Narnia: Love the Sinner, Period

[Content Note: Colonialism, Slavery, Violence]

[NB: The title of this post is a reference to the platitude "love the sinner, hate the sin" which is almost universally used as a rhetorical cudgel to harm innocent people who are guilty only of a failure to conform to various social standards, while excusing the hateful person from the responsibility of their harmful actions. This title is not meant to suggest that real acts of harm, such as those perpetuated by Caspian and Edmund, should be summarily excused.]

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

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

Alright! After however many solid weeks of fobbing ya'll off with tiny posts because I've been burning the candle all fifteen ends, today we are going to start going through the unnecessarily long and violent process of Eustace's conversion. And remember! The best thing about metaphors is that you can write any old crap on the page and someone will work out a profound meaning for you to have meant all along because people are awesome pattern-spotters, even when the patterns weren't, strictly speaking, put there on purpose. (Which is a long and delightful way of saying that there are going to be Disagreements about how to interpret this. Tally-ho.)

   About six days after they had landed on Dragon Island, Edmund happened to wake up very early one morning. 

WHUT. *sputters* They were considering leaving Eustace after five days of him being a dragon?! (Since the first day was taken up with him being lost.) And much of those five days had to have been devoted to fixing the mast and fixing the storm-battered ship and turning the dragon-slain sheep into dried-or-smoked-or-sausaged-or-salted-or-whatever haunches of meat to hang in the ship for stores, surely. So they were considering leaving him behind even while they were using him for work all this time.

That's it. I'm tempted to just quit now. Everyone on this damn ship (minus Eustace and maybe Reepicheep) is evil and deserves nothing more than the bitterest of contempt. I have lost any vestige of pity for them and clearly this whole thing is a metaphorical voyage of the damned. The only way this can be redeemed is if moonlight breaks through and shows they're all corrupted skeletons and then Jack Sparrow swoops down and slaughters them all before announcing that he will never, ever make another movie again. 

   As he woke he thought he heard something moving, so he raised himself on one elbow and looked about him: and presently he thought he saw a dark figure moving on the seaward side of the wood. The idea that at once occurred to his mind was, “Are we so sure there are no natives on this island after all?” ... Edmund made sure that his sword was in its place and then rose to investigate.
   He came down softly to the edge of the wood and the dark figure was still there. He saw now that it was too small for Caspian and too big for Lucy. It did not run away. Edmund drew his sword and was about to challenge the stranger when the stranger said in a low voice, “Is that you, Edmund?”

.............................. I don't even know how to start with this. I don't even know if I want to start with this. I feel bile in my throat, is how awful this passage is.

So, just to recap. Caspian et. al. visited an island that had been wracked by the evils of slavery. A significant portion of the populace had been reduced to second-class citizens with no rights over their land or their bodies or even a right to life. Because Slavery Is Wrong, Caspian set all the slaves free and made sure slavery would never happen ever again by, basically, saying so with his Mighty King Words. (Except of course for the slaves who had already been bought and shuffled off to other countries.)

Caspian et. al. then sailed directly from the Island of Freed Slaves to a new island where their modus operandi from Day 1 (and we're now on Day 6) has been to claim ownership over everything they see. Because Caspian et. al. owns the land, rather than any hypothetical native people who might be using the island. And he owns the land by virtue of being the first white person to see the land; he's done nothing whatsoever to "improve" or build upon the land (which would be a bullshit reason anyway, but one with which Lewis would have been familiar), and in fact they've actually made the island worse, what with all the tree-ripping-up and sheep-killing.

And Caspian doesn't even have the whole possibly-fake ancestral claim thing that he supposedly had with the last group of islands. He's got no right to be there except by virtue of the fact that an entirely different land of people decided to make him king. Or, in other words, he has got absolutely no right to be there. He's trespassing while insisting that his white kingly lineage means he owns whatever he wants and plus he's got the swords to enforce it.

But land-theft wasn't quite enough for our heroes, and thus Edmund has now drawn his sword in order to "challenge" a person who has apparently only been observing them quietly, assuming that he even knew Caspian et. al. were on the beach at all and didn't just stumble onto them out of coincidence and then decide to leave them alone like you do. And Edmund is challenging the stranger with his sword drawn because the native people of the island most definitely do not own their bodies or a right to life. If Edmund doesn't like what he hears, then he has every right to chop the native person to bits because failure to satisfactorily answer a privileged white man carries an automatic death sentence.


Oh, and also? This native person that Edmund is considering murdering is pretty probably a child considering how small the form is. She/He is definitely smaller than Edmund and is only just taller than little Lucy. In fact, she/he is shaped remarkably like an especially small and weak 11-year-old boy! Which makes it even more awesome that Edmund is drawing his sword on him/her with every intention to kill if Edmund (THE JUST) decides that the situation calls for it, because what? You were thinking that being called King Edmund The Just in Narnia didn't mean that you consider yourself judge-jury-and-executioner when faced with a quiet person minding his/her own business on his/her own land? Or you were maybe thinking that a boy who was once nearly murdered under a flimsy legal justification wouldn't use his own flimsy legal justifications to murder smaller boys given the chance? You're so weird! 

