The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Books (Page 1 of 20)

Ranking The Chronicles of Narnia, Part 8: Concluding Thoughts

Way back in April, I mentioned that I had begun reading The Chronicles of Narnia during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was a great choice for several reasons. The familiar stories provided comfort in a time of anxiety, the imaginative world of Narnia provided helpful distraction from reality, and the series’s central focus on Aslan helped to re-orient me from fear to trust.

As I read through the books, I enjoyed them so much that I decided to write about them. I had actually wanted to do so for years, and I thought it would be a lot of fun to rank the different books and write a post or two to summarize my thoughts.

It turned into a much larger project than I first intended.

The first post was about 1,500 words, but each subsequent post grew longer and longer, like the books in the Harry Potter series. The post reviewing The Last Battle was over 4,000 words long, and the entire series is some 22,000 words. The posts got longer because I began to focus more on details of the books, and especially on the theology presented in each one. That also meant that to took me much longer to write the different posts: while there was a gap of about a week between Part 1 and Part 2, Part 7 came about six weeks after Part 6 (which was ridiculous).

Summarizing all of those posts, my rankings basically break the Narnia books down into three tiers:

The Masterpieces

For my money, LWWVDTand HHB represent the top three Narnia books, in that order. But, they are so close that I have a hard time being dogmatic about that. The next time I read through the series, they could easily shuffle places.

LWW is so good, and has no real weaknesses; it had the highest or tied-for-highest sub-score in three of the four rubric categories (Story, Characters, Theology). VDT didn’t peak as highly, but similarly had no weaknesses. HHB was the best book in the series for the first three categories (Story, Characters, Worldcraft), but was a notch below in Theology, which moved it from first to third.

Solidly Great

LB is really good as well. It doesn’t have any real weak points, but its highs are not quite as high as the top tier, and the lows are a little lower. I would disagree with anyone who argued that it is the best book of the series, but still, it represents a fitting and satisfying end to the Narnia chronicles.

Good But Flawed

According to my rubric, PC and SC scored very similarly, with only a half-point separating the two. Both books have good elements, but are also flawed. The stories are somewhat slow, the theology is not as good as several of the other books, and neither book is truly excellent in any category.

But again, these books suffer from being compared unfavorably to some truly brilliant books; they are still worth reading.

The Unnecessary Prequel

There’s no way around it: I am not a big fan of MNThe story really drags, the characters aren’t very compelling, and even though the creation account prompts some good theological reflection, overall, this book is a big step below all others in the series.

It’s not a terrible book, but as I said in the review for MN:

It is a classic prequel in the negative sense: you care about the story because you are already invested in the world in which it exists; if you actually read the prequel first, you wouldn’t understand what was so great about the series and may not even be inclined to continue.”

Thankfully, Lewis didn’t write this one first.

Here are the scores for all the books; highest scores in a given category are in yellow.


This concludes our Ranking Narnia series; I hope you have enjoyed it! Although I had not originally planned to review the books at this level, this series turned out to be a lot of fun to write, and the theological reflection it prompted for me was meaningful and encouraging.

These reviews have helped me develop an even deeper fondness for the Narnia series; I expect that I will be reading them again!


Check out the full series of posts:

Ranking The Chronicles of Narnia, Part 7: The Last Battle

For a few months now, I have been ranking the different volumes of C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia. So far, I have covered The Magician’s NephewThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy, Prince CaspianThe Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair.

To evaluate each book, I am using a rubric with four different categories: story, characters, worldcraft, and theology. For each category, I will provide a subscore of 1-10, yielding a cumulative maximum score of 40 points.

I have been following the chronological order of the books (even though I don’t consider that to be the best order in which to read the books), which means that this week, I will be ranking the final Narnia book, The Last Battle (LB). I plan to write one additional post to conclude the series.

The Last Battle

This is from a series of brilliant Narnia cover designs by Jeffrey Nguyen

Story

LB is the story of a coup d’état against Tirian, the last king of Narnia. Shift, a clever but wicked ape, comes across a lion skin floating in the water, and has his well-intentioned-but-dim-witted donkey companion Puzzle wear it and pretend to be Aslan, the Great Lion. “Aslan” is kept hidden away in a stable, Shift serves as his mouthpiece, and, in league with the Calormene warlord Rishda Tarkaan and the Talking Cat Ginger, deceives many of the Narnians into serving the Calormenes and cutting down Talking Trees for lumber.

Tirian and his friend Jewel, a unicorn, learn of the death of the Talking Trees and rush to intervene, ending up captured in the process. Shift and his compadres are now proclaiming the false message that Aslan and the Calormene god Tash are really one and the same (they begin referring to this syncretistic deity as “Tashlan”), and Tirian, seeing through the plot, calls out to Aslan for help. In response, Eustace and Jill (from VDT and SC) arrive in Narnia and, in quick succession, free the king and Jewel, and also find the hapless Aslan-impersonator Puzzle in the stable and allow him to join their company.

