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The Narnia Code: Hidden inklings of the God-breathed cosmos

Michael Ward The Narnia Code
Many readers have sensed that there is more
than meets the eye in Lewis’s Narnia tales,
but Michael Ward is the man
who finally discovered what it was.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on Michael Ward’s theory of the unifying principle  that guided C. S. Lewis in writing the Narnia tales, and Ward’s book, Planet Narnia, in which he provides a detailed analysis of the Narnia novels. The book was based on his doctoral dissertation and was, I suppose, fairly scholarly in tone. Apparently Ward and/or his publisher felt that Planet Narnia would be heavy reading for a lot of Narnia fans, so now there is a new book which (as far as I can tell from the preview available on Amazon) is essentially Planet Narnia reworked for the popular market.

The new book is The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens. Here’s a portion of the publisher’s blurb:

In The Narnia Code, Michael Ward presents an astonishing literary
discovery. Drawing on the whole range of Lewis’s writings, Ward reveals
the single subject that provides the link between all seven novels. He
explains how Lewis structured the series, why he kept the code secret,
and what it shows about his understanding of the universe and the
Christian faith. 

Readers should not be put off by the title’s similarity to The Davinci Code, which, despite Dan Brown’s claim to the contrary, is pure fiction and a load of codswallop. Ward actually does a good job of demonstrating that Lewis (a) wrote according to a set of principles that, until Ward discovered them, had eluded literary critics and exegetes and (b) he deliberately concealed his plan. In other words, there actually is a “code” which can be “decoded,” thereby yielding up new meaning to the reader who has figured out the code.

Decoding Narnia: the Medieval connection

To many modern readers, this will seem like a weird, sneaky thing to do, but it would not have seemed so to a medieval reader. What most modern critics have ignored is the fact that C. S. Lewis was a trained medievalist, and that, in scholarly circles, he is more famed and admired for his work as a medievalist than he is as a writer of children’s stories or a Christian apologist (as he is known to most general readers). He wrote several books that should be familiar to college students, if they’ve ever studied medieval literature or history, and which help to support Ward’s claim that Lewis’s background as a scholar of medieval literarture is absolutely key to a thorough understanding of his Narnia tales.

C S Lewis The Discarded Image
As Lewis knew well, medieval
culture understood the metaphysical
complexity of the universe.

First in importance, there is The Discarded Image, in which Professor Lewis demonstrates how the medieval conception of the created order (the cosmos) profoundly influenced every aspect of medieval culture. Here’s the publisher’s blurb from the Canto edition
of this book:

C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image paints a lucid picture of the medieval
world view, as historical and cultural background to the literature of
the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It describes the “image” discarded by
later ages as “the medieval synthesis itself, the whole organization of
their theology, science and history into a single, complex, harmonious
mental model of the universe.” This, Lewis’ last book, was hailed as
“the final memorial to the work of a great scholar and teacher and a
wise and noble mind.”

One of the key elements of the “medieval world view” was the concept of plenitude, i.e., that the world we can see is just one small part of the whole of creation and there is a densely populated, but invisible order of Creation which is every bit as “real” and varied as the parts we can see. So in the medieval view the cosmos actually had different “levels,” the visible and the invisible, which coexist side by side; in a somewhat similar way, the Bible was understood to have several layers of meaning, the literal or superficial meaning which would be plain to even the most casual reader, as well as spiritual (figurative or allegorical) meanings which lay, as St Augustine put it, “beneath the veil of the letter.” The reading habit of looking for, and finding, various levels of meaning in the Bible bled over into reading of other kinds of writing as well, so that medieval poets (i.e., fiction writers) carefully planned and built many layers of significance into their works, and astute readers were adept at recognizing the “hidden” layers of meaning. Lewis, of course, knew this thoroughly, and knew that much of the delight in both writing and reading in the Middle Ages was derived from this kind of polysemous composition.

Readers must uncover (discover) the meaning

C S Lewis The Allegory of Love
Medieval writers, in imitation of the Bible,
loved to hide their meaning
the surface.

Another work by Professor Lewis that should be familiar to students of medieval literature is The Allegory of Love
, which traces the allegorical treatment of love in western European literature from the high Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Here again is evidence of the medieval delight in finding hidden meaning in literary works, and here again C. S. Lewis literally wrote the book on it. Both The Discarded Image and The Allegory of Love have been enormously influential in the modern study and teaching of medieval literature. And yet no modern scholar until Michael Ward has really understood how profoundly Lewis the writer was influenced by the medieval images and methods that preoccupied Lewis the scholar.

