Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Doctor and Jesus

To many of my friends this will probably seem like a pretty crazy piece. It is pretty absurd, but it combines the two stories that I've been immersed in this week - Doctor Who, and The Life of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Mark. They don't really go together. I don't pretend they do. But having both in my head at the same time meant I couldn't help but make comparisons. Don't worry, I'm not going to say The Doctor is God incarnate or a type of Christ or anything like that. That would just be silly. And probably blasphemous. So...well you can read it if you feel so inclined and see what you think. 
On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17
It's Doctor Who season. I had never seen an episode of Doctor Who before December last year, but I had a bunch of friends on TLC who used to talk about it all the time. So when I moved to the UK, it was inevitable that I'd get to watching it. Through the course of last year, I managed to watch many of the reruns of the new series on BBC and had seen up to the third episode of the Sixth Series when I went back home. Since the Seventh Series is now showing, I decided on returning to the UK to buy Series Six so I could watch the rest of it. I spent Monday and Tuesday catching up and was then left with a bit of that empty feeling you have when you've finished a good book or movie or TV series and there's no more. In the case of Doctor Who there is more - the currently airing Seventh Series but that means waiting a week for each episode. Which is fine - but it did mean I had a few days to stew over some of the mind-boggling events of the Sixth Series. And it was pretty mind-boggling.

Those who are fans will understand this. Those who haven't watched it or haven't been gripped by it won't. But there's something appealing and endearing about the Doctor and his adventures. Some of them - many of them - are seriously creepy, but his character and the friendships and the relationships he builds and the way he deals with impossible dangers, makes the story rise beyond the creepiness and get into your heart.

I don't know exactly what it is. Maybe it's his love for humanity, loyalty for his companions and the incredible way in which he continually saves the world/universe/individuals whom he cares about. Then there's stuff like his awesome wacky character, his sometimes flippant attitude in the most dangerous situations. Those who are fans, and have been for a long time, can probably express it better than me.

I guess in sum, the Doctor is just a really cool and likeable character and his adventures take you momentarily out of troubles of this world. I'm sure there are many who wish he was really real and envy those who travel with him wishing they too could have such adventures.

Unfortunately he isn't. And neither are his adventures. But there is some pretty awesome stuff going on in the real world that we should not let things like Doctor Who take our eyes off of.

A couple days after finishing Series Six, with all these things still in my head, I found myself trying to break free of the fantasy world and back to the reality that is analysing Greek texts for my thesis. Struggling to get back into the Greek, I had a sudden inspiration to read some of the New Testament (i.e. texts I know really well) in Greek. I have an interlinear Greek Bible (which means it has English translations of words under the Greek words. I know it seems like cheating, but for the sake of easing myself in, I felt it would be more beneficial than sitting doing nothing or struggling so much looking every word up that I gave up after a couple pages). I was going to go through Acts, but had a sudden inclination to tackle a Gospel instead. I picked Mark (it's the shortest). I've read Mark many times - studied it three times in about three years at Church/Youth. So I know it pretty well. My intention in reading this was for the sake of the Greek - not to get anything significant out of it. But sometimes God has other plans.

I have the distinct disadvantage of having been brought up on the Bible from a very young age. There are massive advantages in this too - and I am eternally grateful to my parents for this. But the disadvantage is that the accounts in the Bible are so familiar to me, it's difficult not to take them for granted. The amazing aspects of Jesus' life, the miracles he performed, the message he preached, the way he was treated by his enemies and responded to them, his death and resurrection, are all so well known in my head they often cease to amaze. I believe them to be true (a decision I made) and the truth does not change. But their impact is not usually very great.

One way I've found that helps me overcome my familiarity with the Bible is reading it in different translations. We are lucky in the English speaking world that we have so many different translations and "versions". And while the fundamental message does not change, reading it in different wording often brings to light things you may have ceased to notice in a more familiar version. The Amplified Bible, I think, is particularly good at this (not that it's my favourite translation - I don't even own a copy of it - but from hearing it quoted I think it would be good for this despite it's other faults).

You can probably guess where this is going. Reading Mark in Greek was reading it in a new version for me and, as a result, had the unanticipated effect of bringing the story to life in a new way. I know some people think the New Testament in Greek, since it is the original, must be the purist/most accurate form and are perhaps thinking that it was the fact it was Greek that it brought new meaning. I don't think that's true. Greek is not a super holy language and though there may be aspects of its vocabulary and grammar that bring a clarity of meaning which it is hard to convey in translation, it's by no means a perfect language and suffers from ambiguity as much as the next language. Maybe if my Greek was better it would be different, but the clarity and understanding you get from the Greek bible is only as good as your Greek allows it to be. Anyway, as I was partially relying on the English translated words in the interlinear form, some of the effect was completely lost.

But what did happen is that I read the text more slowly than usual - sometimes having to reread over parts. And I was reading it in unfamiliar terms. And these two things together contributed to the what happened while I was reading.

I wasn't far into the text (Mark makes the story move very quickly) before I was hit with a revelation I know to be true, but needed to be reminded of. With Doctor Who still in my mind, as I read about the amazing authority and power Jesus had in words and actions, and the way people were completely astounded by what he did, I was reminded just what an amazing person Jesus was. I say "was", though he still is amazing, because I'm referring to his human life on Earth. If I thought the Doctor was cool, well Jesus was off the charts.

The Doctor looks human, and often acts human, though he isn't really. He can do things that the humans he interacts with can't and that's one of the things that makes him special. As is his love for humans and our world. Jesus was human. Completely. But he is more than human and comes from beyond and before our world. Although much of his Godly power was veiled while he was on earth, little bits of it seeped through. As we read the Gospels, we see he has power over demons, over sickness, over deafness and blindness, over the elements, over food quantities, even over death. The people he interacts with recognise his unusual power and authority immediately. And the response is either to follow him (in different degrees - many followed him just because they wanted to witness more miracles, while others gave up their way of life to become his companions) or to fear (and try to get rid of) him.

When I read of Jesus' interactions with demons (there are quite a few accounts in Mark), I was put in mind a little of the Doctor's interaction with certain aliens. It doesn't work for all, but there are some to whom he just needs to say his name and they immediately fear him. In this case it's pretty easy for him to tell them to leave Earth alone and go back to wherever they came from.  Of course this doesn't happen all that much, or the stories would be kind of boring. But with Jesus, the demons are so terrified they do exactly what he says. They just see him coming and beg for mercy.

I want to reiterate that these Doctor Who analogies are only coming up because I had them in my head. I'm not in the least inferring that the Doctor is some kind of Christ-figure or supposed to represent him or anything. They are so completely different and the concept of the Doctor was created without any religious connotations anticipated (if anything the complete opposite). But since I had "the Doctor is cool" in my mind when reading about Jesus, it was amazing to be reminded "so was Jesus - in fact he was cooler".

Something that comes out very strongly in Mark is that Jesus is being very careful about his popularity. The reason for this is explained more in the other gospels (I think John in particular): he is following a precise timetable. If he were to become too well known too soon, the plan would be jeopardised. Jesus' mission was to preach about repentance and the Kingdom of Heaven. And to train up his disciples to continue his message and mission after he was gone. Although he performed many miracles, his priority was always to preach. He healed the sick and demon-possessed as they were brought to him out of compassion. And the miracles confirmed to those who watched that he truly had authority from God, but they were secondary. His aim was not to heal physical ills but to heal people's spirits. For that, preaching his message and the culmination of his task (dying for the sins of all humans and rising again) were far more important than giving people temporary physical healing.

Continually, throughout Mark, we see him trying to downplay his miracles. When he cast demons out of people, he would forbid them from shouting out who he was (they recognised him as the Son of God) and he would tell those he healed or who witnessed a healing not to tell anyone else what he had done. This is not more clear than in the passage where he raises Jaris' daughter from the dead and tells those around him that "she's not dead but just sleeping". Only a few are allowed to witness the miracle, since raising someone from the dead is kind of a biggie. In fact the next time he does this - with Lazarus - it's not kept secret. And it pretty much seals his death warrant. 

