Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Silver Chair: Chapter 5

Puddleglum and Paxford

I don’t think I’ve met a single person who dislikes, or is even ambivalent, towards the character of Puddleglum. We wouldn’t say it to his face, but he is endearing. Part of this comes from his strength of character which we know about from later in the book, but I think even on first encounter there’s something immensely likeable about him. It seems a little odd that someone so annoyingly pessimistic is so likeable. And he is annoying, so much so that it is on the first day that Eustace turns to him, quite angry with “I don’t believe the whole thing can be quite so bad as you’re making out…” and after Puddleglum’s response that it’s good for him to put a good face on it he responds “Well if you think it’s so hopeless, I think you’d better stay behind!”

I think it is, in part, the ridiculousness of Puddleglum’s pessimism that makes him such a likeable character. His negative remarks are always so extreme that no one can quite take them seriously. No one, that is, but Puddleglum. He seems to be completely oblivious to just how ridiculous he is, and this adds to his appeal. He also has something of sense in his head, despite appearances to the contrary. We see this especially in the next chapter in his caution against trusting the Lady of the Green Kirtle and visiting Harfang. Unfortunately, his unrealistic pessimism plays against him here. The children are so sick of his negativity, they ignore his warnings and insist on visiting Harfang. “Oh bother his ideas! He’s always expecting the worst, and he’s always wrong.” Only this time he is not wrong. They have not yet learned to tell the difference between Puddleglum’s exaggerated grumbling and his serious warnings.

It is widely known that Puddleglum was inspired by a real life figure in Lewis’ life, Fred Paxford the long serving gardener and handyman at the Kilns. In the meetings of the Oxford CS Lewis Society last term, Fred Paxford came up twice in conversation. Once at the talk on Joy’s recently discovered poetry where Walter Hooper made reference to the fact that Paxford had been at least partly responsible for destroying many of Lewis’ papers on a bonfire after his death. He told Hooper he had one day to take what he could and that the rest was going on the bonfire. As a practical and non-scholarly man, I do not blame him entirely for this. Knowing how much paper notes and scribbles I acquire in a single term of study, I can only imagine how much stuff there was, and how it could have seemed to him that disposing of it was the only sensible thing to do. Doubtless much of what he destroyed was simply boring scribbles, though I do shudder to wonder what gems may have been destroyed along with them.

The second mention of Paxford came up at Douglas Gresham’s talk. It was with reference to Puddleglum, but I was interested in the wording he used. I always thought that the man had been a vague inspiration for Puddleglum, but Gresham said with insistency, “Puddleglum was Fred Paxford”. He may have been exaggerating, but since he had actually grown up knowing the man, I think we can probably trust such an assessment. Out of curiosity, therefore, I had a look at Gresham’s bibliographical work, Lenten Lands, in which he tells the story of what it was like growing up with Jack and Joy. I haven’t yet had a chance to read the book, but I suspected there would be some reference to Paxford in it.

I was not mistaken; the man is given his own chapter, albeit a short one. Douglas says of him, “Fred Paxford and I were friends - not associates, but friends…Fred was a countryman through and through, he knew the ways of animals and plants and he knew the ways of little boys.”

He goes on to describe a few of Fred’s characteristics. Not all are exactly the same as Puddleglum - except the fact that he seems as annoyingly exasperating (yet also endearing) as the marshwiggle. Apparently, he had a fondness for singing aloud as he worked - despite the fact that he could hardly keep a tune. What was most annoying about it was that he would sing aloud one or two lines, then continue in his head for a while, before breaking out at a later line in the song (only the timing and key of this later break out was completely unpredictable). Another annoying thing was his insistence at leaving vegetables to be picked until the last possible moment, sometimes only once they were over ripe (exasperating Douglas’ mother). He tells of how once, when it was Fred’s turn to do the cooking, he would not pick the cauliflower until the water had started boiling.

With reference to Puddleglum, Douglas says the following:

Fred was the ever cheerful eternal pessimist. The character of Puddleglum in The Silver Chair… is modelled directly upon Fred. “Good morning, Fred,” I might say. “Ah, looks loike rain afore lunch though, if’n it doan’t snow … or ’ail that is,” might well be his reply.

From Douglas’ account, Fred was a very humble man, and possibly completely unaware of the impact he had on the young boy’s life (and Lewis’). I wonder if he knew that he had inspired one of the most loved characters by readers of the Chronicles? I do hope Douglas told him, though I suspect he had no idea just how much Puddleglum is loved. After Lewis’ death, Douglas says, the man retired. He visited him once at his small home where he lived “in abject poverty”. Yet he seemed fully content with his life, and splashed out what little money he had to entertain his guest. He died not many years later, without anyone telling Gresham. He suspects there were not many who even marked his passing.

Gresham sums up his life saying

Fred Paxford was one of the finest, kindest and most Christian men I ever knew. He was my friend. He is gone and I miss him. I could never have told him so, but I loved him deeply.

It’s interesting that he describes him as being one of the “most Christian” men he knew. Looking at his life of hard work, “cheerful eternal pessimism” and his uneducated and sometimes uncouth language, I would not have expected him to be a good Christian example, not of the kind educated Lewis was. And yet in his way, he clearly had a strong and positive impact on Gresham’s life.

I think in this way too, he is like Puddleglum. Judging by his nature, eternal pessimism and grumpiness, although we like him, we don’t picture the marshwiggle as a great example of faith. Eustace reprimands him at the beginning saying, “I don’t think Aslan would ever have sent him if there was so little chance as all that.” But later on, we are to learn that behind his pessimistic grumpy exterior is a sturdy faith that is steadfast and able to withstand the witch’s best attempts at making them forget and deny Aslan. Puddleglum turns out to be one of the finest, kindest and most faithful to Aslan of marshwiggles the world of Narnia ever knew.


The Gumboot Gal said...

Hi there! Just wondering where you got the 'keep calm' pic... did you make it yourself? I own Camp Narnia in Canada and would love to get my hands on that in poster/post-card format but couldn't find it anywhere else on the web. It's brilliant!

Ajnos said...

Hey. Thanks for your comment. Glad you like it. I made it using this site:

May I ask how you found my blog?

Ajnos >'.'<

Anonymous said...

I found it by googling The Silver Chair: Chapter 5.

apocalypseofpeace said...

I am googling for a pic or two of Puddleglum for a poster advertising my theology course on Narnia. Finding yours, I looked around at your blog, the Lion's Call and the Youtube videos. It is nice to know you are out there.

Ajnos Gamgee said...

Nice to know people are looking at my blog. :) Updating it regularly kinda stopped when I moved to Oxford and started a separate blog on what I was up to there (personal newslettery stuff). I'm hoping to get back to this one at some point.

Feel free to drop by The Lions Call chat room any time if you want to hang out with us ;)