“Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia … as you drop down into Narnia the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind …. that is why it is so important to know [the signs] by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.” – Aslan to Jill from “The Silver Chair” by C.S. Lewis
I believe this quote captures one of the primary themes of C.S. Lewis’s, The Silver Chair (the next to the last book in his Chronicles of Narnia). Lewis scholar Michael Ward argues in his excellent book, Planet Narnia that Lewis imbued the Chronicles with Medieval cosmology, each of the seven books having its own tutelary planet. Mankind has always been fascinated with the Cosmos, believing that the stars and planets influenced the affairs of men and nature. The Medieval church baptized many of these ancient beliefs, discarding what was clearly heretical and infusing what remained with the doctrine of an orderly universe governed by God’s decrees where the heavens declare His glory (Psalm 19 and Psalm 136). In the medieval worldview, God upheld the universe with His love, being as Dante wrote in the final words of The Divine Comedy, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Each of the seven planets of medieval cosmology influenced nature with its own unique qualities. Ward claims very convincingly that Lewis infused The Silver Chair with lunar influences (the medieval mind considered both the sun and moon as part of the collection of seven planets, the other five being Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn).
This book was my favorite when I read through the Chronicles years ago because the battle to remain “in the world, but not of the world” is one with which we contend everyday. The marshwiggle named Puddleglum that helps Jill and Eustace in their task to free Prince Rilian is one of my favorite characters because of his bravery and steadfastness – qualities that we as believers need in a world that is often hostile to our beliefs. His willingness to “die to self” is the key that enabled them to remain “in the world, but not of it.”
For the Medieval mind, the moon was the great transition point between the certainties of the heavens and the contingencies of earth. As Christians, we see our Lord as the embodiment of “on Earth as it is in Heaven” with His willing submission (Philippians 2). Our Lord is like the moon in that regard. In similar fashion, we are like the moon if we are “in Him” being called to be “in the world, but not of the world.” Eustace and Jill represent God’s continued work of including us in the restoration of the unity between heaven and earth. That inclusion will require from us the same selflessness, sacrifice, and submission displayed by our Lord Jesus.
C.S.Lewis once wrote, “when first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.” The heavens were a “first thing” for Lewis, being fascinated with cosmology since his childhood. In The Silver Chair it is the evil green lady who wants to deny the heavens their proper place, understanding that if she could “silence” them by questioning their existence, she could gain the “glory” that they declare for herself. From the depths of her underworld, she reasons with the children that such things aren’t real, after all. She casts doubt on these fundamental first things. Her arguments are compelling and the children begin to doubt the existence of the sun, stars, and even Aslan himself.
Sounding remarkably like our modern hyper-skeptic of Christianity, this queen of the underworld reasons: “You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion … There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan. And now, to bed all. And let us begin a wiser life tomorrow. But first, to bed; to sleep; deep sleep, soft pillows, sleep without foolish dreams.”
Only dear Puddleglum has the fortitude to doubt the doubt and, skeptical wet-blanket that he is, he alone is able to see through her skewed logic in “explaining away” Narnia and break the spell enough to put out the fire with his foot.
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. 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. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. 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. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
I see nods to the Enjoyment / Contemplation paradigm in the need for Puddleglum’s arguments against the witch’s impeccable logic to be supported by action – selfless, self-sacrificial action (like our Lord Jesus). Can we get a better illustration of “at the beam” and “along the beam”? What a beautiful illustration for us as apologists, too!
One of Ward’s arguments with respect to the moon’s influence is this restoration of order and the putting of first things first in a world where second things have come to dominate. I find this argument to be very compelling and that Lewis includes it in a story filled with so much doubt, confusion, and uncertainty is brilliant. Our world has been disordered by sin. First things restore order.
I speak from experience that this proper ordering of things is a key element in understanding and quelling doubt. One of the things I learned during one particularly long season of uncertainty was that I was placing second things first and forgetting first things in the process. The core of our faith is our Lord’s incarnation, sacrifice, and resurrection. These are first things. My being a finite creature with very limited knowledge is a first thing. First things humble us and put us in our place (Job 38-41) for often times we have put ourselves in a “first-things” position. In my time of doubt I clung to these first things. They enabled me to hold on to what Ward writes as “right belief … in a hostile environment.” And the clinging process required an “along the beam” sort of trust and humility.
Finally, I hear echoes of the Shema in Aslan’s exhortation to Jill before sending her on her mission. The ancient Israelites were not unlike us, surrounded by a thick and suffocating air of paganism. For our times, I think something like the Nicene Creed represents the signs that Aslan tells Jill to cling to and repeat as often as she can. This is the core of our faith – Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection (along with the Shema). Even as apologists, this is the core we have to return to again and again, for our arguments can only get us so far. We all see through a glass dimly.
We have to embody the core, too, through self-sacrificial, selfless love and bravery, like that dearest of wet blankets. “At the beam and along the beam.”
Here are some interesting little tidbits on the person who was the inspiration for Puddleglum, Lewis’s gardener named Paxford. After Lewis’s death, it was Puddleglum again to the rescue, preventing many of Lewis’s unpublished writings from being destroyed forever in a fire. What a strange coincidence! “Rescued from the Bonfire” and below, Walter Hooper tells a story about Paxford.