Monday, August 08, 2005

The Silver Chair


Though The Magician's Nephew, the sixth-written episode in The Chronicles of Narnia, is really the book that “ties up” Narnia's loose ends, The Silver Chair has a bit of that feel to it, too. Coming sixth in the chronological sequence as it does, the book, in fact, sets the stage for The Last Battle. Principally, it makes the point that the future of Narnia does not just lie in making little tweaks here and there, in merely defeating the likes of Miraz and Rabadash. No, these villains are only dupes in the game of Deep Magic that's being played out between Aslan, Jadis and the likes of the Queen of the Underworld.

But The Silver Chair doesn't just bring the major themes of the series to a head. This book also connects and continues the story threads of Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, connecting the imminent End Times of Narnia back to the beginning of the tale, through the Pevensies to Digory Kirke. The Silver Chair is a satisfying conclusion to the overall rising action of the series, working magnificently in its own right as well as preparing us for the Chronicles' coming climax.

Lewis here continues the roll he was on in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, offering much food for thought. This month, Kathy Bledsoe leverages her creativity upon our story synopsis, while Jenn and I offer up a collaborative look at how Lewis' craft pays off in the reader's identification with the story's heroes. Finally, George Rosok gives us a challenging analysis of the central spiritual symbol of the story: the Silver Chair itself.

Mind the details...

Story Synopsis: Holiday in Harfang

Editor: The Silver Chair represents a shift in character focus for the Narnian chronicles. The Pevensie children have all aged beyond recurring magical trips to Narnia, and after his life-changing experiences in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, cousin Eustace Scrubb now becomes the main protagonist. Joining him is a school acquaintance, Jill Pole. This synopsis of the story is a compilation of two recently discovered travel diaries—Jill’s, and that of a Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum who was their guide on an amazing journey to find a lost Narnian prince. None other than Aslan himself mandated the quest; and from this point I will allow these two to tell the story.

Jill Begins…
Alas, it is autumn and a new term at school. Today I somehow caught the fancy of the school bullies and was crying behind the gym, where Scrubb—Eustace Scrubb—found me. After talking with him for a while I realized that he has changed since the last term. He told me an amazing story of a magical visit to a place called Narnia, and we both decided to call on the name of someone called Aslan, in order to evade the bullies. We ran to the stone wall at the edge of the school property, wishing that the always-locked door in that wall would be open by some miracle. When Eustace tried the handle, the door did open. We found ourselves looking not onto the dingy heather-covered moor surrounding Experiment House, but into a dazzlingly bright and sunny different world. I was scared and worried. Would it be safe? Would we be able to get back if we entered? I didn’t have time to voice my concerns as, pressed by the advancing bullies, Eustace grabbed my arm and pulled me through the door. England vanished and we entered another world.

We soon came to the edge of a cliff. I looked down to see the tops of clouds and tiny details of a land far below us. I guess I was hypnotized by the dizzying height because Eustace tried to pull me back from the edge. In the struggle, he lost his balance and fell from the cliff. In horror I watched him fall and became aware of a huge animal rushing to the cliff edge and beginning to blow hard. It seemed to be controlling Eustace’s fall with its breath! As Eustace became a tinier and tinier speck below me, I turned to find that I was standing next to a great lion.

The lion finished blowing and disappeared into a nearby forest. I sat down and had the pity party of all pity parties. Eventually, however, realizing that I was desperately thirsty, I entered the wood to perhaps find a stream. Well, I found my stream, but right across from me laid that huge Lion. He invited me to drink but I didn’t trust him until I realized that he was bigger and probably faster than I was anyway so I might as well die with my thirst quenched. He asked me about Eustace and I found that I had to confess that Eustace had fallen off the cliff because of my need to show off. Aslan (for that was his name) also told me that we were both there because he called us—wait, because we called for him. Well, the two are actually the same, I guess.

Aslan gave me four signs needed to complete a quest for Rilian, the lost Prince of Narnia. He made me repeat them and repeat them until I became very testy, but he admonished that things in Narnia wouldn’t be as clear as they were on top of that mountain and that I must be careful to repeat the signs regularly so that I wouldn’t forget them. Aslan then “blew” me into Narnia where I landed near a coastal castle, within a few feet of a very disheveled Eustace.