This playing down his miracles was strategic. If people realised his full power and who he was the two parties (those for and against him) would become too radical too soon. Those who believed in him would want to make him King and use him as a political figure to overthrow the Roman oppression (which they actually tried at one point - he conveniently disappeared at the time). Those who hated him would do everything in their power to make sure that never happened and have him killed (which would be easy for them if he was being advocated as an opponent to Rome's authority). As it was, he only had three years of ministry before things escalated to this point. But three years was enough. Less time would have been a problem.

And I believe that is why he was so protective of people knowing who he was. It's a little bit like the way the Doctor lives a precarious life because of his abilities, becoming easily surrounded by both those who love and practically worship him and those who hate and fear and want to destroy him. In Series 6, this reaches a crux. He becomes too big, so big in fact that a war pretty much breaks out around him. And plans are put in place to remove him from the equation. As this becomes known to him, he realises just how powerful he has become and accepts his fate that he will be killed. Of course, at first he tries to escape it, but in the end, knowing he cannot stop it, he accepts that it will be better for the world if he is no longer there to cause such division. In the end, a series of events spiral into place and it does not end in the way he anticipated. But at least he is off the radar for now and the world can forget about him for a while.

Okay, so Jesus' story is so completely different, and I'll get to that. But I think the way the Doctor realises he is too big and needs to die is a nice illustration of why Jesus didn't want everyone knowing who he was or what he could do too soon. Of course, Jesus story deviates completely at this point. He knew he had to die all along, but the reason was completely different. The very reason he came to earth in the first place and was born a human was so that he could die. His death was a sacrifice. Not for peace in a world aligned or opposed to him. If anything his death caused the opposite, as his new followers were continually persecuted for their faith in him (and the battle between those for and against him has never really ended). His death was the sacrifice for humanity that the punishment for mankind's sins could be taken on one man and mankind could receive forgiveness and redemption and be reunited with the God we forsook at the creation of the world.

The Doctor was prepared to die because he felt it would be better for the world/universe if he wasn't around. Jesus went to die because he knew it would be better for the world if sin were conquered and a way made for man to renew his relationship with God. And a significant difference was that Jesus knew he would rise again. He wasn't getting out of the picture - he was becoming the centre of it. Jesus' death wasn't about dying and ceasing to exist, it was about death (and the spiritual agony of a condemned man being forsaken by God) being the punishment for sin. Death wasn't the end because he was sinless and death could not hold a man punished for sins he did not commit.

The Doctor is such a likeable person and his imagined reality so attractive it's easy to wish it was real. But there was (I believe) a man who lived the most incredible life, had the most incredible power and saved the world in a way the Doctor would not even realise it needed saving. Not everyone believes Jesus is real, or he really did the things the Gospels tell us he did. But I believe them and that makes me so excited. And he loves our world more than the Doctor ever could. And he wants a relationship with each and every one who is willing. He wants us to be his companions and to go on adventures with him that would boggle the imagination of even the writers of Doctor Who.

Not everyone accepts this adventure. Like those the Doctor meets on his travels, some say "No thanks, I like my life, I couldn't travel with you." But for those that accept it, we're stuck on the adventure of a lifetime. And it never ends. No teary goodbyes. No moving on. Just a lifetime and then eternity with him.

We live in a pretty awesome world and serve a pretty awesome God.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Remembering You

The following came about as a spin-off of my Susan Fiction, The Lost Seed. We know what Aslan said to Lucy and Edmund at the end of their last trip to Narnia - described in one of the most beautiful sections of the Chronicles. We are not, however, privy to the similar conversation which he had with Peter and Susan at the end of their last trip. We'll never know what transpired. But this is my imaginative attempt at describing how the conversation might have gone. The Chronicles of Narnia, land of Narnia and characters are not my own but the inventions of CS Lewis. As is the setting for this piece. BookVerse Only.

It was a beautiful morning. The early sun poured into the clearing as though all were newly made and fresh. The feast last night seemed far away, like some distant but pleasant memory. Peter and Susan sat together, deep in conversation. They discussed all that had happened, considered the merits of Narnia’s new young King, and wondered over what it was that Aslan planned to do with the prisoners and Telmarines who had been summoned to appear before him that day.

“All will be revealed in due course,” said a deep but beautiful voice, interrupting their discussion. “But that is for later. For now, will you walk with me son of Adam and daughter of Eve? There are some more pressing matters we must speak of first.” The two elder Pevensie children got up quickly and followed the Lion without a question. 

For a while the three walked in silence, one child on either side of the Lion. Aslan told them then that he would soon send them back to their own world. They were not surprised at this, as they knew that they had accomplished what they came to do. Unlike last time, Narnia had a capable ruler, and their time in Narnia would be brief. Aslan ordered Susan to bring the children’s school clothes to the gathering later that day so they could change before he sent them back. They walked on a bit longer in silence, before Aslan stopped and spoke again.

“And now, son of Adam, Ddaughter of Eve, it is time we said our proper good-byes, before rejoining the others.”

The children turned to face him, taken aback by this. Why couldn’t he wait until they all bade their farewells together, with Caspian and the Narnians present, and Edmund and Lucy? Why this private parting? Susan felt the hairs on her neck stand up with a sense of foreboding.

“But we shall see you again soon, shan’t we?” asked Susan, voicing their surprise. As she looked into his beautiful deep eyes, so full of both the joy and pains that the weight of this world brought him, she thought she could see something almost akin to sorrow.  Though this seemed like far less painful a sorrow than before, it reminded Susan of another day, so very long ago, when she and Lucy had walked with him by night.
“Oh Aslan, what’s wrong?” she asked.

Aslan seemed then to smile, a kind of wistful smile. “Nothing at all is wrong, dear,” he replied “All is just as it should be. But this will be the last time you and your brother come to Narnia and the last time you see me like this. You are growing up, my children. Again. And this time it must be in your world.”
“Oh Aslan,” said Susan, burying her arms in his soft hair. Peter too, hugged his mane, but with less obvious emotion. It seemed almost as though he had expected that this day would come.

The Lion continued then, explaining why it must be so. “You children have been called to Narnia, twice now, for two reasons: for the sake of Narnia and for your own sakes. For the Narnians, that you might bring them hope and freedom. And for yourselves, that you might learn to have faith.”

After a short silence, Peter spoke up. “Faith in what, Aslan?”

Aslan looked into his eyes, as though baring into his very soul. “Not in what, son of Adam, faith in whom? You have both served me well in this world. But now you must learn to serve me in yours.”
Peter and Susan looked at one another. They knew what he meant. They had often spoken before with each other about the unusual characteristics of Aslan, and they knew the similarities were not accidental. But Susan felt she had to ask the question.

“Aslan, does that mean…”

“I Am. You know, Susan, that I Am. You have always known this. And this is why I need both of you there now more than here. Your world is going through dark days. Some of the worst are yet to come, though a period of relief is not far off. I need men and women, boys and girls, who can stand for me in the days ahead. Narnia has been restored again, and the truth will be made known throughout the land. But in your world there is dire need of people to stand for what is right, just and true. I need you there.”

The children were silent again for a while. Peter spoke up first. “We will serve you with our utmost, as we have here. I will dedicate my life to studying your truth. And when I am a grown man, I will use the talents you have given me to make your truth known to our world as it is here.”

Aslan looked on him with pride mixed with something deeper, almost pity. “You speak well, son of Adam, and your motives are noble as they have always been. But be not too eager to grow up, and plan not too far ahead. Do what you can to serve me each day as it comes into your power.”

There again, was a hint of sorrow in Aslan’s voice, as if there were something he knew but could not speak of.

Suddenly, their conversation was interrupted by a different voice calling out.

“Peter, there you are! Caspian is looking for you!” It was Edmund. Peter turned to Aslan questioning what he should do, and the Lion nodded.

“Go, son of Adam. Use these few remaining hours to share your wisdom with the new King of Narnia. And remember your resolution to serve me. Your sister will keep me company a little longer.”

As the two brothers walked off, Aslan turned back to Susan.

“I know I’m not as good as Peter, but I will try my best when I get back to our world,” the girl ventured, not sure exactly what to say.

