Dr. Michael Ward is Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. He earned his PhD in Divinity through the University of St. Andrews.
He is best-known for his award-winning book, Planet Narnia. In it, he proposes that there is a deeper meaning to the Chronicles of Narnia based on medieval cosmology and CS Lewis’ fascination with it. Dr. Ward’s work is the subject of a BBC1 documentary called The Narnia Code as well as an accompanying book of the same name.
I was privileged enough to learn from Dr. Ward while I was pursuing my MA in Apologetics at HBU, and when I decided that I was going to be writing an upcoming series on Narnia, I wanted to talk to Dr. Ward and present his work to you. He truly is one of the foremost CS Lewis scholars in the world today.
Thank you Dr. Ward for coming on Entering the Public Square!
ZS: When did you first become interested in the work of CS Lewis? Was Narnia your first encounter with his writings?
MW: Early. And yes! My parents read the Chronicles to me before I was old enough to read them for myself. As soon as I was able, I begin reading them direct, which was even better, I found. From Narnia, I migrated to The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce and Mere Christianity, and thence to the whole of the rest of his output.
ZS: How did you develop this idea that there quite possibly might be a type of code hidden in the Chronicles of Narnia?
MW: Let me quote you some relevant paragraphs from the final chapter of Planet Narnia:
[The idea] was prompted by two things. A friend, Christopher Holmwood, gave me the soundtrack to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As one does when one first acquires a new piece of music, I listened to it several times in just a few days. Although I did not think highly of every number in this composition, there were one or two tracks that I felt interpreted parts of the story extremely well. More pertinent, though, was the simple fact of immersing myself in an orchestral and mostly non-verbal rendering of Lewis’s work. Without knowing it, I was attuning my mind to the musicality of the tale, the ‘symphonic treatment of the images,’ by which Lewis set so much store.
[Within the week, I was lying in bed one night, reading] ‘The Heavens,’ Chapter V of The Discarded Image, when the thought occurred to me that it would be useful to compare and contrast Lewis’s academic understanding of the subject with his poetic treatment of the same, so I took up my copy of his collected poems and began reading ‘The Planets.’ The phrase ‘winter passed / And guilt forgiven’ sprang from the page, demanding attention. I had come across the passing of winter and the forgiving of guilt elsewhere in Lewis’s writings: those things formed the centrepiece of his first Narnia tale. Could there be a link somehow between poem and Chronicle? That thought was the stray spark connecting Jupiter to The Lion in my mind, and one by one the other planet-to-book relationships began to be lit up in its train.
. . . I immediately and instinctively knew, though it took much longer to understand with clarity, that Lewis had cryptically designed the Chronicles so that the seven heavens spoke through them like a kind of language or song. He had translated the planets into plots, and the music of the spheres could be heard silently sounding (or tingling, as he would have said) in each work. I recalled that he liked to compare literary images with musical themes and that he thought that both should be richly expressive of mood, existing ‘in every possible relation of contrast, mutual support, development, variation, half-echo, and the like.’ The Narniad, I now started to see, was a literary equivalent of Holst’s Planets Suite; each one of the seven heavens gave the key to a different Chronicle. I did not shout ‘Eureka!’ and run naked down the street like Archimedes, but I did jump from my bed in a state of undress and began to pull books from my shelves, chasing links from work to work.
ZS: Why do you believe that CS Lewis was so particularly interested in the medieval conception of the seven heavens?
MW: Because it is all over his life and work. Not only did he write about the medieval cosmos extensively in The Discarded Image and his other academic writings, it also features extensively in his poetry (‘The Planets’ is only the most obvious example), and is used very clearly in the Ransom Trilogy.
ZS: Why do you think that CS Lewis worked so hard to weave this type of symbolism throughout all of his writings in secret rather than being blatantly obvious?
MW: Well, very often it is obvious, as in the examples given above. But in Narnia it is secret and there are two main reasons, I believe, why he preferred secrecy in this case: one reason is literary, one theological.
From a literary point of view, Lewis kept the symbolism secret because he was using it to provide each Chronicle with its pervasive atmosphere or flavour, - what he called ‘the kappa element’ (or cryptic element) of a story, which is not something you ‘look at’, but something you ‘look along’, as you read. You enjoy, rather than contemplate, the atmosphere of a well-told tale. In his essay ‘On Stories’, Lewis goes into great detail about the importance of weaving this kind of flavour or taste or overall quality into a story. A skilful writer doesn’t just provide characters and plot - things for the reader to look at, - but also those more intangible things like spirit and tone, the imaginative climate of the book so to speak, - things you are immersed in and which you don’t notice, but which are vital to giving the story texture and depth and believability.
