
- Mercury: The Horse and his Boy
- Venus: The Magician’s Nephew
- Saturn: The Last Battle
Of course, it takes Ward an entire book to lay out the evidence and make his case. And a convincing case it is.
Riddles in the dark
Without reading the book, though, one might (rightly) ask, “If the Seven Heavens was so integral to the creation of The Chronicles of Narnia, why has no one noticed before?” Ward addresses this specific question. One reason, he says, is this:
“…many readers were content to accept that the [series’] apparent lack of [structural consistency] was evidence of hasty writing, not a sign of an unidentified inner meaning. Since Tolkien dismissed the [Chronicles of Narnia] as a mishmash it is hardly surprising that many critics have done the same.”
Another reason is this:
…those critics who were looking for a third level [of meaning]…may not have been as open to the subject of astrology as [Lewis’] work really requires, for, as I have pointed out, astrology, a subject disdained by academics, tends to be given a doubly wide berth by Christian academics. Since most Lewis scholars have been Christian or well-disposed to the Christian tradition, there was an in-built improbability that researchers would fully understand his most successful work…
The apparent connection between Lewis’ beloved fantasy series and astrological elements is a concept that many Christians might find troubling.
Heavens declare the glory of God
This connection, Ward explains, need not trouble Lewis’ Christian readership:
It must be emphasized that the pre-Copernican model of the cosmos was a Christian model for all its acceptance of astrological influence. As Lewis points out in [his book] English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, astrology and astronomy were not really distinguishable until the Copernican revolution and no Christian theologian before that time denied the general theory of planetary influences or the significance of constellation.
Furthermore, as Lewis himself said in The Discarded Image,
“Orthodox theologians [in the medieval Church] could accept the theory that the planets had an effect on events and on psychology, and, much more, on plants and minerals. It was not against this that the Church fought. She fought against three of its offshoots.”
Lewis goes on to describe the three offshoots of medieval astrology that the church rightly opposed:
- Astrologically grounded predictions (i.e., horoscopes).
- Astrological determinism. (i.e., the idea that the planets affected one’s personality to the point of overriding his or her human responsibility and free will. A modern equivalent of this determinism might be using your Myers–Briggs personality type as an excuse for your faults – i.e., “I can’t help criticizing you all the time; it’s just who I am.”)
- Any practice that would “imply or encourage the worship of planets.”
Lewis’ inclusion of the Seven Heavens avoided all three of these heretical dangers. Ward explains:
“…the [medieval] Church was content to sanction what we would now call ‘astrology.’ After all, the Bible appeared to support the belief that there were seven planets and that they possessed influences. . . . The author of the Book of Job as translated in the King James Version mentions the ‘sweet influences of Pleiades’ (Job 38:31)…. And throughout the Bible the stars are seen as ‘signs’ – most notably at Bethlehem, signifying the birth of Christ – and sometimes as a celestial court or angelic choir. Christ himself is shown in the Book of Revelation (1:16, 20; 2:1) holding the seven stars – that is, the seven wandering stars, the planets – in his right hand, a vision that Austin Farrer, Lewis’s close friend and an expert in apocalyptic imagery, understood to be a portrayal of Christ’s lordship over time, ‘for it is after these seven that the weekdays are named.’ Saturn gives Saturday its name, the Sun Sunday’s, the Moon Monday’s, and so on.”
As such, Lewis’ use of medieval cosmology falls well outside the scope of what modern-day Christians would condemn as astrology.
Another factor promoting the legitimacy of Ward’s work is the praise it has received from all across the political and theological spectrum. Below is just a sampling of the endorsements Planet Narnia has received:
- “My own [skepticism] was gradually but utterly demolished as I read this thoughtful, scholarly, and vividly-written book.” – Alan Jacobs, Professor of English, Wheaton College and author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis
- “Planet Narnia is…utterly convincing and compelling.” – N. T. Wright
- “I cannot contain my admiration. No other book on Lewis has ever shown such comprehensive knowledge of his works and such depth of insight.” – Walter Hooper, Literary Adviser to the Estate of C.S. Lewis
- “Planet Narnia…is one of the best books I have ever read.” – Douglas Wilson, author of What I Learned in Narnia
Further up, further in
Historically, I have dismissed The Chronicles of Narnia as being based more on themes and ideas rather than well-defined story arcs. Michael Ward’s insights have shown that I was both right and wrong. Rather than a sloppy mismatch, the Narnia tales comprise a carefully and meticulously crafted set of stories, much more rich in structure and meaning than I ever gave them credit. Planet Narnia has been instrumental in giving me a fresh perspective and a fresh interest in the world of Narnia.
I have only scratched the surface and if you want to learn more, I recommend checking out Ward’s work through his website PlanetNarnia.com, or books Planet Narnia, or The Narnia Code (which is Ward’s shorter, simpler version of Planet Narnia, designed for consumption by the general public).
Ward has laid the groundwork to help us, in the words of Reepicheep in The Last Battle, “Come further up, [and] come further in” to what Lewis has accomplished.
There is also a documentary about Michael Ward’s discovery, called “The Narnia Code,” which is reviewed here. This article first appeared on Cap Stewart’s blog where he loves “to write about the arts and theology.” It is reprinted here with permission.