A Year of Reading Lewis: “The Silver Chair”

I’ve been doing a few of the Lewis “heavies” – Abolition of Man, The Problem of Pain, That Hideous Strength–so I thought I’d take a break and go for a little trip into Narnia.

I decided to read The Silver Chair, the fourth of the Narnia books, published in 1953. I toyed with starting at the beginning of the series, with The Magician’s Nephew, but in the end I chose the fourth book because this is the next Narnia book that will be released as a movie and I wanted to revisit it before I saw the movie, which is coming out sometime in 2016.

The Silver Chair follows on the heels of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, set a year later according to English time, but decades later in Narnia. The story contains a couple of the characters from The Voyage, notably Prince Caspian (briefly) and Eustace Stubbs, who along with Jill Pole, are the main protagonists of the story. Eustace has changed from his experiences in Narnia, he is no longer the whiny, self-centred brat we encounter at the beginning of Dawn Treader. Instead of being one of the bullying gang at his school (called The Experiment – a sure nod to the warnings found in The Abolition of Man) Eustace is now one of their victims, along with Jill Pole, a girl who at the beginning of the book is hiding from the bullies. Eustace stumbles across her and tells her of his adventures in Narnia, and together they attempt to find a way to cross back there.

My 1972 copy, which included the very delightful illustrations of Pauline Baynes, who illustrated the original books. The insert is a picture of Puddleglum, one of my favourite characters.

My 1972 copy, which included the very delightful illustrations of Pauline Baynes, who illustrated the original books. The insert is a picture of Puddleglum, one of my favourite characters.

They link hands and chant “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan,” but interrupted by the bullies who give them chase again. They burst through a door in a high stone wall that normally leads to the moor and find that they have arrived, instead, in a wholly different place, Aslan’s high country, but there is no sign of the great Lion.  At the edge of a very high cliff they have a disagreement, which results in Jill inadvertently causing Eustace to fall off, but Aslan quickly appears and uses his breath to blow Eustace to safety down to Narnia.

Aslan explains to Jill that he has called Eustace and her to Narnia in order to complete a task: to find the missing Prince Rilian, who is the son of Prince Caspian. In order to complete this task he gives her four signs she must look out for. He makes her memorize them and warns her to repeat them constantly when she is in Narnia, for, as he says,

“Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.” 

Of course, although Jill starts off well, she soon forgets the signs, or misreads them, and things start to go wrong. Due to Eustace not recognizing Prince Caspian, who is now King of Narnia and an old man, the first sign (“Greet the first person you recognize”) is ignored, because Eustace only finds out his identity after the King sails off to find Aslan to ask him who should be king after him, as his son is lost.  Jill and Eustace set off to find the lost prince and fall into the company of a Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum. Puddleglum, who can never find a good word to say about anything (you might say he is Narnia’s Eeyore) is, however, a brave companion for the two children and eventually, through many adventures, they find the lost Prince who is under a terrible enchantment from the Lady of the Green Kirtle, one of the witches of the Northland, like the White Witch.

Like all of the Narnia books, this is children’s story, to be sure, but it is so much more than that. There is much for adults to ponder here too. The whole business of the signs, for example. It is quite to easy to extrapolate that into our lives as Christians. God has given us clear “signs” as to how to live our lives (the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, for example), but, oh, how often we get them muddled, ignore them, and mess them up. Jesus’ words, “Let those who have ears to hear, let them hear!” comes to mind. We have to constantly remind ourselves of the “signs” or we will forget, just as Jill did as she got involved in her adventures in Narnia.

There is also the value of companions. Jill told both Puddleglum and Eustace about the signs, and so at various times in the book they reminded each other about the signs and worked out together what they might mean in the various situations they found themselves in. It is not easy to walk the narrow road alone, we all need companions along the way to remind us of what we have forgotten!

There is also the comforting reminder of the forgiveness and grace of God. Even though Jill feels she has messed up her task, at the end, when they see Aslan again, and she and Eustace feel miserable because of their errors, Aslan says, “Think of that no more. I will not always be scolding. You have done the work for which I sent you into Narnia.” Which, I suppose, is Lewis’ version of, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:23).

