by Alexis Record
The bookends (beginning of first chapter and end of last chapter)
“Why didn’t Eustace tell Jill everything before making her believe in Aslan?”
“Why do you think?”
“So he could be in charge and she’d just have to follow him. I mean, she didn’t know anything so would have to take his word for it.”[We’re back! And you, dear readers, will be rewarded for your patience with an extra-long post today! Thanks for allowing us a break while Little Bit went through the first of her next three surgeries to help her wonderful, differently-abled body be more functional! She’s one tough cookie. Her next surgery is not for at least six months and we’ll have lots of reading time before then!]
Little Bit and I had a bit of a rough ride on the Dawn Treader, and took our time recovering our land legs. We had some short filler books in the meantime until one day Bits asked for a book about animals. She saw A Horse and His Boy in the Narnia series and innocently asked, “How about this one?” Before you all clutch your pearls and reach for your smelling salts, don’t worry. I quickly explained that despite our Chronicles of Narnia omnibus being in (*gag*) chronological order, we were a “publication order” household. So we’d definitely have to finish The Silver Chair first. Her daddy backed me up on this. After laughing at her parents’ devotion to the publication order (we have reasons and strong feels), Little Bit agreed, and our next Narnian adventure began.
(When the religious parent and the atheist parent both come together on anything this strongly, it is sacrosanct.)
The Silver Chair opens in the most hellish of landscapes: a co-educational school. Yes, where boys and girls are educated together. At the same time! In the same buildings! The horror. The natural order on its head!
Lewis adds, “[This kind of school] used to be called a “mixed” school; some said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it.”
How did they run it? Afreakingmok.
For one thing, they didn’t beat the children. Like at all. So, naturally, without corporal discipline the worst of human behavior emerged. (Actually, science says the opposite, but whatever.) But don’t worry, we’ll fix all this pacifistic childcare in the last chapter by beating some children!
For another thing, the school’s reaction to troublesome kids was to love the disobedient ones best. The Head of the school saw children as psychologically fascinating, and spoke with them for hours. What place does child development or psychology have in teaching I ask you? I mean, really?
But the nail in the coffin? In this school “Bibles were not encouraged.” Excuse me while I faint.
The school had the most fitting name of “Experiment” House and by all accounts it was a failed one. No grander example of how wackadoodle it was than the fact it was run by a woman. Lewis points this out in a sexist parenthetical: “the Head (who was, by the way, a woman).” Does she have a name? Well, if you followed along on the last journey, you’d know the answer to that. No, women do not have names. Girls sometimes get names before they belong to a man. Sometimes. But why name women? Their adventures are over. Moving on.
This is why Lewis seems to go out of his way to name several random child bullies, giving them first and last names (Adela Pennyfather, Edith Winterblott,) and even gives other students nicknames (“Spotty” Sorner, “big” Bannister) even though they are only blips in the story, but the Head (a woman!) who has lines of dialog, bookends the plot, and has her entire career path described? Nothing. No name.
Little Bit and I are going to call her Hedy, like Hedy Lamarr. Or, as Bitsy puts it, “Hedy the Head-y.”
The worlds Lewis creates are (pulling statistic out of my butt) 99.9% male, and if a person is speaking it’s incredibly more likely to be a man or a male animal rather than not. It will just be taken for granted that whole crowds of people (like the Earthmen later in this book) will be dudes. J. R. R. Tolkien, an author I admire and also a contemporary of Lewis, does the same. Men enjoy society and make up its character, but women are supposed to be keepers of the home where they stay. (Lewis believed Christian women ought to be “discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.” Titus 2:5)
For Lewis, who venerated the Bible, the world he knew was largely androcentric. A random girl was merely a ribbon of soft color in an otherwise bold pattern. The Bible itself primarily celebrates the stories of men, including their birth stories. But women? Not a single birth story of a single woman or girl is found anywhere in the 66 books that comprise the Christian Scriptures. As I have pointed out before:
If the Bible were a movie, you’d have a crowd of men surrounded by another crowd of men. The casting call would include 1,181 parts for men with names, and thousands of men besides with minor roles. Men would talk and act most of the movie, while women would only get a whopping 1.1% of the lines. In the credits at the end, of those 93 women who did get to speak, only 49 would have names. The rest would be listed as “Woman, Woman, Woman, Woman, Woman…
While a case can be made that including a female main character at all should be given a million cookies, as it will lead to more diversity in later decades, I can only nod and agree scraps are better than nothing while hoping intelligent folks understand that scraps are not enough.
