[Narnia Content Note: Bullying, Slavery, Mind Control]
Narnia Recap: The protagonists have captured an earthperson.
The Silver Chair, Chapter 14: The Bottom of the World
When we last left our protagonists, they were marching through the midst of a disaster with their weapons drawn and occasionally rushing at the earthpeople in a show of force. They then captured one and have sat him down for an interrogation.
I have mentioned before that I am sympathetic to the trials of writing, if not always to the content and themes that Lewis was trying to lay out. It can be difficult for an author to spin a backstory for a race of ancillary characters and then try to work out what to do with it. I submit, however, that jamming it all into an infodump section two chapters from the end is not the right answer.
And this is where Bad Writing and Bad Philosophy intersect. Because, yes, it was bad writing for none of this to be woven into the narrative earlier. The Story of Bism is awkwardly shoved between the death of the villain and the fleeing of the villain's load-bearing post-death apocalypse. Everything about this scene is therefore tainted with terrible timing and overarching silliness; one does not sit down, mid-disaster, to have a nice spot of backstory with someone who is trying to flee for their home and has no cause to hurt you.
But it was also Bad Philosophy that led to Lewis jamming this in as a final thought before the ending chapters. The protagonists had every option to talk to the earthpeople: on the walk from their landing site, on the boat ride that took days (or weeks or months), over dinner (had they not been happy to have the earthpeople sent away). This backstory could have unfolded naturally, organically, as the protagonists sought to connect with their captors. What they learned here could have prepared them for their conversation with the Prince, and for their later conversation with the Witch. The earlier unfolding of their backstory could also have radically altered the storming out of the palace; imagine if the protagonists were approaching the earthpeople with a desire to help and talk, and they kept running away until the protagonists caught (or stumbled into!) one. That would still be problematic, but it would feel like a more heroic thing to do than straight-up terrorizing these people.
But our protagonists didn't do that, because they belong to the school of thought that being brave and honest and true to oneself necessitates being an asshole to others. (Bad Philosophy) It's a common mistake to make, seen most often with television writers who want to be able to return to the status quo at the end of the episode; sure, I could work together with the villain in this episode and maybe use the opportunity to come to a greater understanding of each other, or I could just snipe quips at him the entire time and then act surprised and offended when he betrays me at the end. And Lewis didn't go back and add the Bism story in more seamlessly because he was hacking out sequels with a meat cleaver and a giant infodump worked for Prince Caspian.
And again, I am sympathetic; it would have taken a lot of work to go back and rewrite everything. The protagonists would have had to actively seek out information rather than just be carried along on the plot-rails. They would then have had to incorporate that information into their actions. Conversations would have changed. Huge swaths would have to be re-written. I'm in the middle of this right now with my own work-in-progress. But the willingness to do that work is an important part of the craft. Here we have a Christian insisting that we have to do the work to Be Good Christians (memorize the signs! repeat them daily! never stop!) and yet he's clearly not willing to put in the same amount of work to his craft. It makes the work bad propaganda, and offensive to me on several levels, to be called to a higher thoughtfulness by someone lazily doing the bare minimum of work.
Anyway, so, but.
“MY NAME IS GOLG,” SAID THE GNOME. “And I’ll tell your Honors all I know. About an hour ago we were all going about our work—her work, I should say—sad and silent, same as we’ve done any other day for years and years. Then came a great crash and bang. As soon as they heard it, everyone says to himself, I haven’t had a song or a dance or let off a squib for a long time; why’s that? And everyone thinks to himself, Why, I must have been enchanted. And then everyone says to himself, I’m blessed if I know why I’m carrying this load, and I’m not going to carry it any farther: that’s that. And down we all throw our sacks and bundles and tools. Then everyone turns and sees the great red glow over yonder. And everyone says to himself, What’s that? And everyone answers himself and says, There’s a crack or chasm split open and a nice warm glow coming up through it from the Really Deep Land, a thousand fathom under us.”
