The Mystery of The Chronicles of Narnia

ImageAs a medieval literature scholar, C.S. Lewis borrowed his cosmology from the medieval understanding of the heavens, and thus the medieval conception of Beauty. Cosmology means more than just the stars, or how the Big Bang might have occurred. It is a comprehensive view of one’s universe. Questions of cosmology inherently impinge upon questions of beauty. In his Planet Narnia, C.S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward makes a convincing case that each Narnia book’s atmospheric qualities are intentionally meant to represent the influences ascribed to each of the seven celestial spheres in medieval cosmology. The controversy arises from the claim that this cosmology is the “interpretive key” to the Narniad specifically, as Ward puts it— especially in light of the fact that not a peep of such an intention was ever stated by Lewis. Not before, nor after the series was published and became a best-seller did he ever let on that the seven spheres were the unifying connection between the seven books. It is justifiable upon first discovering the thesis to think with Nathaniel Peters

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 this 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? (Peters 56)

This question is a sensible objection, and needs to be carefully considered before laying out Ward’s textual evidence. Michael Ward realizes this, and spends several chapters addressing these two issues: why the reader should give his thesis serious consideration, and why it took someone fifty years to discover it, if true.

The issue of the author’s silence may be addressed by considering Lewis’ views on Christian apologetics and spiritual truths. Lewis came to view deep truths in terms of Contemplation and Enjoyment. Using the metaphor of a beam of light piercing the darkness of an old toolshed through an opening above, Lewis believed that looking at the beam from the darkness of the shed was one way to approach truth. This method, Contemplation, was logical and analytical, but it did not encompass the full reality of the beam. That would take stepping into the light and looking along the beam. The shed and beam itself, while there, disappear as the blue sky and leafy-green of trees outside are revealed in Enjoyment. Drawing attention to the effects of the beam thus decreases its effectiveness and thus lowers Enjoyment. (Ward 16-17) Lewis viewed the atmosphere of his works in this way, not wanting to draw attention to his hidden meanings. In a precursor to the Narniad, “The Quest of Bleheris,” Lewis explicitly admitted in a letter to a friend that the inner meaning of the romance was carefully hidden. Ward sheds light on the motivation for Lewis to hide his meanings.

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The atmosphere [of a story] should be entered into so that it comprises our whole imaginative vision. If we attempt not to Enjoy, but rather to Contemplate, the deathliness of Hamlet or the ‘redskinnery’ of The Last of the Mohicans (which is the opening example of [atmospheric hiddenness] in [Lewis’] ‘On Stories’) we will find the quality going dead and cold in our hands, because we will have stopped ‘living the story.’ (Ward 17-18)

Thus we see that Lewis had placed hidden meaning in stories similar to Narnia before, and that he did not desire to bring his organizing principle or “atmosphere” in a story to the forefront of a reader’s mind. It is also important to remember that Lewis did not write the Chronicles in a personal vacuum. He wrote them after his infamous debate with philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, in which he was defeated in his defense of his book Miracles. Lewis acknowledged his defeat, and re-wrote a second edition of Miracles to deal with the objections Anscombe had raised for his Argument from Reason for the Existence of God. (4, 35) During this time, he also began the first book of the Narnia series, partially out of his conviction that analytic reason alone could not fully experience the deep spiritual truths of the Christian faith. (35) These considerations shed some light on why he wouldn’t broadcast his intentions for hidden layers of beauty and organization in what otherwise appear to be the “plucking of elements from innumerable sources to create a slap-dash mythology for his fictional world.” Considering the influence that Dante held for Lewis, it is also significant that

One debt is secrecy, for Dante thought of poetry as something ‘to be adorned as much as possible,’ to have its ‘true sense’ hidden beneath a rich vesture of ‘rhetorical colouring.’ Another debt is the Christianization of that cosmos, for Dante was the only poet, in Lewis’s view, to have infused the medieval model of the heavens with ‘high religious ardor.’ (41)

The second objection to consider before making the positive case involves the fact that no other literary scholar “wised up” to Lewis’ intentions before Michael Ward fifty years later. The explanation is actually much simpler than one might expect, and it is twofold. First, a few did, though they did not consistently apply the astrological planetary references they noted in a few books to all the books. The second reason has to do with the organizing principles critics were looking for, versus what Lewis was actually doing: using astrology to (seemingly paradoxically to most critics) represent Christian truth. This is strange considering the abundance of astrological, planetary influences Lewis employed in the Space trilogy and his other previous works. (244-252)

With the scope of this paper, a fleshed-out representation of Ward’s positive argument is not possible, so the following is more a summation of much more detailed and textually careful work in Planet Narnia. Ward begins by analyzing Lewis’ previous works, especially his poem “The Planets” and The Ransom Trilogy, as well as “The Discarded Image.” Ward shows that Lewis had quite an interest in astronomical and astrological matters. The Space Trilogy follows in the tradition of his previous poem “The Planets” in Christianizing the medieval cosmology as his forbear in that regard Dante did. (41) Lewis uses the planetary gods as archangels or spiritual powers subservient to and yet representing different aspects of their Maker, depending on the astrological influences traditionally ascribed to each planetary deity. This is made abundantly clear in the Ransom trilogy, especially “The Descent of the Gods” in chapter 15. (47-51) The imagery Lewis explicitly employs in these works is nearly identical to the planetary imagery implicitly used in the Chronicles. Ward examines each of Lewis’ books in light of an “Enjoyed” atmosphere related to each of the planets. As Schuurman succinctly reviews the associations in First Things,

For example, as hinted above, the planet Jupiter is represented in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The joviality, kingliness, and even redness of Jupiter are all celebrated in The Lion in ways they do not appear in other books in the series. The Jupiter link also helps explain what otherwise seems incongruous. The appearance of Father Christmas in The Lion has brought on the ire of a number of critics who considered this addition to the story to be out of place. Ward champions him, saying “Father Christmas is, in modern culture, the jovial character par excellence, loud-voiced, red-faced, and jolly.”

So it goes for all seven books, with this interpretive key: Aslan particularly embodies the best of each planet in turn, and thus offers different windows onto the person of Christ, “in whom all things hold together.” To complete the key, Mars features in Prince Caspian, Sol saturates The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Luna reflects in The Silver Chair, Mercury dances through A Horse and His Boy, Venus plays throughout The Magician’s Nephew, and Saturn begins the final book The Last Battle. (Schuurman 442)

While I am ambivalent about Lewis’ choice to use astrological imagery to represent God’s creative majesty when medieval astrology is often misunderstood as inquiring of the stars, (which often did occur and was recognized as a condemned activity in Scripture for its occult nature– however, Lewis, like Dante and other medieval Christians before him, viewed the heavens as influential to, but not determinative of, life on this earth. This rejection of determinism in favor of free will here deserves its own post, which I plan to do later) his love of medieval cosmology influenced the beloved Narnia books both in content and in atmosphere, bringing the beauty of the cosmos to us moderns and reminding us that the world is intentional, meaningful, and beautiful.

-Ward

Sources

Ward, Michael. Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Peters, Nathaniel. “The Music of the Spheres.” First Things (vol. unknown) (2008): 56-58. Web.

Schuurman, Peter. “Book Review: Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis.” Calvin Theological Journal (vol. unknown): 441-443. Web.

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2 thoughts on “The Mystery of The Chronicles of Narnia

  1. Pingback: C S Lewis as medieval moral philosopher – a snippet from my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis | Grateful to the dead

  2. Pingback: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) | She Reviews Everything

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