Revolutionary Insight into the Narnia Chronicles
LAST WEEK when I was writing my previous post about Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, I visited Ward’s website and left a comment on his blog, telling him how much I like his book and inviting him to take a look at what I had said about it on my own blog. A day or two ago I received this reply from him:
Thanks for your post on the Planet Narnia blog. I’m delighted to know you enjoyed reading the book; it was certainly the greatest pleasure to write.
Thanks also for your post on your own blogsite, which I read and admired. One thing I would slightly question though is the use of the word ‘red herring’ with respect to Aslan as Christ. Sure, it’s a red herring insofar as it has led critics to concentrate far too exclusively on Biblical-allegorical readings of the Chronicles. But Aslan certainly IS a Christ-figure, beautifully so, and the planetary scheme Lewis adopted means that the Christology he is trying to communicate is far more sophisticated than ‘mere’ Biblical allegory of a simple one-to-one kind.
But that’s a small point. Generally, I thought what you wrote was excellent, and I found it personally very encouraging. Thank you!
With kind regards,
I can see that my use of the term “red herring” was confusing, so I’ve revised the original post to make my meaning a little clearer. I didn’t mean to suggest that readers are mistaken to discern an identification between Aslan and Christ, or that Lewis was misleading readers to make an erroneous connection (that’s the usual meaning of “red herring”). It seems quite clear to me, as I think it will to almost any reader, that, in the first Narnia story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (LWW), Lewis deliberately made the parallels between Aslan’s actions and the atoning sacrifice of Christ virtually unmistakable. What I had meant to convey is that this connection was so obvious that it may have distracted critics from discerning or pursuing less obvious (non-Scriptural) allusions.
Influenced by Medieval Allegory
For those who have not yet had an opportunity to read Planet Narnia, I’ll explain a little bit about Ward’s thesis. What Ward calls his “Eureka moment” occurred one night when he was struck by a phrase from Lewis’s poem, “The Planets,” which describes the allegorical personae of the planets as they were used poetically throughout the Middle Ages. The phrase that struck him referred to the influence of Jupiter (a.k.a. Jove, the Latin equivalent of Greek Zeus): “winter passed / And guilt forgiven.” Immediately this made him think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which Narnia is caught in an unending winter, until Aslan arrives on the scene and allows himself to be sacrificed by the White Witch, in substitution for Edmund Pevensey, who has betrayed his siblings to the Witch. Ward wondered:
Could there be a link somehow between poem and Chronicle? That thought was the stray spark connecting Jupiter to The Lion in my mind, and one by one the other planet-to-book relationships began to be lit up in its train.Planet Narnia, 251
That spark lit a blaze which resulted in Planet Narnia, a wonderfully illuminating study of how the medieval allegorical use of the pagan gods influenced the composition Lewis’s Narnia stories (and his other novels, as well).
Why would Lewis use Roman gods as the inspiration for his wonderful Narnia tales? Well, the short answer is, “Because he was a medievalist and an ardent amateur astronomer.” Here’s a longer answer:
Much of the poetry of the Christian Middle Ages, and well through the period of the Renaissance, was modeled on, and influenced by, the norms of pre-Christian Latin poetry, which was considered exemplary (think of how deeply influenced the thoroughly-Christian Dante was by the pagan Latin poet, Vergil). The Greeks and Romans, of course, believed that there were many immortal gods, who had their own distinctive personalities and attributes and who intervened in the human realm and governed the cosmos. Today we still call planets by the names of the gods who governed them: Mars, Venus, Jupiter, etc. One of the borrowings (or, better said, inheritances) from the pagan Graeco-Roman world that had the most pervasive influence on the medieval imagination, poetically and otherwise, was their concept of a cosmos in which everything beyond the orbit of the Moon (Diana’s planet) was eternal and immortal, the realm of the gods.
Medieval man, of course, was not a pagan and did not believe in the pagan gods, but he was profoundly influenced by the conceptual model of the universe that he inherited from the ancient pagans. (You can read about this in C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image.) For medieval man, too, the earth was the realm of all that is mortal, material, passing, and fallen, while everything in the heavens (beyond the lunar sphere) was spiritual and immortal, charged with the Divine Presence. Thus it was natural for medieval man to transform the ancient pagan gods, who had given their names to the heavenly bodies, into personifications (allegories) of the one true God who reigns over all Creation.
Thus, when a medieval poet wrote about the god Jove (Jupiter), he was really writing about those aspects of God (Christ) that Jove embodies: his kingship and majesty, warmth and festivity, etc. Each of the gods represented by the planets of the night sky, in this Christianized cosmos, reflected different aspects of God’s nature, so that poems about the pagan deities were always really poems about Christ.
The insight that Michael Ward hit upon was that each of the Narnia books has its own tutelary deity; i.e., each is attuned to the aspects of a particular planetary god, giving that story its own peculiar flavor or atmosphere (what Ward calls its “donegality”). Not only does the planet in question “flavor” the story to reflect its corresponding planet/god, but the way Lewis portrays Aslan in each story also reflects the those particular aspects of Christ that the god in question embodies allegorically. Medieval writers delighted in complex and many-layered allegory, so it should be no surprise that Jack Lewis, medieval scholar and Christian apologist, should choose such a complicated and obscure way to compose his Narnia tales, so that you first have to find the hidden layer of planetary influence and then penetrate beneath it to the Christological meaning, in order to fully appreciate their significance.
The Narnia Chronicles have their own unmistakable charm, of course; one need not be an expert in literary exegesis to enjoy them, as their enduring phenomenal popularity attests. But I, for one, am grateful that Michael Ward has pulled back the veil to show us that there is a lot more going on in them than meets the eye.