Things get worse for Tirian and his allies, as he learns that the Narnian army has been destroyed by invading Calormene troops and Cair Paravel has been taken. Worse still, they see the Calormene god Tash traveling north toward the stable, summoned unintentionally by Shift and Rishda. Driven by desperation, Tirian takes his small band of loyal followers to the stable to confront Shift and his associates and expose their deception. This sets up the climactic battle that gives LB its title: Narnians vs. Calormenes, the rightful king vs. the usurpers, Aslan vs. Tash.

To me, the primary weakness of LB’s storyline is that it just seems unthinkable that Shift’s simplistic plot could deceive so many Narnians and achieve such great success without Tirian having any clue what was going on until it was too late to do something about it. Lewis clearly needed a plot device to bring Narnia to its end, and although this particular one was somewhat unsatisfying, if you look beyond that, what remains is that LB is a poignant story of tragedy, beauty, and finally seeing the true nature of reality.

Story: 8/10

Characters

It seemed to me that there was a greater number of characters with significant roles in LB, and rather than try  to describe them all in detail, I will provide brief sketches of the different characters especially in the context of the groups in which they appear.

Tirian is the last king of Narnia, descendent of Caspian and Rilian. He is loyal to Aslan and loves his country, and although he is somewhat rash and hotheaded in his actions, he is also an excellent leader who shows courage, tactical skill, and concern for his allies. Of course, it should probably be mentioned that virtually the entirety of his subjects were fooled into supporting a coup d’état without his even being aware that it was happening, but there doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that this is due to a character fault on Tirian’s part (which, as pointed out above, is a weakness in the plot). Tirian’s best friend is Jewel the unicorn, a brave and loyal ally and fearsome warrior, who, like Tirian, is faithful to Aslan and willing to fight to the death for Narnia. Farsight the eagle is another member of Tirian’s small band of followers, and provides vital intelligence in the book as a scout as well as useful air support during the climactic battle.

Shift the Ape, Rishda Tarkaan, and Ginger the Talking Cat form a sort of unholy trinity that collaborates to oppress the Narnian population, make possible the Calormene conquest of Narnia, and, as a result, usher in the end of the world. Shift appears first, a clever and ancient ape who, motivated by his greed and lust for power, maneuvers his simple-minded “friend” Puzzle the donkey into impersonating Aslan and then, with the authority gained as “Aslan’s” spokesman, manipulates the talking animals of Narnia into serving himself and the battalion of disguided Calormene troops who have snuck into Narnia. As the farce continues, Shift begins to drink and increasingly becomes less in charge, as he himself is manipulated by Rishda Tarkaan, the captain of the Calormene contingent, and Ginger, the cunning cat. Really, though, it is hard to distinguish between the three characters: all seem to be motivated by greed and self-interest, and have no devotion to speak of, either toward Aslan or Tash. In fact, it is their religious pragmatism that leads to the construction of “Tashlan”, a blasphemous abomination that ultimately brings negative consequences for all three.

It seems worthwhile to also mention the Dwarfs, who play an important role in the story and also illustrate a theme that has been woven throughout the Narnia books: they represent extreme self-interest. When the climactic battle between Tirian and his forces and the Calormene invaders ensues, the Dwarfs don’t take sides (with the notable exception of Poggin, who joins Tirian), and instead attack both parties, saying that “the Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs”. Tirian is disappointed by their lack of support, but again, this is a thread that has been woven throughout the chronicles: in LWWDwarfs aided the White Witch in exchange for power, and in PCNikabrik was willing to ally himself with anyone who would bring about the end the Dwarfs desired. The Dwarfs are not devoted to Aslan, but to their own self-interests.

“Friends of Narnia” is the description given to the humans who entered Narnia as children and rendered great aid to it in times past: Professor Digory Kirke, Polly Plummer, Peter Pevensie, Edmund Pevensie, Eustace Scrubb, and Jill Pole (sadly, Susan Pevensie is no longer a “friend of Narnia” and thus, is not present[1]). These friends appear to Tirian in a vision when he calls out to Aslan for assistance, and then later, Jill and Eustace appear to free Tirian and Jewel and join them in the last battle for Narnia. Ultimately, Tirian gets to meet all of the Friends after he enters the Stable.

As in the other Narnia books, Aslan’s role in LB is limited in page count but of immense significance for the story.  When Aslan does appear late in the narrative, it is to bring about the death of the old Narnia, the birth of the new, and the judgment of all creatures.

The characterization in LB is solid. Because of the sheer number of characters, we do not get to know them in as much depth as some of the characters from the other stories, but viewing them as groups with various responses to Aslan as I have tried to do above is, I think, a helpful way to reflect on their roles in the narrative.

Characters: 8.5/10

Worldcraft

In one respect, LB does not significantly expand the map of Narnia at all. The majority of the story takes place in the Northwest of Narnia, and while this is a new area, we are told so little about it that it is somewhat disappointing.

