By Alexis Record
“I thought you’d have more of a problem with what happens to the dwarves.”
“Remind me again who killed the horses? Yeah, those dwarves can suffer.”
“Dang kid, you’re super scary right now.”
Hey, we haven’t picked on the dwarves enough yet! Remember when those dwarves were thrown into the stable by the Calormenes? Well, they end up in the actual stable. It seems the door only lets you into another world if certain people go through it, like how a closet door leads to a closet most of the time unless you use the Key to Rainbow Land in the lock. (Can you tell I grew up in the 80’s?)
Our kings and queens can see the dwarves huddled together, only instead of the inside of a stable, it looks like they are sitting in a lovely field of grass. Even when the dwarves tell them plainly they are experiencing a stable—its smells, its darkness, the feel of it, everything—our royal lot cannot get their collective heads around the idea that maybe just maybe the dwarves can’t see the sun and sky. Lucy calls them stupid, and even puts “filthy stable-litter” in one’s face that she thinks is beautiful flowers. That’s an easy enough mistake from her perspective, but her continued failure to understand the dwarf’s reaction or to listen to what he’s repeatedly telling her about the stable seems less innocent, more deliberate. (Why listen to unbelievers, I guess?)
Tirian takes ignorance-bordering-on-idiocy one step further by adding violence to the mix! After making a big point of telling the dwarves that he is their lawful king (dude, let it go), he then angrily grabs one dwarf and throws him hard away from the others. This action smashes the dwarf’s face into the stable wall! Now the dwarf is in pain, but no one blames Tirian for this. They blame the dwarf for still believing he’s in the stable!
Then Aslan growls at the dwarves, scaring them. Oh, surprise, it’s Aslan! Did I not mention he’s there? It is Heaven after all, and this is our Jesus. When he appears in the middle of their puzzling over the dwarves, the children start immediately groveling at his feet and worshipping him. (Ew.) Tirian, the most murder-y of the bunch, gets told, “Well done,” by the lion, which is the biblical equivalence to getting the ultimate godly approval. Lucy begs Aslan to please help the dwarves, so Aslan makes a meal magically appear in front of them. This food looks like a feast to the “grassy field” people, but turns out to be hay, trough water, and a raw cabbage leaf in the real world. (Dick move.) This causes the dwarves to randomly start beating each other up over the food. (That’s what evil unbelievers do, right?) So thanks for nothing, Aslan.
Our Jesus lion then explains that the dwarves are stuck in the stable because they are atheists. He launches into the most ridiculous explanation for it:
“They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. But come, children. I have other work to do.”
Smart is bad! Also, who cares about these people because we have other stuff to do! Moving right along!
(And instantly Lucy, who earlier could think of nothing else, stops caring about the dwarves when Aslan is done with them.)
This unintentionally shows just how powerless Aslan is as he can do little for the dwarves in a god-created-a-rock-so-big-even-he-can’t-lift-it scenario. I once asked my Sunday School teacher if God could simply save people without them believing, specifically after they had been sent to Hell. The answer was a firm no. The “all-powerful” Yahweh’s hands were tied when it came to his own rules. (And iron chariots, randomly.) If they weren’t, there’d be no reason for Jesus to be brutally killed as a sacrifice to sin; God would simply change the rules. And clearly God can’t change his mind or change the rules except when he totally does just that all the time because Scripture is contradictory AF. (Exodus 32 can even be translated as “God repented of evil.”)
A problem I have with Aslan’s logic (if you can call it that) is if it’s the dwarves’ inability to accept the idea of a different reality that keeps them locked away, how is that rigidity of thinking different than our main characters’ inability to accept the dwarves’ insistence they are in a stable? It makes me wonder if there’s not some other dimension where a version of Lucy, Peter, Tirian, Jill and the rest are sitting huddled in a dank stable as the dwarf version of Aslan pities their attachment to their own faulty senses. The dwarves then leave for other, more important work while the children see nothing but grassy fields and rack up concussions and bruises as they bump into stable walls unable to find the exit.
It turns out that Aslan will leave the dwarves there permanently for all eternity, huddled together in a kind of purgatory in their own heads.
