I’m reading The Silver Chair to my seven-year-old son, an evening ritual we both cherish, even though he is old enough to read to himself. I’ve always admired Lewis for his understanding of how to write for children–in short, not to try to write for children, but write well–and he often writes with breathtaking beauty, particularly in describing scenery. But we stumbled upon this little scene in The Silver Chair last night that I just had to share. Beginning with the rhyming owl, still not quite himself in the late afternoon, and then moving on the great Lord Dwarf Trumpkin, we split our sides in laughter. In the middle of the near-deaf Trumpkin’s befuddled speech, my son stopped me and said, “I need a break. I need to catch my breath.” Enjoy.
“Now—” said Scrubb, but he didn’t get any further because at that very moment a large white object—Jill thought for a second that it was a kite—came gliding through the air and alighted at his feet. It was a white owl, but so big that it stood as high as a good-sized dwarf. It blinked and peered as if it were shortsighted, and put its head a little to one side, and said in a soft, hooting kind of voice:
“Tu-whoo, tu-whoo! Who are you two?”
“My name’s Scrubb, and this is Pole,” said Eustace. “Would you mind telling us where we are?”
“In the land of Narnia, at the King’s castle of Cair Paravel.”
“Is that the King who’s just taken ship?”
“Too true, too true,” said the Owl sadly, shaking its big head. “But who are you? There’s something magic about you two. I saw you arrive: you flew. Everyone else was so busy seeing the King off that nobody knew. Except me. I happened to notice you, you flew.”
“We were sent here by Aslan,” said Eustace in a low voice.
“Tu-whoo, tu-whoo!” said the Owl, ruffling out its feathers. “This is almost too much for me, so early in the evening. I’m not quite myself till the sun’s down.”
“And we’ve been sent to find the lost Prince,” said Jill, who had been anxiously waiting to get into the conversation.
“It’s the first I’ve heard about it,” said Eustace. “What prince?”
“You had better come and speak to the Lord Regent at once,” it said. “That’s him, over there in the donkey carriage; Trumpkin the Dwarf.” The bird turned and began leading the way, muttering to itself, “Whoo! Tu-whoo! What a to-do! I can’t think clearly yet. It’s too early.”
“What is the King’s name?” asked Eustace.
“Caspian the Tenth,” said the Owl. And Jill wondered why Scrubb had suddenly pulled up short in his walk and turned an extraordinary color. She thought she had never seen him look so sick about anything. But before she had time to ask any questions they had reached the dwarf, who was just gathering up the reins of his donkey and preparing to drive back to the castle. The crowd of courtiers had broken up and were going in the same direction, by ones and twos and little knots, like people coming away from watching a game or a race.
“Tu-whoo! Ahem! Lord Regent,” said the Owl, stooping down a little and holding its beak near the Dwarf’s ear.
“Heh? What’s that?” said the Dwarf.
“Two strangers, my lord,” said the Owl.
“Rangers! What d’ye mean?” said the Dwarf. “I see two uncommonly grubby man-cubs. What do they want?”
“My name’s Jill,” said Jill, pressing forward. She was very eager to explain the important business on which they had come.
“The girl’s called Jill,” said the Owl, as loud as it could.
“What’s that?” said the Dwarf. “The girls are all killed! I don’t believe a word of it. What girls? Who killed ‘em?”
“Only one girl, my lord,” said the Owl. “Her name is Jill.”
“Speak up, speak up,” said the Dwarf. “Don’t stand there buzzing and twittering in my ear. Who’s been killed?”
“Nobody’s been killed,” hooted the Owl.
“All right, all right. You needn’t shout. I’m not so deaf as all that. What do you mean by coming here to tell me that nobody’s been killed? Why should anyone have been killed?”
“Better tell him I’m Eustace,” said Scrubb.
“The boy’s Eustace, my lord,” hooted the Owl as loud as it could.
“Useless?” said the Dwarf irritably. “I dare say he is. Is that any reason for bringing him to court? Hey?”
“Not useless,” said the Owl. “EUSTACE.”
“Used to it, is he? I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m sure. I tell you what it is, Master Glimfeather; when I was a young Dwarf there used to be talking beasts and birds in this country who really could talk. There wasn’t all this mumbling and muttering and whispering. It wouldn’t have been tolerated for a moment. Not for a moment, Sir. Urnus, my trumpet please—”
A little Faun who had been standing quietly beside the Dwarf’s elbow all this time now handed him a silver ear-trumpet. It was made like the musical instrument called a serpent, so that the tube curled right round the Dwarf’s neck. While he was getting it settled the Owl, Glimfeather, suddenly said to the children in a whisper:
“My brain’s a bit clearer now. Don’t say anything about the lost Prince. I’ll explain later. It wouldn’t do, wouldn’t do, Tu-Whoo! Oh what a todo!”
“Now,” said the Dwarf, “if you have anything sensible to say, Master Glimfeather, try and say it. Take a deep breath and don’t attempt to speak too quickly.”