Priest and scholar discovers new key to understanding C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia
Q&A with Michael Ward, Priest of the Church of England, scholar
By Julie Rattey
“I regard [this discovery] very much as a godsend and a gift which has been given to me in order for me just to share it with other people”
Re-reading one of C.S. Lewis’ poems one night in 2003 as he was nearing the end of his ordination training, British scholar Michael Ward had an epiphany: He had just discovered a clue to understanding The Chronicles of Narnia that had remained hidden for more than 50 years. Ward recently spoke with Catholic Digest about his discovery, which he wrote about in Planet Narnia, a scholarly work released this year by Oxford University Press.
CD: You’ve been teaching and studying C.S. Lewis’ work for more than a decade. What initially sparked your interest in Narnia, and what has held your interest for such a long time?
WARD: I initially got into Lewis and Narnia the same way that most people do, I suspect — by having the books read to me as a child. My parents would read chapters aloud to me and my two brothers each Saturday or Sunday morning. And then I read them again for myself and then got into Lewis’s other fiction and his Christian apologetics, and then I did my English degree at Oxford and started reading his academic books. So it’s been a long process of steadily deepening my familiarity with his work and his way of thinking.
CD: How have the Chronicles have influenced your faith as a Christian both before and after your discovery?
WARD: Before the discovery, I loved the books for their presentation of a world in which faith was part and parcel of the whole experience. The Christianity embedded in the stories wasn’t just a compartment of the experience of the children: It kind of comprised their whole world. It was a little bit like heaven, because our whole experience (there) will be one of worship.
What the Narnia books have done for me has been a little bit like a scientific breakthrough or a religious revelation. The world that you thought you understood on one level suddenly turns out to have been created at a wholly higher level. I can sometimes now think that way with respect to the real world: When I see the chaos and conundrums of the real world I can say to myself, This may just be evidence of artistry and creativity and divine purpose on a higher level.
CD: For those who are unfamiliar with your discovery, can you provide a brief summary of the main arguments of your work?
WARD: In essence the thing is this: Lewis, as a medieval scholar, was deeply acquainted with the old view of the Earth as the center surrounded by the seven heavens, each with its own planet, and each planet with its own set of characteristics and qualities and influences. [Lewis] described these planets as spiritual symbols of permanent value. He took these qualities and characteristics of the seven planets and basically turned them into plots (i.e., the plots of the seven Chronicles).
The imagery associated with each planet provides him with the basic narrative arc of each story and countless points of ornamental detail. It also controls the way he portrays the Christ figure (Aslan) in each story. From a theological point of view, this imaginative technique is extremely ingenious and I think unprecedented; I can’t think of other writers who have done this.
CD: To illustrate your point about how the novels are coordinated with each of the planets, would you just walk us briefly through say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and give a few examples of how this is played out?
WARD: In some ways it’s a little bit easier to explain with Prince Caspian because with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Jupiter (Jove) imagery which controls the story is so closely related to the Gospel story. People have thought that the Gospel story was Lewis’s imaginative starting point. But when you turn to Prince Caspian, Aslan’s role seems of no obvious connection to episodes in the life of Christ. But if you approach both books from the planetary perspective, both are equally well explained.
[It’s in] Prince Caspian, the Mars story, [that] the great War of Deliverance, as it’s called in the later book, (takes place,) and Mars is the god of war. The other obvious aspect to Prince Caspian is imagery connected with trees and forests. Mars was originally not the god of war; he was a vegetation deity associated with trees and forests. He was called Mars Silvanis. That’s why Lewis puts some silvans (tree spirits) into Prince Caspian; they never again appear in the Narnia books. And Mars was the god of March, when the trees come back to life after winter.
This is a story in which Aslan can wake the trees, though Lucy cannot. It’s a story in which Aslan gives that great war cry summoning everyone to the final battle. So he incarnates the Martial spirit that is otherwise spread abroad in the rest of the story. But it’s much more detailed than that.
CD: Some Christians, as you yourself have pointed out, may feel a little uncomfortable drawing connections between the pagan gods and the Chronicles. How would you suggest readers approach that?
WARD: One way is by reference to the Bible itself, and especially to Acts 17, where Saint Paul speaks to the men of Athens about Jesus by quoting poems about Zeus, the king of the pagan gods. They believed that human beings were the offspring of Zeus; that it was in Zeus that “we live and move and have our being.” These are quotations from pagan poets that Paul uses in order to then say something about Christ. And that’s similar to what Lewis is up to using paganism throughout so much of his work. From the similarity between paganism and Christianity, Lewis concluded not “so much the worse of Christianity,” but “so much the better for paganism” — that the pagans got a few things right and that shouldn’t be ignored. It should put to use for the Gospel.
CD: You first made this connection between the seven planets and the seven books of the Chronicles while you were rereading Lewis’s poem “The Planets,” particularly the phrase “winter past and guilt forgiven,” which applies so clearly to the plot of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. What was your reaction when you began to make this discovery?
WARD: It was amazing. I was lying in bed one night, I think it was Wednesday, and when the penny dropped with respect to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it was very easy to see how Jupiter connected with that first story. Well, then my mind began slowly to crank, and I began to think, Well, perhaps the other six planets connect to the other six books. And it was easy to see that they did.
I walked around Cambridge in a dazed state for about two weeks. I don’t mind telling you, at one point I even shed a tear because it was so beautiful and artistic and subtle. And also, from my point of view, it was the most tremendous privilege that this discovery should have fallen into my lap when many better minds that mine studied the books for years without happening upon this. But I regard it very much as a godsend and a gift which has been given to me in order for me just to share it with other people, and that’s why it’s been such a pleasure writing up this discovery and now going around lecturing about it. And seeing other people catch the excitement. People are writing to me saying that they will never read the Narnia Chronicles in the same way again. People have said, “Now I’ve got an even higher estimation of Lewis’ genius as a writer.”
CD: It is fun, because you’re exploring it on a whole new level. It’s always exciting when you’re able to do that with a book or a series that has been a beloved part of your childhood.
WARD: It’s so delicious and delightful. I don’t think anyone in the history of the world has ever enjoyed writing up a PhD as much as I have. It was just an absolute joy from beginning to end. I do really feel that it was my vocation; it was the book I was called to write. CD
A closer look at Michael Ward
- His favorite Narnia character: Jewel the unicorn (The Last Battle)
- His favorite Narnia book: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
- Narnia character he’d like to be: “I think the character I’d like to play in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is that sleeping lord who says, ‘Pass the mustard,’ before falling back to sleep!”
- Upcoming projects: writing a popular version of Planet Narnia aimed at a younger audience, co-editing The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, due out in 2010
- Favorite movies: The Crucible with Daniel Day Lewis, The Shawshank Redemption, Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labors Lost
- Favorite composer: Elgar
- Favorite food: “Really good sausages and mash”
- Favorite prayer: the Anglican Collect of the Feast of the Epiphany from the Book of Common Prayer, 1662: “O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles: Mercifully grant, that we, which know Thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
- His heroes: William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill
- Best advice he’s ever received: “Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t rush.”
Michael Ward meets James Bond
Ward, who occasionally does film extra work, got a rare treat when he was told to hand 007, played by Pierce Brosnan, a pair of X-ray spectacles in The World is Not Enough. “Normally you’re in a huge crowd scene and you don’t even get to see the actors, let alone interact with them,” says Ward. “But I found myself in this scene with 007, Q, and John Cleese. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.”
Learn more about the discovery online!
For more information about Michael Ward and his discovery, including a page of FAQs on the book, visit planetnarnia.com.