But the important thing here is that this hypothetical-native-person-who-is-actually-Eustace isn't a slave! Because Slavery Is Wrong and that is why the ship's oars aren't one of those slave galley things that Lewis has heard so much about. Slaves and natives may not own their land, their bodies, or their lives, but at least the natives don't have to row a boat and they should be thankful for that. And this is why I say that this book is a long love-letter to colonialism regardless of whatever Lewis might or might not have written against the concept in some other book. Because holy fuck.

   “Yes. Who are you?” said he.
   “Don’t you know me?” said the other. “It’s me—Eustace.”
   “By jove,” said Edmund, “so it is. My dear chap—”
   “Hush,” said Eustace and lurched as if he were going to fall.
   “Hello!” said Edmund, steadying him. “What’s up? Are you ill?”
   Eustace was silent for so long that Edmund thought he was fainting; but at last he said, “It’s been ghastly. You don’t know … but it’s all right now. Could we go and talk somewhere? I don’t want to meet the others just yet.”

And, okay. I get that Lewis was pulling shit willy-nilly from the Bible and didn't feel the need to make things fit here in this context because pulling from other sources means you don't actually have to do work on your own. And that's how we get this painfully awkward scene where Edmund doesn't recognize the form or face or voice of the cousin he was living with over the summer while sharing a room together, and then living with on a crowded little boat where they shared sleeping quarters with Caspian, and who has been a dragon for approximately five days which is probably not enough time to forget what someone looks or sounds like.

Instead, I suspect this is supposed to be a reference to people not recognizing Christ after his resurrection, which was not the same thing because (a) being dead is not the same thing as being a dragon for a couple of days in a country where peoples' physical forms change on a dime, and (b) Christ was theoretically supposed to look changed by his experience, whereas I sort of doubt that Eustace is supposed to look radically different here (unless we really have gone whole-hog with the notion that being redeemed and good makes you prettier and less deformed in which case that's a big barrel of NO.), and (c) at least some of those folks who didn't recognize Christ didn't strictly speaking know him before he appeared to them post-resurrection, which is a touch different from not recognizing the guy you've been sharing a room with for months.

Also note the continued penchant for pain: Apparently Aslan wasn't willing or able to come up with a conversion experience transmogrification that doesn't hurt like hell.

   “Yes, rather, anywhere you like,” said Edmund. “We can go and sit on the rocks over there. I say, I am glad to see you—er—looking yourself again. You must have had a pretty beastly time.”

Nit-noid: Speaking of Edmund not being influenced in any sense by his experiences in Lions, Witches, and Wardrobes: Aslan's Day Off, I would think that of all the members of Caspian's crew, he would be the one least willing to go off alone to converse with people who seem innocent and trustworthy yet have clearly been magicked in some way and may not be all that they appear to be. But whatever, it's not like mistakes like that aren't fatal in Narnia. (Oh wait.)

   “I won’t tell you how I became a—a dragon till I can tell the others and get it all over,” said Eustace. “By the way, I didn’t even know it was a dragon till I heard you all using the word when I turned up here the other morning. I want to tell you how I stopped being one.”
   “Fire ahead,” said Edmund.
   “Well, last night I was more miserable than ever. And that beastly arm-ring was hurting like anything—”
   “Is that all right now?”
   Eustace laughed—a different laugh from any Edmund had heard him give before—and slipped the bracelet easily off his arm. “There it is,” he said, “and anyone who likes can have it as far as I’m concerned. Well, as I say, I was lying awake and wondering what on earth would become of me. And then—but, mind you, it may have been all a dream. I don’t know.”
   “Go on,” said Edmund, with considerable patience.

... yeah. I don't know what to do with this. Eustace has never laughed a laugh of pure pleasure or unsullied irony before, just as he has never before liked someone or been liked by anyone. And Edmund is demonstrating "considerable patience" for listening to Eustace feel his way through his tale after having lost his voice for five days; suffered through a series of harrowing, confusing, and traumatizing events; and now experienced a horrifically painful magical cure that he can barely explain, has difficulty remembering, and has no reference with which to describe. Oh, and also, he's never told a story before and doesn't know how because he's read all the wrong books, etc.

