Narnia: Privilege and Passive Voice

[Content Note: Body Transformation, Racism]

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

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

Eustace has just been turned into a dragon, but he's not aware of it yet. And meanwhile, back at the beach, everyone is stomping their feet and hollering in the hopes that they won't have to do any more work than that to rescue a nine-year-old they never should have lost in the first place.

   Meanwhile Eustace slept and slept—and slept. What woke him was a pain in his arm. The moon was shining in at the mouth of the cave, and the bed of treasures seemed to have grown much more comfortable: in fact he could hardly feel it at all. He was puzzled by the pain in his arm at first, but presently it occurred to him that the bracelet which he had shoved up above his elbow had become strangely tight. His arm must have swollen while he was asleep (it was his left arm).

It's a small point, but this is why it's worth investing in an editor who won't just yes-man hir way through your manuscript. There were lots of places before this passage, and will be lots of places after this passage, and indeed are lots of places in this very passage where the information that the bracelet is on Eustace's left arm could be worked in naturally as part of the narrative. Just slapping it into a parenthetical fragment is jarring and should have been caught in the editing process. (Along with everything that is contradictory and/or morally abhorrent in this series, I suppose, but we have to start somewhere.)

   He moved his right arm in order to feel his left...

YOU COULD HAVE PUT IT RIGHT THERE, EVEN. JUST SAYING: "He moved his right arm in order to feel his swollen left arm..." One word! ONE.

There's actually a reason I bring this up, beyond nit-picky grammar-policing. (Which I am generally not in favor of because bullying, but that's another post.) No, I bring this up because I would like to point out that there is a persistent mentality among a lot of people that Tradition and Gatekeepers confer legitimacy, without ever really acknowledging that Tradition and Gatekeepers have historically been stacked (usually deliberately) against various marginalized groups.

So, for example, science isn't Science when a young black girl does it. And literature isn't Literature when it's self-publishing or marketed to Young Adult audiences or (god help you) self-published YA literature. And exploration and discovery isn't Exploration or Discovery when it's not done by white men. And so on. People who are the "wrong" sorts of people are denied legitimacy in ways that people who are the "right" sorts of people with the stamp of approval from the "right" gatekeepers are granted social legitimacy because of their privilege.

These attitudes, when they exist in ourselves, can reveal our privileges and biases: it takes checking of privilege to see that not all young black girls have access to "formal" science and that not all authors are going to be accepted by traditional publishers (especially authors who either identify themselves or have characters who identify as black, trans*, queer, or various other marginalized groups) and that privileging the accomplishments of white men over other marginalized groups is a systemic problem in our society and not just the natural Way Things Are And Should Be. 

The Chronicles of Narnia are regarded by much of our society as "classics". Partly because they are old, and partly because of nostalgia, but also partly because they are written by a privileged man about privileged people. When our contemporaries criticize YA literature as being universally unserious and unworthy of treatment as real Literature, they generally aren't talking about Narnia, even though the books are undoubtedly aimed at children and young adults, because while Narnia may be filed under YA it is a Classic written by a Serious Christian White Man. It is YA written by the "right" kind of person, and therefore legitimate in a way that YA written by the "wrong" kinds of people is not.

And when people dismiss self-publishing out of hand as nothing more than the refuge of narcissists who churn out unrelentingly Bad Writing -- while entirely ignoring that the bypassing of traditional gatekeepers allows marginalized people a voice they might otherwise be denied -- they are implicitly conferring a status of Good Writing onto the writings of those who were embraced by traditional publishing. In this way, Narnia is presumed to be good because it passed through the hands of the gatekeepers, rather than presumed to have passed because of privilege.

I don't want to get into a fan-fight about how well Narnia is or isn't written because ultimately a lot of that is going to come down to personal subjective taste. What I want, instead, to do is to point out how privilege influences the ways in which we approach literature. For many of us, when we see jarring, haphazard parenthetical statements inserted unnecessarily in ways that disrupt the flow of reading in self-published novels, our confirmation bias tends to make those incidents stand out. Ah, yes, the brain says. Unpolished self-published work, as expected. Yet when we see those same things in Classics produced by Serious Christian White Men, we tend to file those same mistakes under different headings. Ground-breaking classic, the brain rationalizes. Have to expect some rough edges for visionary literature. We know better now. And then we tend to move on, pass extended.

Part of checking privilege involves recognizing why and when we give the passes we do. This isn't a call to grammar-police all literature, classics or otherwise, nor is it a call to just stop giving a shit about any and all editing in our literature. What it is a call to do, however, is to examine our responses to things and think about how we might have responded differently to a stimulus (like Bad Writing) if the author or time period or medium were different, and whether those reasons are marginalizing ones.
   He moved his right arm in order to feel his left, but stopped before he had moved it an inch and bit his lip in terror. For just in front of him, and a little on his right, where the moonlight fell clear on the floor of the cave, he saw a hideous shape moving. He knew that shape: it was a dragon’s claw. It had moved as he moved his hand and became still when he stopped moving his hand.
   “Oh, what a fool I’ve been,” thought Eustace. “Of course, the brute had a mate and it’s lying beside me.”