“Susan,” he spoke gravely, “I do not doubt that you will try your best. But know that it’s not goodness I want from you, but faithfulness. And the power to stay firm will come from me, not your own resolve. Don’t forget that, Susan. Don’t forget me.”

“How could I ever forget you?” she asked, indignant.

“You will not see me in your world as you do here. I operate differently there, and the days of men seeing me in person came to an end at the fulfilled time. You know this, but you don’t realise how it can make the temptation to forget easier. Remember in the woods when Lucy could see me but the rest of you could not? Remember how easy you found it to dismiss her words as those of a child with a wild imagination?”

Susan nodded, tears beginning to well up. She felt rebuke and shame although she knew she’d been forgiven.

“Take that experience as a warning, Susan. For that is how it will be in your world.” Susan buried her head again in the Lion’s mane and he let her stay there for some time.

“Come, daughter of Eve,” said at last. “Let me breathe on you one last time and fill you again with courage. Your spirit is willing, but your will weak.”

As he breathed on her, his sweet breath, she felt his strength enter her mind one last time. But would it be enough?  

Thursday, 16 August 2012

In Defence of Language Study: What is Linguistics?

 A little blurb on Linguistics for those of you wondering what on earth it is that I study...

Most people who have heard of Linguistics before know that it has something to do with languages. But beyond that, the general understanding of the subject becomes somewhat murky. As a relatively "new" and somewhat specialised subject, there is a lot of confusion around what it is all about and what linguists are actually interested in. The purpose of this post is to share a rough outline of what Linguistics is really about, at least in the understanding I have developed after studying it for the last five years.

What is Linguistics:
Traditionally we refer to it as "the science of language" but that is a slightly confusing and not very enlightening description. It is a science, but not a "hard science", and therefore belongs to the Humanities or Arts. Some might prefer to call it a Human Science, or even a Social Science, but not even these boxes are quite where it fits. It draws inspiration from a range of fields including: language teaching, literature studies, the classics, maths, the social sciences, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, geography, computer science, neuroscience, anatomy, medicine, acoustics, biology, genetics...the list could go on. In a way, it is one of the truly multi-disciplinary subjects. And yet it requires its own specialisation and jargon.

What Linguistics is not:
There are two common misconceptions regarding what Linguistics is about. Firstly, Linguistics is not about learning lots of languages. It is not about learning any languages. It is about understanding the phenomenon that is Language. A linguist does not need to be fluent in many languages. A person who is so would more appropriately be referred to as a Language Scholar, Language Expert or a Polyglot. Some linguists are polyglots. Some polyglots are linguists. The two are neither mutually exclusive nor mutually inclusive. Knowing many languages - especially different kinds of languages - will naturally contribute to understanding more about Language. But it is not a pre-requisite. If you are, like me, not a natural polyglot (you don't pick up languages easily or naturally) you can still do well in linguistics. Of course, as linguists, we deal with many different languages in trying to grapple with the phenomenon of Language. And to be a good linguist, it helps if you have had lessons in different languages and know things about the rules of their grammar. But learning about a language and its rules is not the same as being fluent in that language. And while fluency in many languages is preferable, it's not necessary. 

The second misconception is that Linguistics is about "rules of grammar" - grammatical and linguistic "correctness". Most linguists are not "grammar police". Our job is not to go around telling people how to speak and why they are speaking wrong. It is not to bemoan the decline in grammatical/language aptitude of our current generation, to preserve the perfection that is a language and to go around correcting and teaching those that can't speak properly. And even if we were interested in that, it is most definitely not about neat writing, correct spelling and punctuation. Writing, spelling and punctuation (in particular) are not Language. They are a means of expressing language but are largely human constructs. There are, of course, reasons why uniformity in these areas is important and useful to society (especially for clarity of expression and avoiding misunderstandings) but that is not the interest of the linguist.

The linguist is interested primarily in Language. That is our concern. What is Language and how does it work? That probably sums up the best what Linguistics is about.

Linguistics is the study of how language works

If we take the statement above as our starting point, all the sub-fields that make up the science of Linguistics fall nicely into place. Linguistics needs to be thought of as a super-discipline: an over-arching term that covers a whole range of sub-fields, some of which are and operate very differently from each other. In the same way the (hard) sciences may be divided up into chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology etc. so does Linguistics have many sub-fields. Unlike experts in the hard sciences, linguists are generally expected to have expertise in a few different (even seemingly unrelated) sub-fields of Linguistics. In part this is because it is still a relatively new discipline (in its current form, that is) and hasn't reached the level of specialisation some of the hard sciences have, and in part because the various disciplines, though different and able to be treated in isolation, do in fact influence each other.

So what are these sub-disciplines? Well they all address the question of how the phenomenon that is language works. But they do so in different ways.  

Sociolinguistics looks at how language works in society. It addresses issues such as dialect variation, identity, and bilingualism within communities, at the level of small social groups and at national level. It examines the role and interaction of different languages within a society and how power-relations are played out through those languages.

Psycholinguistics looks at how language works in the human mind. How are individual languages acquired and learnt by children and adults? How are mental thoughts converted into spoken language and how is spoken language understood and de-constructed back into mental thoughts by those who hear or read it? The related field of Neurolinguistics looks at how language is physically processed by the brain. Which parts of the brain are responsible for processing language, what kinds of language formations are more difficult for the brain to process and why, and how are brain defects related to language defects?

Historical Linguistics looks at how languages are related to one another. What "genetic" connections are there between the different languages of the world and how and why do languages change over time (why do dialects, and eventually different languages, develop)? It looks at trying to understand, through reconstruction, rules of sound and grammatical change within the history of language groups.

Then there is a group of sub-fields within linguistics that may be grouped together under the heading Formal Linguistics. These fields look at how Language works internally by analysing the different building blocks that make up Language. These sub-fields, in particular, can use very formal methods derived from mathematics and logic. Phonetics and Phonology look at the underlying sounds used by humans to string together words and sentences. They examine particular rules that govern how these sounds are combined to derive different meanings. Semantics and Pragmatics look at the meaning behind individual words, how these words are combined to convey larger amounts of information, and how meaning is related and conveyed by different contexts. Morphology looks at how individual words are formed in different languages and made more precise by combining root meanings with semantically meaningful or grammatical forms like prefixes and suffixes. Syntax examines sentence structure and the way words of different types (nouns, verbs, adjectives, function words etc.) are combined according to particular rules in different languages to convey meaning.

The last two fields make up what you may more generally know as "grammar". But again, what we are interested in as linguists is not whether grammar is used "correctly" or not, so much as what the "natural" rules underlying the grammars of different languages are, why they work like that and why there are differences in different languages.

I've tried to keep this description simple, but it is hard to convey accurately what Linguistics is about without getting into technical terms. This, in a nutshell, sums up the basic ideas behind Linguistics and the focus of the different sub-fields. It is not an exhaustive description, and perhaps not even fully accurate. But the idea was to convey the gist of it.

Many of these fields are still in early stages of development and there is a lot of contention and debate within each field. Although language is something every human being is familiar with, it is also abstract and intangible; especially when one is trying to work out how language works in the mind or how the internal structure of a language is built up. No one can physically see or measure these things and so we are working with many theories and conjectures. Like with other sciences that deal with the intangible, it means there are disputes. But we are not simply grasping at straws. We use scientific methods to test our theories and have some evidence for their correctness. But we still have a long way to go.

And that, in part, is why I study Linguistics. There is still so much to learn about how language works. This amazing ability which we use almost every day of our lives and which almost every linguist will tell you is unique to humans is so very little understood. In the same way a biologist studies a life form to try and learn better what beautiful creatures exist in our world and what makes up this complex thing called life; in the same way an astronomer studies cosmic phenomena to better understand what is out there in the universe, and perhaps through that seeks for understanding in how our universe is made up; so the linguist wishes to study this beautiful and complex ability called Language.

Not all linguistics would feel the same, but for me, as a Christian who believes language was created and built into our genetic make-up by God, as a means of communicating with one another and hence enriching our lives, I can think of few better things to do than study this amazing ability with which he has blessed us. And in understanding these things, to gain a better appreciation for the great God whose imagination and power brought such a great phenomenon to be.

