This was the first Narnia book I ever read. My mother gave it to me one Christmas Day when I was about seven years old, along with about six other books, mainly Enid Blytons. (All I ever wanted was books). I didn’t like the look of it.
The cover picture, one of Pauline Baynes marvellous illustrations, showed a gloomy-looking cavern with lots of grotesque little gnomes, and it put me right off. I had no idea what this book might be about; I had never heard of Narnia, but it all looked downright sinister to me. The gnomes reminded me of Gollum in The Hobbit, a book which had given me the creeps – and worse still, of a truly ghastly fairytale which had inexplicably been included in my school reading book, ‘The Hobyahs’.
So I put off reading it. I read all my new Enid Blytons, and, I seem to remember, Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse. Then I was stuck with nothing new to read, and as I was the sort of child who would read the backs of cornflakes packets if there was nothing better to be had, I reluctantly opened The Silver Chair and began. And it started quite manageably, after all:
It was a dull autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym.
It seemed a school story. But almost immediately, the narrator went on to say, ‘This not going to be a school story’ – and then Eustace Scrubb (whoever he was) came along to tell Jill there’s this chance of escaping the bullies of Experiment House by getting ‘right outside this world’ – and then, ah then, in almost no time, Jill and Eustace find themselves on a high mountain – at the top of a cliff.
Imagine yourself at the top of the very highest cliff you know. And imagine yourself looking down to the very bottom. And then imagine that the precipice goes on below that, as far again, ten times as far, twenty times as far. And when you’ve looked down all that distance, imagine little white things that might at first glance be mistaken for sheep, but presently you realise they are clouds – not little wreaths of mist but the enormous white, puffy clouds that are themselves the size of mountains. And at last, in between those clouds, you get your first glimpse of the real bottom, so far away that you can’t make out whether it’s field or wood, or land or water: further below those clouds than you are above them.
Then Jill shows off, and Eustace falls over the cliff – and a lion appears and blows them both to Narnia ‘blowing out as steadily as a vacuum cleaner sucks in’ – and there I was in this adventure, full of old castles and dying kings, snowy moors and talking owls, and Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, the best pessimist since Eeyore – and the beautiful belle-dame-sans-merci-type Green Witch –with time running out to save Prince Rilian from that terrible, magical engine of sorcery, the Silver Chair itself. And I was hooked. This colourful, colloquial, exciting, fast-moving fairytale was about the best story I’d ever read.
Each Narnia book has its own flavour. There’s the Snow Queen winter world of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the mystical, light-filled, Celtic voyage-tale of the Dawn Treader, the E. Nesbit style of The Magician’s Nephew, the Arabian Nights feel of The Horse and His Boy. With its quest element, and snowy winter journey over rough northern countryside, I can now see parallels between The Silver Chair and the medieval English poem Gawain and the Green Knight, while the supernatural Green Lady echoes not only the Green Knight himself, but also the beautiful and dangerous fairy queens of sixteenth century ballads such as Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. The book is set in a framework of medieval romance. This particular Green Lady’s power to transform herself into a serpent, or worm, recalls the medieval French tale of Melusine, and two Scottish ballads, Alison Gross and The Laily Worm and the Machrel: in the first, an ugly witch courts a young man and turns him into a worm when he refuses her:
She’s turned her richt and richt about,
And thrice she blew on a grass-green horn;
And she sware by the moon and the stars aboon
That she’s gar me rue the day I was born.
Then out she’s ta’en a silver wand,
And she’s turn’d her three times round and round,
She’s mutter’d sic words that my strength it failed,
And I fell down senseless on the ground.
She’s turn’d me into an ugly worm,
And gar’d me toddle about the tree…
And in the second ballad:
I was but seven year auld
When my mither she did die
My father married the ae warst woman
The warld did ever see.
For she has made me the laily worm
That lies at the fit o’ the tree
An’ my sister Masery she’s made
The machrel of the sea.
In The Silver Chair, the Green Lady is both the worm which has stung Prince Rilian’s mother to death, and the woman who replaces her as mother figure, as captor, and as bride-to-be.
Green is dangerous, the warning colour of the fairy world, and has been considered unlucky right down into modern times. The Green Lady is a very different villain from The White Witch. Where Jadis is harsh, autocratic and frightening, the Green Lady conforms – outwardly at least – to the courtly courtesies of the Middle Ages. Here she is, drawn by Pauline Baynes like a lady out of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, richly dressed in green velvet with dagged sleeves and riding a ‘scrumptious’ white horse. She employs charm, ultra-femininity, logic-chopping and outright deceit, as well as spells and violence, to get her own way. I loved and still love the delightful, sinister ambiguity of her tempting advice to Scrubb, Jill and Puddleglum that they should visit the gentle giants of Harfang, where ‘the roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong will be on the table four times in a day’:
‘Only tell them,’ answered the Lady, ‘that She of the Green Kirtle salutes them by you, and has sent them two fair Southern children for the Autumn Feast.’
