Narnia: Books and Their Covers

[Content Note: Body Transformation, Racism, Zimmerman Trial]

Narnia Recap: In which Eustace is turned back into a boy.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 7: How The Adventure Ended

When we last left Eustace, he was a dragon and no one really understood how or why that had happened... nor how to fix it.

These are points that I have made before. I have grumbled that the so-called protagonists of this book are happy to sit passively by and neither learn Eustace's past nor try to direct his future, preferring instead to leave everything in the disinterested paws of Aslan. I have also pointed out the detriment that this philosophy has on any associated religion (as well as the characters of the people who practice it) when the world-building has explicitly been set up to make action worthless and reaction a waste of time. A world where the reigning god wants you to sit around and do nothing until he turns up to fix everything is a very different worldview from how most people (including most Christians, the Left Behind crowd notwithstanding) view our own world. So there's that.

But nevertheless, Eustace is a dragon and Caspian et. al. neither proactively question why that is nor proactively act to try to cure him, nor even try to ease the suffering in his leg. Instead, we are going to learn a Moral Lesson about not being so Eustacey anymore.

   It was, however, clear to everyone that Eustace’s character had been rather improved by becoming a dragon. He was anxious to help. He flew over the whole island and found that it was all mountainous and inhabited only by wild goats and droves of wild swine. Of these he brought back many carcasses as provisions for the ship. He was a very humane killer too, for he could dispatch a beast with one blow of his tail so that it didn’t know (and presumably still doesn’t know) it had been killed. He ate a few himself, of course, but always alone, for now that he was a dragon he liked his food raw but he could never bear to let others see him at his messy meals. 

You will, perhaps, remember that one of Eustace's "sins" was that of being a vegetarian. 

   And one day, flying slowly and wearily but in great triumph, he bore back to camp a great tall pine tree which he had torn up by the roots in a distant valley and which could be made into a capital mast. And in the evening if it turned chilly, as it sometimes did after the heavy rains, he was a comfort to everyone, for the whole party would come and sit with their backs against his hot sides and get well warmed and dried; and one puff of his fiery breath would light the most obstinate fire. Sometimes he would take a select party for a fly on his back, so that they could see wheeling below them the green slopes, the rocky heights, the narrow pit-like valleys and far out over the sea to the eastward a spot of darker blue on the blue horizon which might be land.

What possibly makes me the saddest about this passage is how, once again, it feels like we are singling Eustace out as "especially bad" even though he is not.

In all-and-total seriousness, is there anyone on this voyage who wouldn't be more helpful as a dragon? Caspian has made bad decision after bad decision, so it frankly seems like it would be a welcome relief to have him lose the use of his vocal chords for awhile. Lucy has been shut up in her private cruise cabin, emerging only long enough to play chess with Reepicheep and feed the now-washed-overboard hens. Edmund has presumably been helping in non-specific ways, but it's difficult to imagine what those ways are, given the natural limitations of his 12- or 13-year-old frame and the strange ideas that Lewis seems to have about what Royal People are allowed to deign to do in terms of scullery work.

The things that dragon!Eustace do now are undoubtedly useful. Yet they're useful in ways which are non-specific to Eustace as a person and a character; instead, these things are useful simply because the crew could really use a dragon right now, and simply because they were so woefully unprepared to make this voyage. Indeed, in some ways this seems less like a Useful Moral Lesson for Eustace and more like the author getting his characters out of a bad scrape. And perhaps if he had confined it to that, instead of heaping all the hate and humiliation on Eustace, it might have been a better book. There's nothing that says Eustace couldn't have quietly learned a moral lesson (little-m, little-l) on the side while his cousins were working Deep Magic to regain his proper form.

But we can't really get away from the hate and humiliation, because they're still with us. One of the first things Lewis sneeringly tells us about Eustace Clarence Scrubb is that he's one of those nasty vegetarians. (Subtext: Who think they're so much better than the rest of us.) One of the points which stands out in Eustace's journal is how awful the food is aboard the ship, even as Lewis rushes to reassure us that the food is actually much more lovely than it would reasonably be expected to be in our world. (Lavish descriptions of the many and varied foods, as well as careful mention of the cook galley are supplied.) Now, in his transformation, Eustace has wolfed down a dead dragon soaked cold with rain and he eats "messy meals" of raw livestock he was forced to kill with his own hands tail.

There is more than a whiff of penance and punishment here. 

   The pleasure (quite new to him) of being liked and, still more, of liking other people, was what kept Eustace from despair. 

This is kind of, sort of a lie: later in The Silver Chair Lewis will try to retcon Eustace as being not one of those stand-alone bullies who might possibly bully for complicated reasons like being shunned by his cousins or having low self-esteem or whatever and will instead have him previously placed with a group of like-minded bullies who now shun him because he's such an awesome Christian Narnian.

(This was, by the way, a major fantasy for many Christians when I was a child -- being SO SUPER INCREDIBLY Christian that other people wanted nothing to do with you and/or wanted to actively hurt you for it. There are WHOLE SERMONS about being on "the top of Satan's hit list", which obviously manifests through the persecutions of other people, natch.)

However, I'm sure someone will argue that this is consistent because groups of bullies don't actually like each other because they're all withered husks of human being incapable of loving themselves or others. I side-eye such claims as they tend to be unhelpfully dehumanizing, as well as casting the very concept of "bullying" into something so sharply defined that I think a lot of actual bullying behavior slips through the cracks of the tightly defined behavior, but I've lost sight of my point and will now move on.

I think perhaps my initial point was that if this is really the very first time Eustace has ever felt liked, then my already broken heart will now burst into ash and blow away on a very forlorn breeze.

