C. S. Lewis and the Seven Planets of the Medieval Cosmos

The medieval worldview was derived from the ancient Greek cosmology of the four elements-fire, air, water, and earth, with their complementary qualities of heat, dryness, moisture, and cold, and the corresponding four humours in the body: choler (yellow bile), blood, phlegm, and melancholy (black bile).

The medieval worldview was derived from the ancient Greek cosmology of the four elements-fire, air, water, and earth, with their complementary qualities of heat, dryness, moisture, and cold, and the corresponding four humours in the body: choler (yellow bile), blood, phlegm, and melancholy (black bile).

Before astronomers’ use of telescopes, Medieval astronomers in the West included both the Sun and the Moon in the list of planets influencing humanity.

The classical planets, therefore, were the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Beyond that, nothing was known for hundreds of years, yet this ordering of what we once knew of the universe influenced virtually every belief and perception for everyone from alchemists to field workers.

Even the educational system was imbued with the metaphor of the seven planets, for a well-rounded curriculum was comprised of the Seven Liberal Arts, because the idea of wholeness or totality stemmed from the idea of ‘the universe,’ which, at the time, was circumscribed by the known planets.

Now, C. S. Lewis, famous amongst his devoted readers for the fantasy-based Chronicles of Narnia series, is similarly well-known amongst Medieval scholars, and in fact, in his final work The Discarded Image, he made his views about the cosmological perception of the Middle Ages well known.

The medieval worldview depended heavily on hierarchy, order, and method

The medieval worldview depended heavily on hierarchy, order, and method

He found medieval cosmology “delightful,” and even though he said he knew it was “not true,” “few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence” (Discarded Image, 216) in quite the same measure.

What Lewis called the “Old Model” of Medieval cosmology held a fascination for him that permeates many of his books, including the three-book science fiction “planet” series, which takes its protagonist, Dr. Ransom, to Venus (renamed Perelandra) and Mars (Malacandra) to fight the forces of evil. That Lewis considered the planets to be “spiritual symbols” of “permanent value” indicates the powerful role he granted these mystical orbs.

The medieval point of view: Man at the center of the cosmos, surrounded by a heavenly embrace. Codex Latinum 1942 c. 9 r., Biblioteca Statale, Lucca, Italy

The medieval point of view: Man at the center of the cosmos, surrounded by a heavenly embrace. Codex Latinum 1942 c. 9 r., Biblioteca Statale, Lucca, Italy

So, one can see a theme in C.S. Lewis’ mindset, which was that he was fascinated by the imagery, poetry, and metaphor of the planets, as well as the ideals of the medieval sense of hierarchy that gave structure and form to the heavens.

The Medieval heavens were ordered and organized, structured and predictable.

The Medieval heavens were ordered and organized, structured and predictable.

For many years, The Chronicles of Narnia stood out in Lewis’ oeuvre as his strangest, most fantastical, and seemingly allegorical, but thoroughly Christian, creation. Attempts were made to explain what overriding structural theme unified the Narnia stories. Because none could be found, it was long thought that the stories fell into a mire of Christian allegory, but critics mostly either labelled Lewis a Christian ‘apologist,’ or, more recently, began to see him as more complicated, his ideology located somewhere between a passion for Christianity and an equally strong fascination with paganism.

Into this disagreeable intellectual maelstrom entered clergyman and Lewis scholar, Michael Ward,  who, after careful research, discovered the one metaphorical theme that made The Chronicles of Narnia puzzle coherent: cosmology’s model of order and certitude Lewis himself so admired, the planets.

Acknowledging that “Lewis’s mind and imagination did not work randomly,” Ward explored the possible connections between Lewis’ known love of Medieval cosmology, and the patterns inspired by the seven books in the Narnia series.

It is my opinion that only someone open to the idea of Lewis’ ambivalence about Christianity in relationship to paganism would be able to see the possibility of this particular overarching structural motif in Lewis’ work.

As Ward explains in an online article:

C.S. Lewis secretly based the Chronicles of Narnia on the seven heavens. The imagery associated with each planet provided him with his symbolic raw materials. The planetary symbols govern the shape of each story, countless points of ornamental detail and, most importantly, the portrayal of the central character, Aslan.

Jupiterian imagery is how Santa Claus' arrival in Narnia makes any sense.

Jupiterian imagery is how Santa Claus’ arrival in Narnia makes any sense.

Michael Ward wrote a book, Planet Narnia, in which he expands on his theory. It came as no surprise to me that he aligned my favorite of Lewis’ series, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, with the planet Jupiter:

Jupiter was the best planet and Lewis’s favourite. Jupiter was the planet of kingship, and this story is a clash between the children’s destiny as kings and queens of Narnia, under the ‘King of the Wood’, Aslan, and Edmund’s mistaken attempt to become king under the evil White Witch.

Jupiter brought about “winter passed and guilt forgiven”, according to Lewis’s poem, ‘The Planets’, and in this first Narnia Chronicle the White Witch’s winter passes and Edmund’s guilt is forgiven.

