The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Who We Fight Against: The Silver Chair and Knowing Your Enemies

In a battle we must know our enemies.

Lewis tells us unapologetically that the core idea of The Silver Chair is “war against the powers of darkness,” and since this is war, it would be interesting to make sure we know who these powers of darkness are, exactly. There are people we think are allies but are not in this story, as well as those who we assume to be our adversaries but turn out to be fellow victims. If we are to be effective warriors against the powers of darkness, surely we need to be able to discern who is an ally and who an enemy.

Let’s start with the Lady of the Green Kirtle. Lewis gives us contextual clues, drawn from some of his favorite classical work, hinting at who or what the Green Lady is.

In his letters, Lewis compared her to Circe, the Greek sorceress who could bewitch people and turn men into pigs. Which is precisely what she does to Prince Rilian. Jill’s first thought about the prince, when they find him, is, “He’s the silliest, most conceited, selfish pig I’ve met for a long time.” After their enchantment, Jill apologizes to Eustace for “being a pig” and there are two Earthmen they run across that are referred to as “pigs” or pig-like by the narrator and Puddleglum. The Green Lady causes people to lose their humanity through her enchantments.

Secondly, the several references to her being “green as poison” may well be meant to lead us to Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, in which Redcrosse the knight fights a horrible monster who lives in a cave and is half woman and half serpent. Her name is “Errour” (yes, that’s “error” to us today), and the knight finds himself wrapped up in Error and unable to escape for some time. When he does finally destroy her, she spews vile poison everywhere.

Lastly—and this is clearly Spenser’s intention with Error as well—the Green Lady takes us back to the story of Adam and Eve’s temptation and fall in the Garden of Eden. In this story, a serpent convinces Eve to eat of the one fruit in the garden that God has forbidden: the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve then passes the fruit along to her husband, and all of humanity pays the price. The typical Christian reading is that the serpent is Satan (though Satan is never referred to by name in the Genesis text). “Satan” is the Hebrew word, by the way, for “adversary” or “accuser”—not a name as such. In fact, in all but one case in Hebrew scripture, the text says “the satan” not “Satan.” (I’m simplifying a little here and we can discuss in the comments if there are questions or clarifications to make.)

The Lady of the Green Kirtle, then, functions on three different levels as an enemy. She is Circe, the witch who uses magic to dehumanize her victims. She is Error, the creature who prevents understanding for those seeking knowledge. And she is the adversary, the spiritual force that opposes those things that are good, and encourages disobedience to the divine.

(Lewis and conceptions of Satan is a fascinating conversation and one I think we’ll wait for… possibly until we get to the Screwtape Letters, where he talks about it more directly. But notice that Lewis’ enemies tend to be “satanic” rather than representing Satan himself. The White Witch, the Green Witch, even Tash, all have aspects of the satanic but don’t correspond as easily to Satan as Aslan does to Jesus. It’s a fascinating decision in a world that leans so heavily toward spiritual metaphor.)

The second set of enemies for us to discuss are the great giants of the north. Unlike the witches of Lewis’ world, not all giants are evil. In fact, Glimfeather goes out of his way to tell us there are good giants, some of whom even set out on a quest to find the missing prince. So for the giants, it’s going to be less about who they are and more about what they do that makes them our enemies.

Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum go north because Aslan tells Jill to do so. It’s part of their quest. The first giants they see are standing in a great gorge. Jill and company don’t notice them at first, because they look so much like stones. These giants are “stupid,” but maybe not evil or ill-intentioned. They “didn’t look angry—or kind—or interested at all.” They are playing a game of cock-shies (and I had to look this up but it’s exactly what it sounds like in the story…pick a target and try to hit it with a rock), and when the giants eventually quarrel they “jeered at one another in long, meaningless words of about twenty syllables each” and smashed each other with stone hammers, then fell to the ground and started crying, “blubbering and boo-hooing like great babies.”

Interestingly, the interaction with these giants has some parallel with Dante’s experience at the entrance to the Ninth Circle of Hell. Like Jill, Dante doesn’t recognize the giants at first, thinking them to be towers. When he gets closer he realizes they are standing in a great gorge (actually, they’re standing in the Ninth Circle, but they’re so tall their upper torsos are in the Eighth Circle of Hell). The “meaningless words” are of interest as well, for Dante meets the giant Nimrod, who is supposedly the one responsible for building the Tower of Babel…his punishment being that he will forever speak unintelligibly and be unintelligible to others. Two other intriguing notes: the other giants in The Inferno are from classical mythology, mixing myths and story worlds in the same sort of pastiche that Lewis liked to make. Second, in Dante, these giants are the gatekeepers, more or less, to the Ninth Circle of Hell, where Lucifer resides…another potential connection toward the Lady of the Green Kirtle as a figure of Satan.

