The Narnia Code by Michael Ward

Like many evangelicals – heck, like a great many people period – my introduction to what you might call fantasy fiction was C.S. Lewis. I have read a decent amount of his writing as well as books about him.

I wouldn’t say I am quite as taken with him as some (there is an almost cultish aspect to many of his fans within evangelicalism) but I am a big fan of the Narnia series.

So when I heard about Planet Narnia by Michael Ward I was intrigued. Was there really a hidden code behind this famous series?  But the book was academic in nature not to mention long and expensive – so I never got around to reading it.

But the folks at Tyndale publishers had the bright idea to bring out a sort of slimed down introductory version called The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens.  I figured this was my chance to see what all the fuss was about.

Here are the basics:

Millions of readers have been captivated by C. S. Lewis’s famed Chronicles of Narnia, but why? What is it about these seven books that makes them so appealing? For more than half a century, scholars have attempted to find the organizing key—the “secret code”—to the beloved series, but it has remained a mystery. Until now.

In The Narnia Code, Michael Ward takes the reader through each of the seven Narnia books and reveals how each story embodies and expresses the characteristics of one of the seven planets of medieval cosmology—Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus and Saturn—planets which Lewis described as “spiritual symbols of permanent value.”

How does medieval cosmology relate to the Christian underpinnings of the series? How did it impact Lewis’s depiction of Aslan, the Christlike character at the heart of the books? And why did Lewis keep this planetary inspiration a secret? Originally a ground-breaking scholarly work called Planet Narnia, this more accessible adaptation will answer all the questions.

Seems outrageous and interesting, right? Well, it is sort of both. I found the book interesting in concept but less successful in practice.

More thoughts below.

I have struggled with writing this review for weeks. I will fully admit that it could be that when I was reading The Narnia Code I was distracted or rushing to finish the book. But for whatever reason, it just didn’t grab me.

Ward sets up his thesis by describing how parts of the Narnia series just don’t seem to make sense. Why is Santa Claus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for example? Why is Bacchus even a character? If Aslan is a Jesus figure why is Alsan absent from many of the books for long stretches (and sometimes altogether)?  Is this really just a hodge-podge collection of whatever struck Lewis’s fancy as some would contend?

Ward says no. Just because Narnia lacks the intricate world building of Middle Earth and Tolkien doesn’t mean there is not underlying structure or unifying themes. Using Lewis’s academic writing, and his poetry, Ward reveals what he thinks is the structure that holds it altogether: the pre-Copernican system of planets “The Seven Heavens”.

Here is the list with the corresponding Narnia book:

  1. Moon –> The Silver Chair
  2. Mercury –> The Horse and His Boy
  3. Venus –> The Magicians Nephew
  4. Sun –> The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  5. Mars –> Prince Caspian
  6. Jupiter –> The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  7. Saturn –> The Last Battle

Once Ward outlines his thesis he then lays out chapter by chapter how each book connects with and corresponds to a planet in that medieval system.

So, do I buy it? I am not sure. Ward does an excellent job of explain how much Lewis loved this medieval system and how the symbolism was a way of seeing the world that Lewis valued a great deal.  And ward certainly relates a number of links between the books and the planets in language, symbols, emotions, etc.

Cover of "Planet Narnia: The Seven Heaven...
Cover via Amazon

But for some reason the whole was less than the parts for me. Maybe the “Planet Narnia for Idiots” style and length undermined the case (and Ward seems pedantic at times). Or again, maybe I was in too much of a hurry. But for whatever reason, while I enjoyed the background that led up to the chapters on each book I don’t feel like I have any deeper insight into the Narnia series as a result of Ward’s theory.

There was never an “Aha!” moment or a particular insight that stuck with me. Instead, I was left with the lingering sense of “Yeah, I suppose that could be true.” The sections discussing the impact of the planetary world view and our language and culture was fascinating however.

In the end, I think The Narnia Code is a well intentioned attempt to take a detailed academic literary thesis and bring it down to a popular level. For a variety of reasons I am not sure I am best able to judge its success.

But it is an interesting subject and will be of great interest to Lewis and Narnia fans.

Tyndale House Publishers provided me with a complimentary copy of this book.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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