Narnia: Lord Octesian's Last Will and Testament

[Content Note: Genocide]

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

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

I haven't counted up how many posts have comprised Chapter 7, but today is the big day when we leave this chapter! Someone grab a bottle of champagne and swing it against your computer monitor in celebration or something! (Note: Do not do this thing, seriously. Computer monitors smashed up with champagne makes Aslan sad.)

When we last left Edmund and Eustace, Eustace was sharing how he was made a boy again by the power of Aslan who he had somehow pretty much never heard of before (minus one or two magical utterances of the name) because no one on this ship exists if C.S. Lewis isn't looking directly at them and the people who do exist don't behave like actual human beings with messy things like superstitions and fallacious beliefs and whatnot because the natural growth of a realistically-inaccurate mythos surrounding Aslan and the Pevensies would screw with Lewis' underlying biblical message.

Which is a shame, because a dash of mythology would liven up Narnia a lot. And I don't mean the stuff with Bacchus running around in Prince Caspian (which is the only example I know of in which Bacchus is boring, and that in itself should be some kind of sin on Lewis' record), but rather I mean the myth-making that would accompany a world in which a god-and-His-chosen-rulers are apt to pop in and back out with a moment's notice.

I mean, we know that the Pevensies are normal children and that Aslan doesn't live in their house with them, but the Narnians have no reason to assume that. These Telmarine sailors -- newly converted to the church of Aslan, aware that huge swaths of information have been lost in the Narnian purges, and desperate for a deity to save them from the frightening sea -- should be pestering Eustace with all sorts of questions, like if he spends all his time in England with Aslan or just most of it. But I can certainly understand why Lewis wouldn't want to suggest that the members of his pseudo-Christian allegory church would accidentally make up incorrect stuff in an attempt to explain the world around them, so on we move.

   And by the way, I’d like to apologize. I’m afraid I’ve been pretty beastly.”
   “That’s all right,” said Edmund. “Between ourselves, you haven’t been as bad as I was on my first trip to Narnia. You were only an ass, but I was a traitor.”

I'm pretty sure that Lewis didn't mean this to be much more than a connecting throw-away line between the series with maybe some brief side-theology about how as Eustace is now, Edmund once was, and as Edmund is now, Eustace may someday be, etc. about how everyone sins and redemption is possible for everyone and changes and growth and whatnot. But the thing is, this line is one of the saddest in the books for me for about a billion different reasons.

It's sad to me first off because of how deeply Edmund has internalized this traitor narrative. Edmund was not a traitor. We've already covered why I feel that way, and I'm not going to go into it again -- my larger point here is that it is entirely possible to hold the position that he wasn't a traitor with a straight face while being intellectually honest with oneself. So the fact that Edmund does hold the position that he was a traitor tells me that he has either chosen to see himself as such, or he has had that framing pressured onto him, possibly by his siblings (remember how keen Lucy was to tell him about Aslan's sacrifice) or by his own subjects (who may have embraced the mythic narrative of Traitor Turned King for their own story-telling or edification or any number of reasons).

In either case, I have to wonder how this narrative has affected Edmund in the long-run; I suspect the answer is that it has affected him badly. Sure, he may think of himself as redeemed, but I know some people for whom the weight of being a traitor, even a redeemed traitor, would be too much to carry for a lifetime. If I were fix-fic'ing, I'd be additionally tempted to speculate that the reason Edmund is so quiet in this (and all previous) books may be in part because he's wrestling with his own issues of guilt and/or depression as opposed to merely being sparsely characterized.

There's also that mention of secrecy: between ourselves, Edmund was a traitor. That makes me recall that these Narnians (and Telmarines) are not those Narnians who enjoyed the golden age of the Pevensies' rule -- these Narnians are either the great-great-great-great-great grandchildren of those Narnians (fan theories about Reepicheep's supposed immortality notwithstanding) or are entirely unrelated, in the case of the pureblood descendents of the Telmarine invaders. This element of secrecy suggests an element of shame, or perhaps relief on the part of Edmund that none of his new comrades know the sordid facts of his history. That makes it all the more sad to me that he thinks of himself as a traitor, because it seems like he doesn't claim that title willingly or proudly (as one conceivably could, with a proud mythos revolving around being an ex-traitor who came over to the side of good).

