[Narnia Content Note: Genocide, Religious Abuse, Chivalry, Racism, Slavery]
[Extra Content Note: Suicide, Isolation, Loneliness, Loss]
Narnia Recap: Our heroes meet Aslan and return to England.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 16: The Very End of the World
We might as well finish this chapter (and the book itself) out today. I have a lot of feels on this because, again, Lewis has cram-packed what could have been several chapters into one whoops-time's-up-pencils-down chapter that literally feels like his publisher called and said to wrap shit up now, but is probably just a function of the fact that I care about his characters whereas he seemed to care more about his plots and theologies.
About two o’clock in the afternoon, well victualed and watered (though they thought they would need neither food nor drink) and with Reepicheep’s coracle on board, the boat pulled away from the Dawn Treader to row through the endless carpet of lilies. The Dawn Treader flew all her flags and hung out her shields to honor their departure. Tall and big and homelike she looked from their low position with the lilies all round them. And even before she was out of sight they saw her turn and begin rowing slowly westward.
...and off the ship goes, back home for Narnia. Welp.
I mean, I know that Aslan apparently told them to do it this way, but I just still feel like this is a terrible plan. I would at the very least wait there until they couldn't see the boat anymore before turning around, but I'm sentimental like that, I guess.
There was no need to row, for the current drifted them steadily to the east. None of them slept or ate. All that night and all next day they glided eastward, and when the third day dawned—with a brightness you or I could not bear even if we had dark glasses on—they saw a wonder ahead. It was as if a wall stood up between them and the sky, a greenish-gray, trembling, shimmering wall. [...] Then they knew that the wall was really a long, tall wave—a wave endlessly fixed in one place as you may often see at the edge of a waterfall. It seemed to be about thirty feet high, and the current was gliding them swiftly toward it.
[...] And suddenly there came a breeze from the east, tossing the top of the wave into foamy shapes and ruffling the smooth water all round them. It lasted only a second or so but what it brought them in that second none of those three children will ever forget. It brought both a smell and a sound, a musical sound. Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterward. Lucy could only say, “It would break your heart.” “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.
And then there's this. I get, on an intellectual level I really do get, the intent of this scene. This is supposed to be (imo) that really heart-breaking beauty, something so wonderful and immense and lovely and delighting that it breaks your heart to see or hear or taste or touch something so good in this world. It is supposed to be ineffable joy, and I get that. I also get that ineffable joy was a thing for Lewis and that I'm being an ass by complaining about what may well have been his favorite passage in this series. (At least, it would not surprise me if it were.)
Except. But. The thing is. We're back to the problems I had with the soothing story that was told to Lucy and which she asked to hear again and which Aslan was like "Sure! No problem! NOT NOW." No matter how hauntingly beautiful this moment is for the Pevensies, it would appear to be genuinely haunting and in such a way that, for me, detracts greatly from the beautiful part. The boys refuse to speak of it again. Lucy can "speak" of it only in the tiniest, vaguest, most distracted sense of the word, and seems profoundly affected in a way that reads to me as saddening or depressing or painful even as she asserts that the sound itself was not sad.
To me, this always read as though the absence of the sound was sad, after having heard it once, and I have to confess that a very big thing for me growing up (and to a certain extent now) is the pain of having or experiencing something lovely only to have it taken away again. (And I recall some folks expressing similar feelings about why they wouldn't want to try the magical Turkish Delight, if they knew they could never taste another piece after that one time.)
And on an intellectual level, I feel like I get Lewis' take on this. There are beautiful things in the world and sometimes we don't get to experience them as many times as we like. And this is doubly-so true for supernatural and spiritual events. Many people have ineffable joyous moments (religious or otherwise) in their lives only to find later that they can't recreate that precise moment later on--you are left with a memory to savor and you try to make do with that. I have experienced this myself, in fact.