The children thanked her again, with shining eyes…
A great thing about this book is the vivid discomfort of the winter journey. The children and Puddleglum struggle through the harsh snowy landscape like Sir Gawain himself, who ‘nearly slain by the sleet, slept in his armour, more nights than enough on naked rocks, where clattering from the crest the cold burn ran, and hung high overhead in hard icicles’. In Chapter Seven, ‘The Hill of the Strange Trenches’ (in which they ignorantly scramble over one of the very signs they’ve come to find) their misery extends for several pages.
When they reached the foot of the hill they caught a glimpse of what might be rocks on each side – squarish rocks, if you looked at them carefully, but no one did. All were more concerned with the ledge right in front of them which barred their way. It was about four feet high. The Marsh-wiggle, with his long legs, had no difficulty in jumping up on the top of it, and he then helped the others up. It was a nasty wet business for them… because the snow now lay quite deep on the ledge.
Like Gawain, the children and Puddleglum find shelter, comfort and courtesy in a castle in the wilds: and like Gawain, they will discover this apparent refuge to be a perilous deception. But oh, the relief of that hot fireside tub! How I wanted to try one!
If you can swim – as Jill could – a giant bath is a lovely thing. And giant towels, though a bit rough and coarse, are lovely too, because there are acres of them. In fact you don’t need to dry at all, you just roll about on them in front of the fire and enjoy yourself.
But then – ‘at the deadest hour of night’ – Jill has a dream in which a wooden horse, one of the giant toys, comes to life and rolls towards her across the room. In the shape-shifting way of dreams it becomes Aslan himself, who takes her in his jaws and carries her to the window. In a vision that reminds me of Thomas Malory at his numinous best, Jill sees how, outside in the moonlight,
written in great letters across the world or the sky (she did not know which) were the words UNDER ME.
In the morning, it’s obvious. The ruined city of the giants which they were supposed to be looking for lies right there beneath the window: the very terrain they struggled across the previous night.
On the mountain at the beginning of the book, Jill was given four signs by Aslan. Over the course of the adventure, the travellers ‘muff’ the first three, but the writing is so strong there’s no room for the reader to grow impatient with the characters. As a child I felt that I’d have done the just the same; I could sympathise. I still can. Puddleglum and the children are so horribly wet and tired and cold: and they’ve been wet and tired and cold for days, too: of course they long for a bit of warmth and comfort.
So whose fault is it, that they miss the signs? Is this a sin thing? Is the fault, like Eve’s, Jill’s alone? Is this another strike against Lewis to place beside the problem of Susan and the fact that Narnia’s most spectacular villains (far surpassing tedious Uncle Andrew and Shift the ape) are female? I honestly don’t think so. Hunting out religious parallels for everything that happens in Narnia is a bit like going for a walk in lead boots: it can be done, but it’s not a lot of fun. I could get really heavy and suggest that the signs handed to Jill on the mountain are a reference to God handing the Ten Commandments to Moses; this might even be what Lewis intended, but if so, he did it with a very light touch. The mistakes the children make are so natural and likely, their transgressions never feel much of a big deal. Rather than being blamed for forgetting the signs, Jill blames herself – an important difference – but the others immediately accept collective responsibility, and they all move on. They’re a team. There’s no finger-pointing. If there’s a punishment, it’s not delivered by Aslan. It comes merely as a consequence of their decisions: at dinner with the giants they find themselves eating a talking animal.
And yet again Lewis chooses a girl as his viewpoint character. We see Narnia through Jill’s eyes, and she has common sense, courage, obstinacy and what is now called ‘attitude’. (Yes, she pushes Eustace off a cliff – but anyone might do that.) Jill and Eustace indulge in similar amounts of bad-tempered bickering, and their relationship – friendship with a touch of rivalry – is more realistic than any in the previous books. It’s all very even-handed. Jill is afraid of tight spaces, but Eustace is afraid of heights. Jill doesn’t fight the serpent, but she can tack up big, nervous horses and ride them without fear. It’s Jill who fools the giants by putting on a comedy performance of Shirley Temple-style cuteness, and Jill who discovers this important entry in the Harfang cookery book:
MAN: this elegant little biped has long been valued as a delicacy. It forms a traditional part of the Autumn Feast and is served between the fish and the joint. Each Man –
This, after she has noticed two clean pie-dishes set out on the kitchen table, large enough for her to ‘lie down just comfortably in’. The mixture of suspense and black comedy is masterful.
