Today’s Very Fun Post will involve a story analysis like I mentioned I wanted to do way back in January… Hopefully, you’ll find it interesting and useful, and different from the ones you had to do in your English/Grammar classes in school. I don’t intend to do the whole, “but what did the author mean!?!?” bit of nonsense. I intend to simply share my observances and what I gleaned from them.
And besides, the first story I want to look at is The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, which is the fifth (chronological) of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading these books, I’m curious as to what you did read during your childhood (if you were the reading type at all and if they were available to you in the first place) and I’d like to recommend going to your local or online bookstore, or opening your prefered Ebook app and getting yourself all seven books. They average about 200 odd pages and can be read quite quickly, even if you don’t have the time.
Now, a note to those vehemently opposed to anything Christian. Yes, Lewis was a Christian Apologist and wrote a lot of his beliefs into The Chronicles, but, this really lovely article from Slate points out that Narnia is far more than Christian Allegory. Also, I myself am not Christian so I will not be interpreting it from that viewpoint. So rest easy.
Now on to the adventure!
It’s really difficult to pick a favorite from The Chronicles, but I usually come back to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (And the Horse and His Boy, but that’s another show) We’re going to completely ignore the movies because all but the first were utter abominations. For now, we’re also going to ignore the other plots and themes that can be pulled from the story and focus on Eustace.
Eustace is probably the most unpleasant and miserable character in the series (Uncle Andrew aside) that we meet. Lewis introduces him as such;
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace and his Masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none.
… Liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card. He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in models schools.
… For deep down he liked bossing and bullying; and, though he was a puny little person who couldn’t have stood up even to Lucy, let alone Edmund, in a fight, he knew that there are dozens of ways to give people a bad time if you are in your own home and they are only visiting.
So from the beginning, we know he’s a deeply unpleasant person and we can see why he has no friends. And it gets worse from there.
The story properly starts with Lucy and Edmund coming to stay with Eustace (they’re cousins) and Eustace starting in on being nasty to them. Lucy and Edmund are looking at a painting of “such a very Narnian ship”, when, in the usual magical way, they are transported to Narnia, to the very ship they were discussing. They are, of course, rescued and brought on board and find it’s the ship of the King. (Caspian.) Edmund and Lucy are thrilled to be there and see everyone, but Eustace promptly begins to cry more than necessary and asks for nasty tiresome sounding things like “Plumptree’s Vitaminized Nerve Food and could it be made with distilled water and anyway he insisted on being put ashore at the next station.”
Here, to my mind, Eustace begins to make things utterly miserable for himself. There are two distinct sets of behaviors among the children. Edmund and Lucy immediately begin to see the best of things and engage themselves in the adventure. They speak with old friends and allow themselves to be introduced to new ones and go on quite a nice tour of the ship. Eustace, meanwhile, continues to moan and complain and thinks far too highly of himself. (If you ever get a chance to read his journal, it’s very illuminating to how silly we can be sometimes, and this does a good job of making us miserable. Eustace himself diagnoses it without realizing, “All the others pretend to take no notice of this, either from swank, or because Harold says one of the most cowardly things people do is to shut their eyes to Facts.”)
Eustace, you see, has refused his call to adventure. He has shut his eyes to Facts, so to speak. Perhaps we can forgive him a bit, as the call to adventure is quite frankly a terrifying thing. The adventure doesn’t ask (And neither does Aslan, really.) It simply arises and pulls you along, headfirst, more often than not, before you can get your feet underneath you. The call to Adventure also presents another problem:
A radically new worldview. (quite literally, in Eustace’s case.) New worldviews challenge our beliefs. Not just a few of them, but all of them. Beliefs are what orient us in the world. They help us to figure out where we’ve been, what we’re doing now, the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the doing, and show us the most probable of best ways to go. Our beliefs define our self-image and the filter of how we view others. They help us decide what is right, and what is wrong, and by extension if we are.
If our beliefs are challenged, and we allow them to be so, it has implications for not just that one little belief that something is questioning, but, like, everything it is attached to. (A singular belief isn’t a thing. They don’t exist in a vacuum, but build off each other and tangle up.) Suddenly, if one filter/belief is wrong, what else is wrong? It can spiral in such a fractal that suddenly we might not even know ourselves, what our whole life has been, and what the hell we’re even doing! (usually, we call this an existential crisis. Enjoy the growing pains.)
