The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

Illustrated by Pauline Baynes

Summary: Aslan calls Eustace Scrubb and his friend Jill into Narnia to restore the lost Prince Rilian to his father.  He gives them signs to guide them on their journey, but warns the signs will not appear as the children might expect.  A Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum travels with them as their guide, but as the journey becomes more difficult, Eustace and Jill begin to lose sight of their goal and to turn on one another, jeopardizing the success of their mission.

(The review below is actually more of an analysis/reflection, so be forewarned that I assume you’ve read the book.  Don’t read it if you don’t wish to be spoiled!)

Review: In The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis focuses on our perception of reality.  The entire book is full of mistaken appearances.  Rilian believes the green lady his friend, Jill assumes Aslan an ordinary lion, Eustace questions the loyalty of the Owls because they meet at night, both Jill and Eustace repeatedly miss the signs given to them, and so on.  The story climaxes with the ultimate questions about the nature of our world and our understanding of it.  And, incredibly, at this crucial moment, the children, Rilian, and Puddleglum all fail to provide a reasonable answer to the Witch’s assertions that their world does not exist.  Instead Puddleglum concedes that the Witch may be right—but then “the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.”  Furthermore, he’s willing to spend his life searching for the truth of these “made-up things,” even though he recognizes the attempt may cost him his life.  Our logical minds may revolt against this defense, but at the same time we recognize it as true and right.  After all, Narnia exists!  So what is Lewis doing here?

I believe Lewis is appealing to our innate sense that something exists that is higher than the reality we perceive with our physical senses.  In the book, the Witch contends that the Underland exists, but the Overland does not.  If the Witch were in our world, she would contend that everything we see around us exists, including the trees, the sun, and the neighborhood, but heaven does not.  She would try to persuade us that heaven is merely a dream we made up because we find the idea pleasant.  If we believe this, Lewis answers that we do so only because we’re looking at the world backwards.  The end of the book when Eustace and Jill return to school illustrates this position.  Aslan sits in the gap in the wall so that the bullies see only his back.  I never thought much about this as a child, but now it strikes me as a bit odd to include this bit in the story.  Why should Aslan send his servants out to fight and then travel to the fight himself only to face in the opposite in the direction and not watch any of it?  Well, fortunately G. K. Chesterton came to the rescue and explained it all to me!

In The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton writes about a poet named Gabriel Syme who offers this observation about another character: “But when I saw him from behind I was certain he was an animal, and when I saw him in front I knew he was a god.”  Sound familiar?  The bullies see the back of Aslan and think him a wild beast; Jill and Eustace have seen his face and know him as God.  Since Lewis read Chesterton, I’m convinced he had this passage in mind when he wrote The Silver Chair.  Chesterton helpfully continues to expand upon the theme for us.  Syme says: “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world?  It is that we have known only the back of the world….  That is not a tree, but the back of a tree.  That is not the cloud, but the back of a cloud.”

I interpret Syme’s statement two ways.  1.) If we could only see clearly, we would recognize immediately the hand of the Creator in everything around us and we would recognize parts of His nature.  That is, we would know without question that He is good, creative, beautiful, etc.  2.) This world is, as Lewis will later say in The Last Battle, a shadow world, a reflection of the ultimate reality.  (For those who are interested, he expands upon this concept in The Great Divorce, where those who journey into heaven become more substantial, rather than the airy spirits we tend to think of.)  In that case, the Witch has it backwards.  We are not projecting things from our reality (Underland) into heaven (Overland).  Instead, the reality of heaven (Overland) has broken through into our world (Underland).  We appreciate the sun because it says something to us about God: that He is the Light of the World, that he brings knowledge, etc.  And so on with other things.  The trick is to remember that we must never mistake the shadow item for the real one.

Readers should keep this point in mind as they continue through Narnia, for as the series progresses*, it increasingly points toward The Last Battle as the culmination of everything we’ve read.  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader represents the journey of an individual toward God; I think the series itself can be considered this also.  It begins with our recognition of Christ as our Saviour and then helps us understand different aspects of God in each book.  Throughout the books, Lewis drops hints of our ultimate destination, from the story to refresh the spirit in Dawn Treader to Aslan’s reminder of Judgment Day in The Magician’s Nephew.  I personally find Lewis has done a remarkable thing in constructing the series this way.  He’s managed to illustrate that what awaits us in heaven is actually more wonderful than Narnia.

*I favor reading the Narnia books in order of publication and not in order of internal chronology because I believe the order of publication more accurately represents the growth and development of Narnia as Lewis conceived it, as well as the way in which Lewis meant his original audience to experience Narnia.  Reading order has, of course, been a source of debate for a long time, so perhaps a further exploration of this topic can serve as a future post.

Published: 1953

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