Yes. There really is a secret, governing imaginative scheme underlying the Narnia Chronicles which has been overlooked ever since they were published in the 1950s. Although most people who claim to have found a cryptic code are usually forcing an idea of their own onto a literary text or onto a set of historical events (The Da Vinci Code is a notorious example), occasionally a scholar will make a genuine discovery. In 1960, for instance, Kent Hieatt discovered that the 24 stanzas of a poem by the sixteenth century poet Edmund Spenser represented the 24 hours of midsummer’s day, a level of meaning which had gone unnoticed for about four hundred years. Likewise, Planet Narnia constitutes a real interpretative breakthrough. It argues that C.S. Lewis intentionally shaped the Chronicles to a secret imaginative blueprint, and the argument is offered in all seriousness. If you doubt that such a claim could be deemed credible by any intelligent person, see what the reviewers are saying, consider who has endorsed the book, read reactions in the blogosphere, and bear in mind that the BBC have taken the idea seriously enough to commission an hour-long TV documentary about it. This documentary, called The Narnia Code, made by BAFTA and Emmy-Award winning director, Norman Stone, originally aired on BBC1 in April 2009 and was repeated on BBC4 a month later. It is now available on DVD.
C.S. Lewis deliberately constructed the Chronicles of Narnia out of the imagery of the seven heavens.
According to astronomers before Copernicus in the sixteenth century, the seven heavens contained the seven planets which revolved around Earth and exerted influences over people and events and even the metals in the Earth’s crust. More details.
Yes. He delighted in secrets. George Sayer, who was a pupil and then friend of Lewis for nearly thirty years, said that he ‘never ceased to be secretive’. The clearest example of Lewis’s ability to be secretive is the fact that he kept his marriage to Joy Gresham secret for the best part of a year, – even from close confidants such as Tolkien. A good friend of Lewis’s, Humphrey Havard, said that his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, kept so many things secret that it would have been better entitled Suppressed by Jack (Jack was Lewis’s nickname). He once lent to a friend a copy of his second volume of poetry, which he had published under the name of Clive Hamilton, without telling the friend that he was actually the author. He published most of his poems under the initials ‘N.W.’, which stood for ‘Nat Whilk’ (Anglo-Saxon for ‘I know not whom’). He published A Grief Observed under the name of N.W. Clerk, using ‘stylistic disguisements all the way along’ in order to help keep his identity hidden, and when readers wrote to him about the book he replied to them still as ‘N.W. Clerk’. One of Lewis’s god-children, Laurence Harwood, recalls how Lewis used to write him letters that contained ‘puzzles to solve or secret writing to decode’. We should also bear in mind that the Narnia Chronicles were never read aloud to Lewis’s circle of friends, The Inklings (so says Humphrey Carpenter, an expert on the history of the group), and that therefore, unlike much of his work, they never underwent the scrutiny of that perceptive and inquisitive group.
From a literary point of view, he thought that one of the main qualities of a good story was its atmosphere or quality, everywhere present in the tale but nowhere explicit. He wrote about the importance of this conditioning, ubiquitous atmosphere in his essay ‘On Stories’ which was based on an earlier paper entitled ‘The Kappa Element in Romance’. ‘Kappa’ he took from the initial letter of the Greek word meaning ‘cryptic’ or ‘hidden’. Referring to a long poetic romance he had written, Lewis once told his close friend, Arthur Greeves, that its ‘inner meaning was carefully hidden’. This hiddenness, he said, was ‘proper’ to the genre in which he was writing.
There are several other likely reasons (both literary and theological) why he would have wanted to keep the Chronicles’ planetary theme secret and these are discussed in Planet Narnia.
Are you aware that Lewis had a low view of critics who tried to find hidden meanings in his works and reconstruct the history of their composition?
Yes. In fact, he expresses this view so often that it begins to look almost like a pre-emptive diversionary tactic! I think his view of these critics was low because, in his experience, they always missed their target, not because there was no target to aim for.
Are you aware that Lewis is on record as saying that he didn't have the whole series mapped out when he wrote the first Chronicle?