And this voyage is to do exactly that to Eustace. Eustace thinks himself a very educated, far superiorly intelligent person to everyone on the Dawn Treader. He believes himself always to be in the right, even when he is clearly wrong, like when he swings Reepicheep (a Talking Mouse) around by the tail for the “fun” of it. He is appalled and horrified when Reepicheep stands up for himself, and Eustace demands that he is punished for doing so. (On the supposed grounds that Reepicheep is a dangerous little beast that “can’t take a joke.”)
He frequently feels embarrassed, aggravated, and overall simply miserable throughout the voyage because of his insufferable view of everyone around him as absolute fiends in human form. He refuses to enjoy the food, the ship, the wonderful sea air (being on a ferry in the open ocean is an experience I’ve only once had the pleasure of, but it’s one of my best memories) he can’t even be properly grateful when rescued from slavery by Caspian.
The food at home is better all around, the ships in England are much bigger and more like a city on land, and he is the only sensible and kind person on board. Caspian was obviously off enjoying himself and taking his sweet time while they rotted away, didn’t he? His internal compass, so to speak, cannot point to True North, as he keeps a finger holding it at the N as he turns around in circles, frustrated when he gets lost, and never realizing that he himself is hindering his ability to be found.
New experiences and Adversity challenge us to grow and become better than what we were. Our Selves can be thought of as an amalgamation of input- of everything we’ve experienced. From lessons learned to movies and behaviors watched to games played and knees skinned. And our mind has mechanisms for filtering what is useful, and will help us continue, and what is to be ignored, marked as dangerous, or to be outright thrown away.
And then, as it always does, tragedy strikes. The ship runs afoul of a terrible storm, and the full extent of Eustace’s toxic mindset comes out in full. Because he cannot see truly, he cannot see that all the others are suffering as well from the shortage of food and water. He believes he is the only one in this miserable hell, the only one outside the circle of the norm. As such, he believes himself to not need to contribute to the solving of problems, (even though the problems affect him as well.) He believes himself to be entitled to extra help and rations because he is the only one suffering. In his journal, he writes;
A horrible day. Woke up in the night knowing I was feverish and must have a drink of water. Any doctor would have said so. Heaven knows I’m the last person to try and get any unfair advantage but I never dreamed that this water rationing would be meant to apply to a sick man. In fact I would have woken the others up and asked for some only I thought it would be selfish to wake them. So I got up and took my cup and tiptoed out of the Black Hole we slept in, taking great care not to disturb Caspian and Edmund, for they’ve been sleeping badly since the heat and the short water began. I always try to consider others whether they are nice to me or not. … It was all going beautifully, but before I’d drawn a cupful who should catch me but that little spy Reep. I tried to explain that I was going on deck for a breath of air (the business about the water had nothing to do with him) and he asked me why I had a cup. He made such a noise that the whole ship was roused. They treated me scandalously. … Now comes their rotten unfairness: They all believed him. Can you beat it?
Now, if not for a few things, we might believe Eustace in his righteous indignation. But, it only proves how blind to the world around him he is. How blind to himself he is. He points out that he notices that the others are sleeping poorly, yet he fails to make the connection that their symptoms and his own are the same. And then he sneaks. He lies about what he’s doing. But he believes that he is in the right. So, in a state of dissonance when confronted by his own wrongdoing, he is enraged that others see the truth of his actions, believing them to be lies. This he does to rationalize and salvage his self-image as a good person.
Instead of feeling better about the affair, as one would hope when salvaging a self-image, he becomes more miserable than ever, hiding in his bunk and refusing to interact with the world.
Not even being confronted in real time with his own miserable actions is enough to wake him up to himself. This is when some dramatic intervention from the world comes in. Eustace has rejected his Road of Trials, things that would have gradually made him stronger, more competent, and eventually happier if he had embraced and pursued the challenge, and if he is to have any hope, a sudden burst is needed.
Sometimes, the Truth must be laid so bare, in such terrible ways, that any other explanation cannot be fathomed before we can accept even glancing its way.
Sometime after the storm, the Ship finds an abandoned island. While the crew are busy repairing the damage to their ship, shoring themselves up for the future and working together for the benefit of all, Eustace thinks again, only of his own pleasure and comforts.
