An astute critic whose name I can’t recall once demonstrated that the Chronicles have an internal coherence that roughly parallels the growth of a child in the Anglican church. The earlier books “feel younger.” And the later books “feel older.”
The Silver Chair always feels like a book about adolescence to me. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s because I relate to Jill Pole’s desolation at the beginning of the book.
She’s on her own. Jill has no parents, no attentive older siblings in the background. It’s just her, and the world of school. Friendless, trying to keep her head down despite the fact that she’s obviously a plucky sort of girl, hiding in the bushes to have a good cry—this is the grim opening picture in The Silver Chair. We’re worlds away from the bombs of
But fortunately for Jill, the story, and ourselves, Jill is surprised by the coming of none other than Eustace Scrubb. And we have a shock of familiarity. We get a glimpse of how the pre-Voyage Eustace would have fit in with this grimly modern setting; but this Eustace is different: he’s got a touch of something otherworldly to him, which Jill perceives right away. I remember feeling the same way about my best friend during my teen years: she was part of the modern world, to be sure, but she would have been at home in Narnia, too.
And it is Eustace who introduces Jill to Narnia, though Narnia comes to them a bit more suddenly than either of them want or expect. Soon Jill finds herself laden with a mission: to find the lost prince Rilian, and she is given the task of memorizing the “signs” that will help her and Eustace find him.
These signs are very much like the disciplines of the growing Christian. They remind us very much of prayers, in that Jill must repeat them in the morning when she rises and at night before she goes to bed. For those of us raised in any faith, the time of adolescence is the time of acquiring the discipline of discipleship. It is not only the time when we take hold of our childhood faith and make it emotionally our own; it is also the time when we set the pattern for our lives: and if you manage to learn how to have a daily prayer-time as an adolescent, I suspect that if you remain faithful as an adult, then praying for the rest of your life comes a little bit easier.
Aslan appears in this book not so much as a comforter as the one who holds Jill to the mission, the one she is answerable to. There is no cheap grace for Jill: she is very conscious that she is entrusted with a mission and that meeting Aslan again will mean making an account of the time she’s been given in Narnia. Yet you can tell she loves the Lion as much as Lucy Pevensie did, though not as emotionally.
Beyond the acquisition of life-habits, Jill’s journey reminds me of adolescence in yet another way. In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, the companions on the adventure were all brothers and sisters. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader brought us into the extended family, as a cousin joined the brother and sister pair. But with The Silver Chair, we are out of the family circle: not only are there no Pevensies, but Jill and Eustace are friends only, not relations. They aren’t boyfriend and girlfriend either, just chums in that muddled time between childhood and courtship where you’re trying to figure out how the other sex thinks and acts.
The trio in search of Prince Rilian are thus three individuals who are not exactly “cool”: a lonely girl, a boy who’s hardly a hot stud, and an even odder third wheel, a Marsh-Wiggle named Puddleglum with a gift for seeing the gray side of life. Again, this reminds me of adolescence: setting off on a journey whose end and methods are murky, with oddball companions. Haven’t we all felt ourselves at times to be odd and pointless, paired with friends who are even weirder?
And Jill encounters some very adolescent temptations in the form of the Gentle Giants, the Lady of the Green Kirtle, and in the end, the Dark Knight. Materialism, glamour, relativism, and simply losing focus conspire to lure her away from her mission. And her final journey underground is about as random, dark, and hopeless as one could get.
But in the end, Aslan writes straight with crooked lines: despite all of Jill’s failures, she succeeds because she is faithful to the quest, against all the odds. Which is how I feel about my own past adolescence: going in with high hopes, facing failure in execution, yet somehow everything turning out all right in the end, mostly because of God.
One nice touch I love about this book is that when Jill returns to her drab own world, she brings her Narnian court-clothes back with her, which, Lewis tells us, she saves to wear to a fancy-dress ball. I love the idea that Jill had something tangible from Narnia to bring home with her. And having the British equivalent of a prom gown from Narnia: how cool is that?
Yes, being a teenage Christian can be lonely, isolating, hard, murky, and just downright frustrating. But the consolations are extraordinary, if hard to explain—kind of like wearing a dress from another dimension. All I know is that, like Jill’s Narnian experience, I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.