Meanwhile Edmund has been using Eustace as a hot-water bottle, plotting to leave him behind (possibly even to leave him behind without warning, since they didn't bother including Eustace in the planning councils), and stalking about on the beach with a sword looking to threaten and/or murder young native children. But Edmund, JUST TO BE REALLY CLEAR HERE, is the patient one. And now I am going to quote Fred Clark on a passage from Left Behind because it makes me happy to take my mind off the fractal terrible that is Lewis' writing of this passage:

Don't count on it, Buck thought. But he said, "I'm listening."

Throughout this conversation, Buck seems to think it's safe, or possible, to indulge in such thoughts as long as he doesn't explicitly state them out loud. The problem is that we humans don't work that way. If we say, "I'm listening," while intently thinking, "Don't count on it," that thought will be expressed and conveyed just as clearly as the contradictory words. And I think Buck realizes this. Here with Nicolae as with Verna earlier, he follows a juvenile impulse to make faces and roll his eyes behind the teacher's back until he gets caught doing so, at which point he'll say, "What? All I said was 'I'm listening.'" I'm not sure what he thinks he gains from this, or why Jenkins thinks it makes Buck seem smarter, cooler or more admirable.

Imagine that you were in Buck's situation here. Imagine that you were part of a secretive underground resistance network struggling to thwart the schemes of a diabolical cabal led by an evil mastermind.

I would think that part of your agenda would be to learn as much as you could about that cabal and its nefarious plans. It would be immensely helpful if somehow you could manage to plant a bug in the cabal's inner sanctum, a tap on their phones or a secret backdoor access into their computer network. ... That's what you would do, anyway, if you were part of such a resistance group. Because you are not a sophomoric, dimwitted, incurious moron.

... Buck and Rayford come across in these chapters as the most inept and unimaginative spies in the history of espionage. This scene between Nicolae and Buck will continue for several more pages. The Antichrist desperately tries to persuade Buck to take notes on his evil schemes while Buck stubbornly — and rudely — refuses. Worst. Spy. Ever.

Ah. Wasn't that refreshing? It was for me.

I mention the above for a couple* of reasons.

One, this whole conceit that Edmund is super-fucking-patient doesn't work. It cannot. The whole premise of this book is that the narrator interviewed one or more people (only Lucy is listed as a direct source, iirc) in order to write down the events that happened. If this "considerable patience" is just an interpretation of the narrator's, then the narrator is therefore inserting his own editorial ideas about this passage, in which case we now have a deeply biased narrative rather than a factual account, which should now be treated with very deep suspicion.

An unreliable narrator undermines the entire conceit of the book, which is supposedly to help others learn to recognize Aslan in their own world. (Seriously, that's the moral at the end of the story.) If we can't rely on the accuracy of the narrative (and clearly we cannot, but I would argue that Lewis probably didn't intend us to come to that conclusion), then we cannot recognize Aslan in our world, as anything the narrator writes about Aslan is now deeply suspect. The words on the page stop being a historical and/or journalistic account and become deeply biased propaganda; so deeply biased, in fact, that the narrator couldn't resist putting in his totally irrelevant opinion about whether Eustace is getting to the point fast enough. If he is willing to alter or embellish or invent minor details to satisfy his petty grudges, then the entire account is now untrustworthy in the exteme.

The alternative to the narrator placing this in is that Edmund or Eustace told him to use this framing; that Edmund or Eustace informed the narrator that Edmund was being "considerably patient" and the narrator duly wrote it down. Possibly Edmund was the one who remembered it this way, since presumably Eustace would have reason to not remember that piddling little detail among all the de-dragon-ing. But that just brings me back to the Fred Clark quote above, in that people don't work that way.
If the takeaway from this encounter, the thing that Edmund remembered years later, was not the glory of the miracle or the pain of his cousin's conversion, but rather that Edmund was hella-patient because Eustace was taking his fucking-sweet-time spitting the story out, then it is patently false that Edmund was being patient because clearly this bothered him enough to stick with him. It may be possible to be considerably patient and aware of it in the moment, but to cling to that detail as a very important detail to be crowed about to a narrator years after the fact? That stretches my credulity. At that point, it's a false patience, one that is only being indulged in because one feels one must or because one wants to feel like the "better person". This is a "patience" that is practiced entirely for self-gratification. And that isn't patience, nor does it look the same to the person having it bestowed on them.

It's possible -- possible -- that the framing is supposed to be Eustace hating himself after the fact. It's possible that all the hatred the narrator heaps on Eustace throughout the book is supposed to be self-hatred (both in the Doylist sense which has been proposed where Lewis supposedly sees Eustace as the character most like himself and in the Watsonian sense wherein Eustace is standing over the narrator's shoulder saying "no, really, I was a TERRIBLE person, make that more clear right here.").

