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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!

Recent Comments

  1. Taylor J. Beisler

    Way to crack the code! C.S. Lewis was a literary genius, as well as Tolkien, and I love that Tolkien didn’t like C.S. Lewis’s writing…it was said that Tolkien took longer to write as it was harder for him to do!

    God bless,
    Taylor J. Beisler

  2. jojo

    i don’t understand what he means, i guess i’ll just have 2 read the books 2 find out@

  3. Sitabhra Sinha

    Very interesting – especially given that C S Lewis’ other series, The Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength) written for much older readers, is quite consciously and openly based on the three planets Mars, Venus and Earth (respectively). Was the explicit astronomical connection in this series prefiguring the more subtle connection (if Michael Ward is indeed correct) in the Narnia series written later ? As an aside, it is probably more interesting to compare Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy with Lewis’ Space trilogy – they were written almost at the same time, and there are so many plot parallels, I am almost sure that Tolkien and Lewis must have been discussing their stories with each other :-)

  4. Laurence

    “I don’t understand what he means, i guess i’ll just have 2 read the books 2 find out@ ”

    Read the books – goodness me, what a challenging idea! And while you’re about it, perhaps you could learn to write proper, non-‘text’ English, as well? Lewis would turn in his grave at this sort of illiterate twaddle!

    The theory sounds interesting, I must say, though would it make any difference to our appreciation of the books if it were true, I wonder?

  5. Andrew Dunford

    I’m sorry but I have yet to come across a bigger pile of horse shit in all my 48 years!

  6. Sharon O'Connor

    I liked the simpleness of the idea of the medieval cosmology linking the seven planets of that time to the seven Narnia tales.

    Seventh heaven!!


  7. Michael Irwin

    Brillant documentary. i though the interviews were excellent. i have only ever read The Lon, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when i was young. Thought then what a brillant book. Not encouraged to read when i was young. I thought Michael Ward came across really well, i felt sad that i did not really have an education. I have been searching for the meaning of life for so very long, as many other’s i expect. By the end of the documentary, i felt much more faith than i have felt for about five years. It really was brillantly put together. I feel a great a great need to read! Thank You. I hope at 41 i am not to late to educate myself! Michael

  8. BRC

    “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?”

    King David, anyone? And the Horse & his Boy has elements of the Apocyraph book of Tobit. Although have to admit I’m hard pressed with the other two :)

  9. Elizabeth McL

    Just three things –

    “I don’t understand what he means, i guess i’ll just have 2 read the books 2 find out@ ”

    Jojo, please don’t be discouraged by negitative criticism. Yes! Do read the books. You sound like a young person and you will love them. I think you should be encouraged for taking the time to find out about Lewis and as for your poor grasp of written English, don’t be ashamed. Read more, write more and it will improve. Lewis would approve of your efforts.

    Secondly –

    “I am almost sure that Tolkien and Lewis must have been discussing their stories with each other”.

    Sitabhra, you are right of course. Find out about The Inklings and you will understand about the ‘cross pollination’ of these stories.(Try to get a copy of Amanda Ross’s terrible alliterative books that they used to read to each other for a laugh).

    Lastly, I think these latest Narnia relevations are facinating. Of course there is the Christian sub-text of Narnia, given Lewis’s love of the George Macdonald stories and the precedent of tales such as ‘The Water Babies’ by Rev. Kingsley, but I am delighted to find out there is even more to discover below the surface of these wonderful books. Well done to Michael Ward!

    I hope Jojo does read the books. Me? I’m off to re-read them, again!

  10. mac

    I wish the documentary could have shown less of the dramatized scenes because they came over as ‘reaching’ deliberately trying to tug at the viewers heartstrings. But the concept still sounds interesting. In regards to Jojo’s comment-why such a hostile response? We use language to communicate, yes it could have been more eloquent but everyone understood what the Jojo meant. So much unnecessary hate.

  11. […] have to say, this sounds pretty convincing. You can also read a blog post at OUP’s blog from Michael Ward. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is written to embody the qualities associated with Jupiter […]

  12. annie

    Congratulations to M Ward.I am relativley illiterate.The BBC programme however,left me wanting to read more.and with a need to attempt a better understanding of his discoveries,much appreciated thankyou.

  13. Steve Luxford

    Absolutely brilliant! Well done.

