The chronology of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books is nearly as hard to work out as the fluctuating time anomalies between time in our world and the land beyond the wardrobe. The Silver Chair is commonly presented today as the sixth in the series, and it makes sense like that, providing a satisfying ending to the story begun in Prince Caspian, clearing the decks before the commencement of the grandiose The Last Battle. In fact, it was the fourth published work and the exact middle of the series and marks a shift away from the main narrative towards a deeper exploration of Lewis’s world. It is also the conclusion of the adventure begun in the The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and features the same difficult hero, a difficult boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb (‘and he almost deserved it’).
Scrubb’s journey from snot nosed bully to Narnian hero was complete in the previous book, so when we join him at the beginning of the Silver Chair he is a reformed character and a Narnia veteran (an interesting psychological state that would make a nice PhD). The transition back to civilian life is never easy and this reformed character finds himself the target of bullies. He is teamed up with Jill Pole, a fellow member of the ghastly sounding Experiment House, a progressive free school in the mould of Summerhill, where ‘good’ children suffer at the hands of psychologically interesting bullies.
The opening pages rank among Lewis’ most reactionary pieces of writing and read a little like the rantings of a man who has read about something he didn’t like the sound of in the Daily Mail. A shame because what comes next is pretty extraordinary, even by the standards of a writer who forever changed the nature of wardrobes.
This time the children escape through a door in a wall and walk into a world that isn’t quite Narnia. They have arrived on Aslan’s mountain and having got the obligatory ‘meet the lion’ scene out of the way, they are given their quest instructions then literally blown off the side of the mountain, floating into Narnia proper on His magical breath.
A quick glance at illustrator Pauline Baynes’ map and you’ll find no mention of either Aslan’s mountain, or another striking location featured later in the book – the Underland, a world beneath Narnia. In the Deeper Reading podcast, writer Piers Torday compares the subterranean scenes to the ‘upside down’ in the Netflix series Stranger Things, a distorted mirror image of Narnia above. Instead of high contrast skies filled with giddy headed air, Lewis conjures up a dank, dingy world lit by a disturbing green hue.
“It was full of dim, drowsy radiance […] The floor was soft with some kind of moss and out of this grew many strange shapes, branched and tall like trees, but flabby like mushrooms. They stood too far apart to make a forest; it was more like a park. The light (a greenish grey) seemed to come both from them and from them and the moss, and it was not strong enough to reach the roof of the cave, which must have been a long way overhead. Across the mild, soft, sleepy place they were now made to march. It was very sad, but with a quiet sort of sadness, like soft music.”
In one memorable scene Lewis describes how some former denizens of Narnia have simply ‘sunk’ below the surface to their current resting places, waiting for the end of the world to arrive. It has an apocalyptic feel which is compounded by frightening scenes in which the entire kingdom crumbles and the waters rise.
I was reminded of the apocalyptic atmosphere of Tove Jansson’s Comet in Moominland, published in English at around the same time as Lewis was writing this. Jansson created her story during the war, with the backdrop of Europe destroying itself vividly reflected. A few years later and Lewis is perhaps reflecting on the after effects of the war and feeding off contemporary fears about impending nuclear devastation.
All of which makes The Silver Chair sound like a pretty heavy book, but for the most part the tone is kept light and buoyant thanks to Lewis’s chipper narrative voice and his cast of bantering heroes. At the centre of this is one of Narnia’s great characters, Puddleglum, the marsh wiggle.
Piers Torday compares him to Marvin the Paranoid Android from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and he is prone to pessimistic pronouncements which disguise a slightly mischievous take on the world. This rare representative of Narnia’s ‘working class’ is also fond of a drink or three and smokes a pipe filled with something so heavy and black that the smoke trails along the floor.
The Problem of Susan, as Neil Gaiman memorably dubbed Lewis’s difficulty with the ‘fairer’ sex raises its head again here. In Jill Pole he appears to be attempting to do a strong female character, unafraid to talk back to brittle Eustace. Ultimately she isn’t quite strong enough to stand up to the various enemies with anything more than her feminine ‘wiles’. On the flipside we have the Lady of the Green Kirtle, another of Narnia’s fearsome witches, this one capable of turning into a vicious constricting snake. As Piers Torday points out, ‘where his heroines maybe lack bite his female villains certainly do not.’
The Silver Chair isn’t the best in the Narnia series, (the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is untouchable) but it’s easily one of the most memorable. There’s an intensity to the book that is unique. The physical setting is certainly striking, but there’s also a sense of dread and a feeling about an approaching end of days. Despite some unfortunate political wrong turns it steel feels timely.