Why Puddleglum is Not a Pessimist | Opinion

This article is based on an ongoing discussion in the NarniaWeb forum.

Opinion by Glumpuddle

The character of Puddleglum is one of the most beloved creations in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. And yet, I think he gets a bad wrap.

The marsh-wiggle who accompanies Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb in The Silver Chair is fondly remembered for comedic moments where he predicts the worst. As a result, he is often labeled as gloomy, depressed, or pessimistic:

  • ““Good morning, Guests. Though when I say good I don’t mean it won’t probably turn to rain or it might be snow, or fog, or thunder.” 
  • “You could light [the fire] inside the wigwam, and then we’d get all the smoke in our eyes. Or you could light it outside, and then the rain would come and put it out.”
  • “I know these expeditions usually end that way: knifing one another, I shouldn’t wonder, before all’s done.”

To be sure, Lewis initially sets up the character as a hopeless wet blanket. But that is not the end of the story. On the journey that follows, Puddleglum ultimately stands as a beacon of hope in a dark world.

Put a bold face on it

I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it.

Puddleglum

Despite his gloomy predictions, Puddleglum never seems particularly sad. On the contrary, he always tries to look on the bright side:

  • “The bright side of it is that if we break our necks getting down the cliff, then we’re safe from being drowned in the river.” 
  • “And there’s one thing about this underground work, we shan’t get any rain.”
  • “And you must always remember there’s one good thing about being trapped down here: it’ll save funeral expenses.”

Yes, Puddleglum often assumes the worst. But, he then puts a bold face on it.

So, is he a pessimist, constantly predicting doom? Or is he an optimist, always trying to view the glass as half full?

Brave as a lion

He may be a wet blanket, but he has plenty of pluck.

Scrubb

Puddleglum’s tendency to predict the worst actually highlights his courage. You can only be courageous if you know there is something to fear. Despite making it clear he is aware of all potential dangers, Puddleglum is always the one who keeps his spirits up. And it is all due to his trust in Aslan.

While crossing the sunless sea, Jill begins to despair, but Puddleglum offers encouragement. “Now don’t you let your spirits down, Pole,” he says. “We were to go under the Ruined City, and we are under it. We’re following [Aslan’s] instructions again.” Puddleglum ultimately trusts in the goodness of Aslan, no matter how dark things seem.

When the enchanted prince argues that the words “under me” had no relevance to their quest, the words hit the children “like cold water.” But not Puddleglum. He boldly defies the prince, saying, “There are no accidents. Our guide is Aslan; and he was there when the giant King caused the letters to be cut.” Puddleglum refuses to question the reliability of Aslan’s instructions. 

Perhaps the marsh-wiggle’s most courageous moment is when he urges Jill and Scrubb to free the enchanted prince from the silver chair. “That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn’t wonder. But that doesn’t let us off following [Aslan’s sign].” Even when it is perfectly reasonable to expect doom, Puddleglum is not deterred from doing the right thing.

And, most famously, as our heroes fall into the Witch’s enchantment and begin to wonder if Underland really is the only world, Puddleglum stamps out the Queen’s fire and puts on a bold face:

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 playing a game can make a playworld 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 there isn’t any Narnia.

Puddleglum

Here, Puddleglum’s determination to find the bright side leads him to the truth; he realizes the absurdity of the Queen’s words.

Hope

Despair is a greater sin than any of the sins which provoke it.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

If The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was about a flicker of hope in the midst of darkness, The Silver Chair is about that flicker seemingly being snuffed out, and the temptation to despair.

The beginning of the story finds Jill and Scrubb at the mercy of unopposed bullies and eleven weeks of term to go. When they reach Narnia, they find the Narnians preparing for their beloved king to die without an heir (with no prophecy or rhyme to offer any hope). And there is no better image of despair than Underland, where escape seems impossible and the memory of anything else begins to blur. 

In a story like that, a character by the name of “Puddleglum” seems an unlikely source of encouragement. But it is his unwavering belief in Aslan that enables him to trust that things will turn out okay in the end, no matter how bad they may appear.

I call that something like optimism.

You talk as if you were afraid of everything, when you’re really as brave as a lion.

Jill

But what do you think? Is Puddleglum more of a pessimist or an optimist?

Some Replies from the Forum

“I wouldn’t call him a pessimist either for the reasons you cited. But I think it’s also an exaggeration to call him an optimist.” Col Klink

“A pessimist might have refused to release Rilian. An optimist would have assumed it would all turn out all right. Puddleglum does neither, and that sets him apart as a truly brave person.” Cleander

“If you are little gloomy it doesn’t mean your a complete pessimist, but you just may have tendencies to look at life through dark colored glasses.  I think Puddleglum’s personality was like that. He was a little pessimistic but never to the point of despairing.” Narnian78

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