The Silver Chair by C.S.Lewis

I loved the Narnia books as a child and borrowed them all from my local public library. I read most of them multiple times, and knew them pretty well. But I stopped reading them once I got to about 12 or 13 and have never gone back and reread them. I wondered what rereading them as an adult would be like. So I picked one at random. Well not quite at random. The Silver Chair was the one I remembered least, and couldn’t actually remember the plot. So that was as good a reason as any.

The book opens in a progressive school with Jill in tears because of the bullying she was suffering. Boy did that look different to the adult me compared to me as a child. The obvious implication of the first chapter was that the modern ideas of the school would lead to the more aggressive pupils getting into gangs and making life a misery for the less streetwise and more sensitive.

The nature of the bullying is quite well described, and indeed much how I remember it from my own school. But as an adult I am able to also spot the political message. Bullying is a consequence of lack of discipline in schools that adopt more progressive teaching methods. And as an adult I can apply my critical thinking skills to note that, yes bullying is a problem in schools. But also that there was nothing remotely progressive about my school, and there was plenty of bullying.

So how do I feel about a political messages on a children’s book? I don’t like it, but it is sort of less annoying when it is done so hamfistedly.

We rapidly escape from the mundane real world of political indoctrination to the magical land of Narnia where we get some religious indoctrination.  The good thing about the Narnia books is that although their entire purpose is to get across the message of the Lewis’ particular form of Christianity it isn’t done in a heavy handed way.  You can often totally ignore it and just enjoy the stories.  So we get the story set up by an encounter with Aslan, who as I think everyone in the English speaking world must surely know, is an embodiment of Christ.

Aslan sets Jill a task and then lets her get on with the adventure.  But he obviously has a lot of pre-knowledge of what is going to happen because he gives her some clues about how to solve problems  she is going to encounter.  So this basically sums up the nature of the relationship between God, Man and the Universe in Lewis’ interpretation.  God knows everything and is outside time.  He does however involve a small part of himself in some of the workings of the world.  This is done via Christ in this world and Aslan in Narnia.  This partial intervention takes the form of nudges and winks because the key thing is to retain free will for humans.

At the end of the day what matters to God is what goes on in your head in response to the situations into which he places you.  You get to choose how you act – but ultimately the superior knowledge of the Almighty and his ability to see what is going on from the perspective of being outside time coupled with omnipotence puts him firmly in control.  This means that your choices are real and the consequences of them in terms of how God judges you are significant.

Whether you find this concept convincing is up to you.  It doesn’t do anything for me I have to say.  But it is a great framework for writing a book.  Throughout the plot you can look out for clues as to what Aslan has up his sleeve.  You know there is going to be a happy ending – but just how we get there is engaging.  And there are lots of interesting characters and scenes to run into along the way.

The problem for an actual believer with applying this to the real world is not trivial.  You have to spot the will of God amongst random trivia and the deliberate deceptions of evil forces.  And this is something that comes up a few times in the Silver Chair, but particularly forcefully in a scene where a witch attempts to enchant the heroes.  It’s a great dramatic scene which hinges on the question of how you know whether you are enchanted or not.  The enchantment is broken when one of the characters makes the point that one of the competing visions seems a lot more appealing than the other.

This does rather give the game away.  Ultimately the choice to follow Christianity boils down to how good it makes you feel.  But then I suppose that if you are obliged to take it as an act of faith, it could have no other motivation.

But you can buy into the worldview for the duration of the story, and it is a good tale.  The characters are a bit one dimensional, but it is a children’s book.  It isn’t trying to be Madame Bovary.  The plot is engaging and we see some interesting scenery and fun monsters.  There are some allusions to medieval literature and imagery that are fun to unpick.  Why is Old Father Time found in a cavern at one point?  Well when you know that he is identified with Saturn it sort of makes sense.  There are also nods to the middle english poems Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Orfeo. 

There is also the name of the book.  The Silver Chair is the source of one of the illusions that the plot revolves around.  Silver is associated in astrology with the moon and with illusions.  Indeed we still use it in that sense when we refer to films as the Silver Screen.

There are lots of giants too – which is never a bad thing.

It isn’t really a spoiler to point out that things end well in the quest.  They usually do in books, especially fairy stories.  Much like God with the Universe, the author stands outside the time as it runs in the text and can bring everything to a satisfactory conclusion.

There is a bit of a surprise in that given the story starts in our world, it also has to be finished off in our world as well as in Narnia.  This is the most curious episode.  Aslan leads the children and a Narnian in an attack on the bullies from Experiment House.  They only use the flat sides of their swords and a riding crop – so painful but no blood drawn.  But even so, the solution to the problem is violence. Once again the game is given away.  C.S.Lewis may be clever.  He may be educated.  His heart might be in the right place.  But at the end of the day he is a conservative reacting against progress.  And he is happy to use force to defend his position if that is what it takes.  He’s already admitted that his religious views correspond to what he wants the world to be like rather than how it might seem to be.  He is now revealing that he also quite likes the idea of an all powerful being that will duff up people with views he doesn’t like as well.

None of this makes this a bad book.  It’s a very good book.  You can ignore the message easily enough, or observe it and draw the opposite conclusion from the author’s intention i.e., that far from being wholesome religion undermines the integrity and the grasp on reality of even such a fine and versatile mind as the creator of Narnia clearly possessed.  We see just how good he is in the last few paragraphs where he turns his hand to political humour.  The events surrounding the return of the children from Narnia lead to an enquiry.  The head of Experiment House is found to be inadequate and is promoted to being an inspector to get her out of the way.  She feels at that as well so ends up as a member of parliament – where finally she can no longer do any damage.  “Bit of satire there.  My name’s C.S.Lewis.  Thank you and good night.”

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