But we're back to my personal, religious issues with this series in that the ratio of Ineffable Heart-Breaking Joy You Never Experience Again to Quiet Contented Joy That Sticks With You Over The Long-Haul is just too damn high for me to be comfortable with. It's like a relationship with Aslan, or embracing the Imperial Narnian Religion, is a series of quests for an adrenal spike, with each one taking you just a little higher but leaving you so much lower afterwards. The Pevensies lived as Kings and Queens and adults before losing Narnia and going back to being children. They came back and thought they might make a go of it again, only for Peter and Susan to be kicked out for (apparent) eternity. Now Edmund and Lucy have spent weeks, months, exploring new facets of this world and seeing and hearing some of the most beautiful things in creation and they too will be banished in a few short pages.
And then they'll go--and yes, I realize I am extrapolating based on my own experiences and other readers will have a different take on the world-canon and that's fine--live their lives as best they can, but they won't ever be able to share any of this with anyone because Narnian Christianity isn't English Christianity and most people in the Real World aren't going to be super-understanding about insisting that you've sailed to the edge of a flat world and seen heaven with your own eyes. So they'll be alone, physically and emotionally and spiritually, and in an attempt to recapture some of that lost ineffable joy they'll have Narnia Wednesdays with each other and the Professor and Jill, and that will work for awhile. But eventually all the stories will have been told and repeated and repeated again, and Susan will be the one who realizes she can't do this anymore and she'll leave, and the meetings will sour because there will always be that sense that this isn't enough, that it's not the same, and how can they continue on this way forever and ever?
And when you consider that Last Battle--and therefore their deaths--occurs when Lucy is still a very young woman, relatively speaking, I can't help but wonder how it ever could have worked except to drop a train on all of them. I don't think Narnia Wednesdays would have been enough to nurture those song-broken hearts, certainly not as they got older and jobs and spouses and children happened, and their group dwindled through injury and death, until eventually it was just Lucy and Eustace remaining, quietly crying in each other's arms as they tell each other, one more time, about the Dufflepuds and the story she still hasn't heard again, and the smell of Aslan's mane that they can never quite recapture.
What I am saying is, when I read these as a child, all this--the aging and de-aging, the banishment, the magic story, the sight of heaven, the heart-breaking music--all this seemed cruel. When the Witch gave Edmund candy only to deny him any more, we understood that to be a callous, cruel, manipulative act. Yet when Aslan promises a peace-giving story only to not deliver for years and years and years, how is that any kinder? I honestly don't have an answer to that, except to say that there's a reason why Lewis and I do not have religion in common.
At that moment, with a crunch, the boat ran aground. The water was too shallow now for it. “This,” said Reepicheep, “is where I go on alone.”
They did not even try to stop him, for everything now felt as if it had been fated or had happened before. They helped him to lower his little coracle. Then he took off his sword (“I shall need it no more,” he said) and flung it far away across the lilied sea. Where it fell it stood upright with the hilt above the surface. Then he bade them good-bye, trying to be sad for their sakes; but he was quivering with happiness. Lucy, for the first and last time, did what she had always wanted to do, taking him in her arms and caressing him. Then hastily he got into his coracle and took his paddle, [...] The coracle went more and more quickly, and beautifully it rushed up the wave’s side. For one split second they saw its shape and Reepicheep’s on the very top. Then it vanished, and since that moment no one can truly claim to have seen Reepicheep the Mouse. But my belief is that he came safe to Aslan’s country and is alive there to this day.
I note here two things. One, as has been pointed out already, I'm not entirely sure how this is meaningfully different from suicide. Which, for the record, I really don't have a problem with Reepicheep's actions here. But, I'm unclear why someone might think that suicide is a sin, but sailing into heaven knowing you're not coming back, isn't. They don't seem functionally different to me, but I digress.
Two, Lucy's picking up of Reepicheep and hugging him has always read to me here like she didn't obtain his consent first. And I don't care for that at all. I know she's supposed to be a child in this book, but she was once an adult queen who ruled over many, many Animals, and she should understand that picking them up with her greater human size in order to cuddle them is not a thing she should be doing without their permission.
