A Fantastic Discovery
I use the word “discovery” quite literally. It was completely unknown, and it has now opened up an entire world of knowledge about C.S. Lewis’s the Chronicles of Narnia. This discovery was made while reading this poem Lewis wrote in 1935, and fully developed thereafter. He later researched the full evidence for it, and even found physical evidence to prove that, yes, indeed, C.S. Lewis kept the secret of his true purpose of Narnia to his grave. But if anyone has read Out of the Silent Planet, you can see that this is not that crazy of an idea. At Chapter 22:
“It was Dr. Ransom who first saw that our only chance was to publish in the form of fiction what would certainly not be listened to as fact.”
But enough about that. You can read Dr. Ward’s proof yourself. As for his discovery, he noticed something while reading Lewis’s lines about Jupiter in his 1935 poem “The Planets”:
. . . Of wrath ended
And woes mended, of winter passed
And guilt forgiven, and good fortune
Jove is master; and of jocund revel,
Laughter of ladies. The lion-hearted . . .
Hm. . . “. . . of woes mended?” “. . . winter passed and guilt forgiven?” “. . . lion-hearted?” That sounds familiar. Except. . . The Chronicles of Narnia were published between 1950 and 1956. This poem was written in 1935. Actually, correction: Lewis BEGAN writing the Chronicles in 1939. He began writing them in earnest in 1948. Narnia had been cooking for a while in his mind. . .
As for WHAT Dr. Ward discovered, it is the organizing theme of the Chronicles of Narnia. Many have wondered about this, and come up with some somewhat crazy theories. Maybe it’s the seven deadly sins. Maybe he’s exploring philosophical themes. Maybe it’s the Seven Catholic Sacraments, (even though Lewis was Anglican and Anglicans only have two sacraments). Maybe it’s all the most explicit analogy that can be seen: Christian symbolism.
C.S. Lewis himself said that all of the Chronicles of Narnia are “ALL about Christ.” But it is hard to pin any central organizing theme on the Christian symbolism. The main savior and Christ figure, Aslan, is sometimes quite present in Prince Caspian, but what’s the allegory to a central Christian doctrine? In the Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, he is quite present, but in other books he is quite absent. In the Silver Chair, he never leaves his high mountain home until the very end, and in the story only communicates through signs. What is that Christian doctrine?
So why the explicit allegory in some but nothing in others? Why seven? Why no consistent characters? Why the different writing style? What was Lewis up to?
Michael Ward provides a compelling answer to this puzzle. Each book is modeled after one of the seven classical and medieval planets. That’s right: Seven. Not nine. Not eight (sorry Pluto). These are the seven planets visible to the naked eye, known to the ancients going all the way back to Mesopotamia, and preserved in our culture in tidbits like the names of the days of the week.
The Attributes of the Planets
How can you model a book after a planet? Unlike Lewis’s planet-hopping “Space Trilogy,” a.k.a. “Ransom Trilogy”, each book is not set on another world. Instead, the books are set in Narnia, and sometimes a bit of England. What’s so interplanetary about these books?
Well, first remember that a planet is a “wandering star,” and the characters meet one in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Wondering at the marvel of talking with a star, Eustace says:
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
The planets are not merely balls of rock and giants of gas. They are characters in history and literature. They have characteristics. And Lewis in 1940 wrote an essay titled “The Kappa Element in Romance.” It is about how a story doesn’t have to specifically mention something for the story to be just dripping with it from beginning to end. It was one thing Lewis thought it separated truly great literature from mere entertainment.
Each planet has certain characteristics that have always been associated with it in literature. And Lewis, who was a scholar of Medieval Literature, knew about this. You might know of some of them, too. If something is very “Martial,” it’s very war-like, is it not? Mars, anyone? If someone is quick, volatile, witty, crafty, sneaky, changeable, and never sticks around for long, you may call him “Mercurial.” Is someone always happy and full of laughter and big and jolly? Then he’s “jovial,” and Jove is another name for “Jupiter.” There is plenty of fodder for seven planetary books, and if you’re C.S. Lewis, you have the knowledge to put it into practice. These attributes are explicitly documented in Lewis’s book The Discarded Image, in Chapter V, “The Heavens.”