This little trip into Narnia was a refreshing jaunt, and an encouraging one. And fun, too, what with the Marshwiggles,  the doleful Earthmen, the giants, and the all-to-real quarrels between Jill and Eustace.

More fun - Jill and Eustace attend a Parliament of Owls, and Jill gets there by riding on Glimfeather's back. Cool....don't we all want to do that?

More fun – Jill and Eustace attend a Parliament of Owls, and Jill gets there by riding on Glimfeather’s back. Cool….don’t we all want to do that?

I’m looking forward to seeing how they translate this into a movie. I don’t believe they have a release date yet, but when they do, I’ll be one of the first in line!

Elves and Fairies and Yokai, Oh My!

“Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”

 – J.R.R. Tolkein

Elves are fascinating creatures of legend, and their roots go deep into our history. And when I say “our”, I mean collective mankind, for although we may think that the concept of elves is a Western European one, you can actually find elf-like creatures in most of the world’s mythology. In the Norse and Germanic cultures they are alfar, supernatural beings having great beauty and long lives, sometimes helping humans, sometimes hindering them. These are the Tolkein elves,for the most part, which is not surprising, as his LOTR saga was based on Norse mythology.

Many legends of elves speak of the Trooping of the Elves, a mysterious night trek of a long line of elves, and woe to the human who spies them! This is referenced in Lord of the Rings, the long march of the Elves as they leave Middle Earth... picture from WikiCommons

Many legends of elves speak of the Trooping of the Elves, a mysterious night trek of a long line of elves, and woe to the human who spies them! This is referenced in Lord of the Rings as the march of the Elves as they leave Middle Earth…
(Photo: WikiCommons)

Fairy rings are said to be the result of fairies dancing on the grass, leaving behind...well, mushrooms, I guess. Fairies are another form of elves, but usually small, with wings. Think Tinkerbell....

Fairy rings are said to be the result of fairies dancing in a ring on the grass, leaving behind…well, mushrooms, I guess. Fairies are another form of elves, but usually small, with wings. Think Tinkerbell…. (photo: WikiCommons)

The Celts elves were different; usually smaller creatures, living in barrows or in the Otherworld. Brownies, goblins, and sprites and the like were the Celtic “others”, the human-like creatures who lived alongside humans, generally causing some mischief of a greater or lesser fashion. But there were other elf-like creatures among the British Celts, too. The Irish had the aes sidhe, the Welsh, the tylwylth teg. Again, they were not seen to be particularly helpful to mankind, and one had to be careful not to be cursed or tricked by them. After the onset of Christianity, the stories of elves (which comes from the Saxon word ælf) took another twist. They were described as some of the angels who sided with neither Lucifer nor God during Lucifer’s great rebellion, and so were cast down by God not to hell, but to earth. No longer angels, but not demons either; something in-between. And again, because of this ambivalent nature, encounters with them were frought with danger – they were just as likely to curse you as to bless you.

Other non-European civilizations had elf-like beings in their mythologies. One could make an argument that the Arabic jinn could be their equivalent of our elf; a tricksy human-like creature with whom of whom you must be wary, especially when you make bargains with them. Aladdin’s “genie” is of this ilk – the word “genie” is the Anglicized form of jinni.  In Latin America we find the duende, a goblin-type creature who either lures people into the woods or helps lost people out of the woods, depending on which tale you hear. In Japan you find the yokai, who can appear in human form, and again, are either malevolent or beneficent.

Alladin and his genie...err, jinni....in Lego! Photo: Jerry Daykin, on Flickr

Aladdin and his genie…err, jinni….in Lego!
(Photo: Jerry Daykin, on Flickr)

A Japanese yokai Picture from Wikicommons

A Japanese yokai
(Picture from WikiCommons)

Interesting, isn’t it, that every culture seems to have stories about these kinds of creatures, the “others” who are like us, but not like us. And in every case they are untrustworthy beings at best, and downright dangerous at worst.

