Ever since they were published in the 1950s, C.S. Lewis’s seven Chronicles of Narnia have puzzled readers. The puzzle has to do with the fact that the seven stories have no obvious unifying theme.
Three of the books seem to be clear Biblical allegories. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a retelling of the Gospel story. The Magician’s Nephew gives us a version of the creation account from the Book of Genesis. The Last Battle reimagines the end of the world and the final judgement, as told in the Book of Revelation.
But the other four Narnia Chronicles have no obvious scriptural foundation. Why does the Christ-like figure of Aslan enter the story among dancing trees in Prince Caspian? Why does he fly in a sunbeam in The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’? Why is he mistaken for two lions in The Horse and His Boy? Why does he not appear in Narnia at all in The Silver Chair?
There have been three main responses to Narnia’s haphazard symbolism: dismissal; approval; enquiry.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis’s great friend, dismissed the books. He thought that the Chronicles were carelessly assembled out of incompatible mythologies and he soon gave up trying to read them.
Other readers have approved of the Chronicles’ lack of uniformity. For instance, Devin Brown thinks that “Narnia is intentionally a hodgepodge collection of widely diverging elements, often with no relation to each other, giving it a dreamlike quality.”
The majority of readers, however, have neither dismissed the Chronicles as a regrettable jumble nor regarded the jumble as a good thing. The majority have enquired, “What’s going on here? Is the apparent jumble a real jumble?”
These readers recognise that Lewis’s mind and imagination did not work randomly. (His poetry, for instance, is fantastically complex, and the poems which look as if they are in free verse are often in the most complicated metres of all.) These readers know also that Lewis could be playfully deceptive. Once when out walking in the countryside with a friend, George Sayer, he deliberately misled a fox-hunt:
“He cupped his hands and shouted to the first riders: ‘Hallo, yoicks, gone that way,’ and pointed to the direction opposite to the one the fox had taken. The whole hunt followed his directions.”
Here are some of the attempts that have been made to hunt down the elusive fox that is Narnia’s hidden theme.
Doris Myers argues that the Chronicles may be best understood as a miniature version of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which was one of Lewis’s favourite poems.
Don W. King and David Hulan have both made the case for reading the Narniad as a commentary on the seven deadly sins, but they assign different sins to different books.
Jim Pietrusz links the Chronicles to the seven Catholic sacraments.
Robert C. Trupia relates the tales to the three theological virtues (faith, hope, love) and the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice).
Joe R. Christopher concentrates on the Chronicles’ supposed debts to Tolkien (which, given Tolkien’s reaction to them, is ironic).
None of these explanations has solved the puzzle. To find the real solution to the mystery of Narnia’s apparently haphazard symbolism, we need to look more closely at the professional interests of C.S. Lewis.
Although Lewis is best known for his Chronicles of Narnia, he was not a professional writer of fiction. His career was in the academic world. He taught at Oxford from 1924-1954, and for the last nine years of his life he was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at the University of Cambridge.
As a literary historian, Lewis had a particular interest in medieval cosmology. According to this old view of the cosmos, Earth was the centre of everything. It was circled by the seven planets in their spheres. Each of these seven planets was believed to possess particular characteristics and to exert special influences upon people on the Earth and even upon the metals in the Earth’s crust. The place where Lewis writes most about this old cosmology is in his book, The Discarded Image.
Lewis’s interest in this ‘geocentric’ (Earth-centred) view of the heavens was not confined to his academic life. He had an imaginative interest in it too. For instance, in 1935 he published a long poem about the seven heavens, entitled simply ‘The Planets’.
In his trilogy of interplanetary novels, the medieval planets again play a major part. In the first novel, Out Of The Silent Planet (1938), the hero, Ransom, travels to Mars. In the second novel, Perelandra (1943), he travels to Venus. And in the third book, That Hideous Strength (1945), Ransom stays on Earth but becomes a ‘bridge’ across which the planetary powers pass as they come down to Earth to bring about the end of the whole story.
Lewis described the seven planets as ‘spiritual symbols of permanent value’. He thought that they were ‘especially worthwhile in our own generation’.
The seven planets of the old cosmology included the Sun (Sol) and the Moon (Luna), which we now don’t regard as planets at all. The other five were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
This old, geocentric view of the cosmos was overturned by the Polish astronomer, Copernicus, in the sixteenth century. He argued that, rather than Sol going round the Earth, as everyone had previously thought, it was actually the case that the Earth went round Sol. His epoch-making work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies (1543), ushered in modern astronomy and a ‘heliocentric’ (Sun-centred) understanding of the universe. The Sun was now viewed not as a planet but as a star, the star of our Solar System. The Moon also lost its status as a planet and was now viewed as a satellite of Planet Earth. New planets were added to the list as astronomy advanced. Uranus was discovered in 1781; Neptune in 1845; Pluto in 1930, though it was relegated to the category of ‘dwarf planet’ in 2006.
