Platonic Imagery in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair

In C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair,1 Lewis relies heavily on the themes and imagery found in Plato’s works, most notably in the “Analogy of the Cave,”2 to show his characters’ development from ignorance to knowledge. Throughout the book, he creates his own version of the Cave by portraying different levels in his world. As his characters move in the levels, they grow, learn, and advance out of their own mental caves of unawareness and develop a higher understanding of reality.

In Plato’s “Analogy of the Cave,”3 Plato uses a metaphor about a man getting unchained from his darkness and ascending into the real world to describe the process of learning. As the man ascends, his eyes have to gradually adjust to the different levels of lighting he encounters. He starts by only being able to examine the shadows, then can only examine reflection, and then the thing themselves, and then finally he can gaze upon the sun, which illuminates everything else. As his ability to look at different levels of things advances, so does his understanding. In this metaphor, the light of the sun is what enables man to see things at all levels. The closer one ascends to the truth, the greater one’s understanding will be. In The Silver Chair,4 C.S. Lewis draws upon these themes and imagery to convey his Christian message to his reader. 

Johnson William and Marcia Houtman write on the prevalence of these themes in C.S. Lewis’ writings. In particular, they say, Lewis draws upon Plato’s theme of light to convey his Christian message. The light of the sun is analogous to the illuminating truth of the Son, or Jesus. It’s only with this light that understanding and truth can be received.5 In The Silver Chair,6 Aslan functions as the Sun does in Plato’s Analogy, and thus serves as a metaphor for Jesus. The closer the characters are to Aslan, the more real the things around them become. This is largely demonstrated in Lewis’ use of several different levels of the Narnian world that functionally behave as different levels of the cave. First, there is the dank and dark underworld. Next, there is Narnia, and after that, there is Aslan’s Country. As a character ascends through these levels and draws closer to Aslan’s Country, things gradually become more real. Like Plato, Lewis draws upon imagery of light and descriptors of settings to indicate which levels are essentially the most real. 

Starting out in the Deep Realm, Lewis’ imagery describes a dismal and dark world. The light available from the Earthmen’s torches is “cheerless” and “cold,” and beyond the torches only “dead blackness” can be seen.7 Furthermore, the creatures in this world remain paltry reflections of the lively Narnian’s above. They are strange, unfamiliar, dragonish, batlike, and stuck in a deep sleep.8 The Earthmen, too, resemble men, except they retain grotesque features such as tails or trunks and remain constantly morose. Altogether, things in the Deep Realm remain shadows of the things above them. The exception to this case is, of course, Prince Rilian, the one human among witches and creatures. His presence is first indicated by an “honest, yellowish, warm light of such a lamp as humans use” standing in stark contrast to the cold and strange light of the Earthmen.9

In contrast to the Deep Realm, the inhabitants of Narnia are lively and varied. The creatures present are both unfamiliar, like fauns and centaurs, and familiar, like leopards and badgers. However, even the familiar animals remain more real than the animals of our own world. They are bigger, more talkative, and more expressive.10 Even this bright and cheerful world cannot compare with Aslan. When he appears in Narnia, he seems “so bright and real and strong” that everything else looks “pale and shadowy” in comparison.11 As such, the world from which Aslan hails, Aslan’s Country, is the brightest and most beautiful. Lewis describes rich scenery with things “so bright that they might have been jewels or butterflies” flying against a bright blue sky.12 Even the birds’ songs are far more advanced and musical than what is found on Earth. Finally, in keeping with the theme of levels, Aslan’s Country is on top of a very high cliff above Narnia. 

So then, as a character advances higher, from the Deep Realm to Aslan’s Country, the things they come across will grow more real as it grows closer to Aslan. However, being among the real things is only half the battle. Vitally important in the Platonic metaphor is the ability to recognize the real things when you see them. Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum, Lewis’ main characters, have to go through their own metaphorical journey out of the cave in terms of their own understanding. Unlike the characters in Plato’s “Analogy of the Cave,”13 C.S. Lewis’ characters’ understanding and knowledge grows as they move downwards through the levels: from Aslan’s Country to Narnia to the Underworld and back up again.

