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Planet Narnia: A Fully Worked Out Idea

Readers in the UK might have recently seen ‘The Narnia Code‘, a documentary on BBC1 featuring OUP author Michael Ward and his decoding of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. The post below is an extract from Michael’s book Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, which talks about the more famous explanation of the stories in Christological terms, and explains why he thinks this isn’t the correct decoding.

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.

Could it be its Christological dimension that provides the key to the Narniad’s unity? In a letter to a young girl named Anne Jenkins, Lewis wrote, ‘the whole Narnian story is about Christ’; and in The Horse and His Boy he makes Shasta observe that Aslan ‘seems to be at the back of all the stories.’ A Christocentric reading has a good deal to recommend it because Aslan, the Christ-figure, is the only character who appears in all seven books. But in the précis of the series which Lewis provides for Anne we are reminded that Aslan, in fact, has definitively Christological roles to play in only three of the seven stories:

The Magician’s Nephew tells the Creation and how evil entered Narnia.
The Lion etc the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Prince Caspian restoration of the true religion after a corruption.
The Horse and His Boy the calling and conversion of a heathen.
The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ the spiritual life (especially in Reepicheep).
The Silver Chair the continued war against the powers of darkness.
The Last Battle the coming of the Antichrist (the Ape). The end of the
world and the Last Judgement.

Aslan is creator in the Narnian genesis (The Magician’s Nephew); redeemer in the Narnian gospel account (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe); and judge in its version of the apocalypse (The Last Battle). These books make up less than half the sequence. What Christocentric explanation can account for Aslan’s roles in the remaining four books? One might reasonably expect parallels to the annunciation, the nativity, the boyhood, and the ascension of Christ; his sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost might receive a treatment. That would be the natural way of proceeding if Lewis was intending to produce a Christological series. Instead, Aslan in these other four books represents no particular Christological office or stage of Christ’s incarnation or the missio dei. His appearances are very various and irregular: he is mistaken for two lions in The Horse and His Boy; he flies in a sunbeam in The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’; he enters the story among dancing trees in Prince Caspian; and in The Silver Chair he does not appear bodily within Narnia at all, but is confined to his own high country above the clouds. There seems to be no rhyme or reason, Christologically speaking, for these stories.

Perhaps we should simply bite our critical tongues and accept this trilogyplus-quartet analysis. Chad Walsh is content to do so. He identifies the three ‘Biblical’ books and categorises the others as taking place within ‘Act IV’ of the Narnian drama, between the resurrection of Aslan and the end of the world. Aslan’s role in these other four books, Walsh argues, is ‘relatively marginal.’ But it is not marginal. In every one of these four books Aslan is mentioned earlier than in either The Lion or The Magician’s Nephew; his first appearance and his first words occur earlier in these four books than in either The Lion or The Last Battle; and his overall involvement in these stories is at least as substantial as in the trio of books dealing with what Walsh calls ‘grand, cosmic deeds.’ And if heilsgeschichte is meant to be our interpretative grid, why is there no indication that Aslan’s mode of appearance in The Lion—where he is ‘incarnate’—is any different from his appearances elsewhere, which would be the Narnian equivalent of Christophanies? Should we not expect his appearances in ‘Act IV’ to relate to Church history in some way? Should we not at least expect his appearances in ‘Act IV’ to betray a family likeness? As it is, Aslan’s roles in these stories show no uniform features nor any discernible link to particular historical or prophesied events between Christ’s ascension and second coming. Rather than presenting his theory as ‘3+4,’ Walsh ought to admit it is ‘3+1+1+1+1.’

In short, we have to conclude that, if the whole series is ‘about Christ,’ it is so in a way that neither scriptural source material nor the major events of salvation history can make sense of.

We find ourselves in this dead-end as a result of attaching too much significance to Lewis’s letter to Anne Jenkins. The summaries given there are so brief and general as to be of little explanatory use. For instance, to say that The Dawn Treader is concerned with ‘the spiritual life’ does almost nothing to distinguish it from any of the other six books. This letter is best understood as an example of Lewis’s avuncular and pastoral interest in one small child (one among hundreds to whom he wrote over the years); it is not a serious piece of literary self-disclosure. Anne is being given a broad and breezy welcome to the series, not a key to its internal workings.

This is not to imply that Aslan is not the most important character in the series, nor is it to deny that Lewis had serious Christological purposes at heart: we will look at those purposes later in this book. However, it is to say that, in attempting to find the Narniad’s unity, we must move away from the assumption that the Christology it displays is chiefly based on biblical passages that have been reimagined for the purposes of a ‘suppositional’ world. Since four out of the seven stories do not accord with such a scheme, plainly it is not the solution to the problem of composition.

Setting aside Lewis’s remarks to Anne Jenkins, we bring forward for examination his comments to Charles Wrong, who had been his pupil in the 1930s, to whom he indicated that there was another governing theme, apparently connected not with Christology, but with numerology. (This I take as the first of the two recorded hints Lewis dropped about the secret.) According to Wrong, Lewis ‘happened to have had an idea that he wanted to try out, and by now, having worked it out to the full, he did not plan to write any more.’ Wrong reports Lewis as adding, ‘I had to write three volumes, of course, or seven, or nine. Those are the magic numbers.’

This evidence is highly intriguing. If Lewis felt he ‘had to write’ at least three books (in order to make a magic number), what did he mean when he told Laurence Krieg that, at the outset, he did not know that he was going to write more than one book? And if his idea had been worked out ‘to the full’ after seven books, why did he mention to Wrong the number three and the number nine?

I suspect that Lewis was deflecting Wrong from asking questions about this ‘idea’ that originally issued in a single story but that, upon further reflection, required seven outworkings for its completion. When writing about the Chronicles in public he took care never to draw attention to such numerological considerations. For instance, in an article in The New York Times Book Review, he said that the imaginative process began with seeing pictures in his mind’s eye (a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion), pictures that gradually resolved themselves into a story with a particular form. That was what ‘the Author’ in him did. Then ‘the Man’ set to work and gave to this form the desired Christian orientation. But he says nothing about needing at least three volumes.

Similarly, in an article for the Junior Section of the Radio Times, he reveals that the one thing he is sure of is that the Chronicles ‘began with seeing pictures in my head,’ but he makes no reference to an idea that might require to be expressed, say, ninefold. Instead, rather curiously, he tells his young audience, ‘you must not believe all that authors tell you about how they wrote their books.’ Then, because this statement has an obvious implication, he straightaway goes on to add: ‘This is not because they mean to tell lies. It is because a man writing a story is too excited about the story itself to sit back and notice how he is doing it.’

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