So that is what Linguistics is all about and why I study it. I hope it has shed some light on what I spend my time doing. I plan a follow-up post looking into more detail about why Linguistics is important to me, the Descriptive versus Prescriptive debate (which relates to the issue of grammatical correctness) and what that means to me as a Christian.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Silver Chair: Chapter 16

The Ending

The last chapters of so many of the Chronicles are so packed with truths and pieces of brilliance, it’s near impossible to comment on them. Like the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Last Battle, this chapter reveals so much of what makes Lewis such a brilliant author, I don’t know where to start with the comments: We see the beauty of Narnia for the first time in the book; the sorrow of a son reunited with his father only to lose him again; a return to the splendour of Aslan’s Country; the rejuvenation of the old dead king in a scene that once again comes rather close to allegory; the granting of Caspian’s wish to see our world, for just five minutes; bullies being taught their lesson; a poorly run school being investigated and put right; and social and political comments made on education, feminism (?), leadership and politics. Lewis crams all of this into just one chapter so smoothly and adeptly that we hardly notice the transitions.

I’ve said many times before that Lewis is such a good writer, he’s really hard to paraphrase. It’s better to quote him directly. So below are a few of my favourite quotes from the last chapters (the first from the second last):

…tears came to Jill’s eyes. Their quest had been worth all the pains it cost.

“Puddleglum,” said Jill, “You’re a regular old humbug. You sound as doleful as a funeral and I believe you’re perfectly happy. And you talk as if you were afraid of everything, when you’re really as brave as - as a lion”.
   “Now speaking of funerals,” began Puddleglum, but Jill, who heard the centaurs tapping with their hooves behind her, surprised him very much by flinging her arms around his thin neck and kissing his muddy-looking face, while Eustace wrung his hand…
   The marshwiggle, sinking back on his bed, remarked to himself, “Well I wouldn’t have dreamt of her doing that. Even though I am a good-looking chap.”

“I have come,” said a deep voice behind them…
   And she wanted to say, “I’m sorry,” but she could not speak…

“Think of that no more. I will not always be scolding. You have done the work for which I sent you into Narnia.”

Even the Lion wept: great Lion-tears, each tear more precious than the Earth would be if it was a single solid diamond.

After that, the Head’s friends saw that the Head was no use as a Head, so they got her made an inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found she wasn’t much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after.

The Silver Chair: Chapter 15

The Great Snow Dance

When first o’ the season’s snow starts to fall
And lies fresh on the ground
We hear the wak’ning winter’s call
Summons us to gather ’round

Fauns with groom’d flanks and hooves that shine
Begin to gallop and prance
While their dearest dryads, leafy hair divine
Glide swiftly in to dance

Dwarfs dressed in their finest gear -
Golden tassels, scarlet hoods
Join th’ mythic creatures once a year
In a clearing in the snowy woods

And so begins the Great Snow Dance
Intricate weavings, practised moves
Music sweet, but with eerie stance
Guides floral feet and caprine hooves

And the dwarfs stand forming a secondary ring
Tossing spheres of compact snow
While feet make a drum beat and sweet fiddles sing
In a rhythm neither too fast nor too slow

But lo’ what commotion disturbs our rite?
A voice calling from the hill?
We spot the source, but what a sight!
A girl emerges - her name is “Jill”

She says she needs help, she’s not alone
There’re others trapped as well
So lost and far from kin or home
With such a tale to tell

The dwarfs stop their game, and gather their tools
To rescue those trapped in the mound
The moles join the cause, as though mining for jewels
No match for their skill is the ground

At last they break through, and all is made clear
A wiggle, two horses, a man -
But he’s no mere man, but someone more dear
Can it be? By the Lion, it can!

It’s our Prince who was lost, for so many a year
Our Prince whom we’d giv’n up for dead
He’s returned, yes he has, he really is here
He’s been saved, bless his dear royal head

Though the snow dance was brought to an untimely end
We’ve something far greater to cheer us
Our Prince has returned, yes, we have hope again
And again will our enemies fear us.

But come children dear, be warmed, sup and rest
For your journey was tiring and long
But you’re heroes; we’ll praise you along with the best
Our minstrels shall laud you in song.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Silver Chair: Chapters 13-14

Things are not always as they seem

This tale is full of mistaken identities and misconceptions. “Pay no attention to appearances” says Aslan to Jill of the signs. And it’s true of more than just the signs.

Right from the outset, things are not always as they seem. When she first meets him, Jill doesn’t trust Aslan. She is afraid of him, for the completely wrong reasons. When she realises who he is and he tells her that he has called them to Narnia, she assumes he has made a mistake - they are not the ones for the task. Mistaken identity. Aslan corrects her.

When she arrives in Narnia at the sailing of the King, Jill asks Eustace if he sees a friend. He doesn’t recognise that he is staring at Caspian because he makes the assumption that he would not look that much older than last time. Mistaken identity.

Eustace suspects the owls of plotting against the king, because they are meeting in dark in the night. Meanwhile they are simply used to meeting at night because they are owls. There is nothing sinister about their dealings. Mistaken identity.

Jill and Eustace are wary of Puddleglum at the beginning because he is so negative. They don’t see that there is sense, faith and dedication lying at the heart of his pessimism - just what they need as a guide. Mistaken identity.

When Jill first sees the giants lining the gorge, she assumes they are simply piles of rock. Until they start to hurl stones around them. Mistaken identity.

When they meet the Lady of the Green Kirtle, they think her kind, sweet and helpful. Mistaken identity.

When they come to the ruined city and the writing, they think it is merely a strange wilderness of ledges, dykes and trenches. Mistaken identity.

When they arrive at Harfang, they think the giants are friendly and that they want to have the children and Puddleglum take part in the autumn feast with them. Not that they will be the main dish at the feast. Mistaken identity.

When the three meet Rilian, they think he is nasty and not to be trusted. They don’t realise he is the one they have come to rescue. Mistaken identity.

When the mudmen come to themselves and realise what spell the witch has had them under, they prepare to fight for their freedom, unaware that the one who had them under their spell is dead. Rather than celebrate, they prepare for war. When they see Rilian and the others on horseback, they prepare to defend themselves against the onslaught by the witch’s people. They haven’t the slightest idea that these people were also subject to her lies and sorcery and that it is they who have killed the witch and freed them from her spell. Mistaken identity.

When the children, Puddleglum and Rillian see the mudmen letting off rockets and marching as to war, they assume that they are their enemy and that the rockets are warnings. They don’t realise it is their way of celebrating their liberation from the spell, and at the same time a taking to arms should the queen or her subjects try to stop them. Mistaken identity.

These last two points, which are the subject of chapters 13 and 14 bring about an almost fatal ending to the story. The earthmen think the heroes are their enemy and the heroes fear the earthmen. Both assume the other group are working for the witch.

Thankfully, the truth comes out quickly and the situation is ratified. Mistaken identities and misconceptions are brought to light, and both sets of people are able to make their way home and leave the cursed shallowlands of the underworld. The heroes head for the overworld, the earthmen for Bism.

There’s a lesson in all this. Things are not always as they seem. We need to be aware of this in faith as in life. Sometimes things look hopeless and as though there is no way out. But there is a bigger picture we can’t see. Just as the heroes and the earthmen did not realise that the other group was equally the enemy of the witch, and so feared them, what might be looking to us like a hopeless situation might just be a small bit of the picture.

I’m sure as the characters looked back on the story afterwards, they realised how they had missed the (sometimes almost obvious) cases of mistaken identity in their adventures. And so we can look back on events in life and realise that what looked like a bad job, was actually for the best.

When Jesus was arrested and crucified, it looked to the disciples as though everything was lost. All their dreams and plans for the Messianic kingdom with Jesus as the ruler were shattered. They couldn’t make sense of it, and feared they had been wrong. Jesus was not the messiah. It was a case of mistaken identity. Mistaken identity, yes, but not in the way they thought. Three days later he rose again. Jesus had a bigger plan at work, a bigger, more important kingdom to win. Once the disciples came to realise this, they could look back and see clearly what God had been doing and knew that what looked like defeat was the greatest victory of all - the victory over sin and death. Things are not always as they seem.