We saw an old and frail king surrounded by courtiers and strange beasts and creatures who had apparently gathered to bid him farewell. The king spoke (I couldn’t hear what he said) and then boarded a ship and set sail. At that point, I tried to tell Eustace the first sign—he was supposed to greet an old and dear friend at once—but we were interrupted by the arrival of a huge, white owl. This owl, Glimfeather, took us immediately to the Lord Regent, Trumpkin the dwarf, after I stated our mission of finding the prince. Eustace nearly vomited when he realized that the old friend he was supposed to have greeted was the king who had just sailed away. It turned out that he was the Prince Caspian in Eustace’s Narnia adventure last term; and since time is different in Narnia, he was now an old man and the father of the lost prince. After cleaning up, Eustace and I had a great blame-game argument because we had muffed the first sign already. With nothing solved, we went to supper and then looked forward to a soft bed. Before I could get undressed, Glimfeather appeared at my window and told me that he was flying me to a secret parliament of owls to which he had already delivered Eustace.

There we learned that more than thirty champions had so far gone in search of the lost prince. None had returned so King Caspian ordered that no one else was allowed to even try. We also learned how Prince Rilian came to disappear. Ten years earlier, Rilian and his mother the Queen went maying in the north parts of Narnia with a group of courtiers. While the Queen took a nap in a quiet glade, Rilian and the courtiers moved off a ways so as not to disturb her slumber. The Queen’s screams drew them to turn and see a great, green snake slithering away from her. She had been bitten on the hand and, despite all efforts to save her, she died. Rilian had tried to pursue the snake but it escaped through a crack in the ground. Devastated, Rilian traveled north often, seeking to find and destroy the snake to avenge his mother’s death. Eventually he gave up on the search for the snake but became obsessed with a beautiful woman dressed in green. Not long after, Rilian disappeared. The owls were pretty sure that the Green Lady was related to a White Witch who once held power in Narnia long ago.

Glimfeather and another owl volunteered to fly Eustace and me to the home of the Marsh-wiggles who lived at the northern border of Narnia and who could guide us north into Ettinsmoor so that we could satisfy the second sign which was to “journey to the ruined city of the ancient giants.”

Editor: From this point, the story will be related from the travel diary of Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle. Puddleglum is a philosophizing Eeyore-type character who sees the glass half-empty until he discovers that it is really half-full. Marsh-wiggles have muddy complexions, webbed hands and feet, are thin as reeds, and have extremely long legs but very compact bodies. Their hair is a gray-green and they wear clothing that blends with their earthy environment.

Day One
In the middle of the night a pair of owls deposited a Son of Adam and a Daughter of Eve in my wigwam. This morning they revealed their plan to rescue Prince Rilian, asking for my help. I fully expect to fail at this enterprise but have agreed to be their guide. This will be a long trip. These non-Wiggles argue incessantly!

Day Two
We began the long climb up a rocky moor which runs parallel to the giant’s gorge. Silly Jill thought the giants leaning on the edge of the gorge were piles of rocks and I had some real work for a while trying to keep Eustace and her from panicking and getting us all killed. The giants were playing cockshies, and boulders pelted down around us everywhere but we made it through safely to camp on the exposed moor tonight.

Day Nine
Nothing much to write. Living off the land, we have traveled across Ettinsmoor,. We were seen by only one giant who just laughed at us and continued on his way.

Day Ten
We left the moor today and entered a “different and grimmer” land. Found and crossed an enormous giant’s bridge that was connected to an ancient roadway. As we came off the bridge, we encountered a visored Knight in full armor on a black horse accompanied by a gorgeous woman dressed in green and astride a white horse. The woman did all the talking. There was something not quite right about her and I had to work hard to keep Jill from giving her too much information. We did find out that the road leads from the bridge to the Castle of Harfang, home of the Gentle Giants. We took leave of the lady and her knight. After they were gone, the three of us had a great row about why I wouldn’t allow the Lady to help us in our quest. Eventually, Jill and Eustace made me promise to go to Harfang and I made them promise not to tell the giants about Narnia or Prince Rilian. Jill has quit repeating the signs I have heard her chanting in days past. That I’m sure will become a very bad thing!

Editor: The following entries are undated.

Just surviving has kept me from writing on a regular basis but I will now attempt to “catch up.” At last we have come to a plain and can see lighted windows in the distance. One more night of camp? The weather is becoming increasingly cold.

This morning we woke to snow clouds and by mid-morning we were in a driving snowstorm. We climbed a series of high ledges which brought us onto level ground and into a biting wind. Here we encountered a series of baffling dead-end trenches that delayed us for a time. Eustace asked Jill about the signs, but she just said, “Bother the signs.” When we spotted the lights again I could not keep them from charging off to reach the warmth and comfort of the castle. Of course, I was the only one brave enough to hail the Porter and we were welcomed in by a very amused giant who had the cheek to call me “Froggy.” We were taken before the King and the Queen. Now that was interesting! The King and Queen looked like they wanted to “eat” Jill and Eustace. The Queen was extremely rude to me and Jill finally burst into tears of utter exhaustion. The three of us were rushed off to bathe, rest, and eat.

