Prince Caspian and the Planets

Prince Caspian is woken by his tutor, Dr. Cornelius, in the middle of the night and taken up a dark stairway to the top of a tower. There he sees the conjunction of two planets: “Tarva, the Lord of Victory, salutes Alambil, the Lady of Peace.” According to Dr Cornelius, “Their meeting is fortunate and means some great good for the sad realm of Narnia.”

It’s a memorable moment from the second of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and I understand that this scene will take a very prominent place in the new feature film version of Prince Caspian, to be released on May 16.

C.S. Lewis was fascinated by the planets. When he was about the age that Prince Caspian is in this story he found that the idea of other planets exercised upon him “a peculiar, heady attraction.” As a boy he used to talk with his Uncle Gussie about astronomy and became interested in “the whole planetary idea as a mythology.” One of the earliest short stories he wrote was entitled “To Mars and Back” and the first poem he ever published was about Saturn and Jupiter. He had a telescope on the balcony of his bedroom and enjoyed visiting the local observatory. In his thirties he published a long poem called “The Planets” which explains, in great detail, the qualities of the seven heavens as understood by medieval cosmology. This was a precursor to three novels that he wrote on the theme of interplanetary adventure, usually called the Ransom Trilogy or the Cosmic Trilogy. Some critics call it the Space Trilogy, but this is a mistake. Lewis’s whole point in these novels is that ‘space’ is the wrong word. What envelops the Earth is not “empty space” but “the heavens”, – a cosmos ordered and structured. The Greek word ‘cosm’ means to organize, to arrange, to embellish. As cosmetics help bring out the shape and beauty of the human face, so cosmologists help bring out the shape and beauty of the universe.

At least, that is what cosmologists used to do, Lewis thought. As a scholar of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he was intimately acquainted with the revolution in cosmological thought brought about by the Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus. In 1543, Copernicus published his epoch-making work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Bodies, in which he argued that the Sun was central, not the Earth. Lewis’s magnum opus, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (part of the multi-volume Oxford History of English Literature, – or “O Hell!”, as Lewis nicknamed it), begins with a lengthy discussion of this ‘new astronomy’. Lewis accepted the scientific advance brought about by Copernicus’s theory; he recognized it as a great gain in human knowledge. But he also felt that it had been accompanied by certain kinds of loss, – a loss of belief in the symbolic and spiritual qualities associated with the old, pre-Copernican cosmos. The universe had become disenchanted. Stars and planets were now regarded as nothing more than large balls of rock and flaming gas. Gas, Lewis thought, is what the stars are made of; it is not what they are. Properly understood, the stars are messengers of divine artistry and creativity. “The heavens are telling the glory of God”, as the nineteenth psalm puts it, – that psalm which Lewis considered the greatest poem in the psalter and one of the finest lyrics in the world.

The OHEL volume took Lewis 15 years to write and when it was finally published in 1954 he remarked that it had been “the top tune” in his mind during all that time. The other books he published in that period were just “the little twiddly bits”, minor ornamental details, musical grace notes, so to speak.

One of these incidental works was Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (1951). Lewis wrote it, like he wrote all seven Narnia Chronicles, so that it would embody and express the qualities of one of the seven medieval planets (those planets which give us the names of the days of the week). Prince Caspian is his Mars book. In brief, there are two main reasons why this is so.

The first reason has to do with the fact that Mars is associated with war. The four Pevensie children find that they have arrived in Narnia ‘in the middle of a war.’ The war in question is ‘the Great War of Deliverance,’ as it is referred to in a later Chronicle, or simply the ‘Civil War’ in Lewis’s ‘Outline of Narnian History.’ It is ‘a real war to drive Miraz out of Narnia’ and restore the kingdom to Caspian. At the start of the story he is hardly aware of the Martial spirit which is already abroad. When Glenstorm, the centaur, ask him, “When is the battle to be joined?”, Caspian replies that he had “not been thinking of a war.” Glenstorm informs him that the omens are good: the planets foretell success. Nerved for the fight, Caspian begins to think it ‘quite possible that they might win a war and quite certain that they must wage one,’ so he convenes a “Council of War.” The Council authorizes action and Caspian leads the skirmishing forces as they engage the usurper’s army. Peter challenges Miraz to “monomachy.” Miraz is killed, not by Peter as it turns out, but by one of his own men, Glozelle, after which “full battle” is joined.

The combatants in this final battle include the Narnian trees, and this is the second main reason why Prince Caspian is a Martial story. Mars was not always and only a god of war (Mars Gradivus); he was originally a vegetation deity, associated with trees and forests. He was known in this capacity as Mars Silvanus, which is why Lewis puts “Silvans” into his cast in this story (they never again appear in other Narnia books). The month of March, when the trees come back to life after winter, is named for Mars; and it is interesting that the only Narnian month ever named in the Chronicles is “Greenroof”, during which all the events of Prince Caspian take place.

Trees and vegetation of all kinds are everywhere in this tale. Caspian comes from a race “who cut down trees wherever they could and were at war with all living things”; Trufflehunter laments that they cannot “wake the spirits of these trees,” for “once the Trees moved in anger, our enemies would go mad with fright”; Lucy tries, and fails, to wake the trees; Aslan’s How now stands in the middle of “the Great Woods” and there Caspian’s army must flee. The theme reaches its climax when the ‘”Awakened Trees” plunge through the ranks of Peter’s army and pursue the evil Telmarines, like Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane in Macbeth. At this moment, Mars Gradivus and Mars Silvanus unite:

Have you ever stood at the edge of a great wood on a high ridge when a wild south-wester broke over it in full fury on an autumn evening? Imagine that sound. And then imagine that the wood, instead of being fixed to one place, was rushing at you; and was no longer trees but huge people; yet still like trees because their long arms waved like branches and their heads tossed and leaves fell round them in showers.

At the sight of this onslaught, the Telmarines “flung down their weapons, shrieking, ‘The Wood! The Wood! The end of the world!'” In the final chapter, at night, the trees come forward, throwing off spare strands and fingers, to form a great woodland bonfire, cleansing themselves, as it were, of the battle and restoring Narnia to its proper, “divinely comfortable” state. Tarva, Lord of victory, has indeed saluted Alambil, the Lady of peace.

So what? Why did Lewis create the world and the story of this second Narnia Chronicle out of Martial imagery? Partly to reacquaint his readers with the tradition of chivalry, which he felt was so in need of rehabilitation. But, more profoundly, to portray a world in which there is a symbolic harmony between the Narnian cosmos and its creator, Aslan. Aslan in this story is depicted by means of Martial symbolism. He can wake the trees, though Lucy cannot. He gives his great war-cry (in the chapter entitled ‘The Lion Roars’) which precipitates the climactic battle, righting wrongs and defeating tyranny. The world of Prince Caspian is not a chaos, but a cosmos, a carefully structured world, both morally and materially, in which people and events and objects have spiritual significance. Aslan embodies that significance in his own person, as Lewis believed that Jesus Christ embodied the divine spirit who creates, sustains, and redeems the actual universe. And what Lewis does with Martial imagery in Prince Caspian, he does with Jovial, Solar, Lunar, Mercurial, Venereal, and Saturnine imagery in the other books. The Chronicles, like the heavens, are telling the glory of God.

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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

Visit Michael’s website at www.planetnarnia.com.

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