The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Silver Chair: The Lady of the Green Kirtle, Fake News, and Enchantment

Poor Prince Rilian. His mother—the still unnamed wife of King Caspian—is killed by a serpent “green as poison” and when he sets out to find the foul worm to destroy it, he finds instead the Lady of the Green Kirtle. She is “the most beautiful thing that was ever made” according to Rilian, though our old friend Drinian can’t help but notice that she is dressed in a thin garment as green as poison and, “It stuck in Drinian’s mind that this shining green woman was evil.”

I know the first question in everyone’s mind: what exactly is a kirtle? The short answer is that it’s women’s clothing, either an underdress or an overdress depending on the years we’re talking about and the social status of the woman wearing it. We will soon learn that this particular Lady is of high status indeed: a Witch Queen from the far Northern parts of the world who intends, of course, great harm to Narnia.

We eventually learn—though not without some danger to our heroes—that this Lady is an enchantress. For ten years Prince Rilian is under her control, and every night he has only an hour of sanity. He’s not allowed in the sunshine unless wearing a full suit of armor, and during his sane hour he’s tied to a silver chair until he is back under the witch’s control. (There’s a lot of “lunar” symbolism here… the temporary, changeable nature of Rilian’s affliction, the inability to be fully present in sunlight, the silver chair, the “lunacy.”)

The most harrowing scene in The Silver Chair, however, is when the Queen of Underland discovers our heroes have released Rilian from his enchantment, and she attempts to bring them all under her control. Jill, Eustace, Rilian, and even our marsh-wiggle Puddleglum struggle not to succumb to her control, and it honestly looks like they’re not going to succeed.

As I read it, I couldn’t help but recognize techniques that we see every day in social media and in our culture of someone in power gaslighting, manipulating, and using specious arguments to gain control over someone else.

I’d like to take a look at what happens in that room and explore some of the connections to our world today. First, let’s notice what the Lady does to begin her enchantment. She takes a green powder and tosses it in the fire. The resulting smoke was “sweet and drowsy” and “made it harder to think.” Then she starts to play a tune on a musical instrument that was “steady, monotonous” and “the less you noticed it the more it got in your brain and your blood.”

Lewis is insightful here. We see there is a “sweetness” to the lies that enchant us. Something we like about them, some bias they confirm. Note that Jill, when she brings up the “real world” thinks about her horrible experience at Experiment House and “It was a relief” to say it was a dream.

There’s also a “drowsiness.” How many times have you seen someone share something obviously false on social media? I’m not saying some complicated thing that requires hours of research, but something that could be discovered in five seconds with a search engine.

Then comes the music. The steady, thrumming music that gets into your blood. Politicians are great at this, creating statements or word associations that remove thought and, by repetition, create opposition or assent. Reducing a complex issue down to a chant or slogan that can be mindlessly repeated ad nauseam is the essence of demagoguery precisely because it’s so effective. Advertising does this day in and day out; for example, “Nationwide is on your—” (your brain likely fills in the blank automatically). At the grocery store I reach for certain brands without thinking, because I am enchanted by subliminal thrumming from a corporate lute.

When we are enchanted we cannot hear reason. Some of us get violently angry when confronted with reality. When the enchanted Rilian is told that his Lady sent our heroes to be eaten by giants he tells Eustace that if he wasn’t so young, Rilian would kill him. “I can hear no words against my lady’s honour.” Then a long list of her virtues: truth, mercy, constancy, gentleness, courage, and so on. Rilian’s response is anger, defensiveness, insistence on a long list of virtues. Even writing the last sentence of the previous paragraph I thought to myself, “But some of those products at the grocery store are actually good, it’s not that I’ve been enchanted.” But I have, and so have you. Lewis tells us, “The more enchanted you get, the more certain you feel that you are not enchanted at all.”

So the queen starts with things that seem sweet. Things that make us drowsy. There’s a subliminal monotonous repetition. Then she sets in with the gaslighting, the bad faith questions, the gentle suggestions that maybe the truth is false.

“There is no Narnia” she says. She has been there, of course, they all have been there.

Puddleglum: “I happen to have lived there all my life.”

“Where?” she asks, and when Puddleglum points upward, she laughs. Surely not in the middle of all that stone and rock? That’s not what he was saying, though. They tell her of Overworld, how they saw her “up there” but she doesn’t remember. It must have been a dream.

She sets in with arguments that sound logical and reasonable but are not. When they try to describe the sun she pretends not to know what it is, and says they are only taking things they can see here in her “real” world and inventing something bigger and better but the same. “The sun” is just them saying “there’s an even bigger lamp in Overworld.”

Eustace fights the enchantment hard—they all do. It’s Jill who thinks to bring up Aslan, but the witch pretends not to know who he is or even what a lion is. Eustace, frustrated, seems to realize that she is not being honest, but can’t find a way out of the argument. “Oh, hang it all! Don’t you know?”

