The Silver Chair is the finest of the Chronicles of Narnia books. In certain ways, the storyline bears the fruit of all the others, and therefore it can take us most deeply into the world Lewis has created for us. It takes us to some of the most fanciful places—from the high cliff tops above the world, to the sightless Deep Realm far beneath it, with marshes and the Wild North in between. It introduces us to one of the series’ best characters (more on them later) and asks the most incisive questions.
It’s the story of two children from our world tasked to remember Aslan’s directive signs, rescue a lost prince, and push back the lurking forces of evil. But at a more fundamental level, The Silver Chair unfolds the effects of time and fruitfulness in the life of our main characters. Taking place much later than the previous book in the chronology, Caspian is no longer a young King but an old one. Much has changed in his reign, as evil forces begin to poke holes in the fabric of the peace of Narnia. A vile serpent—“as green as poison”—has killed the Queen. Further, Prince Rilian has vanished under the spell of a beautiful lady dressed in a garment “as green as poison.” Caspian, who appears only briefly and does not play a vital role in the storyline, faces the unraveling of his kingdom.
Only the passage of time can truly disclose the fruit of our lives. This is on full display in Eustace Scrubb, whose previous transformation (in Voyage of the Dawn Treader) from a tyrannical child, to a monstrous dragon, back to a boy—now broken and redeemed—is further put to the test: upon his return to Narnia again, what kind of person will he be now? As it turns out, although he truly was made new, he is not yet made perfect. Indeed, he still snaps at Jill, takes credit from her, dismisses her good ideas, and fails to correct her own errors with gentleness. Perhaps he now bows his knee to Aslan, but it quickly becomes clear that parts of his allegiance are still, primarily, to himself.
In an analogous way, Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle exudes a sort of crushing pessimism that does very well at capturing some of the zeitgeist of the mid-nineteenth century, as well as, perhaps, our own day. But that similarity is not why I find him to be my favorite character in the entire series. Instead, as the unexpected companion for Eustace and Jill, whose skepticism and solemnity constantly risk dispelling the last remainders of hope that their quest might succeed, Puddleglum becomes something rather more.
Surprisingly, his persistent anxiety offers at least moments of wise discernment as they traverse the Wild Lands of the North. It is not a vacuum-sealed optimism nor abstracted, ethereal “hope” that gets the trio through their greatest challenges. In those moments, Puddleglum’s sobriety, even though at times a pitfall of its own, tries to offer the children something they truly need: the simple knowledge that an eye-catching, all-too-comfortable shortcut might actually not be all that it seems. What is needed to weather real hardships is not pie-in-the-sky, obstinate wishful-thinking, but something more flat-footed and tethered to the ground than that.
To return to our previous point, we still must ask: If time discloses the fruit of our actions, what is to become of all our bad fruit? When the Prince Rilian is finally discovered to be in bondage to the witch’s spell, when the three travelers have hopelessly muffed Aslan’s signs, taking wrong turn after wrong turn, how can it all be made right?
The answer, of course, is to remember. This is a sort of deep remembering that undoes even our own forgetfulness—those moments such as when Jill suddenly cannot repeat Aslan’s sign back to herself. It is the kind of remembering that comes from outside of us, and rescues us from our chronic amnesia. In his enchantment, Rilian has no memory of who he was before meeting the witch. He hopes to one day rule the Overworld through the witch’s promise, but doesn’t remember that already he is the heir to the throne of Narnia.
Yet Rilian is powerless to make himself see; he needs the help of others who carry the memory within them. Until the recent coronavirus pandemic, I had not reflected enough on how much our memory is stored communally. Without the weekly, embodied gathering of the saints each week, without the body and blood of Christ at the Table, our memories can easily become foggy. Supplying the strength that the others need, it is finally through remembering that Puddleglum becomes more self-giving and, in the end, after all had become deceived, more truly hopeful than anyone.
In fact it may be the case, not that Puddleglum’s sober disposition is a barrier to true hope, but that his down-to-earth-ness (although it can easily lead to pessimism) is exactly what is necessary in order to fortify true steadfastness. “I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” This is not the cry of a wishful thinker, but of someone who deeply remembers all that is beautiful about Narnian soil, even when it is nowhere to be found.
All of this, and I haven’t even mentioned that first scene with Jill and Aslan—the sort of dreamlike prologue that sets the tone for all the rest. There, Jill comes to know the lion who is both frightening and comforting all at once, who could devour her, yet offers her a drink of water. For all these reasons—time’s disclosive capacity, Puddleglum’s unwitting hopefulness, the power of remembering—I think that The Silver Chair is the best Narnia book. In the middle of an unraveling kingdom, when darkness presses in closer than you ever thought it could, remembering that one who sent you can help you to stand fast till the end.