Discovering the Narnia Code
Michael Ward is an expert on C.S. Lewis and an Anglican clergyman. His book Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis is a innovative study of the Chronicles of Narnia that interprets the seven books as being constructed around the symbolism of the seven planets in medieval cosmology – a subject of lifelong fascination for Lewis. In the post below, Michael Ward recounts how he cracked the Narnia Code.
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.
I wasn’t looking for it. I just stumbled across it. The code, that is. The Narnia code.
Many people know that C.S. Lewis dedicated The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to his god-daughter, Lucy Barfield. Last summer I met one of his other god-children, Laurence Harwood. He told me how Lewis (‘Uncle Jack’) used to write him letters which contained ‘puzzles to solve or secret writing to decode’.
This was characteristic because Lewis was a secretive man. His autobiography, Surprised By Joy, concealed so many things that one of his friends joked it would have been better entitled Suppressed by Jack.
As a literary critic, Lewis was fascinated by what he called ‘The Kappa Element in Romance’. ‘Kappa’ he took from the initial letter of the Greek word ‘krypton’, meaning cryptic. The cryptic element in romance (story) was, for Lewis, its main attraction. He gave as examples the ‘deathly’ flavour of Hamlet and the ‘Redskinnery’ of The Last of the Mohicans. This atmospheric quality wasn’t something he looked at as he read; it was more like the whole field of vision within which he experienced the story and for that reason it was effectively invisible.
As a literary historian, Lewis loved the works of writers whose poetry presents ‘something that at first looks planless though all is planned.’ In particular, he admired Edmund Spenser whose Faerie Queene was ‘dangerous, cryptic, its every detail loaded with unguessed meaning’. Spenser wrote like this because he was drawing on the neo-Platonic tradition which deemed it proper that ‘all great truths should be veiled’.
When he came to compose his Narnia Chronicles, Lewis drew upon this tradition himself, embedding his fundamental purpose three layers deep.
The first two layers have been talked about endlessly in the nearly sixty years since Narnia was published. But the third layer has eluded scholars and led them on a merry dance.
The first layer is obvious and can be understood by a seven-year old. I remember reading these books as seven-year old myself. On the surface, the Narnia books are simply stories of adventure and incident and colourful character.
The second layer is also obvious and can be understood by anyone with a fair knowledge of the Bible. The Chronicles contain scriptural parallels. The lion king, Aslan, is a Christ-figure.
But neither of these two layers seems to have been constructed with any great care. As regards the first layer (the surface story), Lewis’s friend, Tolkien, disliked the way Narnia was assembled out of incompatible literary traditions: talking animals from Beatrix Potter; fauns from Roman mythology; English children from E. Nesbit; symbolic lions from Aesop; and even Father Christmas, for heaven’s sake!
And with regard to the second layer (the Biblical parallels), it’s easy to see that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is connected to the Gospels, just as it’s easy to see that The Magician’s Nephew is a Genesis-style creation account and The Last Battle a Revelation-like apocalypse. But when you look at the other four Chronicles, the Biblical parallels are less clear. In Prince Caspian, for example, Aslan is one minute romping with Bacchus and getting everyone tipsy while the next he is giving an earth-shaking war-cry, summoning his troops to battle. How does this relate to scripture?
I knew that many scholars had followed Tolkien’s lead, concluding that the books are a mishmash. A.N. Wilson, for example, calls the Chronicles a ‘jumble’, ‘full of inconsistencies’, a ‘hotch-potch’. Humphrey Carpenter labels them ‘uneven’, ‘hastily written’: ‘Lewis threw in any incident or colouring that struck his fancy’.
But I also knew that many other scholars were not satisfied with such an incurious position. They had gone looking for cryptic threads that might tie the series together into a coherent shape. The seven deadly sins, the seven virtues, and the seven sacraments had all been suggested as possible hidden themes. I myself, I must confess, once made a half-hearted attempt to link the Chronicles to the plays of Shakespeare. But I knew that didn’t really work, I was just trying to impose a theory of my own onto Narnia in order to make it make sense.
When I stumbled upon the real answer to this imaginative conundrum it was quite the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me while holding a book in my hands. I knew at once that I’d cracked the code. Not that this code is a cipher, something that needs to be translated into other terms. No, it’s more like a genetic code, an imaginative blueprint that governs and shapes the stories.
And this code is what? The seven heavens of the medieval cosmos, – the seven planets which give us the names of the days of the week. Lewis described these planets as ‘spiritual symbols of permanent value’ and ‘especially worthwhile in our own generation’.
Jupiter reigns in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Mars orders Prince Caspian; the Sun irradiates The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’; the Moon illuminates The Silver Chair; Mercury runs throughout The Horse and His Boy; Venus comes good in The Magician’s Nephew; and Saturn ticks away like a time-bomb in The Last Battle.
This is the puzzle that Lewis was waiting for his Narnia readers to decode. When it fell into my lap I didn’t shout ‘Eureka!’ and run naked down the street like Archimedes, but I did jump out of bed and skip round the room in a state of undress. Suppressed by Jack? Too right!