Reading with Little Bit: A Critical Look at The Chronicles of Narnia
“So Eustace is born evil even though his parents are good?”
“Oh sweetie, the book is trying to describe bad parents.”
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the third instillation in the Narnia series. For those at home, we’re going in order of publication, not chronological order since time travel is involved. This book holds the most theology so far and will include the salvation of one of the new characters, Eustace.
At the end of the last book we learned that Aslan is also the grim reaper who takes people’s souls after they died. In this book we learn that he takes them to “Aslan’s Country” which is really Heaven. There will be so many new revelations about Aslan in this story it will seem as if the author could not pile the superpowers upon him quickly enough to meet demand.
We begin our adventure with Edmund and Lucy (who finally have a last name, Pevensie) who go to live for sixteen weeks with their cousin, Eustace Scrubb. In the last book Aslan had told Peter and Susan they were “too old” for Narnia now, and would not be returning with Edmund and Lucy. Being “too old” for Aslan is a bit disturbing to me.
It’s hard not to see this aging out plot point as condemnation of rationality. The critical thinking skills of adults and older children are seen as inferior to the nativity of younger children when it comes to faith and obedience. Believers in any religion, not just Lewis’ Christian fare, are more likely to be indoctrinated as children. It’s much harder to make converts out of the people who have reached a certain level of brain maturation. This is why Jesus said his followers had to have faith like a child or they would never enter his kingdom. Aslan is requiring the same to get to his “Country.” That’s why Aslan so often toys with people, testing their faith. He also scares and hurts people as part of the salvation process, as we have seen last book and will see again with Eustace in this book.
My childhood religion promoted blind trust and simple obedience when I was too young to question and too powerless to speak up. They gave me no other valid options (rejecting your parents, family, and church is not valid) and presented beliefs as facts. Unfortunately, this often predatory approach actually works. I was a believer for three decades before I questioned my own faith for the first time. And I only did so after my faith had failed me in pretty crucial times and important ways in my life, leaving me to handle the consequences.
So Peter and Susan are out on their bums. They are too old for Aslan who prefers younger children. (Another allusion to the Church?) Peter goes off to live with the old “wise” professor and Susan goes to America because, I kid you not, she was pretty and no good at school so her parents thought they’d give her a social experience (which is code, I assume, for introducing her to boys who might marry her).
The original balance of girls to boys was not helpful anyway since Susan was described in the worst of female stereotypes, so reducing the number of girls was almost a relief. The original four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, would now be Edmund, Eustace, Caspian, and Lucy. And these three boys and young girl will be surrounded by a ton of male sailors throughout the entire book. Lewis writes male voices best so he was probably happy to be down to only one incongruous female one.
It took Little Bit a while to realize Eustace and his home were supposed to be bad in every way. She initially thought it was a very good family with maybe a few quirks. Many things C. S. Lewis considered black marks against the family were not actually bad things, in fact, some were perfectly good things. First off, Eustace and his family were nonsmokers. C. S. Lewis, an avid smoker, could think of nothing worse. Who else was a nonsmoker in Narnia? Freaking evil Nikabrik the Black Dwarf. Lewis killed off that devil with no remorse. Good riddance.
Eustace was also described as someone who loved books, but only the nonfiction textbooks of educated adults. Over and over again throughout Dawn Treader the author laments the fact that Eustace read “the wrong books.” He must overcome this academic mindset in order to survive in Narnia.
Eustace’s family is described as “very up-to-date and advanced people.” If the modern reader does not catch this at first, this is a slight. For example, Eustace called his parents by their first names, and while that’s odd, it’s not the disrespectful slap that Lewis thinks it is, especially when the parents themselves seemed to have encouraged it. (Assigning good or evil attributes to cultural differences is something Lewis does often, as we’ll see.)