He sneaks away, and in so doing, gets lost. By avoiding the responsibility of The Now, he sets himself up for a tragedy in the (near) future. Shortly put, he becomes a dragon. Lewis puts the realization this way:
But in an instant he realized the truth. The dragon face in the pool was his own reflection.
There was no doubt of it. It moved as he moved, it opened and shut its mouth as he opened and shut his. He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard withgreedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.
That explained everything. There had been no two dragons beside him in the cave. The claws to right and left had been his own right and left claws. The two columns of smoke had been coming from his own nostrils. As for the pain in his left arm (or what had been his left arm) he could now see what had happened by squinting with his left eye. The bracelet which had fitted very nicely on the upper arm of a boy was far too small for the thick, stumpy foreleg of a dragon. It had sunk deeply into his scaly flesh and there was a throbbing bulge on each side of it. He tore at the place with his dragon’s teeth but could not get it off.
In spite of the pain, his first feeling was one of relief. There was nothing to be afraid of any more. He was a terror himself and nothing in the world but a knight (and not all of those) would dare to attack him. He could get even with Caspian and Edmund now—
But the moment he thought this he realized that he didn’t want to. He wanted to be friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realized that he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him. He began to see that the others had not really been fiends at all.
He began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed.
He longed for their voices. He would have been grateful for a kind word even from Reepicheep.
Now, there’s an interesting thing to note about dragons. Western mythological dragons, at least. They’re ancient, terrifying, ravenous beasts. Ones that horde precious items (gold, jewels, your Lady Love…) and are nigh impossible to defeat, but they must be in order for the hero to save their home. They’re the one thing everyone is afraid of, that no one wants to even look at. But, again, they must. Eustace physically becomes one of the most terrible things Western mythology cooked up. In Jungian Psychology, the thing that you don’t want to look at, the thing in your Shadow, is the one thing you need most to live well. In his transformation into a terrible monster, Eustace’s shadow became fully manifest. It became visual, instead of behavioral. It rose to a place where he himself became conscious of it. Dragons have an impenetrable hide of scales. Eustace’s mind had an impenetrable hide of ignorance, victimhood, and conceit. And it came with a deep, deep price. Both were terribly ugly, and both became barriers to him having a normal, happy human life.
Now that it has become manifest, Eustace can now work to remedy this dark taint in his character. But it’s very difficult. As I said, his dragon form makes it impossible for him to have a normal, human life. It has not prevented him from having meaningful relationships- in fact, he forges a very touching relationship with Reepicheep, of all people. In this utterly foreign experience, he finds utility in himself. He becomes a great hunter, and finds a tree to be a new mast for the ship, and is a great source of heat and drying power on wet nights. Yet it remains a very trying time for him, as he is constantly being reminded of his monstrousness. He is not the gorgeous dragons of today’s fantasy novels. He is a terrible, predatory thing with “huge bat-like wings, saw-edge ridge on his back, and cruel, curved claws,” And he realizes despite his utility on the island, he will be a greater burden than ever before at sea. It is that constant reminder of his terribleness that gives him the insight to appreciate the ways he can be good, and he can be liked, and in fact, he can like others. The sharp contrast provides the detail he missed before. He can be less monstrous in behavior, even if he cannot be in form. (Once you realize you can hurt and destroy other people, you can take the proper steps to not do so. Otherwise, you stumble around blind, like Eustace, thinking everything you do is fine when in reality you’ve done some terrible things. You’re likely more of a monster when you think you aren’t one- because you’re not watching yourself.)
But it’s not enough. He cannot, it seems, undragon himself.
This is where the concept of The Numinous comes in for Lewis. Aslan, a phenomenon that is both lovely, and wonderful, and terribly dangerous, is what saves Eustace. He guides him to a fountain and bids him to bathe, but to first undress.
Now, water is generally thought to be a great cleanser- not just physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. But that’s not what stands out to me the most. Aslan bids Eustace undress. Being a dragon, he has no clothes, but he does have a scaly exterior. Eustace tries and fails to remove this exterior a few times before Aslan does it himself.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right to my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. …
And there it was, lying on the grass, only so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there I was as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me… and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but for only a moment.