The children got out of the boat and waded—not toward the wave but southward with the wall of water on their left. They could not have told you why they did this; it was their fate. [...] At last they were on dry sand, and then on grass—a huge plain of very fine short grass, almost level with the Silver Sea and spreading in every direction without so much as a molehill. [...] But as they went on they got the strangest impression that here at last the sky did really come down and join the earth—a blue wall, very bright, but real and solid: more like glass than anything else. And soon they were quite sure of it. It was very near now.
But between them and the foot of the sky there was something so white on the green grass that even with their eagles’ eyes they could hardly look at it. They came on and saw that it was a Lamb.
“Come and have breakfast,” said the Lamb in its sweet milky voice.
Then they noticed for the first time that there was a fire lit on the grass and fish roasting on it. They sat down and ate the fish, hungry now for the first time for many days. And it was the most delicious food they had ever tasted.
Something something something theologies. I don't really have a lot of feels on this part, partly because it's so rushed, and the description of the sky tangibly meeting the ground just makes me think of that Star Trek episode which is probably not where Lewis wanted my brain to go. But... really? A flat earth that doesn't act like a flat earth and yet is anyway, but also the sky stretches down to the ground and is a solid piece? Okay. Wev. I'm guessing Lewis didn't care about this part much more than I do, since he spends almost no time on it here.
“Please, Lamb,” said Lucy, “is this the way to Aslan’s country?”
“Not for you,” said the Lamb. “For you the door into Aslan’s country is from your own world.”
“What!” said Edmund. “Is there a way into Aslan’s country from our world too?”
“There is a way into my country from all the worlds,” said the Lamb; but as he spoke his snowy white flushed into tawny gold and his size changed and he was Aslan himself, towering above them and scattering light from his mane.
“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “Will you tell us how to get into your country from our world?”
“I shall be telling you all the time,” said Aslan. “But I will not tell you how long or short the way will be; only that it lies across a river. But do not fear that, for I am the great Bridge Builder. And now come; I will open the door in the sky and send you to your own land.”
I SHALL TELL YOU RIGHT AFTER THAT STORY I NEVER READ YOU. TRU FAX.
I mean, again, something something theologies, and I totally get that this is the Jedi Truth (i.e., blatant lies) thing where "I shall be telling you all the time" means stupid evasive shit like "you will see me in the miracle of the sun rising every morning and also in the beauteous happenstance of there being a Gideon's Bible in your hotel room of all places what were the odds god must be trying to get your attention yes you personally" and... okay. I sound like I'm mocking this. I'm not trying to do that, I'm sorry.
But. Here is the thing. Words mean things to me. And a deity saying "I will tell you this thing" is not, to me, being honest if, if, that really means "stuff will happen to you that has many, many valid explanations, but I expect you to interpret that stuff with exactly the right expectation and I'll be over here invisible in the corner drumming my fingers impatiently at you." And that may be unfair of me, but I've seen absolutely nothing from Aslan to make me think that he wouldn't be doing precisely that.
And all this comes back around to Susan who apparently wasn't "[told] all the time" or at least probably wasn't told in a way that was valued and meaningful to her, which kinda comes around to making me royally pissed off that Aslan can't or won't just say "I'm Jesus, mmkay?" I mean, we give the Left Behind series a lot of well-deserved rotten tomato throwing, but say what you will about Reverend Billings, he did at least leave a template-prayer for new believers to recite. That Aslan does not do this may make his religion deeper and more meaningful and more interesting than Billings' "say the magic words, you're good to go" country club, but it also points to a greater willingness to let people, good people, drop away forever if they didn't respond properly to your numinous "telling that isn't telling".
My two cents, mind you, and this isn't really a religion blog, I also grant. But it is a blog about feminism and included in that ideology is strong feels for Informed Consent, and Aslan (as written on page and not as potentially fan-ficced out in the Missing England Years) isn't pinging the Informed Consent meter for me at all.
“Please, Aslan,” said Lucy. “Before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do make it soon.”
