Throneless under earth: #Narniathon21

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The Silver Chair by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Diamond Books 1997 (1953).

‘Though under Earth and throneless now I be,
Yet, while I lived, all Earth was under me.’

Chapter Ten

After escaping bullies two children from a coeducational school in 1940s Britain find themselves in a strange and extraordinarily vivid land — only to then be blown off a high cliff. They are to be sent on a quest to find a lost prince, but it will require inner resources, courage and imagination to achieve the quest, and it all hangs in the balance if they don’t recognise the signs they’ve been given.

The theme of The Quest may be a staple of myth, fairytale and fantasy but it has its strengths and weaknesses as a narrative driver. If the quest isn’t achieved it runs the risk of disappointment for the audience; if it is too easily accomplished it may seem preordained; only if there is a sense of peril and uncertainty can we feel that the task may have been a worthwhile one.

The Silver Chair (it seems to me) aims to fulfill the third of the criteria, but there are inklings of the first two which could potentially ruin one’s enjoyment of the story as a whole. And yet there is much that satisfies in terms of characterisation, drama and mythic resonances which may well overcome potential stumbling blocks to whole-hearted acceptance of this episode in the Chronicles of Narnia.

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Eustace Scrubb, whom we met in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, teams up with Jill Pole to call on Aslan when she fears being victimised at Experiment House. They find a way through a locked door in the school wall and enter Aslan’s country, far to the east of Narnia across the sea. Eustace gets blown like a leaf to the west by an alarmingly massive lion, and before Jill travels the same way she is given Four Signs to look out for in the quest the two have been assigned.

These signs given by Aslan — for it is he who appears to Jill — she has to recite, almost like morning and evening prayers, to ensure she doesn’t forget them. As it happens the first three are almost impossible to recognise till after they’ve happened, meaning the pair feel that already their quest has been compromised. Nevertheless they’ve already set off to the far north in the company of a pessimistic Marsh-wiggle called Puddleglum, a pilgrimage which will entail grim landscapes and claustrophobic settings before they reach journey’s end.

The Silver Chair is as distinct from its predecessors in the Chronicles as they were from each other. As well as re-encounters with Eustace, Trumpkin and Caspian we make new and highly memorable acquaintances: the aforementioned Puddleglum and the talking owl Glimfeather, for instance, and a treacherous witch — called variously the Lady of the Green Kirtle, Queen of Underland and Queen of the Deep Realm — along with her companion the Black Knight in his underground castle, and a gnome called Glog. The mix of familiar and unfamiliar characters is something we’re now led to expect, helping to make each instalment a rich and varied experience.

© C A Lovegrove

Exciting as the adventures are, Lewis also ensures he makes his stories feel like part of a long tradition by borrowing motifs from fairytales, folksongs, mythologies (particularly Norse myths) and from literature. Sometimes he makes explicit references, as from Hamlet or the legend of Androcles and the Lion, but more often he makes cryptic nods. I’ll give just one example here.

The Hobbit, by Lewis’s colleague Tolkien, was first published in 1937 and later revised. In it we have an unexpected journey, dwarves, trolls, travels across inhospitable landscapes as well as underground, a serpentine dragon and of course a quest for lost things — all elements which have their counterparts in Lewis’s story. In addition we have the golem-like creature equally at home in marsh or cave called Gollum, whose name, surely, must be reflected in the altogether nicer Marsh-wiggle Puddleglum and possibly the underground gnome Glog. Note that I’m not implying that Lewis was copying Tolkien, though it’s clear they’re both borrowing from Northern traditions.

There’s much more that could be said of Lewis’s storytelling here but it’s time to reach a conclusion of sorts. The Silver Chair features peril and uncertainty, as I’ve said, but enduring dangers without any purpose do not a good tale make. Lewis shows that the children are fallible — they bicker, falter, make rash judgements, forget injunctions — but they are also self-critical, generous, well-intentioned and, when the time comes, decisive. They learn from their setbacks but, being children, they know when they’re ready to go home. Their sense of purpose runs counter to that of the Witch: she, seeing herself “throneless” and merely queen “under earth” is prepared to deceive, enslave and murder to achieve her aims, purposes which in fantasy as much as in real life don’t deserve to succeed.

This review, part of the readalong #Narniathon21, will be followed presently by a discussion post or two.

Illustration after Pauline Baynes

23 thoughts on “Throneless under earth: #Narniathon21

  1. Ah, Lewis’s underground vs Tolkien’s was not something I’d considered so am glad you brought that up in your review. And both have that power of ensnaring the adventurers in a similar sense.

    I hadn’t also considered the repeating of the instructions in the context of prayer. Somehow since school was uppermost in my mind, I kept thinking in terms of rote and what one should make of it

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The comparison between the Tolkien and the Lewis novels only occurred to me with this reread, Mallika, and I can’t say I’ve noticed it being pointed out before. The parallels may be more apparent than real, however, given that both authors drew on similar antecedents (Norse myths, George MacDonald and doubtless much else besides). I’m glad you approve the repetition of the Signs as a kind of prayer in this context — again, this was a similarity a second read made more evident to me! There’ll be more discussion of TSC in follow-up posts of course.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Of MacDonald I’ve only read the two Princess books but which are now pretty fuzzy in my memory, so I’ll probably catch on to the connections when I read them more. I’m looking forward to more discussion on the mythological inspirations.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I confess I’ve only read the first of the Princess books and synopses of the second, but I can detect many similarities in tone and not a few details. Even Jill, who is no Irene, has many similar experiences and feelings to the Princess.

