Narnia: Non-Consensual Conversions

[Content Note: NSFW discussion of BDSM relationships and rape fantasies. Harmful stereotypes about atheists (also at the Lewis biography link). Non-consensual acts, including rape and kidnapping.]

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

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

I've been dreading this part of the chapter for a number of reasons which largely add up to it being difficult to deconstruct.

For one thing, while I accept that not everyone views That One Scene in Lions and Witches Gone Wild in Wardrobes as a crucifixion allegory, it comes across like a crucifixion allegory to me, and that context informed how I deconstructed that scene. In contrast, the scene of Eustace's de-dragoning slash conversion doesn't really come off as a straight allegory from anything in the Bible to me (though I did like muscipula's suggestion that perhaps we have a Saul/Paul "scales from the eyes" allegory on our hands), which makes it substantially harder to say intelligent things about it in terms of comparing and contrasting the source material with this text. 

For another thing, I know that a not-insignificant portion of the Narnia fandom view Eustace as a C.S. Lewis expy, which (if true) would seem to suggest that this conversion scene is somewhat biographical or at least an allegory to something Lewis himself experienced but which we are largely powerless to meaningfully deconstruct several decades after the fact. And certainly there seems to be at least some overlap between the physical pain experienced by Eustace and the emotional pain which Lewis wrote accompanied his own conversion. There's an interesting article here by Andrea Monda which seems, as far as I can tell, to be a pretty accurate summation of Lewis' thoughts on his own conversion and which quotes him saying:

"You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England" (Surprised By Joy, ch. 14, p. 266). [emphasis mine]

Which brings me to a third reason to dread the deconstruction of this passage, which is that conversion stories are deeply personal to the point of being almost intensely private -- if you're the sort of person who struggles with reading sex scenes because you feel badly for intruding on the characters' personal space, you may have a similarly hard time with conversion scenes. And indeed Fred Clark has suggested in his Left Behind deconstruction that stories of religious intimacy are in many ways similar to stories of sexual intimacy and that these stories can "resemble pornography" when written badly or ill-handled.

Stories of religious conversion — or "testimonies," as we evangelical types call them — can be tricky. The convert wants to tell this story because she is convinced that it is important. Very important. But also deeply personal and, at some level, ineffable. Attempts to convey the ineffable often come across as kind of effed up.

And earlier here:

Religious ecstasy, like sexual ecstasy, is difficult to portray directly in a work of art. It is too intimate, sacred and transcendent — and any portrayal that fails to respect that will seem reductive and cheap. A good artist knows when to fade to black (or, as in Dante's "Paradiso," to fade to white), when to suggest rather than to show, when implicit metaphor will be more truthful than explicit detail.

And the thing is, if this were just an intimate look at Lewis' conversion experience, I would probably just speed by this section in the same why that I would speed by a description of him losing his virginity. Personal Stuff Is Personal even when it's included in a book, and whether it's a conversion scene or a sex scene, there's a sense in either case that the author is baring a vulnerable portion of his soul. So I strongly considered just skipping over to the next island and giving all this conversion stuff a miss.

But. All of this is complicated by the fact that The Chronicles of Aslandia are explicitly supposed to be religious instruction for impressionable children; not only is that the intention stated by the author, it is also pushed heavily by the people marketing the series in the year of our gourd 2013. There's a reason why these books are famously the only fantasy books allowed in the homes of strict fundamentalist evangelicals with small children (with, occasionally, another exception carved out for Tolkien), and that adds an extra layer of complexity here. Because another way in which Conversion Scenes are like Sex Scenes is that there is a vast gulf of difference between describing Something That Happened verses detailing Something That Should Happen, and there's yet another gulf of difference between Something Good For Me versus Something Good For Everyone.

There are universal value judgments being infused here and that complicates matters.

It's kind of the difference between someone describing a happy-for-them D/s relationship while maintaining a clear understanding that this choice isn't right for everyone and there's a lot of effort that goes into making sure the people involved are healthy and happy (which is true for all relationships, but the larger point being that this isn't something that works Because Magic and the people involved do have to work at it and that Good People will want to work to ensure their partners are happy and healthy rather than expecting their partners to take care of all that on their own time without any involvement from them) versus, say, the Gor novels.* Descriptive versus Prescriptive, etc.

