In 2003, Oxford fellow Michael Ward discovered a secret imaginative scheme which C.S. Lewis had embedded into The Chronicles of Narnia. Comparing Lewis’s poem “The Planets” to his discussion of Medieval literature in The Discarded Image, Ward realized that Lewis had used the imagery of the seven heavens to shape the mood and atmosphere – or what Ward terms the ‘donegality’ – of each Narnian tale. For example, the kingly, festive character of Jupiter transforms the atmosphere of Narnia when Aslan returns to restore his kingdom. As Michael Ward convincingly argues in his book, Planet Narnia, each Chronicle is an intricately crafted tale whose every iconographic detail bears some meaning worth investigating. Therefore, when the narrator of The Silver Chair remarks that Prince Rilian looks altogether “a little bit like Hamlet,” this image merits our careful consideration. Through this direct comparison between Rilian and Hamlet, Shakespeare’s “most acutely modern” character, Lewis signals a strong connection between his Lunar Chronicle and the issues of modernity. For Lewis, Hamlet is “the archetypal lunatic” who stands “with his mind on the frontier of two worlds.” Paralyzed at the border between old Medieval theism and new modern rationalism, Hamlet is “unable quite to reject or quite to admit the supernatural.” In The Silver Chair, Lewis models the conflict of his plot after Hamlet’s struggles with uncertainty, alienation, and skepticism in order to propose a credible answer to these defining issues of the modern era. Through a fairy tale resonant with the central problems of agnostic modernity, Lewis effectively smuggles traditional arguments for Christian faith past the “watchful dragons” of modern unbelief.
Lewis structures both the plot and the geography of The Silver Chair according to the Ptolemaic boundary between heaven and earth in order to reflect the divide between the world of traditional theism and the world of modern agnosticism. Michael Ward contends that “the difference between Aslan’s country and Narnia is clearly modeled on the Lunary divide.” Above the Lunar boundary, up on the astronomically high cliffs of Aslan’s country, the world is full of peace and presence. The air is sweet and clear as aether, and here Jill hears Aslan’s instructions clearly. Below the moon’s Ptolemaic boundary, alienated from the abode of Aslan, the air grows thick and the world becomes full of uncertainty and confusion. The children’s adventure follows a pattern of descent from the clarity and communion of Aslan’s country down into the translunary world of uncertainty and isolation where they must wander in search of the lost Prince Rilian. As the children travel, Aslan seems increasingly remote and Jill finds it progressively difficult to remember the signs. The resolution of the plot depends upon the children’s ability to cling to transcendent truth despite their descent into deeper and deeper levels of confusion and alienation.
Like Hamlet who “believes while the thing is present doubts when it is away,” Jill seems sure of her task when standing before Aslan, yet increasingly confused while traveling through Narnia. Passing from the clear heavens above down to the sub-lunar world below, Jill is immediately distracted from her task the moment she lands in Narnia. Her sense of clarity begins to wane as nothing in Narnia is quite what she expects it to be. Due to old age, Eustace is unable to recognize his friend, King Caspian, and the children “muff” the first step of their task. Jill and Eustace are unsure whether to trust the aged and deaf Trumpkin or whether to question the counsel’s loyalty to the king. As the children travel and grow increasingly weary, cold, and hungry, their uncertainty only intensifies. The Giants of Ettinsmoor look like piles of rocks; the children’s enemy seems most beautiful, helpful, and friendly; the ruins they seek appear to be merely a land full of trenches; and the mortal danger of Harfang seems a welcome city of refuge. “Confusion leads to confusion” until Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum fall into the Underland where they even begin to wonder whether the “sun and blue skies and wind and birds had not been only a dream.”
This deeply rooted uncertainty also creates fear and alienation. Unsure of the truth and who to trust, the characters of Narnia become estranged from one another. Rilian is separated from the kingdom as he attempts to discover his mother’s murderer and avenge her death. Having lost Queen, Son, and army as warrior after warrior disappeared in search of the missing Prince, King Caspian himself finally sails away to find Aslan. Trumpkin’s fear of breaking the rules makes him unfit support and counsel for the children’s errand and so they sneak away from the court. The fragmentation of Narnia is further revealed in the owls’ habit of meeting separately to take their own council on kingdom matters. In order to find the lost Prince, Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum must wander far away from help as they travel north and ultimately down to Underland. There, all creatures who sink down from the sunlit lands – even the gloomy, pale earthmen – are utterly alienated from their true home and from joyful relationship with each other.
