[Narnia Content Note: Depression]
Narnia Recap: Jill and Eustace have attended a parliament of owls and are ready to start their adventure.
The Silver Chair, Chapter 5: Puddleglum
Chapter 5 is aptly named "Puddleglum" because that's who the chapter introduces and it largely revolves around dialogue with him. And I want to give props here: if you don't dislike Puddleglum, this is a reasonably good chapter. It's maybe not as tight as might be imagined in a perfect world, since we're still hitting the Narnia trend of the first 5+ chapters not actually having much in the way of action, but we're at least planning now, instead of backstorying, and there's some nice character development and fleshing out and nothing here is too offensive to me. So massive props, Lewis, for writing a chapter I can't pick on too much.
'Course, you'll have noticed I said "if" you don't dislike Puddleglum, which is going to be a matter of personal mileage. I'm going to note upfront that adult characters in children's fantasy stories are difficult to write. If the adults are too competent, then the children can't make as many mistakes, and their victories are perhaps shared more than might be satisfying for the reader, since the child character starts to lack a sense of agency when they're just following around the more competent adults. For instance, if Trumpkin or Caspian had provided an armed escort, then Jill and Eustace would have been boiled down to a guide, at best, or a good luck charm that Aslan had provided.
The ideal solution in these situations is usually to provide an adult who can do all the Icky Hard Things (for example: Puddleglum will hunt their food and skin and clean and cook it on the road), but will be respectful enough of the children's opinions (or enough of a pushover) to let the kids call the shots and run the show. (This is not unlike my basic philosophy for NPCs being dragged along plot rails by the PCs, ha.) At the same time, you have to justify as the author why the kids aren't turning to the vastly more experienced adults and saying, "So what do you recommend here?" and then just doing that. (If you don't justify this, the children come off as ridiculously arrogant to an almost unrealistic degree. I was a pretty stubborn child, but I still would have delegated all adulting to Puddleglum the second a blizzard hits later.)
The solution that Lewis hits upon is that Puddleglum is an ineffective leader and his opinions are deemed worthless by the children because he's so unvaryingly negative (and so frequently wrong) that his advice is functionally useless. Turning to him and saying "what should we do here" would presumably lead to the response "lie down and die", and that would be unhelpful. As a person, therefore, Puddleglum is potentially rather frustrating; I'm sure I would try to be friendly to him (particularly as someone who struggles with depression myself, so I do get it) but I wouldn't necessarily want him along on an adventure of this nature. As a plot device, however, I understand him: he's here to do the adult things while remaining as ineffectual as possible. And he accomplishes this by being Marvin the android. (Who I do not call "paranoid", as he displays no symptoms of paranoia and that was a nickname / armchair diagnosis pushed on him by an antagonistic character. //fan-wank)
Back to Narnia, Jill and Eustace are carried by the owls to the nearest marsh in order to sluff them off on someone ineffectual (and I still think this whole sequence makes so much more sense if the owls are agitators against the human regime and are setting the kids up to fail).
“Oh, come on, Pole, buck up,” said Scrubb’s voice. “After all, it is an adventure.”
“I’m sick of adventures,” said Jill crossly.
She did, however, consent to climb on to Glimfeather’s back and was thoroughly waked up (for a while) by the unexpected coldness of the air when he flew out with her into the night. The moon had disappeared and there were no stars. Far behind her she could see a single lighted window well above the ground; doubtless, in one of the towers of Cair Paravel. It made her long to be back in that delightful bedroom, snug in bed, watching the firelight on the walls. She put her hands under her cloak and wrapped it tightly round her. It was uncanny to hear two voices in the dark air a little distance away; Scrubb and his owl were talking to one another. “He doesn’t sound tired,” thought Jill. She did not realize that he had been on great adventures in that world before and that the Narnian air was bringing back to him a strength he had won when he sailed the Eastern Seas with King Caspian.
