“The Planets” in C.S. Lewis’ Writing

Ptolomaic Cosmos from Planet Narnia dot comIt does not take long for a serious reader of C.S. Lewis to realize that he was in love with cosmology—the planets and the stars as they sit within the vast expanse of space. His first popular fiction was science fiction, with characters visiting the planets of Mars and Venus. References to the cosmos fill his poetry, and all the characters in Narnia look up to the heavens at one time or another.

goteborg-svenska_frimurare_lagret-medeltidens_kosmologi_och_varldsbild-100521323518_nIntriguingly, Lewis doesn’t draw our attention to the scientific understanding of the universe–the chemical composition of Neptune or the distance to the nearest star or the gravitational symmetry of planetary orbits. He would not be very interested in the debate about whether Pluto is a real planet or how to colonize Mars. Lewis’ interest was not in the real science of the skies, but in medieval cosmology—how medieval Europeans understood the “seven heavens.”

Michael Ward has suggested a way of reading The Chronicle of Narnia that argues that each of the Narniad matches on of the seven “planets” of the medieval world. Here is how he describes the cosmology:

“The seven planets of the old cosmology included the Sun (Sol) and the Moon (Luna), which we now don’t regard as planets at all. The other five were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter [Jove], and Saturn.”

Medieval Cosmos by Michael WardLewis knew that the Earth wasn’t the centre of the universe and that the moon and the sun were not really “planets.” But he thought the seven planets had important symbolic value. Our seven days of the week are named after the seven planets (e.g., Sunday, Monday, Saturday), and some of our English words still remember the spiritual or symbolic value of the planets as heavenly personalities. Jove (Jupiter) pops up as the word, “jovial,” and captures the nature of Jupiter as a character. Mars in mythology and art is properly “martial” (warlike), and Venus still retains elements of being the goddess of love in our poetry and literature.

It is certainly true that this medieval cosmology informed so much of Lewis’ work. His book, The Discarded Image, is a series of lectures introducing the old cosmology and how the medieval worldview influences literature. His Ransom books, in particular, play with the heavenly characters of the seven heavens, though taking them up in particular ways. In Out of the Silent Planet, it is Earth that is the martial planet, while Mars is the peaceful world. And in Perelandra, Venus is characterized as an Ave-Eva figure, a combination of the Virgin Mary and Eve, birthed in a watery world of beauty and love.

Field of ArbolI still have not contested with Ward’s Narnian thesis (despite promising to do so by now!). But as I was reading through Lewis work, I came across his 1935 poem, “The Planets.” It was this poem that first suggested Ward’s Narnia Code. He describes this process in his podcast with William O’Flaherty and Holly Ordway:

“I was lying in bed in 2003, I think it was, when I was halfway through my PhD on Lewis’ theological imagination. And I was reading a long poem that Lewis wrote about the seven heavens—it’s simply called “The Planets”—and when I got to the lines about Jupiter in this poem, I did a double take because the seven heavens, according to medieval thought, had a set of qualities and influences that were felt on Earth. And one of Jupiter’s influences was this, according to the poem, that Jupiter brought about “Winter past and guilt forgiven.” … That was the loose thread, you might say, that I tugged on, and which, when tugged upon, unravelled and revealed the whole tapestry, I believe, that Lewis was weaving in his construction of the Narnian chronicles.”

The Discarded Image by CS LewisWhether or not Ward is correct about how specifically Lewis shaped the Narniad according to this system, the old cosmology certainly informed all of his work. I thought it would be helpful to post the entire poem that first stuck in Ward’s brain. It appears in several collections, but in the first publication Lewis is trying to create a renaissance of a certain approach to writing poetry, namely the Alliterative Metre. The poem, which itself has no stanzas as other online editions suggest, and has each the seven planets capitalized, illustrates the power of the seven heavens in Lewis’ imagination. But his introduction to the poem may also be helpful to us:

“In order to avoid misunderstanding I must say that the subject of the following poem was not chosen under the influence of any antiquarian fancy that a medieval metre demanded medieval matter, but because the characters of the planets, as conceived by medieval astrology, seem to me to have a permanent value as spiritual symbols…” (“The Alliterative Metre,” in Selected Literary Essays (ed. Walter Hooper. Cambridge University Press, 1969), 23-24).

It is that “permanent value as spiritual symbols” that interests me most. It drives us back to Lewis’ WWII-era Ransom Cycle to see how he used the old cosmology. But it also means that we must consider Ward’s thesis. It is certainly true that Lewis was guided by a planetary understanding that science has long since rejected, but which we still feel even into our own age.