Although only five of the traditional seven planets are now viewed as planets, they still govern our lives in one sense at least. Everyone in the English-speaking world refers to the planets all the time, because they give us the names of the days of the week. Saturday is named after Saturn; Sunday is named after Sol (the Sun); Monday is named after Luna (the Moon); and so on. (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are named after the Norse versions of Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus.)
C.S. Lewis secretly based the Chronicles of Narnia on the seven heavens. The imagery associated with each planet provided him with his symbolic raw materials. The planetary symbols govern the shape of each story, countless points of ornamental detail and, most importantly, the portrayal of the central character, Aslan.
Here is a brief summary of how the Chronicles relate to the planets
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Jupiter
Jupiter was the best planet and Lewis’s favourite. Jupiter was the planet of kingship, and this story is a clash between the children’s destiny as kings and queens of Narnia, under the ‘King of the Wood’, Aslan, and Edmund’s mistaken attempt to become king under the evil White Witch. Jupiter brought about “winter passed and guilt forgiven”, according to Lewis’s poem, ‘The Planets’, and in this first Narnia Chronicle the White Witch’s winter passes and Edmund’s guilt is forgiven.
Prince Caspian – Mars
Mars is famously the god of war and this is a war story, a civil war to drive out the usurping King Miraz. Less famously, Mars is a god of woods and forests – Mars Silvanus, as he was known. Hence the continual use of arboreal imagery and the appearance of ‘silvans’ at the final battle, who never appear in any other Chronicle. Reepicheep is a ‘martial’ mouse; Miraz frets over his ‘martial policy’. The chesspiece found at the start of the story is, naturally, a knight.
The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ – the Sun
A story about a journey towards the rising sun. Aslan flies out of the sunbeam towards Lucy as an albatross; he appears in the room when she utters the spell to make invisible things visible; he is seen shining as if in bright sunlight, though the sun has in fact gone in, on Goldwater Island. Gold, of course, is the sun’s metal. The killing of dragons on Dragon Island is drawn from Homer’s Hymn to Apollo, where the sun-god Apollo is Sauroctonus, the lizard-slayer. (Compare Tolkien’s villain, Sauron.)
The Silver Chair – the Moon
Aslan only appears in person in his own high country above the clouds and has to be remembered by way of signs and in dreams below in Narnia where the air is thick. The structure of the book reflects the great lunar divide that existed in medieval cosmology between the translunary realm of certitude and the sublunary realm of confusion. The lost Prince Rilian is a lunatic, bound to a chair made out of the Moon’s metal, silver. The horses Coalblack and Snowflake are derived from the steeds which pull the Moon’s chariot in Spenser’s Faerie Queene.
The Horse and His Boy – Mercury
Cor and Corin are based on Castor and Pollux, the horseman and the mighty boxer of Homer’s Iliad and stellated as Gemini, The Twins, a constellation in the house of Mercury. As separated but then reunited identical twins they represent “meeting selves, same but sundered”, as Lewis puts it in the lines about Mercury from ‘The Planets’. Shasta becomes a fleet-footed messenger. A Narnian lord wears a steel cap with little wings on either side of it, a clear reference to the petasus, Mercury’s hat.
The Magician’s Nephew – Venus
Venus is the fertile planet associated with laughter, motherhood, beauty, warmth, and the apple grove of the Hesperides. Hence this story of the birth of Narnia and the healing of Digory’s mother with a magic apple taken from the Western garden; hence also “the First Joke”! The wicked Jadis is what Lewis elsewhere called “Venus Infernal”, the anti-Venus; she is based on the goddess Ishtar, who was especially worshipped in Nineveh. That is why Jadis calls Charn “that great city”, an allusion to Jonah 1:2; 3:2.
The Last Battle – Saturn
Aslan does not appear at all until all the characters are dead, reflecting the nature of Saturn, the planet of (apparent) ill-chance and treachery and death. Aslan is here the deus absconditus, the God who is felt only in abandonment. Father Time with his scythe is a mythological character based on Saturn. In a surviving Narnian typescript, Father Time is named ‘Saturn’, but Lewis amended this to ‘Father Time’ before publication in order to keep his planetary theme more carefully hidden.
I stumbled upon this secret theme when I was researching C.S. Lewis’s writings as part of my work at the University of St Andrews. It was easily the most exciting thing that has happened to me while holding a book in my hands. This unifying scheme reveals that the Chronicles are not the hodge-podge that Tolkien thought them to be, but very carefully imagined stories. The Narnia books are built out of the seven symbols which Lewis had studied throughout his professional career, those ‘spiritual symbols of permanent value’ which he considered to be ‘especially worth while in our own generation’.
Dr. Michael Ward is a minister in the Church of England and the author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 2008). He is the co-editor of Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it Matters What Christians Believe (SPCK/Hendrickson, 2007) and of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis. His website is www.planetnarnia.com.
The BBC recently released The Narnia Code, a documentary based on Ward’s book. For more information visit www.narniacode.com.
For more details about Narnia and the seven heavens, please see a longer article in Touchstone magazine.