Feb 10 2011 11:28am

Underground Quests: The Silver Chair

The Silver Chair by C.S. LewisIn 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.

Jon Evans
1. rezendi
I've been known to argue that The Silver Chair is really a horror novel dressed up as fantasy. (Though honestly it's been so long since I read it I'm not sure I could defend that now. Clearly it's time for a re-read.)
2. JoeNotCharles
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.

Dolorous Ed!
jon meltzer
3. jmeltzer
What, no mention of the greatest moment in the entire Narnia series: Jill and the giants of Harfang? (busy girl ... :-) )
4. Story Cottage
The last time I read The Silver Chair, I didn't care for it but I cant remember why. I had better reread it.

Also, don't forget to add Marvin the Paranoid Android to your list of "amusingly pessimistic souls".
5. Tom Nackid
I have to confess I had a crush on Jill since I first read The Last Battle. (Yes, I started with the last book in the series--I liked the the cover, ok.). She could shoot and guide a party across country better than the boys. What more coiuld a budding geek-guy want! Plus, she wasn't above saying "Damm" every once in a while! Later when I went back and read the rest of the series I realized--even though I didn't at the time know the story of Lewis and Ms. Gretchum--that Lewis's ability to write a female character had improved by leaps and bounds.

PS: I share your and Jill's discomfort with caves. My first reactions is "Wow. Its so amazing that there is all this vast open space so deep underground." Followed by the though, "Yeah, It is amazing--all this vast open space so deep underground. How long can that last?"
Nick Rogers
6. BookGoblin
@1 rezendi:

I'm not sure I'd go all the way to horror novel...but I'll bet I could be talked there without too much effort...I'd have to say that for me what it represents is the prototype for the "dark fantasy" branch of the genre. Bad Guys are everywhere, the world is dark and evil pervades everything, "winning" isn't about the hero being an amazing warrior but about the hero finding a solution through adversity and temptation.

Actually, my strongest association of this book with "dark fantasy" was watching the Tom Cruise move Legend (which was the darkest fantasy I saw as a kid) and thinking "that's what happens when you read The Silver Chair and The Screwtape Letters back-to-back."
7. El Zarcho
Full disclosure: my cats are named Jill and Eustace. This is my favorite book of the series, and Puddleglum's stirring defense of Narnia is perhaps the top moment. Jill is a really terrific character; kind of makes me wish I'd named one of my daughters Jill instead of my cat =).

Lewis wrote this one to reflect the influence of the moon: Luna is represented by hunting, madness (lunacy), silver, etc.
Tony Zbaraschuk
8. tonyz
Jill is just amazing, I agree. Very well-drawn, and somewhat more to my liking than Lucy (who has her own appeal, but not Jill's spunkiness -- if that's the right word.)

And I agree very much with the idea that Jill fails because she's human and just forgets things, or gets sidetracked by other things -- but she rallies in the end, when it matters most.

(And the final escape into Narnia is very, very funny. Particularly the snowballs, and the aside on centaur diets.)
9. Rootboy
This was my least favorite Narnia book as a kid; all I remember is Eustace and Jill, some giants, the green witch, and the fact that unlike the other books it had a genuinely unpleasant setting. I guess I liked the Narnia books mainly because I wanted to go to Narnia, and this book didn't seem like a place I wanted to go. I guess should revisit it with more grown-up eyes.

And I'll point out that Lewis' defense of fantasy is fine as long as you acknowledge it's a fantasy. When you cut over to religion you are, of course, insisting that it's not a fantasy at all, which changes the meaning entirely.
James Burbidge
10. jsburbidge
One quibble: I don't think it can be said that St. Paul used Plato for anything. Augustine used them both, but Paul seems to have been allergic to philosophy.
11. Farah Mendlesohn
One of my favourites too, but it was unnerving when I read Pilgrim's Progress a few years ago to realise why it felt familiar. Jill is splendid, but it's the giants I adored.

(Tom Baker as Puddleglum was close to perfect.)
Karen L
12. changisme
Mari, you said the Silver Chair is the only quest story. Isn't Dawntreader also a quest story?
And Silver Chair is my favourite Narnia book!
Eli Bishop
13. EliBishop
"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?"

I don't know, that rings true for me. It's how a lot of abusive marriages work. If you're that determined to control someone else's life, you're likely to be a pretty angry and insecure person, so you may not want to see your victim being cheerful and interesting even if they're doing everything you want; whereas if you can play on their weaknesses and get them to be more visibly screwed up, it makes it easier for you to look at them with patronizing contempt and feel justified in keeping them under your thumb.

As retrograde as Lewis could be about gender roles, he can be awfully good on the twisted psychology of bad relationships.
Dru O'Higgins
14. bellman
Was the school Jill and Eustace come from a reference to Summerhill school?