I can testify to this in my own life, when I was distraught last year over thinking I did not have a scholarship to study in Oxford. I couldn’t see any light or make any sense of it. When, after two weeks in this state, the unthinkable happened and I was awarded the scholarship, it seemed like the whole situation had been pointless. Why go through those two weeks of sadness? But as the truth sunk in, I realised all the good that came out of it. I had learnt to surrender to God and grown so much closer to him. I knew I was doing what he wanted me to do. And other girls’ lives were blessed because they were given the scholarship as well as me (something that might not have happened had I been awarded it first time).

Things are not always as they seem. But that’s okay. We have a God who sees the whole picture; who knows what is best. And he is the one who is in control.

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Silver Chair: Chapter 12

Good Old Puddleglum

A lot could be, and has in the past been, said of the witch’s attempt at making our heroes forget Narnia and Aslan, and of Puddleglum’s heroic refusal to be beguiled.

I wrote a while back on the thread: Conquering Lies - Lessons from Narnia

Ajnos wrote:
Another well-known passage where the antagonist tries to trick the heroes with lies it LotGK's speech in which she tries to convince them that Narnia is a figment of our imagination.

"I see...that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You've seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it's to be called a lion. Well, 'tis pretty make-believe, would suit you all better if you were younger. And look at how you put nothing into you make believe world without copying it from the real world of mine, which is the only world...Come, all of you. Put away these childish tricks...There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan..."

This lie, together with her enchanting music and powder almost takes them all in. In a place so far away from the Narnia they remember, they begin to think, that perhaps they did just imagine it. Our enemies try to make us doubt our own beliefs in a similar way. They try to reduce our experiences of God - experiences which we knew were real at the time - to figments of our imagination. They make us wonder whether what we thought was a word from God, was not just wishful thinking, or something we imagined. And when that moment has passed, sometimes we do start to doubt, whether it was real. Human memory is a strange thing, and becomes increasingly unreliable as time passes from when the even occurred. When we find people (or even ourselves) questioning the reality of our experiences, we need to respond like Puddleglum:

"One word, Ma'am... All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put but the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you've said. But there's one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things...Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones... We're just babies making up game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia."

Good Old Puddleglum!

In my Day Two post on Puddleglum and Paxford, I quoted Douglas Gresham as saying of Fred Paxford, on whom Puddleglum was modelled, “Fred was the ever cheerful eternal pessimist.”

When we first meet Puddleglum, that doesn’t seem like a fully accurate description. Pessimist, yes. Comical, perhaps. But ever-cheerful? Hardly. When he tells us that the other Marshwiggles think he’s quite bouncy and upbeat, we are inclined to disbelieve him. Could they possibly be worse than him?

But as the story goes on, we see what he means. Although Puddleglum always sees the worst side of things and always expects the worst, he is still cheerful despite this. He thinks things will be bad, but then imagines something worse and concludes that actually the bad things aren’t quite as bad as they could be.

Right at the beginning he tells them not to worry about the weather, because they’ll be so distracted by enemies, mountains, rivers, losing their way, almost nothing to eat and sore feet.

Later, when they are trying to find their way across the river gorge (before they spot the bridge) he says, “The bright side of this is, if we break our necks getting down the cliff, then we’re safe from being drowned in the river.”

It is Puddleglum who points out that if they had been paying attention to the signs, Aslan would have shown them away underground. “Aslan’s instructions always work: there are no exceptions”.

This is the first hint we get of his faith. He’s not only a cheerful pessimist. Behind (and despite) his eternal pessimism, he has an unrelenting faith in the supremacy of Aslan. Perhaps part of the reason he can be so gloomy, is that he knows Aslan is in control. He doesn’t even seem to fear death, and occasionally sees it as a better alternative (at least if we break our necks, we needn’t suffer drowning, and later, maybe we should go back to give the giants a feast rather than being lost in the depths of the earth and suffer threat of dragons and other dangers). He knows death isn’t the end.

When they are faced with the dreadful decision of whether to release Rilian or not, his cheerful pessimism comes to play again. He doesn’t sugar coat things by suggesting everything will turn out alright if they obey the sign, but says:

“Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do. That fellow will be the death of us, I shouldn’t wonder. But that doesn’t let us off following the sign.”

Because of his pessimism, he is able to bear the fact that they might die if they release the prince. But he recognises that Aslan’s orders come from a higher place. Doing right is more important than being safe. Even more important than living. Puddleglum has the heart of a matyr. And in part it is his pessimism that gives him that.

Finally, when it comes to the crunch, his pessimism saves that day. He is aware of the enchantment working on them and sees a way out (extinguishing the fire, the source of the enchantment). He knows it will hurt, but he’s okay with that. Things could and would be worse if he wasn’t willing to face that pain - so he embraces it.

And then in his speech, he expresses the true faith behind his pessimism. His pessimism lets him grant that perhaps the overworld, the sun, and Aslan are all imaginary. Perhaps none of what they seem to remember is true. But there is a worse alternative. That the world underground is all there is. And he will not accept that. He would rather embrace an untrue dream, than suffer the fate of one who has no hope. His hope at this point is fragile - he is full of doubt in what he believes. But he knows he would rather embrace that, and be proved wrong, than live in a world of such dreariness.

Puddleglum’s pessimism lets him see what is bad, and then imagine something worse. By doing this, the bad suddenly becomes bearable. It is this which saves him and his friends.

I’m not saying we should all be Puddleglums. His pessimism is draining, and leads to arguments and the children not always trusting his better judgement. But there is something in his mindset we can imitate. Not full pessimism, but a trust in God that means if we do God’s will, if we trust in him, even bad things will look bright and be bearable in the light of what could be so much worse - a life without him.

The apostle Paul comes close to saying what Puddleglum tells the witch. He acknowledges that she may be right, and they might have imagined Narnia and the sun and Aslan. But he’d rather chance that they be wrong than live without hope. Paul imagines for a second what would be the case if what we believe and what he preached was not true; if Jesus did not die and rise from the dead:

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. 1 Cor 15: 13-19

As Puddleglum and his friends soon learn - they were right. Their faith is rewarded because it turns out to be real. They find Narnia and see the sun and Aslan again. Their hope was not in vain. Paul, who had seen the risen saviour, knows the same is true of what we believe.

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 1 Cor 15: 12-19

I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia!

The Silver Chair: Chapter 11

The Silver Chair

Reading chapters 11 and 12 got me thinking a lot about the witch’s motives and plans. What was she really after? And how did she expect to succeed?

I know a number of people, including me, have discussed before why Lewis chose the title he did for this book. The Silver Chair is seemingly one of the least significant things in the book and there are a number of other titles he could have used (including Night Under Narnia and Wild Waste Lands). But after reading these chapters, it’s made me wonder again. I think the Silver Chair is far more significant than we realise.

Rilian refers to it as “a vile engine of sorcery,” which is about the most information we are given on it. We don’t even know what it looks like, apart from it being silver. At a set time every night, Rilian is made to sit on it and tied up to it. He is told this is because of the fit of rage which comes upon him for that hour every night. He is tied to the chair because he becomes violent and it is a means of keeping him from harming anyone.

Yet we know that in actual fact, it is only during that hour every night that he is completely sane. Which made me wonder what kind of enchantment the witch had cast upon him? Usually, when people are bewitched to forget who they are, it is permanent; where does this one hour of sanity come from?

I’ve always thought it was the chair itself that made him sane - like some side effect of its working. While the witch used the chair to re-enforce the enchantment, it also meant that he would be sane while it happened. But thinking about it now, it makes more sense that the spell only lasts a day at a time. Every night it wears off, and has to be re-administered - by the chair itself. After an hour in the chair, the spell is restored and he forgets again who he is. A more basic spell by the witch (such as she tries to use on Puddleglum and the children), would not have been powerful or practical enough to keep Rillian under her authority all that time. The son of the King of Narnia, and someone known to Aslan would, sooner or later, have seen through her bewitchment and turned on her. Doubtless she could kill him should that happen, but she wants him alive.

