Narnia Recap: In which Lucy and Edmund Pevensie are pulled into Narnia through a picture on the wall, along with their annoying cousin Eustace Scrubb.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 1: The Picture in the Bedroom
And now at last we come to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or "Dawn Treader" for short.
I loved Dawn Treader when I was a child, and after re-reading it again in preparation for this series, I find that a part of me still loves the book. I've heard tell that Dawn Treader is the most popular of the Narnia books, and it wouldn't surprise me. I'm not sure how one measures something like that, but I would imagine it's not hard to find one who likes Dawn Treader best of the series. I certainly did and do.
I think there are a lot of reasons why Dawn Treader stands apart from the other Narnia books. It is fairly unique within the series in that it shows our English child-protagonists actually living in Narnia, and partaking in the many adventures there, explicitly over a fairly long period of time. The book is almost like what The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe could have been if it hadn't ended like it did (with just the briefest of teases about all the adventures the Pevensies went on to have before being unceremoniously tossed out) and had instead gone on to actually chronicle some of those adventures. And where Prince Caspian ended after a few days and a ludicrously brief battle, Dawn Trader has the protagonists living in Narnia for what feels like at least a couple of months, and having numerous and varied adventures along the way. The book is very much like the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor: episodic and enticing, with very little literary downtime between the adventures. No arguing in the forest for three chapters here.
And because I very rarely praise C.S. Lewis as a writer, I will take time to do so now. For all the many problems that accompany this book -- and we'll dive into them because that's what we do here -- Dawn Treader is (in my opinion) actually well written. I won't deny that there are problems here of both style and ideology, but there's also a great deal of skill and creativity on display that manages to shine through. Maybe it's because I like episodic journey tales so much -- I spent much of my childhood reading Lang's compilation of The Thousand and One Nights, and I was always fond of shows like Xena and Hercules and, yes, The Adventures of Sinbad before they cancelled it -- but I love the format of Caspian and his crew bouncing from island to island, meeting exciting new people, facing frightening new fiends, and having exhilarating new adventures. If you divide up the chapters in Dawn Treader, you have something that looks like this (spoilers ahead!):
- The Pevensies + Scrubb are pulled into Narnia.
- Ship porn.
- The Isle of Slavers. (Saved by Caspian's long-lost friend.)
- Sea storm.
- The Isle of Dragon. (Saved by Aslan.)
- The Isle of Deathwater. (Saved by Aslan.)
- The Isle of Invisibility. (Saved by Aslan.)
- The Isle of Nightmares. (Saved by Aslan.)
- The Isle of Sleepers.
- Sweet water.
- Silver seas.
If you compare that with the chapter outline for Prince Caspian, this book is positively packed with material. Which isn't to say there aren't some serious stylistic issues here, as astute readers may have noticed from the parentheticals above. Having almost every tense moment in the book solved not by cunning or bravery or cleverness or tenacity but rather each and almost every time by the appearance of Aslan does start to be a touch draining on this particular reader's goodwill. And there are a number of ideological issues as well, both of the Arthurian Chivalry variety and of the Liberal Strawman variety. And since we really cannot ignore the latter any more if we want to talk about Chapter 1 today, we might as well dive into it here: There is a problem with Eustace.
|Shortpacked! by David Willis|
David Willis of Shortpacked! describes Eustaceas "the most annoying kid in the world", and I think we're meant to see him that way. Certainly, Lewis does his best in the first few chapters of Dawn Treader to make it very clear to the reader that Eustace Scrubb is not to be sympathized with.
Funnily enough, though, that never really 'took' for me as a child. I didn't especially like Eustace Scrubb, but I didn't dislike him, either. I did, as a child, dislike the Edmund of LWW, because Edmund lied about Narnia, and the lie made Lucy feel sad and broken and betrayed -- and I think it was partly because of that why I never really questioned the wrongness of Edmund being sentenced to death as a nine-year-old child. And after all, I was a nine-year-old child, and people were always telling me that without Jesus in my heart I'd burn in hell, so I didn't really have the necessary distance to look at the Emperor's laws and gauge them as bloody and horrific. So I didn't care for LWW!Edmund, though I liked him well enough in the later books. And it actually came as something of a surprise to me when we started these deconstructions and I found Edmund as sympathetic as I do now.
But Eustace was a different story. I didn't hate Eustace. If anything, I think I felt a little sorry for him. Yes, he was bratty and pigish and annoying, but the same could be said (at least some of the time) for myself and most of my friends. And we didn't even have the extreme provocation of being yanked into a magical world where we were immediately (and painfully) seasick for days. I think I felt that Eustace deserved to be cut a little slack, and I know that I must have mentally edited out some of the more egregious of Eustace's crimes, like his (largely informed) love of bullying. And I think at least part of that mental editing perhaps came also from the problem that Lewis didn't seem to understand the value of subtlety: when it comes to the horribleness of Eustace Scrubb, he lays it on so thick that it was hard for me as a child to take it seriously:
THERE WAS A BOY CALLED EUSTACE Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none. He didn’t call his Father and Mother “Father” and “Mother,” but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on beds and the windows were always open.