Next comes the frantic escape from Harfang, the capture by the gnomes with their dirge-like chant of ‘many fall down, and few return to the sunlit lands’, and the fabulous underworld journey through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea – through endless caves of flabby trees and lizard-like creatures curled asleep in the moss – past the great sleeping giant Time, who will awake at the end of the world – down to the dark water, the pale beaches, and the silent underground city with its wan lamps: ‘as quiet, and nearly as dark, as the inside of an ant-hill’.
And here they meet the Black Knight.
A young man with fair hair rose to meet them. He was handsome, and looked both bold and kind, though there was something about his face that didn’t seem quite right.
No doubt any experienced adult reader will guess at once who he is. When I was seven, I initially thought this could be Prince Rilian, but Lewis did an excellent job of misdirecting me. The Knight is a foolish, shallow, disappointing man. He doesn’t recognise the name ‘Rilian’, he’s never heard of Narnia, and he seems to worship the Green Lady, who by this time I knew to be wicked. And for an hour each night he turns into a snake? Maybe the very creature which bit the Queen?
Perhaps I wasn’t quite deceived. But I wasn’t quite sure either: the Knight is so irritating.
They were thoroughly tired of the Knight’s talk before they had finished supper. Puddleglum was thinking, ‘I wonder what game that witch is really playing with this young fool.’ Scrubb was thinking, ‘He’s a great baby, really: tied to that woman’s apron strings; he’s a sap.’ And Jill was thinking, ‘He’s the silliest, most conceited, selfish pig I’ve met for a long time.’
It is this uncertainty which makes the next passage truly gripping. The Knight is bound to his Silver Chair and – here is the dreadful bit – himself begs the children and Puddleglum not to release him. ‘Harden your hearts and stop your ears. For while I am bound, you are safe.’ And they all agree, promising one another that whatever he says or does – ‘whatever he says’ – they’ll stay firm. They won’t let him go.
And for one brief hour, the witch’s enchantment lifts. ‘I am sane now. Every night I am sane. If only I could get out of this enchanted chair, it would last. But every night they bind me, and so my chance is gone. But you are not enemies. I am not your prisoner. Quick! Cut these cords.’
It takes two and a half agonising pages for the children and Puddleglum to change their minds and cut the cords, while the Knight pleads, begs, threatens, shrieks, and finally adjures them in the name of Aslan – the last of the four signs. They know at once what they have to do. They’ve messed up the first three, and this is the last chance – but what will happen next? ‘That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn’t wonder,’ says gloomy but staunch Puddleglum. ‘But that doesn’t let us off following the sign.’
They all stood looking at once another with bright eyes. It was a sickening moment. ‘All right!’ said Jill suddenly. ‘Let’s get it over. Goodbye, everyone…!’ They all shook hands. The Knight was screaming by now; there was foam on his cheeks.
It’s a wonderful effect: this rescue of the Prince isn’t a moment of triumph, but of suspense and terror. ‘Let’s get it over.’ Reading this as an adult, I find myself remembering that Lewis fought in the trenches. I think of soldiers listening to wounded comrades screaming out in No Man’s Land, nerving themselves to a rescue which may end in their own deaths. Is that too fanciful? Could the Silver Chair itself be a metaphor for the terrible barbed wire in which so many men lay entangled? As a fairytale motif, I know of nothing really like it except perhaps the Siege Perilous in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, the seat at the Round Table devised by Merlin for Galahad, the knight who will attain the Holy Grail, and fatal for anyone else who sits in it. The Silver Chair is more sinister than that. Of course, this book is a fairytale, I’m not suggesting we should read The Silver Chair as World War I literature. But look again at the passage where the liberated Prince turns on the Chair with his sword:
The silver gave way before its edge like string, and in a few moments a few twisted fragments, shining on the floor, were all that was left. But as the chair broke, there came from it a bright flash, a sound like small thunder, and (for one moment) a loathsome smell.
The Chair turns to wire-like ‘string’, its twisted metal fragments resemble shrapnel – it breaks with a flash, a crash like thunder and a loathsome smell – like gas? If these images truly arise from Lewis’s war experience, which he never to my knowledge wrote about directly, then they come from subconscious memory. This is what writers do: things swim up unsummoned from the depths of all that we are and all that has happened to us. And we use them, often without looking at them too hard. This is what makes them powerful: they’re not planned or worked out, they arise as symbols of some emotional truth: they satisfy: they feel right. It’s not some kind of neat equation, but perhaps Lewis’s experience informs the image of the Silver Chair, lending it shadow and depth.