“Great Scott,” exclaimed Eustace, “are there other lands still lower down?”
I just want to point out something here. Golg has revealed that the earthpeople were all enchanted. That they were slaves. That they are not the protagonists' enemies. That rushing at the earthpeople and grabbing for them and capturing them might be something that a polite chap would apologize for. That everyone is now safe and can get on with the business of escaping the apocalypse. That Narnia is no longer in danger of invasion. Really, a whole slew of things.
Eustace instead asks the one thing that would honestly be last on my mind in his situation, but which was clearly the first on Lewis' mind in order to shuffle this backstory along quickly. "Are there other lands lower down?" (sure, why not, it's a MAGIC WORLD) seems so much less important to me right now than "my god, are you guys okay, quick can you tell them that we're not your enemies, and also do you know a way out of here because the earthquake is kind of worrisome to us, also gosh I am so sorry we were kind of pricks to you earlier but haha we thought you were with her, I am so sorry." But whatever.
“Oh yes, your Honor,” said Golg. “Lovely places; what we call the Land of Bism. This country where we are now, the Witch’s country, is what we call the Shallow Lands. It’s a good deal too near the surface to suit us. Ugh! You might almost as well be living outside, on the surface itself. You see, we’re all poor gnomes from Bism whom the Witch has called up here by magic to work for her. But we’d forgotten all about it till that crash came and the spell broke. We didn’t know who we were or where we belonged. We couldn’t do anything, or think anything, except what she put into our heads. And it was glum and gloomy things she put there all those years. I’ve nearly forgotten how to make a joke or dance a jig. But the moment the bang came and the chasm opened and the sea began rising, it all came back. And of course we all set off as quick as we could to get down the crack and home to our own place. And you can see them over there all letting off rockets and standing on their heads for joy. And I’ll be very obliged to your Honors if you’ll soon let me go and join in.”
Okay, before someone says that the protagonists "couldn't" have learned about the Bism backstory beforehand, I just want to point out that Lewis could have made the spell work differently. (This isn't history, it is fiction.) The book would have been better and creepier, I believe, if the gnomes had talked in a monotone about their lovely land and how no, really, they are so happy to have left it. Frankly, the handwave that the gnomes couldn't have talked about their homeland before now because the Witch wiped the memories of hundreds (thousands?) of people just strains all credulity.
And we're left with the theological suspicion that she was able to take over the people of Bism because they weren't under Aslan's protection but she couldn't do the same to Narnia because they were his chosen people. Which honestly probably maps the Bism people (intentionally or not) to any number of marginalized people who at various times have been claimed by Christians to be cursed, unwanted, or unsaveable, and none of that makes the animalistic features of the gnomes any better.
I want to here interject because I suspect a derail on this topic, so here is a point I want to affix: even if Lewis totally innocently and coincidentally made a people with big noses (but elephants are funny!) who live in a land of gorgeous jewels (but jewels are pretty!) and also their land is an Arabic word that has religious connotations (but it might legit be a play on "abysm" / "abyss"), that is why we edit for things like that and why getting a diverse intersectionally-oriented editor is so necessary, because all those innocent flourishes (if they were that) can add up to a harmful FedEx arrow and it doesn't really matter in the end if the author intended it because it may still end up reinforcing a harmful stereotype. In a racist and sexist world, it is not enough to merely not actively seek to harm; it is necessary for us to actively try to do better.
Which is a long way of saying I don't want a huge derail on whether Lewis meant to give bushy beards and elephant-noses to the earthpeople who have been abandoned by Aslan. Now where were we.
“I think this is simply splendid,” said Jill. “I’m so glad we freed the gnomes as well as ourselves when we cut off the Witch’s head! And I’m so glad they aren’t really horrid and gloomy any more than the Prince really was—well, what he seemed like.”
...seriously, no one is going to apologize or express any sympathy for the earthpeople at all, are they? Just pats on the back all round and a beaming smile or three, huh.