The uncertainty and alienation Jill and Eustace experience on their adventure will feel familiar to the contemporary reader. In its attempt to ground all knowledge upon human reason alone, the modern rejection of divine revelation has plunged Western culture into a state of chronic uncertainty. Without an objective authority and unifying narrative, modern society is increasingly characterized by confusion and fragmentation, and knowledge has become relative as objective certainty is lost in the endless subjectivity of the human knower. Separated from divine revelation, human understanding is imprisoned beneath the dome of Lunar confusion, and we are plagued by doubts and anxieties. Moderns are no longer sure if God has revealed himself to humanity or if he even exists at all. In the failing and heirless King Caspian we recognize an image of our own dying culture. The crown prince is the future of a kingdom and the loss of Prince Rilian is the loss of Narnia’s future. As religious faith dies out and the Western world is no longer a culture characterized by theistic faith, we wonder upon what authority can the stability of our world again be established?
In order to resist deception in a world full of uncertainty and alienation, one naturally adopts a posture of skepticism. In a culture where things are not always as they seem, where the future feels uncertain and relationships have become strained, false claims and beliefs arise easily. In Narnia, the owls are skeptical of Trumpkin’s judgement, and Eustace is skeptical of the owls’ loyalty. Puddleglum is skeptical of many things, especially the advice of the Green Lady and the good will of the Gentle Giants. Had Jill and Eustace heeded Puddleglum’s skeptical advice, they would have found their way more quickly to the Underland and avoided the danger of nearly being served as the Giant’s dinner.
Yet, while skepticism can prevent one from being deceived by false claims, it can never provide the foundation for right belief. If adopted as a permanent posture, skepticism will prevent one from ever discovering any positive truth. Puddleglum’s skepticism of the Black Knight does nothing to determine whether or not he should be freed from his silver chair. Lewis presents systematic skepticism as a kind of dark magic into which many fall and few return. The Green Lady tempts her victims to doubt everything that is not immediately present to their senses, to doubt past experiences, the meaning of words, and even the distinction between dreams and memories. Used without faith, skepticism only reduces knowledge and diminishes the meaning of the world.
Positive knowledge must ultimately begin with some article of faith, for even the axioms of reason cannot themselves be rationally proven; they must be accepted as beginning points upon which the laws of inference may work. Thus, a solution to the modern epistemological crisis will not come from reason itself, but from a deeper source. If radical doubt precipitated the modern cultural crisis, then the solution will be a return to faith. This is the answer which, at the beginning of the modern era, Hamlet resolved upon when he realized that “there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” Hamlet resolved to trust that there is a God who is guiding the story of this world, and that the readiness to follow his word is all. Writing at the end of the modern era, Lewis affirms this answer: reason alone will not answer the fundamental human questions, only faith seeking understanding can truly know – faith in the revealed word of Aslan, faith in the signs, faith in the revelation of God as proclaimed through all creation, through sun and stars and deep, deep sky.
Through the expectation of a resolution to his narrative conflict, Lewis prepares his skeptical readers to receive faith as an answer to the modern crisis. As both Shakespeare and Hamlet looked to the art of theater in order to recover truth in the midst of chaotic and confused worlds, Lewis likewise turned to narrative art in order to hold “as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show … the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Because the Lunar donegality of The Silver Chair feels so much like our own, a believable resolution to the difficulties within the plot will suggest the possibility of credible solutions to our own alienation and uncertainty. As we enjoy a fantastical story, we are willing to suspend our disbelief in impossibilities and provisionally entertain events and ideas within the context of the story which we would not be willing to consider within a realistic situation. Yet, if we are drawn to accept answers for the uncertainty faced by Jill and Eustace, we are imaginatively opened to the possibility that there might be answers to the uncertainties we face as well.
Moreover, by winning the sympathies of his reader through a setting and plot resonant with the struggles of the modern world, Lewis emotionally prepares his readers to sympathize with the rational arguments presented within the text. Most readers will not immediately recognize the resonances between The Silver Chair and the problems of modernity. Thus, long before a reader begins to rationally consider the philosophical implications of his story, Lewis’s readers will have already found themselves enjoying his fairy tale. As a modern skeptic himself, Lewis understood that a direct argument can create “an obligation to feel” something for which one may not be emotionally prepared. Yet through the re-contextualization of a fairy story, an author can make transcendent truths “for the first time appear in their real potency.” By the time the reader has journeyed with Jill and Eustace and Puddleglum into Underland, their affections are aligned with the protagonists and the reader wants to be presented with an answer to their confusion and alienation. We want the children and Puddleglum to remember the signs, to trust Aslan’s instructions, and to resist the witch’s deceptions. Lewis thus emotionally prepares his reader to imaginatively affirm the importance of faith. Consequently, by the time Lewis works his rational arguments for the existence of God into the plot, the reader is emotionally aligned on the side of faith.