But this is additionally terribly sad to me because it underlines just how little Edmund has learned from his traumatizing experience and "redemption" at the hands of the White Witch and the Emperor. I know someone will suggest -- and possibly this is true! -- that Edmund stated this line less out of a sense of self-identity and more out of an attempt to cheer up Eustace with commiseration. But even if we are meant to interpret it that way, this piece of empathy with his cousin is so little and so late.

Edmund, by his assessment here and not ours, was way worse than Eustace. Eustace has merely been an annoying sometimes-bully who complains a lot. Edmund was not merely a traitor, he was a traitor whose traitorous actions could have gotten himself, his siblings, and possibly his god permanently (as opposed to temporarily) dead -- along with a lot of innocent Narnians. Edmund also lied to discredit Lucy and was snotty to Peter (itself a cardinal sin, I'm sure) when caught out in his lies. And while I think Edmund was largely innocent because of Turkish Delight, and while Lewis thought Edmund could have been worse because of Liberal Vegetarians, it seems that according to Edmund's world-view, he was objectively worse than Eustace.

...and yet...

He wasn't kinder to Eustace, either in England or in Narnia. He didn't learn from his previous bad behavior that Bad Children aren't necessarily rotten to the core. He didn't try to connect with Eustace, or explain things to him, or at least warn him about Aslan and White Witches and Miraz and object lessons. From the moment Eustace flopped onto the deck, Edmund was chortling about Eustace's seasickness and telling Lucy not to waste her cordial on something as simple as chronic nausea.

Or rather, since it was technically Caspian doing those things, we are left to assume that Edmund either agreed with him or didn't effectively oppose him. There's really no reason why Edmund couldn't have been kinder to Eustace, and there's every reason why his experiences should have led him to be more compassionate, yet every page of this book suggests that Edmund didn't learn a damn thing from his own past which he himself classifies as being much worse, in terms of culpability and sinfulness.

And for that matter, we've no reason left to us for why Caspian wasn't kinder to Eustace, except that apparently we're to accept that Good Manly Christian Men don't put up with wussy vegetarian liberal feminist boys. It seems like Caspian has every reason to sympathize with a small child who has lost his parents and found himself in a frightening situation wherein a magic he never knew existed totally does. And Caspian himself claims to have an inside scoop on the horrors of slavery and the psychological damage of being raised by people who aren't Good Narnians; you'd think at least some of those experiences would lead him to sympathize with the boy on his ship who was raised non-Narnian and is now being forced to work in conditions he didn't choose and doesn't understand. Yet it doesn't, and we're never given a sense that this is Strange or Unexpected or just plain Wrong.

The thing is, I hate harping on this, because it's not entirely unrealistic. Sometimes people who struggle with or survive something do come out the other end with no increase in (or even a decrease of) empathy for people in similar conditions. It didn't hurt me, so you should buck up is unfortunately a think that some people do say. [Content Note at link: Sexual abuse of a child; victim-blaming.] But it's not the ideal. And in an allegorical story like this, where Caspian is the boy-king of perfection and Edmund is the redeemed good Christian, it's jarring to see two people who should know better -- both intellectually as Children of Aslan and emotionally as something they've experienced firsthand -- treating Eustace so badly, so neglectfully, so spitefully, so terribly, with so little reason to do so, and with no revealing moment where it's made clear to them (and us) that their actions were wrong.

It jars me. I am jarred.

   “Well, don’t tell me about it, then,” said Eustace. “But who is Aslan? Do you know him?”


