Oxford Professor and Lewis Scholar Michael Ward Speaks at Eastern

     On Wednesday, Sept. 21, Michael Ward, an Oxford professor and preeminent C.S. Lewis scholar, presented in Baird Library on the secret code carefully hidden in Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Dr. Ward was hosted by Eastern’s ISI Montaigne Society in conjunction with the Templeton Honors College and the Agora Institute’s Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture.

     Ward studied English at Oxford and theology at Cambridge and has a Ph.D. in Divinity from St. Andrews. He is Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall at the University of Oxford and is also on staff at Houston Baptist University where he teaches an online course for their M.A. in Christian Apologetics. But as impressive as his resume is, Ward says that his greatest claim to fame is that he once handed a pair of X-ray spectacles to James Bond in “The World Is Not Enough.”

     In his lecture, Ward explains the thesis for which he is known: C.S. Lewis patterned his books on medieval cosmology with each book corresponding to one of the seven heavens, which comprise the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Ward shares that this idea occurred to him while he was working on his Ph.D. He was sitting in bed one night reading a long poem that Lewis wrote about the planets when he noticed that descriptions of Jupiter in the poem seemed reminiscent of events in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” After talking with his adviser, Ward pursued this new lead and ended up writing his dissertation on the subject. He then published it as “Planet Narnia,” which the BBC adapted as “The Narnia Code.”

     Ward readily admits how fantastical it sounds for him to claim to have found a “hidden code” in Lewis’ works. However, Ward is not the first to suggest that there is significance to the number of books in the series. Many scholars have suggested that perhaps Lewis based the seven books on the seven deadly sins, or the seven virtues, or the seven Catholic sacraments, or the seven books of Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” but all of these theories break down when analyzing all seven books. Others suggest that perhaps there is no underlying structure to Lewis’ books. In fact, Ward shares that J. R. R. Tolkien detested “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” because Lewis mixed his mythology seemingly so randomly. The story features English children, which could have been lifted from an E. Nesbitt story, but then it also features centaurs from Roman mythologies, a white witch that seems like she belongs in a Hans Andersen fairy tale and even Father Christmas, whose inclusion made Tolkien ask, “For goodness sake, what is he doing in the story?” Tolkien thought one should not assemble a mythological world with such incompatible mythologies. Ward jokes, “I like to say there was a love-hate relationship between Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis loved Middle Earth, and Tolkien hated Narnia.”

     But perhaps Lewis’ mixture of mythologies was not as haphazard as might appear. Ward points out that Lewis was a medievalist, an academic scholar who loved texts “which can’t be taken in at a glance” and are instead complex with layers of meaning wrapped up in intricate details. And besides, Ward says, Lewis’ own poems and various other writings are often elaborate and complex.

     Ward explores the typical qualities and characteristics of the seven heavens in medieval thought. The Sun (Saturn) is associated with burning and fire, the Moon with her silver gown, Mars with his helmet and chain mail as the god of war, Mercury with his winged feet, the fleet-footed messenger of the gods, Jupiter with kingly scepter, regal and royal and sovereign, Venus with her green gown associated with love, fertility, laughter, beauty. Ward points out that particularly in medieval literature these symbols form a permanent archetype in human imagination that provides meaning in all stages of life from birth under Venus to death under Saturn. He argues that Lewis uses these seven spiritual symbols, one planet per book, and uses the characteristic qualities of each planet to control the way he structures the book’s plot and the way in which the Christ-figure Aslan functions in each book.

     An example of this symbolism is found in “The Horse and His Boy,” which Ward posits is the Mercury book. The character of Aslan is repeatedly described as running so fast that he is mistaken for multiple lions. The text says of Aslan that he was “swift-footed.” Mercury, in classic mythology, is the messenger of the gods and is known as swift-footed. Ward argues convincingly that this pattern of the seven heavens as the undergirding pattern of Lewis’ series holds true for each and every book.

     If it should seem surprising to us that Lewis would be so secretive as to hide this code in his books, it is worth knowing that Lewis could be very secretive. Ward points out that after getting married Lewis kept his marriage a total secret for a whole year, not even telling his closest friends, including Tolkien. One of Lewis’ friends once quipped that “Surprised by Joy” should really have been called “Suppressed by Jack.” Ward’s lecture, as well as his books, is also full of surprises, which can enrich our reading of and appreciation for the “Narnia” series.

     Sources: Michael Ward lecture, MichaelWard.net

Comments are closed.