Planet Narnia: Part One

This article originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

Jupiter, 6 October 2010Some of my favorite books are the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. While Lewis’s tales of the adventures of the Pevensie children (and later Eustace and Polly) in the land of Narnia are for many little more than entertaining children’s books, I find myself returning to this series again and again. And while I cannot claim to speak on behalf of everyone who has read Chronicles, I know there are many other readers, especially those within the Christian tradition, who have experienced a similar love for the Narnia story, especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Yet many of us cannot explain why these stories appeal to us. Why do so many adults enjoy reading these books, which, by all appearances, seem to have been written for children?

For many years, no one was able to offer a satisfactory answer, and most remained content to conclude that there was something about the ethos of the series which captivated the imagination. This all changed, however, with the publication of Michael Ward’s book, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis.[1] In this book, Ward submits that he discovered the “capstone” element of the Narnia series, the central idea that ties them all together and provides the basis for their lasting intrigue: the medieval Seven Heavens. Essentially, Ward argues that the medieval conception of the Seven Heavens serves as the basis for each of the seven Chronicles, with Lewis using the characteristic ethos of each Heavenly Body as the paradigm for one of his books. In this two part series we will examine Ward’s argument concerning the influence of the Seven Heavens on the Chronicles of Narnia, first considering the literary basis and contextual background of this theory, before examining in some detail Ward’s thesis concerning the relationship of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to Sol (the Sun) in our next post.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Of course, claiming to have discovered the “lost key” behind an extremely popular children’s book series raises some considerable questions. First, there is the affair of occasion: What factors led Lewis to write these books in the first place? Second, there is the problem of composition: Does the evidence fit the theory? Any Christian who reads The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe immediately notices one subtext, namely, that of Aslan as the Christ-figure, though scriptural themes do not immediately resonate with the entire series.[2] We must consider the evidence and determine the uniting factor of the series, if indeed there even is one. Our third concern is that of reception: How is it that Lewis’s stories have been so popular over the past fifty years? And why is it that no one has mentioned the theme of the Seven Heavens before? We will now examine each of these questions in turn.

First, why would C. S. Lewis, at the time a well-known literary critic and Christian apologist, suddenly begin writing children’s stories? Lewis began to work in earnest on the Chronicles following the critique of his apologetic work Miracles at the Oxford Socratic Club by Elizabeth Anscombe. Some have suggested that this critique was so devastating to Lewis that it sent him reeling and writing in a different direction. It is relatively well known that Lewis wrote in order to better understand and gather himself;[3] yet instead of a retreat from the principles in Miracles which led to Anscombe’s criticism, it seems that Narniad was an embodiment of those ideals.[4] For example, in Miracles Lewis postulated that Christ’s miracles “proclaim that He who has come is not merely a king, but the King,” the arrival of cosmic spring-time as it were, a theme clearly evident with the arrival of Aslan, the “King of the Wood” in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.[5] In a very real sense, then, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe functions as a narrative embodiment of Lewis’s perspective in Miracles, the “equivalent of the philosophical and theological argument advanced in Miracles”, enjoying in fiction what Lewis had put forth in apologetics.[6] Thus, it seems Lewis wrote the Chronicles[7] for a reason other than gathering himself from the debacle of Miracles—but what? To better answer this question, we must first dive into Ward’s theory about the Seven Heavens.

Our second question remained inextricably connected to any answer of the first: Does any theory about the theme behind the Chronicles of Narnia fit the literary and historical evidence? As noted above, Ward’s central claim is that Lewis wrote the Narnia series as an embodiment of the medieval conception of the Seven Heavens. But what does Ward mean by the “embodiment” of one of the Seven Heavens? In the context of any great sign or symbol, especially those with long and rich histories, there are certain ideas, actions, words, phrases, emotions, and responses that paradigmatically represent said symbol. Thus to claim the embodiment of a planetary intelligence (one of the Seven Heavens) in a literary work indicates that the work includes contextual indicators of the greater symbol, a characteristic ethos beyond and behind the immediate piece of literature.

To bring this into the American context, when one uses language concerning beautiful summer weather, the crack of bats, ERA, ballpark franks, and the National League, irrespective of the topic being discussing, most people would recognize the formative power of American baseball which is informing whatever topic is being discussed. To provide another example, if someone were to approach you and ask if you wanted to go “pown some noobs,” you (hopefully) would not take that to mean going and physically hurting human beings. Instead, you would interpret such language within the context of gaming. Consideration of these types of contextualization helps move us toward an understanding of Ward’s discussion of the Seven Heavens within the Chronicles of Narnia. For Ward, Lewis’s knowledge of the medieval conception of the Seven Heavens enabled him to write his stories using images, language, and themes indicative of those planetary intelligences. In this view, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe embodies the spirit of Jupiter, Prince Caspian develops Martian themes,[8] The Voyage of the Dawn Treader demonstrates the characteristics of Sol (the Sun),[9] Luna (the moon) is employed as the basis for The Silver Chair,[10] The Horse and His Boy manifests Mercury,[11] The Magician’s Nephew represents Venus,[12] and The Last Battle exemplifies Saturn.[13]

