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Tom Shippey

Planetary Influences

The hidden meaning of the Chronicles of Narnia.

In this book, Michael Ward makes the rather astonishing claim that he has discovered the "hidden inner meaning" of C. S. Lewis' famous seven-volume sequence, the Chronicles of Narnia. It is reassuring to the reader that Ward sees and states at once the obvious skeptical responses to such a claim. If the "Narniad" has had a hundred million readers, as by now it probably has, what are the odds on the hundred-million-and-first suddenly stumbling on the truth? And if scores of millions of readers have taken delight in the books already—The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was rated by British readers among the ten most popular novels of all time, and that was before the movie came out—would finding its "secret imaginative key" make any difference? Does it need one? And why did Lewis hide it? He has no reputation as a secretive person, or as a poor communicator.

Ward considers all these objections in the course of an argument which is at once subtle and sensible, a combination not often found in modern academic writing. As regards secretiveness, he points out that in spite of Lewis' deliberate front of frank openness, exemplified in his downmarket nickname "Jack," he was quite capable of concealing matters personally important to him: one of his close friends remarked jokingly that his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, would have been more aptly titled Suppressed by Jack. In any case, the "hidden key" to the "Narniad" is extremely prominent in Lewis' works, both academic and fictional. It is perfectly clear that from an early age he was fascinated by what would be called, in the title of one of his posthumously published works, "the discarded image": the old geocentric universe, with the Earth encircled by Sun, Moon, and the five planets known to the ancients: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. These seven heavenly bodies still determine our days of the week (though some unknown mind long ago converted four of them, in the Germanic world, to their counterparts in his own mythology), and Lewis considered them and their traditional attributes with great care on many occasions. A good guide to his thinking is his 1935 poem, "The Planets," written in the old native English alliterative meter. In his 1938 novel Out of the Silent Planet, the hero, Ransom, kidnapped and taken on a spaceship to Mars, and so very clearly not in the old geocentric universe, nevertheless finds the experience of "space" so different from what he had been taught to expect that "he found it night by night more difficult to disbelieve in old astrology." Seven years later, in That Hideous Strength, Lewis has the presiding demiurges of the five planets come down to Earth to destroy the schemes of the devil-worshippers: Earth is "the silent planet" because it alone does not join in the heavenly "music of the spheres," and its presiding demiurge, princeps huius mundi, the prince of this world, is Satan.

In the old view, carefully and concisely expressed in "The Planets," each of the heavenly bodies, with the quasi-deity for whom it is named, had its own set of characteristics, including a particular metal: silver for the Moon, gold for the Sun, copper for Venus (whose traditional home was Cyprus, the copper-isle), iron for Mars, lead for Saturn, mercury, obviously, for Mercury, and—to modern minds rather disappointingly—tin for Jupiter or Jove. Ward's belief, very concisely expressed, is that each of the seven volumes of the "Narniad" belongs to a particular planet/deity, and that these determine its atmosphere, its individuality, even its Christological significance. It is a fair test of the theory to see how many readers, given this hint, can assign the seven books correctly, and readers who wish to make the test should, for the moment, read no further. (If one remembers what is said above about metals, one of them declares itself in the title.)

An attractive feature of Ward's theory is that it provides a good answer to one of the main arguments that have been raised against the "Narniad." It is notorious that Lewis' friend Tolkien was neither impressed nor amused by the books, because he thought them linguistically and mythologically inconsistent. Narnia has never known Christ, or at least not under that name. So how in the world can one justify the appearance of "Father Christmas" in the first of the books, where he signals the end of the everlasting winter created by the White Witch? Ward says, that is because The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the book of Jove, whose attributes have been sadly all but forgotten in the modern world. His metal, tin, has become identified with cheapness and inadequacy, "tin-can," "tinpot," "tinny." It may have seemed different when tin was the rare metal added to soft copper to make hard bronze, the rustless metal of eternity. We still do retain the word "joviality," and joviality includes or should include not just merriment but generosity, magnanimity, justice combined with mercy: a lordly quality, as befits the most senior of the Classical gods, though lordliness like tin has gone out of fashion. Father Christmas, with his loud voice, good cheer, red face and red robe, is Jove's nearest modern embodiment, the bright color in the depths of winter when, especially in England, color seems to have been leeched from the world, leaving only grey skies and earth turned "fallow," the non-color of dead leaves and frosted ploughland. In The Lion he is, then, not an inconsistency but an imaginative necessity, part of the dominant mood of the book. In "The Planets" Lewis links Jove with "winter passed and guilt forgiven," as good a five-word summary of the book he was much later to write as one could get.

The Silver Chair, meanwhile, declares its allegiance in its title. It is the book of the Moon, and in "the discarded image" the Moon is above all the boundary between Earth and heaven, one side turned eternally inward, the other out. Its attributes are to be "insubstantial and inconstant," its element is water. A damp drizzliness accordingly hangs over the book, well expressed by the marsh-dweller Puddleglum. The witch who controls the silver chair tries to make her captives believe there is no sun, for the Moonwitch wishes above all to deny that she derives her light from elsewhere, claiming to be entirely self-sustaining. The Moon is associated with madness or "lunacy," though she too has a fortunate and virtuous side as patroness of virginity. Mercury is even harder to sum up, "Lord of language" in "The Planets," but also the god of thieves, identified in the Germanic pantheon with Woden or Odin, the god who (for his own reasons) always betrays his worshippers. Lewis found powerful symbolism in his metal, quicksilver, though he was unable to define it except by saying that one should put some of the stuff in a saucer and play with it for a while. Mercury is about "joining and dividing," and that is what happens again and again in The Horse and his Boy, as companions are found and lost, twins lost and found, paths fork and rejoin. Christologically, Aslan in this book appears almost as the Trinity: in one scene, when Shasta asks "Who are you?", Aslan replies three times, with different tone and accent, "Myself … Myself … Myself."

Ward makes points of this kind in each of the seven chapters dedicated to the seven separate books, but in each one he also takes us through Lewis' other references to and explanations of the respective planets/deities, and their appearances in his other works, especially the fiction of the "Ransom trilogy." The answers to the questions raised at the start of this piece soon become clear. The "hidden inner meaning" has not been noticed by commentators—though they have often seemed quite close to it—because (serious) astrology and the whole "discarded image" from which it sprang have just become unfamiliar. As for "what difference does it make?", especially to any reader's enjoyment, Ward argues first that the particular and different atmospheres of the books have always been felt, if not recognized, by all readers, from the solar, gold-laden, and so potentially dangerous feel of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to the somber, leaden, entropic vision of The Last Battle. All he is doing is organizing those feelings, and, as critics should, contributing to a fuller reading. And what Lewis was doing was, quite deliberately, setting up a bridge between his own conscious and the reader's unconscious mind. The theory expressed not only refutes Tolkien's criticism of the "Narniad" but others as well, including an essentially biographical one—Lewis wrote the books to help himself recover from traumatic defeat in argument—and the ill-tempered one of Philip Pullman (Lewis' morality is cheap and shallow), which Ward shows to be based on no more than faulty memory and selective misreading. This is an outstanding guide not only to Narnia but also to Lewis' thinking as a whole, and to the "genial" medieval worldview which Lewis so much loved and wished to restore, not in fact but through fantasy.

Tom Shippey is Walter J. Ong Chair of Humanities at St. Louis University. He is the author of The Road to Middle-earth (Houghton Mifflin) and J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Houghton Mifflin).

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