But the strength of LB is its depiction of the end of Narnia as it currently exists, and the transition to the fuller and realer Narnia. Repeatedly the characters are urged to go “further up and further in!” and as they do so, they find an exponentially increasing level of depth and beauty:

“Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden at all, but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the Stable door! I see…world within world, Narnia within Narnia…”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you go in and in, each cirlce is larger than the last.” (765)[2]

Really, the last five chapters of LB are an account of this great process of uncreation and recreation, and in terms of worldcraft, this is the high point of the book.

Worldcraft: 9/10

Theology

Fundamentally, LB is a book about eschatology; Lewis once summarized it as being about “the coming of the Antichrist (the Ape), the end of the world and the Last Judgement,”[3] and we will use those categories to reflect on the theology of LB.

Antichrist(s)

A great amount of ink has been spilt over the centuries seeking to interpret the Book of Revelation, and one particular interpretive method has been to suggest that a literal battle between the forces of good and evil  will precede the return of Jesus and the judgment of the world, and heading up the forces of evil will be the Antichrist. Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t actually teach this in Revelation at all, and the use of the word antichrist (always in 1-2 John) is probably better understood in a lowercase sense: those who deny the Father and the Son or who refuse to confess that Jesus came in the flesh are antichrists. 

I am not certain what Lewis believed about the Antichrist and futuristic cosmic battles, but I still think that LB captures an element of biblical truth when he portrays Shift’s plot to have Puzzle impersonate Aslan and deceive his followers. In the apocalyptic Matthew 24, Jesus warns of “false Christs” who will perform great signs and wonders and claim to be the Christ, and in Revelation 13, John warns of a beast that looked like Jesus (“he had two horns like a lamb”), but spoke like a dragon (Satan). Here is the message, clear to both LB and biblical witness: there is great danger when forces of evil speak for Jesus and His followers cannot tell the difference.

Late in LB, Jill reflects to herself:

“And then she understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.” (723)

This is devilish because, indeed, it is how the Devil operates: a mixture of truth with falsehood to make the lie more believable and more dangerous. Earlier in the story, when Tirian and Jewel learn of the horrible things that Shift is commanding in the name of Aslan, they are torn: surely this is not what they would expect from Aslan, but haven’t they always heard that He is “not a tame lion” (677, 679, 682)? Does that not mean that he is unpredictable and may do things they don’t understand? Shift seizes upon this same language to force compliance from the Narnians who feel that “Aslan’s” demands are harsh and who wish that they could see him for themselves rather than always having to take Shift’s word for it:

“But why can’t we see Aslan properly and talk to him?” it said. “When he used to appear in Narnia in the old days everyone could talk to him face to face.”

“Don’t you believe it,” said the Ape. “And even if it was true, times have changed. Aslan says he’s been far too soft with you before, do you see? Well, he isn’t going to be soft any more. He’s going to lick you into shape this time. He’ll teach you to think he’s a tame lion!” (684)

To say that Aslan is “not tame” is to say that he is powerful, he is sovereign, and, ultimately, that he is free—free to act in keeping with his own will and character. It does not mean, as Shift suggests and as Tirian and Jewel fear, that he is wildly unpredictable and free to act in ways that are inconsistent with his character. But when truth is mixed in, the lie is made far stronger.

The End of the World(?)

As LB reaches its climax, Tirian and his followers lament what they see as the ending of Narnia and also dread what awaits them through the door of the Stable. What they discover, however, is that the ending of the old Narnia was necessary, and that it has ushered in Aslan’s judgment and, ultimately, their own entrance into the new Narnia, which is in some ways like the Narnia they previously knew, but is richer and fuller in every way:

“And yet they’re not like,” said Lucy. “They’re different. They have more colours on them and they look further away than I remembered and they’re more…more…oh, I don’t know…”

More like the real thing,” said the Lord Digory softly. (759)

“But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as in our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as the real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” (759)

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Come further up, come further in!” (760)

To be clear, this is not some sort of eastern philosophy that suggests that the present world in which we live and operate is all an illusion; rather, it is that this present world is temporary, but is made to point us to that which is eternal. In describing that world, John describes it as “a new heaven and a new earth,” a world where God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21.1-5a). When all things are made new, it may signify the end of this world as it presently is, but it is truly just the beginning of the life that God intends for the faithful:

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.  (767)

The Last Judgement: Was C.S. Lewis a Universalist?

Based on his characterization of the end of the world and the last judgement in LB, C.S. Lewis is sometimes accused of being a universalist, someone who holds that all people will ultimately be saved.

Specifically, this point is argued because of the character of Emeth, the loyal Calormene servant of Tash who finds himself in the real Narnia. Emeth recounts his meeting with Aslan, whose very name had always been hateful to him:

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, “Son, thou art welcome.” But I said, “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.” He answered, “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, “Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?”

The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, “It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites—I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and no which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Does thou understand, Child?” I said, “Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.” But I also (for the truth constrained me), “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved,” said the Glorious One, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.” (756-57)

In other words, the service that the good and virtuous Emeth had rendered for (he thought) Tash, was actually service to Aslan and, as a result, he was rewarded as if it had been Aslan that he had been seeking all his life.

