My son and I have just finished the fourth Chronicle of Narnia, The Silver Chair. Though it is perhaps the least layered book, with fewer mythic symbols woven into the fabric of the storyline, it is probably my favourite book for its subtle humour, which I’ve written about in “Peals of Laughter.” One of Lewis’ most brilliant characters, the mournful marshwiggle, Puddleglum, brings such joyous light to the story with his gloomy optimism and solid courage in the face of certain failure. We laughed more reading this book than any of the others, despite the fact that much of the book is spent in hopeless peril, endless darkness, and the life-draining enchantment of a powerful sorceress.
Except for a beautifully crafted hint at Lewis’ view of heaven in the last chapter, The Silver Chair seems less theistic in its storyline. It isn’t, however, lacking in Lewis’ social critique. I’ve already written about how The Silver Chair integrates some of Lewis’ views of bullying. Lewis always felt that bullying was supported by lazy, stupid or maniacal administrators, who either winked at childhood terrorism or even set up the hierarchies of control themselves. Because of his childhood experience of that system, he would spend his life hinting about the great evil of administrators of all stripes.
For example, in chapter 2 of his Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis speaks of a kind of red-tape harassment in a scheme he had heard of about the income tax office. A friend of his had received a tax assessment that seemed unusually high. Being a solicitor, well trained in argument and financial matters, he went down to the tax office to challenge the bill. When the fine was reduced, Lewis’ friend asked why the assessment had been high in the first place. The clerk’s response is telling:
“The creature behind the counter tittered and said, ‘Well there’s never any harm trying it on.'”
But there is harm–at least that’s what Lewis thought.
“Now when the cheat is thus attempted against men of the world who know how to look after themselves, not great harm is done…. When, however, that kind of publican sends a similarly dishonest demand to a poor widow, already half starving on a highly taxable ‘unearned’ income (actually earned by years of self-denial on her husband’s part) which inflation has reduced almost to nothing, a very different result probably follows. She cannot afford legal help; she understands nothing; she is terrified and pays–cutting down on the meals and the fuel which were already wholly insufficient. The publican who has successfully ‘tried it on’ with her is precisely ‘the ungodly’ who ‘for his own lust doth persecute the poor’ (Psalm 10:2).”
What is also telling is that Lewis shares this anecdote as part of his explanation of the judgement psalms, demonstrating why God may come in wrath to defend the oppressed. Clerks were not highly esteemed in Lewis’ view.
We see a similar swipe at middle management in the way The Silver Chair ends. I will avoid giving much context–I know it is 60 years old, but I don’t want to spoil the ending. The setting is Experiment House, this horrific progressive school that is structurally dehumanizing and useless in curriculum. Its modern ideas have brought about a kind of grand labyrinth of manipulation, where quick fists and mental terrorism are greater features than scholastic achievement and self-discovery.
I will say that the protagonists, our Jill Pole, who begins the book crying behind the gym, and the regenerated Eustace Scrubb, finally put an end to the systematic bullying at their school. As is common when victims finally stand up for themselves, the Head (Headmaster, or Principal) and the police are called.
“When the police arrived and found [no evidence], and the Head behaving like a lunatic, there was an inquiry into the whole thing. And in the inquiry all sorts of things about Experiment House came out, and about ten people got expelled. 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.”
Why is Lewis so hard on clerks, bureaucrats, government workers, and, apparently, parliamentarians? While Lewis does a good job predicting the ridiculousness of the Peter Principle, the foundation of his critique has to do with greatness. He believed that only great men and women faced great temptation, while the rest of us exist in a kind of base evil. We see this in chapter 11 of book 3 of Mere Christianity, but the principle is found all throughout The Screwtape Letters. The high road of demonic temptation is not about creating Hitlers and Stalins–any average office worker seriously tempted to commit genocide is likely to get some kind of help long before they run for office. No, the best way to create evil in a person’s life is through the slow, steady, almost imperceptible descent to hell through banal temptations like annoyance, discomfort, and apathy.
The Screwtape Letters is really about the subtle temptation us normal mortals face; for Lewis the great evils of bureaucratic thinking are not benign. The best example of the great weight of the little sins and uncreative sinners is captured in this old preface to Screwtape:
“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’ The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”
I think this is why in most of the Narnian books the greatest enemies are dispatched fairly simply in the end. Certainly these are victorious moments, but there is also great victory in slaying middle management demons. How is this done? By standing up to bullies, by making hard choices to do good things, and by slaying the petty dragons that threaten to rise up within ourselves. For Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, his dragonish ways made him into a real dragon. For most of us, who typically live in the middle management worlds of clerks and office workers and teachers, the damage we do is sometimes harder to identify. But if we learn from the children of Narnia–and become pilgrims there ourselves–we will find the transformation that makes mere mortals into immortal heroes.
Perhaps we should order this pilgrimage in triplicate.