The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Silver Chair: War Against the Powers of Darkness

The Silver Chair was the fourth book of the Chronicles of Narnia to be published, but the fifth Lewis wrote, and the sixth chronologically (whew!). I had almost no memories of this book from reading it when I was a kid (they started to come back as I read), which is pretty on-brand for the themes of The Silver Chair. Having said that, I enjoyed it! It’s a straightforward adventure novel with some fun moments along the way, and the confrontation with the main villain in particular resonated with me.

The Silver Chair starts out in a terrible school (all of Lewis’ schools are terrible) called Experiment House, where we find a poor, bullied young woman named Jill Pole. Someone comes along to check on her, and it’s none other than our newly chivalrous and kind-hearted Eustace Scrubb, who gets up the guts to do something the Pevensies never really did: he tells a stranger about the beautiful world of Narnia, and how maybe they could escape the cruelties of their world to go there. He leads her in a magical incantation (a sort of prayer, really) that opens a gateway to Narnia, just as the bullies come running up on them.

Except they’re not in Narnia. They’re in Aslan’s Country, and, well, they get to Narnia through the power of Aslan’s breath. There’s a lot to unpack here, but the basic gist of the story is that Jill is given four signs that they must follow on their mission to find a missing prince, and she, Eustace, and a Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum set out on an adventure involving knights and witches and giants and caves and serpents and evil enchantments. It’s all a great deal of fun.

The Silver Chair features some significant “firsts” for the Chronicles, too: It’s the first Narnia book in which Aslan appears in the very first chapter. And it’s the first of the Narnia books to start with a female character and even have her be the first to speak. It’s the first book without a Pevensie in it (leaving poor Eustace in the space of “cousin to the High King”). It’s also the first book to introduce us to Marsh-wiggles, the first to include a full scene in Aslan’s Country, the first appearance of the “Earthmen” and their country, the first time Narnia breaks out into England, and the first time that the solution to the novel’s problems were actually solved by our main characters, rather than Aslan swooping in to take care of things.

Lewis wrote in a letter that The Silver Chair was a book about our “war against the powers of darkness” so we’ll be exploring it through that lens. Some other things to be looking for as you’re reading:

  • The Silver Chair is based around the “planet” of the Moon, so be on the lookout for references to the moon, silver, madness, envy (and the color green), water (which is heavily influenced by the moon), mutability, and getting lost.
  • Eustace has grown a good deal since the previous book. Be sure to think back on how Eustace saw the world when he was “dragonish” in Dawn Treader, and how the serpent/Witch Queen sees the world.
  • There are a lot of interesting things about Aslan to reflect on in this book. What are the “nine names” of Aslan? What was the purpose of the four signs? Does Aslan ever actually enter Narnia in this book or is he in Aslan’s Country the entire time? Be sure to note the two significant conversations that happen near the river in Aslan’s Country, one in the beginning with Jill and one at the end with Jill, Eustace, and a certain Dead Person.
  • “Who are the bad guys?” As we’re discussing the “powers of darkness,” it’s instructive to keep an eye on who the true villains are.
  • Pay special attention to Puddleglum’s big speech, and how enchantment is overcome. How evil enchantments work is something we’ll be exploring.
  • There’s a lot of “up and down” in this book, and that’s because the kids are moving through different planetary spheres. Medieval thought held that anything below the moon was changeable, mutable, but everything above that was eternal. Keep an eye on the characters and their altitude. It makes a difference in a couple scenes.
  • There are a lot of references to the previous books, and especially to Dawn Treader. There’s probably good reason for that, and it’s not just “oh it’s a sequel.”
  • There’s an interesting, weird complication in the Witch Queen’s plan for the world above. See if it sticks out to you, and why she’s doing this more difficult thing rather than using the pieces she already has in place.
  • What exactly is Aslan doing when he sends Jill and Eustace on this quest? Why is he bringing them into Narnia at this particular time (Eustace had been in Narnia less than a year previous—it’s still 1942 in England—though it’s been fifty years in Narnian time)? How do the lessons in Narnia relate to the real-world problems the kids are facing?

I’ll close with this: there’s a sort of proverb belonging to the Earthmen, about how “few return to the sunlit lands.” Only a handful of people have noticed this, but that’s where I took the name for my own fantasy world in my YA series, The Sunlit Lands! Since my books are, in many ways, an exploration of both my love for the Narnia books and my frustrations with certain aspects of them, I wanted to connect my books back to Narnia in some way. I don’t think I’ve ever shared that publicly, and I thought it would be a fun little piece of trivia.

I am looking forward to your thoughts, insights, questions, and corrections. As always, with each book we read and each post I write, the community here gives me so much food for thought, and I always learn something. If you haven’t caught up on the rest of the series, you can check it out here.

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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