For at the top of the shrubbery was a high stone wall and in that wall a door in which you can get out in to open moor. […] But when the door actually opened, they both stood stock still. For what they saw was quite different from what they had expected.Chapter One
Now, after reviewing C S Lewis’s portal fantasy The Silver Chair (1953), I want to dedicate a couple of posts to discussing two related aspects: the emotions and philosophies which a reading reveals, and — for this post — the kinds of influences that may have been absorbed by the novel.
The Cambridge University chair in Medieval and Renaissance English — a professorship in English literature — was especially created in 1954 for Lewis, a year after this novel appeared. I won’t even attempt to compete with the range and quality of the texts this erudite scholar would have known and loved, instead identifying from my limited reading the literary resonances and form that I believe can be detected in The Silver Chair.
If my discussion seems a bit random or episodic that’s because it is, as suits a There and Back Again tale. Warning: there are spoilers galore coming up.
So, the structure first. Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb escape the bullies at their school, Experiment House, and this is where they return to wreak their revenge. (As an aside, I’m not condoning violence, whether with riding crops or even the flat of a sword.) The next — and also the penultimate — scene is set in Aslan’s country, Reepicheep’s goal in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Then it’s the castle of Cair Paravel for the start (and the end) of Caspian’s interrupted voyage. It’s from here that Jill and Eustace begin and end their trek to and from the House of Harfang, the giants’ castle.
However, for the outward and return journeys Jill and Eustace travel different routes. Outwards meant flying north on Glimfeather and another large snowy owl to the marshes where the marsh-wiggles lived, and then in company with Puddleglum across the desolate Ettinsmoor, literally the “moor of the giants” from Old English eoten cognate with Old Norse jötunn. Then it’s through the unrecognised City Ruinous before they arrive at Harfang. Curiously, the name of the “Castle of the Gentle Giants” (as the witch mendaciously calls it) derives from the Swedish harfång, meaning … snowy owl, Bubo scandiacus. I’m guessing Glimfeather’s form suggested this name.
For the return journey to Cair Paravel the trio pass through the Ruined City of the Giants and down to the borders of Underland, eventually travelling by boat to what the Black Knight calls the dark castle. To escape from the Underland they pass by the cleft leading to Bism before re-emerging back in Narnia.
So, using this structure (and hints provided by the headings of the sixteen chapters) we may explore some of those influences I mentioned at the start of this post.
Experiment House. Here, and in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the conservative Lewis inveighed against trends in upbringing and education he disapproved of; perhaps he had in mind the liberal practices initiated by A S Neill at Summerhill school in the 1920s. Used to being privately tutored and attending boarding schools Lewis was doubtless suspicious of Summerhill’s coeducational and democratic ethos, despite the founder’s principles of “freedom, not licence”. There’s no excuse though for the implied misogyny in Experiment House being run by a Head “who was, by the way, a woman.”
Aslan’s country. Here is a further glimpse of the land that Aslan inhabits, where Reepicheep the Mouse sailed in his coracle and where now Jill and Eustace enter via the door in the perimeter wall of the school. A land of turf and trees and birds more vivid than one can imagine, it’s bounded by an ocean overlooked by a cliff hundreds of feet high. This may be the land that the Pevensies will eventually come to in The Last Battle, a Platonic world of ideas more real than the physical world we inhabit.
“It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”Professor Digory Kirke
The professor of course is repeating himself: “What do they teach them at these schools?” he’d previously muttered in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).
‘Cair’ is very close to Welsh caer, meaning ‘castle’, while Lewis took ‘Paravel’ from the feudal term paravail. Derived from Old French par aval (“below”, literally “towards the valley”) and diametrically opposite in meaning to paramount, the term applied in feudal law to a tenant holding an estate (a fee or fief) under an intermediate lord, who then held their lands under the rule of a sovereign, a suzerain. Thus Cair Paravel implies that whoever is High King of Narnia is answerable for the castle and the land itself to Aslan as its sovereign.
