The Seven Heavens of the Chronicles Revealed
by Michael Ward
"Always winter, and never Christmas” are, perhaps, the most famous words C. S. Lewis wrote. The phrase comes four times in the opening Chronicle of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. First, Tumnus informs Lucy of a White Witch who has made it “always winter and never Christmas.” Lucy passes on the grim news to Edmund and later Peter.
Finally, Mr. Beaver announces, in great excitement, “Didn’t I tell you that she’d made it always winter and never Christmas? Didn’t I tell you? Well, just come and see!” The reason for his excitement is that he can see in front of him a man who spells the end of the Witch’s reign:
The appearance of Father Christmas in this story has become a lightning rod for criticism of the Narnia Chronicles. It is taken as evidence of Lewis’s slapdash compositional style. Tolkien thought that Lewis had carelessly assembled figures from incompatible mythological traditions: children fresh from E. Nesbit, a Snow Queen out of Hans Andersen, dryads and naiads from classical tradition, and—forsooth!—Santa Claus from popularized hagiography.
Humphrey Carpenter, who wrote the first study of the Inklings, thought Lewis borrowed “indiscriminately” from his various sources and “threw in any incident or colouring that struck his fancy.” Lewis’s biographer A. N. Wilson described the Chronicles as a “jumble,” a “hotch-potch,” “full of inconsistencies.”
There is apparent force in these judgments, so much so that several Lewis scholars have gone looking for a hidden theme that will show the books’ underlying unity, but none has proved persuasive. Don King, for example, has argued that the series is a commentary on the seven deadly sins. Doris Myers suggests that the septet may be best understood as a miniature version of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Jim Pietrusz links the books to the seven Catholic sacraments.
Lewis himself once said that the whole series was “about Christ.” Three of the books do reflect Christological themes: creation in The Magician’s Nephew; redemption in The Lion; judgment in The Last Battle.
The other four, however, present the Christ-like figure of Aslan in very various and non-biblical modes. He enters the story among dancing trees before giving a great war-cry in Prince Caspian; he flies in a sunbeam in The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’; he is mistaken for two or possibly three lions in The Horse and His Boy; and in The Silver Chair he does not appear bodily within Narnia at all, but is confined to his own high country above the clouds.
The stories may generally be about Christ, but there seems to be no structure to the series. Perhaps Lewis had no plan. And yet one doesn’t need to have a very intimate knowledge of his mind to know that he did not work randomly.
He praised authors such as Chaucer and Spenser, who created something that “looks planless though all is planned.” And he once confided to a former pupil, Charles Wrong, that he had “an idea” he wanted to try out in the Narnia books and that he had worked it out to the full after seven volumes. This all suggests that there is more to the Narnia stories than their superficial heterogeneity led Tolkien and others to suppose.
Oblivious to the Obvious
I had never been satisfied by the notion that the Chronicles were a mish-mash, and I think I have stumbled upon their secret, governing, imaginative scheme. Let me provide three important contexts for the large claim I wish to make.
The first context is Lewis’s characteristic presentation of Christology. When he thought of Christ, he typically thought of him not as something “out there” in Nature or “up there” in Heaven or “back there” in History or “in there” in the Bible and the Eucharist.
Lewis typically thought of Christ (in the words of Colossians 1:17) as the one “in whom all things hold together.” He paraphrased that verse in Miracles, rendering it thus: “Christ is the all-pervasive principle of concretion or cohesion whereby the universe holds together.”
The universe included Lewis himself and his own understanding of Christ. His very thoughts about Christ were themselves held together by Christ. He could not in that sense step outside Christ and look at him as if from some external spectator’s point of view. And this put him, as it puts all of us, into something of a predicament, which he expressed in Miracles:
Throughout his writings, Lewis points out this natural human tendency to be oblivious to the obvious. In Mere Christianity he writes: “Since that [divine] power, if it exists, would not be one of the observed facts but a reality which makes them, no mere observation of the facts can find it.” In Letters to Malcolm he writes: “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”
Lewis’s belief in the “overlookability” of God should be kept in mind when we consider the apparent planlessness of the Narnia Chronicles.
The Cryptic Element
The second context for a proper reading of the Chronicles has to do, not with theology, but with literature. In 1940, at a literary society in Oxford, Lewis read a paper entitled “The Kappa Element in Romance.” (“Kappa” is the initial letter of the Greek word meaning “cryptic” or “hidden.”)
The thrust of the paper was this: Stories are most valuable for their quality or atmosphere, not simply their plot. The example he uses is The Last of the Mohicans.
