Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Silver Chair: Chapter 10


When my siblings and I were young, we used to play a game which we called “Worlds”. What we referred to as “worlds”, were imaginary underground layers of Earth that we found “by accident” one day while playing in the garden with our cousin. Of course, none of our adventures really happened underground – children have the most amazing imagination – but we pretended that we could get to these “underground worlds” by special doorways (the stairs down the bank from the swimming pool to the lower front yard made a good entryway) . Each world/layer had a similar layout to the one above, explaining why each looked identical to the other (which, incidentally, looked identical to the layout of our garden). The underground worlds/layers had fake skies, which explained the presence of sunlight and blue sky in what was supposed to be Underground.

We had all sorts of amazing adventures in these worlds, which were ruled over by a number of spikey plants in our garden (cycads) who were given Greek names: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Sir. Sir was the first one we met on our adventures, and the leader of all the worlds – we hadn't come up with the Greek names when we met him. Oh, and then there was Omnicron (yes, mispronounced as it's misspelt). He was the evil cycad whom we defeated and got replaced by a cool cycad named Jack, who had an Australian accent. Our long concrete driveway which runs up behind our house was the underground river, which opened into a concrete lake in front of our garage. It all sounds a little extreme now, but we had so much fun with it.

So you can only imagine my excitement when, a few years after we'd outgrown playing “Worlds”, I read The Silver Chair for the first time, and found a story of some children having their own adventures underground.

What is under the miles and miles that lie below the crust of the earth has always fascinated mankind – it has fuelled the imaginations of children and writers throughout the ages. What if we should find cities or civilisations of people or other creatures living in the depths of our planet? While voyages into outer space are far more widespread and popular, there has always been an allure of stories about “inner space”. Jules Verne addresses this question in one of his 19th century science fiction works, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It was the first of his books I read (some years after reading The Silver Chair), and has therefore had a special place in my mind, though I really need to reread it, as my memory of the story has been horribly warped by poor TV and movie adaptations.

One part I do remember about the story, is when the adventurers have a voyage across an underground sea. I was pretty sure Lewis, who was a fan of Verne, had had this in mind when he wrote The Silver Chair almost a hundred years later. After looking up a summary of the story, I've realised that that was not the only part that inspired Lewis. Verne's underground world also had giant mushroom-like trees, although in his world the light comes from the ceiling of the caverns rather than the plants themselves. Verne's characters also encounter prehistoric dinosaur-type creatures, which may have inspired Lewis' cavern of dragon-like beasts. A striking difference between the two accounts though, is that Lewis has a civilised and bustling city in his story whereas Verne's characters only encounter hints of intelligent life. I think it is fair to say, however, that Verne's account inspired Lewis' story. But like the good writer he was, he used only basic ideas but created the setting to fit his own story.

Another fifty years after Lewis' work, stories continue of underground civilisations in works such as Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series, which has a modern thriving underground technologically-advanced “fairyland”. In the Doctor Who episodes “The Hungry Earth” and “Cold blood”, the characters stumble upon an underground dwelling by a race of terrestrial hominids, the reptilian Silurians, who have made a place of refuge that they built ages ago to ride out the effects of Earth's capture of the moon. They are still hibernating there, for the most part, waiting for a time when they can return to the surface and live peaceably with humans.

A decade or so before this, a family of kids in South Africa played a continuous game of adventures in “underground” worlds. The allure and mystery of what lies under the world, albeit imaginary, has gripped the imagination of mankind for many years and will doubtless continue to do so. Despite this, I don't think any of us would really want a life underground.

Many sink down to the Underworld...and few return to the sunlit lands

Ironically, I was reading this passage sitting out in bright South African sunshine on one of the warmest days we've had this winter. I've come to appreciate the sun a great deal after spending the last few months in a very (even more than usual) rainy Britain. I learnt there how much I take the warm and cheery sun for granted, to the point that whenever the sun peeped out (which it did more often than I probably make it sound) I could feel the lift in my spirits. I'm not entirely surprised the Earthmen were so morbid as they were (even making Puddleglum seem cheerful). As much as an underground world seems fascinating or enticing, as much as I enjoyed playing and pretending as a kid, I think, like Jill, I would have not enjoyed a real underground adventure. And I'm truly grateful that I live in the sunlit realms.

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