Eustace (who, terrifyingly, first falls off the cliff) and Jill are separately blown like leaves across The Great Eastern Ocean to Cair Paravel, familiar to us from the first three books. The author himself apparently stated it was partly inspired by the ruins of Dunluce Castle in County Antrim which he’d visited as a child on holiday. The illustration of Cair Paravel by Pauline Baynes bears a string resemblance to the genuine medieval castle; here is where the aged King Caspian begins (and later ends) his own quest voyage for Rilian before being finally translated to Aslan’s country.
The two youngsters are taken by Glimfeather to a parliament of owls in a ruined tower. Lewis is here punning on Chaucer’s 14th-century Parlement of Foules, a poem about a dream in which birds (‘fowls’) convene to choose their mates on St Valentine’s Day. Lewis hints at the dream element when Jill, who had been “yawning terribly” before the meeting, falls asleep and is then “not at all pleased at being waked again, and at finding herself lying on bare boards in a dusty belfry sort of place.”
Later, in the marshes, they meet the marsh-wiggle called Puddleglum, glum by name and glum by nature. With skin the colour of the marsh, a short dwarfish body but long limbs, and fingers and feet webbed like a frog’s, Puddleglum is a more amenable and pleasant, if pessimistic, version of Gollum in The Hobbit (which fantasy had preceded Lewis’s novel in 1937). However the wiggle (perhaps from wight, Old English wiht meaning ‘thing, creature’) is, unlike Gollum, fully clothed, and even wears a steeple hat like a witch’s; in outline though he more closely resembles the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, as depicted in the classic 1939 film.
As a child Lewis was particularly taken by what he was to call ‘Northernness‘, an obsession with Northern Europe and especially Scandinavian traditions, and of course with Arthuriana. So with the chapter heading The wild waste lands of the North he simultaneously referenced the Wasteland of the Arthurian grail legends and Norse myth. [See footnote] The City Ruinous below Harfang is one aspect of the Waste Land — notably appearing in Chretien de Troyes’ unfinished 12th-century epic Perceval ou le Conte du Graal — and the silent knight in black armour helps prefigure that medieval link. In the grail legends it’s a wounded king who’s linked to the desolate lands, but in The Silver Chair the wild waste lands are symbolically connected with the grieving king Caspian and the theme of the lost prince, Rilian.
As for the giants, whether those in the Ettinsmoor gorge or in Harfang, they are the equivalents of the Norse jötnar who lived in the home of the giants Jötunheimr, with Harfang a kind of Útgarðar, capital of Jötunheimr, serving as the stronghold of the giants.
But of course there are plenty of giants in British folklore, from Welsh cewri (plural of cawr) to hobgoblins and nursery bogeys, and also the ogre known to the Norse as þurs (‘thurs’), not forgetting Grendel and his mother in Beowulf and the giants in the fairytales Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant-Killer. The Ettinsmoor giants range from the dull-witted stone-hurling ones in the gorge to the anthropophages in Harfang.
Anthropophagy, or eating human flesh, is not confined to ogres, however, so when Jill meets a huge lion — albeit a talking one — she’s frightened it may be a man-eater:
“Do you eat girls?” she said.Chapter One
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms.”
So far Jill and Eustace’s quest is reminiscent of the winter journey undertaken by the hero in the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The hero travels north from Arthur’s court in Camelot to face up to the challenge laid down by the gigantic Green Knight, which is to have his head chopped off in the same way Gawain had chopped off the Knight’s the previous Christmas. Jill and Eustace travel through a similar waste land before meeting giants, but here their challenge is to solve the Four Signs. To achieve this they have to travel to the Underland and face the witch known as the Lady with the Green Kirtle, a parallel to Morgan le Fay in the medieval poem whose wicked nature is hidden, literally, by a veil.