If you have a chance, pick up the British television version, it's fabulous.
15. kmford
Puddleglum is actually modeled after the caretaker at The Kilns, Lewis's home on the outskirts of Oxford. Walter Hooper has recounted some of his interactions with Lewis at CS Lewis Foundation events.
Erick G
16. Erick G
It's interesting how the miserable trip in this story turns out one of the most real characters Lewis has produced. Jill is awesome, according to what you have said, because she is human, and has human tendencies and faults. Maybe it was because Lewis had someone to model her after, or he just had a stroke of genius when he created her, but either way, I agree with you. Jill is awesome because she is human in a magical world, the way the other characters should have behaved as well. Jill acted like any one of us would have, albeit braver than most, if we were found in the same situation.
Mari Ness
17. MariCats
@rezendi - I don't know that I'd go so far as to classify Silver Chair as a horror novel -- it has some horrific elements, yes, and one monster, and some of the minor characters are a bit zombielike for a bit, but it doesn't have the sense of fear and dread and high death count I associate with horror novels.

@JoeNotCharles - I always took Dolorous Edd as the American Martin's nod to that literary tradition - not to mention filling a major need for some jokes up at the very grim Wall.

@jmeltzer - Well, that would be all the deception I mentioned....

@Story Cottage - Marvin IS Eeyore turned into a very sad robot.

@Tom Nackid - I'm glad you brought up Jill's continuing awesomeness in Last Battle, since I have so much to unpack with that book that I might not get to it.

But yes. Unlike the Pevensies (except Susan who worked on swimming, a skill which was then never used), Jill spent her time away from Narnia preparing to go back by learning various useful woodland skills plus archery, and thus being able to outdo the guys.

Silver Chair was written before Lewis' marriage, but by this time they had established a strong friendship.

@tonyz - A valuable lesson to us all not to invite centaurs over the weekend!

@Rootboy - Puddleglum's defense seems to admit that yes, Narnia could well be a fantasy. Lewis was well aware that that the line between fantasy and religion is not that clear, and that many aspects of Christianity could be best described as myth, but he believed that Christianity had the merit of being a true myth.

@jsburgidge - Without trying to get too sidetracked into early Christian writings here, the argument of St. Paul as using Platonic philosophy is partly dependent on accepting his authorship of the Letter to the Colossians, but however much the Acts of the Apostles tried to picture Paul as a thoroughly Jewish scholar and expert who just happened to have Roman citizenship, Paul's letters betray not only extensive education but also awareness of Greek philosophic thought, and the first letter to the Corinthians actually uses some phrases from Plato's Republic.

And now, back to Narnia!

@Farah Mendlesohn - I've never managed to get through Pilgrim's Progress, so I'll have to take your word for that.

@changisme - I suppose Dawn Treader is a sort of quest story, given that Caspian is searching for the seven lost lords and Reepicheep is hoping to find the utter east, but it really fits more of the spiritual awakening tale rather than a quest story.

@Elibishop - I can understand making the abused partner miserable or submissive or depressed. But the Green Witch makes Rillian cocky, unbelievably self-centered, obnoxious and generally annoying. He's not just miserable to be around - the way abused partners can be -- or worried about pleasing her - ditto. He's just ANNOYING. Tne only good thing about that episode is that his enchanted self isn't on the page very long.

@bellman - I don't know which specific school was referenced here, but in general Lewis thought very poorly of English schools at the time - he goes off on a rant about this in one of his completely unrelated essays on John Donne, and he was known to complain about this elsewhere. I suspect this came from teaching undergraduates.

I just got the BBC versions as a holiday gift but haven't watched all the way through yet - I wanted to finish these essays first, based on the books.

@kmford -- Ooh, thanks. That I didn't know.

@Erick G - I suppose it goes back to the idea of misery showing who you really are.
Eli Bishop
18. EliBishop
@MariCats: I didn't mean it as such a literal analogy-- just that the witch might prefer having a Rillian around who's an ass (and who's not even self-aware enough to be miserable), either because it proves that he is what she made him rather than his own person, or because she sees him (or all humans) as obnoxious and silly and enjoys enforcing that caricature.
Jennifer Rutherford
19. jenfullmoon
I suspect the Witch LIKED Rilian to be annoying. That was probably a behavior that she found pleasing, what with being evil and all.

I have to say, the scene where he's tied up and pleading, while they debate whether or not to free him, is always very gripping.
20. DragonRose
If I remeber corectly there is a prety awesome party going on when they come out of the tunnel. So not a complete lack of fun-times!
Mari Ness
21. MariCats
@Elibishop - Ah, fair enough. I misunderstood.

@jenfullmoon - Well, I suspect she was all gungho at his pretty horrifying delight that they were about to spring out from underground without any warning on an above ground country, which as Eustace points out is pretty rotten for the above ground country. And if that had been his only irritating statement, or only evil aspect, I could have understood it, but, it didn't end there. Inflicting him with silly evil laughter? Calling Jill a little maiden? And, worse, making him tedious? And she clearly didn't authorize the whole entertaining visitors.