Anyway, moving on, and speaking of writing, there's a whole thing here where Eustace thinks the dragon evidence that is over and around and under him -- claws, steamy breath, etc. -- must be another dragon instead of himself. It's the sort of thing that struck me as amusing and well-written as a child and yet now seems cruel and taunting as an adult. I can't imagine why Eustace would immediately grok on to a body transformation -- it's rare enough in Narnia that it takes Lucy et. al. to come around to it, so I can only imagine how Doesn't-Read-Fantasy Eustace was supposed to come to this conclusion immediately -- and he's additionally barely awake and in an extremely dark cave. Oh, and he was also dying of dehydration yesterday. So I can't really join in with the "joke" that "even yet he had no idea of the truth." Whatever, Lewis.

   No one will blame Eustace if at this moment he shed tears. He was surprised at the size of his own tears as he saw them splashing on to the treasure in front of him. They also seemed strangely hot; steam went up from them.

And here we have more gender-and-age policing about when it is an is not appropriate to cry. For the record, I don't blame Eustace for shedding tears at any time or under any circumstances. I find it utterly frustrating to see (male) crying demonized on more than one occasion in this series, given how the Christian source material for these books has no qualms about Jesus weeping when moved by emotion.

Cutting to the chase, Eustace scrambles out of the cave and runs to the pool. He's certain that he's being pursued by dragons, so he hopes that he can escape notice and/or capture by jumping into the water, which I suppose is actually fairly proactive thinking on his part (since there's not much else he can do to escape the authorially-steep valley) so good for him. 

   But just as he reached the edge of the pool two things happened. First of all, it came over him like a thunder-clap that he had been running on all fours—and why on earth had he been doing that? And secondly, as he bent toward the water, he thought for a second that yet another dragon was staring up at him out of the pool. But in an instant he realized the truth. [...]
   He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.
   That explained everything. [...] 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.

And now we have The Bracelet.

I don't claim to understand anything about the physiology of mythical creatures, but the first thought that popped into my mind was to wonder why no one ever tries to melt the bracelet off. Maybe dragon skin and dragon scale can't bear that level of heat (or the resulting molten gold), or maybe dragon-fire can't be generated that hot. Who knows. What is more interesting to me is that no one ever really tries to relieve the pain of The Bracelet (which, if left unchecked for long, would be seriously threatening rather than just painful and inconvenient) beyond a token splash of Lucy's cordial. No slippery salves are applied to ease the bracelet off. No judicious cutting with swords or treating with flame is attempted.

Nor does anyone assume that The Bracelet -- which Eustace put on immediately before his transformation -- may have caused the transformation. When Alice grew or shrank after eating foods in Wonderland, she recognized the associated cause-and-effect and didn't presume (at least, not after the initial shock) that she was just thinking "growing thoughts". Eustace doesn't have repeated points of reference like Alice did, but he's also more scientifically-minded and less prone to magical thinking. We know that The Bracelet isn't the source of Eustace's transformation because the narrator told us, but what's the excuse for everyone else involved in this story?

These alternatives are left unexplored, I presume, because The Bracelet is meant to be read for its metaphorical meaning only. What, precisely, it is a metaphor for -- the painful knowledge of sin? a painful god-shaped hole in Eustace's heart? the pain of being hated by the narrator? -- I don't choose to hazard a guess. The larger point is that there is Something Wrong with Eustace and only Aslan can fix it. There's no point in the narrative trying to fix it some other way, because that other way simply wouldn't work. Instead, we gotta call Ghostbusters Aslan.

I don't know how I feel about this. On the one hand, Lewis is free to tell whatever religious metaphor he feels moved to tell in his novel. (Very generous of me, I know. LOL.) But on the other hand, I'm not a One True Wayist, which means that I think there are lots of valid ways to ease spiritual pain and suffering. These multiple ways may not be equally valid for every person, of course, and there may be only One True Way for a specific person, but that doesn't mean (in my opinion) that there's One True Way that is the same for all people.

Aslan, for example, is not a deity who brings me spiritual joy and healing, yet it would appear that he's being hyped in this novel as THE source of spiritual joy and healing for everyone, including Eustace, even if he doesn't realize it. We'll deal with this more when we get there, but it's worth noting that not only does Eustace not ask Aslan for help, he doesn't even know Aslan is Aslan until after Edmund interprets his conversion experience for him. So whatever religious pain we're dealing with here -- symbolized by The Bracelet and the overall transformation experience -- it isn't satisfied by one method (Aslan) chosen by Eustace from a variety of equally-valid methods. Instead, the solution is foisted on him as the One True Way solution from a god who knows best what Eustace needs. I have issues with that portrayal.

For now, let's move on: 

   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 now 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—

Wait, what? Eustace doesn't know what a dragon is. Later he will tell Edmund that he didn't even know the word "dragon" until they call him that. How the heck does he know that he's invulnerable to everything except knights? HOW DOES HE KNOW ABOUT KNIGHTS? He doesn't read the Right Books for that. (Yes, knights are historical real things. No, a non-fiction book about knights would not leave Eustace with the impression of the Fantasy Knight being invoked here.) Oh, and also he has extremely brief thoughts of revenge which would have been better placed prior to his transformation when he got "greedy" and "dragonish". Theologies!