Someone has already made the point in comments that Eustace's fear of heights seems to be gone now, and also he was a dragon in his last adventures (though I can understanding being less afraid of heights when you have wings), but it does seem a little suspect that Jill (The Unsaved Girl) is the one paralyzed here by Lazy and Sleepy and Unadventurous, whereas Eustace (The Saved Boy) is having a grand old time in the air chatting (about what? I'm actually a little irked that we don't get to hear) and being an old hand at adventures.
I dunno, it just kinda rubs me up the wrong way that we finally have a girl protagonist and POV character, and the first five chapters have been about her being Wrong, Prideful, Ignorant of Compass Points (to the extent where she doesn't even know that the sun sets in the west), Lazy, Unable to Remember Simple Instructions Once Food Occurs, Prone to Sleeping During Important Meetings, and now she won't even make small-talk with the giant owl carrying her through the air.
I would talk to the owl, is what I am saying.
Jill had to pinch herself to keep awake, for she knew that if she dozed on Glimfeather’s back she would probably fall off. When at last the two owls ended their flight, she climbed stiffly off Glimfeather and found herself on flat ground. A chilly wind was blowing and they appeared to be in a place without trees. “Tu-whoo, tu-whoo!” Glimfeather was calling. “Wake up, Puddleglum. Wake up. It is on the Lion’s business.”
For a long time there was no reply. Then, a long way off, a dim light appeared and began to come nearer. With it came a voice.
“Owls ahoy!” it said. “What is it? Is the King dead? Has an enemy landed in Narnia? Is it a flood? Or dragons?”
When the light reached them, it turned out to be that of a large lantern. She could see very little of the person who held it. He seemed to be all legs and arms. The owls were talking to him, explaining everything, but she was too tired to listen. She tried to wake herself up a bit when she realized that they were saying goodbye to her. But she could never afterward remember much except that, sooner or later, she and Scrubb were stooping to enter a low doorway and then (oh, thank heavens) were lying down on something soft and warm, and a voice was saying:
“There you are. Best we can do. You’ll lie cold and hard. Damp too, I shouldn’t wonder. Won’t sleep a wink, most likely; even if there isn’t a thunderstorm or a flood or a wigwam doesn’t fall down on top of us all, as I’ve known them to do. Must make the best of it—” But she was fast asleep before the voice had ended.
When the children woke late next morning they found that they were lying, very dry and warm, on beds of straw in a dark place. A triangular opening let in the daylight.
“Where on earth are we?” asked Jill.
“In the wigwam of a Marsh-wiggle,” said Eustace.
So that's our first introduction to Puddleglum, and already I feel ambivalent about him. On the one hand, he leaps to the worst conclusions when handed off two children; on the other hand, I kinda think those questions are probably legit in this world. He does in fact take the children in under his roof without apparently a single objection, and he also apparently fully expects to go off on this quest and die fruitlessly on it. Why? Because it's the right thing to do? Because he has nothing better going on? Because he's just that religiously devoted to Aslan or patriotically inclined towards Caspian? We never really see his motivations for going, and I think that's something of a shame; again, he seems more like a plot device than a person.
I'd also honestly like to know whether all his fussing over the "you'll lie cold and hard" is meant to be taken as genuine pessimism or if it's more what I (as an American) would call "Southern Hospitality", though it is in no way unique to the American south, of course. But that sort of over-courteousness that insults one's own gift/dwelling/food/etc. so that the recipient of the gift can (hopefully) feel safe in offering small criticisms or only faint praise. (When deployed badly, of course, this can seem more like fishing for compliments than real hospitality. But anything can be misused.)
