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Prince Caspian and the Planets

Are you counting down the days until The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian comes out? Do you already know the entire cast? Well here is your chance to gain a better understanding of logic behind The Chronicles of Narnia. Michael Ward‘s most recent book, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, demonstrates that medieval cosmology, a fascination of C. S. Lewis, provides the imaginative key to the seven novels. Ward reveals how the Narnia stories were designed to express the characteristics of the seven medieval planets. In the original article below Ward reflects on Prince Caspian and the planet Mars.

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.’

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 16th.

C.S. Lewis was fascinated by the planets. He wrote about them in great detail in his academic work, The Discarded Image, and his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century opens with a lengthy discussion of ‘the new astronomy’ brought about by Copernicus who showed that the cosmos was sun-centered, not earth-centered.

Lewis felt that the Copernican revolution had been accompanied by a loss of belief in the symbolic and spiritual qualities of creation. The universe had become disenchanted. Stars and planets were now regarded as nothing more than huge 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 Psalm 19 puts it, – Lewis’s favorite psalm.

The heavens also feature strongly in Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy of interplanetary adventures. 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 organise, arrange, embellish, – hence ‘cosmetics’.)

In 1935 he wrote a long poem about the seven heavens of medieval cosmology, called simply ‘The Planets’. He said they were ‘spiritual symbols of permanent value’ and ‘especially worthwhile in his own generation’.

I would argue that Lewis’s seven Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56) were written using this celestial symbolism. Each book is constructed out of the imagery associated with one of the seven planets.

Prince Caspian is the 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,’ ‘a real war to drive Miraz out of Narnia’ and restore the kingdom to Caspian. Glenstorm, the centaur, informs Caspian that the planets foretell success. Nerved for the fight, Caspian begins to think it ‘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’, 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 (the only month named after one of the seven planets), and it is worth noting 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’; 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. 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.

Recent Comments

  1. [...] And, we must agree, that Lewis intended no explicit allegory, only a series of gospel-induced supposals that remarkably remind and reintegrate the work of Christ among his disciples with mixed mashup of his favorite genres and medievalist tableaux components, e.g., his favorite fairy tales, fantasies, and preferred mythical elements (and, yes, planetary influences ala Planet Narnia). [...]

  2. [...] is an interesting review/explaination of the book Planet Narnia’s take on Prince Caspian. Planet Narnia is a book written with the premise that each of the narnia books is about a [...]

  3. David Ross

    “Lewis felt that the Copernican revolution had been accompanied by a loss of belief in the symbolic and spiritual qualities of creation. The universe had become disenchanted. Stars and planets were now regarded as nothing more than huge balls of rock and flaming gas.”

    Oh for heaven’s sake… (literally!)

    Christianity has absolutely no need of such anti-intellectual, superstitious Dark Age nonsense. Anyone worried about losing their sense of wonder at the (mechanical) movements of the planets should go look up pictures of these planets’ beauty. Sulphur volcanos on Io, the canteloupe terrain of Triton and just about anything on Titan come immediately to mind. These places are sublime.

    Once again my respect for CS Lewis, of which I had little enough, has plummetted.

  4. medieval literature

    [...] gain a better understanding of logic behind The Chronicles of Narnia. Michael Ward??s most recent bhttp://blog.oup.com/2008/05/prince-caspian-and-the-planets/The Rise of the Muslim Terrorists New York Review of BooksAn article by Malise Ruthven from The New [...]

  5. patrick

    the makers of the recent movie version of Prince Caspian kept to the original story in a lot of ways, but then strayed in others… i had heard they were going to make it into a silly pure-action flick, but thankfully this was not the case

  6. [...] Michael Ward will also be discussing the Narnia Code in a forthcoming BBC documentary. It will be screened in the UK on Thursday 16 April at 10.35pm on BBC 1. Michael Ward’s own website is here. He previously wrote for OUPblog on Prince Caspian. [...]

  7. [...] You can watch ‘The Narnia Code’ via the BBC iPlayer (until the end of this Thursday) and you can read Michael’s previous OUPblog posts here and here. [...]

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