This perspective is not actually universalist, however; it is inclusivist. Inclusivists believe that salvation is found only in Jesus (or in Aslan!), but:

“Those who die before they learn of Jesus or who are faithful to “God” as they understand him will be saved by Jesus in the end…[t]he Muslim who dies a Muslim will not be surprised to find Jesus at the gates of Heaven; the Qur’an teaches that Jesus will be there. They will be surprised to learn that he is, in fact, the Son of God and not merely a prophet. But Jesus will welcome them in based on their faithfulness to what they thought they knew.”[4]

Indeed, there is ample evidence in LB that Lewis believes that not all will be saved. Shift is devoured by Tash, and Rishda is carried away by him. Ginger is terrified in his presence, and loses the ability to speak, which is very similar to the Talking Beasts who approach Aslan in the judgment, and look at him with fear and hatred for just a moment. Then, something happens to them:

“You could see that they suddenly ceased to be Talking Beasts. They were just ordinary animals. And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, his left, and disappeared into his huge black shadow, which (as you have heard) streamed away to the left of the doorway. The children never saw them again. I don’t know what became of them.” (751)

This is hardly a picture of salvation.

There are also the Dwarfs, who find themselves inside the Stable in the same glorious location as Tirian and the Friends of Narnia but who are totally blind to their surroundings and just see a dark and smelly stable. They certainly don’t appear to be saved and, indeed, Aslan says that he can do nothing for them:

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” (748)

Lewis shares a similar idea in his classic, The Great Divorce:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.”[5]

The Dwarfs are emblematic of those to whom Aslan sadly says, “Thy will be done.”

Lewis’s inclusivism may be unacceptable to some Christians, but he clearly is not a universalist. At least from the perspective of LB, there are some who will be saved who may not actually know Christ, but there are many who, tragically, will not be saved at all.

Theology: 9/10

With a score of 34.5/40, LB holds the median position for me of the seven Narnia books. It is a notch below the top-tier books (LWWHHB, and VDT) but solidly above PC and SC, and way above MNOn Amazon, it would garner a 4 or 5-star rating.


Check out the full series of posts:


[1]  We probably have to mention here that Lewis receives a lot of criticism for his portrayal of Susan in LB, which is, supposedly, sexist. Jill says of Susan: “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” That Susan is described as embracing womanhood in this way and that Lewis writes her out of the “friends of Narnia” as a result is considered to be damning evidence.

It is beyond the purview of what I am doing in this series to address that criticism in detail, but I would suggest that, similar to the allegations of racism in HHBthis is off-base. In addition to the fact that Lewis repeatedly portrays female characters positively (Lucy is arguably the most admirable of all the human characters, Aravis is awesome, Polly and Jill are both likable, etc.), the clear emphasis of the criticism against Susan in the surrounding context is not on her sex but on her grown-upness. This has always been a problem for Susan, and in the world of Narnia, being “old” or “grown-up” is presented as a barrier to having faith in Aslan, as we discussed in the post on PCIn other words, Susan’s problem is not that she is now a woman; it is that she has decided that being a woman means chasing after shallow and frivolous things and distancing herself from the childlike faith that Aslan requires.

[2]  I did not have my regular edition of The Last Battle as I wrote this post, and so the page numbers come from the Barnes & Noble edition. I apologize for the inconsistency with the other posts in the series.

[3]  Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 2005): 6.

[4] Monte Cox, Significant Others: Understanding Our Non-Christian Neighbors (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2017): 24. Cox, himself an exclusivist, provides a helpful discussion on “Exclusivists, Inclusivists, and Pluralists” on pages 22-28.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins, 2001): 75.

Lament For A Son: The Demonic Awfulness Of Death

This is part of a sub-series of posts under a larger, loosely-united series entitled A Theological View of Suffering.


I have been writing some reflections on Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament For A SonOne of many elements of the book that I appreciated was Wolterstorff’s emphasis on the “demonic awfulness” of death (p. 54).

All too often, I think that Christians can lapse into a very naturalistic worldview where we say things like, “death is just a natural part of life.” We say this to help bring perspective to our circumstances, and in the sense that, yes, all humans die, this statement is true.

But it is decidedly untrue in the sense that death is not a part of God’s plan; it is not a feature of life as God envisioned it and is, thus, wholly unnatural. Death became a reality as a result of sin (this is, in fact, precisely what God warned Adam and Eve about). Paul describes death as the “last enemy to be defeated” and in John’s Revelation, Jesus is depicted in magnificent glory as the Living One who was dead but is now alive, and who holds the keys to Death and Hades: through His resurrection, Jesus has cracked open the tomb of Death and declared His mastery over this ancient enemy, and the Day will come when it will be no more.