Eustace Clarence 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 model schools.
Eustace Clarence disliked his cousins the four Pevensies, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. But he was quite glad when he heard that Edmund and Lucy were coming to stay. For deep down inside him 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 visitors.
Phew. Did everyone get all that? Eustace is bad because:
- He has a "silly" name. (Because name-based bullying is always hilarious.)
- He calls his parents by their first names.
- He doesn't eat meat.
- He doesn't smoke.
- He doesn't drink alcohol.
- He doesn't wear C.S. Lewis-approved underwear.
- He doesn't own a lot of stuff, even though he (presumably) could afford to.
- He doesn't use artificial heating/cooling methods, preferring fresh air.
- He likes entomology.
- He reads non-fiction books.
- He enjoys learning about people in other cultures.
- He likes to bully house-guests.
Now I can get on-board with the idea that bullying house-guests is bad. But the rest of those issues above aren't really indicative of badness in my book. Indeed, I consider it far more "bad" for someone like C.S. Lewis to be condemning them with a broad stroke of the pen as though there were something inherently wrong with, say, vegetarianism. And lest it come across like I'm conflating random characterization with moral judgment, it needs to be said up-front that Dawn Treader rarely misses a moment to put in another dig at how Eustace has read only the "wrong" books and never the "right" ones, and how deeply-horribly-terribly awful Aunt Alberta is. I do think that we're meant to see the Scrubbs as wrong people who do wrong things and need to be corrected by the redemptive Power of Narnia.
But before we dive much farther into Chapter 1, let's talk a little about Eustace and some of the explanations that have been fielded with regards to his character. And I'm going to use "vegetarianism" as a sort of deconstruction shorthand for all the faults listed above, because that's easier than writing out the entire list every time.
The first idea that I want to tackle is the idea that Eustace is something of a Take That Me for Lewis. For me, this is something of a non-starter: whether or not Lewis saw himself in his fictional creation is something that will largely be a matter of the reader's opinion, and furthermore I don't really think it matters. There's an idea in vogue that broad generalized criticisms of entire groups are somehow acceptable if they come from a former (and reformed) member of that group, and I don't hold truck with that. If I decide tomorrow that social equality is for the dogs, and to join the extremely lucrative ranks of women working for the patriarchy, nothing I suddenly have to say about GRR FEMINISM ARGH is somehow more valid just because I happen to be either a woman, or an ex-feminist, or both. Group stereotyping and choice-policing is offensive regardless of whether it comes from a former member of the group in question or not. So even if Lewis meant all this rot about vegetarianism and non-fiction books being indicators of Bad People to be directed at an earlier self, it doesn't make the result any better or less harmful just because it wasn't intentionally directed at other people. Intent is not magic.
The second idea I've seen put forward with regards to Eustace's "flaws" is that Lewis wasn't sounding a rallying call against vegetarianism as a practice, but rather against militant vegetarianism. The sort practiced by a very few folks who think it's perfectly acceptable to harangue everyone at meals and that people with food intolerances which require them to eat meat should be forced to starve to death because the death of a few humans is better, on balance, than the death of the animals required to feed those vegetable-intolerant humans. I will note that there is at least one person on earth who purports to believe this, because zie occasionally pops up as a troll on internet boards, but I also maintain that the vast majority of vegetarians are absolutely nothing like this extreme caricature. But what if Lewis was crafting Eustace in response to those very few rather than to the group as a whole?
A problem with that, however, is that the actual problem -- the militant part, rather than the vegetarianism part -- is never really addressed in text either as the explicit problem or part of the solution. If a character's crime is that of militantly auditing people's choices, then the actual things being militated for is largely immaterial: Eustace could just as easily be pushing the South Beach Diet and mandatory wearing of silly paper hats for everyone. It's the choice-auditing part of the vegetarianism/non-smoking/tee-totaling that needs to be highlighted, and that choice-auditing needs to be changed and fixed as part of redemption. The redeemed choice-auditor may still well choose to be a vegetarian/non-smoker/tee-totaler after their redemption because those behaviors were never the problem. Having the redeemed character turn around and embrace meat, tobacco pipes, and wine as the dinner beverage of choice, tells me that the author felt it was the vegetarianism that needed correction and not the militancy.
Let's move away from the fraught topic of C.S. Lewis for a moment to deal with another similar example. Earlier in the year, Husband and I watched Troll 2, which is one of those cult classics asa result of being utterly dreadful. The plot, if we may call it that, is that a group of humans are vacationing in a town inhabited by goblins. The goblins are vegetarians who eat humans; this paradox is accomplished by means of magic food that turns the humans into a vegetable substance. Wikipedia notes:
The script—originally titled Goblins—began as a way for director Claudio Fragasso's wife, Rosella Drudi, to express her frustration with several of her friends becoming vegetarians. Drudi told the makers of the documentary Best Worst Movie that "Some of my friends had recently become vegetarians...and this pissed me off."