“That’s all very well, Pole,” said Puddleglum cautiously. “But those gnomes didn’t look to me like chaps who were just running away. It looked more like military formations, if you ask me. Do you look me in the face, Mr. Golg, and tell me you weren’t preparing for battle?”
There are really not enough words in the English language to elaborate my total and complete hatred for Puddleglum. First off, Golg very plainly made it clear that (a) he thought the Witch was still alive, and (b) he thought that the protagonists were on her side. All of which is a genuinely reasonable thing to think. But this is about making it extra-super-clear that Puddleglum and the Prince weren't morally wrong to try to grab one of the ex-slaves, to rush at other ex-slaves in a warlike terrifying fashion, nor to capture this one ex-slave, hurt him, and threaten to hurt him further. Because if Golg here and now says that they were preparing for war, then they were Bad All Along (and not chaps who were "just running away" which would have been moral in earthpeople if not in Narnian protagonists) and the Prince and Puddleglum were justified in everything they did at the time.
Will Golg oblige the narrative? Do bears shit in the woods?
“Of course we were, your Honor,” said Golg. “You see, we didn’t know the Witch was dead. We thought she’d be watching from the castle. We were trying to slip away without being seen. And then when you four came out with swords and horses, of course everyone says to himself, Here it comes: not knowing that his Honor wasn’t on the Witch’s side. And we were determined to fight like anything rather than give up the hope of going back to Bism.”
"We were trying to slip away without being seen" is, of course, substantially different from "just running away". Running away would have been straightforward and honest and would have let the protagonists see what they were doing. Running away in a furtive way is lying and scheming and means that privileged people don't know what is going on. Carry on.
“I’ll be sworn ‘tis an honest gnome,” said the Prince. “Let go of it, friend Puddleglum. As for me, good Golg, I have been enchanted like you and your fellows, and have but newly remembered myself And now, one question more. Do you know the way to those new diggings, by which the sorceress meant to lead out an army against Overland?”
OH MY GOD THEY WERE STILL GRAPPLING HIM THIS ENTIRE TIME. FLAMES. ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE.
“Ee-ee-ee!” squeaked Golg. “Yes, I know that terrible road. I will show you where it begins. But it is no manner of use your Honor asking me to go with you on it. I’ll die rather.”
Why. Why are you showing them except that you're a minority character in the hands of a privileged author so of course you have nothing better to do than to scrimp and bow and serve the first white man who comes along. Give them directions or draw a map on the ground or just tell them to find their own way out and leave.
“What about showing us the road at once?” said Puddleglum.
“In a good hour,” cried the Prince. The whole party set out. The Prince remounted his charger, Puddleglum climbed up behind Jill, and Golg led the way. As he went, he kept shouting out the good news that the Witch was dead and that the four Overlanders were not dangerous. And those who heard him shouted it on to others, so that in a few minutes the whole of Underland was ringing with shouts and cheers, and gnomes by hundreds and thousands, leaping, turning cart-wheels, standing on their heads, playing leap-frog, and letting off huge crackers, came pressing round Coalblack and Snowflake. And the Prince had to tell the story of his own enchantment and deliverance at least ten times.
Okay, so that answers those questions:
1. The Witch enslaved thousands of people so perfectly and thoroughly that they had not even freedom of thought. This is never explained nor made to reconcile with the fact that she couldn't enslave the Prince properly at all and seemed to believe that she had no chance to enslave the Narnians.
2. Yelling "hey, everything is fine, we killed her" would have worked perfectly well from the get-go. Clearly the earthpeople are willing to believe that everything is fine because they're not pointing out all the rushing-with-swords and the catching-of-their-own and they don't seem to suspect a trap. So okay then.
3. The Prince is the celebrity of the hour (WHY DO THEY CARE ABOUT THIS SHITHEEL? His "deliverance" is no different from any of theirs. He was under mind-control, these kids showed up and killed the Witch, and then he wasn't under mind-control any longer. Why do they want to hear his version of the same story everyone has except that he's wearing the Protagonist/McGuffin hat?) despite there being a cataclysm going on. Apparently that's stopped now? I guess the load-bearing boss wasn't really load-bearing? She just sort of made some rumbling complaints and everything is better now?