Yes. The place where he says this is his letter to Laurence Krieg (23 April 1957). This letter is nothing against the argument I’m making. The argument is that each Chronicle is constructed so as to embody and express the qualities of one of the seven planets; I am not suggesting that Lewis started out with the intention of writing a complete seven-part series. He began with Jupiter (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) for at least three reasons, I believe:
a) because Jupiter was his favourite planet;
b) because Jupiter was the planet which he thought was in particular need of imaginative rehabilitation;
c) because Jupiter was especially connected to the ideas communicated in Miracles, the book which immediately preceded The Lion in Lewis’s oeuvre and which was famously criticised by Elizabeth Anscombe in a meeting at the Socratic Club, the Oxford debating society of which Lewis was president.
However, although he did not have all seven stories in mind when he began the first, it is worth remembering that, by the time he published The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (16 October 1950), he had already completed Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’, and The Horse and His Boy, and he had already made a draft of The Magician’s Nephew. His letter to Laurence Krieg indicates that he took the decision to write seven books at some point after composing The ‘Dawn Treader’. He told his former pupil, Charles Wrong, that he had had an idea he wanted to try out and that, having ‘worked it out to the full’ after seven books, the time had come to stop.
Yes. He had a huge interest in the planets and in the ‘gods’ associated with them, an interest that stemmed from childhood. When he was about six years old he began a story called ‘To Mars and Back’. The very first poem Lewis ever published (in his school magazine in 1913) was entitled ‘Quam Bene Saturno’. In his autobiography Surprised By Joy, Lewis acknowledges that, as a boy, ‘the idea of other planets exercised upon me then a peculiar and heady attraction’. The planets appear with tremendous frequency in his poetry, most notably in ‘The Planets’, a long, alliterative poem he wrote in 1935. They feature prominently in the Ransom Trilogy (1938-45): Out Of The Silent Planet is set on Mars; Perelandra is set on Venus; and five of the planetary angels come down to earth to bring about the end of the story in That Hideous Strength. They are mentioned repeatedly in his letters as he relates to various correspondents his observations of the night-sky. And at the time of Lewis’s death, he was still writing about the planets: The Discarded Image (1964) contains a chapter entitled ‘The Heavens’ where he goes into great detail about how they were understood in medieval and renaissance times. In short, Lewis’s interest in the planets was lifelong and deep. He was fascinated by them as an imaginative writer, as a literary historian, and as an amateur astronomer.
Because he regarded them as ‘spiritual symbols of permanent value’ which were ‘especially worthwhile in our own generation’ (this is how he wrote about them when introducing his long 1935 poem, ‘The Planets’). What made them so timely for his own generation was that these spiritual symbols were headed by Jupiter (Jove), the kingly, festive, and magnanimous planet. Lewis thought that his own generation was too often ‘Saturnocentric’, that is, fixated upon Saturn, the planet of calamity and misfortune and death. This fixation was no surprise because his own generation had been, as he put it, ‘born under Saturn’; many of his contemporaries had been doomed to die in the Great War. But that was an historical accident, not an eternal truth about the nature of the universe. The qualities associated with Jupiter were, he thought, a better representation of the heart of spiritual reality. The hierarchical order of the planets, in which Jupiter was enthroned as king over the other six, was a useful reminder of this heart. ‘Of Saturn we know more than enough,’ he wrote, ‘but who does not need to be reminded of Jove?’
It depends what you mean by ‘astrology’. If you mean ‘worshipping the planets’ or ‘regarding these supposed planetary influences as determinative’, then, yes, astrology is unChristian. But ‘astrology’ doesn’t necessarily mean either of those things. Literally, astrology means ‘study of the stars’, and there is nothing dangerous, wrong, or foolish about studying God’s creation.
Although the Bible outlaws worship of the ‘host of heaven’ (see for example, Deuteronomy 4:19; 2 Kings 17:16; Job 31:26f; Jeremiah 8:2), the Bible also allows that the stars have spiritual significance, which is to be respected, studied, and, indeed, acted upon. The stars proclaim the glory of God, according to the nineteenth psalm (Lewis’s favourite), a psalm which St Paul quotes (Romans 10:18) in order to demonstrate how the Gentiles have already heard the preaching of Christ. The Magi who followed the Star of Bethlehem to the birthplace of Christ clearly understood this (Matthew 2:2, 9-10).