Ward’s argument concerning Lewis’s use of the Seven Heavens gathers support when we consider his wider literary corpus. In The Discarded Image, Lewis devotes a chapter to medieval astrology and the importance of the characteristics of the seven heavens.[14] Lewis also penned a poem entitled “The Planets”, in which he expounds on each of the Seven Heavens and their essences.[15] The imagery of this poem certainly contains ideas and language which are closely related to the Chronicles, something we will return to in the next post. Lewis’s most explicit writing on the Seven Heavens and the use of planetary intelligences comes in his Cosmic Trilogy.[16] In That Hideous Strength, Ransom (the main character) and Merlin (yes, that Merlin; you really should read the series) meet five of the seven planetary intelligences: Viritrilbia (Mercury), Perelandra (Venus), Malacandra (Mars), Glundandra (Jupiter), and Lurga (Saturn).[17] It is in this scene that we catch the clearest glimpse of Lewis’s personification of the planetary intelligences of the Seven Heavens, worked out within the realm of characters and setting.

In coordination with these non-Narnian examples of the Seven Heavens, it is noteworthy that Lewis once wrote that, “the characters of the planets, as conceived by medieval astrology, seem to me to have a permanent value as spiritual symbols.”[18] On a strictly personal level, Lewis had a deep, lifelong passion for the heavens, and perhaps even medieval astrology proper.[19] These factors offer the best answer to our first question, why Lewis wrote these books in the first place. Perhaps instigated by a fictional explication of his work in Miracles, Lewis employed the rich imagery and spiritually valuable planetary personalities as the basis for all seven Chronicles, to entertain and meaningfully instruct his readers through the paradigm of the Seven Heavens. This Ward summarizes as the use of “planetary imagery so that each Chronicle is quietly full with it. The imagery is ‘quiet’ in the sense that it determines the overall shape and feel of each story, governing the architectures of each narrative, the incidental ornamentation, and also, most significantly, the portrayal of the Christ-like character of Aslan and the Spirit that he imparts.”[20]

In Part Two, we will turn to an explicit consideration of how the evidence of the Chronicles of Narnia fits Ward’s theory through consideration of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We will also consider our third formative question, how these stories have been so popular over the past fifty years and why no one previously mentioned the theme of the Seven Heavens.


 

Sources

[1] Michael Ward. Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2008. [2] On this point Ward writes that, “three of the books seem to be clearly based on biblical source material, while four of them have no obvious scriptural foundation.” (Ward, 4) [3] This is especially evident in A Grief Observed, written upon the death of his wife. [4] Ward, 214-6. [5] Ward, 220. [6] Ward, 221. [7] It could be (and has been) argued that Lewis originally wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a stand-alone tale, and then simply added to it. Indeed, Ward later argues that Lewis likely wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a solitary work in the spirit of Jupiter (Ward, 42-4). Assuming this is the case, our question is further clarified to seek the impetus for Lewis’s expansion of the Narniad. [8] Ward, 77-99. [9] Ward, 100-20. [10] Ward, 121-39. [11] Ward, 140-64. [12] Ward, 165-89. [13][13] Ward, 190-213. [14] C. S. Lewis. The Discarded Image. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2002. 92-121. [15] C. S. Lewis. “The Planets.” In C.S. Lewis: Poems. Edited by Walter Hooper. Harvest Book: San Deigo, 1992. 12-14. Web. 1 Mar. 2011. [16] Written prior to the Narnia series and less well known to American readers of Lewis, the Cosmic Trilogy includes Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra (my personal favorite), and That Hideous Strength. [17] C. S. Lewis. That Hideous Strength. HarperCollins: London, 2001. 355-63. I should also note at this point that throughout the Cosmic Trilogy Lewis identifies the planetary intelligences with those entities typically called angels by the Judeo-Christian tradition. [18] Ward, 23. Citing Lewis’s “The Alliterative Meter.” [19] Ward, 247-9. [20] Ward, 39. This thus helps explain why Lewis might use such forms within a children’s story which seems to be mostly characterized by overtly Christian thought.

If you are interesting in reading more about Ward’s views, you can check out his website, Planet Narnia for more information. He has also published two major works on this theory. Planet Narnia, Ward’s modified doctoral thesis, is the most comprehensive treatment, but may be difficult for most readers to work through. A much more manageable work is The Narnia Code, which presents the key components of his argument in easier terms. The original content of this post was written for Dr. Michael Ward at St. Peter’s College, Oxford during my time at Trinity College, Oxford.

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