In The Silver Chair, something really unusual happens in Narnia: the visitors from our world have one miserable trip.
Oh, certainly, the other books had had moments of misery—Edmund’s miserable trek through ice and snow without a coat; one or two inadequate meals and a lot of walking in Prince Caspian; and that hurricane and all of that uncomfortable dragon stuff in Dawn Treader. But these moments were leavened with great food and parties, and none of the previous books offered anything like this journey, where Aslan calmly sends Eustace and a new character, Jill Pole, for days and days up into the wild north beyond Narnia, where the lands are cold and wet—very wet—and filled with not overly friendly giants. And that’s before all of the travelling in small, dark underground places.
(Note: I’ve been to caves, and they are gloriously beautiful, for, I must stress, short periods. After that it becomes far too obvious that you are under far too much rock and ground which is going to fall down and bury you at any second AND YOU WILL NEVER BREATHE AGAIN gasp gasp I can’t breathe now. I am entirely on the side of Jill Pole, who doesn’t like caves either.)
This is also the first and virtually only quest tale of the Narnia series, where the characters are actively seeking for something, complete with a set of not always clear instructions. (The Horse and His Boy, the next in the series, is arguably also in this category, although that is more of an escape/mission story, since they aren’t looking for a specific object or person that can save the country.) I find this odd, since a magical kingdom such as Narnia would seem to be tailor made for quest stories, and Lewis knew and loved several, but this is the only Narnia book where he played with the technique.
This is also one of the few books told nearly exclusively from one point of view: Jill Pole’s. This is easy to do since, unlike the other books in the series, the narrative is relatively straightforward and, most critically, the three major characters, once united early in the book, are rarely separated, freeing Lewis from the need to pause the tale to tell us what is happening elsewhere.
And it’s a great narrative choice, because Jill Pole is awesome. Absolutely, hands down, awesome.
Oh, right. The plot. As I said, it is relatively straightforward. After a few bitter comments on modern educational methods that Lewis thoroughly disapproved of, Eustace (generally called by his last name, “Scrubb,” in this book) and Jill are pulled into Aslan’s country, where Eustace follows up his round of bad luck by falling off a terrifyingly high cliff. Aslan explains to Jill that she and Eustace need to go rescue a lost prince, giving her four seemingly easy to follow signs to locate him. (I can’t help wondering, given that Aslan clearly knows exactly where Rillian is and how to get there, why he doesn’t do any of his own rescuing, but perhaps he’s just tired of rescuing silly Narnians tempted by evil sorceresses.) Once in Narnia, Jill and Eustace explain their mission and are introduced to Puddleglum, a Marsh-Wiggle. He agrees to accompany them, under the logical belief that a cold miserable trip to a mountainous land filled with giants just as winter is approaching is just the sort of thing that will send him careening from general pessimism to clinical depression.
Puddleglum follows a long literary tradition of amusingly pessimistic souls. I couldn’t help but think of Eeyore, but of course the character trope appears in Dickens and Austen, and many others that I’m forgetting at the moment. But his fellow marsh-wiggles are right: underneath his dismal predictions, Puddleglum is just—gasp—a bit of an optimist. He’s also the most prominent adult companion the series has had so far. Certainly, the other books featured adults, often in mentorship roles, but always as secondary characters or villains.
Off the three go with Puddleglum on a long, and as I noted, utterly miserable journey. It does not go well. Quite apart from the miserable conditions, and the giants, some of them throwing stones, some of them planning some less than delightful cooking plans, and the nasty underground places, and the sorceress, the three completely and utterly screw up Aslan’s nice unclear instructions. And they know it.
And this is why Jill is so awesome.
Jill Pole screws up. Badly, and often. But, she screws up not out of spitefulness (Edmund), or because Lewis felt the need to satirize some elements of modern thinking (Eustace) but because she is all too human. She gets too angry at Eustace to tell him about the Signs in time; she is easily distracted with thoughts of hot baths and warm food and baths; she is terrified of small dark places (as I said, I can sympathize). But she is not afraid to cry, or to resort to deception when absolutely necessary (getting nearly eaten by giants counts as absolutely necessary). And best of all: she’s not afraid to own up to her mistakes, and to try again, no matter how miserable she feels. She even manages to make it through those small dark places, all while being completely, utterly real.
And despite being bullied, despite being miserable, Jill is still able to believe in something else, to believe in Scrubb’s entirely unlikely story about another world filled with talking animals and dragons to become a true hero. And she even gets to go there.
(I credit this massive improvement in girl heroism to Lewis’s growing friendship with Joy Gresham, who would eventually become his wife.)
This book shines with humor (both Puddleglum’s ongoing morose observations and the giant cookbooks are highlights), but perhaps the best and most moving part occurs when they are lost deep underground (in a series of caves that Lewis describes poetically and well), where Puddleglum stands up to an evil witch, who is attempting to convince them that Narnia is nothing but a shadow-dream, an exaggeration of what they can see in the caves:
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all these 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 great 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 making up 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.
One of the best defenses of geekdom ever, even if Lewis probably didn’t mean it that way. If anything, this entire conversation is meant as a commentary on Plato (C.S. Lewis followed St. Paul in using Platonic philosophy to explain aspects of Christianity), and the above as a defense of Christian belief. And, of course, most of us don’t have the luxury of true escape from the real world into a Narnia. But this is the statement that saves the protagonists and the quest—which in turn is a pretty powerful defense for fantasy.
The one really inexplicable part of the book: I completely understand why the witch would want to enslave Rillian through an enchantment, but why make him so obnoxious? Surely, if you are going to go to the effort of enchanting someone, you’d try to make him into someone fun to hang out with? But perhaps that’s just me.
But this quibble aside, The Silver Chair is one of the best of the Narnia books—perhaps one of Lewis’s best books, period, filled with humor, brilliant descriptions of underworld places, and delightful characters. (And to address a comment on the last post: secondary women characters with speaking parts.) If you’ve wondered about Narnia, and cared to try it out, but don’t feel up to reading through seven books (however short) give this one, or The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe, a try. Okay, give them both a try.
Mari Ness would like to stick to rescuing enchanted princes above ground, thank you very much. She lives in central Florida.