I suspect that Lewis is purposely drawing attention to Dante here, as the giants of the Inferno have become—with one exception—little more than beasts. They rebelled against God because of their pride, and as a result they are almost completely creatures of passion with no true cognition and no ability to communicate. Likewise, Lewis paints his giants as simple, wordless, and child-like. They have fallen from (in Dante, at least) human sentience and toward animalistic passion. As the Lady says of these giants, they are “foolish, fierce, savage and given to all beastliness.”

Not so the “gentle giants” of Harfang. Here we find something more sinister: Sent by the Green Lady, our friends arrive at Harfang desperate for a warm place to stay, and the giants are thrilled to comply. The Green Lady has sent our party with the message that they are there for the Autumn Feast and, as we later learn, it’s not so they can enjoy the feast themselves.

The giants of Harfang love the children and especially Jill. They spoil them with food and clothes and lovely warm rooms.

There is a terrible discovery about the food, though. One day at lunch they overhear some old giants talking and realize that they aren’t eating venison, they are eating a talking stag that has been killed and roasted. They are all three horrified. “Jill, who was new to that world, was sorry for the poor stag and thought it rotten of the giants to have killed him. Scrubb, who had been in that world before and had at least one Talking beast as his dear friend, felt horrified; as you might feel about a murder. But Puddleglum, who was Narnian born, was sick and faint, and felt as you would feel if you found you had eaten a baby.”

Jill eventually moves from just feeling sorry to agreeing with Puddleglum, and it’s not much later that they take a look in a giant’s cookbook and discover that marsh-wiggle and human are both on the menu for the Autumn Feast. Suddenly it all makes sense…the giants sometimes laughed or cried (“poor little thing”) when the children talked about the upcoming feast.

The “gentle giants” of Harfang eat sentient creatures. Not even necessarily for sustenance so much as for entertainment at their feasts. Humans are a traditional meal for the Autumn Feast, “served between the fish and the joint.” The giants know full well what they are doing, too, even to the point of building relationships with Jill and Eustace and Puddleglum to keep them at the castle. These giants are creatures who are willing to harm or kill sentient beings (“talking” creatures in the world of Narnia) for their own gain.

There is one last group to touch on briefly, and that is the Earthmen. Every indication in the beginning is that they are the enemies. They live underground, serve the “Queen of Underland,” and are preparing to make war against the surface world, led by Prince Rilian. But after the Queen is killed we discover that they, too, were enchanted all along. They don’t want to fight the surface world, and have no quarrel with it. They don’t want to live near the surface. They don’t even like living in Underland—it’s too close to the “sunlit lands.” They were never enemies of Narnia, not really. They gladly return to their strange and wonderful deepness of Bism, leaving Narnia and the surface world behind them.

So, who is our enemy according to Lewis?

The sorceress who would use enchantment to make us something less than human. The serpent who would hold us in error. The adversary who opposes the will of Aslan. Those who would harm other sentient beings for their own benefit.

In all of this, it is the Lady of the Green Kirtle who remains our central villain. Even the giants of Harfang seem to rely on her, at least for their human victims. Lewis is working hard in this particular novel to make sure that we understand it is not the foreign army that is the true danger—they are victims, just like Prince Rilian—but the power behind it.

Lewis was familiar, of course, with the Bible verse that says, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12, NIV).

It’s easy today to look at “flesh and blood”—human beings—as our enemies. In the world of The Silver Chair this would be a mistake. It is not our fellow human beings who are our enemies; they have been enchanted by evil forces. War against the forces of darkness in the world is not war against human beings.

Lewis spent months in the trenches during World War I. At that time he wrote in his journal that he never wanted to be part of war again: “the frights, the cold, the smell of high explosive, the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles.” I doubt he would think our present troubles greater than those he himself lived through…though I suspect he wouldn’t think them any less, either.

In The Silver Chair he reminds us: what are the spiritual forces creating conflict in this world? Who is seeking to create war and trouble where there is no need or want of it? Who devours human beings for their own sustenance? Which of our enemies are truly evil, and which are captive to evil enchantment that might be broken somehow?

It is not politics that will save us, or armies, or war. It is the Marsh-wiggle who is willing to tell truth that awakens us. It is the human children who follow Aslan even when they don’t get it all right along the way. And as Rilian and Jill and Eustace and Puddleglum discovered, even in the wintry north lands there are ways to celebrate, as the Narnians do when they finally break out of Underland. Those who have been our enemies—like Prince Rilian himself!—can be brought back over to the side of Aslan if we can find the way to bring them to their senses.

And there is Aslan above it all, sending his imperfect agents to change the world and fight the powers of darkness.

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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