This is the second of a several-part series reproducing the chapter on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader from my 2005 book, The World According to Narnia. Here’s hoping it prepares you to enjoy the movie more when it comes out next week. At the end of our last installment, we had left Eustace Scrubb, the boy who almost deserved his name, seasick and miserable on the deck of The Dawn Treader.
Eustace’s cowardice comes into sharpest focus in his conflicts with Reepicheep; here mean-spiritedness and magnanimity are juxtaposed. Eustace likes animals, as long as they are dead and pinned to cards—in other words, as long as they are reduced to mere objects to be observed. Nothing in Eustace’s experience has prepared him to meet a talking mouse, and certainly not a talking mouse who is his moral superior in all respects. Because Eustace knows nothing of courage, he believes he is safe bullying a creature so much smaller than he. Courage is a virtue no doubt debunked at the model school Eustace attends, for its basis is emotional. More to the point, courage is “emotion organized by trained habit into stable sentiment.” And it is that habit, that training, that both informs Reepicheep of the proper response and steels him to carry it through in spite of the danger.
With no code of honor (or, indeed, any other code of behavior) to shape his response, Eustace runs through a series of tentative responses, none of which he manages to stick to in the face of the inexorable wrath of an injured mouse. None of Eustace’s responses are noble—which is to say, he never takes responsibility for his actions. His first response at the sight of Reepicheep’s sword is simply a schoolmarmish dismissal: “Put that thing away. It’s not safe.”
Reepicheep won’t be dismissed. Eustace tries to make his cowardice more respectable by wrapping it in a philosophy: he’s a pacifist. Reepicheep still demands satisfaction. “I don’t know what you mean,” says Eustace, and he is no doubt telling the truth on many levels. Still refusing to take responsibility for his own actions, he faults Reepicheep for not being able to take a joke. He finally runs away from the “birching” that he has earned, and when he takes up the matter with Caspian, he threatens to “bring an action.”
This is vintage Eustace. Faced with a man—or mouse—of action, he runs as hard as his still-wobbly legs will carry him. His idea of action is the kind that is brought in a courtroom. He looks to a bureaucracy, to a system, to settle a matter that could be settled quite easily by two people willing to take responsibility for their own behavior. The simplicity and clarity of Reepicheep’s vision, the Narnian vision, benefits by the comparison.
The last of Eustace’s run-ins with Reepicheep comes during the water shortage after the great storm. Without a chest, without magnanimity, the intellect is not only “powerless against the animal organism,” it quickly becomes its accomplice. In the absence of any duty to a cause larger than oneself, the power of reasoning—or, at any rate, the power of rationalizing—is quite easily recruited to the body’s party. On short water rations, Eustace (like everyone else on board) stays hot and thirsty. He believes he has a fever; he thinks, therefore, that he deserves more water than the ration allows. When he sneaks to the casks by night to steal a cup of water, it is Reepicheep who catches him. Unable to master his animal appetites, Eustace has proven to be less human than the talking animal who is worthy to guard the casks.
“They all believed him,” Eustace complains. “Can you believe it?” Of course the reader believes it. The mouse is a person of honor. The boy is decidedly not. Eustace’s journal entry about the episode is a masterwork not only of rationalization (“I would have woken the others up to ask for some [water] only I thought it would be selfish to wake them”), but also of self-deception. This is a journal entry, after all, not public testimony. Eustace seems genuinely to think he’s the victim.
But even Eustace isn’t beyond mending. Merciful Aslan takes drastic measures to allow Eustace to know the truth about himself: he lets the boy become what he has been becoming all along. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard, thinking the greedy thoughts of a dragon, Eustace becomes a dragon. His new self-awareness doesn’t quite come immediately. He knows there is a dragon—maybe two—mirroring his every movement, breathing smoke when he breathes, holding its breath when he holds his. Though he has read nothing of dragons, he has sense enough to be terrified. But until he sees his own reflection in the pool, he still doesn’t realize that he is afraid of himself.
Upon realizing that he is a dragon, his first reaction is what a reader might expect from Eustace. He is happy to know that he is the terror of the island, invincible and rich beyond counting. He is now in a position to punish Caspian and Edmund for what he perceives as their crimes against him. But soon the greater import of his transformation begins to dawn on him. His self-imposed isolation from his fellow voyagers has come to this: banishment from the human race. Now that he has no choice in the matter, he realizes that isolation isn’t what he wants after all. He doesn’t want to get even with his shipmates; he wants to be friends. “He wanted to be back among humans and talk and laugh and share things.” Now that he has lost his human form, he begins to exhibit the first humane thoughts and feelings we have yet seen from him.