When the hero of the story is half-sleeping by his bivouac fire in the woods while a Redskin with a tomahawk is silently creeping up on him from behind, what makes for the essence of the scene is not simply peril, but the whole world to which this kind of peril belongs: the snow and snow-shoes, the canoes, the wigwams, the feathered headdresses, the war-paint, the Hiawatha names. A crook with a revolver would have conveyed a significantly different experience to the reader, even though the danger he represented might have been greater.
Stories earn our allegiance, Lewis argues, by conveying a distinct and coherent qualitative atmosphere. “To be stories at all,” he says in “On Stories,” stories
James Fenimore Cooper gives us the state or quality of “redskinnery.” Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers gives us no such intrinsic atmosphere or spirit. His story is just plot, without any kappa element, and to that extent is, in Lewis’s view, a failure. We should remember his criteria of success and failure when approaching the Chronicles.
The third and final context for their proper reading has to do with yet another kind of hiddenness. Lewis thought that a poet could take various approaches when attempting a high religious theme. One particular approach he calls “transferred classicism.” Here God is disguised, in some degree, as a mere god.
Chief exponents of this “classicized Christian or Christianized classical work” are Milton and Tasso. Chaucer, Sidney, Spenser, and others adopt similar tactics: “The gods are God incognito and everyone is in the secret. Paganism is the religion of poetry through which the author can express, at any moment, just so much or so little of his real religion as his art requires.”
The Seven Heavens
In the context of the “overlookability” of God, the necessity of atmosphere to successful story-telling, and the usefulness of the pagan gods, let us now turn to the Narnia tales and attempt to see how they hold together.
Far from being a hotch-potch, they are, I think, held together as a unified work by Lewis’s use of one particular class of gods: the gods of the seven heavens of medieval cosmology. He had a lifelong fascination with these planetary deities and a very high view of their symbolic value. In 1935 he wrote, in a paper titled “The Alliterative Metre”:
Let us look quickly (we do not have room for a full treatment) at the god who provides the kappa element of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Jupiter (or Jove) was Lewis’s favorite planet. Jupiter was “the king,” the best planet, Fortuna Major:
In Lewis’s view, too much of the literature of the early twentieth century was “Saturnocentric,” that is, focused upon Saturn, the worst planet, Infortuna Major. Looking about him, Lewis saw an obsession with wastelands, killing fields, broken images, and false promises—and this was understandable, because his own generation, the generation that was mown down in the Flanders fields, had been (as he put it) “born under Saturn.”
However, that was a historical accident, not an eternal truth about the nature of the universe. The “wisdom that dominates the stars” is Jovial, and not to attempt to reach it, he thought, was pusillanimous.
In addition to being the wise and kingly planet, Jupiter is also the conqueror of winter. It was “under festal Jove” that Chaucer had written his poetry, Lewis contended, Jupiter who brings about “desires fulfilled and winter overgone.”
In That Hideous Strength, Ransom, the hero, having become a human personification of Jove, defeats his enemies, who have names such as Frost, Wither, Stone, Steele, and Winter; and in that same book, the planet Jupiter (“Glund” as Lewis calls it) comes down to earth and “overmatches” the “unendurable cold” of Saturn. In his long alliterative poem “The Planets” he wrote this about Jove:
The Bleeding Planet
“Winter passed, and guilt forgiven.” This phrase seems to provide an intriguingly neat summary of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: The White Witch’s spell to make it “always winter” spectacularly fails, and Edmund’s guilt is forgiven. How, though, is it forgiven? Through the sacrificial death of Aslan, which is also, intriguingly, “Jovial.”
In the same year Lewis wrote The Lion, he published Arthurian Torso, his study of Charles Williams’s poetry, where he analyzes a poem from The Region of the Summer Stars in which Williams had written, with characteristic density, “Pelles bleeds/ below Jupiter’s red-pierced planet.” About this mysterious image Lewis comments as follows:
Understood in this light, Aslan’s Calvary-like death on the Stone Table seems as capable of a Jovial construction as does the passing of winter and the forgiving of Edmund’s guilt. It should encourage us to look at the first Chronicle for other indications of Jove.
Jovial kingliness is also remarkably prominent in this opening Narnia tale. First mentions are always important, and Aslan is introduced as “the King of the wood . . . the King of the Beasts . . . he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.”
And not only is Aslan King, Peter and Edmund become kings by the end of the story; the story is really about how it happens. Edmund wants it to happen in his own way, by siding with the Witch, who has ensnared him with her declaration that she wants a boy “who would be King of Narnia after I am gone.” Eventually he realizes that she did not intend to make him King. Out of nowhere Father Christmas appears, shouting, “Long live the true King!”