And so somehow, she had made (or acquired) the chair. He needed to be kept in the chair for an hour every night for the curse to remain on him (it was like he needed a new dose of it every night to keep it in his system - like some kind of poison). Once the hour had passed, and the chair done its work, he had forgotten again and continued the next day under the witch’s spell.

I noticed something particularly interesting about when Rilian was in the chair (which I hadn’t thought of before). Although he claims to be “sane now”, he does not seem to remember everything of his past life. He does not even remember who he is. He knows only that

“Every night I am sane. If only I could get out of this enchanted chair it would last. I should be a man again. But every night they bind me, and so every night my chance is gone.”

In all his imploring that the companions release him, he doesn’t once claim that he is Rilian. This can only mean that he has not fully remembered his life before his enchantment, as those words, if any, would encourage them to release him if they were friends. Bu he doesn’t. Instead he continues to shout at them, even threaten them. His voice rises “to a shriek” and Eustace describes his behaviour as a “frenzy”. Perhaps this is partly because he is so desperate, but I think there is more to it. He threatens them and tells them if they do not release them they will make him their “mortal enemy”. These don’t sound like the words of a perfectly sane Prince Rilian. Despite having some degree of sanity, the chair is still working on him so that he only remembers something of who and what he is.

Thankfully, he remembers one of the most important things. Somehow, subconsciously, he remembers Aslan. He might not remember fully who Aslan is (for he does not call on him directly to save him), but in a last desperate attempt, he calls on the greatest powers he knows of to implore them to free him: “all fears and loves…the bright skies of overland, [and] the great Lion, Aslan himself”.

These are, as Eustace says, “the words of the sign”. Had Rilian been saner, and spoken to them more clearly, the decision to follow the sign would have been easier. But as Aslan had told Jill, “the signs… will not look at all as you expect them to look…pay no attention to appearances.” Thanks to Puddleglum’s wisdom, they choose to follow the sign no matter the consequences, “That fellow will be the death of us, I shouldn’t wonder. But that doesn’t let us off following the sign.”

Only once they have released the prince, does he become fully sane and remember who he is. He starts by rushing on the chair with his sword and destroying it “lest your mistress should ever use you for another victim”. He knows more than the others how important the chair was in the witch’s scheme. I think we can be sure here that the chair was made of real silver, since a stronger metal would not have been so easily rent (even by a very good sword with the strength of revenge behind it).

Next he recognises Puddleglum as a Marshwiggle and tells them that he is Rilian, the son of Caspian X, King of Narnia. There are no further threats, or anger. His complete sanity is evidenced by the words:

“And the something wrong, whatever it was, had vanished from his face.”

Coming back to the witch’s scheme, I still wonder what she was up to. We know that she wanted Narnia and her kidnapping of Rilian was part of the plan. But how was it really to work? Surely once they broke through into Narnia he would be recognised as the lost prince. Unless the silver chair was taken with, she could not keep him under the spell forever. Rilian says that he would be freed from his “enchantment” once he was made king, but the witch could only have meant by this that he would be forever under her enchantment and there’d be no further use of the silver chair. But that seems to me like nonsense - why would her enchantment suddenly become permanent just because he was above the earth?

Did she plan to kill him once the kingdom was won? If so, why bother capturing him in the first place? Her plan was to marry him so she’d be queen, but Caspian was not quite dead yet. The Narnians would never allow it, and either rescue Rilian from her clutches or brand him as a traitor and usurper (since his father was still alive). Of course, the witch had all the earthmen on her side, so perhaps she would have succeeded in defeating the Narnians in battle (many of their best warriors were lost looking for the prince), but if she could win it by force, why did she need Rilian? I doubt her being married to him would make the surviving Narnians any more accepting of her authority. She would have been better off convincing Rilian to marry her and returning with him as his bride (peacefully) on the news of Caspian’s death. Why did she plan to make him take take by force what would one day be his by right?

Perhaps I’ve missed something; perhaps there are more clues as to her schemes later in the book that I have forgotten. Regardless, the witch’s plans seem rather strange to me.

In the end, she failed. Her silver chair, whatever its full purpose, was destroyed, as was she along with her plans. We’ll never know, thankfully, exactly what she was up to. But reading it this time round, I couldn’t help but be curious.

It is clear, though, that the silver chair was indeed important to her schemes. In destroying the chair, Rilian broke her spell. I find it interesting that she returns (unexpectedly early) almost as soon as it is destroyed, as if she instinctively knew something had gone wrong. Her response on seeing Rilian free and the chair destroyed is telling:

“She turned very white; but Jill thought it was the sort of whiteness that comes over some people’s faces not when they are frightened, but when they are angry. For a moment the witch fixed her eyes on the Prince. And there was murder in them.”

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Silver Chair: Chapter 10


When my siblings and I were young, we used to play a game which we called “Worlds”. What we referred to as “worlds”, were imaginary underground layers of Earth that we found “by accident” one day while playing in the garden with our cousin. Of course, none of our adventures really happened underground – children have the most amazing imagination – but we pretended that we could get to these “underground worlds” by special doorways (the stairs down the bank from the swimming pool to the lower front yard made a good entryway) . Each world/layer had a similar layout to the one above, explaining why each looked identical to the other (which, incidentally, looked identical to the layout of our garden). The underground worlds/layers had fake skies, which explained the presence of sunlight and blue sky in what was supposed to be Underground.

We had all sorts of amazing adventures in these worlds, which were ruled over by a number of spikey plants in our garden (cycads) who were given Greek names: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Sir. Sir was the first one we met on our adventures, and the leader of all the worlds – we hadn't come up with the Greek names when we met him. Oh, and then there was Omnicron (yes, mispronounced as it's misspelt). He was the evil cycad whom we defeated and got replaced by a cool cycad named Jack, who had an Australian accent. Our long concrete driveway which runs up behind our house was the underground river, which opened into a concrete lake in front of our garage. It all sounds a little extreme now, but we had so much fun with it.

So you can only imagine my excitement when, a few years after we'd outgrown playing “Worlds”, I read The Silver Chair for the first time, and found a story of some children having their own adventures underground.

What is under the miles and miles that lie below the crust of the earth has always fascinated mankind – it has fuelled the imaginations of children and writers throughout the ages. What if we should find cities or civilisations of people or other creatures living in the depths of our planet? While voyages into outer space are far more widespread and popular, there has always been an allure of stories about “inner space”. Jules Verne addresses this question in one of his 19th century science fiction works, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It was the first of his books I read (some years after reading The Silver Chair), and has therefore had a special place in my mind, though I really need to reread it, as my memory of the story has been horribly warped by poor TV and movie adaptations.

One part I do remember about the story, is when the adventurers have a voyage across an underground sea. I was pretty sure Lewis, who was a fan of Verne, had had this in mind when he wrote The Silver Chair almost a hundred years later. After looking up a summary of the story, I've realised that that was not the only part that inspired Lewis. Verne's underground world also had giant mushroom-like trees, although in his world the light comes from the ceiling of the caverns rather than the plants themselves. Verne's characters also encounter prehistoric dinosaur-type creatures, which may have inspired Lewis' cavern of dragon-like beasts. A striking difference between the two accounts though, is that Lewis has a civilised and bustling city in his story whereas Verne's characters only encounter hints of intelligent life. I think it is fair to say, however, that Verne's account inspired Lewis' story. But like the good writer he was, he used only basic ideas but created the setting to fit his own story.

Another fifty years after Lewis' work, stories continue of underground civilisations in works such as Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series, which has a modern thriving underground technologically-advanced “fairyland”. In the Doctor Who episodes “The Hungry Earth” and “Cold blood”, the characters stumble upon an underground dwelling by a race of terrestrial hominids, the reptilian Silurians, who have made a place of refuge that they built ages ago to ride out the effects of Earth's capture of the moon. They are still hibernating there, for the most part, waiting for a time when they can return to the surface and live peaceably with humans.

A decade or so before this, a family of kids in South Africa played a continuous game of adventures in “underground” worlds. The allure and mystery of what lies under the world, albeit imaginary, has gripped the imagination of mankind for many years and will doubtless continue to do so. Despite this, I don't think any of us would really want a life underground.

