Puddleglum as a Skeptical Believer

Another reprint from Mormom Matters

My wife says I have a naturally skeptical personality, sometimes to the point of pessimism. I have probably passed up being a millionaire many times by refusing to take serious any network marketing scheme. And come to think of it, I’ve probably let many a conspiracy run amok due to my refusal to believe in conspiracies unless there is, ahem, some sort of evidence worth mentioning.

So maybe this is why I can relate to C.S. Lewis’ character, Puddleglum. Puddleglum is a wet blanket who is skeptical of just about everything. He’s as much a joy to read as he is joyless.

One day, while reading C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair I came across a passage that caused me to have one of those religious moments; you know, one of those rare moments where a truth that you are pretty sure you already knew suddenly gains clarity it never had before. I wish to share that moment with everyone:

As the story goes, Jill and Scrubb, two children from our world, have traveled to the magic world of Narnia. Jill meets Aslan the lion – the archetypal Christ for Narnia – and is given a mission to save Prince Rilian from the clutches of an evil witch. Jill and Scrubb later meet Puddleglum and all three found their way to the Underworld, an underground kingdom ruled by the witch.

But before the prince can be rescued, the witch uses a magic fire and magic mandolin to cause the foursome to forget about Narnia all together. But nagging memories of their “pre-existence” in Narnia keep bubbling to the surface. The witch uses logic to explain away their memories of Narnia.

At last, Jill has a final thought bubble to the surface…

From The Silver Chair, p.156 (1970 edition):

For the last few minutes Jill had been feeling that there was something she must remember at all costs. And now she did. But it was dreadfully hard to say it. She felt as if huge weights were laid on her lips. At last, with an effort that seemed to take all the good out of her, she said:

“There’s Aslan.”

“Aslan?” said the Witch, quickening ever so slightly the pace of her thrumming. “What a pretty name! What does it mean?”

“He is the great Lion who called us out of our own world,” said Scrubb, “and sent us into this to find Prince Rilian.”

“What is a lion?” asked the Witch.

“Oh hang it all!” said Scrubb. “Don’t you know? How can we describe it to her? Have you ever seen a cat?”

“Surely,” said the Queen. “I love cats.”

“Well a lion is a little bit – only a little bit, mind you – like a huge cat – with a mane. At least, it’s not like a horse’s mane, you know, it’s more like a judge’s wig. And it’s yellow. And terrifically strong.”

The Witch shook her head. “I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to so called a lion. Well, ‘tis a pretty make-believe though, to say a truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world. But even you children are too old for such play. As for you, my Prince, that art a man full grown, fie upon you! Are you not ashamed of such toys? Come, all of you. Put away these childish tricks. I have work for you all in the real world. There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan. And now, to bed all. And let us begin a wiser life tomorrow. But first, to bed; to sleep; deep sleep, soft pillows, sleep without foolish dreams.”

The Prince and the two children were standing with their heads hung down, their cheeks flushed, their eyes half closed; the strength all gone from them; the enchantment almost complete. But Puddleglum, desperately gathering all his strength, walked over to the fire. The he did a very brave thing. He knew it wouldn’t hurt him quite as much as it would hurt a human; for his feet (which were bare) were webbed and hard and cold-blooded like a duck’s. But he knew it would hurt him badly enough; and so it did. With his bare foot he stamped on the fire, grinding a large part of it into ashes on the flat hearth. …

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if their isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

3 thoughts on “Puddleglum as a Skeptical Believer

  1. Bruce N, great excerpt in a key book. I wonder if Lewis was inspired by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave?

    Anyway, I had a similar mind-opening experience when re-reading all I could of CS Lewis a few years back, and the Puddlegum story was key. The main point for me was: even if you are skeptic, which theory is more likely to “work” in your life, ie make you happier, bring you true and lasting joy. The answers seems pretty clear to me.

  2. Have you ever sought something that you thought was really great and would be really great if it could be accomplished, but because you didn’t believe it could actually be accomplished or was actually possible, it actually just made you feel worse?

    Maybe you haven’t, but I have. In such a case, I feel a half-hope is worse than hopelessness.

  3. Andrew S,

    I agree. Religious beliefs are, without a doubt, meant to be believed and fail to work as intended if belief is set aside in favor of mere ritual.

    Those that claim ‘half belief’ sort of prove this point directly when they end up focusing their lives on reforming or ‘fixing’ the host religion they live but no longer actually believe. Spirituality by iself just isn’t enough to sustain meaning in life. We need to honestly believe we are making the world a better place in some way and serving a higher good. I think we (in first world anyhow) literally *need* this to continue to want to live. So we will find it somewhere. We all seek Narnia and we all believe in it. We just believe in different (and unfortunately mutually exclusive) Narnias.

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