The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis
by Michael Ward
Do you like to read about mysteries being solved? Are you a fan of C.S. Lewis? If so, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Michael Ward (Oxford Press 2008) may be just the book for you. British writer C. S. Lewis is undoubtedly one the most recognizable author’s names in America. If sales figures are any indication, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from The Chronicles of Narnia may be his best loved and most purchased book. And yet, there has been confusion surrounding Narnia from the beginning.
If you have read The Chronicles of Narnia you may have experienced some perplexity yourself. Many readers have had questions about the appearance of characters in the books that do not seem to fit the storyline, such as Father Christmas in The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe, or Bacchus, the Roman mythological god of wine, in Prince Caspian. In reading Narnia my own personal mystery was, “Where is Aslan?” I was bewildered to find that Aslan was not as prominent in the other six books of the Chronicles as he was in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In my thinking it seemed clear that Aslan as Jesus was the ultimate hero of the series. Shouldn’t Aslan/Jesus show up in all of the other books since he was the central figure? The books were still fantastic to read, but where was Aslan? All of these questions and many more are answered in Planet Narnia.
- S. Lewis is rightfully famous for his classic children’s tales, but he is not well known for his other accomplishments, including a long academic career at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and his specialized skill as a Medievalist and poet. Michael Ward, Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall in the University of Oxford and a leading expert on C.S. Lewis is well aware of all the achievements of Clive Staples Lewis. It is because of Ward’s comprehensive knowledge of Lewis and insight into his poetry that Ward was able to solve the longstanding mystery involving the seven books in The Chronicles of Narnia. In the book Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, Ward presents his brilliant solution to the questions that have hovered over The Chronicles for fifty years, and in doing so adds another crown of laurels to Lewis’s acclaim as a writer.
In Planet Narnia Ward tells of the many attempts over the years by various reviewers to explain away the apparent discrepancies in the books in a positive manner, although some critics have chosen the route of total disparagement of The Chronicles. One person, says Ward, described Lewis’s writing of The Chronicles as being done in a “whiz-bang, easy-come-easy-go, slap-it down kind of way.” Ward relates that even J.R.R. Tolkien totally disliked Narnia. “In Tolkien’s view, Lewis had thrown together things from different traditions (talking animals, English children, fauns and centaurs, Father Christmas, etc.) without good cause.”
Ward also shares with the reader his own questions about the seemingly random events that occur in the Narnia stories, which, as he read more of Lewis’s works, were obviously out of line with Lewis’s style of writing. As Ward pursued his study of Lewis’s compositions he read Lewis’s works on the Middle Ages and Renaissance. “When I read Lewis’s academic books,” says Ward, “I noticed that he was a very careful writer, as a learned scholar ought to be. He didn’t slop words together thoughtlessly, but paid great attention to every single phrase that he wrote.”
This led to Ward’s seriously considering the possibility that there were not just two levels on which to understand Narnia – the simple fairytale story and the story of Jesus – but a third level, also. Ward was to come upon this third level of understanding for Narnia years later as he re-read a poem written by Lewis in 1935 called “The Planets.” Ward tells us that the poem “The Planets” is all about how the planets were understood in medieval times, when it was believed there were only seven planets and that they exerted influences over the Earth, affecting people, events, and even the metals in the Earth’s crust.”
Says Ward, “The part of the poem that made me do a double take was the section dealing with Jupiter (also known as Jove). Jupiter, according to the poem, influenced the Earth by bringing about:
… winter passed
And guilt forgiven.
“Those five words leaped off the page at me. I rubbed my eyes. “Winter passed and guilt forgiven”? I had come across those two things in another of Lewis’s works. The passing of winter and the forgiving of guilt are two of the main events in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The White Witch’s winter passes, and Edmund’s guilt is forgiven. This little phrase seemed like a five word summary of the first Narnia story.” This was also the beginning of Ward’s solving the mystery of the seeming inconsistencies in Narnia.
Ward goes on to tell how he discovered that Lewis designed each of the Narnia books to be written as though the characters and the landscape were under the influence of one of the seven medieval planets: the Moon (Luna), Mercury, Venus , Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The “atmosphere” of the planets is alluded to in Lewis’s books, but not directly identified. This planet “atmosphere” greatly expands the narrative of The Chronicles and explains the reason for many of the missing links in the stories.
Importantly, Ward demonstrates that not only did Lewis draw on the ancient idea of the seven heavens and the planets for developing the stories throughout the Narniad, but Lewis also used the planets and their identifying characteristics to show that the heavens declare the glory of Christ in and through their very existence and their symbolism.
In Planet Narnia each planet is given its own chapter so that Ward can write about them as they “appear in the course of Lewis’s writings, to deploy the relevant planet’s imagery in each Chronicle, and then to assess the theological messages embodied in and expressed by that development.” It really is great fun to see how cleverly Lewis wove the medieval understanding of the seven heavens into Narnia. Here is a list of the seven planets and their associated book:
- Jupiter: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
- Mars: Prince Caspian
- Sol: The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader“
- Luna: The Silver Chair
- Mercury: The Horse and his Boy
- Venus: The Magician’s Nephew
- Saturn: The Last Battle thyrkas
- Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Michael Ward is a fascinating book, especially if you are a fan of C.S. Lewis. If you simply want your own mystery questions about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe answered, you might prefer to read The Narnia Code, which is a very complete and well done “lighter” version of Planet Narnia, also written by Michael Ward and published by Tyndale House (2010).