Monday, August 08, 2005

Missing the Signs

There’s much to be said for the value of a close look at a situation—for one thing, it allows you to see just where to place your next step. The close-up is the place where one decides to turn around, choose another route, maybe go back to the beginning and start again. The close-up is an in-the-moment view, where time is of the essence and the split-second decision must be made. Reflection can wait.

But the close-up view is also where doubt may often prevail. Regrets take seed. If only... if only... If only I had the panoramic view—the elusive “Big Picture”—when I made that decision... If only I could have seen then what I saw later. If only I could have known then what I know now.

This Close-Up vs. the Big Picture scenario occurs several times in The Chronicles of Narnia, but probably nowhere as prominently as in The Silver Chair. Interestingly, this contrast is played out not only with the story’s characters, but with the readers as well. When Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum look down on the ruins of the giants’ city and see the words UNDER ME, it dawns on them, as well as us, that they had no clue what they were stumbling through in the snowstorm the day before.

But first things first. We’re getting ahead of ourselves—one of the tell-tale signs of over-emphasizing the close-up view. To get the scene at Harfang in perspective, we need to remember that the story’s characters, to that point, have made a regular habit of missing the Big Picture, particularly regarding Jill and the four “signs” she is given by Aslan.

The first sign—that of Eustace meeting an old friend the moment he steps into Narnia, and Aslan’s command that Eustace must greet that friend immediately—is lost precisely because the children get lost in details. Of course, Jill complicates the first sign by showing off at the cliff’s edge so that Aslan must take extra time to convey the signs to Jill instead of to Eustace; and then the boy is subsequently too impatient with Jill to ask the right questions until it is too late. But the major contributing factor in the delay is that both Eustace and Jill become intent on the proceedings of the King’s send-off.

Jill’s first thoughts upon arriving in Narnia, in fact, have nothing to do with the signs. Instead, “the first thing she thought was how very grubby and untidy and generally unimpressive” Eustace looked. Her second thought? “How wet I am!” For his part, Eustace is so fascinated with “the splendour of their surroundings”—the turreted castle, the white marble quay, the tall, bannered ship and the King’s court—that he shuts Jill up with a few cross words when she finally remembers why she’s there. “Keep quiet, can’t you?” he demands. “I want to listen.” Even after Jill gets a word in edgewise about Aslan and his instructions, Eustace curtly tells Jill to “dry up.” The children find soon enough, to their complete dismay, that their attention has been sorely misdirected on the setting and ceremonies, while it instead should have been set on the Big Picture: their quest. (Eustace, of course, knew nothing of the quest when Jill arrived; but his past experiences in the world of Narnia, and the unique means by which he was conveyed over the sea, should have led him to believe that something curious was in the cards.)

Gradually, as the days pass since Jill received her instructions about the signs, Jill and Eustace, now traveling with the Marsh-wiggle Puddleglum, once again find themselves steadily becoming more and more focused on the moment at hand. For a time, though, they manage to be devoted to the Big Picture—so much so, in fact, that Jill is oblivious to things close by. She almost entirely misses the fact, for instance, that the “funny rocks” along the edge of gorge leading up to Ettinsmoor are actually the heads of giants. And she habitually recites Aslan’s signs “every night and morning.” But as the journey wears on, Puddleglum becomes more concerned with Aslan’s instructions than are the children.

Wearied by travel and chilled through, Eustace and Jill are easily taken in by the invitation of “She of the Green Kirtle” to join the Autumn Feast in Harfang—a lovely place, so she says, with splendid meals, hot baths, warm beds, and all the comforts they have thus far been missing. Only Puddleglum, whom Jill accuses of having “the most horrible ideas,” thinks to weigh the Lady’s words against Aslan’s. Yes, only the wet-blanket Marsh-wiggle stops to question the integrity of the Lady, the oddity of the Silent Knight, and the too-good-to-be-true welcome into a Giants’ house. But the children? Jill, by contrast, is simply taken with the Lady’s “scrumptious dress. And the horse!” Eustace, impatient with Puddleglum’s caution, suggests that they should all just “think about those Gentle Giants and get on to Harfang as quickly as we can.” All is forgotten for the promise of a few days’ rest for the weary. The close-up view wins out over the Big Picture.

Once again, in fact, myopia becomes the rule. The children can “think about nothing but beds and baths and hot meals,” and as the days wear on, Jill gives up her daily recitations. “She said to herself, at first, that she was too tired, but she soon forgot all about it.” In their haste to reach the House of Harfang “not too late,” they plow through a snowstorm and have a “beast of day” clambering through “squarish rocks” and a series of ledges. It would be hard enough, in the first place, I suppose, to recognize the ruins of a giant’s city; but in a blizzard? Not a chance. Close-up visions of fires, baths and hot food—and the snowflakes in their eyes, and the willfulness in their hearts—blind the children to the Really Big Picture of Aslan’s second sign: the ruined city through which they slog.