This idea of a literary work being conceived and composed according to an intricate plan is quite foreign to modern readers and writers alike. Recently I was introducing some students to Dante’s Divine Comedy, a massive work composed according to a massively intricate plan structured by various numerological, theological, and typological schemata. I had made similar remarks on the structures of other medieval narrative poems we have studied. One student, who seemed surprised to realize how carefully medieval writers planned their compositions, asked me if modern writers do such careful planning, and I had to reply that this is seldom the case these days.

Flammarion woodcut of the cosmos
The Flammarion woodcut, in which a truth-seeker
peers into the hidden workings of the cosmos.

Modern novelists frequently write without any plan whatsoever and seem to think that this somehow makes a work more authentic — they claim to “wait for their Muse” for inspiration, and then “let the characters take the story where it needs to go,” as if novel writing were something that happens to the writer rather than something that the writer deliberately does (I blame William Wordsworth for this romantic tendency to regard the writer as a medium through which the forces of inspiration magically work). Even mystery writers will claim that they start their stories without knowing “whodunnit.” What nonsense! Unfortunately, many readers and critics have assumed that Lewis wrote his Narnia novels using an equally haphazard method (or lack thereof). Thank goodness Michael Ward has finally vindicated Lewis in the face of critics who accuse him of having thrown Narnia together using a meaningless hodgepodge of images (Santa in Narnia? Crazy!).

By the way, when I got a beautiful new hand-tooled leather cover from Oberon Designs for my Kindle ereader, I chose a design that caught my imagination because it seemed to sum up for me the wonder of reading, allowing us to glimpse the inner workings of the universe. I didn’t realize at the time that the image was based on a well-known pseudo-medieval engraving known as the Flammarion engraving (see image at the top of this post). Whether the image is a forgery made in the nineteenth century or not, it captures nicely the medieval belief in the invisible but magnificent reality of the created order that remains invisible to human eyes. This is a much richer conception than the scientfic worldview, which denies any unobservable, metaphysical reality. Anyway, the Flammarion image makes for a beautiful Kindle cover — check it out!

Roof of Heaven Kindle cover by Oberon Designs
Roof of Heaven Kindle cover by Oberon Designs

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Planet Narnia: Tutelary Deities

Last week when I was writing my previous post about Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, I visited Ward’s website and left a comment on his blog, telling him how much I like his book and inviting him to take a look at what I had said about it on my own blog. A day or two ago I received this reply from him:

Dear Lisa,

Thanks for your post on the Planet Narnia blog.  I’m delighted to know you enjoyed reading the book; it was certainly the greatest pleasure to write.
Thanks also for your post on your own blogsite, which I read and admired.  One thing I would slightly question though is the use of the word ‘red herring’ with respect to Aslan as Christ.  Sure, it’s a red herring insofar as it has led critics to concentrate far too exclusively on Biblical-allegorical readings of the Chronicles.  But Aslan certainly IS a Christ-figure, beautifully so, and the planetary scheme Lewis adopted means that the Christology he is trying to communicate is far more sophisticated than ‘mere’ Biblical allegory of a simple one-to-one kind.
But that’s a small point.  Generally, I thought what you wrote was excellent, and I found it personally very encouraging.  Thank you!
With kind regards,
Michael

I can see that my use of the term “red herring” was confusing, so I’ve revised the original post to make my meaning a little clearer. I didn’t mean to suggest that readers are mistaken to discern an identification between Aslan and Christ, or that Lewis was misleading readers to make an erroneous connection (that’s the usual meaning of “red herring”). It seems quite clear to me — as I think it will to almost any reader — that, in the first Narnia story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (LWW), Lewis deliberately made the parallels between Aslan’s actions and the atoning sacrifice of Christ virtually unmistakable. What I had meant to convey is that this connection was so obvious that it may have distracted critics from discerning or pursuing less obvious (non-Scriptural) allusions.

