By John Wilson
Why There Are Seven Chronicles of Narnia
In February, Michael Ward was reading Lewis' poem, "The Planets," published in 1935. A former president of the Oxford University C.S. Lewis Society, Ward lived in Lewis' home, The Kilns, for three years as curator/warden. Now living in Cambridge and working on his doctorate from St. Andrews University—with a dissertation on Lewis—while preparing for the Anglican priesthood, he knows Lewis' work inside-out. And as he read that poem, he noticed something that no previous reader had seen.
As Ward explains in an account of his discovery published today in the Times Literary Supplement, he was reading the section of "The Planets" that deals with Jove, or Jupiter, when he was struck by its resonance with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The poem speaks of "winter passed / And guilt forgiven," and goes on to give what is, Ward says, "essentially a plot summary" of the first book in the Narnia Chronicles.
By the medieval reckoning, there were seven "planets": Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn. Was it possible, Ward wondered, that each of the seven Narnia books was written under the sign of a different planet? Looking closely at the Narnia Chronicles side-by-side with Lewis' 1935 poem, and other of his writings that touch on the planets, especially his posthumously published book, The Discarded Image, a retrieval of the medieval worldview, Ward found that indeed there is such a correspondence: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe corresponds to Jupiter, Prince Caspian to Mars, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to the Sun, The Silver Chair to the Moon, The Horse and His Boy to Mercury, The Magician's Nephew to Venus, and The Last Battle to Saturn.
Each planet, in crude summary of the medieval understanding, represents a certain set of linked emotions and images, a temper, a disposition, along the spectrum. And these are reflected, Ward found, in the Narnia books, both in the big arc of each story and in countless fine touches throughout each volume.
We can imagine the reaction of the sort of Christians who have gone into a frenzy over Harry Potter. Astrology! But what Ward has discovered is entirely consistent with Lewis' Christian humanism. The imaginative worldview embodied in the medieval lore of the planets speaks to something fundamental in our experience; it is not to be rejected but rather baptized, made harmonious with the underlying Christian vision that governs Narnia.
Ward's discovery will send fellow-scholars and countless ordinary readers back to the books to evaluate the evidence for themselves. (Look for a piece by Ward in a forthcoming issue of Books & Culture.) In the long term, by situating the Narnia Chronicles in the context of Lewis' lifetime fascination with the planets and showing the intricate patterning of the series, Ward will have laid to rest what he rightly calls A.N. Wilson's "absurd suggestion that Lewis turned to children's fiction as a retreat from apologetics after his clash with Elizabeth Anscombe at the Socratic Club." And he will have added yet another layer of appreciation for books that have delighted generations of children and their parents.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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