So if this is hospitality, I almost like it. But I think it's meant to be just straight-up pessimism. Let's keep going. Here, have some scenery porn:
What they found outside was quite unlike the bit of Narnia they had seen on the day before. They were on a great flat plain which was cut into countless little islands by countless channels of water. The islands were covered with coarse grass and bordered with reeds and rushes. Sometimes there were beds of rushes about an acre in extent. Clouds of birds were constantly alighting in them and rising from them again—duck, snipe, bitterns, herons. Many wigwams like that in which they had passed the night could be seen dotted about, but all at a good distance from one another; for Marsh-wiggles are people who like privacy. Except for the fringe of the forest several miles to the south and west of them, there was not a tree in sight. Eastward the flat marsh stretched to low sand-hills on the horizon, and you could tell by the salt tang in the wind which blew from that direction that the sea lay over there. To the North there were low pale-colored hills, in places bastioned with rock. The rest was all flat marsh. It would have been a depressing place on a wet evening. Seen under a morning sun, with a fresh wind blowing, and the air filled with the crying of birds, there was something fine and fresh and clean about its loneliness. The children felt their spirits rise.
[...] As they drew nearer, the figure turned its head and showed them a long thin face with rather sunken cheeks, a tightly shut mouth, a sharp nose, and no beard. He was wearing a high, pointed hat like a steeple, with an enormously wide flat brim. The hair, if it could be called hair, which hung over his large ears was greeny-gray, and each lock was flat rather than round, so that they were like tiny reeds. His expression was solemn, his complexion muddy, and you could see at once that he took a serious view of life.
“Good morning, Guests,” he said. “Though when I say good I don’t mean it won’t probably turn to rain or it might be snow, or fog, or thunder. You didn’t get any sleep, I dare say.”
“Yes we did, though,” said Jill. “We had a lovely night.”
“Ah,” said the Marsh-wiggle, shaking his head. “I see you’re making the best of a bad job. That’s right. You’ve been well brought up, you have. You’ve learned to put a good face on things.”
Ah, okay, and right there is where hospitality goes wrong. If you're doing the over-courteousness thing, then you lead with an insult to yourself/your gift/your home, but then if the person responds with a compliment, you accept it graciously. Because if you don't, you're calling them a liar (even if it's in a "nice" way like the "well brought up" part above) and you're forcing them to argue with you. They have to either agree that, yes, your home is very awful (which is an invidious position to put a guest into) or argue that, no really, they like it just fine (which is uncomfortable for most people, but especially not comfortable for conflict-adverse folks). Do not do this thing.
On the plus side, if we must have an adult who has this particular pessimistic character flaw (i.e., Marvin), at least he uses it to compliment the other characters rather than insult them. That's something and I'm grateful for that in a Narnia book, I truly am. Considering that the last book was an endless stream of bullying weaker people, I'm thankful that so far the adults have all been very nice and pleasant.
“I’m trying to catch a few eels to make an eel stew for our dinner,” said Puddleglum. “Though I shouldn’t wonder if I didn’t get any. And you won’t like them much if I do.”
“Why not?” asked Scrubb.
“Why, it’s not in reason that you should like our sort of victuals, though I’ve no doubt you’ll put a bold face on it. All the same, while I am a catching them, if you two could try to light the fire—no harm trying—! The wood’s behind the wigwam. It may be wet. You could light it inside the wigwam, and then we’d get all the smoke in our eyes. Or you could light it outside, and then the rain would come and put it out. Here’s my tinderbox. You wouldn’t know how to use it, I expect.”
But Scrubb had learned that sort of thing on his last adventure. The children ran back together to the wigwam, found the wood (which was perfectly dry) and succeeded in lighting a fire with rather less than the usual difficulty.
And so here we're back to the characterization that we'll be hit about the head with for the rest of the chapter: Puddleglum predicts things that not only do not happen, they actually usually happen in the opposite direction. The "cold and harm" beds are not merely temperate and adequate, they're actually warm and soft. The wood not only isn't wet, it's not even slightly damp; it is "perfectly dry". As a conversational tic, this is... potentially amusing? only slightly annoying? But it does perfectly well explain why the children basically stop taking any kind of heed to Puddleglum's advice later, because he's the boy who sees every rock and tree stump as wolf-shaped.