But if we accept that framing, then we accept that a healed person -- a person whose flaws and wounds were literally healed by an all-powerful god -- can and does and should carry around a constant and unrelenting self-loathing for who they were prior to their conversion. That such a thing is healthy and desirable (since, you will note, this is a morality tale for Instruction to Children) even to the extreme absurdist point of Eustace demanding that it be made manifestly clear that his cousin was "considerably patient" for listening to him tell about a miracle when clearly there were more interesting things on the beach than Eustace and his Aslan-story. Like rocks, surely. Or some seaweed.

I've done a lot of things in my life that I regret, for various reasons. But I decided a long time ago that, given the chance to do everything all over again and correct things, I wouldn't. Not because I'm proud of who I was, but because I have decided to love, really love, who I am now. And I recognize that as I am the sum of my actions and experiences, I am who I love today because I was once very different from who I am now. Those actions and experiences which are bittersweet to me in retrospect (or in some cases, just flat-out bitter) are not things I can really hate, because to hate me then conflicts with my decision to love myself now.

Eustace doesn't love himself now, not if he's the source of all the visceral hatred in the text, the demand that Eustace be needled at every turn, even after his conversion, because FUCK YOU EUSTACE WE'RE BEING PATIENT JUST TO HEAR YOU OUT etc. I believe that self-love is incompatible with that level of self-hatred. I believe that a more healthy outlook would be for Eustace to recognize that, okay, maybe he was an asshole as a kid. Sure. But if he hadn't been an asshole, he wouldn't have had this experience. He wouldn't have turned into a dragon and been able to help his friends and family in a way he never believed imaginable. He wouldn't have seen Aslan in all his glorious beauty and wouldn't have been personally saved and healed by his physical touch. (An experience that Peter and Lucy and Susan never got, and even Edmund was only saved from a distance.) All the "bad" things in Eustace's life and personality led inexorably to the "good" things which he (supposedly) comes to treasure as a Friend of Narnia.

If Eustace still hates himself, even after all this, then something has gone tragically wrong and this book is even more saddening to me than before. But if the source of the hatred is from Edmund, or the Narrator, or from the author himself, then I have only searing anger. Because even after all his suffering, and after his full conversion to the church of Aslan, Eustace is still being singled out as awful, ugly, terrible, horrible, a blight whose words are so useless that it takes not attention or kindness or politeness or interest but rather considerable patience for someone to want to listen to him for even a moment, even after six days of total silence.

There's ugliness there, but the cause doesn't lie with Eustace.

* The second reason, which I ran out of steam and didn't get to, is that Eustace is telling a story that is not only amazing and magical (as opposed to, you know, slides from his recent vacation or something), but also a story that is a rare and valuable example of Aslan's movement in this world. Aslan is supposed to be The Most Important Thing to Edmund and Lucy; their whole lives supposedly revolve around him (and are supposed to revolve around him, which is why Susan is damnable) and even the sound of his name is like the taste of dark chocolate combined with a self-epiphany wrapped in complete religious ecstasy.

The notion that Edmund is being "considerably patient" here is entirely wrong because, given this framing, he should be savoring every word. He is the first person to hear the story of how Aslan saved Eustace; the only appropriate response to that is to be quivering with anticipation, waiting on the edge of his seat, and hanging on ever syllable falling from Eustace's mouth. If Edmund really believes that Aslan is real and amazing and wonderful and an ineffable mystery to be studied and understood and unwrapped, he should be taking fucking notes. He's not "considerably patient" to be listening to Eustace feel his way through his narrative; if anything, he should be motivated entirely by religiously-pure-but-nevertheless-genuine self-interest. Hearing about Aslan is the second best thing that can ever, ever happen to Edmund, with the first best thing being seeing Aslan himself.

I'm not just making this up from whole cloth: gathering together to tell and re-tell the exact same stories about Aslan every time is what the grown-up Friends of Narnia** do. It's what Susan doesn't do, and why she is left out of paradise, possibly for forever. Having this described as "considerable patience" for Edmund to hear the tale that, for the sake of his very soul, he will choose to hear repeated hundreds if not thousands of times in the future makes no sense. It'd be like saying that I'm patient for eating the foods that please me and keep me alive, or that I'm patient for having the sex that I enjoy. That's not patience.

Amusingly, I will note that if Edmund is finding it annoying listening to Eustace's conversion experience when he'd rather be talking about his own, that phenomena maps nicely over into my own experiences with Wednesday night testimonials, when we all secretly wanted everyone else to shut up about their stupid conversion experience so that we could stand up and tell our conversion experience which was obviously way better than everyone else's. But while that might make Edmund human, it also doesn't make him "considerably patient" because that's basically the opposite of patience: it's impatience trying to pretend it's something its not.

Which brings me back to Fred Clark: Edmund logically cannot be described as patient here, and if he thinks he's being patient, then it shows on his face and in his body language, in which case he's also being a jerk. 

** I originally accidentally typed this out "Friends of Aslan". I then changed it for the sake of accuracy, and yet it somehow seemed more accurate before I made the correction.


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