The Silver Chair (1953) is the fourth of the Chronicles of Narnia and the first without the Pevensie children, which I revisited as part of #Narniathon21 hosted by Chris at Calmgrove.

This is once again an adventure/quest story like the immediately previous one, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader but the journey here, in contrast to one at sea in that book was on, and under land. But it opens as all the others have, in our human realm where we meet Jill Pole, a young girl studying in the rather unpleasant Experiment House, a school which appears to encourage rather than check bullies, dubbing them ‘interesting psychological cases’. Jill who has just been targeted by some of these psychological cases is hiding in the bushes, when Eustace Scrubb, the Pevensies’ cousin and part of their adventure aboard the Dawn Treader appears to comfort her. Post that adventure, Eustace has turned over a new leaf, standing up for a rabbit, keeping secrets, and even comforting Jill. In fact, not only that, he even shares with her his secret—his visit to Narnia, and Aslan. Meanwhile as the bullies (or rather one of their sidekicks) close in on them, Eustace and Jill (or Scrubb and Poll as they refer to each other) run through the shrubbery towards a door which leads to the moor, but there is magic at work of course, for instead of the moor, they are in Narnia. Here they make their way to a cliff where Eustace is blown away. Jill on the other hand meets Aslan, who tells her that they’ve been summoned to Narnia by him for he has a task for them, to find the lost prince. He gives Jill four signs which she must learn by heart and which are to help the two in their quest.

Things begin to go wrong right from the start for as soon as Jill arrives to where Eustace is and tries to tell him the signs, he doesn’t quite listen, and as a result they miss following the very first. Eustace finally understands that they have returned to Narnia at a time many years after his last visit, and Caspian is now old, and it is his son, Rillian who is the missing prince they are to seek. With help from a parliament of owls (I’ve always wanted to say that), they find their way to marshes in Narnia from where Puddleglum, a marsh wiggle, who has rather gloomy thoughts and observations all the time, accompanies them on their journey, through the land of the giants, in search of the ruined city Aslan had asked them to find. But their journey isn’t quite as easy as they think, and they not only trip up a few times, but must also face many challenges, and meet an assortment of characters.

While this book certainly had symbolism and moral messages woven in, it was the adventure itself—the quest that I felt stood out to me most, and as what I enjoyed the book. (I don’t really know if this is to do with my state of mind when reading, but this time around, it seems the allegory jumps out at me most strongly in alternate books in the series). This one, more than the previous instalments in the Chronicles, had me thinking the most of the Enid Blyton ‘fantasy’ books I loved as a child, particularly the faraway tree books—with giants, gnomes, and trolls, and travelling through different lands, and such. (Also, Blytonish was plenty of food all through; while the centuars had me thinking Harry Potter—a likely inspiration for the latter since I think Rowling has cited Lewis as one). I really enjoyed the actual journey through the land of the giants (and indeed into the trap they quite literally walk into), and of course down into the underworld (falling through a hole again brought back Blyton and the Faraway Tree—both the hole at the top of the tree through which they enter new lands, and the slippery slope through which they descend from Moonface’s home—also there is the whole episode where the tree’s roots are attacked by trolls which came to mind as a parallel to the journey underworld).  

The ‘gentle’ giants of Harfang might well be one set of villains in the book, and one can very much guess (even if one hadn’t read the book before) that the children were destined to end up in pie (they don’t of course), but the real villain of the piece is of course the witch who has trapped Rillian enticing him as a child and then keeping him prisoner. Both as witch (with the stereotypical beautiful appearance later changing into long nosed witch), and as the worm/serpent, she is a conventional symbol of evil. What was interesting though was the magic by which she sought to control Rillian and then the others—there is the chair of course, but once Rillian and the children escape, her magic takes on a more psychological form, trying to get them to disbelieve reality and believe in only the world she has created, rather like gaslighting, which I don’t think I’ve come across in children’s stories before, or at least not in ones that come to mind.

