In a companion post (following a review) I discussed the basic plot structure as well as some literary and mythological influences on C S Lewis’s Narnian tale The Silver Chair. I then promised I’d talk a bit about the emotions and ideals I’d detected behind this instalment of the saga.
I’ll focus on a few of the characters who are likely to elicit – or even repel – our sympathies, and consider the messages Lewis may have been overtly, as well as covertly, trying to get across. Along the way I’d also like to consider the influence of the Moon in The Silver Chair, bearing in mind that it’s been plausibly theorised that Lewis quietly set each of the chronicles under the sign of one of the seven traditional ‘planets’ in medieval cosmology, with the moon assigned to this instalment.
So let us, like Eustace and Jill, open the door in the high stone wall at the top of the shrubbery in the youngsters’ school grounds and emerge from out of our whole world into That Place.
In the chantefable known as Childe Rowland the children of a royal family are playing at ball near a church. Going widdershins or anticlockwise round the building to retrieve the lost ball Bird Ellen disappears. Sought one after the other by her brother’s, who also disappear, the final brother Childe Rowland seeks advice, which includes cutting off the head of those met with in Elfland, circling a hill to enter the King of Elfland’s domain (the Dark Tower referred to in King Lear), and remembering an injunction against eating food, all in aid of rescuing Ellen. This quest to rescue a royal personage, plus injunctions to remember, beheadings to accomplish, and underground places to enter are not only familiar fairytale motifs but also appear, if slightly adapted, in The Silver Chair.
To go widdershins means to take a route contrary to that taken by the sun as seen in the northern hemisphere. When one looks to the south the trajectory of the sun’s arc takes it in a clockwise direction. Though in reality the moon travels in the same direction there is a poetic sense that the moon, being the nighttime counterpart of the sun, may be associated with the opposite of a clockwise direction.
Should this feel a far-fetched association, let’s consider certain significant lunar episodes in Lewis’s tale. After Jill and Eustace’s urgent predicament behind the school gym propels them into That Place where Eustace had been before, Jill travels by moonlight from Cair Paravel to the dark tower where the parliament of owls is held. Then, on Ettinsmoor in the wild waste lands the lady on the white horse accompanied by a knight in black reminds us of the half moon when only half its disc is illuminated. Later, in Harfang Jill sees the words UNDER ME spelt out in the moonlight.
Some time after the Lady with the Green Kirtle tries to persuade her prisoners that there is no such thing as a sun; and escaping from the Dark Castle Jill, Eustace, Puddleglum and Rilian find their way to the sunlit lands by means of the lit globes of the ‘dreary’ gnome lamps glowing like miniature moons. We mustn’t forget, either, the image of the silver throne, with the seated Rilian almost a metaphor for the Man in the Moon. Finally, Jill witnesses the Great Snow Dance performed in Narnia on the first moonlit night when snow falls on the ground.
Finally, when we try to plot the journey taken by Jill and Eustace on maps of Narnia we note that from Cair Paravel they travel overground roughly northwards to the Ettinmoors, then northwest to Harfang; following their escape from there they have to journey underground to the southwest to emerge in central Narnia, before following the Great River below Beruna southeastward back to Cair Paravel. In other words they go widdershins as viewed on the map.
Time now to consider some of the main personages who not only propel the narrative but who emerge as memorable and credible individuals. Jill Pole is bullied at school, much like Eustace used to do till he had a change of heart in Narnia. Perhaps she is an alter ego of Lewis’s: Pole, like Lewis, is ultimately a surname of Welsh origin (from Powell, itself meaning son of Howell, ap Hywel) and perhaps reflects the Irish author’s experiences of being bullied when he went to school in England. Though the pair wreak their vengeance on the school bullies when they return from Narnia, being bullied is almost always traumatic and makes the reader sympathetic to the pair from the outset.
Eustace Scrubb has had a sea-change in character from his transformative time in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and though that doesn’t mean he has turned into a paragon of virtue, he is certainly a more likeable lad. Jill also transforms from somebody put upon by circumstances to being proactive, and we can admire her for turning from somebody who declares herself sick of adventures to a girl who smuggles her Narnia finery home to wear at a fancy-dress ball. Who can fail to respect Jill for being practical by changing into a sweater and shorts and strapping a girl guide’s knife to her belt for a nighttime flit? Or for her dissembling in Harfang castle when she wanted to discover an escape route for the trio?
