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The Seven Heavens and Planet Narnia, Part Two

My previous post introduced Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis,1 in which he argues that the medieval conception of the Seven Heavens serves as the basis for the seven Chronicles of Narnia, with Lewis using the characteristic ethos of each planetary intelligence as the paradigm for his books. In this post, we turn to an explicit consideration of how the evidence of the Chronicles of Narnia fits Ward’s theory through consideration of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We also consider how these stories have been so popular over the past fifty years, and why no one previously mentioned the theme of the Seven Heavens.

To best understand Lewis’s use of Sol (the Sun) in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Ward contextualizes Lewis’s previous interactions with that planetary intelligence. Chronologically, Sol is first found in Lewis’s poems “A Pageant Played in Vain” and “The Planets”,2 most immediately recognizable as having both metallurgic and non-metallurgic properties: images of gold and ore, of “mellow wisdom”, and, perhaps most significantly, sailing imagery.3 Furthermore, the Cosmic Trilogy, written prior to the Narnia series,plays an important role in understanding the “donegality” (or rich context) of the Seven Heavens.4 Though not an actual character like some other planetary intelligences in That Hideous Strength, Sol appears to influence that narrative through the character of Jupiter.5 Moreover, since Lewis perceived the Chronicles of Narnia as an improvement on the Cosmic Trilogy, a more influential involvement of Sol in the Narniad would not be a surprise, were the Seven Heavens the paradigm through which Lewis wrote the series.

Ward argues that Lewis employs Sol throughout the imagery and meaning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Solar images are replete throughout the book, with even a hint at the guiding paradigm of the book in the title.6 Brightness, the growing size and fervor of the sun, Reepicheep’s desire to sail into the “utter East” (where the sun rises), the golden pool of Deathwater Island, the inlaid gold on the Dawn Treader itself, the mention of philosophy (“enlightenment”), the continued encounters with dragons (including the prow of the Dawn Treader herself), and the theme of sailing all point toward the donegality of Sol.7 Furthermore, the repeated images of the Golden Lion, especially as differentiated from the Red Lion that was the banner of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, paints a fairly clear picture of Lewis’s use of Solar imagery.8

Similarly, the message of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is embedded with Solar influence, best manifested in the seven appearances of Aslan, who becomes more and more solar in appearance and activity throughout the narrative.9 The fifth appearance of Aslan, as an albatross, is of special note, because Lucy literally looks “along the beam” of light in order to see the way out of the Dark Country.10 The final advent of Aslan is the most Christological as well as the most clearly solar materialization, as the Great Lion first appears as a white lamb who then transforms into the “scintillating” Lion, an act which leads Ward to write that, “his Solar character could hardly be more explicitly conveyed.”11 While most readers have noticed the clear Christological implications of the transformation of the lamb (of God) into the Lion (of Judah), most have failed to note the incredible, shining solar transformation of the moment. It is well worth noting that the transcendent Aslan of the Dawn Treader comes across as a far different character than the romping and battling Aslan of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, and thereby appearing considerably more solar.

While the literary evidence from the Chronicles seems to be of overwhelming support for Ward’s argument, perhaps the greatest challenge to his suggestion is the issue of secrecy, which is part of our third guiding question: Why has no one previously mentioned the theme of the Seven Heavens in the Narnia series? Was Lewis secretive enough to hide such an important facet of his most popular works? The postulation of a secretive Lewis seems unlikely until one recognizes several important historical clues. First, there is the abnormality (for Lewis, in any event) that the Chronicles were not read aloud at any of the Inklings meetings as so many of Lewis’s other books were. Second, there are the cryptic correspondences that Lewis penned concerning the series, especially his letter to Laurence Krieg, in which he seems either to have had no plan at all for writing the Narnia series or to have been hiding something about the books.12 Third, there is the testimony of Lewis’s friend Charles Wrong, who reports Lewis once saying that he “happened to have an idea that he wanted to try out, and by now, having worked it out to the full, he did not plan to write any more.”13 Additionally, Wrong describes Lewis as saying that, “I had to write three volumes, of course, or seven, or nine. Those are the magic numbers.”14 What was it that was so critical about those numbers that would limit Lewis to writing only a certain number of books? This would seem to indicate that there was a governing factor at work in Lewis’s mind which somehow linked his books together, thereby giving further credence to Ward’s thesis concerning the Seven Heavens. Finally, the strongest argument for Lewis’s secrecy comes in his writing on contemplation and enjoyment, where he indicates that “the inner meaning of a romance cannot be flagged up by the author without altering its true nature. It has to remain hidden, woven into the warp and woof of the whole field of the story so that it comprises not an object for Contemplation but the whole field of vision is experienced. The kappa element is more like seeing than it is like something being seen.”15

Even with this plethora of information, some have asked whether or not Lewis would have revealed his secret to at least one confidant. To this Ward responds that, “there is a huge difference between what an author does and what a critic does. The same revelation [of a secret] may have very different effects upon who makes it and under what circumstances.”16 It seems that Lewis wanted his readers to “peer along the beam” of enjoyment in reading the Narnia series for as long as his secret could be guarded. Yet Lewis left his clues. In a letter about Professor William Kinter, Lewis wrote, “It’s fun laying out all my books as a Cathedral. Personally, I’d make Miracles and the other ‘treatises’ the cathedral school: my children’s stories are the real side-chapels, each with its own little altar.”17 This emphasis on providing each story its “own little altar” makes scant sense if the Narnia series is about Christ in a simple sense. If that were the case we could expect Lewis to indicate a single altar for Christ within his cathedral of stories. If, however, each of the Chronicles was written in the milieu of a specific planetary intelligence, it makes more sense to have multiple altars, each offering an understanding and representation of Christ. As secretive as Lewis was about the influence behind the Narnia series, he does, therefore, seem to have left clues pointing toward the Seven Heavens.

In Planet Narnia, Michael Ward presents a compelling argument that C. S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia with the expressed purpose of conveying the donegality, the rich context, of one of the medieval Seven Heavens in each book. The plethora of imagery and meaning which parallel Ward’s proposed planetary intelligence for each book is both impressive and convincing. Additionally, the evidence from Lewis’s academic work (The Discarded Image), poetry (“The Planets”), fictional works (That Hideous Strength), and his lifelong fascination with stars and medieval astrology all reinforce Ward’s claim that Lewis employed the Seven Heavens in the Narnia series. While Lewis never explicitly revealed his literary secret to anyone, the combination of the literary and historical evidence, along with Lewis’s remarks on the need to “look along” the beam of enjoyment in reading the Chronicles, direct us to accept Ward’s argument that The Chronicles of Narnia were written to embody and express the characteristics of the Seven Heavens.

What do you think: are you convinced that C. S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia using the imagery and character of the medieval Seven Heavens?

What can we learn from Lewis’s cooperative implementation of theology and culture?

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Jacob Prahlow

Jacob Prahlow

Christian. Husband of Hayley. Father of Bree and Judah. Lead Pastor at Arise Church in Fenton, MO. Alumnus of various institutions. Cubs Fan. Co-Founder of Conciliar Post.

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