Having a woman in a position of “Head” goes against the Bible’s teachings that Lewis would have accepted: “The head of every woman is man.” (1 Corinthians 11:3) Aren’t women in positions of power the worst? When is Aslan going to save us from all these uppity women ruining society and our children? (It turns out, very soon!)
Anyway, the book opens with a girl named Jill Pole, who is crying because of her awful school, and a familiar boy named Eustace Scrubb, who is trying to comfort her. No worries because Eustace had (as of the last book) become a follower of Aslan (not a cult) so was nice now (ignore when he’s not). In fact, he doesn’t let her finish crying before self-reporting his list of recent good deeds as a result of Aslan (not a cult leader) changing him (not in a cult-y way).
The two seem to bond quickly in their very first real conversation ever considering Eustace used to bully her. Jill then asks why Eustace isn’t a jerk anymore, and he responds, “A lot of queer things happened to me.” When she asks what queer things happened (like he knew she would), he gets quiet and “mysterious” to build suspense. Then he asks her to believe what he’s about to tell her before she can know what it is. Oh, and he may also be taking advantage of her emotional state. (Totally not a cult.)
The most problematic sentence in this chapter has to be: “Pole, I say, are you good at believing things?” This is followed up by Jill (Pole) responding, “I think I would be,” and even promising not to tell anyone to prove herself. Children should know that secrets must be kept despite consequences as a matter of good character. A children’s book encouraging secrets is a different kind of problematic that we’ll put aside for now.
So Eustace primes Jill by telling her he thinks he can trust her with his secret, but only if she’s able to believe the secret. So it’s now a test of her ability. He even says that most people would laugh, but she’s not most people, right? She’s special. And when faith is a moral good that special people can hone in practice, it follows that Jill, as a good girl, will swallow without chewing whatever nonsense Eustace feeds her. In this case the nonsense is a place “where animals can talk and where there are – er—enchantments and dragons – and—well, all the sorts of things you have in fairy tales.”
Isn’t that ridiculous! Now excuse me while I read my former holy book where animals can talk and where there are, er, enchantments and an evil dragon (in Revelation), and, well, all the sorts of things you have in fairy tales. (I believe the book with all those elements was not encouraged in that school.)
Faith is not a pathway to truth. But here it’s portrayed as the most important virtue that leads to truth. Jill isn’t supposed to come across as completely childish or hopelessly naïve in this section, on the contrary, she’s supposed to be showing her good virtue by believing. Later if she were to, say, cling to this faith to save her from danger, it will for sure work out and she will for sure be saved and praised for “keeping” the faith. Yet if this entire section was Eustace telling her that the Flying Spaghetti Monster (may sauce be upon him) ruled over the same fantasy land, Lewis’ audience would be rolling their eyes. And if Jill relied on His Noodleness for help in trouble later, we would all finally see it rightly as foolish. (Can I get a R’amen?)
“Faith is the surrender of the mind,” said Hitchens. During those times we must have faith in something or someone, we must gather any and all available evidence since the worst kind of faith is blind faith. But Jill will be rewarded the harder she works to believe. She even tends to act in ways that promote faith, like speaking in whispers, which helped her find it “easier to believe.” Whispers added an artificial gravity to the secret, giving it unearned weight. When “a horrible suspicion came over her,” that it was all made up, Jill only required Eustace’s promise that he wasn’t lying in order to move forward with finally accepting his story on faith. Thus belief was born.
And because belief is absolutely required of believers (both in Narnia and in Christendom), it has to be able to be conjured this way. In Christianity, belief is even said to be better (“blessed”) without evidence (John 20:29), despite the fact this leap was not even expected of Jesus’ own disciples.
