Apr 30, 2007

The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

I think all my problems with Narnia come from the fact that I discovered it too late. I didn’t have much contact at all with fantasy as a child. It was only in my late teens that I became the avid reader of fantasy that I am now, and I was 19 when I read my first Narnia book.

I’d be the last person to say that you can only enjoy fantasy (or children’s books in general) as a child. Still, it’s undeniable that certain things have a greater impact on you when you’re young. The world seems bigger, and stories feel bigger too, perhaps because you’re small. I still have the old, battered copy of Gods, Men and Monsters from the Greek Myths by Michael Gibson that I’d read and reread again and again as a child. Then, for days, my mind would be populated by nothing but the Greek gods and goddesses. I’d daydream about being Artemis and running through the forest with stags and nymphs by my side. I’d daydream about being Athena, wise and passionate and fair. While I’m sure I’d still love Greek mythology if I’d discovered it later in life (as I did the other pantheons), I’m also sure its impact on me wouldn’t have been the same, and, as a consequence, I myself wouldn’t be the same.

Likewise, I’m sure I would have enjoyed the Narnia books a lot more if I’d discovered them as a child. After all, they feature normal children like I was at the time entering a fantasy world and living wonderful adventure, and is there a child who doesn’t delight in that? I would have spent days and days daydreaming about Narnia. I would have made up magic worlds for myself.

But because I discovered them too late, I cannot overlook the things that irk me about these books, and so I cannot bring myself to enjoy them. Neil Gaiman’s words on Narnia explain the way I feel about it better than I could:
For good or ill the religious allegory, such as it was, went entirely over my head, and it was not until I was about twelve that I found myself realising that there were Certain Parallels. Most people get it at the Stone Table; I got it when it suddenly occurred to me that the story of the events that occurred to Saint Paul on the road to Damascus was the dragoning of Eustace Scrubb all over again. I was personally offended: I felt that an author, whom I had trusted, had had a hidden agenda. I had nothing against religion, or religion in fiction -- I had bought (in the school bookshop) and loved The Screwtape Letters, and was already dedicated to G.K. Chesterton. My upset was, I think, that it made less of Narnia for me, it made it less interesting a thing, less interesting a place.
Even though I’m not Christian, it’s not the use of Christian ideas in the books that I dislike. What I dislike is the fact that I can’t get over the feeling that the only reason these stories exist at all is to convey those ideas. For that reason, the whole world of Narnia seems less real, and the stories don’t really drag me in.

Neil Gaiman says another thing I find interesting:
C.S. Lewis was the first person to make me want to be a writer. He made me aware of the writer, that there was someone standing behind the words, that there was someone telling the story. I fell in love with the way he used parentheses -- the auctorial asides that were both wise and chatty, and I rejoiced in using such brackets in my own essays and compositions through the rest of my childhood.
I can see how this conversational way of telling the stories is one of Lewis’ greatest strengths. And as a child, I can see myself delighting in it, imagining a grandparent-like figure talking directly to me, telling the story to me, personally, and to nobody else. But these days I can’t say I enjoy it – every time the narrator makes a comment, I am reminded that the story is not real, and it’s yet another thing that keeps me from getting into it. I can't help but find his asides far too intrusive.

About this book specifically, there were things I liked. The description of the Underground Kingdom, for example, and the appeal of a land of wonders that remains unexplored. It filled me with a very particular sense of longing that only fantasy can awaken – the longing for distant times and places that one can never reach. But there were also things I disliked – above all, the way the main characters kept getting themselves into dangerous situations without realizing it. They were children, yes, but I think most children would be smarter and more perceptive than that.

I suppose it’s stubborn of me to keep reading Narnia if I can’t enjoy it, but I vowed to finish the series, and I want to do it still. And I had hope that I’d enjoy this book, because the previous one, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, was my favourite by far. But I can’t say I liked this one, and it saddens me. It saddens me mostly because I can see the merits of these books, I can see what makes them so appealing, and I feel like there’s this big secret behind them that I can’t be let into.

Other Blog Reviews:
Becky's Book Reviews
Dolce Belleza
Once Upon a Bookshelf


  1. Great post - it's interesting to read about your response to Narnia as someone who came to it as an adult.

    I love Narnia, but I can't help but have similar feelings about it to Neil Gaiman. He hits the nail on the head really. It was in reading the books as a teenager that the religious "stuff" occured to me, and became something of a disappointment.

    Part of the enduring appeal of Narnia for me is probably the warm childhood nostalgia, the sense of revisiting childhood worlds. Perhaps I'd feel very differently if I had first come to it, as you did, at a later age.

  2. That's interesting, Voyage of the Dawn Treader was one of my least favourite Narnia books when I was a child, whereas The Silver Chair was a close favourite right after The Horse and His Boy. Yes, I absolutely adored this series as a child. The religious implications washed right over me much as they seem to a lot of children, but I can admit that on growing up and learning of the parallel I also was quite upset and felt that I had in some way been gypped.

    Excellent review. I hope you enjoy A Horse and His Boy when you get to it.

  3. Quixotic: That warm childhood nostalgia is such a wonderful feeling. I really wish I had read Narnia earlier, because there's really nothing that strongly evokes that feeling for me. There are, like I said, the Greek Myths, and other little things, but nothing embodies it as strongly as Narnia could have.

    Naridu: I've already read "A Horse and His Boy", actually, and it was my second favourite. The only one left to go is "The Last Battle".

  4. I love Narnia; I always have. But I know it's partly because I loved them as a child, and reading them now reminds me so much of that fact. That said, though, I do understand what you're saying.

    The Last Battle is actually one of my favourite books in the series, but I think that's because I adore Jill and Eustace.

    To warn you, though, The Last Battle does almost bludgeon you over the head with some of the religious bits... but if you can overlook that, it's good story...


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