For a long time, this was the only book in the series that I genuinely disliked. I’ve learned to appreciate it more over time, but I think I still like it more in theory than in practice.
This book is ruled by Luna, the Moon – the Night to Dawn Treader’s Day. This also happens to be the first coded-female planet that Lewis has attempted (being associated with Artemis/Diana, the Huntress), with somewhat mixed results. One of the primary themes of Luna is obedience (since the Moon is “obedient” to the Earth, or something), but the primary image is that of tiers (or perhaps “spheres”). The highest/outer tier brings the most perspective and a clear view of the world, but as you descend into the lower tiers, things become darker and murkier, with far less clarity.
So what does this all amount to? First, the tone of the book is relatively dark and grimy. Honestly, the tone reminds me of Harry Potter (some of the illustrations would be right at home in that series), which actually helped me pinpoint one of the reasons why I never particularly liked that series: It’s a bit dingy for my taste, and that applies both to Harry Potter and The Silver Chair. The other main factor is the way in which Lewis chose to express Luna’s femininity: By making the POV character a girl. Granted, he made great progress in characterizing Lucy in the last book, but this is a totally new character, and unlike Lucy, I never really related to her as a child.
One last note before I get on to the chapter at hand, concerning the possible literary influences on the book. If Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales provided some tonal inspiration for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Robert Louis Stevenson provided inspiration for Prince Caspian, and the apostle John provided inspiration for Voyage of the Dawn Treader, than I think E. T. A. Hoffmann’s fairy tales may have been the inspiration for The Silver Chair’s aesthetic. If you don’t recognize the name, I don’t blame you – I didn’t know him either until a couple years ago. His most famous work is The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, and he had a few other stories which were made into more obscure ballets as well (if you’ve ever seen Coppelia, that was Hoffmann, too). He tended to write dark morality tales, occasionally veering into psychological horror, but sometimes, when the hero stayed the course through many trials (and even failures), there would be sublime beauty.
And now, on to the book!
It was a dull autumn day and Jill Pole was crying behind the gym.
[…] This is not going to be a school story, so I shall say as little as possible about Jill’s school, which is not a pleasant subject. […] All sorts of things, horrid things, went on which at an ordinary school would have been found out and stopped in half a term; but at this school they weren’t. Or even if they were, the people who did them were not expelled or punished. The Head said they were interesting psychological cases and sent for them and talked to them for hours. And if you knew the right sort of things to say to the Head, the main result was that you became rather a favorite than otherwise.
Experiment House would be right at home in A Series of Unfortunate Events!
Anyhow, it turns out that this is the school Eustace is stuck at. Evidently the book takes place during the term after the holidays which he spent with Edmund and Lucy (his second term at the school). He runs into Jill (almost literally) mid-cry, rightly assumes that she’s been bullied, and…kind of fails at cheering her up (mainly because he gets all defensive when she accuses him of sucking up to the bullies, which he had been in the practice of during the last term).
Scrubb saw that she wasn’t quite herself yet and very sensibly offered her a peppermint. He had one too. Presently Jill began to see things in a clearer light.
“I’m sorry, Scrubb,” she said presently. “I wasn’t fair. You have done all that – this term.”
“Then wash out last term if you can,” said Eustace. “I was a different chap then. I was – gosh! what a little tick I was.”
“Well, honestly, you were,” said Jill.
Jill is the sort of person who wants something to believe in, but hasn’t had the opportunity. Eustace senses this, so he starts telling her about Narnia, and especially about his hope to return there.
“Who is this person you keep on talking about?”
“They call him Aslan in That Place,” said Eustace.
“What a curious name!”
“Not half so curious as himself,” said Eustace solemnly
Eustace figures that it couldn’t hurt just to ask Aslan to let them go to Narnia, but they’re interrupted by one of “Them”.
Jill and Eustace gave one glance at each other, dived under the laurels, and began scrambling up the steep, earthy slope of the shrubbery at a speed which did them great credit. (Owing to the curious methods of teaching at Experiment House, one did not learn much French or Maths or Latin or things of that sort; but one did learn a lot about getting away quickly and quietly when They are looking for one.)
No wonder I keep thinking of A Series of Unfortunate Events – the narrator is so snarky! That may also explain why I didn’t really cotton to it for a long time, as I didn’t appreciate that sort of dry humor when I was younger (and wasn’t used to it in this particular series).
Long story short, they find a random unlocked gate and discover “That Place” on the other side. They go through, walk through a strange wood, and then suddenly find themselves at the edge of an unbelievably tall cliff. Jill steps a little too close to the edge and looks down (since she generally has “a good head for heights”).
Jill stared at [the bottom of the cliff]. Then she thought that perhaps, after all, she would step back a foot or so from the edge; but she didn’t like to for fear of what Scrubb would think. Then she suddenly decided that she didn’t care what he thought, and that she would jolly well get away from that horrible edge and never laugh at anyone for not liking heights again. But when she tried to move, she found she couldn’t. Her legs seemed to have turned into putty. Everything was swimming before her eyes.
Eustace tries to help her, of course, but she’s lost control of her own limbs by this point. They end up in a tussle, and Jill accidentally pushes him over the edge. Aslan comes to his rescue, of course (by blowing him away), but that’s not exactly a good start for Jill (one might even call it a bad beginning).
I’m a little torn about this first chapter. We really don’t learn much about Jill – she must be a not-horrible person since she’s not on the bully’s side at Experiment House, and she hasn’t had a chance to believe in anything up till now. That’s it. It’s not like Lewis is incapable of sketching a character in less time than that, either – he managed it very well with Eustace in the last book. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if he weren’t trying to tell the story from her POV, but as it is, it’s really hard to get behind her as the main character. On the other hand, the narration itself is pretty enjoyable, if in a different fashion from Dawn Treader.
Until next time…