I'm sure it's just Lewis trying to sweep on with his story because momentum. ("Go read the other books! I don't wanna rehash it!") Maybe, charitably, it's Eustace sensing that Edmund is distinctly uncomfortable with his admission of traitorness and he's offering to move past the moment. But it's difficult not to shake the impression that Deep Sharing is one more thing that Good Manly Christian Men don't do. There's a sort of back-pedaling here, like holy crap, emotions? sharing? abort-abort-abort! 

And that just makes the whole conversation feel even more lonely and terrible. Edmund is troubled with a history of self-identifying as a traitor (or of having that label pushed onto him by the people he most wants approval from) and Eustace has been through the trauma of being transformed into a dragon and then painfully transformed back, and NO ONE CAN TALK ABOUT IT because manliness stereotypes and everyone has to limp quietly back to the ship and not make eye contact and not talk about their feelings and not talk about Aslan and instead go to their designated quiet corners and struggle not to weep because manliness stereotypes. Holy shit, that is some fucked up.

The thought occurs that Lewis may have been "the most reluctant convert in England" because his internalized image of what converts do (nothing except wait around for Aslan to show up!) and how they live (they don't unless the author is looking directly at them!) and how they share and interact (pretty much not at all except in self-flagellating ways that cannot then be cathartically explored or healed!) is painful and stilted and horrible and lonely and awful. To me, anyway, your mileage may vary. 

   “Well—he knows me,” said Edmund. “He is the great Lion, the son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea, who saved me and saved Narnia. We’ve all seen him. Lucy sees him most often. And it may be Aslan’s country we are sailing to.”
   Neither said anything for a while. 

Possibly because that was a terrible answer. I feel pretty safe in guessing that no one on earth, were they placed in Edmund's position right here, would answer this way. And I feel equally safe in guessing that no one on earth, were they sitting in Eustace's position, would be satisfied with this answer.

I realize that Lewis is big on the whole INEFFABLE UNKNOWABLE DEITY OF MYSTERIOUS CONFUSINGNESS theme, but this is an author's answer, not a devotee's answer. The "he knows me" construction implies that Edmund doesn't know him, which fits super-well with the ineffable unknowable etc. but doesn't fit well with why-in-the-hell Edmund would follow Aslan slavishly or love him eternally or devote his entire life to baking cupcakes for the weekly Aslan Club Night nor how this is an acceptable answer to Edmund in light of the fact that he has dinner with Aslan and Aslan occasionally takes a dagger in the chest for him. Those are personal things, to which Edmund is giving an impersonal description.

In order to do those things which Edmund demonstrably does and in order to experience the things which Edmund has demonstrably experienced, he has to have internalized and he must choose to maintain some kind of meaning that Aslan means to him, even if that meaning is incomplete (because ineffable etc.). To put it another way, I don't know every single possible aspect of my husband (and Asperger syndrome can be pretty damn ineffable etc. at times) but he still means something more to me than, eh, he knows me and I guess that's enough, right? That's not the answer of a devoted lover, it's the answer of a distant observer.  

Then there's this Royal Title nonsense, where Aslan is "The Great Lion" (which surely means nothing to Eustace in a land of dragons and magic, so it's lucky that he's seen Aslan in a dream or he'd probably be picturing a 20-foot-tall lion right about now) and "the son of a flowery title that means nothing to anyone". Edmund mentions that Aslan saved him, but mentions it completely without passion or emphasis or details or context -- so Eustace has to be wondering if Aslan turned Edmund back from being a dragon, too, and if this is just something all little boys have to go through in this world of magic -- before sweeping on to saying that Aslan saved a land that Eustace has never seen and has no reference for except that it's the place where Caspian, Reepicheep, and the sailors claim to be from. Considering that Eustace has reason to have heard about Miraz and the genocide more than the White Witch (who is from the mists of legends as opposed to relatively recent), he may well now be assuming that Aslan saved Narnia from the Telmarines (which I guess Lewis would maintain but which I think is debatable).