Throughout the Bible the stars are seen as ‘signs’ (Genesis 1:14; Jeremiah 10:2; Matthew 24:29). Interpretation of these signs is depicted negatively in Isaiah (47:13) and Daniel (1:20; 2:27; 4:7), but only because it was practised by heathens for godless ends, not because such astrological enquiry was considered evil or dangerous per se.
Often the Biblical writers treat the heavenly bodies as a kind of celestial court or choir (1 Kings 22:19; Job 38:7; Psalm 148:2f) and sometimes they seem to equate the stars with angelic power. The author of the Book of Judges (5:20) records, ‘They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera’. The author of the Book of Job as translated in the King James Version mentions the ‘sweet influences of Pleiades’ (38:31).
Christ prophesies that the end of the world will be signalled by portents in the heavens (Matthew 24:29-30). He is also shown in the Book of Revelation (1:16, 20; 2:1) holding the seven stars in his right hand, a vision that Austin Farrer, Lewis’s close friend and an expert in apocalyptic imagery, understood to be a portrayal of Christ’s lordship over time, because these stars were the wandering stars (the seven planets) and ‘it is after these seven that the weekdays are named.’
In the tradition of the Church, this Biblical understanding of the importance of the seven planets continues. No Christian theologian before the Copernican revolution denied the general theory of planetary influences. The only subject for discussion among the doctors of the Church was the extent to which the stars were resistible. Augustine casts no doubt upon the fact of stellar influence but believes it can be overcome by man’s free will and the grace of God (The City of God, V, 7). Aquinas opposes the idea that influences cause anything more than propensities or tendencies (Summa, Ia, CXV, 4).
The argument over the extent to which the planets determined human activity bears striking similarities to the nineteenth century argument about phrenology and to the current argument over the extent to which we are hostage to our genes.
The Biblical writers and Christian theologians in pre-Copernican times may have believed in the the influences of the planets, but did Lewis himself literally believe in them?
No. He did not literally believe in them, but nevertheless he valued them for two reasons. First, because he thought that the seven planets provided a useful spectrum of spiritual characteristics; they were part of a traditional symbolic system which he found poetically rich and imaginatively satisfying. Second, he valued the idea of planetary influences because the modern, materialistic view of the planets needed to be counterbalanced. In post-Copernican cosmology, Lewis argued, the planets had been gradually reduced to ‘mere quantity’ (that is, they were now thought to be best described as large lumps of rock, gas, et cetera), and this view Lewis considered inadequate. That is why in one of the Narnia books a character is rebuked for saying that a star is merely “a huge ball of flaming gas”. On the contrary, he is told, “that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”
Two main reasons. First, the books’ secret was already considered open. It was always known that the Narniad had more than one level of meaning. Scholars were familiar with the second level—the obvious Biblical allegories or ‘suppositions’—about which Lewis spoke freely. Many readers were not looking for another stratum of significance. Although most readers were aware that the Chronicles appeared to lack coherence, this was taken as evidence of hasty writing, not a sign of an unidentified inner meaning. Since Tolkien dismissed the Narniad as a mishmash it is hardly surprising that many critics have done the same.
Second, those critics who were looking for an additional level of meaning (I myself once made a half-hearted attempt to link the Chronicles to Shakespearean plays) may not have been as open to the subject of astrology as Lewis’s work really requires. Astrology, a subject disdained by academics, tends to be given a doubly wide berth by Christian academics who typically recall only the scriptural warnings against astrology and overlook the fact that the Bible also has a more positive perspective on the idea of planetary influence. Since most Lewis scholars have been Christian or well-disposed to the Christian tradition, there was an in-built improbability that researchers would fully understand his most successful work.
Nevertheless, a few critics have seen certain links between the Chronicles and the planets. Peter Milward noticed the centrality of Jupiter in Lewis’s imagination; Robert Houston Smith identified the Lunary divide in The Silver Chair; Nancy-Lou Patterson spotted a Saturnine aspect to The Last Battle. However, these critics did not pursue these links either in these particular texts or across the septet as a whole.
