The Narnia Code
S is for secret
THE NARNIA CODE
C.S. Lewis and the secret of the seven heavens
By Michael Ward
Paternoster. 193 pages. £8.99
Don’t judge this book by its title. The Narnia Code is far more subtle and persuasive than its name might suggest.
The author writes: ‘The idea of secret codes usually makes people roll their eyes in disbelief — quite rightly too in most cases. When someone claims to have found a hidden code, it nearly always turns out to be a lot of nonsense’. It was with this sceptical view that I approached the book, and I was surprised by what I read.
Michael Ward is a (the?) leading academic studying Lewis and this book is proof of his knowledge and love of Lewis’s work. He provides a scholarly reading of the ‘atmosphere’ of each of the seven books, an explanation of some of the symbolism that Lewis uses, and a compelling argument for the importance of pre-Copernican cosmology in structuring the Narnian world. He is down-to-earth, beginning with the simple question, ‘Why does Father Christmas appear in Narnia’, a place where no one ever seems to show knowledge of Christ.
This question leads him to draw some startling conclusions. To summarise, Ward claims that each of the novels corresponds to one of the seven (medieval) ‘planets’ after which our weekdays are named. He argues that the mythology that surrounds them provided Lewis with the mood of each novel, as well as many of the smaller details which furnish the Narnian world.
It’s a risk to make such bold claims as, ‘The mystery was solved. I had cracked the Narnia code’. However, far from reducing the novels to a simple riddle to be unravelled, Ward proves the scope and intricacy of Lewis’s imagination.
Some of the methods that Ward uses to ‘crack the code’ appear at first a little contrived: translations from Arabic, references to ancient poems and lengthy comparisons with figures in medieval astrology. Despite this, his case is credible, as Lewis was knowledgable in all of these areas. Ward also sets out to prove that Lewis was a man capable of keeping secrets, and that it is therefore possible that the Chronicles of Narnia have a layer of meaning that was never revealed to anyone.
The Narnia Code is best suited to readers who are familiar with the Chronicles as it does contain a few plot spoilers. However, it is easy to read and Ward’s academic work, on which it is based, Planet Narnia, has also been adapted as a TV documentary. Readers of all ages will be thrilled to find new ways of exploring and understanding Lewis’s Narnia and its many complexities.
The true triumph of the book is the fact that it combines powerful and accessible literary criticism with gospel proclamation. Ward, himself a chaplain, is clear that this new reading compliments the traditional view of the Chronicles as a Christian allegory. In numerous places, he shows how the metaphor can be extended beyond the famous scene of Aslan dying in Peter’s place. In Ward’s view, Christ is everywhere in Narnia, represented by myriad symbols: ‘Lewis thought that it was important to speak about Christ in many different ways because no one way, on its own, was enough’.
The Narnia Code is a surprising book. It’s also timely, coming just as the Chronicles of Narnia are receiveing intense attention thanks to a new series of annual film adaptations. I’ll confess — Ward has me convinced that his reading is correct. Now I am looking forward to reading my way back through the seven novels in a new light and falling in love with Aslan all over again.