The condemnation grows as we learn the Scrubb family had what Lewis would consider a severe diet: they were vegetarians, and they didn’t drink. Lewis often describes both eating meat and drinking wine in relished detail, so teetotalling vegetarians would be seen as stupid, even suspicious. Like smoking, these things are God’s pleasures, and whoever would forego them must be wrong somehow.
For Lewis’ view of underage drinking, recall the time Mrs. Beaver gave the children what I can only assume was whiskey to get them to sleep in the first book, or the time freaking Bacchus himself shows up and gets everyone drunk in the second book.
And speaking of unnatural, this weirdo family wore special underwear. At first I thought this was a knock against Mormons, but I looked it up and it was a knock against those who went with the current fashion fads, even when others couldn’t see it. Again, nothing noted here made it obvious to Little Bit that this wasn’t just a nice family with different values or tastes. In a society where differences are seen as bad and progressive values distrusted, the Scrubbs would be viewed as the worst kind of people. As proof of how bad they are, Eustace will be ascribed every malice.
Little Bit was not prepared to have Eustace turn out so rotten. “It doesn’t make sense,” she would often remarks as Eustace’s actions defied what she knew of reality. Eustace is hardly a three-dimensional character, and rarely has compelling motivations for anything he does. The lack of violence in his home, for example, is supposed to explain his violent tendencies. Scientific studies have shown that children who have been beaten or spanked are more likely to hit others while children who have not are less likely to resort to violence. So it doesn’t add up that a lack of corporal punishment at home, and attending a (shameful) school that doesn’t have the guts to beat students, would produce a child who is so prone to abusing others.
Only violence stops violence in Lewis’ mind. And Eustace doesn’t learn his lesson about hurting others until he is assaulted in Narnia, but I’m getting ahead of the story.
To sum it all up, Eustace is annoying, smart, loves advanced technical books, isn’t subjected to drunkenness, eats a healthy diet, isn’t around smokers, and isn’t subjected to violence. The horror! Of course he’d be the worst creature alive! Only Aslan can bring salvation to this evil!
When Lucy and Edmund notice a painting of a Narnian ship in Lucy’s room, Eustace teases them about their make-believe world. He did this because “he was far too stupid” to make up a fantastic story like that himself, but apparently he’s smart enough to know what assonance is when defending why the poem he made up to tease them didn’t rhyme. Maybe that makes him too grown up and therefore not good enough for Narnia?
Suddenly the three children are pulled into the painting. Lewis masterfully describes the scene so that Little Bit and I could picture it as if we were there. It was also a good reminder why we like the worlds he creates with such flourish and detail.
We get a good introduction of the character qualities of each child during their chaotic fall into the picture: Edmund is knowledgeable about magic and keeps his head, Lucy is pragmatic and ditches her shoes upon finding herself in the sea, and Eustace is reactive and destructive, almost drowning others in his panic. They are rescued by brave and caring Caspian who was on the ship they saw in the picture they fell into. Remember that Caspian is also a secret werewolf according to our headcannon since he was bitten by one in the previous book. (You all know it, too, “deep down.”)
Not long after the children reach the ship do we get our first clue of how boring the sailing portions of the subsequent chapters are going to be. Lewis stops to lecture his small readers on the difference of port and starboard and how we need to know these things if we “are going to read this story at all.” If you don’t love sailing, large sections of this book will be horribly dull.
(Spoiler! Large sections of this book were horribly dull.)
Upon being rescued, Eustace starts crying “harder than any boy of his age has a right to.” (Because boys shouldn’t have rights to regular feelings I guess.) He is terrified at being lost at sea on a ship that makes him terribly sea sick no less. Eustace is even more scared when he meets Reepicheep, and the talking mouse immediately suggests violence towards him because Reep is “the most valiant” so of course wants to hurt people who are upset by him.
It just gets worse for Eustace when the first thing Caspian does is give the children alcohol to warm them up. The wine, of course, makes the teatoddling Eustace even more sick and he cries even harder. Aren’t non-drinkers the worst?
Life in Narnia is going to be rough for this guy.