medieval engraving of Roman god Jupiter

For those who have not yet had an opportunity to read Planet Narnia, I’ll explain a little bit about Ward’s thesis. What Ward calls his “Eureka moment” occurred one night when he was struck by a phrase from Lewis’s poem, “The Planets,” which describes the allegorical personae of the planets as they were used poetically throughout the Middle Ages. The phrase that struck him referred to the influence of Jupiter (a.k.a. Jove, the Latin equivalent of Greek Zeus): “winter passed / And guilt forgiven.” Immediately this made him think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which Narnia is caught in an unending winter, until Aslan arrives on the scene and allows himself to be sacrificed by the White Witch, in substitution for Edmund Pevensey, who has betrayed his siblings to the Witch. Ward wondered:

Could there be a link somehow between poem and Chronicle? That thought was the stray spark connecting Jupiter to The Lion in my mind, and one by one the other planet-to-book relationships began to be lit up in its train. (Planet Narnia, 251)

That spark lit a blaze which resulted in Planet Narnia, a wonderfully illuminating study of how the medieval allegorical use of the pagan gods influenced the composition Lewis’s Narnia stories (and his other novels, as well).

Why would Lewis use Roman gods as the inspiration for his wonderful Narnia tales? Well, the short answer is, “Because he was a medievalist and an ardent amateur astronomer.” Here’s a longer answer: Much of the poetry of the Christian Middle Ages — and well through the period of the Renaissance — was modeled on, and influenced by, the norms of pre-Christian Latin poetry, which was considered exemplary (think of how deeply influenced the thoroughly-Christian Dante was by the pagan Latin poet, Vergil). The Greeks and Romans, of course, believed that there were many immortal gods, who had their own distinctive personalities and attributes and who intervened in the human realm and governed the cosmos. Today we still call planets by the names of the gods who governed them: Mars, Venus, Jupiter, etc. One of the borrowings (or, better said, inheritances) from the pagan Graeco-Roman world that had the most pervasive influence on the medieval imagination, poetically and otherwise, was their concept of a cosmos in which everything beyond the orbit of the Moon (Diana’s planet) was eternal and immortal, the realm of the gods.

medieval conception of the cosmos

Medieval man, of course, was not a pagan and did not believe in the pagan gods, but he was profoundly influenced by the conceptual model of the universe that he inherited from the ancient pagans. (You can read about this in C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image.) For medieval man, too, the earth was the realm of all that is mortal, material, passing, and fallen, while everything in the heavens was spiritual and immortal, charged with the Divine Presence. Thus it was natural for medieval man to find the ancient pagan gods who had given their names to the heavenly bodies to be transformed into personifications, or allegories, of the one true God who reigns over all Creation. Thus, when a medieval poet wrote about the god Jove (Jupiter), he was really writing about those aspects of God (Christ) that Jove embodies: his kingship and majesty, warmth and festivity, etc. Each of the gods represented by the planets of the night sky, in this Christianized cosmos, reflected different aspects of God’s nature, so that poems about the pagan deities were always really poems about Christ.

The insight that Michael Ward hit upon was that each of the Narnia books has its own tutelary deity; i.e., each is attuned to the aspects of a particular planetary god, giving that story its own peculiar flavor or atmosphere (what Ward calls its “donegality”). Not only does the planet in question “flavor” the story to reflect its corresponding planet/god, but the way Lewis portrays Aslan in each story also reflects the those particular aspects of Christ that the god in question embodies allegorically. Medieval writers delighted in complex and many-layered allegory, so it should be no surprise that Jack Lewis, medieval scholar and Christian apologist, should choose such a complicated and obscure way to compose his Narnia tales, such that you first have to find the hidden layer of planetary influence and then penetrate beneath it to the Christological meaning, in order to fully appreciate their significance.

Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia

Michael Ward, Planet Narnia

I thought I would mention another book that I read recently, which I like very much. This is Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, by Michael Ward. I won’t spend time describing the book just now — go to the Planet Narnia website and see for yourself — except to say that it is a work of literary criticism that will change Lewis scholarship forever. And about time!

I found out about this book quite by chance — I was on Graboid (a video downloading service), and trying to find copies of the TV versions of Lewis’s Narnia stories that the BBC produced back in the ’80s. To simplify my search, I just used the keyword “Narnia.” Not only did I find the old television shows (some of them, anyway — I’m still looking for The Silver Chair, and one or two others), but I also hit on a BBC documentary called “The Narnia Code.” This was not a title to inspire confidence; “oh, no,” I thought, “another crackpot theory about what the Narnia novels ‘really’ mean; the BBC will do anything to attract viewers.” But I downloaded it and watched it — without great enthusiasm until Michael Ward started to explain the hermeneutic key he struck on one night that unlocked a whole level of significance in the seven Narnia novels hitherto undetected by Lewis critics.

