The Narnia Codeby Michael Ward
Length: Approximately 5 hours. To read (147 pages).
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The parallels between Jesus and Aslan are obvious, but what if there is a hidden element in The Chronicles of Narnia that Lewis used to tie the stories together and to teach about Christ in a deeper way? In The Narnia Code, Michael Ward argues Lewis built the Narnia stories around medieval cosmology, turning planets into plots to teach us about Christ.
Who should read this?
This book is for anyone who loves The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis’s other writings, or fantasy stories in general. Writers will enjoy Ward unveiling the depth, texture, and hidden meaning of Lewis’s beloved children’s story. Those wanting a more scholarly treatment of the same material will be interested in Ward’s dissertation-based book, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis.
Michael Ward is a minister and C.S. Lewis scholar who has stomped the same ground as Lewis himself: The Church of England, Oxford, and Cambridge. He even spent three years as resident warden at Lewis’s Oxford home, The Kilns, sleeping in Lewis’s old bedroom. Ward knows Lewis.
What he didn’t know, however, was why Lewis included certain things in his Narnia stories. The most glaring misfit was the presence of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. How did Santa Claus end up in Narnia? Why did Mr. Tumnus describe Narnia under the White Witch’s rule as always winter and never Christmas when there is no Christ in Narnia? He was born into our world. Did Lewis make a mistake, a clumsy slip?
One night, while reading one of Lewis’s old poems, Ward had a Eureka! Moment. In 1935, Lewis wrote The Planets, a poem devoted to the seven heavens of medieval cosmology. About Jupiter he wrote:
“… winter passed
And guilt forgiven.”
Where, in Lewis’s other writings, had Ward seen that before? By Jove, that’s a five-word summary of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe! From there, everything fell into place, and Ward believed he had discovered a hidden meaning behind the Narnia stories.
The purpose of the book is to present Ward’s discovery. His claim is this: Lewis built the Narnia stories around the medieval cosmology of the seven heavens. A predominant belief among pre-Copernican Christians was that each of the seven planets, under God, influenced the earth in particular ways, and various symbols and meanings became attached to each planet. Lewis loved this cosmology despite the misfortune it had of being untrue. Still, he believed modern Christians have much to learn from the medieval understanding of the heavens.
Ward shows that Lewis built the atmosphere of each book from the symbolism of one planet of the medieval cosmology. Father Christmas made sense when Ward figured out that Lewis was telling a Jupiter story in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Jupiter is associated with joy, joviality, and kingship. And in this first story, happiness and festivity return to Narnia as Aslan, the true king, returns to defeat the White Witch and set Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy on the four thrones of Cair Paravel. Winter passed, Edmund’s guilt was forgiven, and Narnia enters into its joy.
Ward goes on to demonstrate how in each book Lewis turned a planet into a plot. In Prince Caspian, Lewis draws on the marital imagery of Mars, as well as its association with the growth and greenness of trees. Remember, at the end of the book, the spirits of the trees awaken, and the trees push through the ranks to help defeat Miraz’s army. In that moment, both of Mars’s influences converge. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader draws in the influences of the sun.
The characters defy the lunacy of the moon in The Silver Chair. Mercury’s influence is evident in The Horse and His Boy, as Shasta makes haste to deliver his message, while Venus becomes the plot for The Magician’s Nephew. Lastly, Saturn draws the curtain on Narnia, as Father Time ends the world and ushers the children through the stable door into the eternal Narnia, which is the beginning of the story, where every chapter is better than the one before.
My mother, skeptical of the supposed meanings her high school English teachers found in poetry, once scratched out an absurd poem with no attached meaning. She then showed it to friends who found all sorts of meaning and symbolism in it, none of it intended. How do we know Ward isn’t doing the same thing to Narnia? That he isn’t just reading a bit too much into Lewis’s work? Lewis never told anyone about this hidden meaning.
Ward supported his argument in at least four different ways. First, he took Lewis’s personality into consideration, concluding that Lewis was the type of person who could pull something like this off. Close friends noted that, though he was an honest and straightforward man, he was also able to keep secrets. For instance, when he got married, he told no one for the better part of a year. Also, Lewis was known as jovial and playful personality, and keeping the secret was probably part of the joke. Ward highlighted various private jokes and wordplays throughout the series.
