Book Review – Planet Narnia (Michael Ward)

Planet NarniaI distinctly remember as a young boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, having an earnest discussion with my best friend about the way biblical themes were woven into storyline of the Narnia series. These are of course most obvious in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but are to be found in all seven. There is something enthralling about finding a deeper meaning in a story, and I suspect most Christians who read the Narnia series smile to themselves regularly as they sense they are “in on the secret”. Lewis’ portrayal of Christ as “Aslan” has been a profoundly helpful image for many Christians, and remains a favourite sermon illustration for many preachers.

So the suggestion that there might be yet another level of meaning to the books, seems at first to be completely unnecessary. And for that meaning to revolve around the seven planets of medieval cosmology seems quite frankly ridiculous. But that is exactly what Michael Ward claims to have found, and his evidence is compelling.

I first came across his theory in a documentary called The Narnia Code, which was shown on BBC. Then I was able to hear him in person at New Wine giving seminar that summarised his thesis. But it left me wanting to know more about the evidence linking each planet to its corresponding book, so I jumped at the chance to hear his argument in full.

He starts off by giving some important background on Lewis, such as the way he could sometimes be secretive and how he felt that this was important in literature. Lewis felt it important that a good story to have an “atmosphere” – something that didn’t need to be explained or pointed out, but was felt and enjoyed nonetheless by the reader.

He notes the fact that despite its tremendous success, the Narnia series has often been criticised for some odd and out of place elements in the story, that has led some literary critics to suggest that its composition was rushed.

Ward then moves to focus on Lewis’ fascination with the planets, and in particular, medieval cosmology and astrology. He wrote academically about it, he wrote poems about them, and he even incorporated them into other works of fiction, most notably his cosmic trilogy. Whilst he recognised this ancient cosmology to be scientifically untrue, he believed it to have great beauty and a lasting worth. He believed that the heavens declare the glory of God, but that science had made people think of a silent, empty “space”.

The next seven chapters deal one by one with the seven books of the Narnia series, and the planet Ward believes each is associated with. His method is first to look at where the planet in question appears in Lewis’ other writings. Here it will help massively if you have read the cosmic trilogy as much material is drawn from that series, but also Lewis’ poetry features regularly here. These give a feel for the particular characteristics, atmosphere, virtues or vices he felt were associated with each planet. Then Ward goes on to show how each planet asserts its “influence” over the story, by first examining the poiema (how the influence of that planet affects the atmosphere of the story) and then onto the logos (how the influence of that planet affects the message of the story). He also believes that Lewis has portrayed Aslan in ways that relate to the planet in question in each story.

I can only briefly summarise some of the points that strike me as interesting. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is associated with Jupiter (also known as Jove). The influence of this kingly, “jovial” planet is seen in many aspects of the story (and explains the somewhat incongruous appearance of Father Christmas). Ward shows that Lewis associated Jupiter with “winter past and guilt forgiven” – almost a plot summary of the story.

Prince Caspian is associated with Mars. Mars was the god of war, but his influence was neutral in Lewis’ mind – military force can be used in the cause of justice (chivalry) as well as for evil.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is associated with the Sun, or Sol as given away by its title. Both the sun and its associated metal gold are recurring themes throughout the story.

The Silver Chair also gives us a clue in its title, as the metal of the Moon (or Luna) is silver. The moon is associated with lunacy and doubt – clearly to be found in the plotline of the story.

The Horse and His Boy is linked to Mercury, perhaps the hardest of planets to define in terms of its influence. Mercury is “lord of language” and “patron of pilferers”, and the metal is known for the way it divides and reunites. Ward does a convincing job of showing how Lewis incorporates these ideas into the story, with lots of twins and pairs, and even an allusion to the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Magician’s Nephew then is connected with Venus. This is a potential problem for Lewis – how does he as a devout Christian write a children’s story around a goddess of sex? And can he portray Aslan in feminine form? Ward shows how Lewis incorporates themes of love, marriage and fertility into the story and explains why he thinks Lewis did not want to make Aslan a female character in this story.

The Last Battle finally is linked to Saturn. This is also a tricky one for Lewis as Saturn is associated with death and misfortune. And they certainly feature prominently in this story, which has often been criticised for killing off all its major characters. One interesting bit of evidence is that the character “Old Father Time” was in an early unpublished manuscript explicity named by Lewis as Saturn, but he later removed this rather overt clue.

After wading through this evidence, it is hard not to be convinced. Even if you are only persuaded by three or four of the seven, it is impossible to imagine Lewis only partially going through with such an ingenious scheme. Ward suggests that the Narnia series was a deliberate attempt by Lewis to put the argument he made in Miracles into “imaginative” form.

He devotes a chapter to asking some questions of his thesis. Why is the scheme not more perfect? Why did Lewis not reveal the secret? Is the secret best left undiscovered? He offers brief but interesting responses to these questions and potential objections. Finally he rounds the book off with the story of how he came to discover this secret of the Narnia series.

In summary I have to say this is a fascinating book for anyone who has read the Narnia series, and I find his argument convincing. It is not for the faint-hearted though. This was I believe a PhD thesis, and it reads like one. It is quite academic in places, and if the only writings of Lewis you are familiar with are the Narnia series, you may find yourself lost in places. Apparently he has written a more popular level version called the Narnia Code which would be more appropriate for some readers. He has a website dedicated to the book here.