Narnia: Sad Old Dragons

[Content Note: Body Transformation]

Narnia Recap: In which Eustace is turned into a dragon.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 6: The Adventures of Eustace

   AT THAT VERY MOMENT THE OTHERS were washing hands and faces in the river and generally getting ready for dinner and a rest. The three best archers had gone up into the hills north of the bay and returned laden with a pair of wild goats which were now roasting over a fire. Caspian had ordered a cask of wine ashore, strong wine of Archenland which had to be mixed with water before you drank it, so there would be plenty for all. The work had gone well so far and it was a merry meal. Only after the second helping of goat did Edmund say, “Where’s that blighter Eustace?”

A few weeks back, while in a random conversation concerning something I do not remember (and the details of which are lost to the mists of time) with my Husband, he came to a point in the dialogue wherein he felt it was valuable to punctuate some point by dropping open his jaw like a zombie, clasping his hands tightly to either side of his face, and making the "shocked" expression that is usually recognized by members of our cultural peer group as That One Face From That Home Alone Movie.

I hadn't thought about Home Alone for years, and now that I'm an adult, the already tenuous suspension of disbelief I had for the movie has frayed further. I'm not a parent, but even if I were a parent immersed in a large-and-chaotic extended family vacation situation, my own personal extended family is so deeply worshipful of schedules, assigned seatings, and roll calls, that it's hard to imagine that I could up and leave a hypothetical child behind even if I wanted to -- his absence would be noted some time between my mother's fourth and fifth comprehensive tally of the locations of all grandchildren, the results to be filed in duplicate under their respective locations and age groups. We're a pretty organized group, is what I am saying.

Eustace, I now note with interest, is here in the same boat as Macaulay Culkin in the sense that his absence remains unnoticed by the larger group for a rather longish period of time, and I'd like to explore why that is and what that implies towards the text. For one, it would appear that Caspian hasn't learned his lesson from the slavery interlude in the Lone Islands (despite the narrative preemptively insisting that he would), because no one seems to be particularly worried about hostile local residents, roving bands of slaver-pirates, revenge-seeking Calormen, or wild animals -- or at least not so worried that they decided to work out assigned work groups, buddy systems, and someone in charge of performing an occasional headcount. (Why, I think we just found a job to keep poor Lucy occupied!)

This repeated lack of care for the crew's safety is, of course, primarily so that wacky adventures can occur, but also underlines the extreme privilege bubble in which Caspian apparently dwells: he's so assured of his personal safety that even having had the exact opposite demonstrated to him once already (by Pug the Slaver-Pirate) hasn't been enough to cause him to reexamine this privileged worldview. That last time was just a fluke and will totally never happen again so there's no need to learn anything from it. (Which is an interesting attitude to take in a travelogue which is ostensibly about everyone learning Important Lessons.) And it again additionally demonstrates what a shame it is that Privilege McKingson didn't bring along some marginalized Animals given that they've had roughly one thousand years of experience in maintaining both personal and group safety. Diversity! It adds value.

For two, the very fact that Eustace can disappear like this without anyone noticing that he's absent and being concerned for his safety (because, remember, the narrator assures us that everyone else is Genuinely Good and would care if Eustace was gone, even if he is annoying) means that (a) everyone went to shore with no plan whatsoever and (b) the various groups (Hunting Group, Mast Finding Group, Barrel Repair Group, etc.) just sort of spontaneously formed from a mixture of hearty volunteerism and good old fashioned communist work ethic. (Enjoy rolling over in your grave on that one, Lewis!)

We've already noted that the Dawn Treader crew only encompasses about 45 people, which spread among, say, five groups, nets 9 people per group, which is not so large a number that it would be possible for the Most Annoying Kid On Board to be legitimately lost in the crowd. Further, given that Eustace is a nine-year-old boy with virtually no relevant skills, his available group options are narrowed dramatically. There's simply no excuse for the group leaders to not notice that he's gone, which tells me that there are no group leaders. Apparently the work groups just spontaneously formed from virtue and manliness, and responsible leaders and plans and whatnot are for liberals and wimps (along with any concept of a buddy system or, again, a Headcount Person).

And, of course, you'll note that Edmund is back to calling Eustace names. (I presume he never left off from Chapter 1.) And I'm reminded of that bit in LWW where the narrator insists that no one was giving Edmund "the cold shoulder" except that they pretty much must have been doing exactly that in order for him to sneak off in the manner he did. And now here the narrator is insisting that no one would leave Eustace behind because they're not fiends forchrisakes, yet one can't help but note that it's pretty much impossible for Eustace to disappear on a dangerous island without the people currently calling him names being -- consciously or subconsciously -- deliberately neglectful. So that's something that maybe everyone should Learn A Lesson about, except that they won't.