And, funnily enough, the link to Gor brings me to another point (illustrated by another C.S. Lewis quote to be given in a minute) that this scene of Eustace's de-dragoning and conversion raises all kinds of consent flags. Depizan has already pointed out the three-prong problem that:

(a) the book isn't clear on the question of whether Eustace's transformation was directly caused by Aslan in the first place (and/or indirectly caused by Deep Magic rules written by the Emperor at the Dawn 'o Time) which would mean that Aslan/The Emperor has already trespassed on Eustace's consent twice (the first time being yanking him into Narnia in the first place, which in itself makes them at least somewhat responsible for his transformation),

(b) the book doesn't explain why the de-dragoning has to be physically painful -- which, again, may be an allegory for emotional anguish except that those two things aren't the same things, so the allegory introduces problematic connotations such as Why Can't Aslan De-Dragon Eustace In A Painless Way -- nor does the book explain why Aslan can't warn Eustace about the pain beforehand and obtain his consent first ("This is seriously going to hurt, but it's the only way to de-dragon you. Do you still want to go through with it?") which would actually make the scene more like a Traditional Conversion experience, but more on that in a minute, and

(c) the book side-steps the question of how Eustace can give meaningful consent to a procedure that he doesn't know will take place, doesn't know will hurt, isn't asked for permission to undergo, and will cure him of a transformation he didn't apparently have a chance to avoid. Those are a lot of problems! Or, to quote Depizan: Eustace has followed a telepathic lion he's stated he's afraid of, and felt he had no choice but to follow, and now it's giving him further orders. This doesn't seem like a situation Eustace has in any way, shape, or form consented to. And that's beyond the fact that he didn't consent to be in Narnia in the first place.

And all that brings me to the problem that -- if I understand C.S. Lewis correctly -- the lack of consent involved in every stage of this sinner-turned-convert story was apparently a feature rather than a bug. Where a lot of us would see a fantastical allegory which accidentally lost hold of the concept of Enthusiastic Consent when turning "meaningful choice to convert to Christianity" into "experiencing a magical lion flaying you open in order to turn you back into a human after being transmogrified into a dragon", I'm not sure that Lewis -- if this was indeed supposed to be an allegory of his own conversion -- felt that consent was present or indeed desirable on either side of the reality/allegorical fantasy fence. In Surprised by Joy he writes:

"I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation". [emphasis mine]

...and after I read that, I was sort of left at a loss for anything to say. Because if I'm reading that correctly, it seems to be saying that God is so humble and kind and awesome that he won't get his feelings hurt when he drags us against our consent into... somewhere (his presence? Narnia? Heaven? Christianity?) and even when our body language clearly says we don't consent to be there, God still won't take it personally because he's cool like that. All of which reads to me like Lewis took a hard right turn at "Dad doesn't mind if I'm grumpy when I come over for Christmas because he loves me and knows I don't mean it" and ended up in Holy Shit Creepy Stalker Rapist Town. Because holy shit, the only people I can think of who compel adults to stay in their presence when they're kicking and screaming and trying to escape are creepy stalker rapists. Not something I associate with Divine Love.

[CN: Graphic discussion of rape.] And the thing is, I am trying to be chill about this and joke and not get angry. But a part of me is really very angry. Because you know what? I've actually been raped, and I've actually had the physical experience of someone compelling me to do something against my will even as my body language conveyed in the strongest possible way that I didn't want to be there, that I didn't want to be compelled like that. That wasn't Divine Love. It was beyond terrible. We "shudder at" the concept of compulsion not because compulsion has been misused by people like my rapist, but because compulsion is a bad thing. [end CN]

And every time anyone tries to have this discussion about a Theoretical Compulsive Deity and how horrific the idea is (not to mention its built-in correlation to Evil Space Aliens) someone brings up little kids because sometimes little kids have to be "compelled" to not eat poison, and yea are THOU not like unto GOD as widdle baybees are like unto THEE, etc. etc., but leaving aside the flowery language for a moment, the reason we have to compel little kids to not eat poison is because babies can't be reasoned with and any attempt to compare adults to babies is either a False Equivalence or an admission that the omni-god** under discussion isn't actually that omni after all.

The Christian god, God, can reason with adults, or at least he can if you believe the scenes in the Bible in which he reasons with people actually happened (or are at least are meaningful metaphors for some kind of religious communication which could have happened but with various details changed), and I presume that C.S. Lewis did believe that. And if God can't reason with adults, then he's not all-powerful nor is he all-knowing, because "figuring out how to reason with Ana on a level she can understand and then reasoning with her on that level" are knowledge and action I expect to be covered under the ~omni~ label.