Our first day in Harfang castle: Jill, Eustace and I looked out a window and realized that the ledges and trenches we crossed to reach the castle were actually the ruins of a giant city. The trenches were the carving of the words UNDER ME. We all suddenly realized that Jill’s second and third signs had been completely fouled up, too, and expended a lot of energy trying to each take the blame. We then worked out a plan to escape the castle by pretending that we loved being there while looking for a way out. We cannot open the doors because we are so small. At lunchtime we found out that we had been dining on a Narnian Talking Stag, horror of horrors! We knew this was Aslan’s punishment for not attending to the signs. Desperate to find a way out, we finally went to the kitchen and talked to the cook who innocently told us that she usually left the scullery door open a crack for the cat. While we waited for her to drift off into her afternoon nap, Jill discovered a cookbook with recipes for Man and Marsh-wiggle and we realized that WE were on the menu for the Autumn banquet! The cook began to snore and we ran out of the castle. As we approached the City Ruinous, a hunting party spotted us and we really had to run for our lives. I spotted a crack at the bottom of the lowest step and dove in followed by Eustace and Jill. We filled the opening with rocks to confuse the hunting hounds and then discovered that we could move deeper into the crevice and eventually could stand up. It was so dark that we couldn’t see a thing and suddenly we were all sliding down a long, rocky, bruising, bone-jarring slope. It was very quiet and very warm and out of the darkness came a “dark, flat voice.”

The “Warden of the Marches of Underland” said we were in the Deep Realm. The “Earthmen” struck a strange, cold light revealing a group of strange and diverse beings, all with profoundly sad expressions. We were then forced to march. We continued on endlessly through cave after cave until we came to one with water and a ship we were forced to board. Over and over this Warden had told us that “few return to the sunlit lands” and Jill finally broke under the strain of fear. I reassured her by pointing out that we were under the Ruined City and back on track with Aslan’s instructions. This calmed her somewhat.

Okay, even a Marsh-wiggle eventually has had enough! We came to a bustling port and were taken to a great castle to meet the Queen of Underland. Guess who? Yes, the Green Lady. While we awaited her, we at last were able to talk to the Black Knight who seemed quite delusional. Over dinner the Knight admitted that he didn’t know how he had come to the Underworld and that he was bound by a spell from which only the Lady could free him. Every night (how they knew it was night I can’t imagine—I’d completely lost track of time by this point) the Knight was bound to a silver chair because of some insane fit that would make him a danger to all who are near. Except the Queen, of course, who usually attended him until he returned to normal. That “night,” he made us promise not to release him no matter how much he begged—and then we witnessed the most bizarre scene. The Knight commanded us to free him, contradicting what he’s said earlier, claiming that he was sane only at this time every night. We resisted until he invoked the name of Aslan—and we realized that this was Jill’s last sign. Still fearful, we released him and he arose and dashed the chair to pieces with his sword, declaring that he was Rilian, Prince of Narnia and son of the great King Caspian. We explained to him that he had been lost for ten years.

Leaving the room, the four of us ran smack into the returning Queen. She kept her cool and tried to convince the Prince that he was not thinking clearly. She was very clever and tried to brainwash us with a combination of sweet smelling green powder thrown on the fire and the steady, monotonous tune on a mandolin she played. Finally, Jill mentioned Aslan and I stomped my foot in the fire and the harsh reality of pain brought me back to my senses. The Witch turned nasty, and I declared that we were all for Aslan and would be leaving to spend our lives in the Overland even if it was as dull as she claimed. Well, then things got really interesting! The Queen turned into an enormous green serpent that coiled itself around Prince Rilian’s legs. Grabbing the snake’s head with one hand and drawing back his sword with the other, Rilian began to rain blows upon the neck and I jumped in with my own sword (yes, I had remembered to pack one) and between the two of us we hacked off the beast’s head! Rilian’s mother was finally avenged and his ten-year enslavement was ended.

Editor: The story will be finished from Jill’s diary.

While we rested, Rilian told us that there was a new passage to the Overworld only a few miles away. As we planned our next steps we heard the creatures of Underworld running everywhere and shouting as the fires of deep earth reflected on the ceiling of the cavern and the waters of the sea rose into the city. It became clear that the Witch had programmed her kingdom to self-destruct if she was killed. Rilian retrieved his black shield that now wondrously transformed into bright silver bearing a red rampant lion. We knew it was a sign of Aslan’s lordship over our lives. We rescued horses from the stable and rode out of the city and upward toward the red glow. Puddleglum was able to catch a miserable little gnome who was terrified of us until he learned that the Queen was dead. Glog (for that was his name) and thousands of other poor gnomes were brought from the land of Bism deep in the earth, to work for the Witch in the “Shallow Lands.” With the death of the Witch, the gnomes had prepared for war—thinking that the Witch was coming to lead them out to fight in the bright Overworld, and they were going to fight her rather than go out.

