The Silver Chair

by C.S. Lewis

Cover image

Illustrator: Pauline Baynes
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #4
Publisher: Collier
Copyright: 1953
Printing: 1978
ISBN: 0-02-044250-5
Format: Mass market
Pages: 217

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The Silver Chair is a sequel to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the fourth book of the Chronicles of Narnia in original publication order. (For more about publication order, see the introduction to my review of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.) Apart from a few references to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader at the start, it stands sufficiently on its own that you could read it without reading the other books, although I have no idea why you'd want to.

We have finally arrived at my least favorite of the Narnia books and the one that I sometimes skipped during re-reads. (One of my objections to the new publication order is that it puts The Silver Chair and The Last Battle back-to-back, and I don't think you should do that to yourself as a reader.) I was hoping that there would be previously unnoticed depth to this book that would redeem it as an adult reader. Sadly, no; with one very notable exception, it's just not very good.

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW.

The Silver Chair opens on the grounds of the awful school to which Eustace's parents sent him: Experiment House. That means it opens (and closes) with a more extended version of Lewis's rant about schools. I won't get into this in detail since it's mostly a framing device, but Lewis is remarkably vicious and petty. His snide contempt for putting girls and boys in the same school did not age well, nor did his emphasis at the end of the book that the incompetent head of the school is a woman. I also raised an eyebrow at holding up ordinary British schools as a model of preventing bullying.

Thankfully, as Lewis says at the start, this is not a school story. This is prelude to Jill meeting Eustace and the two of them escaping the bullies via a magical door into Narnia. Unfortunately, that's the second place The Silver Chair gets off on the wrong foot.

Jill and Eustace end up in what the reader of the series will recognize as Aslan's country and almost walk off the vast cliff at the end of the world, last seen from the bottom in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace freaks out, Jill (who has a much better head for heights) goes intentionally close to the cliff in a momentary impulse of arrogance before realizing how high it is, Eustace tries to pull her back, and somehow Eustace falls over the edge.

I do not have a good head for heights, and I wonder how much of it is due to this memorable scene. I certainly blame Lewis for my belief that pulling someone else back from the edge of a cliff can result in you being pushed off, something that on adult reflection makes very little sense but which is seared into my lizard brain. But worse, this sets the tone for the rest of the story: everything is constantly going wrong because Eustace and Jill either have normal human failings that are disproportionately punished or don't successfully follow esoteric and unreasonably opaque instructions from Aslan.

Eustace is safe, of course; Aslan blows him to Narnia and then gives Jill instructions before sending her afterwards. (I suspect the whole business with the cliff was an authorial cheat to set up Jill's interaction with Aslan without Eustace there to explain anything.) She and Eustace have been summoned to Narnia to find the lost Prince, and she has to memorize four Signs that will lead her on the right path.

Gah, the Signs. If you were the sort of kid that I was, you immediately went back and re-read the Signs several times to memorize them like Jill was told to. The rest of this book was then an exercise in anxious frustration. First, Eustace is an ass to Jill and refuses to even listen to the first Sign. They kind of follow the second but only with heavy foreshadowing that Jill isn't memorizing the Signs every day like she's supposed to. They mostly botch the third and have to backtrack to follow it. Meanwhile, the narrator is constantly reminding you that the kids (and Jill in particular) are screwing up their instructions. On re-reading, it's clear they're not doing that poorly given how obscure the Signs are, but the ominous foreshadowing is enough to leave a reader a nervous wreck.

Worse, Eustace and Jill are just miserable to each other through the whole book. They constantly bicker and snipe, Eustace doesn't want to listen to her and blames her for everything, and the hard traveling makes it all worse. Lewis does know how to tell a satisfying redemption arc; one of the things I have always liked about Edmund's story is that he learns his lesson and becomes my favorite character in the subsequent stories. But, sadly, Eustace's redemption arc is another matter. He's totally different here than he was at the start of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (to the degree that if he didn't have the same name in both books, I wouldn't recognize him as the same person), but rather than a better person he seems to have become a different sort of ass. There's no sign here of the humility and appreciation for friendship that he supposedly learned from his time as a dragon.