In the beginning of the novel, Jill stands as a notable example of a chained prisoner. She is entirely ignorant of Narnia and Aslan. When she first enters Aslan’s Country, she acts foolishly and ends up pushing Eustace off of a cliff.14 After Eustace is saved by Aslan, Jill recognizes Aslan as only a lion, not as the ruler of Narnia. Aslan gives her the task of finding the lost prince of Narnia, but warns her that it will be harder due to her reckless behavior. To guide her way, Aslan gives her four signs: Eustace must greet his old friend when he sees them, they must travel north to the ruined city of the giants, they must obey the writing they find there, and they will recognize the prince when they hear him speak Aslan’s name.15 Tasked with memorizing the signs, Aslan warns her that the further she is from his country, the harder it will be for her to remember the signs. Repeating the signs to herself, then, is of utmost importance, especially as Aslan tells Jill that “you do not see quite as well as you think.”16 With this mission, Aslan effectively unlocks Jill from her metaphorical chains, and with a breath, he then sends her on her way to Narnia to search for the prince.

In Narnia, although she is aware of the real things, Jill and the other characters still display an inability to recognize things as they are, similar to how the freed prisoner will only effectively see shadows. This ignorance haunts the characters throughout their journey, leading them to make many harmful blunders. The first instance of this occurs right at the beginning of Jill’s arrival to Narnia when Eustace fails to recognize Caspian, his old friend.17 After botching the first sign, Eustace and Jill are joined up with Puddleglum, the ever pessimistic Marshwiggle. Together they head north, but run into a Lady and her knight. Cold and tired, they are convinced by her to abandon their plans to travel north and instead travel to Harfang, a city of giants where they can find rest.18 Their journey to the giants proves difficult, involving clambering through an odd maze of trenches which only served to make the travelers more determined to reach the promised shelter.19 Unfortunately for the travelers, they are unable to recognize the lady’s ill intent and end up in the hands of the cannibalistic giants. Similar mistakes continue as the characters let their desire for warmth distract them from their mission and the real things. In the end, the missteps continue with them misidentifying the third sign, almost getting eaten by the giants, and most horrifically consuming a talking stag, a being with as much personhood as any human in Narnia. It’s only after Aslan appears to Jill in a dream and shows her the third sign, that the characters are able to get back on track.20 The third sign, as it turned out, happened to be the very maze of trenches that they had struggled through earlier in their journey. Plato’s analogy of a correctly turned soul is apparent in the traveler’s trip towards Narnia. When the characters are focused on the right things and on Aslan, they are able to find their way. When they are distracted, they are like blind men stumbling through the dark. 

Ironically, even after gaining a properly oriented mindset, the characters end up quite literally stumbling around in the dark when they enter the Deep Realm until they are captured by the Earthmen. After arriving at the underground city of the Green Witch, the characters finally find the prince, although they do not recognize him at first. While all the main characters are analogous to Plato’s chained prisoners, Prince Rilian is the quintessential example. Under a curse by the witch, he is unaware of his true identity and considers the witch to be his savior. Except for one hour every night where he regains his sanity, he is a blithering fool. In these sane hours, he is chained to a silver chair to prevent his escape.21 As such, Prince Rilian is chained in both body and mind. He believes what is not true and remains ignorant of reality and of Aslan. Like the chained prisoners, he can only see the shadows and remains unaware of the sun except for the brief moments of sanity. Seeing the prince in his hour of sanity, Jill, Eustace, and Puddleglum, under the impression that the knight will turn into a serpent upon release, initially refuse to free the prince from the silver chair. In his sane state, Prince Rilian begs to be freed so that he “should be a man again,” yet only when he finally begs to be freed in the name of Aslan do they recognize the prince for whom he actually is and free him from his bonds.22 By doing so, the characters finally successfully follow a sign and Prince Rilian is freed from his enchantment. When he is freed, he is finally able to remember his identity and the true things in Narnia above.