After winning his readers trust and affection, Lewis offers his rational argument for theistic faith in a climactic dilemma that mirrors the modern epistemological crisis. By the climax of the story, the children have wandered far from Aslan’s country and fallen deep into the caverns of Underland. This dark realm, utterly cut off from the sunlit heavens above, functions as a symbol of reductionist materialism and the absolute denial of any supernatural reality. Here in the Dark Castle, the children and Puddleglum face a dilemma: did the Green Lady rescue the Black Knight from an evil enchantment or did she capture him and place him under enchantment? Is she working hard to free him from this dreadful enchantment or to enslave him permanently? Both stories seem possibly true; how can they know which to believe? These contrasting narratives are analogous to the conflicting Christian and atheistic explanations of reality. Do we long for immortality because our souls were made for eternity, or is belief in heaven merely a fancy created by wish fulfillment? Is reality limited to only the things we can see and feel and measure or is there a reality beyond the material? If two opposing explanations of reality can apparently both explain all the available data, how do we to discern which is true?
As the children and Puddleglum endeavor to rescue the Prince and escape Underland, Lewis offers a cumulative argument for Christian faith by describing at least two ways in which the children and Puddleglum resist the enchantment of the Green Lady. First, Lewis portrays the necessity of accepting divine revelation. Genuine knowledge can only be gained by receiving the revealed word that has been granted. If God does indeed exist and has indeed spoken to particular people, then faith in this divine revelation is completely warranted. Within the context of Lewis’s narrative, Aslan indeed exists and he has spoken to Jill; therefore, most readers will consider it is perfectly reasonable for the children and Puddleglum to trust and obey the signs given to Jill. The children and the marshwiggle cannot rationally deduce which prince is telling them the truth; they can only obey the special revelation given to them by Aslan.
Secondly, Lewis carefully connects the witness of special revelation to the witness of general revelation. As Rilian comes to his senses, he describes a “little pool” in which he could “see all the trees growing upside down in the water,” their green tops stretching up into the “deep, very deep” blue sky. Unlike the realm of Underland, with its thick roof of rock closing off its inhabitants from the witness of sun and sky, the pool reveals the true nature of reality. As the pool reflects the sky above it, so the created world images forth the invisible realities of transcendent being. Rilian becomes sane as he begins to remember the true meaning of the world. He then implores the three Overlanders, “by all fears and loves, by all the bright skies of Overland, by the great Lion, by Aslan himself, I charge you!” Rilian entreats the children and Puddleglum by the moral revelation of Natural Law, by natural revelation of the created world, and by the special revelation of Aslan’s word to believe his witness and free him. If the children are to know the truth, they must follow these signs: the signs granted both in the special revelation of the divine word as well as in the general revelation of the Logos “who from eternity doth teach / Himself in all, and all things in himself.” As the priest and poet Malcolm Guite explains, “the outward ‘objects’ of nature are continuously given and made by the divine mind and imagination, they are the ‘eternal language’ language’ of the divine poet.” Where prophetic word and the language of creation meet, we find the foundation for faith and the remedy for paralyzing uncertainty.
Echoing the arguments of modern skeptics, the Green Lady endeavors to undermine divine revelation by inverting the relationship between the seen and unseen and attacking the meaning of creation itself. She cannot fully rule Narnia so long as the very earth and sky proclaim the praise of Aslan. If, through her enchanting fire and bewitching tune, the Green Witch can transform the “eternal language of nature” into mere projections of fancy, she will have not only undermined general revelation but special revelation as well. Neither sun nor sky nor prophet will speak of anything truly. By exploiting the imperfections of analogical knowledge, the witch denies the possibility of any such knowledge at all. She asks the Narnians to explain, if “the sun is like the lamp, only greater and brighter,” then from what ceiling does the sun hang? How could it hang from nothing in the empty sky? These ideas about Aslan and the sun must be only “pretty make-believe.” In Planet Narnia, Ward explains that “like Feuerbach or Freud or Marx, the witch argues that the supposed supernatural realities – what she calls ‘fancies’ are merely extrapolations of particular Underworld images (sun from lamp, lion from cat) and that the higher world of Narnia does not really exist.” Rather than acknowledging that meaning has been infused into the created world from the outside in, the witch denies the signed nature of creation and transforms spiritual things into ‘mere’ imagined projections of material things. The witch and all modern materialists turn Plato’s cave inside out, converting the shadows below into the true reality and the solid beings above into mere psychological phenomena.
Lewis cleverly places his answer to this modern inversion of reality into the mouth of his healthy, true-hearted skeptic, Puddleglum. In Lewis’s futuristic fantasy, That Hideous Strength, Ransom insists that his resident skeptic, MacPhee holds “a very important office … you couldn’t have a better man at your side in a losing battle.” An honest skeptic will be willing to doubt even his own doubt as well as everything else in the world, and by being skeptical of one’s own skepticism, the mind is opened to the necessity of knowledge from some other source. When doubt cannibalizes itself, only faith will be left to take its place as the foundation of knowledge. At the end of all doubts, Puddleglum stamps out the fire of skeptical reductionism, rejecting systematic doubt as a means for discerning truth.
