Dr. Michael Ward, senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and C.S. Lewis scholar, shared his theory that Lewis used the medieval cosmos’ seven heavens to symbolize Christ throughout The Chronicles of Narnia.
On the surface, The Chronicles of Narnia can seem to be a “hodgepodge” of characters, Ward said. C. S. Lewis’s friend J.R.R. Tolkien was confused by all the characters in Narnia. He wondered what was unifying all of them. (Why is Father Christmas, Father Time, the White Witch, English kids and centaurs all in the same story?) Tolkien didn’t read all of the books and he wasn't fond of the stories that he did read. Since Tolkien is so well-known, his opinion of the Chronicles of Narnia became well-known too. Tolkien’s attitude prevailed: Narnia is casual.
According to Ward, Tolkien’s assumptions were neither consistent with Lewis’s other literary works nor his character. Lewis loved complexity and intricacy. Ward cites Lewis’s complicated poetry, love for medieval scholarship and Lewis’s Christian faith and belief that the universe is fantastically complex as a reason to look deeper at the Narnia series.
“The whole Narnia series is about Christ,” said Ward. “The first, second and seventh book is a major comparison of the life of Christ. In these novels, Christ is depicted as Creator, Redeemer and Judge.”
But in the other four books, Christ’s figure of Aslan is not as obvious. In some of these novels, Aslan is given characteristics that Christ did not have. One example is Aslan is mentioned as being “swift of foot.”
These details in Lewis’ series led scholars to determine that there must be a deeper level of design and creative intent, a level deeper than Biblical references.
Ward has spent much of his scholarship seeking this deeper level. He tried comparing the books to great works of Shakespeare, but that didn’t work.
“It was when I wasn’t looking for it that I stumbled upon it,” said Ward.
Ward described four aspects of Lewis’s life that help to credit a deeper theme that Ward discovered in The Chronicles of Narnia.
- Lewis was secretive. He even kept his marriage secret for nearly a year. Ward said that it shouldn’t surprise us that there could be a secret in Narnia.
- Lewis was a Christian who wrote that “Christ is the all-pervasive principle of cohesion, whereby the universe holds together.” God could be overlooked when He is everywhere and in everything. “How would Lewis depict an omnipresent but overlookable element?” asked Ward.
- Lewis was a great writer, who appreciated and wrote at length about the underlying themes in stories. The atmosphere, overall feeling or grand theme of a story is important. Lewis called this “the hidden element in story.” Readers of these stories don’t care about the plot so much, but they care about feeling like they’re in the story, said Ward.
- Lewis was aware of transferred classicism: the literary practice of representing the Christian God through pagan elements. Lewis said that God will often appear in literature, but dressed up as Zeus or masked as other pagan characters.
In a few of his books, Lewis encourages people to look at the sky with a medieval perspective: The earth is in the center of everything with seven planets/heavens/spheres surrounding the earth; the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (during Lewis’s lifetime Neptune, Uranus and Pluto were not discovered, so the sun and moon are included). These seven heavens also influenced the days of the week. Many people forgot this medieval literature cosmos, Ward said.
“The characters of the planets seem to me to have a permanent value of spiritual symbols,” said Ward, quoting Lewis. This is why he was fascinated with it, Ward said of Lewis.
“[In The Chronicles of Narnia] I believe he used these seven spiritual symbols again,” said Ward.
For example, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is built out of the symbolism of Jupiter, also known as Jove. Ward discovered this while reading “The Planets,” a poem by Lewis.
“Of wrath ended
And woes mended, of winter passed
And guilt forgiven, and good fortune
Jove is master…”
Ward realized these lines were basically a summary of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Jupiter’s motifs are kings (the grandest kings of all), jovialness and Christ. Aslan is constantly described as the King, and the kids become kings and queens. Aslan ends the winter, and he brings hope and happiness.
Additionally, Ward learned from another of Lewis’s publications, Arthurian Torso that the planet Jupiter’s red spot symbolizes the wound in Christ’s body on Calvary.
Therefore, Jupiter symbolizes Christ and his forgiving power.
Ward explained the planetary symbols in the series:
The Magician’s Nephew is Venus. This book is about the creation of Narnia, and Venus is associated with creation.
Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia is influenced by Mars, especially with the war.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’s motif is the sun.
The Silver Chair is connected to the moon.
The Horse and His Boy includes Mercury imagery. (Aslan is “swift of foot” in this story, and the mythological Mercury is a speedy messenger.)
The Last Battle relates to Saturn. Saturn is connected with death and destruction and Father Time. In this book, Father Time brings about the end of the world.
Ward asserted three reasons why Lewis would have done it:
- For fun.
- For the hidden element of a story. These spiritual symbols give each novel a theme and an atmosphere.
- The whole Narnia series is about Christ, more than the obvious Biblical allusions that Aslan is symbolic of Christ. “Christ is present in the story in two modes at once,” Ward said.
“On the surface, yes, Narnia looks a like a bit of a ‘hodgepodge,’” Ward said, adding that “the real world looks a bit random and confusing too.”
“He wanted to allow people to dismiss it,” Ward said. "Lewis knows what he’s up to in all these seemingly random details. Likewise, God, in the real world, is working his purposes out.”
Next Forum: Homecoming Opening Ceremonies
The Marriott Center will host the Homecoming Opening Ceremonies on Tuesday, October 3 at 11:05 a.m. The festivities will not be broadcast on BYUtv.