I think the universality of these stories is one reason why elves are so popular in fantasy books and films. Every culture has a mythology which includes these types of beings, and seeing them come to life in a well-told story brings a delicious shiver of familiarity down our spines.

Another reason, from the author’s point of view, is that they are quite fun to write. Anytime you can get a character who is sly, slippery and not to be trusted, you can find all kinds of good story lines. Add a little magic, and the writer has some great elements to make his or her story much more interesting.

The downside is that elves nowadays are seen as a trope – a tired old element of fantasy stories that no one wants to read about any more. Kinda like the grumpy dwarves, the shimmering unicorns, the magician with the pointy hat. Boring. I mean, how can there be anything new to write about in stories of elves?

So, as a writer, you either have to present the tried and true elf in your story and make the story so good that people love to read it anyway, (which is really the goal whether you have elves or any other trope in it or not, but even more so if you do!) or you have to think of a different way to use them in your story.

It’s a fun challenge. I have tried to do that in my books, to come up with a slightly different explanation for the origins of these creatures, to think of a plausible reason for why elf-legends can be found in every culture.

If you want a little teaser….check out “A Sign” , which is a chapter of Wilding, my first book in my Traveller’s Path series. This chapter is the introduction of my main antagonist for the first book, a Pictish nobleman named Nectan, who also happens to be the King of the Seelie Fey…..

The Trouble With Names

One of the blessings of writing historical fiction is that you can include the actual historical events and people of the time you are writing about. However, this is also one of the curses! I discovered this as I wrote The Traveller’s Path, my trilogy set in Dark Ages Britain.

The blessing side of that coin is that historical events can be a great source of plot points for novelists. While digging into the history of Britain in the 7th century, I found some interesting events that provided rich details and background that I otherwise wouldn’t have come up with, I am sure. For example, King Oswald was slain at the Battle of Maserfield, and his head and arms were placed on spikes as offerings to the victorious king Penda’s pagan gods. Urp. Yuck, right? Well, if you think it’s not very pleasant for you to think about, put yourself in the place of Oswy, Oswald’s half-brother, the Christian king of Bernicia. What would he have felt about it, do you think? A bit of a slap in the face, perhaps?

Out of juicy details like that a writer can come up a bunch of character motivation ideas. And having real-life timelines to work around saves you from having to make up your own, which can be very handy.

However, it is equally true that having to use actual historical facts and people in your books can cause a bit of difficulty to the writer, as well. Let me show you what I mean.

I discovered early on in my research that, although there are broad strokes of information known about life in the 7th century, such as the names of kings and queens, some place names, some battles, etc, there is much that is very much unknown. The broad structure of the society is understood, with the coerls at the bottom and the kings at the top, and the rest of the society, the thegns, eorldomen, and the like, falling in-between in a graduated line of ever-increasing status. Okay, gotcha. But what about details such as, what did the women do all day? What was a typical day like for a coerl as opposed to an eorldoman? How did their economy work? Coins were fairly rare, so a barter economy, but still…What about the children? What did they do? I mean, obviously everyone worked  hard to survive, farming and hunting and making clothes and whatnot. But details? Some of this is mere conjecture and frustrating for a novelist. However, as Diana Gabaldon says, what you don’t know you can make up, so, fair enough.

One of the biggest difficulties that I faced early on, however, was the trouble with names. Take, for example, the royal seat of the Bernician kings, the fortress known today as Bamburgh. This originally was a fort of the native Britons, and called by them, Din Guardi. When the Angles invaded, and Ida, the Anglic King conquered the Britons, he renamed it Bebbanburgh (or Bebbanburg) in honour of his wife, Bebba. That has now morphed into today’s name of Bamburgh. So, what name should I use in my novel? Well, I have decided to stick with the name that would have been common in that time, Bebbanburg. The spelling of that varies, so you just have to pick one and be consistent.

