The Psychology of The Silver Chair

The Silver ChairI’m no longer a Christian but I’m still a big fan of The Chronicles of Narnia.  I was practically raised on the books of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.  J.R.R. Tolkien took great pains to let everyone know that he wrote The Lord of the Rings with no allegorical intentions whatsoever.  C.S. Lewis on the other hand was very open in declaring that his books were full of allusions to Christianity.  But that doesn’t really bother me.  Literature is a form of art and we can interpret art in many different ways.  Also, Christians can write some very enthralling and entertaining fantasy fiction, I wonder why that is? (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

One of the ideas from the Chronicles of Narnia that keeps popping into my head again and again is the concept of “the silver chair”.  The Silver Chair is the fourth book in the original (and correct) ordering of the series.  In this tale,  Aslan (a Christ-like figure in the series) transports the children Eustace and Jill to Narnia on a special mission to save Prince Rilian.  Prince Rilian is the long missing heir to the throne of Narnia.  Eustace and Jill eventually end up in the underground kingdom of the imaginatively named Queen of Underland (sorry Clive, had to take a shot at you there).  When the kids arrive in the underground city the Queen is away for a bit and they meet a young man about the same age as Prince Rilian (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), serving at the right hand of this wicked witch.  He tells a tale of the queen rescuing him from an evil enchantment and dines with the children.

Soon, the young man informs the children that he must be placed in restraints, for the enchantment still has a small hold on him.  For an hour each day they restrain him, he succumbs to the spell, and becomes delirious.  The queen in her grace and wisdom is using her magic to slowly purge him of these spells, but for now the queen’s servants come to restrain the young man and he willingly goes with them.

The unsupervised children decide to watch the spectacle and enter the room with the lone man secured to a silver chair.  As the spell comes upon him he beseeches them to intervene:

Quick! I am sane now.  Every night I am sane. If only I could get out of this enchanted chair, it would last. I should be a man again. But every night they bind me, and so every night my chance is gone. But you are not enemies. I am not your prisoner. Quick! Cut these cords.

Have they told you that if I am released from this chair I shall kill you and become a serpent? I see by your faces that they have. It is a lie. It is at this hour that I am in my right mind; it is all of the rest of the day that I am enchanted. You are not Earthmen nor witches. Why should you be on their side? Of your courtesy, cut my bonds.

Now you can save me; when this hour has passed I shall be witless again – the toy and lapdog, nay, more likely the pawn and tool, of the most devilish sorceress that ever planned the woe of men.  And this night, of all nights, when she is away!  You take from me a chance that may never come again.

He then invokes the name of Aslan, essentially invoking the name of Jesus, and this sign, foretold by Aslan, compels the children to free the prince.  He sprints across the room, draws his sword, and lays waste to the enchanted chair:

Lie there, vile engine of sorcery, lest your mistress should ever use you for another victim.

Freed from the spell, he reveals himself as Prince Rilian and the party escapes from the underground lair and return to the sunlit lands as the underworld crumbles.

So over the past few years I’ve been thinking about the concept of the silver chair in regards to my social anxiety disorder.  For most of my life I felt like I was in a haze of anxiety and depression and every once in a while I would have a “silver chair moment” when I was able to rise above it and perceive reality in a more accurate way than I normally do.

It’s been a year now since I’ve started taking the appropriate medication for my condition and physiology and it has caused a sea change in my subjective experience.  My neurotransmitters are far more balanced now and it shows in my mood and in my general outlook on the world.  I feel as if the medication freed me from the bonds of the silver chair of social anxiety disorder and allowed me to pick up the sword and destroy that “vile engine of sorcery” once and for all.  The main difference is that I did not come under the spell of this chair, I was born into it.  And of course I know that the analogy is imperfect in other ways.  If I stop taking the medication, the spell of constant anxiety will certainly return.  Also, there may come a time when the medication will no longer work for me in the same way it does now.  I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.  For now I’m enjoying the life I should have been able to enjoy for the past thirty years.

