The Narnia Code: Unveiling Hidden Meaning

Michael Ward’s The Narnia Code explains how C. S. Lewis was inspired by a medieval cosmology that invests his Narnia Chronicles with hidden meaning.

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I WROTE a couple of posts on Michael Ward’s theory of the unifying principle that guided C. S. Lewis in writing his Narnia tales. Ward’s book, Planet Narnia, based on his doctoral dissertation, provides a detailed analysis of the Narnia novels. The book is fairly scholarly in tone (as dissertations tend to be), so apparently Ward or, more likely, his publisher felt that Planet Narnia would be heavy reading for a lot of Narnia fans. To make this revolutionary analysis accessible to ordinary Narnia fans, now there is a new book which is essentially Planet Narnia reworked for the popular market.

The new book is The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens. Here’s a portion of the publisher’s blurb:

In The Narnia Code, Michael Ward presents an astonishing literary discovery. Drawing on the whole range of Lewis’s writings, Ward reveals the single subject that provides the link between all seven novels. He explains how Lewis structured the series, why he kept the code secret, and what it shows about his understanding of the universe and the Christian faith.

Readers should not be put off by the title’s similarity to that of The Davinci Code. Unlike Dan Brown’s shoddy novel, Ward’s “Narnia Code” is actually a serious theory which persuasively demonstrates that (a) Lewis wrote the Narnia Chronicles according to a set of principles that, until Ward discovered them, had eluded literary critics and exegetes, and (b) he deliberately concealed his plan. In other words, there actually is a “code” which can be “decoded,” thereby yielding up new meaning to the reader who has figured out the code.

Decoding Narnia: The Medieval Connection

This will strike many modern readers as a bizarre, sneaky thing to do–an intricate and unnecessary deception. It would not have seemed so to a medieval reader. What most modern critics have ignored is the fact that C. S. Lewis was a trained scholar whose area of specialization was medieval and renaissance literature; in scholarly circles, he is more famed and admired for his work as a medievalist than he is as either a writer of children’s stories or a Christian apologist, as he is known to most general readers. Lewis wrote several works of literary history that should be familiar to college students who have studied medieval literature or history—works which support Ward’s claim that Lewis’s background as a scholar of medieval literature is absolutely key to a thorough understanding of his Narnia tales.

First in importance, there is The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, in which Professor Lewis demonstrates how the medieval conception of the created order (the cosmos) profoundly influenced every aspect of medieval culture. Here’s the publisher’s blurb from the Canto edition of this book:

C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image paints a lucid picture of the medieval world view, as historical and cultural background to the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It describes the “image” discarded by later ages as “the medieval synthesis itself, the whole organization of their theology, science and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental model of the universe.” This, Lewis’s last book, was hailed as “the final memorial to the work of a great scholar and teacher and a wise and noble mind.”

One of the key elements of the medieval world view was the concept of plenitude, i.e., that the world we can see is just one small part of the whole of creation and there is a densely populated but invisible order of Creation which is every bit as “real” and varied as the parts we can see. In this metaphysical medieval view (so much richer than our modern, materialistic view) the cosmos actually had different “levels,” the visible and the invisible, which coexist side by side. To a great extent, this view was probably influenced by the way the Bible was understood to have several layers of meaning, the literal or superficial meaning which would be plain to even the most casual reader, as well as spiritual (figurative or allegorical) meanings which lay, as St Augustine put it, “beneath the veil of the letter.” (Alas, this way of understanding the Bible has also been discarded in the modern world.)

The habit of looking for, and finding, various levels of meaning in the Bible carried over into reading of other kinds of writing as well, so that medieval poets (i.e., fiction writers) carefully planned and built many layers of significance into their works, with the expectation that astute readers would recognize the “hidden” layers of meaning. Lewis, of course, knew this thoroughly, and also knew that much of the delight both in writing and in reading in the Middle Ages was derived from this kind of polysemous composition./

Another work by Professor Lewis that should be familiar to students of medieval literature is The Allegory of Love, which traces the allegorical treatment of love in western European literature from the high Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Here again is evidence of the medieval delight in finding hidden meaning in literary works, and here again C. S. Lewis literally wrote the book on it. Both The Discarded Image and The Allegory of Love have been enormously influential in the modern study and teaching of medieval literature—and yet, no modern scholar until Michael Ward has really understood how profoundly Lewis the popular writer was influenced by the medieval images and methods that preoccupied Lewis the scholar.

This idea of a literary work being conceived and composed according to an intricate plan is quite foreign to modern readers and writers alike. Recently I was introducing some students to Dante’s Divine Comedy, a massive work composed according to a massively intricate plan structured by various numerological, theological, and typological schemata. I had made similar remarks on the structures of other medieval narrative poems we have studied. One student, who seemed surprised to realize how carefully medieval writers planned their compositions, asked me if modern writers do such careful planning, and I had to reply that this is seldom the case these days.

Modern novelists frequently write without any plan whatsoever and seem to think that this somehow makes a work more authentic—they claim to “wait for their Muse” for inspiration, and then “let the characters take the story where it needs to go,” as if novel writing were something that happens to the writer rather than something that the writer deliberately does. (I blame William Wordsworth for this romantic tendency to regard the writer as a medium through which the forces of inspiration magically work.) Even mystery writers often claim that they start their stories without knowing “whodunnit.” Unfortunately, many readers and critics have assumed that Lewis wrote his Narnia novels using an equally haphazard method (or lack of method).

Thank goodness Michael Ward has finally vindicated Lewis in the face of critics who accuse him of having thrown Narnia together using a meaningless hodgepodge of images. I know that most Narnia fans will find The Narnia Code fascinating, a work that will enrich their enjoyment of these deceptively simple tales.

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