And... I kinda have ambivalent feelings about this? As a plot-device, I really do understand why Puddleglum has to be unreliable, because otherwise then the decisions would be left up to the more capable adult. And if Puddleglum were an actual person and not a character, he would be of course entirely within his rights to be the most pessimistic person ever. But from a Doylist standpoint, I rather wish that Lewis had cleared this hurdle in some other way, because we're left with the ongoing problem that the children are wrong to completely disregard Puddleglum (as being Depressed does not automatically make someone Automatically Wrong About Everything), and yet they're being setup to fail again because he really is wrong about most things. And he's wrong in ways that are... obstructive, suspect, and/or somewhat convenient for the plot in ways that take me out of the story somewhat.
“Yes, do, let’s,” said Jill. “Can you help us find Prince Rilian?”
The Marsh-wiggle sucked in his cheeks till they were hollower than you would have thought possible. “Well, I don’t know that you’d call it help,” he said. “I don’t know that anyone can exactly help. It stands to reason we’re not likely to get very far on a journey to the North, not at this time of the year, with the winter coming on soon and all. And an early winter too, by the look of things. But you mustn’t let that make you down-hearted. Very likely, what with enemies, and mountains, and rivers to cross, and losing our way, and next to nothing to eat, and sore feet, we’ll hardly notice the weather. And if we don’t get far enough to do any good, we may get far enough not to get back in a hurry.”
So, case in point: there actually are a lot of good things to be concerned about there! They are embarking on a dangerous journey at a very bad time of the season. The children are not dressed for the weather, and they don't even seem to have a second pair of clothes in case the ones they're wearing get damaged. Their school shoes probably weren't made for hiking, and later when they leave, they're only going to take a little bit of bacon and biscuits; everything else they eat on this trip will be freshly killed game. And while I don't demand Tolkien-levels of accuracy in my fiction (not everyone has a pack-pony, after all!), it seems... sort of convenient?? for all these legitimate objections to be raised by the Unreliable Pessimist so that we can just sweep past them with an "and everything was fine" on those problems.
“And how shall we start?” said Scrubb.
“Well,” said the Marsh-wiggle very slowly, “all the others who ever went looking for Prince Rilian started from the same fountain where Lord Drinian saw the lady. They went north, mostly. And as none of them ever came back, we can’t exactly say how they got on.”
“We’ve got to start by finding a ruined city of giants,” said Jill. “Aslan said so.”
“Got to start by finding it, have we?” answered Puddleglum. “Not allowed to start by looking for it, I suppose?”
“That’s what I meant, of course,” said Jill. “And then, when we’ve found it—”
“Yes, when!” said Puddleglum very drily.
And then there's this, which also undercuts the Hospitality theory quite a bit. Because if this is grammar-policing on a fine parsing between looking and finding, then Puddleglum is a jerk (seriously, people, do not grammar-police, it is the worst and has all kinds of class-issues surrounding it) and additionally this is totally out of character for him, since he is repeatedly characterized as a Salt Of The Earth Working Class Man who enjoys strong smoke and stronger drink and doesn't quibble over word-choices.
So since this probably isn't grammar-policing, it appears to be Obstructive Pessimism, because he then acts like no one knows where this ruined city is, before then admitting that he knows the general location just fine, and then oh there's a river with no bridges in the way, before admitting that well, technically, people can ford the river without problems, and all this has to be dragged from him with careful questioning by the children, and so all this necessarily taints all his advice to follow because he is being unhelpful and obstructive and obtuse. (And, again, as a writer and ST, I do sympathize with not wanting the NPCs to infodump "oh, it's eight leagues in that direction, then we take a sharp right, key is under the mat" but dammit there are better ways to do it than this, Lewis.)
“Doesn’t anyone know where it is?” asked Scrubb.
“I don’t know about Anyone,” said Puddleglum. “And I won’t say I haven’t heard of that Ruined City. You wouldn’t start from the fountain, though. You’d have to go across Ettinsmoor. That’s where the Ruined City is, if it’s anywhere. But I’ve been as far in that direction as most people and I never got to any ruins, so I won’t deceive you.”
“Where’s Ettinsmoor?” said Scrubb.