In case you’re wondering, here are the Chronicles of Narnia, attached to the planet they are paired with.
- The Lion Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW) – Jupiter: All about kings, about winter coats that are too big and look like “royal robes,” about winter going away, forgiveness, happiness, celebration, feasts, and even has the appearance of Father Christmas: the jolly, happy, generous, kingly, and jovial giver of gifts.
- Prince Caspian (PC) – Mars: All about wars, and knights, and battles, and even has deeper connections to Mars’s roots, associating him with the wood or the forest, when Aslan “wakes the trees.”
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (VDT) – the Sun: Not only does “Dawn” in the title give this away, but the voyage into Aslan’s country of pure light, many references to gold, and to dragons (classically associated with Apollo, the god of the Sun and slayer of dragons). Oh, and the voyage is made during the “fourth year of the reign of Caspian X.” (The Sun is the fourth planet.)
- The Silver Chair (SC) – the Moon: All about dreams, madness, lunacy, wet rain and puddles and fog and marshes, about night-time and owls, traveling without the sun, and alternating darkness and light — like the phases of the moon. And the Moon is always described as “Silver.”
- The Horse and His Boy (HHB) – Mercury: The book whose plot shoots off the quickest, and which is all about speech, thievery, commerce, splitting apart and meeting back together like quicksilver, being “swift of foot,” running, and twins (Mercury is associated with Gemini) and of course, messages.
- The Magicians Nephew (MN) – Venus: All about the virtues of love, creation, healing, golden apples, new life, mothers, attraction, and strong beautiful women, and includes a great deal of the opposite vices of Venus’s virtues, like sterility and vanity.
- The Last Battle (LB) – Saturn: This is the book about “the last of the Kings of Narnia” who is “seventh” in descent from Prince Rillian, fights the “Last Battle,” and includes ghosts, death, futility, confusion, death, sadness, hopelessness, dashed dreams, time, longing for better days, death, the end of the world, and let’s not forget death. It has “Father Time,” who is literally the god Saturn and who was even named such in an early manuscript, bringing Narnia to an end, but it also includes a new Narnia, and “Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
You can find minute details about these thematic pieces throughout the books. For example, in Prince Caspian, the children learn that the ruins in which they are standing are that of the old castle which they ruled when they were in Narnia only a year before in Earth-time, but hundreds of years before in Narnian time. What chess piece did they find to prove it? A bishop? Of course not. A king? No, that’s the previous book. They found a knight. And what jewel was in the eye of the horse? A ruby.
How to Read the Chronicles of Narnia
In an introduction to his 1935 poem, The Planets, Lewis wrote this, and is quoted by Michael Ward:
“In order to avoid misunderstanding I must say that the subject of the following poem was not chosen under the influence of any antiquarian fancy that a medieval metre demanded medieval matter, but because the characters of the planets, as conceived by medieval astrology, seem to me to have a permanent value as spiritual symbols, to provide a Phänomenologie des Geistes [German for “Phenomenology of Spirit,” referencing Hegel] which is specially worth while in our own generation.
Permanent symbols. Valuable symbols, that give a full spectrum of the human spirit. That’s what these planets are to Lewis, not some accidental historical fancy. Martial courage. Venereal love and beauty. Lunar dreams. Blazing wisdom of the sun. Mercurial wit and alacrity. Jovial pomp. Saturnine melancholy.
But if Lewis was writing the Chronicles of Narnia according to the planets, why aren’t they ordered according to “the planets”? Why doesn’t it start with the Moon (SC), move to Mercury (HHB), to Venus (MN), to the Sun (VDT), to Mars (PC), to Jupiter (LWW), and end at Saturn (LB)? Why start at the second to last and end at the last, with the other planets flowing randomly? Of course he’d have to change the story, but if that’s the theme, why didn’t he adjust his story to the theme?
I have a feeling myself after reading Ward’s book, and re-reading Lewis’s works, too. Saturn may be last, but he is not the greatest. Jupiter is the greatest. In That Hideous Strength, when the planets themselves descend to Earth, or at least their personified spirits, the Moon and the Sun do not descend, but the other planets come in their order. The first to descend is Mercury, then Venus, and then Mars. But then Saturn comes, and Jupiter is the last: the last and greatest.