We came to the edge of a deep, bright chasm from which emanated a strong but tantalizing smell. Gnomes were everywhere clambering down into what Glog revealed was the entrance to Bism. A voice came from the depths telling all to be quick, saying that the rift was closing. Glog and many other gnomes dove in just before the crack in the rock closed and we were left alone in the dim light. We returned to our ascent. Eventually, we had to dismount and lead the horses as the way narrowed and the ceiling lowered. Eustace spotted a tiny patch of light overhead and by standing on Puddleglum’s shoulders I was able to find out that it was a hole!

I managed to get my head out and was trying to tell the others when something hit me in the face. Once my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that I had come out into the heart of Narnia and had been hit by a snowball. I yelled for help, and the Narnians returned to dig out the rest of the group. Puddleglum and Prince Rilian were recognized and there was a great rejoicing at their return. We were ushered into a cave, given a good meal and, thankfully, allowed to rest.

Last Day in Narnia
When I awoke the next morning, I found that Rilian had gone to Cair Paravel to see his father, whom Aslan had turned back shortly after we had seen him set sail. We said good-by to Puddleglum here. We returned to the castle of Cair Paravel, arriving just as the ship we had seen upon our entry to Narnia cruised up the river and docked. We waited to see the old King come down the gangway, but nothing happened. Then four knights carried the bed-ridden King ashore. Prince Rilian knelt and embraced his father; the King raised his hand in blessing, and his head fell back on the pillows. The King was dead.

Eustace and I were so sad that I must have said, “I wish I was home” out loud. Suddenly, Aslan was there telling us that our job was done and that he had come to take us home. Instantly, we were again on the mountaintop where our adventure had begun, walking beside the stream where I had first spoken to Aslan. Looking into the stream, we saw the dead King Caspian lying on the bottom and we all wept, even Aslan. Aslan told Eustace to go into a thicket and pick a thorn which he then asked him to drive into his paw. Aslan allowed a great, red drop of blood to splash into the stream over the dead king; Caspian became younger and younger until he emerged from the water, a young man, fully alive! We longed to stay with Caspian, but Aslan was not ready for us to remain there yet. He granted Caspian five minutes in our world with us. Caspian, Eustace and I charged the bullies who had been chasing us when we fled into Narnia. Our headmistress came to see what the ruckus was, going into hysterics over the lion and flying crops and swatting swords, so we took the opportunity to slip back into school and change our clothes while Aslan and Caspian returned to their own world.

Things have been better at Experiment House since the headmistress has been removed. The school has become quite good and Eustace and I are best friends.

Editor’s Footnote: King Rilian buried his father and ruled a happy Narnia as his successor. Puddleglum’s foot healed within three weeks and he was joyful as a Marsh-wiggle can be. Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole remained friends forever. It is not known whether Eustace ever wrote down his memories of the trip they all shared. Perhaps someday there will be another journal discovered.