Greater difficulty came as I wrote about Iona, the most influential Celtic Christian monastery of the time, situated on the north-east coast of Gr. Britain. The original Celtic name for this has been lost in the mists of time, some speculate it was Eoa, Ie, or even I Cholaim Cille (basically, the “island of Colum” or Columba, the first Abbot to establish a church there). In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede called it by the Latin name of Hii. Keeping in mind that I want my book to be as historically accurate as possible, while still making it readable for modern people, what on earth should I call this place in my book? Clearly Iona is out, that is too modern. But the others are unpronounceable to us. After some thought I decided to use Hii. Good enough for Bede, good enough for me. Even though I know that’s a strange name to our ears.

This discussion of Iona brings up another tricky problem of names. Today, we would place Iona in Scotland. However, in the 7th century, the Scotti was actually the name the Romans gave to the British tribes living there, whom we would call the Irish today. Yup, back then the Irish were actually known as the Scots, and the kingdom that Iona was situated in was called Dál Riata (or Dalriata or Dalraida. Sigh. See what I mean?). So, to be historically accurate I would have to completely confuse my readers. So, I fudged a little on this one. Because my main character is from the present time, he can call the monks Irish all he likes. I do not have any of the 7th century characters call them Irish, however. They are referred to as the British (meaning the native British tribes which included the Welsh, the Irish and the Picts), or the Dál Riatan Scots.

One of the biggest name difficulties came with, well, names. As in names of people. Unfortunately, the Saxons and Angles of the time did not come with familiar names such as Matthew, Mark, or John. No. More like Heahbeorth, Seoca, or Winedaeg. And to top it off, names like the last one, with the “ae” should properly be spelt with an “æ”, to be strictly correct. You see my problem? The Irish Celts are not much better, with their Caeoimhin, Fercetrniu, or Guiare. And then we have the Picts, whose names include Eddarrnonn, Ufeichir, or my personal favourite, Bliesblituth.

Readers do not like unpronounceable names, and I understand. I don’t much like them either. So the best I could do was to pick some authentic names from the ones available that weren’t too difficult for people. Names like Nectan, Celyn, and Siward. Not familiar, no, but at least the reader doesn’t have a mental breakdown every time he or she reads it!

Hah! Comic courtesy of xkcd, http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/names.png

Hah! Comic courtesy of xkcd, http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/names.png

One more difficulty raised its head as I put names to the people in my book: some of those people already came with names! In other words, they are real people who lived in the time and place I wrote about. People like Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. Or Talorcan, Oswy’s nephew who was fostering with the Picts as the story opens. Those names aren’t too bad. But one of my real dilemmas cane along with Oswy himself. You see, his older brother is named Oswald. And his cousin, the sub-king of the kingdom to the south of Oswy’s, is named Oswine. As I looked into the list of kings in the various kingdoms of that period, I saw this more than once. The Angles and Saxons had a thing about alliteration when it came to names. Like the successive Kings of Essex, from 527 AD to 617 AD: Sledda, Saebert, Sexred, and Saeward.

Confusing. I know there will be readers who will wonder why I gave them such similar names. But as those are their actual names, I don’t have much choice.

This is just a little taste of the trouble with names when it comes to historical fiction. All part of the challenge, and all part of the fun!

Year of Reading Lewis: The Problem of Pain

The Problem of Pain was written in 1940. According to Lewis’ preface it was written as a result of a request by Ashley Sampson, who was a publisher at the time and who had requested this book as part of a series he was publishing on the Christian Challenge. According to Bruce Edwards, in C.S. Lewis: An Examined Life, in 1939 Lewis began to meet with a group of Christian undergraduates, and it was either with this group or some other students that Lewis shared his work in progress on The Problem of Pain, reading a chapter each week and getting their feedback on it, with the aim of making sure it was understandable to college students.  The book is dedicated to the Inklings, his group of writerly friends (including J.R.R. Tolkein, and Charles Williams), who, by all account, were generally deep in discussion over one thing or another. I’m certain this “problem” of pain would have surfaced among them a time or two. It was WWII, after all, and there was plenty of suffering being experienced by people all over the world.  And even without the environment of a world war to prompt it,  most people of faith  eventually wrestle with the problem Lewis poses in this book: “If God were good, He would wish to make HIs creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” 

At any rate, in his characteristic style which is both rigorously intellectual and utterly approachable, Lewis gives us his answer in this book.

