For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.
—William Stafford, A Ritual to Read to Each Other
There are certain things one would hope—maybe we could even plausibly say expect—come with maturity. Wisdom, for instance, at least at a marginal level. Patience, empathy, an ability to see beyond the current moment and circumstance.
Sometimes it works that way, sure. And then other times, adults can be just as foolish, impatient, self-absorbed and unable to think about the needs of the moment a moment from now. Considering that even a grown person’s maturity will be a roll of the dice, one must wonder about the prudence of handing an impossible task to two ill-equipped youngsters.
Add to that impossible task that they will be moving around in a world that is not their own (and we do not speak metaphorically here), and that they have no special skills which the heroics of the task before them will require. It becomes no small task of our own to suspend belief long enough to accept that a talking lion appointed these same two youngsters to the rescue of a prince abducted and enchanted by a wicked queen, if he is even still alive. When he told them to complete the task or die trying, he was surely not kidding about the “die trying” part.
Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole, the would-be heroes of The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis, have just been plucked from our world (where they were running away to escape their own sort of wicked queen—the schoolyard bullies) and dropped into the magical world of Narnia. Eustace has been in this world before. Jill has not.
While his previous visit had been just a year prior, it’s fair to say he was not the same young boy who had first arrived in Narnia ready and willing to commit all the worst errors of childhood: selfish, impatient, whiny, demanding. After surviving some harrowing events at sea, a brief stint turned into a dragon, and an encounter with that same talking lion, Aslan, Eustace had matured. He had changed.
It would seem unfair to say that he immediately went back to his old ways when he was unexpectedly catapulted back to Narnia. But he was surely tested. This time he would not be surrounded by older, wiser companions (with the exception of their faithful, though pessimistic, guide Puddleglum) who knew the landscape, knew the challenges of being human in this world, knew how to call to the best parts of him. This time, he had Jill. This time, he would be the older, wiser, more knowing one.
The trouble started as soon as they arrived. They found themselves walking through a wood, then suddenly at the edge of a very high cliff, a cliff higher than neither you and I (nor Eustace and Jill) have ever known.
Imagine yourself at the top of the very highest cliff you know. And imagine yourself looking down to the very bottom. And then imagine that the precipice goes on below that, as far again, ten times as far, twenty times as far. And when you’ve looked down all that distance imagine little white things that might, at first glance, be mistaken for sheep, but presently you realize that they are clouds—not little wreaths of mist but the enormous white, puffy clouds which are themselves as big as most mountains. And at last, in between those clouds, you get your first glimpse of the real bottom, so far away that you can’t make out whether it’s field or wood, or land or water: farther below those clouds than you are above them.
Eustace, being uncomfortable with heights, pulled Jill back. Jill, being foolish and proud, shook Eustace off and shamed him by standing even closer to the edge. Too close, it turns out.
Jill was too frightened and dizzy to know quite what she was doing, but two things she remembered as long as she lived (they often came back to her in dreams). One was that she had wrenched herself free of Scrubb’s clutches; the other was that, at that same moment, Scrubb himself, with a terrified scream, had lost his balance and gone hurtling to the depths.
The horrible errors of childhood have only just begun. Blame the lion for sending children to do an adult superhero’s job and close the book if you will, or shrug and keep reading, trusting this opening disaster will somehow right itself. (Of course, there’d be little story to read if the situation had any hope of immediate resolution.) The lion saves Eustace from his plummeting death, and he is sent on ahead. Jill stays behind, partly on account of being pinned to the ground by her own terror and partly because the lion has instructions for her. (We’ll talk more about those instructions next week.) Once she’s ready, the lion sends her along to find Eustace and begin their mutual task.
But those errors will haunt them both. And they will continue to commit them. When they finally meet up, Eustace is in no mood to listen (to Jill, anyway), and Jill seems more committed to fixing blame than following critical instructions given to her by the lion. She finds him watching a ship about to set sail.
“So you’ve turned up again, have you?” said Scrubb disagreeably (for which he had some reason). “Well, keep quiet, can’t you? I want to listen.”
“Don’t be a fool,” said Jill. “There isn’t a moment to lose. Don’t you see some old friend here? Because you’ve got to go and speak to him at once.”
“What are you talking about?” said Scrubb.