“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.

C.S. Lewis, “The Planets”, in the essay “The Alliterative Metre,” Lysistrata 2 (May 1935). Reprinted in Poems and Literary Essays, both edited by Walter Hooper, and C. S. Lewis Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, edited by Lesley Walmsley and available in non-American settings. The original has metrical notes and no stanzas, and capitalizes the planets as we first meet them (e.g., Lady LUNA, VENUS voyages, etc.).

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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35 Responses to “The Planets” in C.S. Lewis’ Writing

  1. My interest in the planets and their influence has been so heavily colored by New Age astrologers and would-be magicians that it has been a struggle to understand the viewpoint of say, Newton, or Pico della Mirandola and especially the early cosmology they were drawing on. I have often felt, as a Christian, I needed to “repent” of my fascination with these symbols. So it is interesting to read Lewis’ feeling that “…the characters of the planets, as conceived by medieval astrology, seem to me to have a permanent value as spiritual symbols…”: Almost exactly how I “rationalized” my personal pull toward them!

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    • Oh, Susan, you are so right about that tension! In fact, he uses “astrology” in a way I wouldn’t be comfortable with at all! I’ve wanted to blog about this, but haven’t pulled it together. If you’ve written about it, I’d love to see it (and potentially publish it).
      But, yes, Lewis is engaged in what I always called “Pagan” things in a way strange to North American evangelicalism. It comes from some idea that symbols are more than symbols for him, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet. It also comes from the fact that Paganism led him to Christianity, and he was always grateful.
      So you are right about the dangers. I remember ordering a book about magic and faeries from the library–an encyclopedia of some sort. But then it came and it was a devotional book for neo-pagans. I was a bit uncomfortable. I don’t think the faerie stories are UNTRUE, but they aren’t TRUE in the way these authors imagined (in my opinion).

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      • SFG says:

        Lewis wasn’t a North American evangelical, he was an English Anglican college professor. He loved all the old bits of the Western Tradition, and felt they incorporated bits of revelation. He seemed to think it was possible that bits of divine truth were revealed outside of Christinaity as well; you can see this in his statements about the ‘Tao’ in the Abolition of Man (I think), where he points out the elements of the moral code common to all cultures’ religions.

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  2. I look forward to watching you take on Michael Ward!

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  3. robstroud says:

    Excellent. Every time I hear Psalm 147:4 I think of Lewis.
    “He determines the number of the stars;
    he gives to all of them their names.”
    The same is true for the wonderful song “Indescribable” by Chris Tomlin.

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  5. I got a suggestion that I read this blog posting from WordPress mailing today. I was particularly drawn to Lewis’s lines on Mars & the brief conversation we had about Holst and his portrayal of Mars in The Planets. I think you are right in what you say, and you probably have more evidence to support this. Holst’s portrayal of Mars is of a figure wholly malign in influence. He is a bringer of war. I am struck that Lewis portrays an influence that is wholly pragmatic either for peace or war.

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    • I was wondering why that post got a lot of views yesterday! WordPress creates this “Check it out!” bundles, it must have been grouped in one of the mail outs. Pretty cool.
      On Mars, I get a bit more each time I reread this poem. I think that Lewis saw war as evil, but not Evil–if I can make the distinction. War is a collection of goods that get used as evils; Ideology can be Evil. And in the hands of Ideology, Martial force is used for evil.
      Even then, I may be pushing Lewis. But the sword of iron, though hinted at as unnatural and evil, is double edged.

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    • Enoch says:

      Can we even say that Holst’s interpretation of Mars is “wholly malign”? There is gravity, certainly, for war (whether just or unjust) is very serious business. To my mind, Holst’s Mars evokes a sense of increasing anticipation, of high stakes, even violence—but not necessarily colored by any lens other than that which we, the listeners, bring. Indeed, our retrospect may be tainted by other music that has drawn from Holst; I am thinking of John Williams’s score for Star Wars in which the Imperial March, used to indicate an character who brings both war and evil, is heavily influenced by Holst’s Mars.

      My understanding of the medieval interpretation of Mars (owed mostly to Michael Ward) is that of Infortuna Minor—there will always be loss and tragedy—that war can be necessary. It is a hard concept to swallow in out age, when wars are rarely just. But I suppose that has always been the case; the influence of Mars is not an evil in itself, but it can easily be turned to evil by the hearts of those who fight.

