Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis (1953)

If doing something two years in a row is a tradition, then re-reading a Narnia book on or around Christmas has become a tradition for me.  This is the second year I've done so.  Last year, I read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; this year it is The Silver Chair.

Not my copy
As with most of the books I read and re-read between the ages of just-learning-how-to-read and my twenties,  I don't remember first reading The Chronicles of Narnia.   I do remember that I first watched the animated movie on television, which then turned me on to the books.  I know from some research that the movie was first on CBS, Sunday and Monday nights, April 1, 1979.  I probably watched it then, with my whole family (this was pre-cable days, at least for us, and we only got a few channels, and not all of them got very good reception).  I would have turned nine years old just a couple of months before, and in third grade.  My sister would be born 17 days later, so my mom would have been very, very pregnant (which I can't remember at all).  Easter was just a week or so away too.  Interestingly, on Sunday night, Jesus of Nazareth was also on television, and for an hour at the same time; we only had one tv too. I imagine we watched Narnia, and then turned the channel and watched the remainder of Jesus of Nazareth until we were put to bed.

(note:  I later found out that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was re-run on Tuesday & Wednesday, April 22 & 23, 1980.  This sounds like a more likely time and date for me to have watched this, although to be honest, I will never know.)

On Monday, I must have gone to school and we all talked about Narnia, and then finished watching it that night (if you watch it on youtube today, there is a clear end of episode and beginning of the next - it's the part where the White Witch, Dwarf and Edmund, and the Beavers, Peter, Susan and Lucy are all racing to the Stone Table but before the come across the Christmas party of fauns and squirrels.  

After this, Narnia is a blur.  One of my friends, who was richer than I was, had the whole set.  Another friend, younger than I, was a lover of witches and witchcraft, and always wanted to be the White Witch when were we playing.  

I did remember something new when I sat down to write about The Silver Chair:  my first Narnia book was a beat up old paperback copy of The Silver Chair that I got for free from the elementary school library.  It was completely falling apart, the cover was all ratty, the pages were falling out, but it was one of those cherished, magical items of childhood.  That I lost over the years; we look through that glass darkly, put away childish things, and then later, much later, we regret those choices.  

The Silver Chair, like all Narnia books, is uneven.  It has a great beginning, and then lots of highs and lows, like a roller coaster.  It's much too short; about three Silver Chairs can fit into book four of the Harry Potter series, Goblet of Fire. Nit picking Narnia has been a pasttime of Narnia lovers for a generation or so.  It's a fruitless pursuit:  we all know Tolkien thought the books sucked; but then some people think Tolkien sucks too.  To write and publish a book in 1953 that is still in print is no small feat (that, incidentally, was the year of Fahrenheit 451; if you glance at the NYT bestsellers for the year, they are mostly books that have faded way).  

But I will nitpick anyway.  Jill is a high point; you want more and more of Jill.  Lewis loved strong female characters, even if he often gave them traditional things to do and say; Jill seems more modern than any other girl he created, certainly more of a Lucy and less of a Susan.  I'm not going to call Lewis a feminist by any means - but compare Narnia to Tolkien's boys' club.  Puddleglum - and all the marshwiggles - are total high points.  Lewis's world building is always hodgepodge; but in the marshwiggles he creates a totally new being, believable and funny, and attempts to give them a culture and historical background.  He just can't do it very well; marshwiggles are not ents.  But they are still cool, and Puddleglum is always a delight.

Eustace is neither a low or a high point.  He's really there as Jill's raison d'etre and really doesn't exist for anything else.  He was more interesting as a villain, to be honest - but then so was Edmund.

Prince Rilian is the absolutely the lowest of the low point in the entire book.  Perhaps the entire series.  Well, The Last Battle is truly the lowest point in the series.  But Rilian is close.  He's hot headed, impetuous, makes bad decisions, easily fooled, easily manipulated, was a puppet of a witch for ten years.  Somehow, we are supposed to believe that he will make a good ruler.  If I were Trumpkin or Drinian or a strong minded faun with a political bent and a lust for power, I would contemplate overthrowing the government.  Why would anyone in their right mind trust this man with the reigns of power?  Narnian government seems to be an absolute monarchy; I smell tyranny ahead once Rilian gets into power.  No wonder the whole world ended two books later.