The marsh wiggle, Puddleglum, has to have been my favourite character in this one—characters who are gloomy in their outlook but actually only ostensibly so (like also Droopy Dog) aren’t always the most appealing, but he certainly was fun. To an extent, I think he played Lucy’s role in the story, being the only person whose faith in Aslan remains unshaken, and who can steer the children back on track when they are falling off (reading this instalment, one begins to appreciate Lucy’s role far more). Though of course, his perpetual gloom and pessimism means even doubts that aren’t misplaced are not taken all that seriously by the others.

Bullying and schools which don’t handle it as they ought is a theme that certainly also stands out in the book (and something that continues to be relevant to this day seeing the different books and debates from various parts of the world; in fact, apparently UNESCO sees this ‘a major global issue’); and even though I still haven’t read up on Lewis’ school experiences as I had meant to, one can see that this is something he must have experienced in his own school days. Here of course, it is magic and Aslan that helps the children teach the bullies and indeed the school Head a lesson, one is reminded that this remains to be effectively addressed in real life. Incidentally I loved this little gem at the end:

And in the inquiry all sorts of things about Experiment House came out, and ten people got expelled. After that, the Head’s friends saw that the Head was no use as a Head, so they got her made an inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found, she wasn’t much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after.

Before this gets any longer, I will stop saying only that this was despite some aspects that bother one (for instance, once again it being ok to eat non-talking animals), over all a fun read, and like Dawn Treader, works very well as a fantasy adventure.

p.s. While probably meant to be conventional, the fact that Green Witch loves cats (when all else in the real world is denied), I thought was rather fun; by that logic, possibly many of us would qualify as witches and wizards as we do love our kitties!

21 thoughts on “Book Review: The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis #Narniathon21

  1. I enjoyed this response to TSC, especially your emphasising that this seems less theologically didactic by emphasising the quest theme, even if it descends at times into a critique or rant at progressive education! As with VDT there are so many themes and motifs drawn from elsewhere which Lewis fits into a shortish novel, making it simultaneously satisfying and confusing. I can’t help thinking I shall have such a lot to say about this in due course! 🙂

    And cats?! I hope Lewis wasn’t as sniffy of cats as he was of coeducational schooling…

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    1. There was so much else that called for more exploration, his views on education for one. I think like we had started discussing last time, one needs a broader look into popular ideas of ideal children in the general time period and how that reflected in fiction.

      I am wondering about the cats; I thought it in fun at first but then the witch-cat connection stood out more.

      Also talking animals vs non talking animals; the time jumps in the different books; the symbolism in Aslan’s blood taking away Caspian’s worldly troubles; also more minor the sausages being mostly soy and bread (impact of wartime rationing?)

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  2. I have some thoughts about Lewis’s views on the way British education was going in the postwar years, and that despite him mostly hating his own school years (he was tutored for some of the time) he thought single sex boarding schools preferable to the innovations coming in.

    I shall have to think about the cats, as they didn’t make a huge impression on me, and your other points — I’ve clearly been very selective in what I noticed on this second read! 😄

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      1. There’s a famous saying along the lines of Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach, teach teachers. Like Karen, I’ve found that to be very often true, and where Lewis is concerned — and if we ignore the implied misogyny in his noting the in Head was a woman — he might add, “Those who can’t teach teachers become school inspectors.” I’ve come across a couple of inspectors who seemed quite ignorant about the lessons they were inspecting…

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      2. I agree; and it’s not just the school system that has this issue. Even staying within the education system, I feel our university body here (the one that oversees all unis) seems to come up with one rule after another that’s supposed to improve the quality of things but to my mind sends it in just the opposite direction.

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      1. Definitely. I get something new from them each time. I enjoyed revisiting Narnia with Kayden (who is now 15 – yikes!) many years ago. It’s amazing what you forget when you haven’t read them for a while.

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  3. My cat is far too lazy to be a familiar and would outright object if I tried to take him flying on a broomstick with me! I can’t remember the story of this one at all, though I do remember Pole and Scrubb (I was always sorry, though, when Lucy wasn’t in them), and I distinctly remember Puddleglum – apart from Aslan, probably my favourite character in all the books. Thanks for the reminders!

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    1. 🙂 I doubt mine will accompany me either. They like their walks but independently, thank you. Puddleglum was great fun, and also which I forgot to say, one of the imaginative characters in the book since the other creatures are from folklore and fairy tales for the most part

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