Or, to put it another way: My rapist raped me because he couldn't figure out how to get sex from me any other way (and yes, opportunistic rapists exist, and no, I don't care to debate my lived experiences in this thread). A god who overrides my consent because he can't figure out how to elicit my consent any other way is not a god I care to follow for the exact same reason why I don't want to date a rapist. The existence of rapists hasn't ruined compulsion for everyone; rather, the existence of compulsion is why rape exists.

And I will also say this before we get to the meat of the text:

I am deliberately not a scholar on the life and minutia of Lewis' life, in part because I aggressively reject the idea that a deconstruction can only happen when micro-analyzing the author of the piece and the details of hir life. Sometimes the act of examining an author's life can be valuable -- especially when looking at details the author proactively chose to share -- but too often this rule can be used as an excuse to fulfill a prurient desire to scrutinize and invade, such as when people use the demonstrably-abusive relationships in Twilight to demand that Stephenie Meyer satisfy us all with details about her love life as though the one has something to do with the other. I consider that mentality harmful (as well as a barrier deliberately erected by a kyriarchal society in order to exclude certain persons from becoming authors and writing about their experiences), and I believe that authors should have a right to their private lives.

So with the caveat that I largely avoid details of C.S. Lewis' personal life, I am nevertheless aware that he did have exposure to non-consensual acts performed on him by other persons at least insofar as bullying was an integral part of his childhood. And this is a point: as much as C.S. Lewis was a member of a privileged group which has a significantly smaller intersection with being abused than most marginalized groups, it remains true that anyone, absolutely anyone, can be harmed and traumatized and abused. And I am deeply sorry that he was harmed in those ways, for I wish that on no one.

But regardless of his personal history and tragedies and religious epiphanies, I take a very strong exception to the romanticization of force and compulsion into something not merely good for him, but rather good for everyone. I object to the framing being asserted and imposed onto me (and others) that a deity who overrides my explicit state of genuine non-consent is good and loving and that I must accept that simply because the overriding of consent by that deity for someone else was a good experience for them.

I am trying to speak carefully here to make myself very plain. I use the term "genuine non-consent" here to distinguish from some hypothetical consent role-play that Lewis (or anyone else) might wish to engage in with an all-knowing deity. (Who would, being all-knowing, presumably be able to tell the difference between genuine non-consent versus playacted non-consent.) And to be very clear: there is a difference between a personal fantasy of non-consent (with which there is nothing wrong) versus a prescriptive-and-definitive statement that a loving-and-good god can-and-should override genuine consent and that this is a good thing for everyone involved. It's not.

And it's something that I'm deeply concerned about being taught to others as a prescriptive religious lesson, for much the same reasons that I would object to C.S. Lewis teaching others prescriptive sex lessons about the Right and Wrong ways to fuck. (See also: That Space Trilogy Thing.)

Now on to the text, I guess.

   “Well, anyway, I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming slowly toward me. And one queer thing was that there was no moon last night, but there was moonlight where the lion was. So it came nearer and nearer. I was terribly afraid of it. You may think that, being a dragon, I could have knocked any lion out easily enough. But it wasn’t that kind of fear. I wasn’t afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it—if you can understand. Well, it came close up to me and looked straight into my eyes. And I shut my eyes tight. But that wasn’t any good because it told me to follow it.”
   “You mean it spoke?”
   “I don’t know. Now that you mention it, I don’t think it did. But it told me all the same. And I knew I’d have to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it. 

(I'm not going to quote this whole passage, but I will note here that it's reiterated something like twenty-three million times that Eustace can't be sure whether the lion spoke verbally or not. Either that was an important point that Lewis wanted to come across or his editor was sleeping on the job.)

Here it is established that Eustace was afraid of Aslan and that he didn't feel he had a choice but to obey. Those are important things to consider when dealing with concepts like Enthusiastic Consent. Aslan leads Eustace to a garden which he's never seen before in which there is a large well-slash-bath with clear water.

   “The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. But the lion told me I must undress first. Mind you, I don’t know if he said any words out loud or not.

