Last week I wrote about the fantastically dull, chorishly written, monarchist crap that was the genesis of the Narnia series, where a twee fairy tale about how great it was to be a divinely ordained king and disposing of foreigners who weren’t adequately Christian. I lumped these stories together as ‘the Pevensiad’ because they were the stories primarily focused on the character of the Pevensies, four ‘characters’ deviating primarily from a mean of dishwater by dint of how they didn’t live up to the moral and ethical standards of that dishwater.
The start of Narnia was very much about Lewis talking it seemed to his vision of a specific kind of child who he wanted to give a good example of christian childhood behaviour, while offering them what we can modestly call ‘adventure,’ but it was in these books that the conventional isekai narrative of Narnia actually hit its stride and seemingly had some ideas. This is expressed in how the story introduced a character who actually had the room to develop and do something interesting, in the form of the best earth-native Son Of Man character in the entire series, the one, the only, Eustace Clarence Scrubb.
That is literally his name.
And he almost deserved it.
I’m not joking.
Eustace is an incredible character, not because of how well written he is, but how much he clearly gives the author traction to write. Peter was ultimately very tedious and noble, superior and certain and always doing the Right Thing and Obeying and Trusting Aslan (who is not Jesus, why would you keep bringing that up). There’s entire passages of Prince Caspian that come down to ‘we thought about doing something we shouldn’t, but ultimately, decided not to,’ and that’s because when your moral framework for the characters that drive the story has to be perfect by the standards of a fussy Orthodox Anglican Pissbaby, you don’t have a lot of room for complex questions. Uncertainty is, itself, an evil.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis first excludes Peter and The Other Older One from the story, so that he now has to work with Lucy (who has the outline of a personality) and Edmund (who has one defining character trait). This is in part to signify that I don’t know, Aslan doesn’t like kids who grow up, which is, uh, weird, but anyway, this is also the book that introduces the Pevensies’ cousin, Eustace Scrubb, who is most remarkable in how he serves as an icon of what Lewis considers a bad person who needs to be fixed.
Now, you may have watched Eustace on one of the many live-action versions of this book, and there, you may have gotten the impression that hey: This guy sucks. It’s true, he does suck. He’s a little prig, and usually played by actors who do an excellent job of conveying that he’s a little prig. Undeniably, there’s a lot of stuff about Eustace that sucks, and I remember really hating Eustace as a kid, because he sucked.
Then as an adult I went and looked at the list of things about Eustace that Lewis feels he needs to underscore to make sure you know he sucks, and it starts by outlining Eustaces’ parents as the source of his problems.
Eustace’s parents who are vegetarian non-smoking pacifists and send Eustace to a progressive school. And you may think ‘oh, progressive schools, what are those like,’ well, in the 1930s they included such shocking ideas as (via Wikipedia, with emphasis by me):
- Emphasis on learning by doing – hands-on projects, expeditionary learning, experiential learning
- Integrated curriculum focused on thematic units
- Strong emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking
- Group work and development of social skills
- Understanding and action as the goals of learning as opposed to rote knowledge
- Collaborative and cooperative learning projects
- Education for social responsibility and democracy
- Integration of community service and service learning projects into the daily curriculum
- Selection of subject content by looking forward to ask what skills will be needed in future society
- De-emphasis on textbooks in favor of varied learning resources
- Emphasis on lifelong learning and social skills
- Assessment by evaluation of child’s projects and productions
We see a tiny bit of this school later in The Silver Chair, which is not well accounted by Lewis’ writing but it includes such horrifying things as coed classes.
Now, you may look at this list and go: Hang on, isn’t this just a normal sensible school?
Why yes, it is, and Lewis thinks this is terrible.
I particularly like the way that Lewis runs down the list of vegetarian, teetotaller, non-smoker like that’s a list that a child will clearly recognise as terrible personality traits for adults. It’s dizzying. It’s a whole object lesson in semiotics. It’s not just that Eustace sucks, it’s that Eustace’s parents suck and he’s the result of how they suck, so kids who read these books see him and his behaviour and assume ‘oh, this is the result of those parents, I guess those ideas suck.’