“Look over there northward,” said Puddleglum, pointing with his pipe. “See those hills and bits of cliff? That’s the beginning of Ettinsmoor. But there’s a river between it and us; the river Shribble. No bridges, of course.”
“I suppose we can ford it, though,” said Scrubb.
“Well, it has been forded,” admitted the Marsh-wiggle.
“Perhaps we shall meet people on Ettinsmoor who can tell us the way,” said Jill.
“You’re right about meeting people,” said Puddleglum.
“What sort of people live there?” she asked.
“It’s not for me to say they aren’t all right in their own way,” answered Puddleglum. “If you like their way.”
“Yes, but what are they?” pressed Jill. “There are so many queer creatures in this country. I mean, are they animals, or birds, or dwarfs, or what?”
The Marsh-wiggle gave a long whistle. “Phew!” he said. “Don’t you know? I thought the owls had told you. They’re giants.”
Jill winced. She had never liked giants even in books, and she had once met one in a nightmare. Then she saw Scrubb’s face, which had turned rather green, and thought to herself, “I bet he’s in a worse funk than I am.” That made her feel braver.
“The King told me long ago,” said Scrubb, “—that time when I was with him at sea—that he’d jolly well beaten those giants in war and made them pay him tribute.”
“That’s true enough,” said Puddleglum. “They’re at peace with us all right. As long as we stay on our own side of the Shribble, they won’t do us any harm. Over on their side, on the Moor—Still, there’s always a chance. If we don’t get near any of them, and if none of them forget themselves, and if we’re not seen, it’s just possible we might get a long way.”
“Look here!” said Scrubb, suddenly losing his temper, as people so easily do when they have been frightened. “I don’t believe the whole thing can be half as bad as you’re making out; any more than the beds in the wigwam were hard or the wood was wet. I don’t think Aslan would ever have sent us if there was so little chance as all that.”
He quite expected the Marsh-wiggle to give him an angry reply, but he only said, “That’s the spirit, Scrubb. That’s the way to talk. Put a good face on it. But we all need to be very careful about our tempers, seeing all the hard times we shall have to go through together. Won’t do to quarrel, you know. At any rate, don’t begin it too soon. I know these expeditions usually end that way: knifing one another, I shouldn’t wonder, before all’s done. But the longer we can keep off it—”
“Well, if you feel it’s so hopeless,” interrupted Scrubb, “I think you’d better stay behind. Pole and I can go on alone, can’t we, Pole?”
“Shut up and don’t be an ass, Scrubb,” said Jill hastily, terrified lest the Marsh-wiggle should take him at his word.
“Don’t you lose heart, Pole,” said Puddleglum. “I’m coming, sure and certain. I’m not going to lose an opportunity like this. It will do me good. They all say—I mean, the other wiggles all say—that I’m too flighty; don’t take life seriously enough. If they’ve said it once, they’ve said it a thousand times. ‘Puddleglum,’ they’ve said, ‘you’re altogether too full of bobance and bounce and high spirits. You’ve got to learn that life isn’t all fricasseed frogs and eel pie. You want something to sober you down a bit. We’re only saying it for your own good, Puddleglum.’ That’s what they say. Now a job like this—a journey up north just as winter’s beginning, looking for a Prince that probably isn’t there, by way of a ruined city that no one has ever seen—will be just the thing. If that doesn’t steady a chap, I don’t know what will.” And he rubbed his big frog-like hands together as if he were talking of going to a party or a pantomime. “And now,” he added, “let’s see how those eels are getting on.”
And this is a long piece of dialogue, but basically sums up Puddleglum in a nutshell, as well as all my ambivalence about him. I do like him more now that I have a paradigm to shove him into; once I realized he was Comic Relief Marvin The Android, that made a good deal of difference. (Partly because I really do like Marvin so, so much.) I do understand him better now that I realize from experience some of the constraints that Lewis was laboring under; I can happily admit that an Ineffectual Adult is a better literary device (imho) than the repeated plot-device in Dawn Treader where they just kept leaving all the useful people back on the ship.