And don’t think the fate of the dwarves had anything to do with being punished for their actions in the (last) battle. Shooting random Narnians (and Calormenes, but who cares about them) with arrows can’t be the reason for Aslan torturing them forever since one of those dwarves gets into Heaven! Skipping briefly ahead to the next chapter we read:
“Eustace even recognized one of those very Dwarfs who had helped to shoot the Horses. But he had not time to wonder about that sort of thing (and anyway it was no business of his) for a great joy put everything else out of his head.”
Little Bit did not like this part. I mean, this dwarf murdered PONIES! Like, talking pony people! (Not that that distinction matters for Bitsy.)
It’s not the evil actions of the dwarves that condemned them, but the evil unbelief that kept them from paradise. And before you can say that “wait, not being convinced by a claim is not evil” allow me to loudly scream, “IT’S IN THE BIBLE.” Hebrews 3:12: “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief.” Of course the biblical writers would label the lack of belief as evil! I mean, critical thinking was already wrong (Proverbs 3:5). When the definition of evil includes not accepting ridiculous claims then believers could justify punishing “bad guys” and still call themselves righteous! (Not believing in Yahweh/Jehovah was punishable by a death sentence in Scripture.) That’s why one of the dwarves can secretly believe and enter Heaven no matter how immoral he was or how heinous his actions.
The treatment of the dwarves, even the general portrayal of unbelievers as idiots and deserving of pain or anguish, is certainly bad, but it’s maybe not the most objectionable part of chapter 13. Peter says a few things in this section that are slightly worse in my opinion. Not that they are worse morally, per se, but they are insidious and subtle—making it much harder to recognize their influence. With the dwarves Little Bit could talk back to the book and say, “Hey! That’s wrong!” Yet when Peter implies his sister is a bad person for being too girly or he brushes off abuses of others, it would often go right over Bitsy’s head. It’s like how the smell of a full kitty litter box is inarguably bad but smelling cat pee very faintly somewhere in the house (you’re not sure exactly where) is worse.
So here are a few things Peter says that stuck with me long afterwards:
First, Peter is catching Tirian up on what has happened since he saw them around the dining room table in London. He describes dying—the noise and the jolt of it—and then arriving in this beautiful place with fruit so tasty Lewis takes great pains not to describe it, only to compare it negatively with anything in the real world. (Lazy.) Here Peter says the first thing I found disturbing:
“Well, for a long time (at least I suppose it was a long time) nothing happened.”
Being in a place where you can never die or age, and having nothing happen, has got to be one of my top ten nightmares. It’s like white torture, a form of psychological abuse that uses sensory deprivation and isolation. People cannot tell how much time is passing which makes their imprisonment feel extraordinarily longer. Which brings us to Peter explaining to Tirian how he got to this heavenly plane. He points to the stable door and says:
“‘It is the door you came through with that Calormene five minutes ago,’ said Peter, smiling.”
Since Peter is still aware of time passing, specifically five minutes, then when he spoke of nothing happening “for a long time” earlier we get the idea that a long, concrete amount of time did pass while they were stuck there. It’s not like time is a relative thing and they are experiencing it like a dream. They know when five minutes goes by, and how long that is. Perhaps he was in an unconscious state before and when that ended he is now aware of time? Who knows. It’s just hard to consider the possibilities, especially when we consider Lewis’ belief that this existence they find themselves in now is for all eternity.
And Peter is smiling. Did you catch that? Actually smiling! He just saw a terrifying monster grab a man five minutes ago (he just said so) and he’s already smiling! Is Peter a sociopath?
Maybe they are all sociopaths. When Lucy next opened her mouth there was a “thrill in her voice” because she had been “too happy to speak” up to this point. FIVE MINUTES AFTER SEEING A MOTHER FUCKING DEMON GRAB A DUDE. (And also, this was not too long, although it doesn’t give an exact time, since they met the dwarves and realized they were suffering.)
While eternal boredom was something I fretted over as a kid, it was this emotional castration I worried about as a young adult. I realized that according to my theology many people I loved may go, along with the demons, into Hell. I couldn’t stomach this thought. How could I enjoy Heaven knowing people were actively being tortured? How would Heaven be anything but awful? Yet it was supposed to be all smiles. This meant it would necessarily have to be a place that steals a person’s humanity, binds their mind, and gives them an abnormal, almost mentally ill response to the pain of others. How else do you survive living in a place with a lake of literal fire in your backyard and the sounds of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Luke 13:28) nearby?!