Once Jill agreed to believe, the belief took hold fast! It was so immediately firmly embedded that Jill longed to go to the place Eustace talked about. It took the space of a few sentences for Jill to go from horrified at the prospect of being suckered to adopting this magical land into her knowledge base and acting as if it were real. Even when I truly believed in Heaven, and a very specific way to get there, it took much more than that! But Jill has what my church would have called “strong faith.” Again, faith is no virtue, regardless of its potency.
Both children’s first ideas on how to reach Narnia, which they were presently calling “That Place,” was to perform witchcraft, described as drawing “a circle on the ground – and write things in queer letters in it – and stand inside it – and recite charms and spells.” Then Eustace for no reason decides this would not please Aslan. (Witchcraft is bad for reasons.) So they instead decide to petition Aslan in prayer. (Prayer is good for reasons.) Jill asks about Aslan but Eustace evades her and keeps changing the subject by saying, “But let’s get on.” Before we know too much about the ominous lion, it’s time to meet him! Don’t think about it too much!
Eustace decides to chant Aslan’s name and direct Jill to repeat after him while facing east. (Which is considered prayer and not witchcraft, just so we’re clear.) Then Eustace berates Jill for not immediately knowing which way east was because of her gender. (“It’s an extraordinary thing about girls that they never know the points of the compass.”) At this point Little Bit got quieter than usual. Usually she pipes up if some generalization about girls is uttered. I catch her eye and she just admits in a quiet voice, “That’s wrong, but… what does ‘points of the compass’ mean?”) Once she understood, she was quick to say, “Eustace doesn’t even know how to use a GPS? It’s in Google Maps!”
With Little Bit’s confidence back up, we return to the “praying” children who are suddenly interrupted by bullies forcing them to dive into the bushes and climb a hill behind the gym. Lewis mentions here that children at this school were not taught “much French or Maths or Latin” but were experts at getting away from bullies quickly. (Probably because a woman is in charge, right?)
At the top of the hill was a tall wall with a door leading outside school grounds that was usually locked. But the knob turned in Eustace’s hand and they went through. “And before she quite knew what was happening, he had grabbed her hand and pulled her through the door, out of the school grounds, out of England, out of our whole world into That Place.”
The voice of another girl behind them turned off as if someone had turned off the radio. Everything around them is described in bright colors, beautiful nature scenes, and by the repeated word “lonely.” Turns out “That Place” wasn’t Narnia; it was Aslan’s Country. But that’s a story for another post. Let’s return to London and see what happens next from the other students’ perspective. This means jumping to the very end of the book.
Eustace and Jill disappear through the gate as the bullies who were looking for Jill approach. Then a lion’s roar that literally shakes the sun (oops, messed up your sun) comes from the gate, and the stones stacked up 30 feet high around it crumble to the ground. (The sun shook but this had no ramifications for the rest of the earth conveniently. This is similar to a Bible story where the sun stands still. It almost seems like the sun is a very different thing in line with ancient beliefs about it.) Then Eustace and Jill came bursting out. Jill has a switch that Aslan directed her to take for this moment, and “with the strength of Aslan in them, Jill plied her crop on the girls.” Eustace has been informed by Aslan to draw his sword and use the broad side for beating. (They won’t just be violent, they’ll be violent with weapons!) Then our dear hero children viciously and violently abuse every single other child who’d wronged them. In the end all the bullies were crying, bloody, or concussed.
Hedy the Head (who is a freaking woman, y’all) goes into hysterics. When Hedy the Head (did I mention she’s a woman?) calls the police for help with the escaped lion, Aslan magically fixes what he destroyed and sneaks away. Seeing that Hedy the Head (…….WOMAN!!!!!!!) is mentally unstable and “no use as a Head,” the nebulous powers that be promote her to Inspector in order to “interfere with other Heads.” And when she “wasn’t much good even at that,” she gets placed into Parliament! This is the level of power an ill-equipped and useless woman can attain if we let them out of the house! I wonder what the Bible would say about this!
Experiment House was over, and what replaced it “became quite a good school.” Because of violence. Violence is good. The end.
So how did these children go from running and hiding to enacting violence upon the earth (and sun)? What kind of jacked up land is “This Place” they went to anyway? We’ll find out!
Alexis Record (guest writer extraordinaire)