#Narniathon21: Reading the Signs

There is a scene in The Silver Chair that I think about a lot. It’s when Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum, on a quest to find the lost prince of Narnia, are caught in a storm in the Northern Wilds. They are supposed to be looking for a ruined city of the giants, and for a message written on a stone in that city, but have been distracted by hearing of a house of “gentle giants” where they can find food and comfort.

Jill falls into a kind of sunken lane that seems might be a way they can travel out of the wind and cold. But after a few turns and backtracking, it’s a dead end. So they leave the lane and go on, soon finding the House of Harfang with great joy and relief and forgetting this little detour. But there they make a dreadful discovery, realizing that the “sunken lane” was actually a huge letter “E”, part of the instructions they were supposed to be reading and following. If they had been paying more attention, and thinking about the nature of this strange “lane” that they had fallen into, rather than wanting to escape their uncomfortable circumstances, they could have recognized it sooner.

Map by Pauline Baynes

So often I feel as though I am in this exact situation. I fail to read the “signs” in my life because I am too immersed in them, embedded in them and also distracted by wishing to escape from whatever I am currently suffering, or longing for some immediate comfort and relief. I need to get some distance in order to see what is really going on. I need to get beyond the immediate sensory experience and penetrate through to the meaning, which is hidden and yet plain to see when I adjust my perspective and activate my higher faculties.

This image encapsulates what I find most brilliant about the Chronicles of Narnia. They offer certain images that have stayed with me and that are in accord with the deeper truth I hold to be the source of my life. These images are like living pictures one can look at again and again and always see new sides and different qualities in them. This is the same experience I have with any work of art or text that embodies spiritual truth.

Illustration by Pauline Baynes

It also encapsulates what I find most problematic about the books, which basically comes down to the role of Aslan. He is the one who gave the children the Signs. Why couldn’t he tell them more plainly what to do? Why delay so long to rescue the lost prince anyway, and why in this way? Why does he send them off to do it rather than playing a more active role himself?

I have found answers for these questions, but not in Narnia. There, Aslan still often appears to me as an irritatingly arbitrary and “just-so” figure, doing things the way he does just because that is the way he does them. His followers must simply accept this and bow before his power. I find this to lead to the worst kind of misunderstanding of the nature of God (and often to an understandable rejection of God altogether). Yes, God is powerful and knows more than we do. Yes, wisdom begins in recognizing this and feeling humble and small before this greatness. But the benign beings of the divine world seek to teach us, not to manipulate us. If God calls us to follow him, it is so we can become like him. This happens over great lengths of time, through a learning process, a growing in insight and understanding. Including understanding the “why” behind all those questions.

Jill and her friends learn a lesson about spiritual discipline through their failures on the journey. It’s a very important and valuable lesson. But it still stops short of what I think is the whole point of Christianity: not merely to trust in our Savior, to follow him as soldiers do a military leader, but to find that through that trust we become new beings. That was pictured somewhat in the rehabilitation of Eustace (see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), but even he seems to have mainly become a better follower.

I may be asking too much of these stories, which do not aspire to present a comprehensive spiritual path, but only some of the beginning steps on the way, through a very personal lens of one man’s imagination. All of us, with rare exceptions, are only beginners on that way, “children” in the school of wisdom. So putting my reservations aside, I still enjoy this book very much. It is exciting and engaging, with the overall theme of “don’t be fooled by the way things first appear.” From the “gentle giants” who are anything but, to the prince who speaks truth when he sounds most insane, to the gnomes of Bism who are not evil, but only out of their true place, to dear Puddleglum who sounds like a wet blanket when he is really perfectly happy … it’s a journey that reminds us to look below the surface of things, and recognize both the beauty and the danger in the deeper layers.

How was this journey to the North for you? What do you read in it?

Narniathon21 is a seven-month project hosted by Calmgrove. We’re reading the seven Chronicles of Narnia in publication order, followed by the new book From Spare Oom to War Drobe by Katherine Langrish. Join at any time!

The terrible Chair – Illustration by Pauline Baynes

11 thoughts on “#Narniathon21: Reading the Signs

  1. That is a scene that has stayed with me too, more for its visceral qualities (feeling the cold, dark, the sense of entrapment). I always enjoyed pyzzles as a child, so I rather liked the less clear-cut nature of this quest. Of course, all of the Christian doctrines just completely went over my head at the time.

    1. Yes, those qualities are very strong in the book overall, interesting that it’s Puddleglum who really saves the day in the end; as a melancholic he’s experienced in living with inner “darkness” and “coldness.” That turns into his superpower in this situation.

      I didn’t notice the Christian doctrines either till they were pointed out to me. My thesis is that the books actually are not very Christian. The parts that most consciously are “doctrinal” are by far the worst. But that’s just my opinion.

  2. Show, don’t tell. I think Lewis is at his best when he sticks to this approach, because when he is dogmatic — but especially when he’s doctrinal, as you put it — he pulls one out of the story and into another of his pet peeves. If he had characterised Experiment House as a kind of reverse Dotheboys Hall instead of specifically castigating its principles the point would’ve been made so much better, even if one disagreed with his prejudices (and I do — corporal punishment is never a good way to bring up children).

    But I’ve strayed from what I intended to say, which is that I appreciated your point of view here about us drawing the appropriate lessons from the Narniad: the first steps in our looking below the surface of things, and recognizing both the beauty and the danger in the deeper layers.

    1. It struck me this time how much this book is occupied with looking below surface appearances. Sometimes that means looking beneath the surface layer of prejudices and antipathies that Lewis himself throws up. For me it’s still worthwhile to do that.

  3. You’ve put your finger on something that always bothered me about Aslan in this book and the one before it–I like the way you put it: “That was pictured somewhat in the rehabilitation of Eustace (see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), but even he seems to have mainly become a better follower.”

    1. I’m enjoying this readalong and writing the posts to go with it because I never really thought much about the books before in such a concentrated way. It gives me a chance to notice things like that which I had never consciously articulated before.

  4. Really interesting post Lory, particularly to someone who’s an atheist. You’ve identified what it is I find hard to accept about religion and I did feel that the message was much more overt in this book. Putting that aside, though, I loved Puddleglum and the whole quest so re-reading was a wonderful experience.

    1. So glad you enjoyed the post. It is a great quest story, once one gets going! I do wish both Eustace and Jill got to spend more time in Narnia proper though. They get whisked in and out rather quickly.

  5. I hadn’t focused on this aspect of the scene – I was more conscious of the fact that (around the same time) the children are cold and wet and tired so susceptible to the promise of warmth and a feast. If I fell into a ditch, I am sure I would not realize it was part of a letter. However, I understand your point about using trust as a pathway to personal growth.

    Jill’s trust of Aslan at the beginning when all she wants is a drink is striking to me because we know she is not religious so has no predisposition to trust at all!

    1. Very true. She recognizes in him a guide she wants to trust and follow, entirely out of herself. Fear is overcome by wonder and awe. It’s a native human capacity, not a culturally conditioned religious one. That is really important.

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