I will again note that I believe the armlet, which is pinching Eustace's leg and which in real life would be threatening the loss of his limb and possibly his life, is supposed to be a metaphorical representation of his sin. I'm not sure if it's supposed to represent a specific sin -- greed would be the obvious analog, except that greediness wasn't something that was on the list of Eustace's sins until he stumbled into the dragon's nest -- or just his sinful nature in general. As a child, I vaguely associated the bracelet with the ubiquitous "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" verse that got stamped on everything.

It should be noted, however, that the metaphor (if indeed it is one) is so vague that at least one reader quite reasonably believed the bracelet is supposed to be linked directly to the dragon transformation in a magical causation kind of way. Which maybe it is! In the literal sense and/or in the metaphorical "even small sins can turn you into a big ugly dragon" sense! This wouldn't surprise me in the least, especially given how much Lewis has and will continue to harp on the horrible ugliness of the dragon's form and skin -- that comes across strongly to me as a metaphor for sin. And opens a whole other can of worms about moralizing attractiveness as well as othering specific races, as we've exhaustively discussed elsewhere.  

   “I was just going to say that I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, [...] In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. [...]
   “But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before.

And I presume, as (again) was hammered into me repeatedly as a child, that this was the step on the Romans Road (and I'm sad that there's not a Wikipedia article for that term, or at least one that doesn't deal with actual roads in Rome) which had to do with the bit that, in addition to being sinners, we weren't capable of saving ourselves and instead needed Jesus to help us. We were repeatedly warned that trying to save yourself was an impossible logical fallacy and also very hubrisy and additionally here are some pictures of white-clean things and black-dirty things, and also prepare for these pictures to later-when-you're-older overlap in problematic ways with Purity Culture and systemic racism.

   “Then the lion said—but I don’t know if it spoke—'You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

And now I'm sad that I earlier made the link between conversion and sex because... yeah. That paragraph is really upsetting to me, on a number of simultaneous levels. Like, near-triggered, probably not helped because I talked about my own experience earlier in the post. I think I'm just going to power through and get this passage over with.

   “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.”
   “I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund.
   “Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt— [...] Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. 

There. We're done. But just to be on the safe side, I'll finish out the conversation. 

   You’d think me simply phony if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they’ve no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian’s, but I was so glad to see them.

How was this my favorite book in this series? HOW. I hate it so much right now. Maybe it will get better when we leave the island and Eustace stops talking and stops being talked about, but right now it just hits me again and again how every single mention of Eustace is about denigrating him to be the lowest of the low. The first sentence of the book is about his name being crappy, the next couple of pages were about how he could be beaten up by a girl, and now we've moved on to how his arms are shit. I feel like I'm watching bullying in real time, and Lewis is just about to pants Eustace and give him a swirly. It's fucking awful.

   “After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me—”
   “Dressed you. With his paws?”
   “Well, I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes—the same I’ve got on now, as a matter of fact. And then suddenly I was back here. Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream.”
   “No. It wasn’t a dream,” said Edmund.
   [...] “What do you think it was, then?” asked Eustace.
   “I think you’ve seen Aslan,” said Edmund.
   “Aslan!” said Eustace. “I’ve heard that name mentioned several times since we joined the Dawn Treader. And I felt—I don’t know what—I hated it. But I was hating everything then. 

More evidence that the name of Aslan is a dowsing rod for Good and Evil. Also: WHUT.

Eustace has only heard the "name" of Aslan "mentioned"?? He hasn't heard ad naseum since he came on-board all about Aslan the Great Lion Savior God of Narnia whom the people on the boat have met in person and are traveling in hopes of meeting in person again?? WHAT. [[insert Will and Erika's Whatnapple.]]

Eustace has been in Narnia for weeks, living and eating in a shared space and working with the crew. This has been established as fact. Additionally, he has been a dragon for five days and has been hanging out with Reepicheep listening to stories. You're going to tell me that in the first couple of days when Eustace was first on the boat and was upset and crying and vomiting, no one sat him down to explain that the reason he was in Narnia was because sometimes this King-Lion-God named Aslan brings English kids there, but he always sends them back home after they finish a quest, and so Eustace doesn't need to worry that he'll never see his parents again because Aslan will put things right?


