(Tyndale House Publishers, Carol Stream, IL: 2010)
“The [Narnia] books are much more Christian than we’ve realized.”
-Michael Ward (p. 130)
“Lewis ate and drank from the table of pagan idolatry. He slurped it in and was so full of it, that this world of idols and sorcery came out through his books.”
No author has ever succeeded at being correctly understood by all of his readers. C. S. Lewis is widely, but not universally, regarded as a great Christian thinker and apologist, best known for his seven books, The Chronicles of Narnia. These children’s books, also enjoyed by adults, are often held up as the best example of Christian fantasy literature.
Michael Ward, Chaplain of St. Peter’s College, Oxford, has studied Lewis exhaustively. He’d read everything Lewis ever wrote-including unpublished manuscripts and letters, poems, and childhood notebooks. If there is anything Mr. Ward doesn’t know about C. S. Lewis, chances are that nobody knows it.
Ward claims to have unraveled a secret code pertaining to all the Narnia books-something that Lewis put in on purpose, and which, very subtly, holds the whole series together while subconsciously working on the reader’s mind. No, it’s not like one of those “Bible codes” that tells you Leviticus 4:14 secretly predicts who will win an Oscar next year. It’s more in the nature of a hidden theme, deliberately concealed by C. S. Lewis, to heighten the impact of his art. So Ward’s title is a bit misleading.
Seven Heavens, Seven Books
“Lewis took the seven heavens that he so loved and used them as symbols of Christ … to present Christ in seven different ways,” Ward says (pp. 129-130). He is referring to the ancient cosmology which featured seven heavens circling the Earth, each ruled by its own “planet”-the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn-with each “planet” having certain influences on Earth and its inhabitants.
Each Narnia story is “ruled” by its own planet: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Jupiter; Prince Caspian, Mars; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the Sun; The Silver Chair, the Moon; The Horse and His Boy, Mercury; The Magician’s Nephew, Venus; and The Last Battle, Saturn. The planets, says Ward, are “spiritual symbols speaking through stories” in which C. S. Lewis “translated the planets into plots” (p. 146).
It sounds complicated, but Ward does make a very strong case. Everything he says, he backs up with quotes from Lewis himself. He also does an amazingly good job of writing in a clear, simple prose style very similar to that employed by Lewis to tell his Narnia stories. Ward sounds like Lewis. He has written a book which an intelligent child would understand, but which won’t make an adult reader feel like he’s been kidnapped by Barney the Dinosaur.
Ward has convinced me that Lewis didn’t just “throw in everything” when he was writing a Narnia tale: “randomness and mishmash are not to be found” (p. 8) in these books, he says-even when it may look like mishmash. Thus there is a reason for Father Christmas appearing in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, even if it seems careless, even silly, to insert one of our own popular culture icons into the parallel universe of Narnia-an apparent anomaly which Ward says got him started in his search for C. S. Lewis’ cryptic messages. Superman wouldn’t belong there, but Father Christmas does.
It’s not necessary to go into the details of Ward’s reasoning. His book is easy to read and explains itself. It’s a clever piece of literary detective work, and those most interested in his argument should read the book.
But we cannot help asking, given that C. S. Lewis secretly followed a cosmological theme in composing his Narnia tales: Are we better off for knowing that? Mr. Ward finds his own pleasure and understanding greatly enhanced for knowing it. Then again, millions of children and adults, over more than half a century, have adored these books without ever suspecting there were any secret messages involved.
Is that because Lewis succeeded in speaking to the readers’ subconscious?
There’s no way to know; and meanwhile, there are other issues to consider.
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