It happened when I was halfway through my PhD research into Lewis’s theological imagination. I was lying in bed one night, in February 2003, reading ‘The Heavens’ (chapter 5 of Lewis’s book, The Discarded Image, his introduction to medieval and renaissance literature), when I thought it would be useful to compare his academic treatment of the planets with his poetic treatment of the same thing. So I started reading his long poem, ‘The Planets’, cross-referencing between it and The Discarded Image. When I got to the lines about Jupiter I suddenly sat up in bed and said to myself . . . but you’ll have to read Planet Narnia to find out the rest!
No! Secrets are there to be discovered! I think that Lewis would have hoped and expected that this secret would eventually be unearthed. It was his very Socratic way of teaching us something that he thought important, something about the overlookability of divine presence. If we can’t immediately spot the spiritual symbols underlying seven short fairy-tales, why should we expect that God’s presence in the actual universe is easy to discern?
First, because it shows that Lewis was a much more careful and imaginative writer than he has been given credit for; his skilful artistry deserves to be recognised for what it was.
Second, because it explains lots of things within the stories that otherwise seem a bit odd (for example, the sudden appearance of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; the continual use of tree imagery in Prince Caspian; the inclusion of corporal punishment in The Silver Chair).
Third, because it causes us to think about our own thinking in a new way, reminding us that it is not just what we ‘look at’ that matters, but also what we ‘look along’. (‘Looking at’ and ‘looking along’ are terms used in Lewis’s essay, ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’, to describe two ways of knowing.)
No, though it reinforces the primacy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis wrote his Jupiter story first because Jupiter was his favourite planet, the one that he thought was in particular need of imaginative rehabilitation, and the one that was connected with the ideas he had expressed in his previous book, Miracles. When he began writing The Lion (1948), Lewis did not intend to write more than a single story, but he soon changed his mind. From Jupiter (the sixth planet, Fortuna Major), there was no very obvious planetary order for Lewis to pursue. However, it would have seemed natural to move from Fortuna Major to Fortuna Minor (Venus – The Magician’s Nephew), and we know that this was the next story Lewis started to write. It was also a natural decision to finish the series (once he had decided on writing books for all seven planets) with Saturn, the last planet, which he did.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was not only written first, it was also published first, and the way that it introduces Aslan indicates that the reader is not expected to know who he is, whereas The Magician’s Nephew (even though it deals with an earlier period of Narnia history) does not take particular pains to introduce him, because Lewis knew that most of his readers would already have encountered Aslan in earlier published volumes. The Magician’s Nephew also expects that the reader knows about the magic wardrobe. For these reasons (among others), it is a mistake for publishers to put the number 1 on the spine of The Magician’s Nephew or to print it first in multi-volume editions.
It ought to be remembered that not all the books were written in the order they were published. The Horse and His Boy was written fourth, but published fifth. The Magician’s Nephew was begun second, completed seventh, and published sixth.
Clearly, when someone reads the series for the first time, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe should always come at the start and The Last Battle at the end; Prince Caspian should be read at some point after The Lion; The ‘Dawn Treader’ should be read at some point after Prince Caspian; The Silver Chair should be read at some point after The ‘Dawn Treader’. It does not particularly matter where in the series first-timers read The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy as long as those two stories are read after The Lion and before The Last Battle. My own advice to first-timers is to read The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy, like the whole series, in the order of publication, which is this:
1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
2. Prince Caspian (1951)
3. The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ (1952)
4. The Silver Chair (1953)
5. The Horse and His Boy (1954)
6. The Magician’s Nephew (1955)
7. The Last Battle (1956)
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In the same way that millions of other people did: by having the Narnia Chronicles read to me by my parents when I was a child. I then read them for myself when I was old enough. Then I read his other fiction and his Christian apologetics in my teens. Then I read his professional academic works when I was studying for a degree in English at the University of Oxford. I wrote a short undergraduate thesis on Lewis for that degree, and that led to my being asked to do some teaching on Lewis after I had graduated. Gradually, I did more and more teaching of his works and that made me think it would be sensible to do doctoral level research into his theological imagination. Eighteen months into that research I stumbled across the secret key to Narnia, which was quite the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me while holding a book in my hands. I regard the discovery as a Godsend and you can find out more about its precise circumstances in the closing chapter of Planet Narnia.