   For it was very dreary being a dragon. He shuddered whenever he caught sight of his own reflection as he flew over a mountain lake. He hated the huge bat-like wings, the saw-edged ridge on his back, and the cruel, curved claws. He was almost afraid to be alone with himself and yet he was ashamed to be with the others. On the evenings when he was not being used as a hot-water bottle he would slink away from the camp and lie curled up like a snake between the wood and the water. 

So, a couple of things here.

First, I'm not about to say that Eustace (or anyone else) should like an unwilling body transformation. If Eustace was comfortable in his human body -- and we've seen nothing to indicate that he was not -- then being pushed into a form that is foreign or even hateful to him is not something that I would expect him to enjoy. And especially not when that new form is incredibly painful to him (thanks to the gold bracelet which is still pinching his forearm), nor when the new form demands that he maintain a type of diet that is hateful and disgusting to him (i.e., all the eating of raw meat).

However. Having said all that, and with the understanding that a not-hateful form can become hateful when it is associated with pain and disgust, and laying that acknowledgment to the side for a moment... it's uncomfortable to me how much the text is belaboring Eustace's VERY UGLY AND HIDEOUS dragony form. We've already seen how Lucy had to screw up her courage to, essentially, give a cheek peck to an entirely docile reptile. (Full disclosure: I have held a docile young crocodile and totally would have kissed it if I'd been assured it was safe. And I don't even particularly like reptiles.) Now we're seeing Eustace -- who has an established interest in bugs and lizards and museum-y animals -- horrified at bodily details which are essentially not different from that of lizards and bats.

I realize there is a long tradition in Christianity (and elsewhere) of demonizing reptilian features as being literally associated with the demonic; Satan himself is rendered as a dragon in many Christian tales. But Eustace is not Satan, and his reptilian form appears in a world where large sentient reptiles are part of the daily norm and are not evil aberrations of nature. Eustace, given his interests in biology, should not find his new form de facto frightening and repulsive. Lucy and Edmund, given their histories as Queen and King over Narnia, a country populated by large talking animals, should not find his new form horrific and disgusting. Caspian and the Telmarines, having grown up in a world of dragons and Talking Animals, should not find his new form inherently evil.

And this is always the problem when writing a story about Talking Animals, when the author is unwilling or unable to divest the idea that some animals are just gross or disgusting or evil. (And especially when those notions overlap strongly with fur/skin color of the animals.) I'm reminded of Madeline L'Engle's Many Waters where the Seraphim and Nephilim are created equal in the eyes of God, etc. but the Seraphim were apparently created to take the forms of "good" animals, white and golden (scarab, lion, "golden snake", "golden bat", "soft mouse", "white owl", "white camel", tiger, giraffe, pelican, "white leopard", "white goose") and the Nephilim were apparently created to take the forms of "bad" animals, dark and black (cobra, mosquito, crocodile, "dragon/lizard", cockroach, flea, worm, slug, red ant, rat, vulture, skink). You get one guess as to which group ultimately turns against God and which group stays faithful.

By pushing the idea that dragons are inherently ugly, and by linking that visible ugliness with the sins Eustace supposedly harbors, we reach a lot of unfortunately implications. One, that beauty standards are universal: both Lucy and Eustace find him equally ugly, despite Eustace having an established interest in the biology of lizards and snakes and bugs. Two, that sin is visible from the outside in ways with confirm our prejudices that Beauty is Good and Ugliness or Deformity is Evil. (See also: the unfortunate road that Star Wars has decided to travel, and how impossibly absurd it is to try to have a genuine thriller about who-is-the-evil-mastermind-of-the-sith when the world-building rules literally mandate that all Bad Guys look like their faces have been beaten with the ugly stick.)

Additionally, by adhering to this worldview that sin can be determined by looks (and vice versa), we reach a point where characters stop being three-dimensional people and start being types. Caspian becomes flawless because he looks flawless. Susan becomes slutty because she looks slutty (lipsticks and nylons!). Eustace becomes greedy and dragonish because he looks dragonish. The Beavers are simple, down-to-earth folk because they look like simple, down-to-earth folk. The White Which is evil (and thus Edmund is wrong to take candy from her) because she looks evil. Etc. This worldview becomes a free pass for prejudice because however we perceive people becomes Objectively True rather than Subjectively Biased.

This isn't a small matter; innocent people die because of this mentality that external looks say anything about the internal self of a person. George Zimmerman perceived Trayvon Martin as a threat and a burglar rather than as a kid walking home with Skittles in his hand, and he perceived him as such because of the way Trayvon Martin looked and because of the way our society is prejudiced against people who look like Trayvon Martin.

And because George Zimmerman believed his perception to be Objectively True rather than a Subjectively Biased personal assessment that he arrived at based on the prejudices he imbibed all his life from the society around him, he felt justified in leaving his vehicle and stalking Trayvon Martin with a deadly weapon. And a jury of people who didn't look like Trayvon Martin ruled that George Zimmerman was justified in treating his own subjectively biased prejudice as an objectively true assessment.

It is utterly crucial that we take this idea that Bad People look a certain way and Good People look a certain other way, and recognize that this idea is not just lazy writing -- it is also a means of viewing the world in a way that specifically favors the privileged and oppresses the marginalized, and a means of assuring ourselves that we are objective judges of character even when we emphatically are not.

Eustace might be a bad person. But he's not a bad person merely because he looks like a dragon, nor does he look like a dragon simply because he's a bad person (if it were that simple, almost everyone in this story would look like a dragon). His actions and morality are decoupled from his appearance, and the sooner we accept that as a society, the better.


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