A universe drenched in meaning

Published November 1, 2009

A new book and a film about that book explore the conviction of one of the most extraordinary writers of the 20th century. The conviction is that, if we have religion, it must be cosmic and encompass everything. Indeed, for C.S. Lewis, all of creation was meaningful and “God has written a kind of poetry into the very orbit of the planets.” That conviction was central to Lewis’ faith and it infused his fiction. Less well-known was his fascination for medieval cosmology. Together, his belief that we inhabit “a meaning-drenched universe” and his interest in the characteristics attributed by the medieval world to the “planets” (among whose number they counted sun and moon) in the skies above, may provide the key to a deeper understanding of Lewis’ Narnia books. That’s Michael Ward’s contention in Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 2008). This book has inspired a new hour-long documentary for the BBC called The Narnia Code, which dubs Ward’s reinterpretation of the Narnia books “the most fascinating piece of literary archaeology in years.” As an Anglican priest and scholar, Ward was unable to reconcile the “satisfying progression and coherence” of the Narnia books with their outward randomness: “They’ve been criticized as a hodge-podge, a mish-mash…with no rhyme, reason or literary sense.” After all, here were stories that combined such wildly disparate elements as fauns, talking animals and Father Christmas! Are the books just a random assemblage of characters and events? Or, does some deeper meaning undergird them? Past attempts to impose theories on the Narnia books (suggesting, for example, that they reflected the sacraments or the seven deadly sins) seemed artificial and unpersuasive. Better, but still not wholly adequate, was the notion that
“a Christological dimension [provided] the key to the Narnia’s unity.” Lewis himself said that “the whole Narnian story is about Christ.” And we see Aslan, the series’ Christ-figure, as creator, redeemer and judge, respectively, in three of the seven books. But the Christocentric interpretation doesn’t comfortably fit the other four books. Ward thinks he knows what does—namely, a direct correlation between each of the seven books and the seven “planets” as they were understood in medieval times, to wit, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn. For Ward, this “secret imaginative key” to Narnia reflects Lewis’ need to communicate a “meaning-drenched universe” through storytelling. Before modern science gave us “a mechanistic view of the universe,” making it “a dead and lifeless thing,” our forebears ascribed meaning to the spheres above, meaning that is reflected in Lewis’ poem The Planets. Thus, Jupiter is associated with “winter passed and guilt forgiven,” and so is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Similarly, if we associate Prince Caspian with Mars, the god of war, it’s not surprising that the book is concerned with civil war and “boys hardening into knights.” Images of trees in that same book coincide with a lesser-known aspect of Martian symbolism, that of Mars Sylvanus, a vegetation deity. Such examples scarcely skim the surface of Ward’s thorough and fascinating literary detective work. At its heart, his thesis echoes Lewis’ view that, as religious folk, we should be interested not just in what something is made of, but in the meaning, value, and purpose of the creation that surrounds us. John Arkelian is a writer, film critic, and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.Copyright © 2009 by John Arkelian.


  • John Arkelian

    John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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