Monday, August 08, 2005

This Pleasant Darkness

In chapter eleven of C. S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair we find Prince Rilian, sole heir and lost son of King Caspian the Tenth of Narnia, bound tightly to the titular silver chair in a dark city deep in the earth. He is urgently pleading with the other protagonists of the story: Eustace Scrubb, who we met in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; Jill Pole, a schoolmate of Eustace’s; and Puddleglum, a Marsh-wiggle from Narnia. Rilian wants them to cut the ropes that bind him and release him from the chair. But they do not know that he is Prince Rilian, the very person Aslan has charged them to seek and bring back to Narnia. Nor do they know that he has been under the spell of a witch, the very witch who killed his mother, the wife of Caspian the Tenth. They only know him, so far, as a silly and cruel knight who is the thrall of his “queen.”

We are all sitting in darkness in a Silver Chair. Unlike Prince Rilian, we have each built our own chair, and each chair is as unique as a snowflake. Our guilt, our behavior, our past, our hate, our fears, our possessions—and many other things in varying combinations in varying degrees—bind us to the chair. Like Rilian, we are sometimes lucid and aware of our predicament but unable to free ourselves because we don’t know how. But also like Rilian we are often unaware of the chair or the spell we are under. We are consumed in our own narrow worldview and unable to do anything about it because we don’t know we are bound. In fact, even when we are aware we are often unwilling to change. Further, we do not know that the bonds are largely illusory—we have by our choice and beliefs bound ourselves. Finally, by choice and belief we can be also be released.

Like the Prince, we look to others to free us; and others can show us the way, even remove the bonds. But how do we get out of the chair—by our own power or by grace or both? And how do we find ourselves in the Silver Chair?

Lewis shows us this. Through the journey of Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum we see how they very nearly succumb to the same situation Rilian finds himself in. Lewis also shows how by their strength and courage, and by the grace of Aslan, they are able to avoid that fate and return to Narnia with Rilian.

In chapter two Jill is on the Mountain of Aslan. Eustace has fallen off a cliff there, and, although Jill doesn’t know it, is safely drifting through the clouds on his way to Narnia. Jill is face to face with Aslan and is understandably very frightened. Aslan tells her that Prince Rilian, who has been missing for ten years and has been given up for dead by Caspian and most of Narnia, is alive. Aslan charges her and Eustace to seek Prince Rilian until they have either found him and returned him to his father’s house or died in the attempt. To help accomplish this she is given four signs—

First; as soon as the Boy Eustace sets foot in Narnia, he will meet an old and dear friend. He must greet that friend at once; if he does, you will both have good help. Second; you must journey out of Narnia to the north till you come to the ruined city of the ancient giants. Third; you shall find a writing on a stone in that ruined city, and you must do what the writing tells you. Fourth; you will know the lost prince (if you find him) by this, that he will be the first person you have met in your travels who will ask you to do something in my name, in the name of Aslan.
Before Aslan sends Jill to Narnia to join Eustace, he admonishes her to be sure to remember the signs. Aslan tells her to say them to herself when she gets up in the morning and when she lies down at night. This is reminiscent of Moses’ words to the tribe of Israel after he has delivered God’s laws and commandments. In Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Moses admonishes them: “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Likewise, the four signs are commandments Aslan gives Jill so that she and Eustace will succeed in their quest—much like God’s commandments (if followed) would guide the Israelites on their quest to reach Canaan and secure a new life after they arrive.

Aslan also warns Jill that whatever strange things happen, she must let nothing turn her mind from the signs. In Aslan’s land her mind is clear, but as she goes into Narnia and further, “the air will thicken.” Finally he gives her a clear and simple instruction. “Remember the signs and believe in the signs. Nothing else matters.”

At first she repeats the signs diligently as she drifts through the clouds to Narnia. But almost immediately after arriving she and Eustace miss the first sign. Eustace fails to recognize and greet the now-aged Caspian as an old and dear friend. Jill fails to communicate effectively and quickly to Eustace the importance of this sign. Before they can rectify the situation, King Caspian has boarded a ship and has set sail for the Seven Isles because he has heard that Aslan may have been sighted there. Israel, we may remember, also immediately failed to follow God’s instructions at Mount Sinai, crafting and worshipping a golden calf. Jill’s and Eustace’s failure is not so nearly willful, but the similarity is nonetheless remarkable.

After meeting Puddleglum and journeying across Ettinsmoor to search for the ruined city of the ancient giants, they miss the second and third signs as well. When they cross the Giants’ Bridge, though they do not realize it, they meet Rilian—who is covered in armor and does not speak. He is with the witch queen, who has put him under her spell. She says she knows nothing about the ruined city and advises the travelers to go to Harfang, a castle in the north where, she says, dwell mild and courteous giants who will give the travelers steaming baths, soft beds, and plenty to eat. In fact, she knows these giants will eat Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum if they get the chance; and they very nearly do.

Only dour Puddleglum is suspicious of this woman. Her advice clouds the minds of the children so that during the hard journey they can think of nothing but the comforts of Harfang. Consequently, as they are struggling across the very ruins they have been instructed to find in Aslan’s second sign, they do not recognize them. And even though they are literally inside the letters of the writing of the third sign, they do not know it.