I think she just hadn't worked out the enchantment kinks yet.
22. Angiportus
I was bothered by Jill crying when Eustace didn't, her not being able to help slay the witch/serpent, and when Aslan gave her a whip instead of a sword. She did become a lot more awesome in "Last Battle". There was a live-action movie of both this and "Dawn Treader" that I thought was well-done, at least I don't recall them taking huge liberties with the plot and so on.
As usual, Baynes' illos were half the story. I have come to realize that the giant queen's hairstyle might have been inspired by a Mongolian one, and some of the tunics of the other giants have a Sami look, but I wouldn't hold my hand in the fire to prove it. (BTW, being fat isn't a crime. ) I just wish the editions I have found would 1] include all the illos and 2] not make them too small, dark and muddled. And, 3] not presume to add undersaturated coloring.
I'm still wondering what diamond juice would taste like.
23. av willis
My take on Rillian is that the whole way the enchantment worked on him was he couldn't take anything serious except the witch. Go back and read the chapter that introduces him, he is perpetually tittering like a little school girl whether his soulmate is being accused-accurately-of being a bitch, contemplating a genocidal conquest of the sunlit realms, or admitting that he has a BIT of a personal problem of starting to turn into a snake.

Then look at the chapter with the showdown against the lady of the Green Kirtle. Her whole brainwashing process revolves around stripping him of all reality except what she says is real.
The end result is we get a character that is completely devoted to his mistress because she is his only link to reality. Everything else he treats like a joke because as far as he's concerned it is.
24. nlesley
I think it ought to be mentioned in a place as full of geeks as this one, that there exists a movie version of Silver Chair with Tom Baker as Puddleglum. Tom Baker.

Silver Chair was my least favourite of the Narnias when I was a kid - insufficient shiny things, too many caves. In retrospect, though, it has been the most enjoyable to reread.
25. Gorbag
The Silver Chair was one of my favourites in the series, and I think it would have been because, as you say, both Jill and Eustace are real people, and Puddleglum is totally and utterly awesome.

(I think C.S. Lewis was pocking fun at Voltaire's Pangloss ... :)
26. euphbass
Just to clarify for all those mentioning movie versions, they were actually BBC series - one series for each of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Silver Chair and Voyage of the Dawn Treader. They were shown on Sunday nights in the mid to late 1980s - I remember every Sunday at teatime as a child sitting down in front of the TV and being so happy when the title music came on. These were just amazing productions.

Yes, they didn't have Hollywood effects, but the casting and overall feel more than made up for it. The casting is so much better than the recent films, with the possible excption of Lucy. And I was (and still am) very impressed with the centaurs - they did them properly, half man half horse, not like the more fantasy-type ones seen in the recent Narnia and Harry Potter films. The centaurs were probably the best special effect in the BBC production, and still look real even now.

I would say, though, that I found Jill really quite annoying in the BBC production, and only marginally less so in the book.

The four BBC series can be aquired for very little money (currently £8.47) in their entirety on DVD on Amazon, and the soundtrack, by Geoffrey Burgon, is also available. Needless to say, I have both! Included in the extras on my DVD set is an interview with the four actors who played the Pevensies, in their early twenties when interviewed, and they are exactly as you would imagine, and just how I imagined they would have looked as Kings and Queens of Narnia.
27. HelenS
I've always felt that the current Lucy was cast by someone who remembered the pudding-faced Lucy of the BBC series. She's still nothing like the book Lucy (who according to the text had golden hair, though the illustrations make her look quite dark). I remember Aslan and the Beavers looking like stiffly stuffed toys (you know, those hard ones that weren't very cuddly). But it's a very long time since I saw LWW, and I've never seen the others.

euphbass@26: both your links seem to lead to the soundtrack. looks like the DVD set.
28. elsiekate
i think that this is my favorite--i love d the quest and the signs and the bungling of the signs--the moment when they look out the window at the giant's house and see the words. as a grown up, i love when jill spends the day at the giant's trying to get information out of them. and puddleglum!

i think that in this one, the way that the kids act is the most realistic to how the reader would act, place in the same situation. you hope you'd be brave, but you'd probably forget stuff and get tired and cold. lucy will always be my favorite, but jill is a very close second!
Nancy Lebovitz
29. NancyLebovitz
I really wanted to see Puddleglum in The Last Battle. I expected him to end up in Heaven, but I couldn't imagine what he would say. Maybe Lewis couldn't, either.
30. HelenS
"Well, here you are. We all come to it in time. You'll have to make the best of things, that's what I always say. At any rate it isn't raining just now."
31. Jan Spoor
"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."

This may not really need saying :-) but of course he doesn't do it himself because the point of having Jill and Eustace and Puddleglum do the rescuing is that the experience of doing it will cause them to grow as people. Most of the tasks that Aslan sets people are as much about them doing the task (or failing to) as they are about the task getting done.
Pamela Adams
32. PamAdams
bellman@14, There's a similar school in Tey's Brat Farrar.

jenfullmoon@19, Yes! First Rillian actually gets serious- you'd think with his joky personality enchantment that he'd brush it off. Puddleglum says that they should "...promise that whatever he says we don't touch those cords," and Eustace and Jill quickly agree. Even when Rillian has called on them in Aslan's name, they are more than half-convinced that they'll be killed.
It was a sickening moment. 'All right!' said Jill suddenly. 'Let's get it over. Good-bye, everyone...!' They all shook hands solemnly.
33. Tehanu
34. Finny
"(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.)"
I agree with this. And just want to say that The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, has some of the best examples of that feeling I've ever read. Plus, it's just a really, really good book.

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