Soon they fall into strange trenches with odd sharp turns and short dead ends. At first taken in by the respite from the chill winds, the three try to find a through-way—any through-way—to keep them out of sight and out of the dreadful weather. But no such luck. Back on the surface again, Puddleglum’s suspicions lead him to ask Jill once more about Aslan’s signs. “Bother the signs!” she barks. And she incorrectly says that the second sign is “something about someone mentioning Aslan’s name.” Her retort is rather cross because she knows that she has been less than attentive lately to those important portents. And once the party manages to catch a welcome glimpse of Harfang, the twists and turns of the trenches are quickly forgotten.

Until the next day, when that fateful, Big Picture panorama of the ruined city below them becomes evident..

Forgetfulness seems to be a major obstacle to the effort of keeping the grand scheme of things in the forefront of one’s mind—forgetting the goal, forgetting the steps toward reaching that goal, forgetting everything but the present moment, and what might make it more bearable.

Thus, the three travelers unwittingly enter the House of Harfang as the main course for the Autumn Feast. Only after being annoyingly treated like children all night, and having a good night’s sleep behind them, do they reconvene in the morning in Jill’s room to see so plainly from far away what they could not see while they were in the middle of it: those becalmed trenches spelling out, very clearly, UNDER ME.
Instantly, regret and shame flush through Jill, as she remembers both the second and third signs—and her disregard for their recitation and focus. The others are also convicted of their own deficiencies in not paying better attention, in not recognizing (or speaking up about) the resemblance of the wreckage to a city; about being all too crazy about reaching the House of Harfang, which perhaps never should have sidetracked them in the first place. Generously, Puddleglum avoids saying “I told you so.”

But again, myopia is where “little” decisions are made that so often greatly affect the Big Picture. From this point in the story, because of the small but right decisions the party makes, a renewed focus on the signs leads them on a successful quest to find the Prince. When they finally encounter the fourth sign—Rilian’s mention of Aslan’s name—they have little problem being convinced that Aslan’s instructions must be followed, even though it means breaking the promise they’d made to the enchanted Prince. They free Rilian, and redeem their own failures.

Interestingly, when the Lady enters to find the Silver Chair reduced to shards, she instinctively knows that the best way to confound her enemies' minds is through the senses, those wonderful collectors of details that so often distract us from the Big Picture. Incense and music, magic and a persuasive voice, provide the Lady a near victory in defeating Aslan’s schemes. But the Big Picture prevails. Jill does not entirely forget Aslan, and Puddleglum is stirred to stamp out the fire upon which the incense burns. He rightly declares that even if the Witch is right, even if “we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and moon and sun and stars and Aslan himself,” then the made up world—one much bigger than the limitations of the Witch's visible and concrete city—”licks your real world hollow.”

Case closed, more or less.

But that brings us back to ourselves, the readers. How smug we are, sitting back and critiquing the children’s failures. We, of course, have the luxury of perspective. We can see quite clearly that Jill and Eustace are running the risk of missing the first sign at Cair Paravel. Our only concern: if they actually miss the first sign, how can the quest possibly succeed?

And when the three travelers encounter the Knight and the Lady at the bridge, it’s easy for us to think: Gee, why don’t Jill and Eustace stop to ponder where these two came from, and where they might be going? Have they forgotten the parliament of owls, and the tale of Rilian’s obsession with the “tall and great” beautiful lady, “wrapped in a thin garment as green as poison”? Could this Knight’s lady, “She of the Green Kirtle,” be the one and the same? Might it, in fact, be the very same dress?

But these are easy questions, for us, the readers. C.S. Lewis, like she of the Green Kirtle herself, has worked some very crafty magic on us.

First, we must remember that not all of the volumes in The Chronicles of Narnia are written in the same style. The Silver Chair, in fact, features some of the most descriptive prose in the series. Why? It might be easy to write it off as a necessary device to enable us to understand why Jill and Eustace are themselves distracted by details. How can we understand their fascination with the ceremony of King Caspian’s departure, for instance, unless Lewis describes it for us?

But Lewis is not just showing more consideration for his readers than Steven Spielberg usually does for those watching his films. Lewis is instead providing us with the tools of our own undoing: distracting us with words so that we get caught up in the details of the children’s failures and lose sight of the Big Picture lessons that Lewis might have in store. And the magic that Lewis weaves to this end is very effective. We are captured by his web of words. The story works, yes; and we get his point, too. The Close-up View becomes the means to the Big Picture.

Second, as the quest wears on, we, like Jill and Eustace, also become less able to focus on the signs and sort them out in advance. Why? Because Jill’s not the only one who stops reciting the signs. Lewis does, too. And unless we bookmark the early passages, our memory becomes as poor as Jill’s. In fact, as Lewis gives us less and less description of the party’s surroundings, as the details become more and more focused on what’s right in front of the searchers’ faces, we—again like them—are just as likely to miss the fact that Harfang lies a wee bit beyond the ruins that the searchers seek.

Lewis is no fool. Neither are Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum fools. And if we come away from The Silver Chair feeling somehow superior to these characters, then we have failed to correctly read the signs that Lewis lays out in this tale—and the Close-up View has won out over the Big Picture.

Contributed by Jenn and Greg Wright


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