“It’s Aslan—the Lion—says you’ve got to,” said Jill despairingly. “I’ve seen him.”
“Oh, you have, have you? What did he say?”
“He said the very first person you saw in Narnia would be an old friend, and you’d got to speak to him at once.”
“Well, there’s nobody here I’ve ever seen in my life before; and anyway, I don’t know whether this is Narnia.”
“Thought you said you’d been here before,” said Jill.
“Well, you thought wrong then.”
“Well, I like that! You told me—”
“For heaven’s sake dry up and let’s hear what they’re saying.”
It’s not the last time someone will be told to dry up. Eustace is angry. For good reason, yes. And Jill is, well, a lot of things at this point. Remorseful, perhaps, but remorse is fighting some baser instincts and preventing her from moving forward in the maturity the circumstances require. There was a betrayal there on the cliff. And now on the ground in Narnia, there is a shrug—one that threatens to let the fragile sequence break.
As the story goes on, they repeat these same errors of childhood in new and myriad ways in their quest to rescue a prince they are not even sure exists, a task many have attempted but no one to date has survived. Just as when Jill stood at the edge of the cliff, rarely do they grasp the gravity of their situation. They compete instead of work together. They complain. They bicker. Before they even have a chance to embark on their impossible task, the dike has broken.
Lewis wrote for children. Stafford, presumably, for adults. We can take a little something away from both, about errors, shrugs, the fragility of our mutual life together.
We’re reading The Silver Chair together this month, juxtaposed with William Stafford’s poem A Ritual to Read to Each Other. Are you reading along? Share with us in the comments your thoughts on this first part of the story. What ways do you see a betrayal, a shrug, a broken fragile sequence or a broken dike in the story or in our own lives?
Here’s a schedule for reading and discussing:
Week 1 (February 12): Chapters 1-5
Week 2 (February 19): Chapters 6-10
Week 3 (February 26): Chapter 11-16
Our book club discussions are a patron perk. $5 patrons can opt to get each book club edition delivered in full straight to their inboxes, with a photo and link to the discussion!
Photo by Noel Feans, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Will Willingham.
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Rebecca D Martin says
Ah, what a good and telling recap of the beginning of this book, which, in childhood, was one of my favorites of the series. (Alongside Dawn Treader and Magician’s Nephew. Funny how that has changed. Now it’s The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle that get me. Also funny that, I guess, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has never topped my list of favorites; or perhaps it stands apart in a space of its own?)
I’ve been reading this aloud to my daughters (5 and 9) the last week, and I’m impressed by the juxtaposition of their full-on willing suspension of disbelief against the (sensical) skepticism in your analysis: they frown in disapproval at Eustace and Jill’s fight on the clifftop; they shiver in awed fear at Eustace’s fall and hear with hope the instructions the lion gives Jill. They LOVE Aslan, are nearly in love with him . . . and I’ve never paused in the story and told them to be so. They seem to breath a sigh of anticipatory relief (can that be a thing?) any time he enters these stories. Reading aloud to them has been a blessing; I am able to receive the story more like they do. (George MacDonald, whose writings greatly influenced Lewis’s imagination, said that he did not write for children, and that any story that can hold the attention of a child but not an adult isn’t worth much – but I think there is something to be said for receiving a story as a child.)
At the same time, it’s true: this story is crazy! I’m reminded of Tolkien’s criticism of the Narnia books, that there was too much thrown in them that didn’t make cohesive sense, too many mythical elements that couldn’t and shouldn’t jive in one place. The Lord of the Rings is tighter, in a sense truer to its own world. Maybe the Ring books are more like skating on a smooth, transparent surface of ice: we can see the story laid out beneath in whole, and appreciate it. Maybe the Narnia books are more like Megan Willome’s falling through soft ice in her recent post; at least, when I read them to my children they are. Our reality is quickly, easily meshed up with that of Scrubb and Pole, and even if the elements of the story are bizarre, everything feels familiar and right – and exciting.
What ways do I see a betrayal, a shrug, a broken fragile sequence or a broken dike in my own life? Last night, with my husband. I might be middle aged, but I’m really no better (and perhaps, because the years should have taught me something, worse) than young Jill, posturing on that edge, or Eustace in Dawn Treader, whining, complaining, demanding my own way. All self. Seems like I need to get in the path of the lion’s breath, too.