I also do actually appreciate the humor value in here; I will freely admit to chuckling at the image of all adventures ending in team-killing arguments, as that actually amuses me greatly. (Especially in a Narnia context, because a hair-pulling contest between Peter and Caspian would just be delightful.) And I am pathetically grateful that the authority figure in this book is actually kind of sweet and cuddly and complimentary because that is what Aslan and Caspian have reduced me to: the barest low expectations of decency from characters in these books. So there's that.
But at the same time, I'm a little privately frustrated at how a lot of the characterization of Puddleglum ends up pushing me out of the book rather than drawing me in. His overly dire warnings are so obviously setup to make him unreliable that it feels like literary entrapment to later scold the children for not listening the one time that it really matters. He's characterized incredibly inconsistently, wobbling between hospitable and rude, working-class and grammar-policing, easy-going and hair-splitting, looking on the bright side (in incredibly pessimistic ways) and then poo-pooing every idea that is floated. He is obstructive in the extreme, and information has to be dragged out of him.
Nor do I really feel that all this gets a pass under a depression label because, well, I live with depression. I understand depression-induced introversion and pessimism and just plain ugh at the whole world, and this doesn't really feel like a realistic portrayal to me so much as a broad caricature. But that, like so much of the Puddleglum question, will eventually come down to personal experience and opinion.
When the meal came it was delicious and the children had two large helpings each. At first the Marsh-wiggle wouldn’t believe that they really liked it, and when they had eaten so much that he had to believe them, he fell back on saying that it would probably disagree with them horribly. “What’s food for wiggles may be poison for humans, I shouldn’t wonder,” he said. After the meal they had tea, in tins (as you’ve seen men having it who are working on the road), and Puddleglum had a good many sips out of a square black bottle. He offered the children some of it, but they thought it very nasty.
The rest of the day was spent in preparations for an early start tomorrow morning. Puddleglum, being far the biggest, said he would carry three blankets, with a large bit of bacon rolled up inside them. Jill was to carry the remains of the eels, some biscuit, and the tinder-box. Scrubb was to carry both his own cloak and Jill’s when they didn’t want to wear them. Scrubb (who had learned some shooting when he sailed to the East under Caspian) had Puddleglum’s second-best bow, and Puddleglum had his best one; though he said that what with winds, and damp bowstrings, and bad light, and cold fingers, it was a hundred to one against either of them hitting anything. He and Scrubb both had swords—Scrubb had brought the one which had been left out for him in his room at Cair Paravel, but Jill had to be content with her knife. There would have been a quarrel about this, but as soon as they started sparring the wiggle rubbed his hands and said, “Ah, there you are. I thought as much. That’s what usually happens on adventures.” This made them both shut up.
And I do feel like the author is trying to have his cake and eat it a little, too. Because Puddleglum is most famous for his Puddleglum Speech, which is pretty clearly stamped with authorial approval, and his bad advice regularly registers as winkingly clever, as when he stops the children from fighting not by giving them an order or advice, but just by "agreeing" that, yep, looks like team-killing is going to be a thing. Which, I mean, I actually like winkingly clever characters who are well-versed in reverse-psychology, and I'm fully on-board with Lewis including a working-class character who is intelligent and adept at helpful social manipulation, but if we are supposed to read Puddleglum as clever, that just makes it all the more jarring at how often he is terribly wrong, no-longer-plausibly-accidentally-obstructive, and/or rude to the kids.
So... despite characterization that feels very all-over-the-map to me, this chapter gets an extremely tentative thumbs up from me: we have finally met an authority figure in Narnia who is reasonably kind and considerate, who is complimentary to the children without being a scraping minion calling them "your majesties" every third word, and who actually seems to respect racial and cultural differences more than anyone else has in these books. (He is hesitant to say anything bad about the giants, which is pretty incredible considering that the character is massively negative about non-people things like weather and whatnot, and he expresses concern that his required diet and metabolism may not be the same as the children's bodies.)
Which means this installment isn't as interesting as usual, sorry!