'You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,' said the Lion.
    'Then you are Somebody, Sir?' said Jill.
    'I am. And now hear your task. Far from here in the land of Narnia there lives an aged king who is sad because he has no prince of his blood to be king after him. He has no heir because his only son was stolen from him many years ago, and no one in Narnia knows where that prince went or whether he is still alive. But he is. I lay on you this command, that you seek this lost prince either until you have found him and brought him to his father's house, or else died in the attempt, or else gone back into your own world.'

The Silver Chair is I think the darkest of C.S. Lewis's Narnia series, with an accumulation of disturbing things in it, images which do not go away with any resolution at the end.

We came to know Prince Caspian as the eager, brave, occasionally haughty lad in the book bearing his name, then as the strapping new king leading an expedition in The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader'. So it is almost heartbreaking to see him in extreme old age, on the point of death. He does not speak in the book, he appears briefly at the beginning and the end, and while he is away Narnia is a land without a king, or under the Arthurian gloom of a wounded king.

This gloom is doubly, triply, and quadruply enforced, as Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb find that their adventure takes them away from bright Narnia to the giant-lands in the far north, then to endless caverns deep under the giant-lands, then into dealing with the accursed enchantment of the Prince.

What are your fears? Darkness? Burial? Drowning? Heights? Starvation? Serpents, beasts, giants, the deep, storms, cannibalism, dreams, bullying, annihilation, lies, deception, slavery, failure? All are here.

Jill and Eustace, bullied at an unlovely school called Experiment House, are transported to Aslan's world, and Aslan gives them four infallible signs by which to seek Prince Rilian, son of King Caspian X. They must travel northward out of Narnia into the rugged giant-lands, first the Ettinsmoor where the dumb and hulking giants live, then the Castle of Harfang where ugly but courteous giants live, built near the ruins of an ancient Giantish city.

With them is the pessimistic, mournful, but ultimately brave and no-nonsense creature Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle, their guide from the marshes that form northernmost Narnia.

Jill is new to Narnia but Eustace had been in that world before, on board the Dawn Treader, in company with the young King Caspian. Near the world's uttermost end, Caspian had met the daughter of Ramandu, a star, and she was to become his queen. Years later this queen was slain by a great green serpent, and the young knight Rilian in seeking to avenge her had fallen under the spell of a green-clad witch. And so he had disappeared.

Escaping from the giant house when they find what's in store for them, they fall deep underground, into a world of gloomy subterranean creatures. These gnomes or Earthmen take them past enchanted caves of sleeping creatures, through the cathedral-like cavern where Father Time himself sleeps until the end of the world, and on to a sunless sea.

And the worst thing about is was that you began to feel as if you had always lived on that ship, in that darkness, and to wonder whether sun and blue skies and wind and birds had not been only a dream.

Over and over the transience of our grip on reality is brought out. In the giants' land came the first of the scenes that haunts me, a giantish stone bridge so high that eagles pass under it, and by it they had met a Lady of the Green Kirtle and a Black Knight. Now in the city of the Underworld they meet the Knight openly, foolish and shallow. But in the night they discover his terrible secret, and confront the green Lady.

Aslan the Lion gave them four signs. They muffed three of them, and in the worst part of the confrontation with the enchanted Knight they are given the fourth, and realise they have to act upon it, even if it means their deaths.

Now the Lady tries to enchant them, telling them their ideas of sun and lion are foolish dreams, pale fabrications spun out from the only true reality, the yellow lamp and domestic cat of this bleak, drear, pitiless prison of an underworld. But behind the transience of our grip, is reality, deny it or forget it how we will.

The silver chair is the witch's instrument of imprisonment for the young prince. With the overthrow of the witch her kingdom falls, the floodwaters rise up to consume it and drown them all, but her slaves are free, and the lugubrious Gnomes now gleefully let off fireworks and jump into their own far deeper home, a brilliantly blazing abyss of fire, called Bism, radiant like stained glass and where gold and jewels are living, drinkable things.

Rilian returns to Narnia in the moonlight and snow, the gnomes rejoice in Bism, the children return to clean up their school with the courage they have gained, and King Caspian returns to his eternal home with Aslan.

First published 1953 by Geoffrey Bles. Illustrated by Pauline Baynes.

< The Voyage of the Dawn Treader -- Chronicles of Narnia -- The Horse and His Boy >

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