Doubting the witch’s lies to the very end, Puddleglum intertwines both Anselm’s ontological argument and Pascal’s “wager” in order to make a last stand defense of theistic faith. How can we know if transcendent realities are merely projections of material realities or if material realities are manifestations of transcendent realities? Puddleglum draws from our innate sense of value in order to answer this dilemma. He argues that the transcendent ideas of sun and moon and sky and Aslan, of God and heaven and grace and immortality, are far better than the material realities of lamp and cat and earth and work. The world offered by reductionist materialism is “a pretty poor one” while the world offered by Christianity “licks your real world hollow.” Puddleglum implies that that which is better is also more real. The transcendentals of being are in proportion to the reality of being; thus, the higher a being, the greater the goodness, truth, and beauty which that being possesses. Just as the lamp is a weaker, secondary replacement for the sun, so the “made-up things” of fancy are diminishments of real things, not improvements. The higher and greater realities could not be imagined if they did not exist; we cannot invent values; they must exist as a transcendent given. We could not imagine taste if we had not first been given taste, and we could not imagine love and forgiveness and honor if these realities had not first broken into our world from above.
Puddleglum further argues that even if values themselves – if the transcendent standards which make something ‘better’ cannot be rationally proven to exist, it is still far better to believe that they do. Puddleglum resolves to stand “on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan” for the risk of being wrong will be a “small loss if the world’s as dull of a place as you say.” Because the higher realities will make for a better, greater life, Puddleglum makes a “wager on transcendence” and determines to live as if the greater things were real whether or not he can prove it. With Pascal, Puddleglum contends that “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.” If this wager on transcendence proves wrong, it will not matter, for life will have been better while it lasted and in the end no different than a life without faith.
Defeated by Puddleglum’s doubting of doubt, argument from ontology, and existential wager on transcendence, the witch reveals her true self and the true spirit behind universal skepticism: the will to power. The Lady of the Green Kirtle is the same ancient serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to doubt God’s goodness so that he might usurp God’s authority over creation. The realm of Underland, closed off from the “sunlit lands,” represents the witch’s rebellion against Aslan, against God, and against any transcendent authority. The Green Lady is the “Moonwitch” who has turned her face away from the Sun to seek a power that is “uncreaturely, self-sustaining, not derived or dependent.” Lewis portrays the modern struggle with faith as ultimately a struggle with pride and the “temptation to believe that there is nothing higher” than ourselves.
Once the witch’s deception and power are broken, Underland collapses, and all of Narnia, both above and below, is again filled with life and meaning. Under the dominion of the witch’s rebellious reductionism, the pale, expressionless “Maggotmen” present a flattened, deformed image of God, yet once her enchantment is broken, they are filled with joy and vigor and personality. The divine Logos speaks not only through the sun and moon and stars in the sky but also in the rocks and caverns and depths of the earth. In a kind of Dantean reversal, down no longer functions as a metaphor for estrangement from God; as the “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable” realm of the Moonwitch crumbles, both up and down become paths toward the presence of Aslan. The Narnians’ alienation has ended and every creature is freed to begin their return journey Home, either up toward the heavenly lights or down toward the jewel-toned brilliance of Bism.
Within the narrative of The Silver Chair, faith is shown to be a reasonable and compelling solution to the problem of rational uncertainty. While the witch’s reductionist argument is logically valid – for if her premises are true and Underland really is the only world that exists, then it is logical to conclude that the sun and Aslan and Narnia are indeed mere fancies – her conclusions are clearly untrue. A sympathetic reader who has enjoyed Lewis’s fairy tale will recognize that, within the context of the plot, Narnia certainly does exist. Lewis has thus enabled his reader to imaginatively experience a situation in which a logically valid argument is not necessarily true and exposed the circularity of materialist arguments which almost always depend upon the a priori assumption that the material world – the Underland– is the only world that actually exists. Any reader who imaginatively accepts the plot of The Silver Chair analogically accepts its critique of materialistic worldview and is thereby emotionally and imaginatively prepared to consider the possibility of a transcendent reality which is not merely caused by the wish-fulfilling projection of materially bound phenomenon, but rather the source of being that fills the created world with meaning, goodness, and beauty.
Crawford, Annie. 2018. “Finding Faith in Fairy Tales: Answers for Modern Skeptics from C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair.” An Unexpected Journal 1, no. 2. (Summer): 85-105.
Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///finding-faith-in-fairy-tales-answers-for-modern-skeptics-from-c-s-lewiss-the-silver-chair/
This is the similar to the argument which the analytic philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, makes in Knowledge and Christian Belief. Plantinga argues that if the God of Christianity does indeed exist, then belief in God will be properly basic to human knowledge, and therefore, it is possible for Christian faith to be epistemically warranted.