The core of Dawn Treader is watching the way the story of Edmund, Lucy, and Eustance together go on a journey with Prince Caspian. Edmund is Peter 2.0, Lucy is a voice of modest kindness, and Eustace is a character who actually has problems that he needs to get over through the course of the story. It includes his odious behaviour like shouting about how he’s feeling, complaining when he’s hurt, demanding Edmund and Lucy, experts in the space explain things to him, and wishing to resort to his parents, who he trusts to back him up.
Also, he’s eleven years old.
And remember, these are framed as bad things.
Also, Dawn Treader is a story that only includes Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace because Aslan explicitly reached out to grab them. While The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe made a point that there was a device, something that agnostically let them pass through it when they knew what they were doing, or returning to some place you’d already been through magical means. The device that drew them into Narnia this time was Edmund and Lucy looking at a picture, and something (Aslan, the book states later), just grabbing them and dumping them on the boat along with Eustace, in order to teach Eustace a lesson.
This entire book is about dunking on Eustace to make him less the way he is and more obedient and quiet.
This book is ‘smile more,’ but for an eleven year old boy.
How does it do this? Setting aside the conga line of humiliations of taking a 20th century child and insisting he contend with a fantasy universe where people will actually threaten him with actual swords, the eventual ‘character development’ Eustace gets is instead a single miraculous moment where he gets turned into a dragon for the sin of greed (ignore that that sounds totally sick), and then Aslan traumatisingly cuts him open to save him from the punishment that Aslan himself imposed.
The actual story of Dawn Treader is one of the better ones, truth be told. It’s got a sensible central idea, a journey from civilisation to the edge of the known world, for the sake of discovery. It’s Star Trek on a boat, and means that Lewis’ normal difficulty sustaining a story without just Aslaning his way to the next bit is quashed. They travel through a variety of islands that give them a variety of tests (though you know, two of the islands are tests of greed), and let Lewis write some sort of small scale narrative about things he thinks are important and meaningful.
I mean it’s kind of a canard to go ‘oh look at this century-old narrative, aren’t its values fucked up,’ but if you remember the disdain Lewis had for things like vegetarians and emotional children, the Dufflepuds are fucked up. Basically, you have an island of stupid people, but a literal star from heaven descends to educate them. They don’t want to be educated, so he curses them to have one foot and hop around on one leg. They respond by getting themselves turned invisible so they can hide themselves from their own appearance. Our heroes wind up making them visible again, work out it’s all just a misunderstanding, and move on with a ‘oh, well, those sillies,’ kind of attitude, but not before Aslan tells our heroes that these people aren’t ready to meet him.
Phew it’s a good thing Aslan isn’t Jesus and the key to living a good and holy life that means you won’t be tortured in hell for all eternity, or Aslan refusing to make that known to these people is almost like a divine god damning a culture to hell for his own caprice. And we know that Jesus definitely didn’t do that, what with all the… ah… hmmm…
Oh, there’s the Stone Knife in this book? Which is a uh,
lance dagger that was used to kill Jesus Aslan by the Centuriun Longinus The White Witch Jadis and had to be kept separated from where people would use its power. I”m so glad that CS Lewis didn’t believe in allegory.
Where Dawn Treader was about Eustace learning how to overcome the problems of being an eleven year old, The Silver Chair introduces us to a teenaged Eustace, and his friend Jill Pole. Jill is an ordinary girl going to this school and doesn’t need to be saved from such terrible social ills as ‘expressing her feelings too much.’ Aslan grabs them from our world to come to Narnia, and they got there, to try and solve the problem of Prince Caspian’s son. Remember Caspian, Eustace? That dude who was formative and important to your life and changed you from being a fairly unremarkable eleven year old to a scrubby little prat? Anyway, yeah, he’s dead and it’s been so long his son is now older than you.
Oh and your token Narnian for this story is Puddleglum, aka ‘Sad Worzel Gummage.’
