I didn’t set out to re-read all seven of the Narnia novels in less than two months. I don’t have a habit of re-reading fiction. I have re-read The Horse and His Boy a few times, but only because it is my favorite of the Narnia stories, which I read for the first time when I was 14-15 years old.
But back in early March, I read a few pages of Prince Caspian at random and was drawn back into the world of Narnia; and I decided on a whim to re-read all the stories in a random order.
It’s true: books grow older as we grow older. They change as we change. When we return to a story after years away from it, it can be like greeting a friend we once knew well. There’s familiarity, but there’s also a sense of getting used to each other once again.
That said, it’s also true that stories don’t change. While re-reading, I was drawn back into the magic of the Narnian world. It was like passing through the wardrobe for the first time as a child. That wardrobe was my gateway to all fantasy literature. Only now, after reading other stories, learning something about how stories work, and writing my own stories, I can identify (at least a little) of why I love Narnia so much. (Although most of it is too ephemeral to put into words.) But, in this blog series, I’ll try my best to reflect on the Narnia stories and how they look twelve years after we first met.
Or maybe this is just an excuse for me to talk at length about one of my great passions. Sorry if you’re annoyed.
THE SILVER CHAIR
I started with The Silver Chair because I thought it would be the Narnia story that I remembered the least. It turned out, I hadn’t forgotten much, probably because The Silver Chair is the most straight-forward of the Narnian tales. It’s less of an adventure story and more of a quest, with a clear goal set out from the beginning.
Struggle is the theme of The Silver Chair. Eustace and Jill’s quest to find and save Prince Rillian is just one setback after another. Nothing happens as they think it should. They fumble from the start and things get progressively worse. But the children and their one-of-a-kind guide, Puddleglum, press on in a near-feverish commitment to see the mission to its conclusion even though, until the Green Witch is dead, it never appears they’ll succeed.
The dogged commitment of Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum is the real takeaway. I know what it feels like to have a clear goal and clear instructions for reaching that goal, but a dozen difficulties arise, the instructions aren’t as clear as I’d like, and the hurdles encountered seem insurmountable. But there’s something to say about not giving up, even if the eventual outcome is not what you’d expected it to be. And that’s what happens to Eustace and Jill. All the way until the actual deliverance of Prince Rillian, our human and marshwiggle heroes assume their mission’s a failure — and Jill and Eustace admit their own failure in “flubbing the signs.” (Puddleglum thinks everything’s going to turn out bad anyway.)
“Dear Prince, you are very sick. There is no land called Narnia.”
The story’s climax comes in chapter twelve, “The Queen of Underland.” In contrast to the rest of The Silver Chair, it’s not a physical struggle, but a war of the mind and the heart. Up till now, Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum have been struggling against the elements — bitter cold, harsh travel conditions, boulders being thrown at their heads, cannibal giants (or is it “giant cannibals”?), falling head over heels into the earth. But the greatest danger they face is in what they believe — or what the Green Witch would have them to believe.
Hundreds of miles from the blessed land of Narnia, deep underground, far away from even the memory of the sun and the sky, it’s easy to start thinking that there must be some error in belief. As Peter tells Professor Digory Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “If something’s real, it’s there all the time.” But is it? It’s this logical weakness that the Green Witch identifies as the greatest threat to herself in this moment. With Rillian freed from her spell, she knows that her only hope is to trick the Narnians into not believing in Narnia by making them think it’s all made-up.
Here’s the funny thing: In this battle of wits, the Narnians are no match for the Green Witch. And the harder they try to reason against the Witch on logical grounds, the more they lose. Even after Puddleglum stamps out the enchanted fire, the Narnians only hold to their beliefs by deciding to “stand by the play-world.”
It’s all well and good to defend what you believe on logical grounds. After all, they don’t call C.S. Lewis the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century for nothing. But the heart doesn’t traffic in logic and reason. It traffics in a much deeper, more foundational way of knowing — a knowing that cannot be shaken even when the “facts” line up against it.
This circles around to C.S. Lewis’ definition of the Christ-story as a myth that actually happens to be true. Usually, we think of myth or legend as something possessing a kernel, more or less, of truth. But the Christ-story arguably works the opposite way. If the Christ-story were, in fact, just a myth, it would still be something people wanted to believe. Kind of like how I want to believe that all the legends about King Arthur are true. In fact, I do believe it — in my heart, despite what historians may say. The Christ-story is the Arthurian legend that historians can’t argue with. I believe it primarily in my heart, but also in my head. And, I believe, it is the heart that saves; the head is just a bonus.
The Narnians sticking to what their hearts told them despite the Green Witch’s mental assault epitomizes Robert Fulghum’s words, “Imagination is stronger than knowledge… Myth is more potent than history… Dreams are more powerful than facts.” Eustace, Jill, Puddleglum, and Rillian win because they let their hearts lead them when their heads have failed.