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  2. Your summary of the children is spot on I think, Chris and this pair appealed to me as a child as their behaviour was recognisable to me. I’m surprised that the prayer like repetition of the signs did not register with me as it’s something I’m familiar with from childhood but I understand why you describe it as such. It felt more like a test to me, like the weekly horror of times table tests!

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    1. I’m sort of pleased that Eustace, after his redemptive experience as a dragon, didn’t turn into a Goody Two-shoes but emerged as a normal boy; and much as I liked Lucy’s honest and mostly innocent nature Jill is altogether a more credible character. I wonder if that’s why for some readers TSC is their favourite of the septad?

      Ah yes, those weekly school tests! Say no more… For me Aslan’s Four Signs are in the nature of the catechism lessons I went to as a kid, typified by the Q&A rubrics published in the Catholic Truth Society pamphlets; I see that the Church’s modern catechism emphasises Four Pillars — creed, prayer, sacraments, and morality — a little bit reminiscent of those Four Signs and just as tricky to abide by.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You know I think I must have successfully blanked out the trauma of convent Catechism lessons and the Q&A from my memory. They’ve just come flooding back. I’m now mentally reciting Why did God make me…oh dear. Somehow Aslan appeared less formidable than some of the nuns who taught me!

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  3. How interesting, I’d never made that comparison between Tolkien and Lewis before – but of course they were drawing from the same traditions! And I think you’re spot on about the children – they’re real and human and fallible and maybe that’s why these stories stay with us.

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    1. I think Jill and Eustace as portrayed here are the most believable of the child characters we’ve yet met, which is part of why I think this is one of the stronger episodes yet in the sequence. I’m curious now how readers will view the next instalment with its Arabian Nights flavour…

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  4. The books all do have such a distinct “flavor”, don’t they? This one does bear quite some similarities to The Hobbit, although Puddleglum’s name is surely derived from “glum” meaning gloomy, and not from Gollum/golem! Otherwise, with giants and Earthmen in place of trolls and spiders, a long journey, a serpentine enemy, underground imprisonment, and the general Northern mood, I can see the connections.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I was being a bit tongue in cheek about Gollum and Puddleglum, Lory, I’m quite sure you’re right about the wiggle’s glumness, especially his propensity to be a wet blanket! But as a character he belies all that, doesn’t he? 🙂 I intend to expand a bit on what Lewis referred to as ‘Northernness’ and promise to make less fuss about any similarities, real or imagined, with Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting thoughts. I didn’t think about the comparison between The Silver Chair and LotR. I enjoyed The Silver Chair as a story by itself, but I think Tolkien was far more successful IF I were to compare the two.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s fair, I think. I was comparing The Hobbit rather than LOTR but of course both those Middle-earth storylines follow a similar arc, don’t they — quest with companions to give up a trinket (Arkenstone, the One Ring) encountering dangers like orcs and goblins and spiders, travelling through forests and underground, finally returning home — and in many ways that matches Lewis’s tale, though not in every respect. LOTR however is ultimately more satisfying as a narrative, for adult readers at any rate!


  6. The repetition of the signs is also a bit like learning your times tables – but you can call it a prayer if you want! Puddleglum is the star of the show for me in this one, twas ever thus, as they say, but as a whole I think VotDT has overtaken the Silver Chair in my affections as favourite (at the moment, because we have the Magician’s Nephew still to come!)

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    1. It’s a shame when certain characters like Puddleglum capture one’s attention, only for them to never appear again — at least Reepicheep appeared in the sequel! With regard to the signs I was struck by Aslan insisting they were repeated morning and night, but they were indeed like any rote learning, whether tables, poems, catechism or whatever. I’m looking forward to a revisit to your favourite when that comes!


  7. I think that this is one of my favourites in the series, along with The Magician’s Nephew and for the same reasons – ie, because the children behave in a way that’s sympathetic and believable, whereas sometimes the Pevensies are a bit too good to be true. You mentioned corollaries with Tolkien; I’d also see a corollary with The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe (although the differences are almost as interesting as the similarities) as both books feature a young man who has fallen under the sway of an evil witch. But while Edmund’s predicament is his own fault, Rillian is entirely innocent.

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    1. I wonder if Lewis was getting more realistic about children in the 1950s from his relationships with Joy Gresham’s boys who later became his stepsons. The Pevensies are very much more earnest, on the whole,.compared to Eustace and Jill and then later with the children in The Magician’s Nephew.

      And yes, there are definite features within each book of the Narniad which find resonances with others in the series, not just the one you mention.


  8. JJ Lothin

    “I wonder if Lewis was getting more realistic about children in the 1950s from his relationships with Joy Gresham’s boys who later became his stepsons.”

    That sounds like a pretty plausible hypothesis! I can’t imagine he had an awful lot to do with real-life children in his previous bachelor-academic mode of living …

    Liked by 1 person

  9. My memories of this one seem to have faded almost to the point of non-existence, but I do remember Puddleglum with great fondness! I seem to have been fond of most of the great pessimists in children’s fiction – Eeyore was another favourite. Odd, because I think I have quite an optimistic outlook in general. It must be true that opposites attract… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there’s a sense that pessimists, being life’s true realists, have the best of both worlds — it’s win-win for them in that they’re proved right when things go as wrong as they predict but they also bask in success when everything turns out okay in the end!

      For optimists they’re a kind of corrective to an overly rosy view of the world, a species of conscience sitting on their shoulders warning that life is unpredictable, that a glass half-full is also a glass half-empty. Yay for Puddleglum and his ilk!

      Liked by 1 person

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