   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.
   When he thought of this the poor dragon that had been Eustace lifted up its voice and wept. A powerful dragon crying its eyes out under the moon in a deserted valley is a sight and a sound hardly to be imagined.
   At last he decided he would try to find his way back to the shore. He realized now that Caspian would never have sailed away and left him. And he felt sure that somehow or other he would be able to make people understand who he was.

OK, seriously, this makes no sense. (Editors, people! See above, re: privilege. Etc.) Eustace shouldn't realize he's invulnerable. He shouldn't realize he's only in danger from knights (which also makes no logical sense and is magical thinking that is entirely atypical of Eustace if only because it requires the invocation of a trope he knows nothing about). He shouldn't think he's completely cut off from humanity -- there is, after all, a talking mouse on the ship, and at this moment Eustace believes he is an exotic sentient lizard. Eustace shouldn't think he's completely alone; there could be a huge community of sentient lizards on the island. These are not things Eustace should be thinking.

Eustace can think that he's not in the shape he prefers and that he was transformed against his will, and he can realistically be deeply upset about that. That would make sense. But I'm also not entirely sure that Lewis can go down that road, since it runs the risk of pointing out that his Theologies have mandated body-transmogrifying a boy for no real reason that I can see. If Lewis focuses not on Eustace's interpersonal relationships and instead focuses on Eustace's body and his unhappiness at being changed, then we have to reasonably ask Who changed him and Why. And those answers are then available for us to judge and potentially find wanting, which is not something I think Lewis wants us doing. We're not supposed to question Aslan and his methods. But if Lewis instead focuses on Eustace's human relationships -- which Lewis wants to blame entirely on Eustace for not having had the right attitude all along -- then we can victim-blame Eustace for his prior unpleasantness which has culminated in this final form of dragony unpleasantness Because Karma.

Which means that this entire episode is treated with an extremely passive voice. Like the "Deep Magic" which mandated that 10-year-old Edmund die in LWW, we're not really given the space or encouragement to question why the rules are what they are. Traitors are turned over to the White Witch to be stabbed to death on an altar. Greedy people are turned into dragons while they sleep. It's all presented as "just the way things are", without acknowledgement that someone -- Lewis and/or the Emperor-God -- actively made things that way. And actively made things that way knowing the rules would ensnare extremely young children.

If this passivity were removed, we might be allowed to notice -- and to then be forgiven for pointing out -- that a story about a sadist making up strange and unpredictable rules to be followed to the letter of the law even while knowing that those "rules" will result in the death and/or body-transformation of unaware young children is the setup for a horror movie, and probably not so much for a benevolent religion. But because of the power of passive framing, the choices that an Omniscient God/Author made to get us to this juncture are obscured, while the "choices" that a railroaded nine-year-old boy made along the way here are hauled out for the reader to judge and condemn.

And because the situation is horrible and warrants an explanation and the parceling out of blame, many of us do judge him, because (as children) we aren't given the tools to take the spotlight away from the narrator and say, "no, I want to look over there."  We are Dorothy gazing on the Wizard of Oz, but without our trusty Toto to pull back the curtain.

   He took a long drink and then (I know this sounds shocking, but it isn’t if you think it over) he ate nearly all the dead dragon. He was half-way through it before he realized what he was doing; for, you see, though his mind was the mind of Eustace, his tastes and his digestion were dragonish. And there is nothing a dragon likes so well as fresh dragon. That is why you so seldom find more than one dragon in the same country.

Cat Thinks She's A Jaguar by Lucy Toner
Caption: whut.

Does... did C.S. Lewis actually know anything about animals? Like... at all? This reads like he once heard that some animals eat their own dead and/or eat each other under stressful circumstances and therefore assumed that this clearly only applied to solitary species and that the reason they stay solitary is because they eat each other at a moment's notice. Indeed, that they are each other's favorite prey. I... just... why in the name of fuck would a species evolve to hunt itself more than anything else? It's no wonder there aren't many dragons in Narnia! It's a wonder they manage to reproduce at all! Maybe their only method of reproduction is nine-year-old boys sleeping on their gold piles! Maybe that's why they collect gold: it's their one shot at reproducing!! I just don't even. O.o


It doesn't advance the plot. It doesn't develop character. It will never be returned to again because, aside from eating raw animals for din-dins, Eustace emphatically does not act "dragonish" from here on out, unless "dragonish" means "helping Caspian et. al. repair the ship and serving as a living hot water bottle for their feet at night". (Literally.) There is NO REASON to put this here except to punish Eustace with the gross and horrifying consumption of a dead dragon that has been sitting out in the rain for hours while he slept.


   Then he turned to climb out of the valley. He began the climb with a jump and as soon as he jumped he found that he was flying. [...] He could see the bay like a silver slab and the Dawn Treader lying at anchor and camp fires twinkling in the woods beside the beach. From a great height he launched himself down toward them in a single glide.

Sadly, he does not "dragonishly" eat everyone in the goddam novel so that we can leave. I bet if they'd been dragons he would've, though. Whut.


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