In this way they came to the edge of the chasm. It was about a thousand feet long and perhaps two hundred wide. They dismounted from their horses and came to the edge, and looked down into it. A strong heat smote up into their faces, mixed with a smell which was quite unlike any they had ever smelled. It was rich, sharp, exciting, and made you sneeze. The depth of the chasm was so bright that at first it dazzled their eyes and they could see nothing. When they got used to it they thought they could make out a river of fire, and, on the banks of that river, what seemed to be fields and groves of an unbearable, hot brilliance—though they were dim compared with the river. There were blues, reds, greens, and whites all jumbled together: a very good stained-glass window with the tropical sun staring straight through it at midday might have something of the same effect. Down the rugged sides of the chasm, looking black like flies against all that fiery light, hundreds of Earthmen were climbing.
“Your Honors,” said Golg (and when they turned to look at him they could see nothing but blackness for a few minutes, their eyes were so dazzled). “Your Honors, why don’t you come down to Bism? You’d be happier there than in that cold, unprotected, naked country out on top. Or at least come down for a short visit.”
Jill took it for granted that none of the others would listen to such an idea for a moment. To her horror she heard the Prince saying:
“Truly, friend Golg, I have half a mind to come down with you. For this is a marvelous adventure, and it may be no mortal man has ever looked into Bism before or will ever have the chance again. And I know not how, as the years pass, I shall bear to remember that it was once in my power to have probed the uttermost pit of the Earth and that I forbore. But could a man live there? You do not swim in the fire-river itself?”
“Oh no, your Honor. Not we. It’s only salamanders live in the fire itself.”
“What kind of beast is your salamander?” asked the Prince.
“It is hard to tell their kind, your Honor,” said Golg. “For they are too white-hot to look at. But they are most like small dragons. They speak to us out of the fire. They are wonderfully clever with their tongues: very witty and eloquent.”
Jill glanced hastily at Eustace. She had felt sure that he would like the idea of sliding down that chasm even less than she did. Her heart sank as she saw that his face was quite changed. He looked much more like the Prince than like the old Scrubb at Experiment House. For all his adventures, and the days when he had sailed with King Caspian, were coming back to him.
Then there's this. Umm. I don't know. Points for being one of the few places in these chronicles where another (non-English) culture is treated as something good and valuable. (Although I suppose it is technically the land being treated as valuable, not the culture, and Rilian wants to get his colonialist hands all over it, but still... it's something? Yay?)
Points taken away for it being described exactly like hell? Right down to the rivers of fire and talking dragons? Points also taken away for the land and its culture being exoticized (which is not appreciation and is in fact harmful; we will revisit this in the next book) and for Eustace's face being "changed" which is not always a great thing in this series, see also the Greed episode at Deathwater. Then again, it's "changed" in the way people in Narnia change because of Aslan and manes and the good air, so it's apparently a good thing to want to go to Bism, iunno.
I kinda am half-ambivalent and half-apathetic because I mean with two chapters left to go, obviously nothing cool or exciting is going to happen so yeah.
“Your Highness,” he said. “If my old friend Reepicheep the Mouse were here, he would say we could not now refuse the adventures of Bism without a great impeachment to our honor.”
Oh, god, I had almost forgotten how awful Reepicheep was, thank god he wasn't in this book.
“Down there,” said Golg, “I could show you real gold, real silver, real diamonds.”
“Bosh!” said Jill rudely. “As if we didn’t know that we’re below the deepest mines even here.”
“Yes,” said Golg. “I have heard of those little scratches in the crust that you Topdwellers call mines. But that’s where you get dead gold, dead silver, dead gems. Down in Bism we have them alive and growing. There I’ll pick you bunches of rubies that you can eat and squeeze you a cupful of diamond juice. You won’t care much about fingering the cold, dead treasures of your shallow mines after you have tasted the live ones in Bism.”
