The Narnia Code (BBC)

The Hidden Meaning in the Chronicles

Documentary on Michael Ward's Planet Narnia

April 16, 2009
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I’ve just finished watching this programme, and I highly recommend you to watch it if it is broadcast in your part of the world.

I must admit that I saw it partly because Mark Sommer had asked me if I could get a review on line quickly. I’ve read about Michael Ward and his book Planet Narnia before, so I thought I understood the Narnia Code. I thought that it was just about each of the seven Chronicles having some of the characteristics of the planets of the medieval cosmos. However, the makers of this programme boldly went beyond that simple view. Perhaps if I had read Michael Ward’s book, I would have appreciated that there is more.

The programme presented the enduring popularity of The Chronicles of Narnia as something of a puzzle, because they are often criticised as filled with random images and lacking coherence – a hotchpotch. From there the story of Lewis’s childhood was retold with some dramatisation. We heard about his trauma at the death of his mother when he was nine and his unhappiness at boarding schools far from his family home. Such experiences may have led Lewis to internalise his feelings and become secretive. We learned how he was tutored by William T. Kirkpatrick who sharpened his intellectual skills and discouraged incoherent thinking or writing.

Lewis became an atheist at this time, and shortly afterwards was exposed to the horrors of the First World War on the Western Front. This left him with a view of life as cruel, bleak and meaningless. Lewis graduated with honours from Oxford and joined the staff of the University. Famously, he was helped in his struggles to find meaning to the world by a fellow staff member called J.R.R. Tolkien. (The programme makers omitted reference to the influence of G.K. Chesterton’s book, The Everlasting Man, which Lewis had come across while in the army in France.) It was a mutual fascination with myths and fantasy literature which brought Lewis and Tolkien together, and discussion of these subjects was the pathway which led Lewis much of the way from atheism to theism.

Once Lewis had got over his initial reluctance in accepting the Christian worldview, he became an active apologist and enthusiastic debater with atheists. However, he seemed to meet his match with the Catholic philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe. It was suggested that this setback made Lewis re-evaluate how he communicated his faith and perhaps made him consider that fairy stories would enable him to communicate spiritual ideas on a different level. (I would add that this is what his friend Tolkien was doing at this time on a grand scale with his The Lord of The Rings trilogy, but without resorting to allegory.)

We know from Lewis’s essays that he had the seed idea for Narnia — the image of a fawn in a snowy wood with presents — in his head for many years. He had the form or the style — fairy story — and things came together. Tolkien thought that the Narnia stories mixed up too many sources and where not properly thought through. In view of Lewis’s academic rigour this seems unlikely. The programme tells how Michael Ward found a clue in a poem of Lewis’s about the planets. This clue suggested to him a hidden meaning behind the Chronicles which fills the gaps and gives them coherence. That’s the bit many of us have heard: the books correspond to the seven medieval planets–Jupiter for The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Moon for The Silver Chair, etc.

But is there more to it than that? What was Lewis really trying to achieve?  It was argued that Lewis was always up to date with modern astronomy and accepted rocket science, as it were. However, it seems he believed that just as myths of heroes like Beowulf can charm us and enhance our lives, so too can medieval views of the Universe.

This was a revelation for me, and was illustrated by the meeting (in Voyage of the Dawn Treader) of Eustace and Ramandu, the resting star. Eustace says to him, in his usual blunt fashion, “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu replies, “Even in your world, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” As one contributor to the programme said, if Lewis can just get that idea across to children reading the Narnia books that they are more than the chemicals of the body, they are minds and personalities, then he will have achieved something very profound.

Michael Ward says that with this key of the seven planets to understand The Chronicles of Narnia, we can see that Lewis was communicating on three levels: Fairy Story on the surface; Biblical allegory below, and at the lowest level, secretly, the medieval view of the cosmos. This view is more meaningful than the space-filled emptiness of modern astronomy. The example of Eustace and Ramandu is perhaps the easiest to grasp, but the theme runs throughout the seven Narnia stories and is the missing element which maintains their power to enchant readers from generation to generation.

I’m sorry I didn’t catch the names of all the contributors, but they were many with impressive credentials. Most of them sounded fairly convinced by the weight of the evidence. I did note John Polkinghorne (hard to miss – a good Cornish name, apparently). Among his other claims to fame are particle physicist and theologian. I liked his take on the Eustace/Ramandu dialogue. If the kettle’s boiling, you could say gas is burning and steam is being produced, or you could say I want to make you a cup of tea. I’d welcome that, and so would Lewis, a great tea drinker, if he were still with us.

So, if Michael Ward has got it right, and C.S. Lewis hid this aspect of The Chronicles of Narnia from us all these years, what are we to make of this secretiveness? Wards’ suggestion was that if we could ask him, he would probably say “What took you so long?”

From what I’ve read of Lewis and Tolkien, they both had a keen sense of humour and were not averse to playing tricks on people, all in a good cause. As I have commented elsewhere,  I believe that Tolkien used his knowledge of the inside workings of languages to communicate things in his books which he never really owned up to. Perhaps books by the Inklings should carry a warning along the lines of, “Do not meddle in the affairs of Oxford dons for they know more about writing than you do about reading”. Only joking. :)

But that reminds me. I really must read “Poetic Diction” by Owen Barfield.

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Andrew Townsend trained as a civil engineer and now works for a construction software company. For leisure he enjoys theatre and walking in the mountains of Britain. Since reading Tolkien’s stories to his sons, exploring the world of Middle-earth and the works of the Inklings have also become active pursuits. He maintains a blog to Save The Three Cups Hotel where Tolkien spent many vacations.