Will Willingham says
I know, it’s bonkers. 🙂 And yet, I love this story. Always have.
Love that you are reading this together with your girls, and that they have already fallen in love with Aslan. It’s interesting, because the scene with him in the beginning is so short, and yet a reader learns a very great deal about him and his ways in that time.
Megan Willome says
Will, I love how you’ve integrated that section of Stafford’s poem with the beginning of this story, which is so strong. I’m thinking now about how Jill said those mistakes on top of the cliff ” (they often came back to her in dreams).” What is it about the horrible errors of childhood that they stick with us in that way, when the horrible errors of adulthood often do not? Does something in the fragile sequence break in a way that stays broken?
Will Willingham says
I wonder if it is at least in part that there are so few things for us to hold together in our minds as children, and they’ve piled up by the time we’re adults. But there is also that it happens when we are so tender, so yes, it may stay broken longer.
It’s been really interesting to read this time through the Stafford lens. It really is, to me, as though they each wrote with the other in mind.
L.L. Barkat says
I am just now thinking: why open the story with a cliff?
They could have landed anywhere in Narnia. But they landed at the edge of a cliff.
Even before learning the signs, they could have begun “reading the signs,” taking in where they were and what it meant.
The horrible errors of childhood is an interesting concept. My Sara likes to defend children, saying they are often more perceptive and generous than adults. In fact, we were recently discussing a study that was done with infants, in which when the infant could see that the adult was sad, she offered the only thing she had at hand (the snack she was holding; she held it out to the adult).
If children are prone to horrible errors, I think it is less because they are selfish and thoughtless and more because they don’t yet have what I like to call (based on a concept in Fischer’s Taking Our Places) response-ability.
The ability to respond, to take in what we see and act generously accordingly, tends to become harder when we experience fatigue, hunger, cognitive overload, or existential threat. So, when someone is complaining, whining, being selfish, I like to ask myself which one of those things they might be experiencing, and there’s where grace can enter into the picture (this goes for how I consider my own “errors” as well).
So the horrible errors of childhood, viewed with that lens, could lead us to ask questions about both the Other and Ourselves. Critical questions, of need and want, and how we can increase our response-ability.
Jill and Eustace were at the edge of a cliff. They had just tumbled from a world of, arguably, significant existential threat. They did not take in where they were and what it meant. And that, of course, leads to even greater existential threat.
I find it interesting that both Eustace and Jill get a very powerful lesson about this threat right from the start (Eustace falling, Jill facing the lion)—Aslan gives them what they need to survive (a wind, water). In our own lives, do we see the gifts of this earth that keep us alive? Do we see how others are part of that gift (as Stafford is driving at)?
I’m thinking deeply about a gratitude practice that reminds me: life is always a cliff. I can quibble with others on the edge of that cliff, or I can drink in my surroundings and cultivate response-ability to better the existence of us all.
Will Willingham says
And I wonder as you open this if the errors of childhood are only really horrible when they spill over into adulthood. With children, these things are more to be expected, and for the reasons you note. With adults, we could be expected to have reached that particular place of “response-ability,” and the errors, whatever they may be, tend to have more gravity.
I do like this question about the cliff, and am interested in what you’re untangling here about how we respond to situations when we are sensing a threat.
L.L. Barkat says
I think it is natural to be self-protective when we sense a threat, whether in childhood or adulthood. The child’s response-ability to any given threat is not, as I said, necessarily narrower because of “who children are,” but more because they have fewer resources at their disposal to think beyond *this moment.*
Adults who manage to think beyond *this moment,* have more resources. Not all adults have these, but I believe some of the resources a mature adult has are:
• the ability to suspend judgement (saying to oneself: “THE ONLY THING HAPPENING RIGHT NOW might not be the only thing happening right now”)
• the ability to imagine alternatives despite what feels like THE ONLY THING HAPPENING RIGHT NOW
• more stories and poems in their hearts, to create a flexible imagination
• the ability to reflect (“wow, I am hungry and tired right now; maybe I should feed myself and take a nap before continuing to face what’s going on at the moment”)
• the ability to forestall further conversation, in a healthy way (“I am hungry and tired right now, and that makes me less able to respond really well. Can I get back to you after I eat and take a nap?”)
Are there any I’ve missed? 🙂