“My father went to the world’s end,” said Rilian thoughtfully. “It would be a marvelous thing if his son went to the bottom of the world.”
“If your Highness wants to see your father while he’s still alive, which I think he’d prefer,” said Puddleglum, “it’s about time we were getting onto that road to the diggings.”
Why does this even-- Okay, for once I agree with Puddleglum: we came down here to get Rilian because Narnia needs him (well, I don't think Narnia needs him, but go with me here) and also his father is dying and this is sort of a big deal, the bringing him back part. Golg is flinging out jewels, which makes no sense in context, like, why would anyone care about jewels? Everyone from Bism just spent the last decade (or more!) mind-controlled and unable to be happy, to sing, to dance, to hug their children or kiss their loved ones! And they care about jewels?? WHY.
I... again, I'm not saying Lewis sat down and thought to himself "how can I make the most offensive stereotype of people cut off from my god EVAR", but he wrote a race of people whose biggest selling point for their home after a decade without love or happiness or kindness was "gold, silver, diamonds". That's an empathy fail that is cavernous in and of itself without bothering to glance up at the huge cultural stereotype elephant in the room that was especially kind of topical in 1953.
“And I won’t go down that hole, whatever anyone says,” added Jill.
“Why, if your Honors are really set to go back to Overworld,” said Golg, “there is one bit of the road that’s rather lower than this. And perhaps, if that flood’s still rising—”
“Oh, do, do, do come on!” begged Jill.
“I fear it must be so,” said the Prince with a deep sigh. “But I have left half of my heart in the land of Bism.”
“Please!” begged Jill.
The flood is still rising. The Prince has told his story ten times over while the flood is still rising. And our female protagonist is the one reduced to begging and pleading that we avoid the awesome adventure--which means that by Eustace's invocation of Reepicheep, she is implicitly without honor.
“Where is the road?” asked Puddleglum.
“There are lamps all the way,” said Golg. “Your Honor can see the beginning of the road on the far side of the chasm.”
“How long will the lamps burn for?” asked Puddleglum.
At that moment a hissing, scorching voice like the voice of Fire itself (they wondered afterward if it could have been a salamander’s) came whistling up out of the very depth of Bism.
“Quick! Quick! Quick! To the cliffs, to the cliffs, to the cliffs!” it said. “The rift closes. It closes. It closes. Quick! Quick!” And at the same time, with ear-shattering cracks and creaks, the rocks moved. Already, while they looked, the chasm was narrower. From every side belated gnomes were rushing into it. [...] “Good-bye to your Honors. I’m off,” shouted Golg, and dived. Only a few were left to follow him. The chasm was now no broader than a stream. Now it was narrow as the slit in a pillar box. Now it was only an intensely bright thread. Then, with a shock like a thousand goods trains crashing into a thousand pairs of buffers, the lips of rock closed. The hot, maddening smell vanished. The travelers were alone in an Underworld which now looked far blacker than before. Pale, dim, and dreary, the lamps marked the direction of the road.
“Now,” said Puddleglum, “it’s ten to one we’ve already stayed too long, but we may as well make a try. Those lamps will give out in five minutes, I shouldn’t wonder.”
Yes, I agree that this entire chapter lacked a realistic sense of urgency, good to all be on the same page. No, no, it's much better to point it out "ironically" than to go back and edit anything.
Then began the slow, weary march uphill with nothing ahead to look at but the pale lamps which went up and up as far as the eye could reach. When they looked back they could see the water spreading. All the hills of Underland were now islands, and it was only on those islands that the lamps remained. Every moment some distant light vanished. Soon there would be total darkness everywhere except on the road they were following; and even on the lower part of it behind them, though no lamps had yet gone out, the lamplight shone on water.
[...] “I wonder is what’s his name—Father Time—flooded out now,” said Jill. “And all those queer sleeping animals.”