“Dearest,” said Aslan very gently, “you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.”
“Oh, Aslan!!” said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.
“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”
ALL THE FEELS.
“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
ALL THE ANGRY FEELS.
“And is Eustace never to come back here either?” said Lucy.
“Child,” said Aslan, “do you really need to know that? Come, I am opening the door in the sky.”
She might not need to know it, but Eustace might like to know. Given that he's standing right there. Hey, you could also ask for his Informed Consent while he's there, but no, it's fine.
Then all in one moment there was a rending of the blue wall (like a curtain being torn) and a terrible white light from beyond the sky, and the feel of Aslan’s mane and a Lion’s kiss on their foreheads and then—the back bedroom in Aunt Alberta’s home at Cambridge.
They don't even walk through the doors anymore. He just flings them through without even letting them take a final look and walk through under their own power.
Only two more things need to be told. One is that Caspian and his men all came safely back to Ramandu’s Island. And the three lords woke from their sleep. Caspian married Ramandu’s daughter and they all reached Narnia in the end, and she became a great queen and the mother and grandmother of great kings. The other is that back in our own world everyone soon started saying how Eustace had improved, and how “You’d never know him for the same boy”: everyone except Aunt Alberta, who said he had become very commonplace and tiresome and it must have been the influence of those Pevensie children.
Aunt Alberta the feminist. Who doesn't love her child once he converts to Narnian Christianity.
And that's the end of this book. I... I kinda don't know how to sum up a book that we've been doing for 19 months. I mean, on the one hand, if you've come all this way, there's nothing I'm going to say here and now about my issues--my issues with banishing the children (especially Because Puberty), and my issues with informed consent, and my issues with the equivocating Lion-Jesus, and my issues with all the hating-of-feminists-and-liberals, and all my issues with Narnian government--that is not going to either convince you if you're not already on-board or entertain you if you are. We've done these issues to death, I'm sure.
Yet. But. However.
I guess I want to point out one more time that we spent three chapters shuffling around the islands of the Dufflepuds, looking at lackluster scenery porn and water pumps. Whereas we summed up making the children ineffably sad, kicking them out of Narnia forever, alluding to Christianity in ways that numerous readers missed let alone poor Susan, and also haha a nice little throwaway joke summing up how awful Eustace was at the start of all this and how much better he is as a good conservative Christian boy to the point where of course his liberal feminist mother can barely tolerate him anymore.
That's three chapters to celebrate racism and colonialism and to put girls in their place (which isn't to say that the rest of the book doesn't do these things too) and a handful of sentences to in some way, any way, comfort the Pevensie children on their forever-loss that they'll be sorta-but-not-really helped through by invisible, intangible, probably-silent-except-maybe-in-their-heads-which-is-not-the-same-thing Lion-Jesus. Maybe. If they continue to attend Narnia Wednesdays faithfully.
And... conceptually I can understand how this can happen for non-awful reasons. It's easy to get bogged down writing the middle of a book, and it's just as easy to wrap up a little too quickly when you're done. We're already pretty certain that Lewis either had no real editor at all, or not one who was willing to tell him to cut the drossy stuff and thrash out the plotholes a bit better (or, alternately, Lewis had one and just didn't listen to him). I realize there are many, many possible reasons for caring more about footling around Celebrate Colonialism Island than on Peace That Passeth A Good Fish Dinner Inlet. And yet.
If, if, the differences between the time spent on these islands indicate differences in importance in the author's mind, then we really are at the possible conclusion that we have an author on our hands who cared more about outlining a theocracy which is based on colonialism, torture, and exploitation, than on elaborating a theology based on comforting the comfortless and healing the afflicted. Aslan gives these children what may well be the worst news of their life and then offers them no time to process, no space to deal, no opportunities to speak or ask real questions or even just drink the scenery in one more time. Instead it's just a mane-brush, a forehead-kiss, and being forcibly ejected from a place that is clearly Home to them.
For what they believe will be Forever.