Before returning to Narnia, the characters must first contend with the witch. The battle between the witch and the characters is essentially a battle between truth and ignorance, freedom and enslavement. To bring out these themes, C.S. Lewis relies on heavy Platonic imagery. First, the witch casts her enchantment with a fire, similar to the fire that casts the shadows in Plato’s “Analogy of the Cave.”23 With this spell, she works to convince the characters that Narnia was merely a dream and the Deep Realm is what is real. The character’s are almost pulled under by the spell until Puddleglum retorts with imagery of the sun, saying “I’ve seen the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night.”24 Reminded of the brilliance of sun in Narnia, the characters are briefly freed. They rally together and attempt to describe the sun to the witch by comparing it to a lamp. However, with the enchantment still in play, the witch manages to convince them that they dreamed of the sun and based it upon the lamp saying “The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story.”25 Like the prisoners, the characters are almost convinced that the shadows are the real things. However, Jill has come a long way from the beginning of the novel. She is no longer distracted like she was in Narnia nor ignorant like she was in Aslan’s Country. As such, she is able to recall Aslan’s name, but once again, the witch attempts to convince the characters that Aslan is merely a dreamed up version of a common cat. Her world, she says, is the only world.26 However, this reminder of Aslan, of the real things and the source of all the real things, is enough in an instance of Platonic recollection to rouse Puddleglum. Hearing the name of Aslan, he rallies himself and stomps out the fire from which the witch was casting the spells. Ultimately, it is the name of Aslan that allows their freedom. 

For Courtney Simmons and Joe Simmons, Puddleglum’s actions highlight a very specific aspect of Plato’s analogy of the cave: the element of pain. To stomp out the fire and end the enchantment, Puddleglum must injure his feet.27 Similarly, when a chained prisoner is first freed and forced to look at the light, he is blinded by the brightness and it hurts. At every level the prisoner must push through the pain to see the real things. Essentially, Simmons and Simmons think that as one advances through the different levels of understanding, they must face the harsh reality of disillusionment, but will ultimately be better off.28 Puddleglum certainly reflects this sentiment when he declares that even if Aslan and Narnia are entirely made-up, it is still better to search for it in vain than to remain trapped in the witch’s realm. So beyond the physical pain mentioned by Simmons, the character’s freedom comes with the chance of mental pain in regards to uncertainty of the search. When Jill reminds Puddleglum of Aslan, she reminds him of the truth. It is this reminder of the real things that then gives him the courage to stomp on the fire, a painful act that is worth the truth that it reveals. C.S. Lewis and Plato would both agree that the pursuit of truth is painful and is uncertain, yet truth still must be searched for.

After the defeat of the witch, the characters embark on this very mission, to return to Narnia and the real reality. With the help of the Earthmen, newly freed from their own enchantment, they are able to find their way back to Narnia. In Narnia, the memories of the Deep Realm seem quickly to fade. Within minutes “it felt to Jill and Eustace as if all their dangers in the dark and heat and general smotheriness of the earth must have been only a dream. Out here, in the cold, with the moon and the huge stars overhead and with kind, merry faces all round them, one couldn’t quite believe in the Underland.”29 Jill and Eustace have gone through their own metaphorical cave, from ignorance to distraction to focus and finally have fulfilled their purpose in coming to Narnia. They have found Prince Rilian and delivered him back to his people. With this they have ascended back into Narnia and are no longer distracted or misidentifying things. Rather, they can clearly see the real things, and like the freed prisoner who returns to the cave, can no longer consider shadows to be anything close to real. The change in the characters is highlighted when they see Aslan once again after the death of Caspian. In stark contrast to her first meeting with Aslan, Jill recognizes him at once for who he is.30 Like the prisoner looking upon the sun, Jill can gaze upon Aslan and recognize the truth. 

