[Content Note: Body Transformation, Genocide, Racism]
Narnia Recap: In which Eustace is turned back into a boy.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 7: How The Adventure Ended
It's Friday as I write this, and I want to thank everyone again for being so schedule-flexible as I deal with stuff. After my food poisoning last week, I took a long rest and also re-watched the Disney version of Voyage of the Dawn Treader and was struck with SO MANY THINGS to say about it, so that was energizing. I'm very much looking forward to finishing out this book if only because then I can talk about Disney for pages.
I've also spent fully 70 hours and 70 dollars trying to pull the Senate filibuster feed into something that can be transcripted and posted on the blog, but I don't have anything to show for that yet, either, and I deeply appreciate everyone being patient with me. Thank you. (Maybe this paragraph will be inaccurate by the time this posts on Tuesday! How wonderful would that be?!)
So where were we? Oh, yes: Eustace is a dragon, and he's wearing Octesian's armlet. Nobody is quite sure what to do with this information yet, but they have decided that Octesian is either dead or the dragon, since a Telmarine lord would sooner part with his homeland than he would with his shiny bling. Remember kids, that riches are fleeting but privilege is forever!
“Are you the Lord Octesian?” said Lucy to the dragon, and then, when it sadly shook its head, “Are you someone enchanted—someone human, I mean?”
It nodded violently.
And then someone said—people disputed afterward whether Lucy or Edmund said it first—"You’re not—not Eustace by any chance?”
Possibly the most disturbing aspect of this entire extended scene is how deeply Eustace comes across as an afterthought to his cousins and crewmates. It's easy to forget this, but the dragon didn't just now show up; he's been on the beach for at least a couple of hours. We know this because Lucy was sleeping when Caspian woke her to tell that a dragon had showed up on the beach, and then "the rest of the night was dreadful" and then they tromped up and started asking the dragon to swear friendship and examining his arm for gold jewelry and probing the jewelry for Telmarine royal crests and asking about various Lost Lords.
Everyone in this scene has had several hours and more than a few lines of dialogue to ask if the FLYING DRAGON has seen and/or eaten Eustace, but no one does. They're more interested in ascertaining the fate of a Lost Lord who, by all probability, could have washed up dead from a shipwreck or starved to death on this island and his armband could have been scavenged years later by this dragon. Remember: the Lost Lords have been gone for almost the full length of Caspian's life -- Wikipedia says that Miraz exiled the lords immediately after killing Caspian IX, and the unofficial Narnia timeline puts that at a little over 15 years ago.
That means that everyone in this scene is more focused on a man who disappeared 15 years ago than they are on a young boy who disappeared 15 hours ago. Whether Lewis or his editors noticed this or not, it's still a pretty major problem, and this throws in sharp relief the various narrative claims that Caspian et. al. would never forget about and/or leave Eustace behind when they're pretty clearly doing precisely that.
Nor does this fact jive with Lewis' little world-building detail that "people disputed afterward" which cousin asked the question first. This doesn't work because the later text will indicate that Lucy was a direct source for the narrator, and you'd think she might remember whether or not she asked this crucial question. But it also doesn't work because it indicates that "people" -- who? not Eustace or the cousins, surely, which would indicate that the crew of the Dawn Treader are supposedly direct sources for the narrator -- talked about this moment. Talked about it enough to dispute who said what. That doesn't work. It can't work.
No one has cared enough about Eustace to talk about his disappearance in the whispered wee morning hours while they worked out what to do about the dragon. No one cared enough about Eustace to ask the dragon about him, about whether the dragon had seen him from the sky or if the dragon would help them look for their missing crewmate so that they could clear off the dragon's island sharpish and get out of his scales forever. So it doesn't stand to any kind of reason that people would care enough about Eustace after this moment to turn The Moment When We All Heard Eustace Was A Dragon into a legendary moment with minor details held in passionate dispute. That only works when the person who is the subject of the Terrible Secret is someone that people cared about beforehand.
And no one on this ship or involved in the creation of this story cared about Eustace, because someone would have brought him up beforehand as more than just an afterthought.
And Eustace nodded his terrible dragon head and thumped his tail in the sea and everyone skipped back (some of the sailors with ejaculations I will not put down in writing) to avoid the enormous and boiling tears which flowed from his eyes.
Lucy tried hard to console him and even screwed up her courage to kiss the scaly face, and nearly everyone said “Hard luck” and several assured Eustace that they would all stand by him and many said there was sure to be some way of disenchanting him and they’d have him as right as rain in a day or two. And of course they were all very anxious to hear his story, but he couldn’t speak. More than once in the days that followed he attempted to write it for them on the sand. But this never succeeded. In the first place Eustace (never having read the right books) had no idea how to tell a story straight. And for another thing, the muscles and nerves of the dragon-claws that he had to use had never learned to write and were not built for writing anyway. [...]
I WNET TO SLEE … RGOS AGRONS I MEAN DRANGONS CAVE CAUSE ITWAS DEAD AND AINING SO HAR … WOKE UP AND COU … GET OFFF MI ARM OH BOTHER …
(If you can, I'd like you to press your ear up against your computer monitor and tell me if you can hear me still screaming FUCK YOUR 'RIGHT BOOKS', C.S. FUCKING LEWIS, because I'm curious as to what kind of distance I'm getting.)
