[Narnia Content Note: Religion, Bullying, Heights]
Narnia Recap: Eustace is now an Aslanite.
The Silver Chair, Chapter 1: Behind the Gym
I've been going back and forth on whether Silver Chair is even worth deconstructing. It's probably the least picked-apart book in the series; everyone knows the shit that goes down in Last Battle, and HaHB and Magician's Nephew have a lot of the really juicy racism and sexism to pick at. And of course the first three books (LWW, PC, and VoDT) have been adapted the most often. That leaves Silver Chair as sorta the abandoned middle child in the series.
It's also one of the most beloved books (which doesn't make it as much fun to deconstruct, because believe it or not, I don't enjoy wrecking everyone's childhood), possibly because it doesn't get picked at the hardest, and honestly it probably also helps that it's the most Tolkienesty one in the sense of getting away from all the palaces and privilege and just having a small adventuring party walking across cold hills and moors and whatnot in search of a prince they need to rescue. That's a good solid formula that's hard to fuck up, and it means that we have less of the faffing about in Prince Caspian and reams less of the privileged pillaging and looting that we had in Dawn Treader. It also has the famous Puddleglum speech, which everyone on earth loves except me. So I was sorta tempted to just give Silver Chair a pass and not deal with it.
But, hey, you know? Why not. Maybe the relative inoffensiveness of the material means we'll whip through it in record time. And just to be really edgy (or possibly lazy), I'm not going to re-read the entire book first this time. I'll be reading along with ya'll for once. Or at least for this first chapter.
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 favorite than otherwise.
So, wow, first impressions of Chapter 1 is that it is as dull as the autumn day being described. I think we're all at this point in the series very aware that Lewis had issues with schools and liberals and liberal schools and I... don't really want to belabor that point? Because I gather that a lot of his feels on the subject were biographical in nature and... okay, that seriously sucks for him, and he has all my sympathies, and that isn't sarcasm just to be perfectly clear. I'm genuinely sorry that he was bullied and terrorized at school.
At the same time, it's not super interesting to have the first full chapter of a sixteen-chapter book devoted to how cartoonishly evil this new learning is, just because they try to talk to children and they don't have Bibles in every desk. And the little "gosh, the people in charge must be cray-zee!" dig there at the beginning just makes a lot of this sound like, well, petty hammering on a hobby-horse that may well have had perfectly legitimate roots but comes off as a little creepy and hyperfocused in your novel that is ostensibly meant to entertain children as opposed to settling old grudges on an unfair playing ground that you control as the author.
Anyway. Eustace comes 'round the corner and Jill tears into him because she's self-conscious about crying.
“Oh, go away and mind your own business,”she said. “Nobody asked you to come barging in, did they? And you’re a nice person to start telling us what we all ought to do, aren’t you? I suppose you mean we ought to spend all our time sucking up to Them, and currying favor, and dancing attendance on Them like you do.”
“Oh, Lor!” said the boy, sitting down on the grassy bank at the edge of the shrubbery and very quickly getting up again because the grass was soaking wet. His name unfortunately was Eustace Scrubb, but he wasn’t a bad sort.
“Pole!” he said. “Is that fair? Have I been doing anything of the sort this term? Didn’t I stand up to Carter about the rabbit? And didn’t I keep the secret about Spivvins—under torture too? And didn’t I—”
“I d-don’t know and I don’t care,” sobbed Jill.
Scrubb saw that she wasn’t quite herself yet and very sensibly offered her a peppermint. He had one too. Presently Jill began to see things in a clearer light.
“I’m sorry, Scrubb,” she said presently. “I wasn’t fair. You have done all that—this term.”
“Then wash out last term if you can,” said Eustace. “I was a different chap then. I was—gosh! what a little tick I was.”
In keeping with Narnia tradition, the first chapter is overwriting what came before, I see. In Dawn Treader, we were told that Eustace had friends and was a bully, and now we see that he was only trying to toady to the real bullies by imitating them, and they weren't really his friends at all. I'd call foul on the re-write to make Eustace a more Perfect Protagonist in retrospect, except that we were already saying during VoDT that there was no way this child had friends and that his bullying seemed more pettily defensive than actively aggressive. So, uh, nice to finally have you on the same page with us, Lewis.