When Ward started talking about what his find actually was, I began to get interested. This was the first theory I’d heard that (a) took seriously into account Lewis’s long career as a medievalist, (b) looked at the Narnia stories as an integrated part of L’s overall opus (i.e., showed that he did not, by some weird aberration, suddenly turn to writing “children’s stories”), and (c) answered Tolkien’s famous dismissal of them as an artless hodgpodge of mythic and legendary elements, unworthy of serious attention. Then the documentary began to show some of the major Lewis scholars giving their respectful and enthusiastic imprimaturs on Ward’s theory. Next thing I knew, I was searching the internet for the best price on Ward’s book (after I found that my local university library did not yet have it).

Once the book arrived from Alibris, I read it section by section at the breakfast table, over the course of several weeks. Before I got through the first chapter, I realized that it was time to re-read the Narnia novels (Lewis always called them “romances,” so I guess I should, too), as well as the three Ransom novels (Lewis’s “space trilogy”). I read them over a month or so, while I was also reading Planet Narnia. Ward’s theory has it that each of the Narnia stories is keyed to one of the major celestial bodies (sun, moon & planets, with the pagan deities they are associated with) in medieval cosmology, so I matched my reading of each of the Narnia stories with the relevant chapter in Ward’s study. I found this worked quite well, reading the Narnia romance first, and then the related chapter. I was also inspired to go back and, finally, finish reading Till We Have Faces (I had begun it once years ago and got distracted before finishing; wow, that was a mistake!).

I wound up being quite impressed with how thoroughly Ward’s new theory illuminates many aspects of these stories and shows them to be not an aberration amid Lewis’s other published work, but rather inspired from the very wellsprings of his deepest interests and preoccupations. Although I have not read any of Lewis’s poetry (Ward’s reading of his poems was what inspired this theory), I am familiar with his Christian apologetics and, to a certain extent, the more popular works touching on his scholarship (An Experiment in Criticism and The Discarded Image — which I now want to re-read). Now I would really love to read more of his literary criticism, particularly his preface to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

I can see that one of the reasons, probably, why critics have hitherto failed to see the influence of Lewis’s expertise in late medieval and renaissance literature on the Narnia stories is that they have been distracted by the obvious association of Aslan with Christ in the first Narnia story (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), which although clearly intended by Lewis, has served almost as a red herring. Since the Aslan portion of LWW seems to be a kind of allegory or parable of the Salvation Story, this obvious parallel has influenced far too many critics to try to find all sorts of other connections with Biblical narratives and analogues, and to overlook other allusions that are not explicitly Christian. Of course, one other reason the connection between Narnia and the medieval cosmos has remained unnoticed is that Lewis always intended it to be so — at least, that’s what Michael Ward argues, and I think he is right.

Ho-ho, any readers out there — yes, this is meant to be a teaser. If you’re a Narnia lover and want to uncover hidden depths in those beloved stories, go to Ward’s Planet Narnia web site and learn more about his theory. And if the words “literary criticism” make your eyes glaze over, fear not: this is not academic gobbledygook that ordinary mortals would choke on. In fact, although Ward came up with his theory while he was working on a doctoral dissertation, his degree is not in literary studies but theology (he is an Anglican priest; one of the Lewis scholars he quotes several times is Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury). So those of you who love Lewis’s work for its Christian elements should not despair to learn that the Narnia novels are inspired by the pagan gods who inhabited the planets of the medieval cosmos — those gods themselves were, in the Middle Ages, allegories of divine attributes of the Christian God, and Ward does a fine job of showing how the various layers of significance interplay.

I’ll have more to say about Planet Narnia later. I will just add now that one of the reasons (a rather unexpected one) that I’m interested in Ward’s study, is that he found himself faced with a task similar to one I had in my own doctoral dissertation. Although our subjects were quite different (I wrote on Chrétien de Troyes’ twelfth century French Arthurian romance, The Story of the Grail), I saw some marked similarities in what I will call the critical and rhetorical tasks we faced. So while I was reading Planet Narnia, in addition to appreciating the content of Ward’s argument, I was watching how he structured that argument, defined his terms, built his case, overcame likely objections, etc., and taking note of ideas that occurred to me regarding structural changes I might make when I get around to revising my dissertation for publication (which I definitely want to do). I’ll probably have more to say about that, too, but that will be another day.