[Content Note: Body Transformation, Death, Suicide, Disablism, Racism]
Narnia Recap: In which Eustace is turned into a dragon.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 6: The Adventures of Eustace
When we last left Eustace, he had been herded by the author into a Valley of No Escape and was trembling before a dangerous creature that he doesn't recognize (the narrative states that he doesn't even know the word "dragon") and torn between hoping the dragon won't eat him versus noticing with some degree of pity that the dragon is old and weak.
It reached the pool and slid its horrible scaly chin down over the gravel to drink: but before it had drunk there came from it a great croaking or clanging cry and after a few twitches and convulsions it rolled round on its side and lay perfectly still with one claw in the air. A little dark blood gushed from its wide-opened mouth. The smoke from its nostrils turned black for a moment and then floated away. No more came.
For a long time Eustace did not dare to move. [...] At last he came up to it. He was quite sure now that it was dead. With a shudder he touched it; nothing happened.
Forestalling my eventual-and-inevitable irritation with the Theologies of this sequence, I would like to harp some more on how utterly railroaded this is: Eustace was yanked into Narnia, placed forcibly on a ship, given the absolute strongest encouragement to sneak off for a rest (after two weeks of dangerous dehydration and sleeplessness followed by King Caspian decreeing that a short bath and a quick breather was all they needed and they must now all get back to work), herded into a valley from whence there is no exit, and now a dragon wanders into the frame and literally drops dead before a minute has past. I'm pretty sure the dragon didn't even see Eustace before he kicked the can.
You know what would have at least had some causality to it and a shred of plausibility? If the dragon had seen Eustace and started with surprise and alarm -- foreshadowing that the dragon was, in fact, the Lost Lord Octesian -- and then dropped dead from a weak heart that couldn't handle the shock of seeing another human after all this time and/or hoping for rescue after having given up all expectations. At least that would have had a tenuous string of cause and effect to make it slightly plausible. As it is, it feels like the dragon was just struck by lightning courtesy of the author. BAM!
Speaking of, we now need to herd Eustace into the cave and make him fall asleep on the dragon's hoard. But first, let's characterize him as an unrepentant sinner a little bit more, just to drive the point home to the kiddies:
The relief was so great that Eustace almost laughed out loud. He began to feel as if he had fought and killed the dragon instead of merely seeing it die.
Dear C.S. Lewis,
Please find enclosed an informational packet dealing with the release of endorphins in the wake of a strong adrenaline rush. I'm sure you will be relieved to find that what you have hitherto understood to be a sin of vanity is instead a natural and mostly harmless biochemical phenomena.
He was not surprised when he heard a peal of thunder. Almost immediately afterward the sun disappeared and before he had finished his drink big drops of rain were falling.
The climate of this island was a very unpleasant one. In less than a minute Eustace was wet to the skin and half blinded with such rain as one never sees in Europe. There was no use trying to climb out of the valley as long as this lasted. He bolted for the only shelter in sight—the dragon’s cave. There he lay down and tried to get his breath.
Railroading accomplished: Eustace has now returned to the dragon home base and transformation can begin.
The thought occurs that if a god really is willing to work this damn hard to get us in position to sin, then we're pretty much all screwed because I honestly can't point to a place in the narrative where Eustace was given any semblance of choice or free will. Go to Narnia or go to Narnia? That one didn't offer a plethora of choices. Get on the ship or drown? It seems like the implied suicide of staying in the water would have been a worse sin in Lewis' book. Stay on the ship or go live in the Lone Islands with no one willing to feed, house, or employ him and where he'd recently been kidnapped and enslaved? I know which one I'd choose. Work on the beach after being nearly dehydrated to death and among people who openly hate and insult him or go exploring? Even if Eustace really is socially unbearable (and I'm willing to posit that he is), it seems like "go exploring" would be the best choice for everyone since it means he can rest and everyone else gets a respite from having to deal with him. But that choice was apparently sin enough to herd him into this valley via Magic Mist and into the dragon's cave via Railroading Rain.
