The number seven appears frequently throughout the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia. This is no secret. However, Lewis's intention in employing the number seven is a mystery to most. On Church Life Today, Rev. Dr. Michael Ward claims that the key to understanding the The Chronicles is the seven heavens of the medieval cosmos.
C.S. Lewis and a cosmological atmosphere
Though most admirers of C.S. Lewis assume the number seven refers to the seven deadly sins or the seven sacraments, Ward assures us that the number seven in The Chronicles of Narnia alludes to the planets, which Lewis regarded as “spiritual symbols of permanent value.” Ward stumbled upon this key while reading one of Lewis’s poems containing the line, “Jupiter brings about winter past and guilt forgiven.” In Ward's view, this is actually a pithy summary of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. After his discovery, Ward spent the next year rereading The Chronicles, finding references to medieval cosmology all over.
Why does Lewis write in this implicit fashion? How is the reader affected by entering into an imaginary and mysterious world in which meaning is somewhat unclear? Of course, Lewis doesn’t come right out and tell us the secret to his books; that would surely diminish the meaning and playfulness of the work. Ward claims that The Chronicles imaginatively represent “enjoyment consciousness,” that is, the experience of being inside the thing, of being embraced by what Lewis calls “the beam of light.”
Indeed, the power of The Chronicles is Lewis’s ability bring readers inside the wonderland, to absorb them into a world that shapes their entire field of vision. The atmosphere of Narnia changes both the Pevensey children and Lewis’s readers, who don’t just look at Narnia from afar, but plunge into it with full force. This experience is similar to what it means to know God. It means immersion and immediate unity in God, not observation or analysis from a distant place of indifference. As Ward explains, “we literally cannot get outside God and treat him as if he were an object to be studied. God is holding our being together.”
Lewis himself claimed that knowing God is a lot more like “breathing an atmosphere than learning a subject.” Breathing an atmosphere is particularly interesting language because of its strong association with the seven planets in medieval thought; the planets were imagined as imminent elements of the atmosphere which were “breathed in” like fresh air. The experience of breathing in the cosmological atmosphere is another way Lewis characterizes unity with God and another reason Ward claims to have “stumbled upon the secret, imaginative key” that binds The Chronicles together.
Ward’s discussion can be heard in full here on Church Life Today, a podcast produced by the McGrath Institute for Church Life.
More from Rev. Dr. Michael Ward on The Chronicles of Narnia
For more background and analysis of The Chronicles of Narnia, see the video below where Rev. Dr. Michael Ward presents on C.S. Lewis's book Prince Caspian.
The above lecture was part of the McGrath Institute for Church Life's 2019 spring lecture series, Journey through Narnia from Lent to Easter. You can view all the lectures on the McGrathND YouTube channel linked below:
- Introduction to the Chronicles of Narnia
David Fagerberg (Notre Dame)
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Leonard DeLorenzo (Notre Dame)
- Prince Caspian
Michael Ward (Oxford)
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Peter Schakel (Hope College)
- The Silver Chair
Rebekah Lamb (St. Andrew's)
- The Horse and His Boy,
Francesca Murphy (Notre Dame)
- The Magician’s Nephew
Catherine Cavadini (Notre Dame)
- The Last Battle
Anthony Pagliarini (Notre Dame)