Many sink down to the Underworld...and few return to the sunlit lands

Ironically, I was reading this passage sitting out in bright South African sunshine on one of the warmest days we've had this winter. I've come to appreciate the sun a great deal after spending the last few months in a very (even more than usual) rainy Britain. I learnt there how much I take the warm and cheery sun for granted, to the point that whenever the sun peeped out (which it did more often than I probably make it sound) I could feel the lift in my spirits. I'm not entirely surprised the Earthmen were so morbid as they were (even making Puddleglum seem cheerful). As much as an underground world seems fascinating or enticing, as much as I enjoyed playing and pretending as a kid, I think, like Jill, I would have not enjoyed a real underground adventure. And I'm truly grateful that I live in the sunlit realms.

The Silver Chair: Chapter 9

Food fit for a feast
    "But more than thirty champions...have at one time or another set out to look for the lost Prince, and none of them have ever come back..."

“Not bad for a day's hunting,” sighed the young giant Rufflemutton as he surveyed the day's haul. “I've seen better, but then I've seen worse.” He glanced over at the pile of deer, boar and fowl carcasses that lay not far from where they rested. They would return early today, as preparations for the feast began in earnest.

“No talkin' beasts this year,” sighed his companion Wafflepotter. “This early cold snap, 'as chased them down south it 'as,” he continued.

“Aye,” nodded Rufflemutton, “At least we will have man pies this year. It's never a proper feast without them.” His friend nodded.

“Unusual for her ladyship to send children, though,” put in Wafflepotter after a moment's thought.

“Better than no men, as we've had these last three years,” countered the first, “I was expecting a'nothing again. Unusual for them to arrive so late too.”

“Indeed,” said his friend, “And that creature with them. Never seen th' likes of 'im before.”

The first shook his head, “Mollywater tells me it's called a 'waggle' or some such. Says they're not known to be tasty, but she's found a recipe that will make him quite a pleasant treat. Said she'll save a mouthful for me, since first choice goes to the royals.” He lowered his voice as he said the last, so as not to be overheard by the royals in question.

“Aah, 'tis an advantage ye be friends with the cook then,” said Wafflepotter with a smile.

“I remembers a time when we'd have man pie every year. And a plenty to go around. The green lady seems to have lost her touch these last years.”

“Aye, that or the menfolk 'ave become more cautious,” added the second.

“Remember that great year, must be near on ten years ago, she sent so many men to our doorstep, we had man pie not only for the harvest festival, but well into the winter too. That was a good year.”

Wafflepotter nodded as he remembered.

“We'd 'ave plenty a' talkin' beasts too, back then,” he added, “And not just the usual game: badgers, bears, mice and squirrels. A couple o' fauns too. They was tasty. Apparently there was a centaur once. Would 'ave made a rare treat, but alas 'e got away.”

“Although...we had to fight for the pleasure back then,” remembered said Rufflemutton, “Those men came armed and dangerous. Me old man still has a scar on his calf from the wound one made as he tried t' bring him down. Succeeded in the end, he did, but that wound plagued him for a long time after.”

“More strange that this year, the lady did send us mere children, and a girl too. 'Twere not many women-folk among those who came in the past.”

“No not many. It's made it easier though. They seem to suspect nothing. That frog-creature, the waggle, is more dangerous I do think. Good thing we got him drunk last night, or he might've been on to us. Strange as he is, I think he could be dangerous.”

“Not once 'e's boiling in Mollywater's pot,” added Wafflepotter. And both giants began to gufaw. Some of the other hunters looked over to them for a while, then lost interest and resumed their own conversation.

“Ya know,” said Rufflemutton then. “I remember a time b'fore it was custom to eat man pies at the feast. Giants are forgetful, we are, but I could've sworn when I was younger man pies were as rare then as they're becoming now. We'd have them as a treat should any wonder onto our doorstep, but they werin't so big a part of the festival as they are now. I spoke once to me older brother about it, and he says 'twas the green lady who introduced them as part of the feast about the same time they suddenly became plentiful in the area.

I believe you're right, though I'd about forgotten. Why, we was almost still kids aback then. I've always wondered why she's so interested in us and so keen to send us men. I wonder what she 'as t' gain from it?”

“Does make one wonder, eh...”

At this moment, their speech was disturbed as boy giant, who had not been on the hunt, came crashing through the bushes nearby. He was panting from a hard run. He announced that while he was polishing his weapons in his room, he had glanced out his window and seen the children and frog-creature going for a stroll in broad daylight. It might just be an innocent stroll, but he was worried they might have figured out what was to become of them, and were making an escape.

Best to be safe, agreed the king on this news. Their rest was cut short as they rounded up the dogs and returned to the castle with haste.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Silver Chair: Chapters 7-8

Of Signs: On the Mountain Top and in the Low Country
    “Remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night … Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take care 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 important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.” - Chapter 2 
I wanted to say something about this passage back on the first day, but didn’t get around to it. But now seems an opportune time. Many of you will be familiar with the metaphor of “a mountain top experience.” This refers to a point in time where everything is going well and we feel like we’re “on top of the world.” In the Christian life, we use it to describe times when we feel as though God has spoken to us clearly (not audibly, but in a manner which is unmistakeable). It’s something that often happens when we have spent a lot of time with other Christians focused very much on God and bible teachings (such as a church camp, conference, retreat etc.) The sense of purpose, God’s purpose in our lives is strong, and we feel like we could never doubt. We recommit our whole lives to God and vow to change.

Then the camp or conference ends, and the “spiritual high” fades. I’ve experienced it enough times to know this is inevitable. Someone wise once pointed out to me that this is normal. We would not be able to function in everyday life if we were continually on a spiritual high.

In many ways these “mountain top experiences” are reflected in Jill’s literal adventure on the top of the mountains of Aslan’s Country. And the warning Aslan gives her is true for us too.

”Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia.”

Aslan’s warnings to Jill were prophetic. Though he gave her every warning he could, when she got to Narnia she allowed the thick air to confuse her mind. The message and warnings of Aslan were not clear anymore, and she allowed the cares of the road and their travel to distract her from “the only thing that mattered”.

In Chapters 7 and 8 it reaches a climax. Starting with the promise of steaming baths, soft beds, bright hearths and warm food offered by the Lady of the Green Kirtle, Jill, and the others, let their physical desires interfere with remembering why they were there.

On the one hand, considering the circumstances, one could hardly blame the travellers for forgetting their purpose. The elements were against them in every way imaginable: cold, snow, wind, poor visibility and hunger. In contrast to this was the hope and promise of a warm safe place to spend the night. No wonder that was all they could think of.

And yet in the clear light of the next day, as the children looked out of Jill’s window in the Giant’s Castle, they knew they could not blame the circumstances on their missing the signs. As Jill says, “If I’d been thinking about [the signs] I could have seen it was the city, even in all that snow.”

If only they’d been thinking about their mission and the signs as they travelled rather than hot baths, beds, fires and food, things would have turned out so differently. If “You must journey out of Narnia to the north till you come to the ruined city of the ancientt giants” had been going around in Jill’s head as she walked, she would have been looking for signs of a ruined giant city. As her imagination saw piles of stones that looked like giants (and turned out to be giants) at the beginning of the journey, would not her imagination have seen the ruins of walls as they travelled among the dykes and trenches?

Once they realised that it was the city and had begun looking for the writing, they would likely have changed their minds about going to Harfang, knowing the next clue was so near. I’ve always thought the writing was the hardest clue for them, as it would have been difficult for them to see it while they were in it. But if “You shall find writing on a stone in that ruined city” was going around in their heads when they reached the strange trenches - trenches which had no logic to them in the way they turned at right angles and then stopped, they may have worked out that it was lettering. And even if they had given up that day, due to the snow storm, because they knew they were at the ruins, if they had only waited till the next day, in the clear sun, they would almost certainly have figured it out then.

