A new look at Narnia
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Date: 20 May, 2008
Philip Purser-Hallard reviews Michael Ward's new book looking at the relationship between Narnia and the planets
There are few things less likely than an academic examining a well-known and frequently-read text, and discovering a secret code placed there by the author which has lain undiscovered since its publication.
This is the sort of thing which happens in works of airport fiction mistaken for fact by excitable people: not, as a rule, in reality.
It’s quite remarkable, then, that Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: the Seven Heavens in the imagination of CS Lewis should be so elegant, persuasive and reasonable, given that it claims to have found the ‘secret imaginative key’, no less, to Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.
Ward believes that the Narnia septet is written to an underlying scheme based closely on classical and mediaeval astrology, with each book corresponding to one of the seven anciently recognised ‘planets’ – the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
I’ll admit I was willing to be convinced. Lewis’s introduction to mediaeval thought, The Discarded Image, speaks compellingly about the astrological aspects of mediaeval cosmology, while the portrayals of Mars, Venus and the other planets in his Cosmic Trilogy are indebted to the same ancient scheme.
When I first heard of Ward’s book, I realised how surprising it was that nobody had thought before to apply these ideas to the Narnia septet.
It helps enormously that the author knows what he’s talking about, being astonishingly well-versed in Lewisiana. I’ve read most of Lewis’s fiction, literary criticism and apologetics, but his poems – which Ward quotes extensively – are new territory for me.
It also helps that Ward’s ‘secret imaginative key’ isn’t a coded message to Lewis’s readers, but a writing plan which he could (and, Ward argues, would) quite happily have kept to himself.
The characters of the mediaeval planets – which we still use as shorthand for certain personality-types, such as jovial, mercurial and saturnine – struck Lewis as powerful mythic archetypes, regardless of their unscientific (and indeed unscriptural) basis.
Ward argues that the Chronicles use the stories, symbols and characteristics of these seven planetary ‘gods’ to structure narrative, infuse mood and atmosphere, and – most importantly of all – to determine which aspects of Christ the character of Aslan should represent.
Thus in The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’, themed around the Sun, Aslan is seen as the Light of the World, while in The Horse and His Boy, themed around Mercury the god of language, he’s presented as the Word of God.
This explains many of the odder-seeming aspects of the Chronicles – such as the appearances of Fathers Christmas and Time in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Last Battle, where they act as exemplars of jovial Jupiter and fateful Saturn respectively.
Indeed, the fact that the Chronicles – which often seem thematically unfocussed, and whose narratives are occasionally all over the place as well – make so much more sense with this planetary scheme in mind is the strongest sign of all that Ward is genuinely onto something.
Not every aspect of Ward’s argument is completely convincing, and he notably fails to account for why Lewis would have written his planetary romances specifically as children’s fiction, familiar as he was with adult fantasy.
He also tends, when discussing Lewis’s Christology, to drift away from literary criticism and approach devotional meditation, which might have been best left for a second book.
Nonetheless, this is the most persuasive reinterpretation of an author’s work I’ve read – consistently adding to, rather than detracting from, both the stories and their Christian interpretation.
If you’re a friend of Narnia and want to delve beneath the level of the text, you’ll find this a compelling read.