I know as a kid I loved some of this book.  But as an adult, I can see its flaws very clearly.

The actual silver chair is only mentioned by name three times, which is weird.  It must be some allegory for something, but with Lewis, you get tired of the allegories very quickly.  The Christian allegory is ad nauseum throughout the book, heavy handed, and really - it takes away from the story.  As an adult at least; I imagine as a kid, I didn't even notice.  

I was a prudy little kid, and never swore.  We weren't allowed to say "oh my god" (taking the lord's name in vain) or "pantyhose" (which rhymed with "cheerios" and made a nifty song).  So imagine to my surprise when, on page 4 of The Silver Chair, Jill says:  "Dam' good of you."  Jill was a modern woman!  She used a swear word! She had pretty short hair too, and wore shorts.  

I think the end, when Jill (with her riding crop) and Eustace and young Caspian (with the flats of their swords) with Aslan beat the shit out of the bullies, that must have always felt so good to read for me, who was (occasionally) bullied, although never severely (even if it felt like it at the time); it must feel great to all ten year olds reading it for the first time, and thinking to themselves:  "I want a riding crop."   The bullies call them fascists in this passage too, and I wonder if I knew what a fascist was, or how to even pronounce it.

Lewis hates modernity,  particularly modern education.  

If I were to make a list of Narnia books in order by best to worst:

The Horse and His Boy.  Still my favorite.  The best.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Best plot, still feels fresh.
Prince Caspian.  Sequel almost as good as the first. Political intrigue for kids.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  Rousing adventure, but sucky ending.  So sucking.  Bleah.
Magician's Nephew.  I would have put this one second to last, but I read it and enjoyed it far more as a grown up.  Heavy handed ending
Silver Chair.  Just okay.
The Last Battle.  So bad I never want to read it again.  

Why in all the Narnia books, when things just start to get fun and good, the kids are always whooshed away.  Can't they enjoy the fruits of their labors ever?  Only in Wardrobe do the kids get to stay and enjoy themselves.  Narnia is such a cool place too:  sausages are always cooking, fauns and dryads are always dancing and singing and having snowball fights.  Even when the White Witch had made it always winter and never Christmas, the Beavers still  had a fine haul of food in a cozy little den.  And Tumnus tea sounded divine.  

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The second worst in the Narnia series (The Last Battle is still, by far, one of my least favorite and most hated books of all time). Nitpicking Narnia is a time honored pastime among adults who grew up reading the Chronicles, and I'm not exception. There are some things about the books I love, honor and adore; there are things about the books I can't stand. The Silver Chair is no exception. I love Jill; she's actually one of my favorite characters, she veers awfully close to being a feminist, and she's certainly Lewis's strongest female character (well, after the White Witch; Aravis could give Jill a run for her money). Tolkien may have hated Lewis's world building skills, but at least Lewis knew how to create mostly believable girls. I also love Puddleglum and all the marshwiggles; truly unique creations, especially in a series of ripoffs from folklore and mythology; it's regrettable that they don't appear more often. What I don't like about this book is how the plot lurches about, like a bad roller coaster. There are more low points than high points. And Prince Rilian. Other than all of The Last Battle, Rilian is the lowest point not only in the book but in the entire series. He's stupid, hot-headed, clearly spoiled, impetuous, easily manipulated and fooled, and was the brainwashed puppet of a green witch for ten years. He returns to Narnia, and everyone just automatically accepts him, no questions asked. Who in their right mind would return the reins of power to this idiot? If I were Trumpkin or Drinian or a strong minded faun with a political bent and a lust for power, I would contemplate overthrowing the government. No wonder the world ended two books later; these people earned it by not overthrowing their stupid absolute monarchy.

The owls are funny though. More owls and marshwiggles, less Rilian.

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