And you're going to tell me that in the weeks that followed while he lived in the same shared living space and ate meals in the same eating space, no one made but the briefest mention of Aslan? No extended questioning of Caspian about whether Aslan had been in country since the Pevensies left, no long-winded speeches before dinner about Aslan blessing the bounty they were abut to partake in, no superstitious sailors telling Eustace to pray to Aslan before going out to work in the storm that was sweeping people to their deaths overboard? You're telling me that the Telmarine sailors -- all of whom are supposed to be new converts to the Church of Aslan -- weren't crowding the Pevensies and Eustace asking questions about what it was like to meet their god?! (And those same sailors assuming that Eustace might have met him because he's a blood relative to the Chosen Ones, so it doesn't hurt to ask.)

You're going to tell me that in the five days since Eustace has been turned into a dragon, there hasn't been a serious conversation in his hearing about whether Aslan could help him, the sort of conversation that he would perk up and listen to, and the sort of conversation that would be relevant because Reepicheep is on this trip so that he can actively search for Aslan's Country? You're telling me that in the five nights of story-telling that Reepicheep has regaled Eustace with HE DIDN'T TALK ABOUT ASLAN? You're telling me that Reepicheep didn't tell Eustace how Aslan restored a major body part for him, and how he did that because Reepicheep's family once did Aslan a kindness, and how Reepicheep is searching for Aslan's home even now, and how Eustace's family once did Aslan a kindness, so maybe Aslan will help Eustace like he helped Reepicheep?


I don't even know what to do with this ridiculousness except to chalk it up to the Atheist Hasn't Heard fallacy as seen in so many Jack Chick tracts, wherein the atheist immediately converts to Christianity as soon as he is properly witnessed to (in this case by Aslan himself) because he's somehow just never heard about Christianity before. Which lets me pull out another Surprised By Joy quote, wherein ex-atheist Lewis confides winkingly to his Christian audience that:

Really, a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side. [...] A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere--'Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,' as Herbert says, 'fine nets and stratagems.' God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.

This is ridiculous in a culture where Christianity is as deeply privileged as it is in ours. But it is just as ridiculous in the setting of Narnia. I can believe that Eustace wouldn't believe in Aslan, and I can believe that he might not have enjoyed hearing about Aslan; what I patently cannot believe is that he could have avoided hearing anything about Aslan except a few context-less mentions of his name. That is flatly impossible. (And, if taken at face value, paints the Telmarine sailors, Caspian, and the Pevensies in an extremely poor light.****)

I was going to finish out the Edmund / Eustace conversation, but I have run out of fucks for today and I really have a lot to say on Edmund's next sentence, so that will have to wait until next time. In the meantime, here is a picture I like, for no better reason than because I like it.

* Which is not to say that people cannot or should not read the Gor novels as fantasy, if they so choose. But rather that it is my (possibly misinformed) understanding that the author of the Gor novels has stated that the books are prescriptive for sexual relationships (in the same way that Narnia is explicitly stated to be prescriptive for children) and that a woman's natural state is sexual submission.

** Let-Me-Google-That-For-You link provided because the link is more hover-readable than the full search results. Basically: Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent with the occasional bone thrown to Omnibenevolent. The Christian god, whom I refer to above as simply "God", is considered by many of his followers to be omni. Note that not all gods are omni, and in fact being not-omni is a good way for a religion to get around The Problem of Evil. (I.e., evil exists not because the gods allow it to exist but rather because they don't have the power to prevent it.)*** 

*** I can now confirm that if you type "god" enough times, it stops looking like a real word.

**** The failure of virtually everyone on-board to speak to Eustace about Aslan in order to comfort him about his abduction into Narnia and/or his transmogrification into a dragon could be chalked up to an Evangelism Fail, but it's glossed over so quickly in the text that I don't think it was meant to be read that way (nor does anyone own up to an Evangelism Fail, which is usually an integral part of the trope). In order to make a point to the audience that thou must witness more -- which absolutely does happen in a lot of Christian literature -- it usually has to be brought across a little more forcefully than this, precisely because witnessing has a lot of problematic status connotations stuck to it.

For example, see Buck and Rayford in Left Behind, where Fred Clark has ably pointed out that they flatly refuse to witness to nameless or minor characters, even when those characters are practically begging to be witnessed to. This makes sense in light of the fact that witnessing is often seen not a good thing in its own right in order to help others but as a status symbol which defines one's self as a Good Christian. So the main characters witness to the Bad Guys (in order to be persecuted for it) and the Good Guys (in order to win over important characters), but they don't witness to the nameless plebs because protagonists got important shit to do, yo.

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