Puddleglum’s Wager

I made a reference in my last post to someone named Puddleglum. I’m having a hard time falling asleep at the moment and looking for a good use of my time, so I suppose I’ll put to page some thoughts concerning Puddleglum and his statement of faith upon which I have been ruminating for some time.

First of all, who is Puddleglum? For those who don’t know, he is one of the main characters in C. S. Lewis’s fantasy novel The Silver Chair, which was the fourth to be published of the seven Chronicles of Narnia (although, according to the chronology of Lewis’ Narnia fantasy, it is the sixth book to take place). Puddleglum is a Narnian Marsh-wiggle, which is to say that he is a lanky marsh-dwelling humanoid with an overall greenish complexion and webbed feet and hands. Puddleglum, like all Marsh-wiggles, constantly gives voice to a very gloomy and pessimistic outlook on life, as though he were expecting the worst possible outcome in any given situation. In spite of this, in the course of events he paradoxically reveals himself to be the one person most to be relied upon for holding on to hope when hope is hardest to get hold of.

(spoiler alert! the following includes a revelation of some of the most significant plot points and dialogue from The Silver Chair.)

When we come to chapter 12 of The Silver Chair, our friend Puddleglum has, along with two children from our world (named Eustace and Jill), been for some time engaged in a difficult and troubled expedition in search of Rilian, the lost prince of Narnia. At long last, Puddleglum, Eustace, and Jill have succeeded in discovering the lost prince, who is held captive in the underground kingdom of an evil enchantress styled the Lady of the Green Kirtle, but more properly known as Queen Jadis. No sooner have they set Prince Rilian free from the enchantments which have been used to make him a captive and a slave than they are confronted by Jadis, who attempts by her powerful spell to make them all slaves together. Her spell is so powerful that she is able to lull the Prince and the two children from our world into forgetting that there is any real world other than her bleak underground kingdom of evil. In this moment of crisis, it is Puddleglum who rises to the occasion. He puts out the Witch’s enchanted fire with his bare foot (giving off a very disenchanting smell) and proceeds to give her defiance with this speech:

“‘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’ve said. But there’s 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 making up 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 there isn’t any Aslan to lead it I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if here 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 a 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.'”

I have found in these words something very helpful to stiffen the backbone of my faith in times of trial (which is, no doubt, what their author intended). Puddleglum’s argument is simple. If God and His world isn’t what really is, life without Him is miserable and meaningless by comparison. It’s odd enough that we’d have longings for something that never was or is or will be, but even that aside, if there is no God, no meaning, no reality, then what have we lost by pretending that there is? I’ll wager you, says Puddleglum. If you’re right and I’m wrong, I still haven’t lost anything by pretending; and if indeed you are right, to give up my pretending would be to give up the only thing that makes my life worth living.

This is, I think, a much better wager than Pascal’s. (see Pascal’s Wager at wikipedia.org) Whereas Pascal’s wager is an entirely self-centered bet, Puddleglum comes at us from a very different direction. He says, in effect, “I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. What is it to me if you say that the Lord does not exist? I would rather go on believing Him and living as one of His, because without Him, life is so miserable and empty that there’s no point to it at all. Just look how lame your version of ‘truth’ is,” Puddleglum says. “It’s so useless that I might as well not believe it, because even if it’s true, believing it won’t better my life at all.”

He can say all this, of course, because deep down in his heart, Puddleglum knows not only that Aslan and Narnia are real, but also that Aslan and Narnia are the only thing that matters. He takes the power (and ultimately his friends) out of his enemy’s hands by showing that, even if the Witch isn’t lying, they have nothing to gain and everything to lose by giving in; and if she is indeed telling the truth, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by carrying on as though she is lying. At which point the Witch shows her true colors and turns into the serpent she is. There’s not a lot you can do to someone who says, at heart,

Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength[b] of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:25-26)

Those who follow Jesus are constantly being pressured by the world around us to compromise our obedience to Him. Why do we trouble our souls for a fantasy? And while we know that Jesus is so much better than a fantasy, I think sometimes it would do us good to challenge the Enemy’s false version of truth not just on its falsehood, but its uselessness, because Jesus is so much that much better than what they want us to give Him up for that it would hardly matter if He wasn’t real at all. Of course, He is. It just wouldn’t matter if He wasn’t–not enough to make us give Him up. The Lord is our portion. He’s all we have in Heaven and all we have in Earth, and all we really want for all that. As William Cowper wrote:

“But O! Thou bounteous giver of all good,
Thou art of all Thy gifts Thyself the crown;
Give what Thou canst, without Thee we are poor
And with Thee rich, take what Thou wilt away.”

The substance of Christian devotion is to be able to say that sort of thing with an honest heart. If we can, nothing is going to pull us away from Jesus. If we can’t, something invariably will.

So hurrah for good old Puddleglum! And may God give us the strength to persevere in love like his, which is better than mere faith (I Corinthians 13:13).

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