Contributed by Kathy Bledsoe

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

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


The Silver Chair
Chapter 1
  • Hols. Okay, it’d be easy enough to say “holidays” and let it go at that. But it’s probably worth pointing out that the British “holiday” is synonymous with the Yank “vacation.” So there’s a little more than just casual jargon working here. And the fact that the kids say “hols” instead of “holidays” tells the (British) reader that these kids are pretty posh.
  • Moor. On the one hand, a Moor is a person of Arabic descent. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. A moor, in this context (according to the American Heritage Dictionary), is a “broad area of open land, often high but poorly drained, with patches of heath and peat bogs.” I know, I know: How does that distinguish a moor from most of the rest of the British Isles? But there ya go.
Chapter 3
  • Serpent. I know what you’re thinking. “Gee, how stupid does he think we are?” But seriously: go back and look a few pages into Chapter III. This ain’t a snake we’re talking about here. The serpent was an odd wind instrument built during the 17th and 18th centuries, and shaped in serpentine form. It had six finger holes, requiring both hands to play. Which made it pretty difficult to hold, too.
Chapter 4
  • Crumpets. Apparently, it’s very British to burst out with something like “Crabs and crumpets!” instead of out-and-out cursing. But for the record, a crumpet is essentially what Americans call an “English Muffin.” Only better. And actually English.
  • Physic. Now, in others of Lewis’ books (like Prince Caspian), this word means “doctor.” Here, it most likely means “medicine.” What it doesn’t mean, in any case, is “physics,” the science, only with the s left off.
Chapter 5
  • Wigwam. I grew up thinking this was the same thing as a tepee. But it’s not. The tepee was used by the Plains Indians, while the wigwam (or wickiup) was a bark and skin covered dwelling used by Indians on the Eastern seaboard of America. The wigwam’s framework is shaped kind of like a beehive. So what’s a Marsh-wiggle doing in a wigwam? And how on earth does Lewis know anything about wigwams? Well, he knows about that serpent instrument, so I guess he knows about darn near everything.
  • Bobance. A brag or boast. Like, “I know what ‘wigwam’ means. So there!
  • Fricasseed. Cut into small pieces and made into a stew called a “fricassee.” We can just guess how that darn stew got its name. (From the French word for “fry and break up,” more or less.)
  • Pantomime. Ordinarily we associate this with something like what you do when you play charades. You know, no talking, just gestures and motions. But properly speaking, that’s more “mime” than “pantomime.” And in the period that Lewis is writing about, the word really just meant “acting,” more or less—and specifically, a fairy-tale type of entertainment for kids at Christmastime. My British friend Hellen says, The difficult bit for Americans to understand is that the principal boy is played by a female actor—a pantomime dame played by a man in drag!
  • Road-drill. A loud machine for breaking concrete, like a jackhammer. The point here is “loud.” Really loud.
Chapter 6
  • Cock-shies. A game in which you toss a ball (or large rock, apparently) at another object in order to knock it off its perch.
  • Balustrade. Okay, this is kind of interesting, because basically we’re just talking about a railing. But it’s called a “balustrade” because the rail is mounted on “balusters,” or pillars of a sort, in order to form a protective barrier along a parapet or stair well. So we’ve all seen balustrades but probably never called them that.
  • Kirtle. Fancy (and archaic) word for “dress,” pretty much. It’d be best not to confuse this with “girdle,” though, because it’d be pretty funny to see some lady riding a horse in nothing but a green girdle.
Chapter 7
  • Puttees. Cloths wrapped around the pant legs from ankle to knee. Like with gaiters, the point is to keep water and debris from easily getting into your boots.
Chapter 8
  • Possets. Ooh, ouch. These are spiced drinks made from sweetened milk mixed with wine or other alcoholic beverages, which curdles the milk. Yep. Sounds great!
  • Comfits. Seeds, nuts or bits of fruit coated with sugar. There. That sounds better.
  • Caraways. Cakes or sweetmeats flavored with caraway seed.
  • Cock-a-leekie. Aha. Now, I actually had some of this the last time I was in Scotland. It’s a soup made from chicken and leeks. There now, that was easy, wasn’t it?
  • Gasometer.Before gas was piped directly to homes, it was stored in a central location in huge tanks. These were called gasometers. In science, gasometers are still used to capture gas and, floating in a tank of water, tjen used to measure the weight of the gas pumped into the drum. I actually used one of these beasties back in the dark ages, before neat little electronic spirometers were invented.
Chapter 9
  • Made love. Okay, hasn’t this all just been a huge exercise in how drastically our language has changed? Today this means, basically, “had sex.” Here it means nothing of the sort. It simply means “buttered up.”
  • Scullery. The nasty, smelly part of the kitchen where the dishes are cleaned. So this is where all the refuse piles up. Not a nice thing in big old castles filled with giants.
  • Scullions. The poor unlucky servants who work in the scullery.
  • Hooters. Owls. Owls.
  • Joint. Wow. Can this just get out of hand, or what? This means “piece of meat,” specifically one with the bone in. Like leg of lamb, you know?
Chapter 10
  • Fast. Secure. Whew!
  • Coil. Noise and confusion; fuss and ruckus.
  • Nosegay. You can kind of see, I think, how the word “bouquet” became more common, can’t you?
Chapter 13
  • Christian name. The name that comes before the family name: your first name. It came to be called the “Christian” name because of the once-universal Western practice of infant baptism, during which the baby was officially christened with its given name.
Chapter 14
  • Pillar-box. A type of mailbox or postbox fashioned by cutting a slot in a metal cylinder or hollow pillar.
  • Mill-race. The stream of water that moves a water wheel, the source of hydraulic energy used for centuries to drive milling operations.
Chapter 16
  • Warped in. Towed in by a line.
  • Pavender. Okay, this word has actually been used a lot in these books, and I haven’t bothered to explain it yet. So I will now. It’s a type of fish. Don’t ask me what type—because I don’t know!