“Aslan wants to hurt people, but only to save them when they’re yucky.”
“What do you think about that?”
“Oh, um, well, it makes him seem bad, but he’s really good.”
“Would you want Aslan’s help if you were a dragon?”
“No, but I’d need it, right? Or he’d maybe hurt me worse. It IS Aslan.”
Content warning: Some weird imagery that may trigger those who were physically or sexually abused as children.
In the last post I hinted that this story is ultimately about the salvation of Eustice. Once he becomes a dragon, and hates himself properly, there’s a sense in which Eustace becomes a better person. The sailors notice and appreciate the change, and Eustice becomes very useful to them all. He enjoys his new Christian, er, I mean sailor community and gets the first benefits of being liked and liking others in return.
The developments here mirror the Christian idea of someone needing to know they are a sinner before they can become holy. That’s why in my missionary training (long story) we were taught all the ways we could help show someone just how much they deserve, simply by being born, to go to Hell. We were told people would somehow be inspired to greatness by this revelation that God would sacrifice his son for the worst of creatures. (Try doing something like loving your neighbor as yourself when you consider yourself every sort of evil.) In reality negative self-views cause negative emotions such as fear and loathing, which are the common denominator for many religious conversions. Sure, guilt and shame can motivate, but talk about the ends justifying the means!
After resigning oneself to their sinful nature, the next step in salvation is following Jesus. Our Jesus in this book is Aslan, who mirrors the Christian character down to his being killed for sinful man (Edmund in the first book) and resurrected again. Aslan appears to Eustice in the mysterious and vague way Jesus is said to “appear” to believers today. When I was a believer and someone asked me why I believed what I believed, I could point to the Bible and I could talk about my intangible emotions, but couldn’t pony up real satisfactory evidence. But I had all the feels. Remember when Lucy just knew to follow Aslan in the last book? She read his face, and the children were expected to read his moods. It’s all very spiritual and mysterious don’t you know. Oh, you don’t have religious experiences? Well, you’re not as special then.
Eustice has a “Come to Lion” moment. Aslan told Eustice to follow him, but of course not with words because it hasn’t worked that way in a while. Eustice is afraid of Aslan, but not that he would eat him. So he was afraid of what? Who knows. Aslan is constantly described as unsafe but good at the same time so we’ll just go with it. (Probably because the God Lewis worshiped drowned babies in the Bible and was called “loving” at the same time.)
Aslan leads and Eustice follows until they are in a magical garden that resembles Eden somewhat. In the garden is a well, but one you could climb down into, like a mikvah, which is a religious bath that people in the Old Testament got into to make themselves holy before God (called the “various washings” in Hebrews). Eustice gets the idea he needs to get in there, but he can’t get in there as a dragon for some reason.
Aslan orders Eustice to undress, again not with real words, and Eustice figures out that means he needs to shed his skin. He does this three times, like a banana, but he’s still a dragon. Then Aslan says (without real words, so through feelings? Although very much related by Eustace as a quotable statement… oh gosh I’ve known believers to do this), “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustice was afraid, but he relates the story as, “So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.” Here is where Aslan cut him so deeply and painfully that it “hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.”
I must stop to point out that this is a children’s book advocating total submission to authority by lying down and letting that authority physically abuse you.
Afterwards Aslan grabbed Eustace (“I didn’t like that much”) and threw him in the well (“it smarted like anything”) and afterwards Aslan took him out again and dressed him with his paws. While I was reading I couldn’t help but think about an experience I read of a girl who was abused by her youth pastor and was later washed by him to hide the evidence. Not that Lewis, or any believer I know, would advocate child sexual abuse, but when the overall lessons are “submit to authority,” “submit to Jesus,” “obey God and those he put over you,” it can create a comfortable environment for predation.
Eustace was summarily dumped back to camp with the others where he was found lurching and near fainting. The experience was that horrific. The treasure he had once had in his pockets had also disappeared. “I think that was payment for saving him,” Little Bit helpfully suggests.
Even though Eustace was clearly in a lot of pain from the ordeal, everything is fine because it was Aslan.
The event changed Eustace and there was a notable effect. He was different, even his laugh. When Eustace asked if Edmund knew who Aslan was, Edmund replied, “Well — he knows me.” What? I guess making Aslan into the picture of your religious icon can be a stretch sometimes. Does Edmund not know him, or not really truly, because he’s so above human understanding? What does that even mean? (I think I said this as a believer, but even I can’t tell you what it means.)
When I was a Christian I was told I was a “new person in Christ” and “the old is gone.” Funny enough that didn’t really seem to change me, just like becoming an atheist didn’t seem to change me either. I still do a lot of good in the world, have my own personality quirks, don’t cross certain lines, but cross others just like when I was a “new creature.” Anyway, this experience changed Eustace who “was a different boy” well, “to be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy.” And very often he was exactly the same boy as there were “still many days when he could be very tiresome” but “most of those I shall not notice.” Eustace is a new creature in Aslan, but also not a new creature! He is good now, but also the same! The cure worked, but not really, but it will! Don’t point out when it doesn’t!
The power of positive transformation (upheld by a supportive community) is actually a phenomenon in many different human cultures and religious traditions, even though they contradict each other. Either God forgot to make redemption stories unique to Christianity, or redemption stories are quotidian human experience and Christianity is just one more example. (Hmm, let’s see where all the evidence points…)
In the very next pages we see Eustace both back to his old self and also a new boy who acts out some bravery when they get attacked by a sea serpent. The sea serpent wrapped its body around the ship and the book describes everyone “except Lucy” (because girl parts prevents someone from participating in their own survival) pushing the snake off the deck to save their lives. They just barely make it.
The next island they came to had a pool of water that turned anything that touched it into gold. It was my second favorite plot line (besides Eustace turning into a dragon) when I was a kid. Caspian tries to claim the pool, Edmund challenges it, and they almost start fighting despite Lucy’s protests (“that’s the worst of doing anything with boys”) when Lucy spots Aslan far off. Aslan is doing his whole not saying anything or doing anything shtick and once again leaves no evidence. Apparently Aslan’s very presence breaks whatever curse was on the pool so they stopped fighting over it. But “nobody ever saw how or where he went” but later it all felt like a dream and their memories were muddled.
I’m sure they just felt in their hearts it was really him.
by Alexis Record, from the collection Reading with Little Bit: A Critical Look at The Chronicles of Narnia