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Narnia Becomes Symbolic: 'The Silver Chair'

Though The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair are two separate novels, penned by Lewis at unspecified times, as far as the symbology of Narnia is concerned they form a continuous narrative. Lewis, now fully restored to confidence in his attempt to create a realm laden with effective symbols, carries on the story of Narnia through another new child protagonist, Jill. Again seeking to move his readers out of their modern cultural framework and into a freshly spiritual one, Lewis opens the tale at a contemporary school:

IT was a dull autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym.

She was crying because they had been bullying her. This is not going to be a school story, so I shall say as little as possible about Jill's school, which is not a pleasant subject. It was "Co-educational," a school for both boys and girls, what used to be called a "mixed" school; some said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it. These people had the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked. And unfortunately what ten or fifteen of the biggest boys and girls liked best was bullying the others. All sorts of things, horrid things, went on which at an ordinary school would have been found out and stopped in half a term; but at this school they weren't. Or even if they were, the people who did them were not expelled or punished. The Head said they were interesting psychological cases and sent for them and talked to them for hours. And if you knew the right sort of things to say to the Head, the main result was that you became rather a favourite than otherwise.

Again, critics leap to the conclusion that we have here an array of Lewis’s pet prejudices against the modern educational system, but it is not quite that simple. Lewis isn’t so much attacking the education system (he says that, in an ‘ordinary’ school, these things ‘would have been found out and stopped in half a term’) but a specific set of cultural ideals, as summed up in the phrase ‘the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked’. Gone is the traditional hierarchy in which wisdom resides with elders and where obedience to a moral code is desirable - in the Ironic culture, concepts like ‘obedience’ and ‘morality’ have been undermined, and replaced by modern subjective psychology. Jill, our schoolgirl heroine, is in despair, hiding from a gang of school-sanctioned bullies, a metaphor for the savage and heartless culture against which Lewis was protesting. The appearance of Eustace, remembered by readers as the protagonist of the preceding book, offers some hope. He has, Jill notes, noticeably changed since the holidays, so much so that the bullies have said ‘Someone's got hold of that Scrubb kid. He's quite unmanageable this term. We shall have to attend to him next.’

When he begins to confide in Jill about his transformative experiences in Narnia, the idea that there is a new world in which Magic is real is contrasted sharply with the world in which they find themselves:

But when they had said it and Jill looked round and saw the dull autumn sky and heard the drip off the leaves and thought of all the hopelessness of Experiment House (it was a thirteen-week term and there were still eleven weeks to come) she said:

"But after all, what's the good? We're not there: we're here. And we jolly well can't get there. Or can we?"

This is precisely the question that Lewis was constantly asking himself and which the Chronicles of Narnia are all about: an attempt to ‘get there’, to reach such a world and to take readers there too. In this case, the children pray to Aslan for rescue and find themselves stepping through what seemed an ordinary door in the wall of the school into another world.

Eustace and Jill only think they are calling Aslan; actually, he has summoned them. After Jill passes through the normally locked garden door, she meets Aslan who says ‘You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you’. Lewis here makes good the clumsiness of the transition into Narnia that we had previously in Prince Caspian: yes, there is a summons from the ‘other side’ in both cases, but whereas, in Caspian, Susan’s horn jerkily pulled the Pevensies from a railway platform into a wild landscape which they have to figure out is Narnia, here Jill and Eustace find themselves in Aslan’s Country, where we left off in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Aslan himself has an even more elevated role: instead of appearing in the narrative at key points, to rescue the protagonists or to make key moral points, here Aslan instigates the narrative - he issues instructions that will guide Jill and Eustace forward and basically structure the whole tale.

Aslan has become Providence: he is no longer a player in the story, but its manager. What we have suspected in the first two books, and which was made explicit in the third, that Aslan is God, is here made implicit in a new way. From then on, events in the story revolve around the instructions that Aslan has given: the children progressively fail to follow those orders fully and thus introduce drama into the tale, but Providence oversees all and in the end they succeed.

Their triumph comes, however, after the darkest moment in the tale. In the Witch’s underground realm, they are trapped and placed under a growing enchantment. In this one scene, Lewis tackles the difference between symbol and allegory which runs through the rest of his work.

The Green Witch tries to get them to believe that her world is the only real one, and that everything that they know - the sun, the world above, even Aslan - is somehow an extension of their own fantasies. Protesting, the children, with their companion Puddleglum and the freed Prince Rilian, come up with the example of the Sun as something strong and memorable in the ‘Overworld’:

"Please it your Grace," said the Prince, very coldly and politely. "You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room; and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky."

"Hangeth from what, my lord?" asked the Witch; and then, while they were all still thinking how to answer her, she added, with another of her soft, silver laughs: "You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children's story."

In the Witch’s enchantment, all of the reality that lies outside and above her realm is an allegory, a mere projection of phenomena experienced in her world, made bigger or shinier or more glorious - but none of it is true in any objective sense. The Witch is a psychologist, trying to convince her prisoners that their beliefs are insubstantial wish-fulfilments and copies of what is tangibly real around them. Critics likewise believed that the whole of Narnia was a wish-fulfilment of its author, and that the symbols within were nothing more than shadows of Lewis’s own inner desires.

Puddleglum ‘flips’ the story over and accomplishes Lewis’s central aim. Jill, struggling against the spell, remembers Aslan, but is defeated by the Witch’s Ironic refutation:

"I see," she said, "that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You've seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it's to be called a lion. Well, 'tis a pretty makebelieve, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world. But even you children are too old for such play. As for you, my lord Prince, that art a man full grown, fie upon you! Are you not ashamed of such toys? Come, all of you. Put away these childish tricks. I have work for you all in the real world. There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan. And now, to bed all. And let us begin a wiser life tomorrow. But, first, to bed; to sleep; deep sleep, soft pillows, sleep without foolish dreams.”

Lewis manages to slip in one of the Ironic culture’s maxims, that such thinking belongs in childhood and ‘would suit you all better if you were younger’. But now comes the Marshwiggle’s famous renunciation of allegory:

“Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say.”

What was allegorical becomes symbolic: instead of our world being the only source for the world of imagination, it becomes itself a poor copy, a shadow, of a greater reality. The children and the prince shake off the enchantment, the Witch is revealed to be a giant serpent and is defeated, and the whole of the Underworld itself, as soon becomes apparent in the story, is seen to rest upon a much brighter and more dazzling realm even further beneath it.

Lewis has arrived at the foundations of Narnia: from Aslan’s Country atop the mountains in the East, to the glowing world of Bism that forms the floor of that world, he has now connected everything up successfully to resonant symbols which speak of a greater and deeper reality than our own. Small wonder that it is at the end of The Silver Chair that Narnia overtly spills out into our contemporary world and chases away the school bullies, even though Aslan keeps his back turned.

Three more things remained for Lewis to do with Narnia to make it completely successful: he needed to make Aslan providential ‘in reverse’, as it were, strengthening the Lion’s role as a symbol retrogressively; he needed to explore the creation of Narnia; and he needed to somehow wrap his fictive creation up in a satisfying way. He does this in A Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, and The Last Battle.


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