  14. Moo

    Please excuse my spelling….and grammer…:0)

    “The theory sounds interesting, I must say, though would it make any difference to our appreciation of the books if it were true, I wonder?”

    A great book with a great story is that, and just that. To realise the thought behind that creation and appreciate the effort and thinking that goes behind that particular story can only enhance its appeal. A book should also be appreciated for the author and all of their personality/creation/thinking they put in to that particular piece.

    Only those who are truely touched by a book will bother to find out more about the person that made them stop and think for a moment.

  15. Jon

    Well done !!
    A great step forward in the understanding of the energies of the universe.
    Who says imiginary things don’t have a reality in their own right ! Everything contained within the Narnia stories is just as REAL as everything contained within this world.
    Doors to other worlds DO exsist ! -and the key to unlocking those doors lays within one self.
    And each and every planet is just as alive as this one !! There ARE doorways. There ARE different time realities !
    And the law of SEVEN is EVERYWHERE. How many colours are there in a rainbow for example ?
    So go on ! Dream a dream -then enter it !!

  16. Mark Sommer

    Thank you Dr. Ward for talking about the “three layers,” which I understand is also in the documentary. This is a critical part of your theory which I don’t think most of your (negative) critics understand. If I understand it correctly, the Planets are the structure underneath, or the hidden bones, of the Chronicles, which is why they are not immediately apparent.

    It is good to see all the positive response. Unfortunately, there are those like Andrew Dunford (above) who give knee-jerk reactions without (apparently) trying to understand the concepts involved. There are always those who criticize anything new.

    Unfortunately, I live in the U.S., and have not seen The Narnia Code. I hope that it will be made available to us soon. I do have a friend who has seen it. You can read his review here: http://live.hollywoodjesus.com/?p=3811

  17. […] iPlayer (until the end of this Wednesday) and you can read Michael’s previous OUPblog posts here and […]

  18. Stephen. J. Hepburn

    I remember as a youngster the bright and vivid images that such books evoked, sadly in my adult life I have found reading for pleasure and discovery less easy and been contaminated by much of the harshness and brashness of contemporary society. However since veiwing the documentary regarding the deeper meaning beneath the works of C.S Lewis, my passion for such literature has been rekindled and though I don’t fully understand yet, I feel the key to the wardrobe of my own imagination being jiggled excitedly, Stephen.

  19. PD

    Regarding Bacchus, I suggest seeing the chapter “Miracles of the Old Creation” in Lewis’ Miracles. Lewis discusses Christ’s miracle of turning water into wine and states “He is the reality behind the false god Bacchus. Every year, as part of the Natural order, God makes wine.”

  20. Andy

    I love the theory, but …

    … as for the documentary, I strongly object to the idea being hijacked by those that want to push a Christian world view.

    The point is made (by the author of the book), of a ‘cosmic god’ that transcends ‘tribal’ religions. Unfortunately this idea is completely swamped by a series of self-important, opinionated, Christian theologians in the concluding part of the documentary.

    Furthermore, the juxtaposition of ‘The God Delusion’ with a couple of scientists with religious leanings, is manipulative (and frankly shameful BBC!) and stokes up drama with no real justification.

    To me, a mature perspective on religion – and one that would bring much peace into the world – is one, that would reject the current organised ‘tribal’ religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism etc), and replace their silly rituals, laws and theo-political hierarchy, with :

    (a) the notion of a cosmic god that gives meaning/purpose to the world (if you need it)
    (b) shared human values, responsibilities freedoms and rights
    (c) a deep and profound respect for Nature, Consciousness and the Cosmos.

  21. Sherryton

    Andy, we live in a society which ridicules people for having a faith.
    The BBC in this context gave a fair view to the ideas expressed in this documentary, by inviting comment from scientists and scholars who share a Christian belief.
    These days Intellectuals are often seen as people without a faith of any kind, but this documentary showed quite clearly that science and the belief in the Divine need not be at odds.
    Just because a person is a scientist does not mean they cannot have faith!
    The fact that the faith in question was Christian was totally in keeping with the work being discussed and the Author of the subsequent book relating to it.
    If C.S.Lewis had been Muslim or Jewish (and the contributors had also been of the same faith) would you have felt so comfortable spewing forth such vitriol?
    People of faith are expected to practice tolerance of Secularism, which is fine-but they also deserve some reciprocity.

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