Jill apologizes for criticizing Eustace, and they note that he seems a New Man and even the bullies have decided to bully him now. And I'm kinda of mixed feelings on this. I recognize (boy howdy do I ever) a very common Christian fantasy here that (a) once you convert, you become so different that everyone notices and (b) you are such a good Christian that evil people / evil demons / evil whatever notice and immediately start persecuting you for your excellent faith. I recognize why these are fantasies; when something new comes into our life and fundamentally changes us--like a lover, a religion, a new way of life--we would like to have outside confirmation that the change isn't all in our heads. That other people notice. (And that we're important enough or interesting enough for other people to notice.) And that we draw negative attention from negative people, because that's a special type of notice.
But while I would argue this is a mostly harmless fantasy when it is, say, Edward Cullen noticing Bella Swan, this particular Christian flavor of the fantasy is the root of a lot of the persecution complex that you see in, say, Left Behind. We crave attention, but since the world (and most of the people in it) are seen as Sinful, the attention can't be approving because then it would be tainted; in order for the attention to be welcome, it has to be bad attention. Here, it's easy for the author to provide that attention: Eustace is a Christian, therefore Eustace will be bullied. Out in the real world, however, it tends to become a matter of belief: Eustace is a Christian, therefore Eustace must be bullied. Or else he's not being Christian enough.
Actual thing that was actually taught to me in a Christian youth group: If you're not being persecuted, you're not Christianing hard enough to piss off the devil. Go be more obnoxiously in-your-face about Christianity at someone. #Not Good Advice
And of course, while I'm sympathetic to Eustace wanting a fresh slate, and while I will give kudos that he asks nicely (rather than demanding it in a self-righteous tone), I would have appreciated an examination of why he, as a former bully, doesn't really get to decide whether the past is applicable to him anymore. But that part wasn't nearly as badly written as it could have been, so I'm going to give it a tentative pass. Anyway, Eustace confides in Jill that he went to a magic land over holiday, and she's actually very sporting about it. According to the internet, Jill is somewhere between 11 and 15 at this point, and she believes everything he tells her, so I'm choosing to believe that this school fosters excellent creativity because I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have believed Eustace when I was 12.
“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?”
“That’s what I’ve been wondering,” said Eustace. “When we came back from That Place, Someone said that the two Pevensie kids (that’s my two cousins) could never go there again. It was their third time, you see. I suppose they’ve had their share. But he never said I couldn’t. Surely he would have said so, unless he meant that I was to get back? And I can’t help wondering, can we—could we—?”
“Do you mean, do something to make it happen?”
“You mean we might draw a circle on the ground—and write in queer letters in it—and stand inside it—and recite charms and spells?”
“Well,” said Eustace after he had thought hard for a bit. “I believe that was the sort of thing I was thinking of, though I never did it. But now that it comes to the point, I’ve an idea that all those circles and things are rather rot. I don’t think he’d like them. It would look as if we thought we could make him do things. But really, we can only ask him.”
Well, we've had a snide aside (which I cut) about how the Experimental School doesn't like Bibles, and now we get a discussion on why lion-Jesus doesn't like magic because it (somehow? Citation Needed?) indicates that you think you're forcing the powers that be rather than asking. We'll come back to this in Magician's Nephew and I frankly find it a very strange philosophy, albeit one I've encountered frequently among Christians. I will just say that while there are magic-users who adhere to this philosophy of "making" and "forcing" one's will onto the cosmos, there are many, many of us who don't hold truck with that paradigm.
And, as a side note, the deeper I dive into the Narnia books, the more squicked I am by the power dynamics on display. We've already talked about how the children are frequently jettisoned out of Narnia without so much as a warning, and how they are often called into it without their permission (and, in the case of Prince Caspian, against their stated will). I would honestly consider a magic circle to get into Narnia to be the 'verse equivalent of enthusiastic consent in ways that, say, having a painting flood your bedroom is not. And the magic rings in MN are clearly very much a means of asserting bodily autonomy over which universe your body chooses to be in.
But. Silver Chair is determined to not be quite as offensive as its predecessors, so after it knocks down magic as bad and deviant, it holds up prayer as at least some kind of consent, and Jill and Eustace call on Aslan (in a very Magicky way, but whatever Lewis) to take them to Narnia, which is possibly the first instance of anyone in this series trying to consensually get there. So yay that it works, but boo that it's going to work badly. Oh, wait, I will quote their ritual after all, because we have to make it very clear once per chapter that girls are shit at Manly Things.