The rescued Knight is soon revealed as Prince Rilian himself, and as the children explain their purpose in coming to find him, the Witch returns.
The Silver Chair is an exceedingly rich book. It had more to it than any story I’d ever read. It gave me such a lot to think about – or perhaps more accurately to soak up and grow on, like a plant that’s been given a really nourishing fertiliser. It was Lewis, not any scientist, who introduced me, aged seven and up, to the concept of the multiverse, the notion there could be many worlds, many universes besides ours. He also introduced me, little as I realised this at the time, to the Platonic parable of the cave. As much as Christianity, Plato was one of CS Lewis’s touchstones: he even gets a mention in The Last Battle: “It’s all in Plato – all in Plato,” says the Professor, Diggory. “Bless me, what do they teach them in these schools?”
In The Republic, Plato suggests that human perception can be compared to that of prisoners chained in a cave, whose only knowledge of anything beyond is gained from the shadows flung on to the cave wall from the real world outside. Only the philosopher sees the truth behind appearances. That is what lies behind this passage, in which the Green Lady, the witch, tries to persuade the children and the Prince that there is no such place as Narnia:
“What is this sun that you speak of? Do you mean anything by the word?”
“Yes, we jolly well do,” said Scrubb.
“Can you tell me what it’s like?” asked the Witch (thrum, thrum, thrum, went the strings).
“Please it your Grace,” said the Prince, very coldly and politely. “You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room; and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld, and hangeth in the sky.”
“Hangeth from what, my lord?” asked the Witch, and then, while they were all still thinking how to answer her, she added, with another of her soft, silvery laughs, “You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me that it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story.”
First and foremost, this is a neat reversal of Plato's parable. Here it’s the Green Lady who inhabits – mentally as well as literally – the underground cave. She wants to restrict the children’s reality. She wants to keep them with her, prisoners – just as the dwarfs at the end of The Last Battle are prisoners of their own scepticism, refusing to emerge from the rank stable of their own senses.
Fundamentalists of all kinds prefer, in my experience, to stay in the cave. Some – not all – religious people live within the restrictions of a literal understanding of the Bible, refusing to consider metaphorical or historical interpretations. Some practical people feel comfortable only with demonstrable scientific truths and feel that telling fairy-stories about the world leads to confusion, illusion and possibly even child abuse. Some political parties insist – occasionally with force – upon rigid adherence to a particular social model. All fundamentalists feel deep suspicion, sometimes amounting to paranoia, of metaphoric, poetic, creative truth. All instinctively shun the suggestion that there may be other ways that theirs of reading, of explaining, of experiencing or governing the world.
What is reality? Lewis demands of his child readers. Is it only the evidence of our immediate senses – the things we can touch and taste and see? Then what about the imagination? What about fiction and poetry and religion and philosophy?
This moment, when the Green Lady almost convinces the children and Puddleglum that her underground kingdom is all there is, made a deep impression on me as a child: and rightly, since it’s the heart of the book. And I especially loved the moment when practical, common-sensible Puddleglum saves the day, not by any subtle argument, but by stamping out the witch’s magical fire with his big, webbed foot, filling the room with ‘the smell of burnt Marshwiggle’ – and follows this brave deed with his, and Lewis’s, passionate credo:
“I’m a chap who’s always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. 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, 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 playing 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 stick with 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.”
‘Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world.’ Again I remember Lewis’s war experience. He knew the value of the imagination, and this trumpet-call for its power and beauty still makes me want to cheer. Puddleglum’s credo is not Christian, because traditional Christianity hangs upon upon the verity of the New Testament. ‘If Christ was not raised, then our gospel is null and void, and so is your faith’, says Saint Paul, 1 Corinthians, 15:14. Puddleglum speaks as a Platonist: if in this imperfect world you can imagine the Good, it is because beyond our material ‘reality’ it truly exists as a perfect Form. ‘Be what you wish to seem’: choose the best in yourself and not the worst. It’s not a bad message to come across, when you’re still only seven.
Now you may complain that it’s all sleight-of-hand, that Lewis is using Plato for his own purposes and this is a set-up, a bit of Christian propaganda (and in his adult Christian apologetics, Lewis certainly did rely heavily on dubious Socratic dialectic): because, yes, the child reader knows all the time that Narnia is real. Or at least that in the secondary world of the book, Narnia is ‘real’… Lewis hints at how impoverished the witch’s worldview is by showing us layer upon layer of rich reality: the glimpse of the brilliant land of Bism far down in the depths of the earth:
“Down there,” said Golg, “I could show you real gold, real silver, real diamonds.”