The Silver Chair is a really good little adventure story in the Narnia space. Because Eustace has a prior background that’s a bit more interesting than Edmund’s This One Time I Was A Dickhead, he explains and explores Narnia alongside Jill, who also demonstrates that there are things she knows how to do that Eustace doesn’t. It’s heavily gendered – when hanging around with the giants, they make a point that Jill’s able to be disarming and interesting and literally use the term ‘prattle‘ to describe how she does it, and so the giants tell her things that they wouldn’t tell Eustace or Puddleglum. Jill’s neat.
I wish she got to do more cool things than, you know, the nothing she largely does.
Like, Puddleglum winds up using his overwhelming depression and willingness to self-harm to save the day (… yikes, in hindsight).
The story is an adventure with four preset ideas from Aslan – the story beats they have to hit, or their DM will be mad at them. Fortunately, they don’t just follow them straight-up, and there’s some deviation and an interesting example of the idea of why we do things like daily catechism or memorising bible passages, to keep ourselves in the practice of doing so, even if it’s hard, even if we’re travelling or want a hot bath. It’s an interesting idea because the story wants to square the actual narrative tension of our heroes being given instructions they fail, with Aslan being all knowing. The result is that they’re told, hey, you never failed any of those, because actually.
Yeah, the conclusion of the book kinda well-actuallies the characters’ dramatic tension.
Man, Aslan sucks.
The Silver Chair is a solid adventure story that relies less on the nonsense of Aslan Fixing It, even if it’s super monarchist and doesn’t respect Jill enough to let her, say, stab the Green Lady in the face or whatever. It’s weird that I have this deep affection for Jill, despite the fact that the most notable thing about her in the story is the way she stands out to me as showing that hey, girls don’t act that way because they’re girls, they act that way because people want them to.
Special mention, by the way, needs to be given to probably the most fun, sensible character in the entirety of the Narnia universe: Reepicheep. Reepicheep is a talking mouse, and his story arc is basically two major chunks; one in Prince Caspian and one in Dawn Treader. In Prince Caspian, he’s kind of a comedy relief character, a leader of the talking mice (who only talk because mice freed Aslan from ropes he was bound to on the stone tablet, which is fucking weird, because why didn’t mice talk before that? Beavers fucking did).
Notable in the story of Prince Caspian is that Reepicheep is willing to fight the Telmarines in the most direct way: When the battle is ongoing, he and his soldiers are running around the battlefield, cutting hamstrings and stabbing feet, and when someone goes down to a mouse sword, the mice gather on that person and they never get up again.
Reepicheep is fucking cool.
Reepicheep loses his tail in the battle; he’s upset by this, because his tail is, to him, a sign of his honour. Aslan, who I gotta remind you is like, doling out things like ‘whole kingdoms’ to humans, refuses to heal Reepicheep’s tail because he’s afraid it’ll make him too arrogant. Reepicheep’s entire squad of soldiers then draw sword and prepare to cut off their own tails so as to match their leader. Aslan, seeing this heroic instance of mass self harm, decides to restore Reepicheep’s tail, with the same spirit of a God who maybe told Abraham to murder one of his children for no fucking good reason.
In Dawn Treader, Reepicheep’s… uh
He’s kind of the group’s heavy?
Like we don’t see a lot of it, but the one person who’s always spoiling for a fight, and willing to finish it, is Reepicheep. Reepicheep is also on the path to death – he’s travelling with Caspian to travel all the way to the very edge of the world, because of a lullaby he heard as a child. A dryad sung to him as a child and he interpreted it as a prophecy, that he should be the one person to go to the very edge of the physical world and fall off it. This is a story that he has been told, and he believes it will bring him to Aslan’s country.
Reepicheep has one of the most intense, raw stories in the whole series. He fought in wars, he saved the world at least once, he always believed, he always strove to do his best, he didn’t brook dishonesty or disrespect, he demanded people live up to a moral code while he was there to enforce it (so he wasn’t associating with bad people), but he wasn’t stupid, and he wasn’t cruel. Reepicheep was caring to Eustace in his worst moments, and this character, this hero killed himself trying to die.
Because that’s how he was told, by his faith, he would reach Aslan’s country.
Aslan fucking sucks.