Scholars are required to write lengthy, heavily footnoted tomes, carefully and logically presented, with not even the slightest minutiae left uncovered. In the case of Michael Ward’s first book, Planet Narnia, the task was made more difficult by his need to prove a radical and controversial claim: that there is a secret third level of meaning in the Narnia books which Lewis intended and which no one has seen until now. Ward argued logically and with encyclopedic detail that he had indeed made such a discovery. This first book did the hard work, the work of a scholar. Now Michael Ward is back with The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens to take us on the adventure of his amazing discovery, to show us Lewis’s secret third level of meaning, and to explain why it matters to the Narnia books and to Christian lives.
When I first learned from Michael that he was writing a popular version of his scholarly book, I wondered how he was going to pull it off. What I have found in The Narnia Code is a readable, refreshing summary, application, and crystallization of his key ideas (with a few new arguments and evidences thrown in as well). I was immediately impressed by Ward’s ability to shift from an academic style (his is quite readable even then) to an engaging, almost narrative style. I found myself drawn in on the first page of the book and felt like I was reading a story rather than a non-fiction discussion about stories. I was next impressed by the pace of the book—having read Planet Narnia, I could see Ward whizzing through what were pages of material (in the first book) in a matter of paragraphs in The Narnia Code.
And so, in chapter one, I got an immediate reminder—a highlight of significant points (which never felt like a cursory summary)—of the questions and issues which make Ward’s discovery of the Narnia Code so important. To be sure, I wondered if Michael were going a little too “pop” with this popular version of his earlier work given the painful puns in several of the chapter sub-headings throughout the book (for example, “Give Father Christmas the Sack!”), but I never experienced a sense that content, if simplified, was presented in a patronizing fashion. As I said, in chapter one I was reminded of key problems which find their solution in Ward’s discovery: how does Father Christmas fit into The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Why do some of the Narnia books seem to have strong biblical parallels while others don’t? Are the flaws which critics (beginning with Tolkien) talk about really there? Did Lewis just write the books for a lark, or is it possible that their popularity stems from having been far more carefully worked out than critics have so far acknowledged or discerned? Ward tells us succinctly in chapter one why what he’s going to reveal in the rest of his book matters.
In chapter two, Ward’s narrative style continues as he offers us clues from Lewis’s own writings which suggest the existence of a Narnia Code and Lewis’s reasons for placing it secretly into his books. Here and throughout the book, Ward does what he did so well in his first book: he offers and then proves his arguments out of C. S. Lewis’s own writings. His best argument, from Lewis’s concept of the “Kappa Element” in literature, is more clear and forceful here in The Narnia Code than (my memory recalls it to be) in the first book. It’s one of many solid proofs of Ward’s claim.
And that claim is revealed in chapter three of The Narnia Code where the book inspires the kind of interest we’d find reading the climax of a mystery novel. The code which Ward discovered is that Lewis purposely organized his seven Narnia books using ideas and themes, images and symbols associated with the seven planets of the medieval cosmos: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with Jupiter, Prince Caspian with Mars, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with the Sun (considered a planet in medieval astronomy) and so on. And after revealing this code to us, Ward smartly turns to the question, “So what?” He tells us why we should be interested in the planets and the heavens, even making biblical connections to them and concluding with Lewis’s own belief that the qualities of the planets as envisioned in the past “have a permanent value as spiritual symbols.”
What follows then are seven chapters in which Ward shows us how the Narnia Code is played out in each of the seven books, one planet governing each book. Ward offers many of the same solid proofs of the code’s existence which he offered in his first book. He gives answers to critical questions like the place of Father Christmas in Wardrobe (he is a symbol of Jupiter) while offering biblical and spiritual applications for the new meanings revealed by the Narnia Code. Among my favorite revelations from the Code are:
- An explanation for the unity of the two major motifs in Prince Caspian of war and nature—Mars draws them together because he is not merely a god of war but a nature god as well: “Mars Silvanus.”
- An explanation for the presence of so many dragons in Voyage of the Dawn Treader—the Sun god, Apollo is known as Apollo the “lizard slayer” (I also like Ward’s revelation of the theme of sanctification in Lewis’s use of alchemy in this book).
- The Mercurial connections in The Horse and His Boy which give a strong interpretation for the unity of the various plot elements in a book which otherwise seems almost random in its plot and its place among the other Narnia books.
The Venus and Saturn chapters were the only ones which did not engage me as much their counterparts in Planet Narnia, though I’m not exactly sure why; I would not, however, call them weak.
If I were to find weakness in Ward’s book, it would only be after the fashion of a book critic who feels the compulsory need to say something bad about a book in order to appear fair, objective and haughtily sophisticated. Yes, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Ward’s references to the significance of colors and metals from the first book which do not make it into this one, and yes I would’ve like to have seen more of Ward’s explanation from Planet Narnia about the significance of “the wood between the world” in the new book, but I don’t call these criticisms, just preferences.
The closest thing I can get to a negative critique is to point out that Ward didn’t say anything about how controversial his discovery is among Lewis critics. In explaining Lewis’s plan for the books, for example, Ward writes as if the evidence of Lewis’s process were quite clear (when, for example, there are some letters from Lewis which several scholars offer as proof that Lewis had no grand design for the Narnia books). But then I answer my own critique: That’s not what this book is for. Ward, answered the questions in his previous book, responded to the evidence (like the letters above) with sound arguments (both in Planet Narnia and since then on the internet), and has effectively answered the questions of scholarly critics since the last book was published. He’s earned his stripes and earned the right to release a book which explains his discovery and its significance without getting bogged down in the questions of doubters. Like its predecessor, The Narnia Code reveals greater unity among the Narnia books, reveals greater meaning in them, answers critics who thought they found flaws in the books but really just couldn’t read the code, and shows us for the time just how great a literary achievement the Narnia books are.
In the remaining chapters of The Narnia Code, Ward shows us how all seven of the Narnia books are about Christ, something critics have struggled to show for decades. He explains that our love for the books—their constant popularity—stems from Lewis placing deeper and more Christian meanings in them than we realized, but meanings which nevertheless have an impact on us. And he explains (without quite putting it in the words I’m using) how our modern approach to knowledge and truth (an approach even Christians have adopted without knowing it) has missed the mark. Lewis shows us a better (and I would argue more biblical) approach to knowing and truth, not by telling us what it is, but by showing us in an example—the subtle, deep meaningful, semi-conscious (even archetypally unconscious) method of storytelling according to a code never revealed until now.
Charlie Starr is a professor of English and Humanities at Kentucky Christian University