In the Western tradition, dragons have long represented not only greed, but also the isolation and spiritual desolation of a life devoid of relationships. A dragon’s life is devoted to guarding that which cannot do him any good. No hope of happiness from his hoard, and yet a mortal fear of losing the least trinket of it—the dragon’s sin (and his affliction) is jealousy even more than greed.
Pilgrim’s Regress, the first book Lewis wrote after converting to Christianity, includes a song that gives voice to the misery that Eustace narrowly escapes. It is the song a dragon sings to himself, “An old, deplorable dragon / Watching my hoard.” He dares not sleep for jealous watching. He is so afraid that men will come to steal his gold that he leaves his miserable post for a drink of water only once in the winter and twice in the summer. It wasn’t always thus; he was once a happily married worm. But he ate his wife. A worm cannot become a dragon without eating another worm. Now, miserable and alone, he nurses his paranoid jealousy and his hatred for the men who plot to steal his treasure even though they have the truer treasures of companionship and rest.
They make plots in the town to take my gold,
They whisper of me in the houses, making plans,
Merciless men. Have they not ale upon the benches,
Warm wives in bed, and sleep the whole night . . .
They have no pity for the old, lugubrious dragon.
There’s a Eustacian quality about the dragon’s complaint. The pitiless pities himself because he is shown no pity. The dragon’s song ends with a self-absorbed, logic-chopping, and (more to the point) hate-filled prayer:
Lord, that made the dragon, grant me thy peace,
But say not I should give up the gold,
Nor move, nor die; others should get the gold.
Kill, rather, Lord, the Men and the other dragons;
Then I can sleep; go when I will to drink.
It’s not hard to imagine Eustace becoming that kind of dragon. But his transformation is more remedial than punitive, and he learns his lesson.
As it turns out, a dragon who is not preoccupied with guarding his treasure is quite a useful creature to have on hand. Eustace the dragon provides his companions with wild game for provisions and uproots a pine tree to serve as the Dawn Treader’s new mast. He offers warmth on chill nights. In short, instead of maintaining a critical distance, Eustace has at last entered into the shared life of his shipmates. It is in common purpose that Eustace finally finds fellowship with his fellows, in spite of the fact that he cannot speak a word to them in his dragonish state.
As Lewis points out elsewhere, the ability—perhaps the necessity—to face in the same direction, toward a shared goal, is the very basis of friendship. “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”4 No longer absorbed with himself, Eustace lets himself be absorbed in the same problem that his shipmates are absorbed in: getting off the island.
Only after he has become a dragon does Eustace experience anything resembling genuine pleasure. Ironically, only after he has become a dragon does he experience anything resembling genuine suffering either. The new Eustace is likeable. More than that, he likes the people around him. He understands that his shipmates have been honest and well-meaning all the time, despite his earlier views of them. He also finds that Reepicheep, once his bitterest enemy, is now his most constant friend. But along with that new knowledge of his fellows comes new knowledge of himself. “Poor Eustace realized more and more that since the first day he came on board he had been an unmitigated nuisance and that he was now a greater nuisance still.” His old smugness and superiority are gone.
It is at this low point that Aslan meets Eustace. Stripped of his old conceit and self-delusion, Eustace no longer feels so self-satisfied or self-reliant. Now Aslan is ready to strip off the dragon hide—the shell of Eustace’s old self—and reveal Eustace’s new, regenerate humanity. The fear Eustace feels in Aslan’s presence is the first sign of the awe that has been so noticeably absent in his journey so far.
Aslan commands Eustace to undress—to shed his old nature—in preparation for his baptism. Eustace manages to slough off a layer of skin, and it’s a good feeling. But the dragon hide grows back before he can get into the baptismal pool. Two more times he sheds his skin, and two more times it grows back. Aslan has commanded Eustace to undress not because Eustace really can undress himself, but because he needs to see that he can’t. Regeneration isn’t self-improvement. Eustace has come to the end of himself. His failed attempts to undress himself have readied him to submit to the painful work that only Aslan can do. There is much work ahead for the new and improved Eustace, but at this moment—at the moment of regeneration—there is nothing to do but to lie down and let the Lion’s claws do their work.
Eustace tells Edmund, “The first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart.” It had. His efforts at self-improvement felt good, but they were ineffectual. When Aslan strips him, it hurts worse than anything he has ever felt before. But it’s the only way Aslan will give Eustace the new self that Eustace can no longer live without. The waters of baptism heal the hurt, and Eustace emerges a boy again. The cure has begun.