And the thing is, Mystery Religions do exist. But Edmund is behaving like a member of a mystery religion in the context of a world where his god literally shows up in the flesh every so often to share dinner with him. And not in the ineffable "I felt him and he was there" sense, but in the actual, effable "He brought the catering with him" sense. And Aslan didn't save Edmund's life in the sense that he asked Aslan into his heart and now he is saved from eternal darkness; he saved Edmund's life in the sense that Aslan took a dagger in the chest for him. Using the dispassionate language of the former to describe the intimacy of the latter is a strange juxtaposition for me and comes off making Edmund seem strangely detached from this relationship he shares with Aslan.

   The last bright star had vanished and though they could not see the sunrise because of the mountains on their right, they knew it was going on because the sky above them and the bay before them turned the color of roses. Then some bird of the parrot kind screamed in the wood behind them, they heard movements among the trees, and finally a blast on Caspian’s horn. The camp was astir.

We've had zero insight into the camp routine for the last couple of days, so it's unclear whether this is a danger, Edmund and the dragon are missing, form a search party horn or a to arms and genocide the inhabitants like Telmarines do horn or a today's menu is bacon and gravy with a side of grits horn. There's certainly no indication that people are searching for E&E or that they need to approach with caution because folks will be on edge because all we get is this:

   Great was the rejoicing when Edmund and the restored Eustace walked into the breakfast circle round the camp fire. And now of course everyone heard the earlier part of his story. 

Welp. And that would be the earlier part of the story that no one bothered much to find out because it was too much trouble to help Eustace tell it. We can only hope that since he's a good Aslanite now he'll know how to tell a story properly, even if he has read all the wrong books. 

   People wondered whether the other dragon had killed the Lord Octesian several years ago or whether Octesian himself had been the old dragon. The jewels with which Eustace had crammed his pockets in the cave had disappeared along with the clothes he had then been wearing: but no one, least of all Eustace himself, felt any desire to go back to that valley for more treasure.

Pfft. Okay, I get that this is prudent if there's still a concern that there might be a transmogrification spell on the pile, but doesn't anyone spare a thought for Octesian's living relatives or spouse or whatever? Shouldn't they at least try to find out if he really did die on this island or if the bracelet was the only trace of him (which might suggest that it was merely lost or stolen and the rest of Octesian and his treasure / armor / artifacts is still elsewhere and Caspian is still oath-bound to look for him)?

   In a few days now the Dawn Treader, remasted, repainted, and well stored, was ready to sail. Before they embarked Caspian caused to be cut on a smooth cliff facing the bay the words:


Oh. No, I guess we're not going to do all that because it seems like trouble. Spiffing.

    It would be nice, and fairly nearly true, to say that “from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.” To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.

This would have been more amusing if it had been written about Edmund in Lions and Witches: The Enwardrobing because (as you'll recall) Edmund effectively had no lines after his redemption. Eustace fares better here and will still be allowed to talk, and will occasionally speak in-character about sensible things. So that's nice.

But it's also interesting to see the narrator flat-out admit that his "notice" of Eustace has been censorious rather than simple reporting of the facts. I've noted before that an openly biased narrator calls into question the entire premise (that this is supposed to help children recognize Jesus Aslan in their own worlds), so I'll just again reiterate that a book which claims to be biased and selective propaganda is a book which can't complain when I deconstruct it. Nyah!

   The Lord Octesian’s arm ring had a curious fate. Eustace did not want it and offered it to Caspian and Caspian offered it to Lucy. She did not care about having it. “Very well, then, catch as catch can,” said Caspian and flung it up in the air. This was when they were all standing looking at the inscription. Up went the ring, flashing in the sunlight, and caught, and hung, as neatly as a well-thrown quoit, on a little projection on the rock. No one could climb up to get it from below and no one could climb down to get it from above. And there, for all I know, it is hanging still and may hang till that world ends.

"We thought about taking it back home for the Widow Octesian or for Octesian Junior, but no one could remember if they survived the Coronation Day Massacre and then it seemed like it would take up space on the ship and Lucy said her room was pretty full already from the Lone Island looting, so we just tossed it and called it a day."


Post a Comment