Like many formidable puzzles, the secret behind The Chronicles of Narnia was hidden in plain sight.
Scholars had tried to find underlying themes connecting C.S. Lewis' seven fantasy novels, first published in 1950, with such archetypes as the seven deadly sins, the seven books of Spenser's Faerie Queene, or the seven sacraments.
None of these theories gained widespread acceptance, however, and most experts viewed the seven pieces of "The Narniad," as the series is known, as a literary hodgepodge with no unifying structure.
The Rev. Michael Ward may have changed all that.
Mr. Ward, a Lewis scholar at Cambridge University and an Anglican priest, has developed a new theory about Narnia that is causing a stir in literary circles: That each book is based on medieval cosmology.
According to Mr. Ward, Lewis wove hints, allegories, and references about the planets throughout each of the seven books, waiting for the right person to come along and unlock the clues like a literary Da Vinci Code.
Lewis loved secrets and delighted in books that can be read on many different levels, Mr. Ward said. While the Narniad is a children's fairy tale, it is also well known that it is a spiritual allegory, with Aslan the lion representing a Christ figure.
His inclusion of a link to the planets expands the depth of the series and shows that Lewis was a much more careful and imaginative writer than many people have acknowledged, Mr. Ward said.
He said he discovered that Jupiter provides the thematic framework for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Mars for Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia; Sol (sun), for The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader,'; Luna (moon) for The Silver Chair; Mercury for The Horse and His Boy; Venus for The Magician's Nephew, and Saturn for The Last Battle.
Mr. Ward will discuss his new theory and resulting book, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (to be published Monday by Oxford University Press) in a free public lecture at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday at Bowling Green State University.
The revelation about the medieval planetary connections came unexpectedly, in a "Eureka moment," Mr. Ward said in an interview from Chicago, where he recently gave a series of lectures.
"It was Feb. 7, 2003, and I was lying in bed and reading a couple of things when a little light went on in my brain," he said. "I suddenly sat up, jumped out of bed, and started pulling books off the shelves."
Like many "instantaneous" discoveries, there was a long history leading up to it, Mr. Ward said.
The 40-year-old priest and scholar said he had been reading Lewis' books for 30 years, studying them intensely for 20, and teaching undergraduates about Lewis' works for 10 years. He lived in The Kiln, Lewis' Oxford home, for three years and spent 18 months working on a doctoral dissertation with the provisional title: "C.S. Lewis and the Word: Christ, Scripture, and Language."
The revelation came after a series of discussions and meditations on the power of wordless communication, including music and prayer, that were only indirectly related to Lewis, he said.
"It really was a tremendous moment - easily the best thing that ever happened to me while I held a book in my hands," Mr. Ward said.
He changed the whole direction of his PhD research - "I had to chuck everything out the window" - and spent a year re-reading everything Lewis had written, scouring the texts for references to the planets.
"It was just the most tremendous joy and privilege. I can't imagine anyone ever enjoyed their PhD dissertation as much as I did," Mr. Ward said.
The more he researched the subject, the more convinced he became his theory was true.
"As soon as I had the idea, I kind of instinctively knew at once it was correct," he said. "But of course it needed to be confirmed with some careful work. And it was just amazing. The more I pulled on this thread, the more this whole tapestry kind of unraveled in front of me. It was astonishing. The more I went into it, the more and more obvious it became."
Alan Jacobs, a professor at Wheaton College widely regarded as the world's leading Lewis scholar, said his first response to Mr. Ward's theory was to build "a castle of skepticism."
But that castle "was gradually, but utterly demolished as I read this thoughtful, scholarly, and vividly written book," Mr. Jacobs said.
"That was exactly the response I had hoped for," Mr. Ward said.
Bruce Edwards, a Lewis scholar at Bowling Green State University, said Mr. Ward's thesis is causing an uproar in academia.
"Professor Ward's thesis is controversial in some quarters because it presents a different view of C.S. Lewis' composing process than we are used to hearing about. It really is ground-breaking scholarship in Lewis studies," Mr. Edwards said.
"What I think Professor Ward sets out to do and succeeds in marvelously is demonstrating once and for all that the Narnian stories were not slapdash productions - as his friend [J.R.R.] Tolkien seemed to think - but carefully planned and structured to reflect his love of the medieval worldview."
Mr. Ward said Lewis, who was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1898 and died in Oxford, England, in 1963, had a love of planets that was "lifelong and deep." He kept a telescope on his balcony and enjoyed visiting the Oxford observatory.
Famous for his Christian apologetics in such landmark books as Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, Lewis also had an interest in astrology, Mr. Ward said, something that may appear to contradict his Christian beliefs.
"He once stated (albeit in an article that was never published in his lifetime) that he did not believe in 'the astrological character of the planets,'•" Mr. Ward wrote in Planet Narnia. But at the same time Lewis could never entirely shake his interest in the topic.
"My conclusion is that he didn't actually believe the planets had these influences over us," Mr. Ward said, "but he found it difficult to disbelieve. The stars are so magnificent and splendid and awe-inspiring that he found it difficult to believe they didn't have some effect on us."
Michael Ward will speak on "C.S. Lewis, Narnia, and the Seven Heavens" at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday in Room 308 of the Bowen-Thompson Union at Bowling Green State University. More information on Mr. Ward's book is available online at www.planetnarnia.com.
- David Yonke