“I’ll tell you about that another time. And he might like us to face the east. Let’s see, where is the east?”
“I don’t know,” said Jill.
“It’s an extraordinary thing about girls that they never know the points of the compass,” said Eustace.
“You don’t know either,” said Jill indignantly.
“Yes I do, if only you didn’t keep on interrupting. I’ve got it now. That’s the east, facing up into the laurels. Now, will you say the words after me?”
“What words?” asked Jill.
“The words I’m going to say, of course,” answered Eustace. “Now—”
And he began, “Aslan. Aslan, Aslan!”
“Aslan, Aslan, Aslan,” repeated Jill.
“Please let us two go into—”
At that moment a voice from the other side of the gym was heard shouting out, “Pole? Yes. I know where she is. She’s blubbing behind the gym. Shall I fetch her out?”
So thanks for that. Just another reminder when I was a kid that I'm less-than all the boys. Anywho. Jill and Eustace tear off in the direction of a door in a wall that lets out onto a moor and which might let them escape the bullies only the door is always locked but maybe this time it won't be and Because Aslan Magic it actually is open this time.
“Come on, Pole,” he said in a breathless voice.
“Can we get back? Is it safe?” asked Jill.
[...] “Quick!” said Scrubb. “Here. Hold hands. We mustn’t get separated.” And before she quite knew what was happening, he had grabbed her hand and pulled her through the door, out of the school grounds, out of England, out of our whole world into That Place.
So, okay, not very consenty.
Right ahead there were no trees: only blue sky. They went straight on without speaking till suddenly Jill heard Scrubb say, “Look out!” and felt herself jerked back. They were at the very edge of a cliff.
Jill was one of those lucky people who have a good head for heights. She didn’t mind in the least standing on the edge of a precipice. She was rather annoyed with Scrubb for pulling her back—“just as if I was a kid,” she said—and she wrenched her hand out of his. When she saw how very white he had turned, she despised him.
“What’s the matter?” she said. And to show that she was not afraid, she stood very near the edge indeed; in fact, a good deal nearer than even she liked. Then she looked down.
She now realized that Scrubb had some excuse for looking white, for no cliff in our world is to be compared with this.
[...] Jill stared at it. Then she thought that perhaps, after all, she would step back a foot or so from the edge; but she didn’t like to for fear of what Scrubb would think. Then she suddenly decided that she didn’t care what he thought, and that she would jolly well get away from that horrible edge and never laugh at anyone for not liking heights again. But when she tried to move, she found she couldn’t. Her legs seemed to have turned into putty. Everything was swimming before her eyes.
“What are you doing, Pole? Come back—blithering little idiot!” shouted Scrubb. But his voice seemed to be coming from a long way off. She felt him grabbing at her. But by now she had no control over her own arms and legs. There was a moment’s struggling on the cliff edge. Jill was too frightened and dizzy to know quite what she was doing, but two things she remembered as long as she lived (they often came back to her in dreams). One was that she had wrenched herself free of Scrubb’s clutches; the other was that, at the same moment, Scrubb himself, with a terrified scream, had lost his balance and gone hurtling to the depths.
The arm-jerking. So much arm-jerking in Narnia.
So Eustace jerks Jill back from the cliff here, and in MN there will be arm-jerking from Digory to Polly. I'm really not sure what to feel about these scenes. In this case at least, there really is obvious danger; it would be bad for Jill to walk obliviously off a cliff, yes. At the same time, I really don't think it would kill Eustace to apologize afterwards. I mean, that's just good manners, no? You save someone's life in a way that probably hurt their arm, you laugh politely and say you're sorry about the whole dislocated shoulder thing?
So honestly this feels like literary entrapment for Jill: she's (once again, so now twice in one chapter) Acting Wrong and acting out specifically against Eustace because of her Girly Emotions. She ought to be grateful that he saved her life, and instead she's getting hung up on a little thing like being manhandled. (And she'll have nightmares about her reaction for the rest of her very short life. Stellar.)
Also, this event will be used to make literally everything wrong that happens from here on out her fault. Aslan saves Eustace by blowing him into Narnia, but scolds her because the adventure would have gone more smoothly if Eustace had been here for the instructions. Of course, it is not brought up why Aslan didn't suck him back (har har) instead of blowing him off (HAR HAR), nor why he didn't put up a guardrail around his huge fuck-off cliff.
Because I'm lion-Jesus, that's why.