Sometimes I really wonder how someone could be imaginative enough to come up with something like Narnia and yet be so devoid of any kind of real empathy or imagination to wonder what a person or people would do when placed in these situations. The "dragon cave" where Eustace was turned is still there. It didn't vanish into the mists, and it wasn't an illusion that only Eustace saw. (Remember that Caspian et. al. gazed down into the valley and observed the dead dragon from afar.) It's stated the next paragraph down that Eustace has sufficient mastery over his limbs and wings that he can fly all over the island and carry sheep and goats back for the crew to slaughter and store in the ship, so why can he not fly Edmund or Caspian or Lucy down into the valley to examine the dragon cave where his unfortunate transformation took place?
The longer I read Narnia, the more I realize there there's something terribly rotten underlying the whole series, a sort of existential malaise that takes place when living in a world where hardships are explicitly something you're just supposed to endure until Aslan shows up to set it right. Caspian and crew are interested to "hear" Eustace's story, but they have no real thought towards understanding his transformation, nor do they consider ways to fix it. Just as there's no real effort to take off the bracelet and see if that affects Eustace's form, there's similarly no real effort to visit the cave and see if something there can shed light on his predicament. Everyone just takes it as read that being a dragon is just something that Eustace is going to have to endure Because Moral Instruction until Aslan decides he's had enough.
We see this chronic resignation and informational malaise over and over in the series. No one makes a serious attempt (that we know of) to stop the White Witch; even the little underground rebellion (which, for all we know, may have been composed solely of Mr. Tumnus, the Beavers, and that one Robin) is so deeply resigned to their fate that they blithely let one of the Four Children of Prophecy slip out the front door and into the Witch's clutches despite ostensibly being aware that the child had eaten the Witch's enchanted food. The Beavers pretty much outright state that these things happen and that Aslan will just have to sort it out.
Then, too, we see this in Prince Caspian when we see that the Animals implicitly need young Prince Caspian as a rallying point and god-appointed leader, despite the fact that he explicitly adds very little material aid to their cause. He's the child of their enemy and a complete novice at warfare; despite the expected literary conventions, his presence doesn't lend political legitimacy (from the Telmarine point-of-view) to the movement nor does it bring in Telmarine allies to fight alongside the Animals. And since Caspian does not help in the "uniting of two people into one army" sense, the reason for his narratively vital importance becomes problematic: apparently the Animals were just never really serious enough to do something about their genocide until someone showed up to lead them. Caspian comes across like a second-hand Aslan in this situation; not quite the son of god, but close enough to be a valued prophet.
Now we have Eustace, who has been turned into a dragon. Why has he been turned into a dragon? The narrative mumbled something about sleeping on dragon's gold while thinking dragony thoughts, but that doesn't tell us whether anyone else in the crew would have been dragonized in that situation or if Eustace was somehow especially bad or susceptible. How he has been turned into a dragon is equally uncertain: was the bracelet related directly to the transformation, or is it just an unfortunate coincidence slash metaphor-for-sin? The narrative teases us, saying that the crew would like to "hear" Eustace's story (just as we already have!) but can't, yet despite us having heard his story, we have no greater insight into what happened and why. Eustace just is a dragon, afflicted with pain in much the same way that everyone in Narnia is afflicted until Aslan shows up to fix it all.
And truly I worry whether or not this total resignation to the Will of Aslan isn't detrimental to the Narnian practice of empathy in these tales. When one lives in a world where Shit Just Happens, magically or through processes that cannot be described or intellectually penetrated, and when cures and solutions are ultimately-and-always dispensed by the local deity who just shows up when he can be arsed to deal with things, then is there any real point in agitating for change or seeking to understand the plight of others?
When Eustace is a dragon precisely because Aslan wants him to be a dragon, and when he will remain a dragon precisely until Aslan wants him to be a boy again, is empathy anything more than an exercise in pain? No matter how sorry we feel for Eustace, we cannot change his situation because we are not Aslan and we have no sway over Aslan's actions. Similarly, when Edmund is sentenced to ritual murder precisely because Aslan wants him to be sentenced to ritual murder, and when he will remain under the sentence of ritual murder precisely until Aslan decides that he shouldn't be under sentence of ritual murder anymore, can sorrow pierce through the veil of resignation that Narnians have been trained to wear from birth?
In another, better story, the English Children would be agitators for change in this world not because their humanness marks them as true owners over the religious dominion of Narnia, but rather because they came from a world where life isn't dictated by religious fiat, and because they have been cultivated with a spark of defiance against the harmful resignation and passive malaise in these books. In this world, Peter et. al. wouldn't be sent to Aslan by the Beavers, but would instead be urging the Narnians to RISE UP AND DO SOMETHING. "She can't stone us all!" they'd insist to the Narnians. "You can't let your people suffer like this any longer," they'd tell Aslan. And they'd push that god-lion, kicking and mewling, to the gates of the White Witch and tell him to FUCKING RESCUE OUR BROTHER AND SAVE THE WORLD, DAMMIT.
In this story, Eustace wouldn't be silenced by the loss of his vocal cords, because he'd have allies who would fight for his story to be told regardless. Lucy and Edmund would push back against Caspian's religious resignation, would demand that they break out the ropes and rappelling gear and investigate that cave. They'd turn the ship inside out looking for the tools to liberate Eustace's arm from Octesian's brand, and to liberate Eustace's body from the unwelcome transformation that has overtaken him. And Caspian and his men would learn the value of active empathy, of caring SO MUCH about the misfortunes of others that you do what you can to help them. They'd learn that religion isn't the abdication of responsibility or interest, and they'd learn how to become the heroes of their story rather than passive observers of others'.
That still wouldn't make Narnia a perfect story, or even a problem-free one. But I'd much prefer a story about active empathy than one of quiet resignation to the cruel and ineffable will of unknowable gods.