From a Christian perspective, we can realize that Death does not have the last say because of the victory of Jesus and that the sting of death is minimized in the face of this reality, but Death is still an enemy. It is not something to be civilized or sanitized with platitudes about it being a “natural part of life”.

Referring to sentiments similar to this, Wolterstorff says:

“I find this pious attitude deaf to the message of the Christian gospel. Death is here understood as a normal instrument of God’s dealings with us. “You have lived out the years I’ve planned for you, I’ll just shake the mountain a bit. All of you there, I’ll send some starlings into the engine of your plane. And as for you there, a stroke while running will do nicely.”

The Bible speaks instead of God’s overcoming death. Paul calls it the last great enemy to be overcome. God is appalled by death. My pain over my son’s death is shared by his pain over my son’s death. And, yes, I share in his pain over his son’s death.” (67)

But, although death is awful, Jesus tells His disciples, startlingly, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” From the perspective of a society that champions youth, achievement, and happiness, and where people put on a smile and declare that things are “fine” while they are dying inside, this seems like a bizarre statement from Jesus. Why would He say such a thing?

“Who then are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is no one blind and who ache whenever they see someone unseeing. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one hungry and who ache whenever they see someone starving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one falsely accused and who ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who fails to see God and who ache whenever they see someone unbelieving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one without dignity and who ache whenever they see someone treated with indignity. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death. The mourners are aching visionaries.

Such people Jesus blesses; he hails them, he praises them, he salutes them. And he gives them the promise that the new day for whose absence they ache will come. They will be comforted.

The Stoics of antiquity said: Be calm. Disengage yourself. Neither laugh nor weep. Jesus says: Be open to the wounds of the world. Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping, be in agony over humanity’s agony. But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.” (84-86)

Death is awful. It is an enemy, and it should drive us to mourn. But as Christians, we mourn with the knowledge that the days of death are numbered, and the Day will come when mourning will be no more.

Ranking The Chronicles of Narnia, Part 6: The Silver Chair

For a few months now, I have been ranking the different volumes of C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia. So far, I have covered The Magician’s NephewThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

To evaluate each book, I am using a rubric with four different categories: story, characters, worldcraft, and theology. For each category, I will provide a subscore of 1-10, yielding a cumulative maximum score of 40 points.

I have been following the chronological order of the books (even though I don’t consider that to be the best order in which to read the books), which means that this week, I will be ranking The Silver Chair (SC). Compared to some of the other books in the series, SC is not one of my favorites, but it is still a good book, and some elements are not only thoughtful, but incredibly relevant for our own time.

The Silver Chair

This is from a series of brilliant Narnia cover designs by Jeffrey Nguyen

Story

At least on a superficial level, the main plot device of SC bears some similarity to VDTas it is the story of a journey that is undertaken for the purpose of finding a missing character. Rather than a sea voyage to the Great Eastern Ocean however, SC chronicles a journey into the wild lands to the North of Narnia.

The book begins with Eustace Scrubb (of VDT fame) and his classmate, Jill Pole, being whisked into Aslan’s Country after Eustace had asked for Aslan’s help in escaping from bullies at their horrid school, Experiment House. They are given a quest to find the missing Prince Rilian of Narnia (son of the famed Caspian of PC and VDT), who disappeared ten years earlier while hunting a large green serpent that had killed his mother. To aid them on their quest, Aslan gives Jill four signs that she is supposed to remember.

The children are joined in their quest by Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle who serves as a guide, but the quest does not go particularly well, as they miss two of the signs and struggle to follow the other two. They travel through the wild giant lands of Ettinsmoor, narrowly escaping the “gentle” giants of Harfang, and ultimately find themselves in Underland, where a host of underground-dwelling earthmen take them in a boat across a subterranean sea to the city ruled by the Queen of Underland, the Lady of the Green Kirtle, who turns out to be a witch who keeps Rilian imprisoned and bewitched. As the three travelers seek to free him, the Queen returns, setting up the climax of the story.

Although parts of the journey in SC drag and the climax of the novel seems to fizzle out too quickly, the story on the whole is interesting enough, and foreshadowing, intrigue, and the constant agonizing over seeking to discern and heed Aslan’s signs all add tension and excitement to the narrative.

Story: 7.5/10

Characters

SC is somewhat unusual in The Chronicles of Narnia because the Pevensie children do not appear at all,[1] but human children still play a leading role, this time in the characters of Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole.

Eustace was a major character in VDT, and that novel described his significant transformation from a dragon (both in a literal sense, and also metaphorical: Eustace was beastly) to a much better sort of person. This changed is evidenced by the fact that Eustace no longer gets along well at Experiment House, the horrid school that he and Jill attend together. The former Eustace would have been a lackey and crony to the bullies who rule the school; now, Eustace stands up to the bullies, is bullied by them himself, and befriends unfortunates like Jill.

Eustace doesn’t get the same level of attention in SC, but we still get a clear enough picture of him. He is not perfect; in fact, he can be obstinate, quarrelsome, and makes rash decisions at times, but he is far removed from the annoying little brat he was at the beginning of VDT, and he is resolutely a friend of Aslan.

