The following article reviews both Radio play versions of The Silver Chair. “RT” indicates the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre version, and “BBC” the British Radio 4 version.
Warning: Mild Spoilers
In Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader we had Reepicheep. In The Silver Chair, Puddleglum. Fans of C S Lewis’s Narnia books very often name these two as favorites, despite the sharp contrast between the two characters. The Mouse has an optimistic exuberance, while the Marsh-wiggle displays an outward pessimism about life. Both, however, surprise the reader by often showing an uncanny, yet down-to-earth wisdom.
In the Prologue to the RT adaptation, C S Lewis step-son Douglas Gresham gives a little insight into the character Puddleglum, who was based on Fred Paxford, the gardener of the Kilns, Lewis’s Oxford home. “Puddleglum” also is a reference to a sixteenth-century poem by John Studley, who described the River Styx from Greek mythology as a “puddle glum.” [Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles by David C. Downing, p. 132] (Imagery related to the Styx is also seen toward the end of the story in the ship ride across the underground inland sea.)
Puddleglum would tell you that his fellow Marsh-wiggles thought he did not take life seriously enough, but Eustace Scrubb (introduced to us in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and his schoolmate, Jill Pole, think of him – at least at first – as a wet blanket. Although pessimists and rivers in Hades are not exactly encouraging, they do remind us that life does have a more serious side, and that the road we must take to accomplish our quest often is filled more with drudgery than excitement.
The quest assigned Eustace and Jill by Aslan has to do with Prince Rilian, the son of King Caspian and Ramadu’s daughter. Although the back story of how Rilian came up missing is related by the owls after the children find themselves in Narnia, the BBC play gives the details up front. In a conversation not found in the book, Eustace is talking with Edmund and Lucy about Narnia, and speculating about what King Caspian would have done after they left.
The dialog fades out and we hear Caspian proposing marriage to Ramandu’s daughter. We are then given details of how Prince Rilian was born, the Queen is killed, and the prince disappears. Interjected are comments by the children back in England about Caspian getting older and older while time most likely moves much more slowly here.
As with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, BBC Playwright Brian Sibley has again chosen to advance the dramatization without a narrator. His apparent desire to link the three children with what is happening in Narnia creates some incongruity. When Eustace arrives in Narnia, he doesn’t recognize Caspian because he has grown old. He says he has not really thought about the time difference – directly contradicting the conversation Sibley has added.
The lack of narration also is awkward in scenes where the characters must be called upon to describe what is happening. Paul McCusker’s RT version avoids such embarrassing dialog, but, as with the Dawn Treader, the narration becomes unnecessarily tedious at times.
Both versions do a good job of capturing the importance of “remembering the signs” given by Aslan (See a previous article on the BBC-TV adaptation.), arguably Lewis’s most important theme in the story. However, the BBC had to do some major editing to fit a time frame about two-thirds that of the RT, and one glaring omission stands out. When Jill is left on the cliff and sees Aslan, there is a protracted dialog between them. Aslan, in words reminiscent of Isaiah 55:1 and John 7:37, invites Jill to drink from the stream. Jill, frightened by Aslan’s appearance and not-so-reassuring words, asks if he would leave while she drank, or if there is another stream. Lewis is emphasizing that God is the only source to quench our spiritual thirst, and we must come to him on his terms.
While RT elects to include the details of this scene, it does miss a seemingly minor detail that Lewis uses to make a point about education in his day. The impersonal use of last names at the “experimental school” is avoided. In the book, Eustace and Jill usually call each other “Scrubb” and “Pole.” RT uses only their first names in dialog between the two. Lewis was emphasizing that allowing the students to do basically whatever they want and treating bullies as merely “interesting psychological studies” has depersonalized the students.
If Reepicheep and Puddleglum have last names, we are not told what they are. In simpler times, last names were descriptive in order to distinguish two people with the same given name from each other – John the Smith and John the Miller. Many of us remember a time in the mid-twentieth century when school children called each other by their last names. Fortunately, the popularity of that “tradition” seems to be dying out.
Let’s hope the popularity of two of Lewis’s most lovable characters never dies. They may have their flaws, but they still have something to teach us. While you’re waiting for the Dawn Treader movie to come out this December, pop in a CD and listen to their advice.
From Chapter 12 of the book:
Rilian: “The blessing of Aslan upon this honest Marsh-wiggle.”
Eustace: “Good for your, Puddleglum! You’re the only one of us with any sense, I do believe.”