   Meanwhile Eustace stared round the unknown valley. It was so narrow and deep, and the precipices which surrounded it so sheer, that it was like a huge pit or trench. [...]
   Eustace realized of course that in the fog he had come down the wrong side of the ridge, so he turned at once to see about getting back. But as soon as he had looked he shuddered. Apparently he had by amazing luck found the only possible way down—a long green spit of land, horribly steep and narrow, with precipices on either side. There was no other possible way of getting back. But could he do it, now that he saw what it was really like? His head swam at the very thought of it.

For the record, I'm amused by this passage just because it shows how deeply Eustace has been railroaded by the author. And this is really a culmination of the extreme railroading that has already been going on: god-Aslan literally pulled Eustace into another world with no apparent escape (no one mentions the wardrobe exit, and there are no offers to put Eustace on a Lone Islands boat and send him back to Trumpkin) and put him in the position of choosing between getting on the Dawn Treader and drowning. The first stop -- the Lone Islands -- was where Eustace was kidnapped and sold in the slavery, pretty much guaranteeing that he wouldn't stay on the Lone Islands after the Dawn Treader left because he has no reason to believe the islanders won't enslave him again. Now, on the second island, he is guided through an impenetrable mist into a valley that he can't get back out of again. Sure.

I really get the impression that Eustace's journey and lessons are guided by his inherent character traits rather than by the demands of the author, is what I am saying.

Cat Scratching by David Wagner
Caption: Wait, what?
   He turned round again, thinking that at any rate he’d better have a good drink from the pool first. But as soon as he had turned and before he had taken a step forward into the valley he heard a noise behind him. [...]
   Something was crawling. Worse still, something was coming out. Edmund or Lucy or you would have recognized it at once, but Eustace had read none of the right books. The thing that came out of the cave was something he had never even imagined—a long lead-colored snout, dull red eyes, no feathers or fur, a long lithe body that trailed on the ground, legs whose elbows went up higher than its back like a spider’s, cruel claws, bat’s wings that made a rasping noise on the stones, yards of tail. And the lines of smoke were coming from its two nostrils. He never said the word Dragon to himself. Nor would it have made things any better if he had.

I love that "right books" line. I know it makes sense in context; there's an implied "none of the right books ... for this situation" attached, but it still links back to that opening bit about how horrible Eustace is for not reading fiction and how that's obviously aberrant and detrimental to his moral character. But I also find it interesting that Eustace has lived in England all his life and yet has never even heard of, for example, St. George and the Dragon, or passed a pub sign with a dragon on it, or seen a dragon in those cheerful communist China tracts he likes to read, or been exposed to any of the many religious art pieces depicting dragons (as Satan or Leviathan or any of the several Revelations beasts), or basically encountered any number of huge swaths of common culture and historical art and literature.

Intense Kitten by Bill Kuffrey
Caption: Whoa.
   But perhaps if he had known something about dragons he would have been a little surprised at this dragon’s behavior. It did not sit up and clap its wings, nor did it shoot out a stream of flame from its mouth. The smoke from its nostrils was like the smoke of a fire that will not last much longer. Nor did it seem to have noticed Eustace. It moved very slowly toward the pool—slowly and with many pauses. Even in his fear Eustace felt that it was an old, sad creature.

I've no doubt that last line is nothing more than a throw-away line, a way to impart information to the reader without relying on the usual (and bad) method of just having the narrative tell us.

But what is interesting about allowing one's characters to show things, instead of telling the reader, is that the act of showing changes the character. Eustace, by virtue of noticing the dragon is old and sad, suddenly becomes the kind of person who notices when people and animals are old and sad. Eustace, who is trapped and afraid. Eustace, who doesn't recognize the creature before him despite a young lifetime's interest in animals and taxidermy. Eustace, who is supposedly a bully and incapable of empathizing with others. Eustace notices that the dragon is old and sad. And that observation implies things; it implies understanding, a capacity for empathy, it even implies pity.

The virtues that are implied by this observation are virtues that have been completely missing from the good guys on this voyage. There has been no understanding of Eustace's point of view, no empathy for his suffering, and no pity for his situation. There has been only anger and mockery and judgment, both from the characters and from the narrator. The very virtues that these good characters should possess -- especially Edmund, who has been on both sides of the morality coin and who was taught by the sacrifice of Aslan to be just and merciful and kind -- they do not. The very virtues that the "bad" character should have to learn, he already has. He probably wasn't meant to have them, but here they are by virtue of a Show over the usual Tell.

It's strange to me to see an empathic character about to be body transmogrified -- a punishment which is traditionally used to train selfish people to see things through another person's point of view via a body switch -- while the blatantly non-empathic characters down on the beach aren't going to learn this lesson at all.


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