Lewis believed that his generation, cut down in the hopelessness of the first and second world wars, had enough of Saturn. He watched the death of hope, and the nihilism of a materialistic organizing philosophy that was taking root in his thoroughly modernizing world (He lived from 1898-1963). Millions of men, some of whom were his friends, were cut down in their prime.
He lived in an age of Saturn. But Saturn is not the end.
By Jove, You’re Right
“Always king.” That is the theme. Always, even through the end of Narnia.
Jove is king. King of the heavens, of Earth, and of all creation. The end is not with Saturn, with death. The end is with Jove. He is both the beginning and end. A jolly, happy, gift-giving, forgiving, wounded King, exalted above his father Saturn, whose gaseous physical form even shows a “pierced side” like his allegorical counterpart.
Lewis writes this Jupiter into his stories and sticks him in everywhere. For example, in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Peter twice exclaims “By Jove!” This is not accidental.
The first time Peter says this is at the beginning of Chapter Six in LWW, when the group is first being thrown into Narnia through the wardrobe. As he feels the snow and trees around him in the wardrobe,
“‘By jove,’ you’re right,’ said Peter, ‘and look there — and there. It’s trees all around. And this wet stuff is snow. Why I do believe we’ve got into Lucy’s wood after all.”
Note the capitalization. That’s a simple exclamation. The Spirit of Narnia and the book hasn’t sunk into him yet.
At the end of Chapter six, the group realizes they don’t know how to get “back home.” Home for them was back in England, where they had been evacuated from London during the Blitz, at
“the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office.”
In response to this news that they couldn’t get back, he exclaims “Great Scott!” He might have well added “-land” to the end of it. Lewis is quite deliberate.
The next time Peter exclaims, it is in Chapter Eight. Aslan has already been introduced by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, and Edmund has already left to betray his brother and sisters to the White Witch. Wondering whether Edmund was there when they were talking about Edmund, the conversation went:
“I don’t remember his being here when we were talking about Aslan–” began Peter, but Lucy interrupted him.
Oh yes, he was,” she said miserably; don’t you remember, it was he who asked whether the Witch couldn’t turn Aslan into stone too?”
“So he did, by Jove” said Peter; “just the sort of thing he would say, too!”
The Spirit of the Book has sunk in, and it’s “by Jove,” not “By jove.” This is the book of Jove, and his influence is everywhere, even if the characters do not know it. It is not by accident that Edmund is wondering whether or not the White Witch can turn Aslan into stone. It is “by Jove,” that he was wondering — by Jove’s forgiving redemption, by his character that melts away winter and brings songs and gladness, and a kingdom forever.
“By Jove” is a frequent exclamation by the children of England. It appears 4 times in PC, 3 times in VDT, 5 times in SC, but never in the HHB, or MN.
But it appears once in the Last Battle, but not during the hopeless and tragic deaths and in fall of Narnia. Instead, it appears once Narnia has been wrapped up, in the chapter “Farewell to the Shadowlands.” They run without tiring, going “Further up and further in.” Then, they find a curious detail about their new Narnia:
“This is absolutely crazy,” said Eustace to Edmund.
“I know. And yet–” said Edmund.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” said Lucy. “have you noticed one can’t feel afraid, even if one wants to? Try it.”
“By Jove, neither one can,” said Eustace after he had tried.
In all the books, Aslan is Christ. Yes, he is Jupiter. But he is also Mars. He is the better Mars. He is Mercury, but he is the better Mercury. He is Venus, and a better Venus. He is the Moon, a better Moon. He is the Sun, a dazzling Sun, the slayer of dragons. He is everywhere. As Mr. Beaver said,
“He’ll be coming and going. One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down — and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. . .”
And yes, he is even Saturn, the planet of death and cold. But you can’t pin him down and press him into the mold of father time, of death, and sickness, and of all the misfortunes that are so easy for us to see. No:
” . . . You mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
Once a King in Narnia, always a King in Narnia.
* * * * *