Second, Ward, a Lewis scholar, drew heavily from Lewis’s other works. He demonstrated Lewis’s interest in, love for, and understanding of the medieval cosmology by citing his writing about it in other areas. He referenced Lewis’s literary criticism, poetry, and The Discarded Image, his book-length treatment of the seven heavens.
Ward also cited a lecture Lewis gave several years before publishing the Narnia stories: “The Kappa Element in Romance.” Another way to phrase the title is “The Hidden Element in Story.” In this lecture, Lewis “said that stories contain many things we value only if they remain hidden… An author can’t flag these things without ruining the very effect for which he is aiming” (22). The cosmological imagery, symbolism, and meaning that Ward found hidden in Narnia is explicit in Lewis’s broader catalogue of work.
Third, Ward devotes a chapter to decoding each book in The Chronicles of Narnia. In each chapter, he explains how the pre-Copernican people understood the symbolism and influence of the planet associated with that particular story. Then, he goes through the story and highlights the various ways Lewis wove that planet’s imagery, symbolism, and influence into the story. This is what Ward refers to as the third level of meaning in the Narnia stories.
The first level is the story itself (Aslan enlists the Pevensie children to help defeat the White Witch). The second level is the biblical imagery and symbolism (Aslan, like Jesus, died a substitutionary death and then resurrected). The planetary symbolism is the third level of meaning (Jupiter’s joyful kingship).
Fourth, Ward argues that the Narnia stories about Christ in deeper ways than we first realized. Lewis said plainly the stories are “about Christ,” and we understood this at the second level of meaning. But the third level of meaning shows that the stories are about Christ in two deeper ways. In the first instance, the medieval cosmology is the hidden element that holds the Narnia stories together. Each planet gives each of the stories its own atmosphere.
For example, one of the influences of the moon is water, and The Silver Chair is full of wet imagery—throughout the story we encounter water and people getting wet. And the cosmology as a whole provides an underlying cohesion to the entire series. How is this about Christ? All things are held together in Christ (Col. 17), and he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3). Christ is the cornerstone, holding our world together, like the pre-Copernican cosmology holds the Narnia stories together. In the second instance, Aslan teaches us about Christ:
“In the course of writing the series, Lewis was able to present Christ in seven different ways. Aslan is King, Commander, Light, Mirror, Word, Life, and Mystery. Lewis thought it was important to speak about Christ in many different ways because no one way, on its own, was enough” (132).
It is not often that a book about another book stirs up a similar type of wonder as did the original book. But that is what Ward achieves in The Narnia Code. The reason he was able to do this is because he followed the instructions in The Last Battle: “Come further up, come further in!” He demonstrated another level of meaning and understanding of the beloved children’s tale, and in so doing gave us a clearer look at the genius and playfulness of Lewis.
I found it absolutely fascinating how Lewis turned planets into plots, and then concealed the whole thing in plain sight. It is a remarkable feat, and Ward explains it beautifully.
This is such a fine book that it has many strengths. I will identify three. First, Ward possesses extensive knowledge of Lewis and his works, including his more obscure writings. After all, he used to sleep in Lewis’s bedroom and work in his study as resident warden at The Kilns. Without such knowledge, Ward may not have been able to prove his case so well.
But he was able to show that what Lewis hid in Narnia, he wrote explicitly elsewhere. The second strength is that Ward discovered something new. No one else could figure out why Father Christmas was strolling around Narnia giving out parcels. Ward did. Third, Ward is not detached from The Chronicles of Narnia nor Lewis himself. This is not just an academic exercise. He loves Narnia and Lewis, and this love adds depth to the book.
Being such an excellent book, finding weaknesses is an exercise in nit-picking, and so I will pick one solitary nit. In an effort to make this book “popular,” that is, more accessible than his scholarly treatment, it seemed Ward (or his editors) sometimes just tried too hard. The most glaring example is the corny headline: “Tyrannosaurus, Brontosaurus, Doyouthinkhesawus.” On the whole, these are few and far between, and do not distract from enjoying the book.
If you are a fan of Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, or just good storytelling, this book is for you. It is informative, fascinating, illustrates the genius storytelling of Lewis, and helps us understand why we all love the stories so much.