“I don’t think we’re as high as that,” said Eustace. “Don’t you remember how we had to go downhill to reach the sunless sea? I shouldn’t think the water has reached Father Time’s cave yet.”
I think this may be the only time a protagonist in this book shows empathy for someone else? Seems kind of a slap in the face to have it be for the author's pet end times symbolism than, to pick an example at random, the ex-slaves with elephant-noses but okay. (And I mean "I wonder" isn't necessary empathy but I'm going to give Jill credit here anyway.)
“Well, however [the lamps] work, you can’t expect them to last forever, you know,” replied the Marsh-wiggle. “But don’t let your spirits down, Scrubb. I’ve got my eye on the water too, and I don’t think it’s rising so fast as it did.” “Small comfort, friend,” said the Prince. “If we cannot find our way out. I cry you mercy, all. I am to blame for my pride and fantasy which delayed us by the mouth of the land of Bism. Now, let us ride on.”
I love these kinds of apologies, because there's absolutely no work behind them. "I cry you mercy" about my total selfishness can be the starting path to not being selfish, but can also be a quick "okay, now we don't have to talk about that anymore and I am going to make zero effort to better myself because that was a special one-time thing." Interestingly enough, we do have time (with two chapters left), to have character development for the Prince we came all the way to rescue, but we're not going to because having a Prince learning humility and mercy was fluff that would have cut into the Christian message that God beats up bullies.
During the hour or so that followed Jill sometimes thought that Puddleglum was right about the lamps, and sometimes thought it was only her imagination. Meanwhile, the land was changing. The roof of Underland was so near that even by that dull light they could now see it quite distinctly. And the great, rugged walls of Underland could be seen drawing closer on each side. The road, in fact, was leading them up into a steep tunnel. They began to pass picks and shovels and barrows and other signs that the diggers had recently been at work. If only one could be sure of getting out, all this was very cheering. But the thought of going on into a hole that would get narrower and narrower, and harder to turn back in, was very unpleasant.
At last the roof was so low that Puddleglum and the Prince knocked their heads against it. The party dismounted and led the horses. The road was uneven here and one had to pick one’s steps with some care.
This doesn't make sense. The earthpeople were supposed to be invading Narnia through this path. And several of the earthpeople we saw were taller than Puddleglum and the Prince. So the Witch was going to have her army invade through a tiny little narrow passage where everyone would have to go single-file and walk in a crouch? That is a terrible battle strategy! How was that even supposed to work? Did Lewis just forget what this tunnel was for so that we could have Jill panic again? (Answer: Probably?)
Then all at once (she couldn’t help it) Jill gave a little scream. One light, the next one ahead, went out altogether. The one behind them did the same. Then they were in absolute darkness.
“Courage, friends,” came Prince Rilian’s voice. “Whether we live or die Aslan will be our good lord.”
“That’s right, Sir,” said Puddleglum’s voice. “And you must always remember there’s one good thing about being trapped down here: it’ll save funeral expenses.”
Jill held her tongue. (If you don’t want other people to know how frightened you are, this is always a wise thing to do; it’s your voice that gives you away.)
Sigh. One last time? I hate Puddleglum. Hate. Haaaaaate.
Anyway, they blunder on in the darkness even thought there is digging equipment right there but what do I know about digging an opening, maybe the cave-in would kill them all, gosh wouldn't that be a shame at this point, and then they see a weird patch of blue light and Puddleglum hoists Jill.
“It’s not right overhead,” said Puddleglum. “It’s above us, but it’s in this wall that I’ve run into. How would it be, Pole, if you got on my shoulders and saw whether you could get up to it?”
Thus ends Chapter 14, and pretty much all of it should have been incorporated into earlier chapters (the Bism infodump) in order to get a proper payoff over freeing the slaves (who we didn't know were slaves until after everything was alright) and which lacked any sense of urgency (it's flooding, but tell us the story again, Prince White Man?) and then had no real character growth because real character growth, like real apologies, takes effort. Okay then!