Puddleglum has garnered popularity for his Eeyore-like propensity for pessimistic statements and prophecies of woe. Personally I think he adopts this stance as a mask for his many actions speak of bravery, confidence and initiative, not least the painful stamping out of the witch’s fire. I believe we do him a disservice by thinking of him as a figure of fun – Glimfeather did well to choose this particular Marsh-wiggle to lead the youngsters northward.
Rilian to me is a bit of a cipher; his functions seem mainly to be to be (1) the object of the youngsters’ quest, and (2) to, like St George or the Redcrosse Knight, to behead the dragon-like serpent. Although he showed commendable love in seeking revenge for the death of his mother, the unnamed daughter of the embodied star Ramandu, that love unfortunately resulted in him being captured by the Lady of the Green Kirtle. You have to feel sorry for him, sorrowing first for the loss of his mother and then, after his release, having to bury his father Caspian.
I come now to the self-styled Queen of the Underlands, the Lady of the Green Kirtle, the tyrant who has enslaved the gnomish Earthmen, the murderer of Caspian’s wife, Rilian’s mother, who then kidnapped and enchanted Rilian as a means to achieve her malevolent rule on the sunlit land of Narnia on the death of the grieving Caspian. Like Jadis, the White Witch we met in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, she is ruthless as well as being associated with winter, but she isn’t Jadis reincarnated, as some have speculated: that’s clear from her ability to shapeshift into what may be her true nature, a devouring serpent.
Lewis will have drawn on a range of literary, folkloric, and mythic types for the witch, and not just the serpent in the Garden of Eden. He will have been very familiar with medieval legends of the noble Mélusine, half woman and half winged serpent, of the Laidly Worm of northern tales, and of the classical Lamia, sometimes depicted as a woman with snake-like features. Perhaps the most immediate source for Lewis would have been the John Keats poem ‘Lamia’, published in 1820, which provides many attributes for the Lady in the novel. She’s described as “a palpitating snake, | Bright, and cirque-couchant in a dusky brake.” Even her colour partly recalls that of the Lady:
She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,— John Keats, ‘Lamia’ (1820)
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolved, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries—
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
The Lady of the Green Kirtle is the most threatening, because the most nightmarish, of the villains since Jadis. We’ve had the wicked uncle Miraz in Prince Caspian who was defeated by King Peter, and the pirates in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but being human there was no whiff of magic in any of them. Jadis and the Lady are of a different order in having supernatural powers which they can call on. If, like the antagonists in the tale of Childe Rowland, the Lady is to be physically challenged and defeated, she has to have her head chopped off, and if that’s to be with her in the guise of a serpent then it is surely fitting.
Lastly there is Aslan, all the more intimidating for being unpredictable and unknowable by the children. Here he is as much Christ-like as he was in the first title: he charges Jill with recognising Four Signs – an old acquaintance, a ruined city, a message on stone, and one who acknowledges Aslan – on the way to finding the lost prince, and these signs seem redolent of biblical examples. The unrecognised acquaintance is like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, mistaken by Mary Magdalene for the gardener (John 20); the ruined city of the giants is like the devastated city before the pit in Isaiah 24; the message on stone may be a reference to the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed; and calling on the name of Aslan recalls Romans 10:13, which advises “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
And then there are the deliberate parallels, notably the dead Caspian being resurrected in Aslan’s country through a kind of baptism in a stream and the shedding of Aslan’s blood, when Eustace drives a thorn into the Lion’s paw. So is this all that The Silver Chair is aiming to do, to inculcate crypto-Christian messages in the innocent reader?
I don’t think so. Or at least I hope not. It seems to me that Lewis is attempting, here and in the rest of the Narniad, a kind of narrative syncretism. Yes, there are Christian symbols and echoes, but there are also heathen ones galore, drawn from pagan myths, and folklore, and fairytale, and medieval legend, and the literature Lewis so much admired. Much of the Narniad comes over as humanistic in a very broad sense: how do we treat our friends, how should we be true to ourselves, when should one show one’s true colours, when should we be magnanimous, when shall we show empathy – and when should we oppose evil, and cruelty, and duplicity, for whoever’s sake we do it?
I personally find this approach works best for me with the series as a whole, rather than seeing the stories merely as religious parables to reinforce dogmas and possibly instil guilt in some readers. We all draw from the arts and from life in general the lessons that we want and, hopefully, need.
The latest in my supporting posts for #Narniathon21. The next title, The Horse and His Boy, will be up for discussion on Friday 29th April, but before that I intend to post a review of it for the #1954Club before 24th April