On top of that, the story isn't very interesting. Rilian, the lost Prince, is a damp squib who talks in the irritating archaic accent that Lewis insists on using for all Narnian royalty. His story feels like Lewis lifted it from medieval Arthurian literature; most of it could be dropped into a collection of stories of knights of the Round Table without seeming out of place. When you have a country full of talking animals and weirdly fascinating bits of theology, it's disappointing to get a garden-variety story about an evil enchantress in which everyone is noble and tragic and extremely stupid.

Thankfully, The Silver Chair has one important redeeming quality: Puddleglum.

Puddleglum is a Marsh-wiggle, a bipedal amphibious sort who lives alone in the northern marshes. He's recruited by the owls to help the kids with their mission when they fail to get King Caspian's help after blowing the first Sign. Puddleglum is an absolute delight: endlessly pessimistic, certain the worst possible thing will happen at any moment, but also weirdly cheerful about it. I love Eeyore characters in general, but Puddleglum is even better because he gives the kids' endless bickering exactly the respect that it deserves.

"But we all need to be very careful about our tempers, seeing all the hard times we shall have to go through together. Won't do to quarrel, you know. At any rate, don't begin it too soon. I know these expeditions usually end that way; knifing one another, I shouldn't wonder, before all's done. But the longer we can keep off it—"

It's even more obvious on re-reading that Puddleglum is the only effective member of the party. Jill has only a couple of moments where she gets the three of them past some obstacle. Eustace is completely useless; I can't remember a single helpful thing he does in the entire book. Puddleglum and his pessimistic determination, on the other hand, is right about nearly everything at each step. And he's the one who takes decisive action to break the Lady of the Green Kirtle's spell near the end.

I was expecting a bit of sexism and (mostly in upcoming books) racism when re-reading these books as an adult given when they were written and who Lewis was, but what has caught me by surprise is the colonialism. Lewis is weirdly insistent on importing humans from England to fill all the important roles in stories, even stories that are entirely about Narnians. I know this is the inherent weakness of portal fantasy, but it bothers me how little Lewis believes in Narnians solving their own problems. The Silver Chair makes this blatantly obvious: if Aslan had just told Puddleglum the same information he told Jill and sent a Badger or a Beaver or a Mouse along with him, all the evidence in the book says the whole affair would have been sorted out with much less fuss and anxiety. Jill and Eustace are far more of a hindrance than a help, which makes for frustrating reading when they're supposedly the protagonists.

The best part of this book is the underground bits, once they finally get through the first three Signs and stumble into the Lady's kingdom far below the surface. Rilian is a great disappointment, but the fight against the Lady's mind-altering magic leads to one of the great quotes of the series, on par with Reepicheep's speech in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

"Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."

This is Puddleglum, of course. And yes, I know that this is apologetics and Lewis is talking about Christianity and making the case for faith without proof, but put that aside for the moment, because this is still powerful life philosophy. It's a cynic's litany against cynicism. It's a pessimist's defense of hope.

Suppose we have only dreamed all those things like justice and fairness and equality, community and consensus and collaboration, universal basic income and effective environmentalism. The dreary magic of the realists and the pragmatists say that such things are baby's games, silly fantasies. But you can still choose to live like you believe in them. In Alasdair Gray's reworking of a line from Dennis Lee, "work as if you live in the early days of a better nation."

That's one moment that I'll always remember from this book. The other is after they kill the Lady of the Green Kirtle and her magic starts to fade, they have to escape from the underground caverns while surrounded by the Earthmen who served her and who they believe are hostile. It's a tense moment that turns into a delightful celebration when they realize that the Earthmen were just as much prisoners as the Prince was. They were forced from a far deeper land below, full of living metals and salamanders who speak from rivers of fire. It's the one moment in this book that I thought captured the magical strangeness of Narnia, that sense that there are wonderful things just out of sight that don't follow the normal patterns of medieval-ish fantasy.

Other than a few great lines from Puddleglum and some moments in Aslan's country, the first 60% of this book is a loss and remarkably frustrating to read. The last 40% isn't bad, although I wish Rilian had any discernible character other than generic Arthurian knight. I don't know what Eustace is doing in this book at all other than providing a way for Jill to get into Narnia, and I wish Lewis had realized Puddleglum could be the protagonist. But as frustrating as The Silver Chair can be, I am still glad I re-read it. Puddleglum is one of the truly memorable characters of children's literature, and it's a shame he's buried in a weak mid-series book.

Followed, in the original publication order, by The Horse and His Boy.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-05-29

Last spun 2021-06-01 from thread modified 2021-05-30