And then, as Puddleglum said, “No doubt if we’d had our minds on the job when we were at the ruinous city, we’d have been shown how - found a little door or a cave or a tunnel, met someone to help us. Might have been…Aslan himself. We’d have got down under those paving-stones somehow or other. Aslan’s instructions always work: there are no exceptions.”

But their minds weren’t on the signs. The cares of the world had made Jill forget about repeating them and in the end, even forget how to recite them at a moment’s notice. When Puddleglum starts to suspect something about the hill they are on and asks her which sign is next, instead of taking time to remember, she lashes out at him (in part because she felt guilty for not having been paying enough attention to them):

“Oh bother the signs,” said Pole. “Something about someone mentioning Aslan’s name, I think…”

As you see, she had gotten the order wrong. That was because she had given up saying the signs over every night. She still really knew them, if she troubled to think; but she was no longer so “pat” in her lesson as to be sure of reeling them off in the right order at a moment’s notice without thinking. Puddleglum’s question annoyed her because…she was already annoyed at herself for not knowing the lion’s lesson quite so well as she felt she ought to have known it.

It is at this moment, that the seriousness of Aslan’s warning to her on the mountain top is revealed. She has succumbed to forgetfulness and it costs them dearly (in time and almost their lives).

And so these chapters serve as a warning to us. Humans are forgetful creatures. We need only read the Old Testament to see how often the Israelites forgot the blessings and instructions of God. And we are no better.

This is why we need mountain top experiences; times when God speaks clearly to us. But he does not do that all the time. The rest of the time it is our responsibility to make habits of spending time in God’s word, talking and praying to him, and reminding ourselves of his promises and commands. Or else the thickness of the air in the “low country” will confuse our minds and we will forget.

Thank God that in his grace, even when we are forgetful, he is still faithful and will nudge us back in the right direction. Aslan says to Jill, “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia, ” and he keeps his word. Just when all hope is lost and the children have completely “muffed” the signs, Aslan appears to Jill in a dream to nudge her back in the right direction. In the same way, God does not always speak to us clearly as he does in “mountain top experiences”, but he will still speak to us in subtler ways, reminding us of what we have forgotten.

And so the lesson we can learn is this: God gives us moments of clarity when he speaks to us in an unmistakeable way. But for most of life, we live by faith and it is, in part our responsibility, to remember what he revealed on those mountaintops by reminding ourselves daily. At the same time, God, in his grace, also speaks to us subtly. As a gentle father, he gives us hints to put us back on track when we have strayed.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Silver Chair: Chapter 5

Puddleglum and Paxford

I don’t think I’ve met a single person who dislikes, or is even ambivalent, towards the character of Puddleglum. We wouldn’t say it to his face, but he is endearing. Part of this comes from his strength of character which we know about from later in the book, but I think even on first encounter there’s something immensely likeable about him. It seems a little odd that someone so annoyingly pessimistic is so likeable. And he is annoying, so much so that it is on the first day that Eustace turns to him, quite angry with “I don’t believe the whole thing can be quite so bad as you’re making out…” and after Puddleglum’s response that it’s good for him to put a good face on it he responds “Well if you think it’s so hopeless, I think you’d better stay behind!”

I think it is, in part, the ridiculousness of Puddleglum’s pessimism that makes him such a likeable character. His negative remarks are always so extreme that no one can quite take them seriously. No one, that is, but Puddleglum. He seems to be completely oblivious to just how ridiculous he is, and this adds to his appeal. He also has something of sense in his head, despite appearances to the contrary. We see this especially in the next chapter in his caution against trusting the Lady of the Green Kirtle and visiting Harfang. Unfortunately, his unrealistic pessimism plays against him here. The children are so sick of his negativity, they ignore his warnings and insist on visiting Harfang. “Oh bother his ideas! He’s always expecting the worst, and he’s always wrong.” Only this time he is not wrong. They have not yet learned to tell the difference between Puddleglum’s exaggerated grumbling and his serious warnings.

It is widely known that Puddleglum was inspired by a real life figure in Lewis’ life, Fred Paxford the long serving gardener and handyman at the Kilns. In the meetings of the Oxford CS Lewis Society last term, Fred Paxford came up twice in conversation. Once at the talk on Joy’s recently discovered poetry where Walter Hooper made reference to the fact that Paxford had been at least partly responsible for destroying many of Lewis’ papers on a bonfire after his death. He told Hooper he had one day to take what he could and that the rest was going on the bonfire. As a practical and non-scholarly man, I do not blame him entirely for this. Knowing how much paper notes and scribbles I acquire in a single term of study, I can only imagine how much stuff there was, and how it could have seemed to him that disposing of it was the only sensible thing to do. Doubtless much of what he destroyed was simply boring scribbles, though I do shudder to wonder what gems may have been destroyed along with them.

The second mention of Paxford came up at Douglas Gresham’s talk. It was with reference to Puddleglum, but I was interested in the wording he used. I always thought that the man had been a vague inspiration for Puddleglum, but Gresham said with insistency, “Puddleglum was Fred Paxford”. He may have been exaggerating, but since he had actually grown up knowing the man, I think we can probably trust such an assessment. Out of curiosity, therefore, I had a look at Gresham’s bibliographical work, Lenten Lands, in which he tells the story of what it was like growing up with Jack and Joy. I haven’t yet had a chance to read the book, but I suspected there would be some reference to Paxford in it.

I was not mistaken; the man is given his own chapter, albeit a short one. Douglas says of him, “Fred Paxford and I were friends - not associates, but friends…Fred was a countryman through and through, he knew the ways of animals and plants and he knew the ways of little boys.”

He goes on to describe a few of Fred’s characteristics. Not all are exactly the same as Puddleglum - except the fact that he seems as annoyingly exasperating (yet also endearing) as the marshwiggle. Apparently, he had a fondness for singing aloud as he worked - despite the fact that he could hardly keep a tune. What was most annoying about it was that he would sing aloud one or two lines, then continue in his head for a while, before breaking out at a later line in the song (only the timing and key of this later break out was completely unpredictable). Another annoying thing was his insistence at leaving vegetables to be picked until the last possible moment, sometimes only once they were over ripe (exasperating Douglas’ mother). He tells of how once, when it was Fred’s turn to do the cooking, he would not pick the cauliflower until the water had started boiling.

With reference to Puddleglum, Douglas says the following:

Fred was the ever cheerful eternal pessimist. The character of Puddleglum in The Silver Chair… is modelled directly upon Fred. “Good morning, Fred,” I might say. “Ah, looks loike rain afore lunch though, if’n it doan’t snow … or ’ail that is,” might well be his reply.

From Douglas’ account, Fred was a very humble man, and possibly completely unaware of the impact he had on the young boy’s life (and Lewis’). I wonder if he knew that he had inspired one of the most loved characters by readers of the Chronicles? I do hope Douglas told him, though I suspect he had no idea just how much Puddleglum is loved. After Lewis’ death, Douglas says, the man retired. He visited him once at his small home where he lived “in abject poverty”. Yet he seemed fully content with his life, and splashed out what little money he had to entertain his guest. He died not many years later, without anyone telling Gresham. He suspects there were not many who even marked his passing.

Gresham sums up his life saying

Fred Paxford was one of the finest, kindest and most Christian men I ever knew. He was my friend. He is gone and I miss him. I could never have told him so, but I loved him deeply.

It’s interesting that he describes him as being one of the “most Christian” men he knew. Looking at his life of hard work, “cheerful eternal pessimism” and his uneducated and sometimes uncouth language, I would not have expected him to be a good Christian example, not of the kind educated Lewis was. And yet in his way, he clearly had a strong and positive impact on Gresham’s life.

I think in this way too, he is like Puddleglum. Judging by his nature, eternal pessimism and grumpiness, although we like him, we don’t picture the marshwiggle as a great example of faith. Eustace reprimands him at the beginning saying, “I don’t think Aslan would ever have sent him if there was so little chance as all that.” But later on, we are to learn that behind his pessimistic grumpy exterior is a sturdy faith that is steadfast and able to withstand the witch’s best attempts at making them forget and deny Aslan. Puddleglum turns out to be one of the finest, kindest and most faithful to Aslan of marshwiggles the world of Narnia ever knew.