For the theological reason, let me cannibalise part of The Narnia Code and quote you what Lewis said in his book on prayer: ‘We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.’ And in Miracles he wrote: 'The fact which is in one respect the most obvious and primary fact, and through which alone you have access to all the other facts, may be precisely the one that is most easily forgotten – forgotten not because it is so remote or abstruse but because it is so near and so obvious. And that is exactly how the Supernatural has been forgotten.'
In other words, it’s a bit like people who live next door to railway stations and who don’t notice the noise of the trains. They’ve become so used to the noise that they now don’t hear it. They miss it not because it’s not there, but because it’s everywhere: their whole world is full of the sound of trains! They have no negative with which to contrast their positive experience of this noise. Because they’ve never been aware of its absence, they’ve never become aware of its presence.
The answer to this problem is not to try to find a negative, - not to try to live without God in order to find out what living with Him is like. The answer is to become alive to the reality of our situation, - to wake up and to realise that God is already in the world and in our lives, in the workings of our mind, in the faces of those we meet, in the breath of our lungs, in the light of our eyes. God has to be there, because ‘in Him all things hold together’. As King David said in Psalm 36, ‘In Your light we see light’.
Lewis believed that the main way we know God as Christians is through Enjoying Him, not Contemplating Him. It’s a bit like a relationship with another human being. The best way to get to know someone is not to read facts about them on Wikipedia or look at their photos on Facebook. The best way to get to know someone is actually to live with them. By living with someone you don’t just know about them, you know them.
Lewis believed that coming to know God is much more like ‘breathing a new atmosphere’ than it is like ‘learning a subject’. In that respect, there is much in common between immersing yourself in the all-pervasive atmosphere of a well-told tale and coming to know the all-pervasive Author of Everything! We know God in this ‘secret’ sense, long before we know him made flesh in Jesus Christ. But the brilliant thing about the way Lewis uses the planetary imagery in Narnia is to make it serve both as a means of portraying the overall divine presence in each tale and as a means of portraying Aslan himself in each tale. There is thus a harmony between the ‘incarnate Logos’, the Word made Flesh, and what we might call the ‘discarnate’ or the ‘unincarnate’ Logos, the Word of God who has made all things and in whom all things hold together, - because both are depicted by means of the same spiritual symbol. Lewis described the planets as ‘spiritual symbols of permanent value’, and he is the first author, I think, to use them in such an imaginatively sophisticated manner, from this theological point of view.
ZS: CS Lewis is perhaps one of the most prominent cultural apologists in history. Why do you think that these books have been so effective at communicating Truth? What features of these stories demonstrate perhaps best practices for cultural apologists today to emulate?
MW: I think they’ve been effective because they were written chiefly to be good stories, and only secondarily to be ‘evangelistic texts’. An author must learn the craft and the art involved in effective writing before he or she can hope to have a lasting impact as a Christian writer. And the principles of effective writing are the same whether you’re a Christian or not. You need to know how to construct a plot, how to portray believable characters, how to pace your story, how to give it depth, how to give your readers enough to keep them interested but not so much that things become predictable. And so on, and so forth. Lewis was a very skilful writer, and that I think is probably the key thing to highlight for today’s cultural apologists. If you want to communicate the Christian life through words, learn how to use words!
ZS: Do you have a favorite Chronicle by any chance, and why is it your favorite? Personally, I go back and forth between The Silver Chair and The Last Battle.
MW: My favourite is ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’. It has two great ‘through-lines’, narratively speaking: the quest to find the lost lords and Reepicheep’s desire to find the Utter East. Those two unresolved questions keep you turning the pages. But it also builds and grows very effectively as the story progresses. The first part is relatively realistic, - for instance, the episode with the slave traders and the military ‘bluff’ that overthrows the Governor of the Lone Islands. This part could have been written by Robert Louis Stevenson; it’s like a ‘Boys Own Adventure Story’ and interestingly it doesn’t feature Aslan. But then in the middle of the book, things become more like a traditional fairy-tale, with dragons and golden hoards, and fabulous creatures like the dufflepuds, and magic spells, and Aslan begins to get involved. But then in the final part of the book, things shift up another gear and become not just magical, but mythical, even mystical: with eucharistic-like banquets that are eaten everyday by birds flying from the heart of the sun; with sea-water that becomes sweet and is compared to ‘drinkable light’; with Aslan appearing in ways very reminiscent of St John’s Gospel. Lewis manages to give you a real ‘whiff’ of heaven, if I can put it like that, in these final chapters. One is a thousand miles away, generically speaking, from Governor Gumpas fussing over his ink-pots, yet one doesn’t feel one has blundered into a different story. The way Lewis gradually heightens the tone and deepens the spiritual resonances is brilliant. It’s a work of genius, in my view.