Jill is the new child who is introduced in SC, and although I am sure some would disagree with me, I think she is one of the more disappointing characters in The Chronicles of Narnia, considering the lack of development she receives despite the amount of focus that is placed on her.

Jill is a classmate of Eustace’s, and is constantly bullied at school. When she is whisked away into the world of Narnia, her efforts to show off nearly result in the death of Eustace, but Aslan intervenes. Throughout the course of the book, Jill (and Eustace and Puddleglum) struggle to obey the signs Aslan had given her. Ultimately, though, she does not give up: despite personal limitations and fears (she is both claustrophobic and afraid of the dark, which become major issues in Underland), she presses on, and, along with Eustace and Puddleglum, ultimately accomplishes the mission Aslan gives her.

Puddleglum the Marsh-Wiggle

If Eustace and Jill are a little disappointing in SC, Puddleglum really shines. Puddleglum is a marsh-wiggle, a tall, thin creature who seems to be all arms and legs with a long thin face, a high pointed hat, green-gray hair that looks like tiny reeds, and webbed feet. Puddleglum is an Eeyore-like figure who always sees the worst in things (although he indicates that, compared to other marsh-wiggles, he is seen as a wide-eyed optimist), but he is absolutely devoted to Aslan, is loyal to and protective of the children who are placed in his care, and is really the hero of the book, shining most brightly when the circumstances are the darkest.

Rilian is the son of Caspian, and has been missing for the last ten years, ever since he had gone out in search of the great green serpent that had killed his mother. We learn that he has been enchanted and enslaved by the Lady of the Green Kirtle during this time, and is her devoted servant most of the time, only returning to his right mind at night, when he is bound to a silver chair to keep him from running away or rising against the Lady.

In Rilian, we see some of the adventurous spirit and the courage of his father, but arrogance as well. On the whole, I would argue that he is another character in SC like Jill who is not developed as well as one might hope.

The Lady of the Green Kirtle serves as the main antagonist in the novel. She is beautiful in appearance, is an enchantress, and can also turn into a great serpent. Although certainly capable of doing her own dirty work, her preferred method of malevolence seems to be in subverting and manipulating others to do her bidding, as seen in Rilian, the Earthmen, and even the giants of Harfang.

The first time I read SC, I thought this was another incarnation of Jadis, White Witch from MN and LWWand apparently, this is a common conclusion. However, equating the two seems to be a mistake, as Lewis never does so. The White Witch is killed at the end of LWW, and although there is discussion of bringing her back to life through dark magic in PC, this doesn’t actually materialize. What seems better is to see The Lady of the Green Kirtle (also known as the Queen of Underland) as being a part of the same class of “Northern witches” to which Jadis also belongs.

This also seems to fit better with the main theme of SC, which Lewis described as “the continued war against the powers of darkness”.[2] The reality is that the powers of darkness are both many and persistent, and the destruction of one evil force does not mean that evil itself has been defeated.

Aslan’s role in SC is a little different than in the other books. He appears much earlier on and gives specific direction to the children (specifically, Jill) as to what they are supposed to do. Rather than swoop in to save the day (either directly or indirectly) as he often does in other novels, he instead gives his little group of followers instructions and then seemingly stays distant (does Aslan even enter Narnia in SC? It appears that he remains in his own country). After the plot of SC has been largely resolved, the children see him again in Aslan’s Country, where they have a meaningful conversation about death and resurrection.

On the whole, the characterization in SC is not bad, but it’s also not at the same level as several of the other books.

Characters: 7.5/10

Worldcraft

For me, this was the strongest aspect of SC, as it significantly expands the world of Narnia by taking us both to the Wild Lands of the North and also down into Underland.

We get to see only a little bit of the marshes that seem to form a northern border of Narnia and which are the home of Puddleglum and his fellow marsh-wiggles. From there, the group of seekers travel further north first to Ettinsmoor, a rugged and rocky moor traversed by many streams. This wild land is the home of the giants, some of whom are wild and uncivilized, but others who are more intelligent, and live in the Castle of Harfang.[3]

In the vicinity of Harfang is the ruins of an ancient giant city, and under this city, the group of seekers discover Underland, an entire civilization ruled by the Lady of the Green Kirtle, and populated by a gloomy, depressed multitude who have been enslaved by her enchantments. These Earthmen are actually originally from Bism, another nation six thousand feet below Underland, who hate being so close to the surface. In sum, Lewis actually creates an entire world under the world, filled with tunnels and lakes and a succession of caverns (see image here). In terms of worldcraft, this is the high point of the book.

Worldcraft: 8.5/10

Theology

Although SC is full of biblical allusions, as we have previously noted, Lewis said that this book was about the “continued war against the powers of darkness,” and so, my reflections in this section will be clustered around that theme.