Jill’s failure to remember the signs at this point reminds me of the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. She is like the seed that falls on rocky soil. “It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root” (13:5-6). Jesus elaborates in verses 20-21, “The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.” At first Jill accepts the signs Aslan has given her and is diligent about remembering and reciting them. But with the passing of time and the increasing difficulty of their journey she falls away from that discipline. Not only does she no longer recite them, she forgets them entirely. Only once they are in Harfang and essentially captives does the party look out a window and see the message “under me”— realizing that they have missed two more signs.

Nonetheless, they are able to devise an escape from Harfang and follow the instructions of the third sign by going under the ruined city. They are captured deep below the surface by the Earthmen who dwell there, and are eventually joined with Rilian in his chambers in the underground city.

There they are at least able to finally fulfill the fourth sign. While Rilian is bound to the Silver Chair and entreating Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum to release him, he finally invokes Aslan’s name. This presents them with a difficult choice because they have promised Rilian before he is bound that under no circumstances will they release him. But once he calls for them to do it in Aslan’s name, they choose to do it—even though they believe it may mean their deaths at the hand of this demented knight. They do this not knowing the outcome, but after muffing all the other signs they know they must get this one right even if they are killed. As Puddleglum says, “You see, Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do.”

This turned out to be the right thing, and Rilian immediately destroys the Silver Chair and announces his true identity. But as in life, this is far from the end of their difficulties. They are barely able to enjoy the success of finding Rilian and freeing him from his spell when the witch enters the chamber. She does not, as one might expect, fly into a rage and start destroying more furniture when she sees Rilian is no longer under her spell. Instead she plays a mandolin-like instrument and puts a green powder on the fire that produces a pleasant scent. She speaks softly and pleasantly as she plays.

Rilian tells her that he and the others will leave at once for Narnia. She argues that there is no point in doing this because Narnia does not exist. Rilian, Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum offer up Narnia, King Caspian, the sun and Aslan himself as examples of their “real” world; but she thwarts each argument with her quiet logic. The outside world is not real, she says; it cannot be. She argues that the only real world is the underground city where they now are; the only thing that is real is what they can see: the witch’s city and all that is in it. She says that all that they describe is a dream and a fantasy.

It is Puddleglum’s courage and ultimate logic that saves them all. He stamps out the fire which produces the pleasant scent clouding their minds. He burns his foot but the pain helps clear his head, and removing the mind-clouding scent helps clear the minds of the others. To Puddleglum it’s simple—her dark world strikes him as a pretty poor one. Their make-believe world “licks her real world hollow,” he says. He declares he is “on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.” This enrages the witch and she transforms into her true self—the worm who killed Rilian’s mother. A fight to the death ensues with the worm losing the fight and its head.

We all face the same difficulty that these four faced when the witch was quietly convincing them that their world does not exist. We may get out of our own Silver Chairs, but once up we must recognize what is real and what is a spell or an illusion. Otherwise we will find the Silver Chair restored and we will be sitting firmly in it.

Oddly, we can touch a tree, walk on the sidewalk in our neighborhood, or enjoy a sunset, but that does not mean that is all that’s real. There’s more to life than what we can see, more than this pleasant darkness. We can have faith that some things which cannot be seen or touched are also real. We can choose to follow the signs that have been given us—we can believe in God. All things on Earth and Earth itself will pass, but God is forever. What can be more real?
Remember the signs and believe in the signs. Nothing else matters.

Contributed by George Rosok


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's some clarification on Brit terms you mention:
"Hols" tells the British reader that these kids are upper middle-class and therefore posh. Everyone else would say "holidays"
"Moor" - I'll try not to be offended by your generalisation of British geography!! We have the most varied landscape in Europe!

"Crumpets" Yum but must be served with very good butter which then melts into them.
"Pantomime" wait for it - this is an entertainment for kids at Christmastime taking the form of a popular fairy tale e.g. Cinderella acted at a theatre with comedy and songs. The difficult bit for Americans to understand is that the principal boy is played by a female actor, there is a pantomime dame played by a man in drag! I am not making this up!
"Gasometer" Before gas was piped to houses directly it was stored in hugh gasometers in towns, these were massive drum-shaped structures.
"Fricassee" comes from the French for to fry and to break up.

Btw I love all your illustrations for the Narnia books. Are they available to download as pictures?
Best wishes

8/23/2005 2:18 PM  
Blogger Greg Wright said...


Thanks very much for you input. Can you email me so I can consult with you on some upcoming publishing issues?

It's one think to understand the literal meaning of foreign expressions, but it's another thing entirely to really "get" what's being said!


8/23/2005 2:20 PM  
Blogger Greg Wright said...

Oh yes -- the thing about the moors was very tongue in cheek. I just got back from my fifth trip to the UK, and I wouldn't keep going back if it were so very monotonous!

And I image that Dawn would be happy to let you download some of the artwork. Feel free to contact her directly by clickin on her link in the sidebar.

8/23/2005 2:23 PM  

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