Lewis so cleverly and neatly combines several motifs in an innovative yet apt way, so that we see a new garment made from scraps of repurposed cloth. The Lady with the Green Kirtle deliberately references Scottish ballads, such as Tam Lin: in this Janet hies off to Caterhaugh in the Scottish borders to meet Tam after “she has kilted her green kirtle | A little abune her knee” in a sign that the foolish girl is intent on entering Fairyland. In the ballad Thomas the Rimer the Queen of Elfame, the fey who entrances Thomas (just like the Lady entrances Rilian) wears a “skirt of the grass-green silk” and makes Thomas wear “a pair of shoes of velvet green.” Green is thus the colour associated with Elfame (or Elphame, as Robert Graves spells it, doubtless meant as the home of the elves).
When Lewis’s Lady is revealed to be a villainous when she transforms into a green serpent, only to have her head chopped off by Prince Rilian, Lewis is further combining motifs: the green dragon killed by St George, and the dragon slain by the Redcrosse Knight in The Faerie Queene — the Laidly Worm in legends from northeast England, though that’s a bespelled princess — the decapitation of the Green Knight — the Beast from the Abyss in the Book of Revelations — the serpentine Lamia in John Keats’s poem of the same name — and much else besides.
As for the Silver Chair itself, we are reminded of the Siege Perilous from the Arthurian legends, the dangerous seat reserved for the pure knight destined to achieve the quest of the holy grail but which would prove dangerous or even fatal for anyone else who dared to sit in it. In the so-called Didot Perceval when at the feast of Pentecost Perceval sits in the seat “the stone split beneath him and broke with such an agonizing sound that it seemed all those who were there that the world might sink into the abyss.” In Lewis’s fantasy it has proved dangerous for the Prince Rilian suffering from an induced amnesia, but it also is the means by which Jill and Eustace achieve their quest, not for a grail but for the lost prince, Caspian’s son, who will eventually sit on a real throne.
The final motif I want to discuss — for the moment, anyway — concerns the aftermath of the defeat of the Witch and the dissipating of the spells she’d woven to keep the Earthmen or gnomes in subjugation. What the four friends — Puddleglum and Rilian as well as the youngsters — have in effect achieved is a Harrowing of Hell. In Christian tradition, as alluded to in the Apostles’ Creed, Christ descended to the nether regions (descendit ad inferos) between his crucifixion and resurrection in order to save innocent souls. The liberation of the Underland’s gnomes and their migration to Bism (a benign equivalent to the Abyss despite not being abysmal) seem thus to be a counterpart to the archetypal Hero’s Journey to the Otherworld, of which Christ’s harrowing of Hell is an aspect.
In this extended post I’ve tried to give examples of how Lewis draws on several powerful motifs and tales to concoct his story without necessarily slavishly following his models. So much for his materials: I next want to try to show how he invests his story with humanity and human emotions, to hint at how this instalment of the Narniad is often cited as a favourite with readers.
And I also want to explore the part the Moon may play in it all.
Footnote. I regret to report that I still haven’t completed T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. I note from a bookmark that I didn’t get past Part II, ‘A Game of Chess’ when I started this some years ago. As the poem famously begins “April is the cruelest month” and was published in 1922, perhaps I ought to finally bite the bullet and finish it.
- J J Anderson, editor. 1996. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Pearl. Cleanness. Patience. Everyman.
- Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. 1999. Of Giants: Sex, monsters, and the Middle Ages. Medieval Cultures Volume 17, University of Minnesota Press.
- T S Eliot. 1954. Selected Poems. Faber and Faber, 1961.
- Robert Graves, editor. 1957. English and Scottish Ballads. Heinemann.
- C S Lewis. 1953. The Silver Chair. Diamond Books, 1997.
- Dell Skeels, translator. 1961. The Romance of Perceval in Prose. A Translation of the E Manuscript of the Didot Perceval. University of Washington Press, 1966:13.