Prince Rilian: Narnia’s Hard Luck Hero

The Silver Chair, Rilian’s nemesis (AI art)

 Every Summer of Narnia I’ve done since 2020 takes on its own shape as the weeks progress. I didn’t expect this summer to focus so heavily on The Silver Chair, yet that’s the way it turned out. In this post though, instead of saying more about the Green Witch, I’ll turn the lens onto her victim: Prince Rilian, son of Caspian X.

He’s only a side character in The Silver Chair, yet he’s the driving force of the entire plot, as the Quest to find him is what brings Jill and Eustace to Narnia in the first place and necessitates such strict instructions from Aslan. Over the course of the book he goes from being the witch’s mysterious companion to her co-conspirator, from a patsy and fool to a suffering wretch, then a vengeful murderer who hacks his ex-lover’s head off. (But hey, it’s OK! She was in her snake form!)  One can imagine it won’t be easy for him when he returns to Cair Paravel. (This fanfic touches on his readjustment problems.)

To Lewis’s credit, he was not one to shy away from giving his characters a hard time. Meaningless deaths, crushing loads of guilt, and assaults on their dignity from the ravages of life are par for the course. Neither did Lewis hold back from authorial scoldings. Unlike Tolkien, who saved the majority of suffering for Frodo, characters who get a happy ending in one Narnia book may wind up full of pain in another. They are not mythic; they suffer with the rest of us.

Let’s consider Rilian’s birth. According to Lewis’s timeline, his parents were in their thirties when he was born, and despite marrying early they had no children before Rilian, nor were there any after him. That to me is indicative of fertility problems. Or intimacy ones, which I addressed in my fanfic Malignment in Emerald, trying to make sense of the lack through fiction. As an only child Rilian must have been proscribed and protected to a large degree because he was the only heir. If he died, Caspian’s cousin, Prunaprismia’s unnamed son by Miraz, or his descendants would take the throne, a plot point Lewis ignored.

In his teenhood Rilian experiences another tragedy. Despite being a beloved queen, a character the reader was surely rooting for from the happy-ever-after ending of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Stardaughter** gets bitten by a snake and dies pointlessly, without getting to impart a warning, or even a last goodbye, to her son whose arms she dies in. Now THAT’s harsh.

Maddened by grief, Rilian runs recklessly amok in vengeance, looking for the snake to kill, despite admonishment from his father that it’s pointless. A father who is likely also grieving and coming to terms with loss. But the damage is done. At the height of Rilian’s foolishness – for he’s chasing an animal around rather than doing his princely duties, which are learning to be king – he falls victim to it. He meets the Green Witch and falls under her spell. Giving up his life, his duty to his kingdom, and his fealty to his father all for a woman’s touch.

Enid and Geraint, by Rowland Wheelwright

The above is how I imagine the seduction plays out. Yes, that he abandons his duties for a mere woman has a whiff of misogyny about it. If he hadn’t been magicked to do so, he’d be a laughingstock, as Edward VIII was with Wallis Simpson.

Again, it’s a pretty harsh thing to happen… not the least because, in hindsight, he could have cooled his jets and thought clearly. But unlike Lewis’s other erring heroes – Edmund, Jill, Aravis – he’s not allowed to atone for it. He’s caught in a loop, realizing only what happened to him when he’s tied to the chair, where he sobs and raves, to forget it all when the hour ends. When he’s finally freed the story absolves of responsibility for his part in the witch’s plot, because he’s been hypnotized to do so. But that also means he won’t be overcoming the consequences of his hubris with moral development.

The hardest luck of all? He did it to himself.

He didn’t have to chase after the snake, he could have grieved and let it go. He didn’t have to talk to the beautiful woman walking alone in the meadow. He chose to, and so he was lost. Anger, pride, lust; that’s three major sins right there!

In that context, it makes sense that his rage, once unleashed, would lead to him repeatedly hacking at the serpent/lady’s neck to sever her head, instead of making one clean blow. (C’mon, his sword couldn’t have been that dull.)

Of course, the story isn’t really Rilian’s, it belongs to Eustace and Jill. Though there’s a case to be made it’s Jill’s alone, for she gets the best POV sections and the most character development. But it’s Rilian who is the memorable one.

Following are some depictions of this sad and complex character.