      I suppose it is also possible for the same war to even show both turnings of Mars’ influence. In the War of the Ring, Aragorn and company fight a war of preservation and protection against an enemy who is fighting a decidedly evil war of power and domination. Theoden still dies (the hazard of Infortuna Minor), but Mars’ influence could be said to be upon both sides of the war. The hearts of those who fight determine which edge of Mars’ iron sword they wield—that which will make “The wrong righted, rescued meekness,” or else “the liar made lord.”

      Thanks for letting me put in my oar.

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      • Is Mars like a muse, then? Or like Death, in that he does not take sides?
        I am also thinking of your response to Holst. Is the anticipation more important than the actual violence. It is in Star Wars, I think.

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        • Enoch says:

          Perhaps the comparison with death is apt, since Saturn (Infortuna Major) is the personification of death, decay, and winter. Both Mars and Saturn need not be inherently evil, but are often turned toward those purposes. I’m sure you’ve already noted the ways Lewis describes Mars in the poem: “mercenary,” “indifferent,” “hired gladiator/Of evil and good. All’s one to Mars,” and “Like handiwork/He offers to all – earns his wages/And whistles the while.” All of these paint Mars as inherently neutral. It reminds me of a common sentiment in certain parts of the U.S. that demonizes guns. Any rational person will realize, of course, that it is people who pull triggers; the guns themselves are not evil. If people don’t have guns, they will find other tools of violence.

          If we’re thinking along the same line, any decent story (like Star Wars) will nurse the anticipation of violence over the violence itself. That’s how Alfred Hitchcock made a living—the anticipation contributes meaning and punch to the violence. It becomes almost cathartic to finally have it over with.

          I don’t know that I can speak to the importance of anticipation over violence in Holst. The question almost seems to me to be meaningless, which probably indicates that I don’t properly understand what it is you’re getting at. It is generally a difficult sort of question in regard to any music that doesn’t have a specific narrative attached to it, but rather evokes a mood or atmosphere. Certainly, as with a story, the music that “anticipates” makes the arrival of the “violent” music more powerful. But is it more important? I don’t know. Without the “violent” climax, the “anticipatory” trajectory of the movement would feel like a broken promise.

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          • I am certainly not a music critic, but to make my question better: Does the Holst Mars theme resolve? Does the Stars Wars imperial march satisfy?

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            • Enoch says:

              Perhaps I’m picking nits—*resolve* and *satisfy*, at least in musical terms, are not necessarily the same. *Resolve* in its technical musical sense does occur in both Holst’s *Mars* and Williams’s *Imperial March*. But I have also studied numerous pieces that satisfy without technically resolving “properly” or “in the right key.” Whether resolution or satisfaction occur in these pieces (emotionally) may be a matter of aesthetics and interpretation. My own feeling is that *Mars* does resolve emotionally, in the same way that death resolves life. Anticipation is, in its way, a kind of longing or suffering; so bringing an end to it, even if it isn’t a “happy” ending, can still satisfy. I think I have some notion of Greek tragedy rolling around at the back of those words.

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              • Sorry about that sloppiness. I do know pop music (guitar, etc.), and didn’t mean to trod on that territory. I meant emotional completion and satisfaction, not a return to the root chord or anything.
                I think Greek tragedy has to be the background for Holst.

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  6. Enoch says:

    I found your blog while searching for a complete appearance of Lewis’s The Planets poem (having just completed my read of Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia. I don’t know if you’ve begun reading Ward’s work yet, but in Planet Narnia he devotes significant attention to the Ransom Trilogy. It is couched more as a window into his aesthetic cosmology and as an early (and perhaps less successful) attempt at subtly, artfully infusing those “spiritual symbols” into his fiction.

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    • It is great to meet you. I am following your blog in my reader, though if you had a button to allow sign up for emails, I would do that.
      I have Wards work here and have the structure down. I just haven’t sat down and done the work of break down each of the examples and test them. I remain skeptical, though he is certainly right that this 7 -Planet framework sits in the back of Lewis’ work. I don’t know that Lewis intended a grand structure of Ransom, but it is the most obvious example of him infusing medieval cosmology into fiction.
      Notably, he makes Mars a peaceful planet.

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  9. SFG says:

    Just finished That Hideous Strength, and there’s a bit at the end where all the non-sun-and-moon planets come down, and you can see their influence on everyone. Lewis loved the medievals and the pagans.

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  18. salooper57 says:

    Brenton, just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful work. Your blog is a great resource for those of us who love Lewis and still want to learn from him. – Shayne Looper

    Liked by 1 person

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