The Weapons of War

First, we must take notice of the importance of the signs that Aslan gives to Jill, and what Lewis intends these signs to represent. As the children and Puddleglum engage in the war against the powers of darkness, a war in which, as noted above, Aslan seems strangely distant, what they are given to aid them in that struggle are Aslan’s signs.

Before Aslan sends Jill off to Narnia, he gives her these final words:

“But, first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you walk in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them were. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.” (25-26)

The opening lines of the quotation above seem to be a clear allusion to Deuteronomy 6.7, part of the Shema:

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

(Deuteronomy 6.4-9)

It is the words of God, His revealed teaching and instruction, Scripture, that must be our guiding light as we enter into the world for the sake of God’s mission and engage the forces of darkness. Indeed, this is what we see Jesus do, as He rebuffs each of Satan’s temptations with Scripture (Matthew 4; Luke 4), and also the indication we get from Paul in Ephesians 6, as he describes the Christian’s main offensive weapon, the sword of the Spirit, as the word of God.

Alas, Jill and her companions bungle the task. They fail to follow some of the signs, and their mission is made much more difficult as a result. Then, in the moment of crisis, when a raging Rilian, chained to the chair but finally in his right mind asks the group to free him in the name of Aslan (the fourth sign), the group is racked by indecision:

“It was a dreadful question. What had been the use of promising one another that they would not on any account set the King free, if they were now to do so the first time he happened to call upon a name they really cared about? On the other hand, what had been the use of learning the signs if they weren’t going to obey them? Yet could Aslan have really meant them to unbind anyone—even a lunatic—who asked it in his name? Could it be a mere accident? Or how if the Queen of the Underworld knew all about the signs and had made the Knight learn this name simply in order to entrap them? But then, supposing this was the real sign? …They had muffed three already; they daren’t muff the fourth.

“Oh, if only we knew!” said Jill.

“I think we do know,” said Puddleglum.

“Do you mean you think everything will come right if we do untie him?” said Scrubb.

“I don’t know about that,” said Puddleglum. “You see, Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do. That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn’t wonder. But that doesn’t let us off following the sign.” (174-75)

Puddleglum shines through. The task was to remember and believe the signs, regardless of appearances. The group does so; they are obedient in the moment of crisis, and ultimately, this leads to the successful completion of the mission.

Later, when they encounter Aslan, Jill feels terrible at how poorly they handled Aslan’s signs:

“I have come,” said a deep voice behind them. They turned and saw the Lion himself, so bright and real and strong that everything else began at once to look pale and shadowy compared with him. And in less time that it takes to breathe Jill forgot about the dead King of Narnia and remembered only how she had made Eustace fall over the cliff, and how she had helped to muff nearly all the signs, and about all the snappings and quarrelings. And she wanted to say “I’m sorry” but she could not speak. Then the Lion drew them toward him with his eyes, and bent down and touched their pale faces with his tongue, and said:

“Think of that no more. I will not always be scolding. You have done the work for which I sent you into Narnia.” (250)

Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum didn’t perfectly follow the signs, but perfect obedience was not necessary to fulfill the mission Aslan had given them. In our own lives, we will not perfectly follow the signs, but in His grace, our God is not always scolding. He has given us what is needed for us to carry out His mission and engage in the ongoing battle against evil: His revealed instruction in the pages of Scripture.

The Enchantment of Evil

In this ongoing war against the forces of darkness, it is vitally important that we understand who our enemy is. In SC, on the surface, there appear to be all sorts of enemies that Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum must face and overcome: the giants of Harfang who would seek to eat them, the Black Knight (Rilian in disguise) who rides at the side of the Lady of the Green Kirtle and does her bidding, and the entire army of Earthmen who live in Underland and wait to invade Narnia under the leadership of the bewitched Rilian.

But really, none of these are the true enemies of Narnia or our trio of heroes; that dubious distinction lies with the Lady of the Green Kirtle. Rilian and the Earthmen are her victims; enslaved by her enchantments to do her will. Even the giants of Harfang rely on the evil queen’s influence, at least for their human victims.

As Lewis wrote on the ongoing battle against evil, the words of Paul in Ephesians 6 were undoubtedly on his mind:

12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

(Ephesians 6.12)

Despite appearances, it was not flesh and blood that Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum were really fighting against; it was the spiritual forces of evil that empowered and manipulated those other, seeming enemies. You would be hard-pressed to find a more pertinent lesson for us to learn in our own time! In a society bitterly divided across various ideological axes, it is so easy to identify, target, and seek to destroy our enemies. This is, however, contrary to the call of Christ. Our enemies are not flesh and blood, but the spiritual forces of evil that so easily confuse and corrupt, and furthermore, even those who we mistakenly view as our enemies are not be targets of our hateful destruction, but objects of our love.

And the methods used by those spiritual forces of evil can confuse us as well: when the Lady of the Green Kirtle discovers that Rilian has been freed by the three adventurers, she doesn’t spring upon them in the form of a serpent; instead, she seeks to enchant them with hypnotic music and incense. With their senses dulled (remember, Aslan had warned Jill that the thickness of the air of Narnia would confuse their minds), the evil witch begins to convince them that Narnia, Aslan, and even lions themselves do not exist, that they are nothing more than a dream, and that all that does exist is the here and now in which the children and the marsh-wiggle find themselves. The enchantment very nearly works.