She teases them that they must all be royalty in Overland—such delusions of grandeur—and when Jill says, no, she and Eustace are from yet another world, well… it all seems so complicated. The world is simpler than that. These are just silly fancies. Dreams.

She is gaining control of them now.

When they struggle, when they say there is something different, something better, outside this cave, the queen pushes them back under her enchantment. “There never was such a world,” she tells them. They repeat it. “There never was any world but mine.”

It is Puddleglum who wakes them from the dream, and the way he does gives us a clue to Lewis’s own prescription for avoiding enchantment: Puddleglum puts his big webbed foot in the fire.

The “pain itself made Puddleglum’s head for a moment perfectly clear.” Instead of the sweet preferences, the drowsy certainty and inability to think, the clarifying power of reality bursts in on him. There is pain in breaking out of the enchantments that have been put upon him. The sweet smell fades, replaced with the smell of “burnt Marsh-wiggle.” As Lewis says, “There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.” When the witch is revealed, she’s angry and takes on her true form at last.

I want to be careful in how I introduce this real-world example here, because I am not wanting in any way to try to say that a burnt foot in a children’s book is anywhere near the same order of magnitude of what I am about to share. But look at how we got to the recent protests about Black people being killed by the police. There was a real, measurable, undeniable moment of intense pain, witnessed by the whole world through the video of George Floyd’s murder. Some people were already aware of this as a regular part of reality, but to others it seemed like something false, something unlikely and strange. The pain woke people up. This has happened before… but the sweet, comforting music lulls people back to sleep.

For Americans, there is a real enchantment over our discussions related to race and ethnicity. There are falsehoods that get trotted out, that are repeated and passed along. Last week I was in a discussion with someone about “whether or not” Black lives matter, which is so strange and disheartening, while simultaneously saying “there’s no need” to say the words “Black lives matter” because “every life matters.” When I asked “does that include Black lives?” he would change the subject, deflect, move away. This wasn’t a bot or a troll. This was a person. Enchanted by a spell designed to protect certain people’s power, just like the witch’s.

The issues surrounding policing and justice reform are far too complex to delve into in this discussion, so I will simply say that I have seen the witch’s technique at work in the answer to the questions about whether we could set up society another way. In response to cries for police reform I have seen people say, “If we do away with the police there will be no solution to crime.” Rapes and robberies and murders will go on forever with no consequence. In other words, “There is no better world to be had. There never was such a world. There never was any world other than mine.” And yet we have to admit that there was a time in the world and even in our nation when there was no such thing as police. And the reason we “invented” them is pretty clear in the historical documents. So the sweet soporific of “protect and serve” prevents us from asking… “protect and serve” what exactly?

And there we go. Right now the enchantment is doing its thing. A long list of arguments and counter-arguments is pulsing through our hearts and minds as we consider power and police and protestors. We cannot picture the world as it could be, because we are struggling to see the world as it is. We have forgotten or been lied to about the world as it was.

When we give in to the enchanted dream, we turn over control in our lives to someone else. We let the enchanters take control of us, our society, our kingdoms, our world.

Puddleglum’s final speech to the queen is a great one. “Four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.” It doesn’t have to be this way, he’s saying. He’s going to stand by the play-world. “I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.” He’s going to live like a Narnian even if there isn’t a Narnia. They’re leaving, he says, “to spend our lives looking for Overland.”

The witch, furious, takes on her true form. Now that reality has been made clear, all her illusions are broken, and Rilian destroys her. And then the exhausted crew make their way out to Overland through the very tunnel that was meant for the queen’s army.

One last note: the queen’s plan is strange. She had told the enchanted prince that she meant to send him to the surface to overtake a “foreign nation” and murder all the lords and leadership and then rule with an iron fist, with her as his queen. But when our heroes follow the invasion tunnel up, it leads directly to Narnia, where Rilian is the crown prince already. If all she wanted was to rule Narnia, then all she had to do was keep Rilian under her control and wait for Caspian to die. But instead she had this strange plan to send the Earthmen as a great army to fight and kill and destroy all to put Rilian on the throne that already belonged to him.

The plan makes precious little sense, unless part of her motivation is the war itself. She wants people—people who should be allies—fighting one another. She wants the Earthmen fighting for something they don’t even want (they hate the Overland, and certainly don’t care to rule it). She wants Rilian killing his subjects, she wants Rilian’s subjects to hate and oppose him.

This is how manipulators always work: isolate people. Manufacture unnecessary conflict. Destroy alliances. Introduce danger by doing what looks like a favor (remember Harfang!). And why? To keep themselves in the center and preserve their power. It’s hard to see truth in the middle of a war.

So how do we beat the enchanters of today?

Embrace the pain of recognizing the truth of the world around us.

Recognize and name those who are using falsehoods, distractions, and manipulative techniques to protect their own power.

Imagine a better world, and spend our lives trying to make it reality.

In other words: I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live like a Narnian even if there isn’t a Narnia.

A better world is possible. Let’s go find it together.

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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