My mom once told me that I’d be “too busy looking at the face of Jesus” to worry about anything else. This thinking is mirrored in Eustace’s “great joy” that “put everything else out of his head.” It’s like a lobotomy that takes out all the human-y parts that would make you horrified by Aslan’s/God’s actions and leaves you happy and brainless.
In an episode of Doctor Who called The God Complex, a monster calls people to worship him by giving them feelings of spiritual bliss. This causes the devoted to happily sacrifice themselves to him. The only warning a member of the group is about to be eaten by the monster is when they start reverently saying, “Praise Him.” In a memorable scene, a character named Rita feels the pull and knows she’s going to her death. She says goodbye via a monitor and her words are haunting, “Doctor, I can feel the rapture approaching me like a wave. I don’t want you to witness this. I want you to remember me the way I was.” You can watch her fear turn to bliss in this heart-rending scene. Then she’s torn apart.
Here is where Lewis loses his sense of our characters. They are no longer compelling, no longer understandable. I would argue they are no longer human, and by that I do not mean they have become something better, but instead some integral part of them is missing. This world no longer clicks. These people and their reactions no longer work. They may be blissful, but they are wrong.
Narnia’s Heaven loses all the aspects of Narnia proper that gave it its depth and richness. Taking out the darker parts means the image loses its dimensions, like taking the shading out of a painting. Even the fruit of Heaven is not described by what it is, but simply as better that what we know. This description is empty and meaningless. It also turns the simple pleasures of Narnia we have experienced so fully to this point (the drinking, smoking, eating, dancing, adventuring) and labels them as less than.
I was born into a group of people who longed for Heaven. I watched this longing sour precious everyday joys and experiences. I experienced this myself as well. There was an anticipation for some future thing, always nebulous, that would be unimaginably better than what was. And unimaginable it must be! It takes some hutzpah to define it since by giving it shape we more easily see its flaws and unfitting parts. That is exactly what Lewis set out to do—the impossible task. For in giving this better world definition, the biblical contradictions became clear and all those details about how it would logically work suddenly don’t make sense. It could only ever be disappointment. Yet still, this attempt gave my childhood a vision of Heaven that you could grab by the shoulders and nail to the floor. Something solid, not ethereal or mysterious.
Lewis couldn’t cover up the glaring holes in paradise when up against a backdrop of unattainable perfection. But neither could the biblical authors with their ridiculous and impossible facsimiles of a heavenly world that looks much too much like Iron Age earthly wish-fulfillment.
In Narnia’s version, Aslan doesn’t care if you’re a good person, nor does his heaven make you one. (Unless we have a very different definition of goodness.) For example, Eustace says he hopes “Tash ate the Dwarfs” and calls them “little swine.” Lucy chides him not to be “horrid.” Saying horrid things, being judgmental, wishing violence on people, and gossiping about a person not present must not be so bad they expel you from heaven or are forbidden there. (I mean, we all know the real sin is nylons.)
Without sin, as Heaven is supposed to be the sin-free zone, how can one be horrid? They can’t be. Yet how can Lewis write a good story with compelling characters if some are not, at least occasionally, honestly horrid?
Or what about glum?
In the biblical Heaven people are either happy or don’t have the ability not to be. So what happens to our favorite Marshwiggle when he finds himself in the afterlife with everyone? He is struck mute! Lewis does not give him a single line!
What could Puddleglum be allowed to say? Everything that made up his character was, well, glum. When that is not allowed, who exactly is he? It’s not like we just have a happier version of the character; the words that defined both himself and his culture are struck from his mouth. Whatever he has become, he’s no longer the Puddleglum we knew and loved.
Heaven just gets more horrifying the more you think about it. Like an episode of Black Mirror.
But we’ve skipped ahead twice now. Time to get back to Aslan’s “other work to do” that was way more important than alleviating the suffering of dwarves.
He’s got a Narnia to destroy!
Reading with Little Bit: A Critical Look at the Chronicles of Narnia
October 6, 2018