After reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I was rather reluctant to plunge into this fourth book of Narnia. I knew that I would find it just as delightful as the previous three, but I was dismayed by the fact that none of the original Pevensie children would be taking part in this adventure. I was especially upset to lose Lucy, who had quickly become my favorite character (aside from Aslan, of course). It was almost a betrayal: who are these new kids and what right do they have waltzing into Narnia? But Eustace was a familiar face, and he provided the transition into this story with an almost entirely new cast of characters.
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Eustace, utterly changed after his journey through Narnia towards Aslan's Country months earlier, comes upon a classmate, Jill, who is sobbing and trying to catch her breath after being pursued for the umpteenth time by the school's bullies. In the beginning and end of this book, Lewis allows himself the opportunity to poke fun at these "modern" schools which are popping up, schools in which religion has no role and, because students are largely responsible for teaching themselves, bullies are allowed to run rampant.
Seeing Jill's miserable state, Eustace consoles her, agreeing that the school which they must attend is ghastly. He proceeds to inform her of the glorious land in which he underwent such a miraculous transformation. As the bullies resume their chase, Jill suggests that they call upon Aslan to take them to that other world, away from the horrors of the British schoolyard. As they flee once more from the ruffians, they are stopped by a rusted gate. To their surprise, it opens, and they are delighted to find Aslan's Country on the other side.
After Jill's headstrong actions land both of them in trouble, the children learn that they are in Narnia because Aslan has called them there. Indeed, it was he who filled them with the desire to go to Narnia in the first place. They are charged by Aslan with the perilous task of freeing Prince Rilian from his place of bondage. In order to reach him, Jill is given several signs to follow. On the first leg of their journey, Eustace is shocked and disheartened to find his old friend King Caspian ancient and sickly. As Eustace looks on Caspian with anguish, they miss the first sign, and a largely disastrous journey begins.
When the youths leave the safety of the town, they soon come upon Puddleglum, a marshwiggle. Marshwiggles are strange creatures who live in swamps and seem to have a raincloud over their heads at all times. Eeyore the donkey would be hard put to win a contest for the gloomiest personality with one of these creatures. Miserable as the marshwiggle is, he is eager to help the youngsters fulfill their purpose in Narnia and offers to go with them.
The children still have much to learn, and the travelers somehow manage to miss all of the signs which Aslan has bid them follow. This lack of judgement causes their journey to be that much more difficult, leading them into such perils as snowstorms, unseen caverns and, worst of all, man-eating giants. The intrepid adventurers manage to overcome all of these obstacles, but the most difficult one is yet to come. For now they must enter the Realm of the Lady of the Green Kirtle, the beautiful enchantress who pointed them towards the giants' castle. In her underground kingdom, the outside world fades into memory until it seems to be little more than a dream. She is charismatic and charming, as is the knight who stands by her side. But the children discover that this knight is tied to a silver chair every night, and they are forced to decide whether he is who he claims to be in his apparently insane state. The final sign dictates that the first person they meet who swears by Aslan will be the prince they seek, but the knight warned them earlier that he was insane during the night and would be extremely dangerous. Are the children willing to risk their lives in order to obey Aslan's final sign, no matter how strange it may seem?
The kingdom into which they must venture is truly one of Lewis' most frightening creations. Dark and cold and fathoms deep, the very air breathes despair. Each creature who works there, enslaved, feels it, and the deceitful queen nearly convinces the children that this is the only world that has ever been, that there is no sun, that Narnia is a fantasy. But it is Puddleglum's time to shine as his Narnian convictions kick in to show the emerald-clad lady what faith truly means. The escape from the underground world is truly harrowing as it collapses upon itself and the ground cracks open to reveal the fiery depths in which gnomes work to harvest jewels.
The book's final pages find the children back in the schoolyard, both changed for the better. We are afforded a rewarding glimpse at Aslan's Country before the children leave, and Eustace must perform one more task for Aslan. The tides are turned, if only for a moment, when Aslan, accompanied by another Narnian whose name I will not reveal, joins the children in their own world to teach the bullies a lesson they will never forget and pave the way for a new school system.
Although there is much heartache in this story, it ends on a happy note and sets the stage for the final trip to Narnia in The Last Battle. If you are reading the books in their original order, there are two books in between, but I still highly recommend that order because books five and six bring the other Earthans back into the spotlight, ensuring that they will be fresh in our memories when we encounter them again in The Last Battle.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Silver Chair
The Horse and His Boy
The Magician's Nephew
The Last Battle
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