What Ms. Drudi seems not to have realized is that the wrongness of the goblins in her script wasn't that they were vegetarians. Their wrongness stemmed from the fact that they ate people against their will. Whether or not the goblins turned the humans into vegetable material prior to eating them does not really change the fact of their essential wrongness. A good goblin -- a redeemed one, for example -- wouldn't evidence that redemption by forswearing vegetarianism; this hypothetical goblin would demonstrate good behavior by no longer eating people against their will. The problem, in short, was the whole murder and lack of consent stuff. Not the part with vegetables.
Anyway, but, however. Moving on.
The third idea I've seen with regards to Eustace and his flaws is that the sin of Eustace and his family isn't vegetarianism, or even militant vegetarianism, but rather that of "faddishness", or running after the latest popular thing simply because it's popular. A character analysis on Shoomp.com (motto: "We speak student!") states:
What bothers our narrator about the Scrubbs is not exactly the choices they make, but the fact that they jump on bandwagons without really considering the effects of their decisions. The narrator of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and C.S. Lewis himself both think that time-honored values and activities are worth preserving and shouldn't be dumped just because someone invented a new undershirt. Throughout the book the narrator will imply that Eustace's unpleasantness is the fault of his parents, who have a lot of funky ideas but not a lot of deep values.
The Faddish Theory is similar to the Militant Theory in the sense that theoretically one can be a "good" vegetarian because the problem is not with the actual vegetarianism itself but rather lies elsewhere. Whereas the Militant Theory dealt with the goodness or badness of the vegetarian based on how they were a vegetarian, the Faddish Theory addresses the same issue by looking at why they are a vegetarian.
Well, that is assuming that "faddishness" is not a shorter way of saying that New Things are Wrong, where vegetarianism is included in the set of New Things. If that is the case, then perhaps we can presume that in a model where new things are bad, if something is around for a long enough time, it can slowly take on the mantle of goodness. (Though I'm unclear on how this is to work in practice if early-adopters like the Scrubbs are to be thoroughly villainized.) But let's assume that this is not the case -- let's assume that vegetarianism isn't bad because it's new, but rather the Scrubbs are bad for embracing it merely because its new. In this worldview, one could well be a Good Vegetarian if one had carefully considered what they were doing, and why, and made a sober and measured decision about how to live their life. The Bad Vegetarians would be bad not because they were vegetarians, but because they lived their lives blowing about in the wind, constantly buffeted by the latest social whims.
The problem with that is that at the end of the day, we're choice-auditing. We're not choice-auditing people by telling them they shouldn't drink alcohol or eat meat, of course, but we are choice-auditing them by telling them how they should make decisions. It may not be terribly "wise" (by some metric or other of that terribly subjective term) to be faddish, but it's also not our job to tell people how they should live their lives. Nor is it nice to mock them for not living their lives according to our principles: as long as the Scrubbs aren't hurting anyone with their adoption of faddy vegetarianism and stringy underwear, then it's their business what they put in their mouths and on their private bits. And by choice-auditing not what they do, but why they do it, we move into the realm of No-Really-I'm-Telepathic, where live all the misogynists who can tell at a glance which cosplayers are at a convention because they love a franchise and which are at a convention because they want attention and arousal. That place is not a good place to be.
Besides choice-auditing and thought-policing, there's another problem with mounting an anti-faddish crusade, and it's a little akin to the problem we observed with the Militant Theory: in order to demonstrate a reformation of or abstinence from faddism, it's easier to avoid things like vegetarianism altogether than to adopt them in the "correct" way and for the "correct" reasons. Even though the Faddish Theory makes the claim that one can be a vegetarian for legitimate reasons, ultimately there are no Good Vegetarians in the story to come along and provide an example of non-faddishness. Instead, there is much eating of meat, much drinking of wine, and much smoking of tobacco. The "sin" of faddishness may be in the mind, as the root cause of behaviors, but there is one way to defend against the accusation of faddishness, and that is to never try anything new at all. And this meshes somewhat with the Arthurian Chivalry problems already alluded to and which we will come to later.
There is a problem with Eustace. But it's hard to know where, precisely, to start dismantling the problem. For now I'll leave you with a wonderful quote from Kit Whitfield, and we'll pick up more of Chapter 1 next time.
I remember as a child being put off by the opening flourish to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: 'There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.' Even as a child, I thought: 'You gave him that name, and you gave him whatever bad qualities you say he has; if you're mad at him, you're mad at him for being what you chose to make him. It's your fault, not his.' And as an adult, I saw this kind of thing: '[Eustace's parents] were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and tee-totallers ... [Eustace] liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools' - in other words, he's chosen to personify socialism in a whole bundle of petty, 'latte libel' gripes. And then Eustace's school is blamed for being 'a "mixed" school; some people said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it' - because it's an environment that takes a 'psychological' rather than a punitive approach to its pupils, with all sorts of ghastly straw-man consequences.