This is, I believe, instructive for us, as evil is no less enchanting in our own world. Evil is at its most dangerous not when it manifests as a great serpent threatening to bite and devour, but as a beautiful and regal lady comforting us that nothing is wrong. The spiritual forces of evil are not so enchanting because they suddenly entice us to do horrible things; indeed, such temptations are not tempting at all for the vast majority of people. Instead, they are enchanting because they subtly distract us from the divine mission we have been given. They encourage us to focus only on the here and now, to forget all higher and loftier callings, and in our dreamy state, to succumb to our own selfish desires and to do the bidding of the Evil One who seeks to divide us and turn us against one another.

Puddleglum comes to the rescue again; he sticks his webbed foot in the fireplace. The burning pain shatters the power of the enchantment and brings clarity to his mind. He addresses the queen:

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones…We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world 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.” (190-91)

In a world where evil seeks to lull us to a comfortable sleep, making us more susceptible to its influence, Lewis suggests that an antidote to the enchantment of evil is suffering. For a society that perhaps goes to greater lengths to avoid suffering than any in history, this is perhaps a medicine that we would like to refuse, but it is difficult to argue with Lewis’s prescription. Suffering (at least, from a Christian perspective) helps us to see the broken reality of our existence, and to place ourselves “one Aslan’s side” so that we can be a part of the creation of a different sort of place, where evil is defeated and the suffering is no more.

In SC, Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum embark on a mission to bring the missing Prince Rilian home, and this mission will bring them into close contact with evil. It is this same mission into which God continues to call believers:

“So, my friends, a reminder for today: in Lewis’ conception of the world, we are invited into a war with dark forces. Not against people, but against those who would harm people. Our mission, our quest, our role is to seek and to find those who have been captured, enchanted, corrupted or deceived—even if they are serving the darkness—and bring them home. And, we hope, to learn something about ourselves and to make new, lifelong friends along the way.”[4]

Theology: 7.5/10

With a score of 31/40, SC is a mid-level Narnia book, very similar to PC. It is not on the same level as books like LWWHHBor VDT, but is still a noticeable step above MN. If I were rating it on Amazon, it would round up to a 4-star rating, but in the spectrum of Narnia books, it is my second-to-least-favorite.


Check out the full series of posts:


[1]  Peter and Susan “aged out” of Narnia at the end of PC; Edmund and Lucy did the same at the end of VDT.

[2]  Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 2005): 6.

[3] Despite their greater intelligence and their organization of living in a castle and elements of a more sophisticated society, I hesitate to describe the giants of Harfang as civilized, as we learn that they knowingly hunt and eat sentient animals, and plan to eat Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum as well.

[4] Matt Mikalotos, “Saving the Lost: Quests, Signs, and Unclear Instructions in The Silver Chair,” in The Great C.S. Lewis RereadI have mentioned this before, but Mikalotos is writing a great series of articles on The Chronicles of Narnia. He covers a lot of stuff that I don’t get into in my own series here, and has been influential in my own thoughts, and helping me to see some elements that I had previously missed.

Lament For A Son: Speaking Into Suffering

This is part of a sub-series of posts under a larger, loosely-united series entitled A Theological View of Suffering.


I have been writing some brief reflections on Nicholas Wolterstorff’s excellent Lament For A SonOne aspect of this little book that I really enjoyed was Wolterstorff’s discussion of what we should say to people when they are suffering.

Hopefully, many of us have heard and heeded the warnings to not be like Job’s friends, who sat with him in comfort for several days and then began to talk, only to make matters much worse. I would wager that anyone who has experienced significant pain and loss has also dealt with “miserable comforters” like Job’s friends.

And yet, while we should be careful about what we say to those who are suffering, we should not let the fear of saying the wrong thing prevent us from saying anything or from avoiding the suffering person altogether.

“What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”

Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.” (34)

While Wolterstorff offers grace to those who blurt our “strange, inept things,” he does offer a caution for the sort of thing that should not be said:

“But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.” (34)

And, finally:

“Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings—never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.” (35)

This brings us back to what I said in the beginning. While care should certainly be used in what we say to those who are suffering, ignoring the sufferer out of concern that we may say something hurtful is, itself, a hurtful act. In many ways, it may feel like just being with those who are suffering and expressing our love for them is “the least we can do”, but in a very real sense, it’s also the most we can do.

It reminds me of a Swedish proverb that I have come to love: “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”

Increasingly, I have come to realize how much we live in a society that seeks to avoid and minimize death as much as possible. In such an environment, the sort of meaningful presence that Wolterstorff suggests does not feel natural, and is something that we may be tempted to avoid. But as followers of Jesus, we must seek to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6.2); we must speak into the suffering, whether we use words or not.

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