After whisking Jill and Eustace back to Aslan’s Country, Aslan resurrects Caspian. After passing away in Narnia, Caspian can now reside in Aslan’s Country. Hearing this, Eustace and Jill hope to remain in Aslan’s Country as well.31 As opposed to the first time they arrived in Aslan’s Country, they recognize that they are surrounded by the realest of things and the center of the truth: Aslan. Just like the freed prisoner would be reluctant to return to his underground existence, Jill and Eustace are reluctant to depart from Aslan and his country. They have completed their Platonic journey through the cave.

Although the characters’ Platonic journey out of the cave is easily tracked throughout the novel as they descend into the Deep Realm and then ascend to Aslan’s Country, the presence of Bism throws a wrench in this interpretation of The Silver Chair.32 If C.S. Lewis was attempting to use the Platonic imagery of the cave, why add a Deeper Realm under the Deep Realm? It is here where Lewis breaks away from the strictly height-oriented imagery patterns that he uses in the rest of the books. Bism, as a Deeper Realm, is portrayed as a living realm similar to Narnia. Up above, the Earthman Golg, informs the characters, you get “dead gold, dead silver, dead gems … Down in Bism we have them alive and growing … You won’t care much about fingering the cold, dead treasures of your shallow mines after you have tasted the live ones in Bism.”33 The Earthmen long to return to this home and Prince Rilian finds Bism to be tempting. It would be interesting, he says, to explore the bottom of the world.

However, at this point, Bism, while a temptation for Prince Rilian, remains more of a reflection of the state of the Earthmen. Their own experience reflects that of Prince Rilian. He was kidnapped from above, and they were kidnapped from below. He was enchanted to love living below the surface, and they were enchanted to forget their fear of the world above. When freed, then, they wished to return below and Prince Rilian wished to return to the world above. Even though they wish to head the opposite directions, their souls are still attuned to the correct things for their nature. The Earthmen are attuned to the real below, and Rilian is attuned to the real above. By having each return to their proper place in creation, C.S. Lewis reinforces the Platonic idea that truth must be sought after.

Altogether, C.S. Lewis uses several Platonic themes in his book The Silver Chair.34 As he moves his characters throughout the book, he has them descend deep into Plato’s Cave so that they may be ultimately free of it. Using light and imagery to indicate which levels are closer to reality, Lewis centers his story around Aslan and thus centers his story around Jesus and the truth. Ultimately, readers are invited to consider how we may also advance out of our mental caves and orient our souls correctly on the truth.

Hannah Meade ’22 is majoring in Philosophy and Psychology. She is from Nashville, IL. We thank Dr. Kevin M. Kambo (Philosophy) for his involvement with Hannah’s piece.

Spring 2022 Table of Contents

1  C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).

2  Plato, “Analogy of the Cave,” in Republic (Book VII), trans. G.M.A. Grube. Revised by C.D.C. Reeve. (Indianapo – lis: Hackett, 1992).

3  Plato, “Analogy of the Cave.”

4  Lewis, The Silver Chair.

5  William G. Johnson and Marcia K. Houtman. 1986. “PLATONIC SHADOWS IN C. S. LEWIS’ NARNIA ‘CHRONICLES,’” Modern Fiction Studies 32 (1): 84–85. JSTOR,

6  Lewis, The Silver Chair.

7  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 49–51.

8  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 50.

9  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 52.

10  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 12.

11  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 82.

12  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 4.

13  Plato, “Analogy of the Cave.”

14  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 5.

15  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 9.

16  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 10.

17  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 12.

18  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 31.

19  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 34.

20  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 40.

21  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 57.

22  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 57–58.

23  Plato, “Analogy of the Cave.”

24  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 62.

25  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 62.

26  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 62–63.

27  Courtney Lynn Simmons and Joe Simmons. 1991. “The Silver Chair and Plato’s Analogy of The Cave: The Archetype of Spiritual Liberation.” Mythlore 17 (4): 14. JSTOR,

28  Simmons and Simmons, “Archetype of Spiritual Liberation,” 12

29  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 77.

30  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 82.

31  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 84.

32  Lewis, The Silver Chair.

33  Lewis, The Silver Chair, 72.

34  Lewis, The Silver Chair.

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