Above is the Pauline Baynes drawing most readers will be familiar with from the original editions of the book. The chair is a fanciful, flimsy-looking thing, not very solid, unless it’s silver-gilt iron or something. There’s nothing stopping the prince from jerking it around with his body or even standing and carrying it around with him. Maybe that’s why Puddleglum and the kids in that passage were so concerned he would break his bonds and come after them like a maniac.

Even as a child I thought that scenario was ridiculous. First off, there are three of them and one of Rilian, and they have swords and he does not. Second, the text and illustrations do not make Rilian out to be physically imposing, in fact he’s described as a silly fop and a momma’s boy. The choice to free him should not have been so hard for them to make.

Anyway, for an illustration, I prefer a heavier, more substantial chair, like a throne.

A depiction of the Rilian from a Logos Theater production of The Silver Chair. He’s lit dramatically from above, but his head is bowed so we don’t see his face. I can imagine that when he starts to emote he lifts his neck, the spotlight emphasizing the distortions his face goes through as the others cower in fear. Here’s an example where theater can do something that isn’t possible in a book.

AI art

An AI image where I played with this idea in a graphic novel type style. The chair isn’t silver and there is no bondage (Midjourney wouldn’t let me go there) but Rilian’s frustration and anguish is there.

Artwork by Julia Orthey

There are other illustration styles to consider, such as this one, which is simple and childlike yet disturbing.

AI art

After all that torture Rilian finds it hard to snap back to reality when he’s finally freed. My only regret with this pic is that he’s dressed in silver and not black as was in the text of the book.

What does he do after he stands up? He chops the chair to bits.

The 1990 BBC version took a Man in the Iron Mask approach, putting Rilian in a silver helmet that hides his face and disguises his identity. It’s not a necessary element, but it worked for the benefit of the TV audience. The design is equal parts Roman gladiator and owl, with large eyeholes that allowed the actor to convey the extremes of emotion. With his beard he bears a resemblance to Jean Marais’s hairy-faced Beast in Cocteau’s surreal 1946 fairy tale La Belle et La Bette.  This Rilian is more of a masculine threat than the giddy young fool portrayed in the book. The set design of the witch’s underground castle was excellent as well, but I can’t find a good pic of it.

It’s a valid, effective interpretation, and I admire it. But I still prefer Hamlet Rilian, who stands to the left.

By showing the prince as handsome and young, and contrasting it with the threat of his change into a “loathesome serpent” the reader is reminded that what seems fair may have a dark side, as the Green Witch does. It’s only the invocation of Aslan’s name that vouchsafes his humanity. Baynes depicts him as slim and innocuous, which strengthened my childhood impression that his rescuers were overreacting.

(Note that he didn’t say “venomous serpent” or “giant serpent.” He simply said “loathesome.” Rilian could have become a garter snake for all the kids knew. Which might freak out some people, but certainly isn’t dangerous. )

Behind Rilian is the table of food with which he indulges his saviors with a late-night snack. (Well, all times are late-night in the Underworld.) I had a mind to create it in AI.

Well, we have a lot of sumptuous fare for a cold buffet, but I can’t say for sure that any of it is what’s said in the book. It looks right, though. If you click on it you’ll see the large pic and decide for yourself.

Artwork by Emmanuel Onimisi

Artist Emmanuel Onimisi puts his own spin on Rilian’s confrontation with the witch. His Green Witch has dark hair and greenish skin; she plays a lyre-like instrument, not a mandolin, and fancies green decor with snake sconces. Puddleglum wound up with green hair as well. Rilian is a rough-hewn older man here and watches her in despair rather than reaching for his sword.

Artwork by elandain

Killing the serpent, which is larger and more impressive than Bayne’s marine snake. Its watermelon head is different, implying it’s still got a human brain. As in the book, Eustace is useless in the fight. Gray-skinned. skeletal Puddleglum gives the scene an extra nightmarish quality.

In this pic, Rill is pissed. It’s nice to see the pent-up anger on his face.

Rilian is not the only hard-luck hero in Narnia. Other examples are King Tirian, who takes on religious heresy and invading Calormenes, and loses, and Queen Susan, who, after rejecting Narnia for lipstick and nylons,  must cope with the death of her entire family in a train crash. Lewis only details Tirian’s despair, and testing of faith, in the books. Rilian’s and Susan’s ordeals may have been far too grim.

Let’s end this with a touch of levity. Rilian as a rock band.


** She’s nameless in the books, and the movies call her Liliandil, which I think is stupid. But I have to call her something.

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