Click here for more synopses of the seven books.

And, because it’s rarely seen, I’m including this paean to the celestial orbs,

C. S. Lewis’ poem “The Planets”

Lady Luna, in light canoe,
By friths and shallows of fretted cloudland
Cruises monthly; with chrism of dews
And drench of dream, a drizzling glamour,
Enchants us – the cheat! changing sometime
A mind to madness, melancholy pale,
Bleached with gazing on her blank count’nance
Orb’d and ageless. In earth’s bosom
The shower of her rays, sharp-feathered light
Reaching downward, ripens silver,
Forming and fashioning female brightness,
Metal maidenlike. Her moist circle
Is nearest earth.

Next beyond her
Mercury marches – madcap rover,
Patron of pilf’rers. Pert quicksilver
His gaze begets, goblin mineral,
Merry multitude of meeting selves,
Same but sundered. From the soul’s darkness,
With wreathed wand, words he marshals,
Guides and gathers them – gay bellwether
Of flocking fancies. His flint has struck
The spark of speech from spirit’s tinder,
Lord of language! He leads forever
The spangle and splendour, sport that mingles
Sound with senses, in subtle pattern,
Words in wedlock, and wedding also
Of thing with thought.

In the third region
Venus voyages…but my voice falters;
Rude rime-making wrongs her beauty,
Whose breasts and brow, and her breath’s sweetness
Bewitch the worlds. Wide-spread the reign
Of her secret sceptre, in the sea’s caverns,
In grass growing, and grain bursting,
Flower unfolding, and flesh longing,
And shower falling sharp in April.
The metal copper in the mine reddens
With muffled brightness, like muted gold,
By her fingers form’d.

Far beyond her
The heaven’s highway hums and trembles,
Drums and dindles, to the driv’n thunder
Of Sol’s chariot, whose sword of light
Hurts and humbles; beheld only
Of eagle’s eye. When his arrow glances
Through mortal mind, mists are parted
And mild as morning the mellow wisdom
Breathes o’er the breast, broadening eastward
Clear and cloudless. In a clos’d garden
(Unbound her burden) his beams foster
Soul in secret, where the soil puts forth
Paradisal palm, and pure fountains
Turn and re-temper, touching coolly
The uncomely common to cordial gold;
Whose ore also, in earth’s matrix,
Is print and pressure of his proud signet
On the wax of the world. He is the worshipp’d male,
The earth’s husband, all-beholding,
Arch-chemic eye.

But other country
Dark with discord dins beyond him,
With noise of nakers, neighing of horses,
Hammering of harness. A haughty god
Mars mercenary, makes there his camp 

And flies his flag; flaunts laughingly

The graceless beauty, grey-eyed and keen,
Blond insolence – of his blithe visage
Which is hard and happy. He hews the act,
The indifferent deed with dint of his mallet
And his chisel of choice; achievement comes not
Unhelped by him – hired gladiator
Of evil and good. All’s one to Mars,
The wrong righted, rescued meekness,
Or trouble in trenches, with trees splintered
And birds banished, banks fill’d with gold
And the liar made lord. Like handiwork
He offers to all – earns his wages
And whistles the while. White-feathered dread
Mars has mastered. His metal’s iron
That was hammered through hands into holy cross,
Cruel carpentry. He is cold and strong,
Necessity’s song.

Soft breathes the air
Mild, and meadowy, as we mount further
Where rippled radiance rolls about us
Moved with music – measureless the waves’
Joy and jubilee. It is Jove’s orbit,
Filled and festal, faster turning
With arc ampler. From the Isles of Tin
Tyrian traders, in trouble steering
Came with his cargoes; the Cornish treasure
That his ray ripens. Of wrath ended
And woes mended, of winter passed
And guilt forgiven, and good fortune
Jove is master; and of jocund revel,
Laughter of ladies. The lion-hearted,
The myriad-minded, men like the gods,
Helps and heroes, helms of nations
Just and gentle, are Jove’s children,
Work his wonders. On his white forehead
Calm and kingly, no care darkens
Nor wrath wrinkles: but righteous power
And leisure and largess their loose splendours
Have wrapped around him – a rich mantle
Of ease and empire.

Up far beyond
Goes Saturn silent in the seventh region,
The skirts of the sky. Scant grows the light,
Sickly, uncertain (the Sun’s finger
Daunted with darkness). Distance hurts us,
And the vault severe of vast silence;
Where fancy fails us, and fair language,
And love leaves us, and light fails us
And Mars fails us, and the mirth of Jove
Is as tin tinkling. In tattered garment,
Weak with winters, he walks forever
A weary way, wide round the heav’n,
Stoop’d and stumbling, with staff groping,
The lord of lead. He is the last planet
Old and ugly. His eye fathers
Pale pestilence, pain of envy,
Remorse and murder. Melancholy drink
(For bane or blessing) of bitter wisdom
He pours out for his people, a perilous draught
That the lip loves not. We leave all things
To reach the rim of the round welkin,
Heaven’s heritage, high and lonely.