Dance of the Planets

I woke up very early last Thursday morning and padded out to the kitchen for a drink of water. As I stood at the sink and looked out the window, I had to blink in disbelief. Three bright stars were clearly visible in a tiny triangle. What’s more, as I looked closely, I realised they weren’t twinkling. They were planets.

Thrilled, I looked even more closely: yes, there was Venus and Mars, and… was it Jupiter? And was there a very faint fourth planet? Mercury or Saturn?

I hadn’t been aware there was a conjunction of planets coming up, so to see them so unexpectedly was a marvellous and utterly serendipitous treat. I was reminded of the Chronicles of Narnia.  In Prince Caspian, Dr Cornelius takes Caspian up a tower to view the salutation of the stars Tarva and Alambil as they greet each other in the Great Dance.

Inevitably, my thoughts turned to Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of CS Lewis, a wonderfully compelling investigation into the hidden code that author Michael Ward believes he has discovered in CS Lewis’ most famous work. Ward contends that each of the seven stories in the Chronicles of Narnia focuses on one of the seven planets of the medieval cosmos. His thesis is that behind the eclectic, almost chaotic mix of folklore, myth and legend, there is a grand orderly dance—an extraordinary synthesis of astronomy and literary allusion.

Ward makes a persuasive case. During the twenty years I coordinated Camp Narnia, there were several times when the team raised suspicions there was a hidden secret embedded in the stories. I remember a lengthy discussion after our herald, Karen, made the point there was a curious mistake in Caspian’s flag in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. We all agreed that Lewis was too astute a scholar to have made the error of placing heraldic ‘metal’ on ‘metal’: a golden sun on a white background. It was obviously a clue—but it was beyond our ability to decode it.

So I have to say Ward’s book is just simply a masterpiece. Genius!

It might come as a big surprise then that, although I’d rate it 9.9 out of 10, I think its premise is quite wrong. Ward gets close; very close—he arrives at the magnetic not the North Pole.

Ward begins by making the correspondence between The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the planet Jupiter. My initial reaction when I read his argument was ‘maybe’. He lined up Prince Caspian with Mars. ‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘Definitely.’

Then he linked the sun (which is a planet in medieval cosmology) to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. ‘Probably,’ I thought. By this stage I was starting—like far better scholars before me—to give serious credence to this amazing premise. However, when Ward made the connection between the moon (also a planet in medieval cosmology) and The Silver Chair, my immediate reaction was ‘no’.

Part of the reason I baulked was because of a term Ward had introduced early on, in an attempt to express how Lewis had captured certain essential qualities and distilled them into each story. Ward coined the term ‘donegality’ and used it regularly, stating as one of his reasons for using it the fact that Donegal was one of Lewis’ favourite places on Earth.

Perhaps I mightn’t have had the reaction I did had I not spent a month in Donegal just prior to reading the book. Consequently, mulling around in the back of my thoughts was: ‘So what’s the donegality of Donegal?’

Everyone’s experience is different but to me the answer was suddenly and obviously ‘the giants’. The giants whose names are still part of the landscape—Tory Island, Finntown, Grianan of Aileach, Lough Derg.

And giants are exactly what The Silver Chair features strongly. About a quarter of the book is devoted to the giants of Ettinsmoor and the castle of Harfang. In addition, there are allusions to giants from the very beginning of the book: Aslan blows both Eustace and Jill to Narnia. In doing so, like he acted like the giants that blew after the hero in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lewis himself remarked in a defence of that sense some people have about giants in the landscape: Gawain was in the north-west corner of England when “etins aneleden him”, giants came blowing after him.’  Indeed we might note that Ettinsmoor includes a Middle English word for giant.

Other words for giants include titans, jotuns, rises and thurses. It is this last name that seeped into my consideration of the donegality of The Silver Chair to cause that immediate reaction: ‘No, it’s not the moon.’ 

The Silver Chair, in my view, is part of a sevenfold code. But the code is not, in the first instance, the planets. It’s the Days—Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday—which just happen to be named after the planets of medieval cosmology.  So there is a sense in which Ward is right. However, I don’t believe his order is correct.

Instead of The Silver Chair being linked to the moon, it should be linked to Jupiter, the giant planet, named after the chief of the Roman gods, the lightning-wielder whose Norse counterpart was Thor, after whom Thursday was named. Thor was constantly at war with the Thurses. In one adventure, reminiscent of Jill and Eustace’s fall into the letters on the hillside, he falls in a giant’s glove, believing it to be a cavern in which to sleep. And like Prince Rilian, he battles a giant serpent who is the offspring of a witch—his archenemy, Jörmungandr the Midgard Serpent.

 This is only to scratch the surface of the wordgames based on Thor and Thurses and their links into other languages.

Moreover, the source of Lewis’ inspiration is clear. Not—at least in the first instance—medieval cosmology, nor his love of astronomy, not the legends of the giants of Donegal (so reminiscent of the giant of Edinshall above the River Whiteadder in the Scottish Borders) nor his sense of being ‘crazed with northern-ness’ when it came to Norse mythology, but a very modern literary work.

I believe his idea came from that brilliant and surreal novel written by his fellow-Inkling, a writer he greatly admired—GK Chesterton.  The code behind the Chronicles of Narnia is therefore based on the stunning ending to The Man Who was Thursday.

However I may be biased in reaching this conclusion. You see, I’ve always wanted to do the same. And as I watched that conjunction of planets last Thursday (what else?), I finally decided it’s time.


  1. James

    So, do you think that Lewis hidden meanings are more conscious or unconscious? Is it something he planned or something that just outworked of who he was?

  2. Thanks for such an interesting question. I think that the meanings involve both aspects. I believe the initial choice of inspiration (from Chesterton) involves unconscious factors but, once past that, there is a conscious choice to feature a mythological mix that parallels each Day.

  3. I forgot to mention that one of the reasons Michael Ward thought that the moon was the essential ‘donegality’ of The Silver Chair is the title which alludes to the propensity of many poets to describe the lunar surface as ‘silver’ when viewed from Earth. However, the original title was The Wild Waste Lands which tends to indicate that the giants reallywere integral to his inspiration.

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