A full decade has now passed since Michael Ward published his groundbreaking Planet Narnia. While remaining faithful to the full Christian meanings of the Chronicles, Ward skillfully factored in a third layer of meaning that demonstrated to adoring fans and skeptical naysayers alike that Lewis’s Narnia books were built on a firm but flexible literary foundation. Far from the helter-skelter grab-bag that Tolkien, alas, thought them to be, The Chronicles of Narnia embody a consistent vision grounded in the seven planets of the Medieval cosmological model: a model that Lewis himself magisterially described in The Discarded Image.
According to that model, each of the seven “planets” (Greek for “wanderer”) — Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn — shed its influence upon our stationary yet fickle world. Thus, while the moon produced silver in the earth and inspired lunacy in men and the Sun produced gold and made men wise and generous. Mars and Jupiter drew forth, respectively, iron and a martial spirit and tin and a jovial spirit. The Medievals believed this planetary influence was imprinted on our terrestrial air; hence, our word “influenza,” which was thought to be spread, like the plague, by bad air.
The genius of Ward’s thesis and book is the way it reveals in rich detail how each of the seven Chronicles shows forth the manifold influences of one of the seven planets. When we read, say, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we not only come face to face with the Christ of Narnia; we immerse ourselves in the jovial influence of the planet Jupiter. As such, we experience Aslan simultaneously as the sacrificed-and-risen King of Narnia and as the supreme fountainhead of joviality. By climbing aboard The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, readers partake in an adventure where temptations must be met with Christian virtues, but they also participate in a dazzling solar influence that slays dragons, promotes liberality, and brings intellectual clarification and spiritual illumination.
Ward is right, I am convinced, that Lewis consciously infused his Chronicles with the influences of the seven Medieval planets. And he is right, as well, that that infusion gives the Chronicles much of their universal appeal. But I would suggest that the appeal of Narnia — what makes readers love it so dearly and desire to revisit it again and again — goes a bit deeper. It is not just the imaginative link between the seven Chronicles and the seven planets that makes readers yearn to pass through the wardrobe. It is the fact that Narnia is a Medieval place where such things as influence are operative.
The Chronicles invite us to enter a world that is wonderful and meaningful: that is to say, full of wonder and filled with meaning. In Narnia, neither the planets, nor the stars, nor all the myriad of heavenly bodies are cold, distant, and aloof. When Othello exclaims that it is “the very error of the moon; / She comes more nearer earth than she was wont, / And makes men mad,” ( 5.2.135. ) he says something that should disturb and frighten us. But it should inspire us as well with a deeper sense of numinous awe. Could it be that there is a true link, an intimate connection between the heavens and the earth, between the macrocosm around us and the microcosm within us? Could the universe really be like that?
The cause of that insidious malaise, that soul-crushing existential angst, that has fallen over the western world is twofold. Not only has modern man rejected the traditional belief that we are born with a God-given essence that defines, shapes, and guides us; he has rejected as well any sense that we live in a sympathetic universe. Oh, he will often make an idol of nature, even going so far as to privilege nature over human wellbeing, but he will not therefore treat her as an older, equally fallen sister fashioned by the same loving Creator. As Lewis’s fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield, was wont to complain, our post-Enlightenment world has turned nature into an object, a thing to be studied rather than a fellow creature to be loved.
Our Newtonian, clockwork universe has been robbed of its glory and its mystery. But not Narnia. There, in Lewis’s restored Medieval cosmos, everything, from larches to lakes, beavers to badgers, stars to salamanders, is alive with meaning. It’s not just that the animals can talk. It’s that Narnia is a world where talking animals do not seem strange or out of place. According to a Medieval legend, on the night Christ was born in Bethlehem, the animals were given the power of speech. If that is true, then Narnia is a place where it is, in fact, always Christmas! True, witches (whether white or green) and tyrants (whether Telmarine or Calormene) might silence them for a season, but they cannot wholly extinguish their voices. Jesus once said that if the multitude refused to bless his name, the rocks themselves would cry out. Narnia is a place where the whole shimmering cosmos cries out with praise, gratitude, and an affirmation of the goodness of life.
