Book Review: The Narnia Code by Michael Ward
(Tyndale House Publishers, Carol Stream, IL: 2010)
"The [Narnia] books are much more Christian than we've realized."
-Michael Ward (p. 130)
"Lewis ate and drank from the table of pagan idolatry. He slurped it in and was so full of it, that this world of idols and sorcery came out through his books."
No author has ever succeeded at being correctly understood by all of his readers. C. S. Lewis is widely, but not universally, regarded as a great Christian thinker and apologist, best known for his seven books, The Chronicles of Narnia. These children's books, also enjoyed by adults, are often held up as the best example of Christian fantasy literature.
Michael Ward, Chaplain of St. Peter's College, Oxford, has studied Lewis exhaustively. He'd read everything Lewis ever wrote-including unpublished manuscripts and letters, poems, and childhood notebooks. If there is anything Mr. Ward doesn't know about C. S. Lewis, chances are that nobody knows it.
Ward claims to have unraveled a secret code pertaining to all the Narnia books-something that Lewis put in on purpose, and which, very subtly, holds the whole series together while subconsciously working on the reader's mind. No, it's not like one of those "Bible codes" that tells you Leviticus 4:14 secretly predicts who will win an Oscar next year. It's more in the nature of a hidden theme, deliberately concealed by C. S. Lewis, to heighten the impact of his art. So Ward's title is a bit misleading.
Seven Heavens, Seven Books
"Lewis took the seven heavens that he so loved and used them as symbols of Christ ... to present Christ in seven different ways," Ward says (pp. 129-130). He is referring to the ancient cosmology which featured seven heavens circling the Earth, each ruled by its own "planet"-the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn-with each "planet" having certain influences on Earth and its inhabitants.
Each Narnia story is "ruled" by its own planet: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Jupiter; Prince Caspian, 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. The planets, says Ward, are "spiritual symbols speaking through stories" in which C. S. Lewis "translated the planets into plots" (p. 146).
It sounds complicated, but Ward does make a very strong case. Everything he says, he backs up with quotes from Lewis himself. He also does an amazingly good job of writing in a clear, simple prose style very similar to that employed by Lewis to tell his Narnia stories. Ward sounds like Lewis. He has written a book which an intelligent child would understand, but which won't make an adult reader feel like he's been kidnapped by Barney the Dinosaur.
Ward has convinced me that Lewis didn't just "throw in everything" when he was writing a Narnia tale: "randomness and mishmash are not to be found" (p. 8) in these books, he says-even when it may look like mishmash. Thus there is a reason for Father Christmas appearing in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, even if it seems careless, even silly, to insert one of our own popular culture icons into the parallel universe of Narnia-an apparent anomaly which Ward says got him started in his search for C. S. Lewis' cryptic messages. Superman wouldn't belong there, but Father Christmas does.
It's not necessary to go into the details of Ward's reasoning. His book is easy to read and explains itself. It's a clever piece of literary detective work, and those most interested in his argument should read the book.
But we cannot help asking, given that C. S. Lewis secretly followed a cosmological theme in composing his Narnia tales: Are we better off for knowing that? Mr. Ward finds his own pleasure and understanding greatly enhanced for knowing it. Then again, millions of children and adults, over more than half a century, have adored these books without ever suspecting there were any secret messages involved.
Is that because Lewis succeeded in speaking to the readers' subconscious?
There's no way to know; and meanwhile, there are other issues to consider.
Christians Who Dislike Narnia
C. S. Lewis' friend, J. R. R. Tolkien-a man Lewis credited with converting him to Christianity-became world-famous for writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The two men are often held up together as the all-time champions of Christian fantasy.
It was their habit to read aloud to one another, along with other literary friends, from their works in progress. Thus Tolkien was present at Lewis' creation of Narnia-and, says Ward, "hated it!"(p. 7). Indeed, "Tolkien so detested what Lewis had done that he soon gave up trying to read the Narnia books" (p. 7).
For this reason Ward dismisses Tolkien as a critic. But to this day there are Christians who have an aversion to Narnia, just like Tolkien had.
Many of those who dislike Narnia say it smacks of paganism. The books are full of creatures from Greek mythology-fauns and satyrs, dryads and naiads, a river god, Bacchus, etc. Tolkien thought there was much too much of that.2 Doug Phillips, of Vision Forum, saw it as evidence of "C. S. Lewis' love affair with Greek paganism" laden with "anti-Christian idolatry."3
It can't be denied that Lewis did love Greek mythology. Obviously he tried to put this material to use in the service of Christ's Kingdom. Was he wrong to do that? It's not an easy question to answer. Was Lewis forcing Christian and pagan ideas to be unequally yoked? Was he being hypocritical-like someone who says he is playing the ponies "for Christ"? We doubt we can convince Narnia-lovers that he was wrong, or Narnia-haters that he was right.
