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The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsAfter a handful of adventures in which his appearance has seemed almost perfunctory, Aslan the lion gets back to being his old, proactive self again in The Silver Chair, the sixth (originally fourth) of the Narnia novels and for my money perhaps the one with the strongest, most consistent and satisfying story since The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe itself. A quest adventure of modest size but truly epic proportions, The Silver Chair makes the surprising and rather nifty choice of giving a starring role to Eustace Scrubbs, the formerly spoiled but now much more grown-up (after The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’) cousin of the Pevensie siblings. The other hero is Jill Pole, a much-bullied fellow student of Eustace’s at some sort of alternative school called Experiment House. I have no idea if anything like this really existed in Lewis’s day, but mostly he seems to be making a satirical point about turning your back on tradition, which apparently includes sparing the rod!

Anyway, Jill and Eustace want desperately to escape their unpleasant circumstances, and Eustace tells Jill all about his adventures in Narnia with King Caspian. Willing to try anything, Jill joins Eustace in calling out to Aslan to bring them to Narnia. Bring them he does, but Aslan gives the children a task, and Jill is told to memorize a list of instructions. It turns out that for ten years, Prince Rilian, the son of the now-aged King Caspian, has gone missing while on a vengeful quest to kill the evil serpent that bit and killed his mother. Caspian himself is sailing again across the eastern seas to find Aslan’s home and ask for guidance. Little does he know that Aslan is already on the job, putting the children on the quest for Rilian, in the company of an amusingly pessimistic but generally brave and chatty marsh-wiggle (a lanky fellow with frog’s feet) named Puddleglum.

The story moves much more smoothly than that of Prince Caspian or Voyage, and with the level of substance to his world building that Lewis also gave The Horse and His Boy (which, in the actual writing order of things, he would publish next). Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum travel far to the north, across the Ettinsmoor. But when Jill forgets the instructions Aslan gave her, they nearly end up in serious trouble in the castle of Harfang, inhabited by giants. What's really going on with these giants is entirely predictable, but as an example of classic children’s storytelling, The Silver Chair is so effortlessly and delightfully entertaining that it becomes the rare sort of predictability you don’t mind. The plot comes to a head when the trio find themselves in the dark and gloomy Underland.

Some readers might complain that the plot of The Silver Chair is merely a rehash of Wardrobe: an evil Witch must be defeated to save Narnia from ruin. I don’t think such a criticism would be entirely accurate. There are distinct differences, mainly in that while Aslan takes a direct role in setting his young heroes on their course, it is up to their own courage to succeed or fail in their journey. Also, if there’s any overt similarity between the two books’ plots, it’s only in that both feature a strong, unambiguous and archtypal good-vs-evil plot that is universal — not solely Christian or even western — in its appeal. And unlike Voyage, where the story, while dazzling, felt made up on the fly, or the underwhelming Prince Caspian, Lewis gives The Silver Chair a strong and focused narrative with characters who grow as a result of their adventures. Even Puddleglum’s comical cynicism has some layers, as we understand it’s merely his way of compensating for fears that he doesn’t even realize he’s perfectly brave enough to face. And the book’s imagery — particularly the scenes in the vast and dark Underland — is among the series’ most striking. 

It’s easy to see, reading its better volumes, why the Narnia saga has been such a source of inspiration. Before I wrap up, I might as well note there are some scenes in the novel — particularly those involving the amusingly-named Experiment House — that might offend some contemporary readers. (Apparently the reason Experiment House is so badly run is that its headmaster is a woman!) As a left-of-center chap myself, I agree that this sort of thing is stupid, but there’s a danger in giving a bunch of outmoded and quaint ideas more dignity and power than they deserve. (And in any case, there is content in the final volume, The Last Battle, that, comparatively, really is offensive.) Remember the book’s vintage, and that it’s all just meant to be Eustace and Jill’s Excellent Adventure at the end of the day. And besides, the line about the headmaster ending up in Parliament is funny. 

Followed by The Last Battle.