Lessons from Lewis: On C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair

When I first read and re-read the seven Narnia books, The Silver Chair was easily my favorite. Many years later, this is still the case, and for several reasons. In it we find the Marsh-wiggle Puddleglum, who (rivaled only by Repicheep the mouse) is perhaps the most memorable character in the entire series. It has what I think is the best single scene in the series as well, which I will address later on. There is something of a different feel in The Silver Chair compared to the other books. It mostly takes place outside of Narnia and it—along with The Last Battle—is not as light hearted as the other stories. But like all of the other books in the series, The Silver Chair offers its readers much to think about and delight in, be that reader young or old. And this, as I wrote in my review on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is what makes the Narnia series a treasure.

Puddleglum the Optimist
Lewis has much to teach us through the faithful and funny character of Puddleglum. As suggested by his not so subtle and Dickensian name, Puddleglum tends to be of the glass-half-empty school of thought, often expecting the worst in any given situation. But deep down under his marshy and wet-blanket exterior, he is too strongly rooted to the truth to be a true pessimist. On the contrary, he shows himself an optimist of the first order when challenged by the witch in the underground realm.

The Silver Chair coverPuddleglum along with Eustace, Jill and Rillian are slowly being enchanted in Underland; an enchantment that is making them believe the only reality to be the dark, dismal, and depressing underground city ruled by the witch. She cleverly makes them see how they have seen lamps and cats and in their dreams and imaginations have believed in fabrications like suns and lions. The magic has all but worked on the other three but Puddleglum, although confused, fights back.

Firstly, and importantly, Puddleglum intentionally stamps on the enchantment inducing fire with his bare foot. This lessens the power of the enchantment and the pain clears Puddleglum’s mind somewhat. He is able to think clearly when separated from the stifling and numbing comfort of the witch’s spells. “I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.” He says. “I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” In a time of extreme confusion, Puddleglum ultimately chooses goodness and beauty even if he can no longer rationally justify their existence. He clings to these ideas since he instinctively realizes an existence without them would be no existence at all.

Puddleglum is portrayed throughout the book as a classic pessimist: a character who always anticipates the worst in any given situation. When really confronted with the worst of all possibilities, however, Puddleglum rejects it outright and instead firmly and stubbornly plants his webbed feet in the camp of the good. Puddleglum shows his true colors by trusting the natural law within his breast rather than the intellectual force (strengthened with enchantments) of his opponent. He thus gives us an example of how to behave in this world where we are bombarded with crafty rhetoric and argument designed subtly to lead us from the path of the truth. An ability to recognize and trust in what is good and beautiful, and an occasional dose of head-clearing pain is the antidote prescribed by Puddleglum for our confusing times.

Rationalizing Away the Truth
In the best scene in the book (and probably in the whole series), the children stand before the sliver chair to watch their new acquaintance—safely bound—rave in his nightly madness brought on by an enchantment and finally turn into a man-eating serpent. Or so the prince (and now the children and Puddleglum) has been told. But the reader soon learns the truth that it is only for an hour every night that the prince is not enchanted. He gains his right mind and so must be bound lest he escape. The prince, however, has been well trained. He tells the children that he will tell them anything so that they will untie him, but if they do, he will surely kill them. Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum solemnly promise each other that they will not release the prince no matter what he might say while in the chair.

But he says the one thing they simply cannot ignore. He begs them to release him in Aslan’s name, thus revealing himself to them as the lost prince they set out to find. They therefore ought to free him. The next two lines are fantastic. “It’s the Sign” says Puddleglum. But Eustace is quick to add: “It was the words of the Sign.” They are in a difficult situation to be sure and Eustace begins to rationalize. It wasn’t really the Sign, it was just the words. Surely Aslan did not intend for them to unbind this violent lunatic. The evil queen might have known about the Signs and taught the prince to say this to trap them. These are reasonable sounding arguments. But then Puddleglum interjects and rightly says that they must simply obey and not concern themselves with what might follow.

This tendency for us to begin to rationalize an actually simple and moral situation is a theme that runs through several of Lewis’ books. In Till We Have Faces, Orual sees the castle reflected in the water and spends the rest of her life convincing herself that she did not. God gave us intellects and free will and we are right to use both. But we must be careful not to abuse either. With these intellectual gifts God also gave commandments, some written on stone and others written on our hearts. Lewis warns us not to rationalize ourselves into the trap of avoiding the moral act because it is difficult or worse, because it is uncomfortable. If we are honest with ourselves, most moral choices are easy and if they seem difficult it is often because we have unnecessarily complicated things.

A Final Thought
We are taught as children that a Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give us grace. It is not difficult to recognize this understanding of a Sacrament in the Signs given by Aslan to Jill so that she might successfully navigate her mission. And Aslan takes special care to ensure that Jill memorizes the Signs: he instructs her to recite them to herself every evening and when she awakes in the night. It is in this way that Jill will be properly armed to face the difficult situations she will encounter. The simple truths of the faith, if dutifully committed to our hearts, will become signposts for us to follow in troubled times. But we also, when the time comes, must pay proper heed to them and to the stirrings of our hearts and not fool ourselves with needless and cowardly rationalizations. We must cling to the Sacraments as Jill was instructed to cling to the Signs and trust in the goodness of Christ and all will turn out well, as it did for Jill and Eustace, even if—especially if—the Signs point us in unexpected directions. This is the most important lesson in The Silver Chair.

Stephen Fitzpatrick

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Stephen Fitzpatrick received a B.A. in the Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. in Theology from the University of Scranton. He teaches at Gregory the Great Academy.

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