Whether C. S. Lewis was right or wrong in what he did, Michael Ward deserves credit for trying to explain why he did it.
Knowing from the Inside
"If only we had eyes to see it," Ward says, "we would notice the divine plan even in seemingly meaningless events" (p. 9).
But this is just what the modern world has gotten out of the habit of doing. "Such mental impoverishment," writes Jean-Marc Berthoud, "results from the common acceptance, first by the world and then by the Church, of the cultural domination of our whole culture by a purely mathematical model of the universe (the so-called scientific worldview, valid in fact only in its strictly limited domain, that of the measurable) as normative of every aspect of reality."4 Beyond the realm of the measurable, by this materialistic point of view, there is nothing. Nothing that is not measurable, material, is real.
Lewis' rejection of materialism runs through all his work. Ward gives us an example from Dawn Treader: Eustace, upon meeting a "retired" star, says, "In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas." And the star replies, "Even in our world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of" (p. 38).
Lewis did not believe that the pre-Copernican model of the universe was a true representation of physical reality. "Modern science tends to think only in terms of matter and mechanism and measurements," Ward writes. "But pre-Copernican science tended to think also in terms of purposes and points and persons" (p. 136). Lewis tried to use the planets as "divine messengers" (p. 139) to enhance the reader's understanding. The pre-Copernican model, for him, had a spiritual dimension.
In the Narnia stories, argues Ward, Lewis tried to induce his readers to think non-materialistically, because "there are some things that can only be fully known from the inside ... The first thing that we know much better from the inside than from the outside is God" (p. 19). And, "We can't ... step outside Him and look at Him ... We're already ‘in Christ' ... as His creatures whether we like it or not" (pp. 20-21).
We cannot understand, or even detect, spiritual things by going after them with scientific instruments. "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned," the Bible teaches (1 Cor. 2:14).
This, in a nutshell, is Lewis' reason for writing the Narnia books according to a secret cosmological "code"-to help his readers, living in a materialistic age, to discern spiritual things. He wished to facilitate a way for them to look at such things "from the inside."
Could he have done that without using pagan symbols? Maybe-but probably he would have seen no reason to.
Ward's book is valuable in that it shows a way to write fiction suitable to Christian purposes. We who come after C. S. Lewis don't have to write about nymphs and centaurs. We don't have to infuse our books with planetary symbolism. We don't even have to write fantasy. But we can still learn from him.
Lewis was a man of deep erudition with a lifelong fascination with the planets and an intense love of mythology. Indeed, when Tolkien told him that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was "myth become history ... the True Myth to which all the others are pointing,"5 Lewis shed his atheism and converted to Christianity. In the Narnia books he used pagan and medieval mythology to point to the one myth that is true.
It's a fact that his approach has not worked for a portion of his audience. For them the pagan symbols don't point to Christ. If Mr. Ward is to be believed, you can't say it was for want of trying. We can never know whether the Narnia stories would have better served the Kingdom with or without the fauns and satyrs. We must leave that judgment to the reader.
Christian writers in the twenty-first century can't hope to match Lewis for erudition-he was, after all, one of the great scholars of English literature-but we can try to learn from his technique, as presented here by Michael Ward. We can try to apply it to our own writing-bearing it always in mind that allegory or symbolism that sticks out like a sore thumb is worse than none at all. Lewis intended his "Narnia code" to operate below the threshold of the reader's awareness.
For some, Narnia operates so far below that threshold as to miss the reader altogether. For any kind of work of art, some degree of that is unavoidable. Even Shakespeare couldn't please everybody.
The Narnia books have been around since 1950 and have never waned in popularity. Whether that is because of the success of Lewis' literary subterfuge, or for other reasons altogether, we can't say. But Ward would say it was due in no small part to Lewis purposeful, clever, subtle artistry; and he makes a good case for it. His book will hold your interest. If you're a writer, too, it may even give you some ideas.
4. Jean-Marc Berthoud, Pierre Viret: A Forgotten Giant of the Reformation (Tallahassee, FL: Zurich Publishing, 2010), 50.
5. David C. Downing, Looking for the King, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 144.
Topics: Culture , Fiction, Media / Arts