As readers of Narnia, we don’t just want to study or witness that shimmering cosmos. We want to enter in to it. Even so, in his greatest sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis says that our true desire, the one we can barely put into words, is not just to see the beauty of nature but to be united with it, “to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” Narnia offers us that longed-for opportunity. There, we can dine with talking beavers, dance with living trees, and speak with animated rivers. We can even hold conversations with valiant mice, liberated gnomes, and paroled stars.
When young Prince Caspian fears that the Narnian versions of Mars and Venus will bump into each other in their majestic trek across the heavens, his wise, half-dwarf tutor Doctor Cornelius assures him that the “great lords of the upper sky know the steps of their dance too well for that.” When rash King Rilian insists that Aslan has returned, the wise, prophetic Centaur Roonwit tells him that if “Aslan were really coming to Narnia, the sky would have foretold it. If he were really come, all the most gracious stars would be assembled in his honor.” When Eustace insists that a star is nothing but “a huge ball of flaming gas,” the wise, retired star Ramandu explains that even in his terrestrial world, “that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
We who love Narnia are like Shasta in the opening chapter of The Horse and His Boy. We have grown weary of our faithless, hopeless, loveless existence and long to escape to a world where there is true joy and freedom and purpose. We may even find in ourselves a strange urge to look at a horse and confess to it our secret wish that it could talk. That, of course, is what Shasta does, only to have Bree respond that he can talk and that he is prepared to journey with him to that mythic land up north that Shasta has always dreamed of visiting. There, Shasta believes, he can live life in a fuller, richer way.
Narnia, like heaven in Lewis’s The Great Divorce, offers not so much a larger space as a larger kind of space where one can escape from the cramped limits of our cold, cynical, disenchanted world. The divine music out of which Narnia was born still echoes in the grass and the streams and the trees. Even during the hundred year reign of the White Witch, the Narnians remember their true heritage and tell tales about “midnight dances and how the Nymphs who lived in the wells and the Dryads who lived in the trees came out to dance with the Fauns.” The magic can be suppressed, but it cannot be obliterated.
In The Silver Chair, the Green Witch tries to convince our heroes that there is no such thing as the sun or lions, that they have made them up by imagining a bigger torch or a bigger cat. In the same way, our modern schools and colleges have striven mightily to convince their charges that the supernatural world is nothing more than a child’s tale, an emotional wish fulfillment for people who can’t handle the real world. But our heroes know better. They agree, with Puddleglum, that the Witch’s clockwork, materialistic universe can’t hold a candle to their so-called play world, and they are prepared to risk all to reach that better world. They know they will likely die in the search, but the true Narnians consider that “small loss if the world’s as dull a place” as the Witch claims.
Readers who love Narnia love it tenaciously. They will not allow a hollow rationalism or scientism to rob them of the magic that runs rampant from Lantern Waste to Cair Paravel, reaching out its strong but supple fingers to take in the northern wastes, the uncharted eastern sea, and the barren deserts of the south. Freud, Marx, and Darwin, like Dennett, Hitchens, and Dawkins, may have stripped the wonder away from our world, but they cannot strip us of our desire to live in a sympathetic, God-haunted cosmos.
In The Magician’s Nephew, Queen Jadis brags of her skill for destroying worlds. Like Screwtape, she is adept at removing music and silence and replacing it with noise. But she cannot undo the goodness, truth, and beauty of Narnia. Just so, the naturalism of our modern age cannot darken the light of Narnia; rather, it is the Narnian light that exposes our darkness. Digory learns as much when he brings a Narnian apple to London: “The brightness of the Apple threw strange lights on the ceiling. Nothing else was worth looking at: indeed you couldn’t look at anything else. And the smell of the Apple of Youth was as if there was a window in the room that opened on Heaven.”
My thanks to Michael Ward for helping us to glimpse that heaven a bit more clearly.
Louis Markos. “Why We Love to Visit Narnia.” An Unexpected Journal 1, no. 4. (Advent 2018): 31-37.
Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///why-we-love-to-visit-narnia/