My 1983 copy, along with slightly yellowed pages and underlined sections. Interesting to see what I underlined then....

My 1983 copy, along with slightly yellowed pages and underlined sections. Interesting to see what I underlined then….

As with all his works on Christian doctrine and living, Lewis insists on making the reader face the “question behind the question.” In other words, to honestly address this problem, one needs to understand what we are actually talking about. So he begins, in the introduction, to show us the problem of pain is really only a problem for the Christian. Obviously, if you don’t believe in the specific God of the Christian faith, who is presented as a God of Love, then you don’t wrestle with this question.

The next couple of chapters help us examine the nature of God, including His omnipotence (power to do all) and goodness, and shows how a true understanding of these can help us understand the existence of pain and suffering. First, omnipotence. Lewis argues that, “not even Omnipotence could create a society of free souls without at the same time creating a relatively independent and ‘inexorable’Nature.” If you think about this for a moment you realize it must be so. There must be a “field”, as Lewis calls it, where the members of a society meet, or a “world”. If this world varied at the whim of each individual within it, you would be unable to act in it and thus lose your free will. One member might want a soft place to stand and another a hard one, for example. One might want rain and another sunshine So, “if the fixed nature of matter prevents it from being always, and in all its dispositions, equally agreeable even to a single soul, much less is it possible for the matter of the universe at any moment to be distributed so that it is equally convenient and pleasurable to each member of a society.” You can’t have your cake and eat it too – you can’t have both free will and have everything be exactly as each individual person wants it to be. And if God intervenes so that He turns to dust a beam which we might use to strike another person, well, that would mean that wrong actions would be impossible and therefore our free will would be null and void. As Lewis points out, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” 

Lewis then tackles divine goodness. What is really meant when we say this? Again, this concept needs some deeper understanding. For, as he points out,  “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.'”  Ouch. I’m afraid that is precisely how many would describe their desire when it comes what they want God to do or not do. However, is that really love? What is love if it is not the desire for the ultimate good of the beloved? In what sense can we call “everyone getting what they want” the ultimate good? For surely some of our desires are “bent”, as Lewis puts it in his Space Trilogy. A “good time” by a psychopath would look entirely different to a “good time” by a care-free college student and something entirely different again to a child in a playground. Lewis compares God to an artist who is making the ultimate work of art, the work that will define his life’s work. How much care will he put into that painting, or sculpture, as opposed to how much time he puts into a careless scribble as he talks on the phone which means next to nothing to him? And if that work of art were sentient? Would it like the scraping, the rubbing, the fixing? Ah. “In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed us for a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.” 

I hope you can get a taste from this  short summary of the first few chapters of how many rich insights into the problem of pain Lewis gives us. He is a patient teacher, but an exacting one. He will not let us get away with platitudes or assumptions, he makes us face the hard topics head on and urges us to wrestle with the questions they pose. You can get a hint of this by seeing the topics of the other chapters in the book: human wickedness, the Fall of man, human pain, hell, animal pain, and heaven.

There are so many good quotes and thought-provoking statements in this book. And all of it is an encouragement to those who struggle with this problem of how to reconcile a loving God with suffering. The answer that Lewis gives is not necessarily an easy one, but it is one that makes sense in the context of Christian faith and doctrine. We need not fear that we have no answer to this problem. Indeed we do, and it points to a greater and more loving God than we imagine now. I’ll leave you with a final quote, and an encouragement to read this book and discover the answer to the “problem of pain” for yourself:

“We are bidden to ‘put on Christ’, to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want. Once more, we are embarrassed by the intolerable compliment, by too much love, not too little…..God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God – to be like God and to share in His goodness in creaturely response – to be miserable – these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows- the only food that any possible universe ever can grow – then we must starve eternally.”