“Bosh,” said Jill rudely. “As if we didn’t know that we’re below the deepest mines even here.”
“Yes,” said Golg. “I have heard of those little scratches in the crust that you Topdwellers call mines. But that’s where you get dead gold, dead silver, dead gems. Down in Bism we have them alive and growing. There I’ll pick you bunches of rubies that you can eat, and squeeze you a cup full of diamond juice. You won’t care much about fingering the cold dead treasures of your shallow mines after you have tasted the live ones of Bism.
So there are worlds in Narnia that even the Narnians don’t know about! What is real? Our world? Fiction? Narnia? Aslan’s country? All of them…?
With such questions hanging in the Narnian air, no wonder that I, along with many other children, felt a passionate half-belief that Narnia itself was real. And we longed to go there. The American writer Laura Miller writes of this in ‘The Magician’s Book, A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia’:
In one of the most vivid memories from my childhood, nothing happens. On a clear, sunny day, I’m standing near a curb in the quiet suburban California neighbourhood where my family lived, and I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again. The place I longed to visit was Narnia.
When my friend Frances and I were about ten, we confessed to one another our fragile belief that Narnia was real – had to be real. We invented a code name for it – ‘The Garden’ – so that we could talk about it and other people wouldn’t know. As a child, I took what I needed from the Narnia books: and what I needed has stayed with me for life: the colour, richness and beauty, the breadth, depth and glory of the world.
Defeated in argument, the Witch turns to violence. In a hair-raisingly vivid passage owing a great deal to the death of the dragon in Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, she transforms herself into a serpent and is killed. This breaks all her chains of enchantment, and the gnomes turn out to have been enchanted too. Rilian and Eustace reluctantly turn back from the glowing edge of Bism, and the travellers make their way out into the Overworld which – of course – turns out to be the classic heart of Narnia, with fauns and dryads dancing in the snow on a cold moonlit night. Everything is now delightful, and the Narnians welcome their long-lost Prince with shouts of joy. Returning to Cair Paravel on centaur-back, the travellers find King Caspian’s ship coming slowly up the river from the sea. It berths. Then comes a delay. You begin to feel that something is wrong. And finally the old king and his son are reunited: the king lying on a bed, ‘very pale and still’. He blesses his son and falls back, dead.
Caspian! – Caspian dies! Caspian, the brave and handsome boy who was so nice to Lucy (who = me) even though she was younger! It has all gone wrong, all turned sad.
…all who wore hats, bonnets, helmets or hoods were taking them off – Eustace included. Then she heard a rustling and flapping noise up above the castle; when she looked up she saw that the great banner with the golden Lion on it was being brought down to half-mast. And after that, slowly, mercilessly, with wailing strings and disconsolate blowing of horns, the music began again: this time, a tune to break your heart.
The resurrection scene which follows, as Aslan blows away the ‘the ship and the dead King and the castle and the snow and the winter sky’ and brings the children back to the numinous mountain does not, for me at least, detract from the poignancy of Caspian’s death. As a child I felt keenly for Rilian. He only just got to see his father! After ten years of being enchanted! After his mother had died too! Poor Rilian, left alone to grieve. He doesn’t get to see King Caspian coming back to youth and strength…
On this re-reading I still find Caspian’s resurrection moving. Yes, the Christian imagery is there, and with deliberate intent. It is Aslan's blood and Aslan's pain that restores Caspian. I prefer that to a magic wand. Christian imagery permeates most of Western art, and you don’t have to be a believer to appreciate it. If Christianity is a myth, it is a myth that speaks as movingly and strongly as any other. The Silver Chair isn’t propaganda. It is a beautiful fairytale.
Of course from my current, liberal, adult point of view, it’s a little disconcerting that the final action of Jill, Eustace and Caspian in this book is to inflict – with Aslan’s co-operative approval – corporal punishment on the bullies of Experiment House. I have to tell you, though, that as a child I thought this bit was great. I too had been bullied at school, as lots of children have – and it was unthinkable that after all they’d been through, Jill and Eustace would return to square one, cowering miserably in the shrubbery. I would also have found it highly unsatisfactory if Lewis had them simply quell the bullies by force of new-found confidence. (‘Just stand up to them,’ as adults liked to bleat, ‘then they’ll back down!’) I wouldn’t have believed it anyway. No thankyou! I wanted vicarious revenge and I was pleased to be given it. And here, my adult and my childhood selves part company, and I can feel the seven year-old me giving her older counterpart a sceptical and pitying glance.
Picture credits: all artwork by Pauline Baynes