And, for the record, I'm really uncomfortable with conflating "socially obnoxious" with "sinner in need of body transformation" if only because that shades into seriously problematic issues re: Disablism. A lot of people on the autism spectrum are not super-fun-happy-rainbows to have around all the time AND THAT'S OKAY because no one is obligated to be friends with people they aren't compatible with, but that doesn't mean that therefore they need to be magically brutalized into fitting into various social norms better. If the theme of VoDT was just that no one really likes to be around Eustace and that that's okay -- or that he makes an effort of his own free will to change that because he's lonely -- then I wouldn't have a problem with that (with the various caveats attached that sometimes change isn't fully attainable even if it is rilly, rilly desired). But then you add all this visceral author-hatred and body-transformation that purports to be for his own good and that's a huge problem.
Nor would I really have a problem with the body transformation here if it wasn't presented as part of a Moral Lesson. Contrast Eustace's situation with, for example, the parents in Spirited Away who are transmogrified into pigs. At no point is this presented as a good thing; a driving point of the story is the child-heroine working to save her parents before they get eaten. Nor is it presented as something they 'deserved' -- it was foolish of them, perhaps, to eat the magical food, but they genuinely believed the cashier had just stepped away from the buffet and they intended to pay hir when zie returned. It's just that the food was magical and compelled them to keep eating after the first bite. Also: the transformation isn't something that they remember or makes them a "better person" or whatever; it's literally just an obstacle to be overcome and nothing else. No moral lesson attached or needed.
Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books.
There's that Right Books / Wrong Books stuff again. For someone who wrote a lot of non-fiction, Lewis is really pissing on the whole concept of children reading it, even if we give him wiggle room for being tongue-in-cheek here. I wonder what he would have thought about me reading Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict as a child. On the one hand, death of childhood innocence and shouldn't you be reading Narnia instead, little lady. On the other hand, maybe he'd make an exception for religious non-fiction books. Hard to say.
Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons. That is why he was so puzzled at the surface on which he was lying. [...] And of course Eustace found it to be what any of us could have told him in advance—treasure. There were crowns (those were the prickly things), coins, rings, bracelets, ingots, cups, plates and gems.
WHERE DID THIS DRAGON GET MULTIPLE CROWNS FROM WHEN THERE'S ONLY A HANDFUL OF KINGDOMS IN THIS WORLD AND NONE WITHIN SPITTING DISTA-- you know what? Nevermind. I don't care.
Eustace (unlike most boys) had never thought much of treasure but he saw at once the use it would be in this new world which he had so foolishly stumbled into through the picture in Lucy’s bedroom at home. “They don’t have any tax here,” he said, “and you don’t have to give treasure to the government. With some of this stuff I could have quite a decent time here—perhaps in Calormen. It sounds the least phony of these countries.
And this here is a good example of something you might not notice if you were speeding through. Eustace has been established as deeply, horribly, objectively wrong about everything. He believes the ship is caught in a storm when it's really fair weather. He believes the storm (which he calls a "hurricane", probably incorrectly) was thirteen days long when it was really twelve. And so on. Now he thinks that Calormen sounds like the nicest and "least phony" of all the countries in the world. And we know he's wrong because Calormen is where the slaves are sent and also Lewis called them a "cruel" people.
But if you're paying attention, you'll also note that this isn't just another chance to make Eustace wrong; it's also another chance to establish Calormen as a really awful place at the same time. Two birds; one stone. And this is a perfect example of Your Approval Fills Me With Shame: if Eustace the Always Wrong Sinner likes Calormen, then it must be a perfectly horrid country. If, you know, you hadn't already picked up on that on account of it being full of dark-skinned people who wear long beards and robes and use flowery language that is different from the flowery medieval Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe that Peter and Caspian use.
Additionally, it's worth noting that this is the point in the story where Eustace's sins need to be made abjectly clear to the reader in order to make it very obvious why, precisely, he deserves this corrective experience. We've already seen his sins cataloged earlier at his initial introduction -- he doesn't eat meat, he doesn't drink alcohol, he reads non-fiction, he's an environmentalist, he wears different clothing -- but a lot of those have probably stopped being true (do they even have non-fiction books and unusual underwear on the Dawn Treader?) and a recap for the reader is definitely needed here from a literary structure standpoint.