We know C.S. Lewis didn’t set out to write allegories with the Narnia stories. I’ve known of people who’ve read Narnia for years and never caught a whiff of theology or Christianity in them. (And some who felt betrayed when the more obvious themes were pointed out.) But, being the man that Lewis was, spiritual themes run through most of the Narnia stories whether he intended them to or not.
“Thank you very much. I see.”
“Child,” said Aslan, in a gentler voice than he had yet used, “perhaps you do not see quite as well as you think. But the first step is to remember.”
What stands out to me in The Silver Chair is a problem that I think every believer struggles with. Up in Aslan’s Country, where the air is clear and the water is clean, the Four Signs that Jill receives seem easy enough to remember and recognize. But, as soon as she begins floating down to the “real world” (Narnia), the Signs start to get muddled and she has to deliberately recite them to herself. And once she touches ground at Cair Paravel, nothing is as apparent as she thought it would be.
Why couldn’t the old King Caspian X have a sign around his neck that said, “I am an old friend. Greet me at once”? How about a few historical markers: “Ruined City, 30 miles ahead”?
We all know the feeling. It’s one thing to read Jesus’ words or the New Testament epistles in private devotions or hear them espoused from a pulpit at church. But out in the “real world” of Narnia, we find ourselves asking, “Must I love that neighbor?” “I have to forgive her after what she did to me?”
The Silver Chair is about four true believers (one who has lost his way far more than the others) — believers in Narnia, in Aslan, and in Aslan’s word — who struggle to live according to the Narnian way in the wild, foreign lands of Ettinsmoor, Harfang, and Underland. Is that not the plight of the Christian as well?
The signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.–Aslan, The Silver Chair
If I had to name one part of fantasy literature that I enjoy more than any others, I think it would be worldbuilding. I like sprawling stories that showcase different elements of the same world — countries, languages, ethnicities, cultures, religions. That’s why The Horse and His Boy is my favorite. But The Silver Chair expands on the world of Narnia in a big way as well.
Lewis does a good job of building up the threat, the culture, and the history of the giants of the north. By letting us see the giants of Harfang as royals, hunters, caretakers, and cooks before we see them as cannibals, he makes the danger to our heroes more realistic. The giants are real people with a lifestyle the reader can actually identify with. And, for a time, we are glad our tired, weary protagonists can get warm beds, hot baths, and real food. When the damning realization comes that our heroes are chickens in the coop, we are more disgusted by this Hansel and Gretel-like turn of events than we would be otherwise.
In contrast to Harfang, Underland is established by Lewis emphasizing the region’s foreignness in contrast to the world we know. “The darkness was so complete that it made no difference at all whether you had your eyes open or shut,” he writes. And when the first Earthman speaks, his voice is described as “a dark, flat voice — almost, if you know what that means, a pitch-black voice.”
I love how Lewis emphasizes each Earthman’s difference from all the others. (This is something Lewis doesn’t usually do well, and I’ll talk more about that in another post.) The oddities present in the Earthmen — horns, pointed noses, short trunks, tails, a “walrus mustache” — would have been funny in any other story, but when combined with the overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere of Underland and its inhabitants, it just adds to the sadness.
I particularly enjoyed reading about the journey to the Underland city, with the Narnian Overlanders passing by Father Time, sleeping dragons, and other bat-like creatures. (And, I’m glad Lewis didn’t forget about them in The Last Battle.)
That’s three distinct realms built into just a few chapters. But Lewis, in my opinion, saved the best for last.
The land under Underland! An entirely different world — one of brightness and heat and fire — is built up in just a few paragraphs. It’s the true home of the Earthmen who are suddenly transformed when the crack in the earth opens up following the Witch’s death. The spell is broken, the Earthmen remember their true selves, and they will let no one stop them from getting back to their beloved land where “witty,” “eloquent,” “clever” salamanders (or “small dragons,” if you prefer) swim in a great river of fire.
I would have been content if the nature of the Earthmen hadn’t changed as they went back to their homeland. But seeing all those gloomy creatures suddenly cartwheeling for joy makes our farewell to Underland a happy occasion. As our heroes are on the way to their happy ending, the secondary characters who were also oppressed by the Green Witch are delivered as well. It would have been sad to close out that chapter of the story knowing that those poor creatures were trapped forever in the gloomy Underland — or drowned in the rising tide as likely as not.
The Silver Chair was supposed to be the next Narnia movie. But now that Netflix has taken over the film and TV rights, everything is up in the air. I don’t think there’s any need to remake Disney’s LWW or Fox’s PC. But if Netflix aims to re-establish the franchise, I don’t think The Silver Chair is the best bet because the “story” happens outside of Narnia.
Personally, I think The Magician’s Nephew would work well as the start of a new film/TV series, but that would go against the prevailing way of establishing a “cinematic universe,” which is to tell a central story and then go back to tell what came before. That said, I think TSC would translate excellently into film.
Now, I just need the story of King Rillian returning to Underland for a visit to Bism.