In general I’ve thought about silver chair moments as those sudden moments of clarity that you get when you finally get a glimpse of the true nature of reality after spending most of your life in a subjective haze.  This is also a useful concept when thinking about conservative religion.  The former Christian who becomes an atheist sees the silver chair as the conservative and repressive religious dogma that held him in bondage for the early part of his life.  The atheist who becomes a Christian sees the chair as a haze of godless unbelief until he awakens to the power and love of Christ.  Our perception of the silver chair depends on our underlying temperament, beliefs, and experiences.

Have you had any “silver chair moments” lately?  Please leave your thoughts and comments below.

About SciAwakening

Blogging about religion, science, psychology, and whatever else is currently on my mind. http://ScientificAwakening.com

Posted on March 17, 2012, in Books, Mental Health, Personal, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I too was raised on the Narnia series; I too am no longer religious. I think you make a great point by pointing out the beauty that can be found in Christian literature. I watched the round-table discussion between the 4 horsemen (Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett) and they made a similar observation.

    • Yes, I watched that round-table discussion as well, it was pretty interesting. I remember them mentioning that the one thing they valued from religion were some of the cultural and artistic artifacts. I think a great takeaway idea from this is that no religion or philosophy is all good or all bad. Let’s parse it and pull out the good while leaving the bad far behind. Thanks for your comment.

  2. I’ve also got plenty of residual fondness for the Narnia series. I hadn’t thought of the Silver Chair analogy for social anxiety myself – I’ve never had a problem intellectually with seeing through the haze, my problems are more to do with negative emotions rising unbidden. But it’s an interesting comparison, as a way of describing those moments of clarity, even if what holds you back can’t be easily smashed.

    • Yeah, I guess kind of what you’re talking about here is all those times that Prince Rilian was strapped to the chair, fully conscious of his situation, with the witch looking on, but completely unable to do anything about it. Thanks for commenting.

  3. A very thought-provoking post. Thank you. It is possible, however, that own pilgrimage may be similar to C.S. Lewis’ own . . . in that you began with a familial Christian worldview, followed by years of disbelief in that faith, only to return at some point to that relationship with your Creator through a personal epiphany. In the meanwhile, I trust that you are still clinging to the positive principles (e.g. integrity, honesty, self sacrifice) that were hopefully a part of your Christian youth.

    • Possible? Yes. Probable? No. I know a lot more about certain things like neuroscience, social psychology, temperament theory, bottom-up design, and other things that were not fully understood in C.S. Lewis’s day.

      I had a lot of good experiences and learned a lot of good lessons in most of the churches I attended as a child. Some churches were better than others. The real negative was the misunderstanding of mental illness by conservative Christianity and any conservative religion in general. I did not get real understanding and effective treatment for my anxiety disorder until I unplugged from the conservative religious matrix. I appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for the comment.

  4. I’ve read the Narnia stories many times, real favorites. All that time I never thought of the silver chair as being anything other than a fairy tale trope. Thanks for the informative perspective!

  5. I’m very surprised that writing on the PSYCHOLOGY of the silver chair, you didn’t touch on any of Lewis’ references to the work of Freud throughout the book. In ch. 12 especially the dialogue between the witch and the party of three in the Underworld is especially enlightening as Lewis points out obvious flaws in Freud’s popular arguments (and showing Atheism to be more of wish fulfillment than Christianity). Of course, Freud was a psychiatrist, not a psychologist, but the subject matter would not be far different from what you’ve chosen to write about.

    P.S.- the “scene” when Rilian is freed is one of my favorite parts of the Narnia books. Thank you for your post!

    • Well, I read the books many times as a child but I never re-read the full series as an adult, so I never thought of it in terms of Freudian psychology. Freud was a very important thinker but psychology and psychiatry have moved on from most of his more kooky and misogynist ideas, thank goodness. I would definitely shoot down many of his arguments today, but on the other hand many of them still stand. As for wish-fulfillment I think our “wishes” depend a lot on our temperament, personality, and life experience. As for my wish, I’d like to see a lot more inductive reasoning and humble people aware of their confirmation bias and actively looking for disconfirming evidence for their ideas. Thanks for your comment.

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