The true King is Aslan, who has his own plans for the children. He shows Peter “the castle where you are to be King” and tells him, “You will be High King over all the rest.” The climax of the tale is the scene at the castle of Cair Paravel where the children are hailed, enthroned, crowned, and sceptred. Near the end of the story, Aslan declares (and the Professor later repeats it), “Once a King in Narnia, always a King in Narnia.”
Is Joviality the kappa element of the first Narnia Chronicle? In his university lectures, Lewis described the Jovial character as “cheerful and festive; those born under Jupiter are apt to be loud-voiced and red-faced.” He would then pause and add: “It is obvious under which planet I was born!”—which always produced a laugh.
If the hidden inner meaning of The Lion is Joviality, then how appropriate to include Father Christmas: Red-faced, loud-voiced, and jolly, he is, in popular culture, the Jovial personality par excellence. And how appropriate that Peter, when he gets through the Wardrobe into Narnia, should exclaim “By Jove!”
Given the spiritual significance that Lewis attached to Jupiter and bearing in mind the various images that he associated with it, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe can be seen to have been designed as a narrative embodiment of Jove. Jovial imagery is not just tacked on to the story as an afterthought; it is within the spirit of Joviality that the Narnian universe as Lewis created it in that book “holds together.”
And of course there are six other Chronicles and six other planets. Could they all match up? Indeed, they do. Prince Caspian embodies Mars; The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ the Sun; The Silver Chair the Moon; The Horse and His Boy Mercury; The Magician’s Nephew Venus; and The Last Battle Saturn (see “Planets of Narnia,” below).
Why did Lewis never tell anyone what he was up to? Surely, the fact that he nowhere in his letters or conversations mentioned this plan to anyone indicates that this reading of the Narnia books is unlikely to be correct.
But why would he have told someone? The planetary influence in each book is the kappa element, the hidden element, the atmosphere of the book; it is an image we cannot see because, like the beam of light Lewis wrote about in “Meditation in a Toolshed,” we see along it. For Lewis to disclose his imaginative plan would have been to destroy the very thing he was trying to achieve.
There would also have been sound theological reasons for keeping the plan secret. When Peter says “By Jove!” he has no idea of the significance of what he is saying. The children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe do not know that they are in a world and in a story created and sustained, so to speak, by Jupiter. Their unawareness is a reflection of our common human condition, for, as Lewis says in Miracles, God is “opaque by the very fullness of His blinding actuality.”
God is too big for us to see easily, like the large words that escape us on maps. He saves us by becoming local. The children in the story can see the incarnation of Jupiter, in the form of the Kingly, Lion-hearted Aslan, who does away with winter, bleeds for the traitor, and enthrones them at the royal castle; and that is enough.
Lewis’s thoughts about “transferred classicism,” in which God is “disguised as a god,” are also relevant to the question of secrecy. He was ingeniously reversing the normal pattern of his medieval and renaissance sources. He wrote, “In Spenser, as in Milton and many others, Jove is often Jehovah incognito.” In The Lion, the divine figure is Jove incognito.
The planetary symbols (those “spiritual symbols of permanent value”) were implanted in the Narnia Chronicles as a kind of imaginative depth-charge. Lewis presumably expected that his readers would eventually spot what he was up to.
But he was not going to tell them what he was up to because he wanted to communicate to their imaginations rather than to their intellects. The characters of the planets, Lewis remarked in The Discarded Image, “need to be seized in an intuition, not built up out of concepts,” and he would not succeed in getting his readers to intuit such characters if he told them in advance what to intuit.
He once wrote, in an essay on the King James Version of the Bible, that “an influence which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep,” and it was a deep, subtle, poetic way of conveying the planetary spirits that he hoped to achieve in the septet, making each book in its totality carry the message he wanted to impart. Great communicator that he was, he knew the importance of making the medium the message.
As a playful man with a keen wit, he would also have wanted to keep the scheme secret for sheer fun. “How long will it take them to notice?” he may have asked himself in gleeful wonder.
“Joy,” he believed, “is the serious business of heaven,” and the delightful realization of this secret theme provokes us to ask serious questions of ourselves. If we can overlook the spiritual symbolism of seven fairy tales, how much more might we be overlooking the spiritual significance of the real world and of the Christ who upholds it?
The Chronicles, then, are indeed “about Christ,” but they are about Christ in a much more imaginatively sophisticated way than people have hitherto realized. The Narniad looks planless, but all is planned. •
“The Kappa Element in Romance” was revised and published as “On Stories,” which can be found in On Stories; “The Alliterative Metre” in Selected Literary Essays; “The Planets” in Poems.
For those interested in reading more, Dr. Ward suggests Lewis’s The Discarded Image, especially Chapter V, “The Heavens”; Dava Sorbel’s The Planets; and Eviatar Zerubavel’s The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.