So I don't think it's a harmless coincidence that in this space that should normally be reserved to recap Eustace's sins prior to being punished for them, he expresses a wish to abandon the available countries ruled by and populated with White People (both Narnia and Britain) to go live in a country ruled by and populated with People of Color. Especially when these particular people of color were modeled in part after people of color in the real world, including people of color who religiously self-identify as Muslim and people of color who religiously self-identify as Hindu -- religions which just so happen to carry various dietary restrictions regarding meat and alcohol.
The thing that bothers me most about talking about Narnia with white people is the tremendous amount of privilege that is frequently on display when it comes to the issue of racism in the text. Many will point to the mish-mash nature of Calormen cultures -- since Calormen and its culture and people are clearly based on stereotypes of multiple non-white, non-Christian cultures as opposed to just one -- and suggest that since the stereotype is an amalgamation of stereotypes, then it can't really be racist because apparently it's not possible to be racist against multiple cultures at once. Or they will point out that Aravis and That One Guy From The Last Battle seem okay, which means the portrayal of Calormen can't be racist because tokenism fixes everything.
Or, you know what, just go read the whole bullshit Wikipedia entry on the subject and marvel at how inadequate the "neutrality of this article is disputed" note is for conveying the tidal wave of white privilege on display there. And then sit with the uncomfortable realization that the disputed neutrality note is interpreted by at least some of the contributers as meaning that the article needs to be defensively scrubbed even more in order to defend Lewis as much as possible from accusations of racism. Yeah. (And seriously, if you are a white reader, please do sit with that for a little while (as Melissa McEwan talks about "sitting with fear" and, more broadly, sitting with privilege-discomfort) rather than jumping down to the comments to explain and defend your thoughts on the matter. Just sit in the Thinky Corner for a bit. The comments aren't going away any time soon; they'll be here when you're done.)
It's easy, I'm sure, when living with white privilege to read this line about Eustace wanting to go live among people of color who largely follow a non-Aslanic religion which may or may not* have restrictions on meat-eating and alcohol-drinking, and to presumably wear non-modern-British clothing (adding Calormene robes to his current penchant for unusual underwear) when blending into his newly chosen culture as nothing more than a throw-away line. An in-joke about how wrong Eustace is because obviously Calormen isn't a place you'd want to live, sure, but nothing more than a quick wink-and-nudge at the reader. And not based in racism, forchisake, just based in the fact that Calormen has slavery (like the Lone Islands) and violence (like Narnia) and war (like Britain) and oppression (like everywhere) and is therefore objectively worse than all other places Because Detached Emotionless Logic. The fact that it has people of color living in it is just a coincidence and has nothing to do with it being a rotten place for an English boy to want to live.
But all that requires that we ignore the alignment of Eustace's "faults" with stereotypes about Othered people who aren't sufficiently the "right" kind of people, where "right" means white and British and meat-eating and alcohol-drinking and Christian and colonialist and violently assertive of white-and-class privilege and associated property rights. It requires that we ignore the literary structure which demands that here and now, prior to Eustace's punishment, we should expect to see a strong reiteration of why that punishment is necessary. It requires us to ignore all the nasty and offensive things that have already been said about Calormen and will be said in the future, and the ways in which these nasty and offensive things are real things said in the real world about various really marginalized racial, religious, and cultural populations. And it requires being more willing to defend Lewis from having the impact on others of his choices pointed out, than being willing to explore and accept and listen to the impact on others of his choices.
And that's Privilege, being able to sweep away all the people who are and were hurt by Lewis' choices in order to focus on presenting Lewis in the best possible light because he seems like he might have been likable to us, personally, had we ever met him.
* In The Horse and His Boy, both meat and wine are shown to be available for purchase and consumption in the country of Calormen. But I will ask people to note that this fact does not preclude potential restrictions for various subcultural groups (such as, for example, observant Tash worshippers). We will not Other marginalized people (such as non-Christian religionists) to behave in perfect uniformity when we are all well aware that privileged people (such as Christian religionists) frequently do not.