Here Eustace encounters his healing process. And it’s terrifying and more painful than anything else he’s experienced up to this point. He is laid utterly bare of all the foul defenses he’s built up and diminished to a vulnerable pathetic creature.
Now, it could commonly be inferred that Aslan, as a metaphor for Christ, is the only thing capable of extending salvation. But as I said before, I am not a Christian so I would like to offer a more nuanced explanation for the way Eustace was healed.
Alan Watts puts forth the idea that you cannot improve yourself, for the one doing the improving is the thing that needs improving. You only want something because you aren’t it. If you knew what was good for you, you would be improved. It’s like trying to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. But clearly, we see people improve and become better than they were. Characters like Eustace become redeemed. Thoughts and views can change. People can root out shitty thought patterns and adopt healthy ways of thinking. But good god, it’s difficult. How does it happen?
We get a hint for this in Lewis’ words;
It would be nice, and fairly true, to say that “from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.” To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still days where he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.
He uses the term cure, which I interpret as Eustace going from a diseased, abnormal state, to a normal, healthy state. He is going back to how he is meant to be. In medical thinking, one is cured by taking a kind of medicine or undergoing a procedure. In living, this medicine is an encounter with Lewis’ Numinous. That thing that is so outside of ourself it leaves us… different.
As alluded to before, I’ve interpreted all of Eustace’s nastiness as a kind of barrier that he threw up haphazardly to protect himself from the things he doesn’t want to see or experience. (“Oh Adam’s Sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good!”, Lewis writes through Aslan in The Magicians Nephew.) It’s actually a consistent theme from Lewis in others of The Chronicles as well. His most miserable characters blind themselves to the world to protect themselves and become the very cause of their misery. To heal it, it must be torn away. It leaves you vulnerable, and small, and weak. It lays you bare to your foundations, so to speak. But from there one can begin to build a better, more resilient and healthy defense against the pain of life.
But why must Aslan play a part? Why do we need the something so Other? A thing, left to its own devices, won’t improve, remain in good order, or even clean, unless acted upon by an outside force. (For outside, and even inside forces, work to break down things into more and more chaotic bits.) Think of a garden. Left on its own, the garden will become overrun with undesirable plants, insects, and maybe even a few rodents or snakes. A gardener must come in and tend to it, to see that order remains and that the wanted plants have the right conditions to grow and produce.
Now, the gardener is both separate, and the same as the garden at the same time. He is a gardener only as long as there is a garden to tend. But, he can also come and go as he pleases. He is an entity with an outside view, and therefore can observe from afar and bring something new (himself, his experiences outside the garden) in. With this experience, he can prune and water and weed as deemed necessary to improve the garden in ways it cannot itself improve. In our metaphor, Eustace is the garden, overrun and a mess, and Aslan is the gardener, coming to straighten it out.
Aslans, or gardeners, come in many forms in real life. Life challenges, or less painful growth experiences, the more happy ones. They can be people we meet- or lose even. They can even be parts of ourselves we have forgotten or lost, then rediscovered. With the right outside push, one can grow, Like a watered and well-sunned plant ready to bloom.
From here on, as Lewis points out, Eustace is a different boy. In following books, he becomes quite good friends with his older cousins, and a girl named Jill Pole. Having friends I think is evidence enough of the change to his quality of life post Dragon. But we also see him as a much less tiresome character, and he even becomes very proactive and brave! He even is privileged enough to witness the death of Narnia and be one of its last protectors. Eustace, for all his misery and assishness at the beginning, is a terribly inspiring character for his ability to heal from it. His story is one of the many reasons why The Voyage of The Dawn Treader is one of my favorite books.
For those of you who made it through to the end, thank you! I appreciate you reading this far, and I hope you found this useful, and enjoyable.
This post took me much, much longer than I anticipated to write, but it’s been a great exercise. (It’s the first time I’ve done such a thing.) As always, I’d love to hear your comments down below!
If you want to get a jump on the next story analysis by reading the book, I’m planning to use Howl’s Moving Castle, by Dianna Wynne Jones.
“I shall be telling you all the time,” said Aslan. “But I will no tell you how long or short the way will be; only that it lies across a river. But do not fear that, for I am the great Bridge Builder.”
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of The Dawn Treader.
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Again, this blog is for informational purposes. I am not a professional. It should not be an exclusive source to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.