Finding Self, Forgetting Self — Part 4 of 5

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The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a book about the blessings of self-forgetfulness. Part 3 of this series dealt with Lucy’s surprising moment of self-will in Coriakin’s house. Part 4 addresses the personal hell that is Dark Island–where dreams come true.
Self-absorption is distilled to its terrifying essence in the episode of Lord Rhoop on Dark Island. When the Dawn Treader leaves the light of day and is enveloped in an uncanny darkness, it becomes apparent that we are entering another kind of world—one that has no connection to the world of sky and wind and light. The travelers’ instincts tell them to avoid this eerie place at all costs. But the voice of Reepicheep urges the Dawn Treader onward. He’s not afraid of the dark, and he puts his shipmates in the uncomfortable position of compromising their honor if they don’t plunge in.

Out of the darkness they hear the ghost-like voice of Rhoop: “Mercy! Even if you are only one more dream, have mercy. Take me on board. Take me, even if you strike me dead.” When they bring Rhoop on board, his eyes are wild with terror. He urges the crew to row as hard as they can from this cursed place. This, he explains, is the island where dreams come true. And not daydreams either—not the self-flattering reveries of an idle hour. Here the dreams of sleep, the spawn of the deepest, darkest subconscious, come to life. When that realization settles on the sailors, they stop all light talk of fond hopes and fulfilled wishes and blunder through the darkness to the oar benches. Even as they pull for the light, each voyager hears the dreadful sound effects of his own pet nightmares—giant scissors opening and closing, “them” climbing up the ship’s sides, gongs awakening some unknown terror.

The unconscious, that roiling factory of dreams, can be a very dark place; the veil of waking consciousness is a blessing we usually take for granted. On the island where dreams come true, Rhoop found himself living in his own subconscious, imprisoned in the deepest corridors of his mind. He got there, apparently, by his own volition. Not knowing himself, he thought he liked the idea of his dreams coming true. But it was all a trap. The neuroses of the former Eustace—the egotism, the isolation, the wishful thinking, the detachment from reality—metastasize into something resembling a psychosis on Dark Island. Rhoop could no more have pulled himself out of it than he could have pulled himself to his feet by his own belt loops.

As it turns out, the crew members of the Dawn Treader don’t have what it takes to deliver Rhoop either. Their panicked rowing doesn’t seem to be getting them very far—though in pitch-darkness it’s hard to say. Beset by the suspicion that they are going around in circles, the sailors begin to despair of ever getting out of the darkness. Rhoop is convinced that it’s all another horrible dream.

Not surprisingly, it is Lucy who recognizes what to do. She prays. From the darkness, where she and her shipmates have no hope of helping themselves, she calls out to the One who is light. The first help comes in the form of a peace that defies explanation. Though nothing about her outer world has changed, she begins to feel better; she views things from a more positive perspective. “After all,” she thinks, “nothing has really happened to us yet.” But the help of Aslan is a matter of more than just better feelings. It isn’t long before a speck of light appears in the distance, then becomes a shaft of light illuminating the ship. Out of the light appears an albatross (who looks like a cross from a distance). The bird is Aslan, though only Lucy knows it, and he leads the ship out of darkness and into glorious light.

They have reentered the outer world. Rhoop himself can only stare in joy and wonder. He feels the bulwarks to reassure himself that he is really in the world of solid objects and no longer inside a dream world of his own making. He is out of himself at last, and he wants nothing more than to forget what has happened to him.

The Dawn Treader’s departure from Dark Island is the one section of the Chronicles of Narnia that Lewis revised extensively between editions. In the original British edition, once the Dawn Treader returns to the light, “all at once, everybody realized that there was nothing to be afraid of and never had been.” And when they look astern toward Dark Island, it has disappeared. By the time the American edition of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader came out, Lewis decided that this account of the voyagers’ escape made too light of their fears. He had suffered night fears as a child. In the American editions (prior to HarperCollins’ 1994 edition5), the narrator doesn’t say there was never anything to fear; rather, the reentry into the light is compared to the joy of waking in the bright light of morning and realizing that a terrible nightmare is over. And rather than disappearing, Dark Island in the pre-1994 American editions grows gradually smaller as the ship sails away from it. The terrors of the dream world are real, Lewis insisted. But they aren’t as real as the “warm, blue world.”

Rhoop’s greatest wish is to forget, and on the Dawn Treader’s next stop, Ramandu is able to grant his wish. He gives Rhoop sleep, and what’s more, sleep without dreams.

Finding Self, Forgetting Self — Part 3 of 5

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We’re just a couple of days from the release of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader Movie. I’ve been reproducing the VDT chapter from my 2005 book, The World According to Narnia. The gist of the chapter is that VDT is all about finding your true self by forgetting yourself–by losing yourself in something bigger and more interesting than the cramped little self that the selfish always find themselves in. Part 2 from last week focused on Eustace and his recovery from stifling selfishness. This week’s entry is about Lucy in Coriakin’s house.
Eustace’s is the most fully developed case of self-absorption and its cure in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but two others deserve a closer look too. The first is that of Lucy reading Coriakin’s book of spells. One of the most remarkable things about this episode is the fact that it is Lucy who falls victim to vanity. Lucy is the most spiritually sensitive and spiritually mature of the characters in the Chronicles of Narnia. And yet even Lucy is not immune to the sins of self-centeredness and vanity.

Lucy finds herself flipping through the book of spells for wholly noble reasons. She has shown considerable bravery coming into Coriakin’s house to reverse the spell that made the Duffers invisible and thereby to save her shipmates who are being held hostage. But she is enchanted by the book of enchantments.

She lingers over the spell that would make her beautiful beyond the lot of mortals. Its accompanying pictures depict her, Lucy, changing the spell “with a rather terrible expression on her face,” then becoming a dazzling beauty—so dazzling that the real Lucy has to look away. But the book also shows the terrible effects of such beauty. Kings throughout the Narnian world fight for her, and whole kingdoms are laid waste on her account. She sees herself back in England, where she eclipses Susan, the beauty of the Pevensie family. And not only is the Susan in the picture less beautiful than the beautiful Lucy, she is less beautiful than the real Susan, and she wears a “nasty expression” on her face. She is jealous of her little sister, “but that didn’t matter a bit, because nobody cared anything about Susan anymore.”

It’s a little jarring to know that Lucy could harbor such selfish thoughts. It’s even more jarring to see that Lucy, having observed the harm that kind of beauty would bring on other people, seems determined to say the spell in spite of her conscience. It’s the worst sort of self-aggrandizement, this conscious wish to gain at others’ expense. But Aslan intervenes. When Lucy sees the Lion’s snarling face, she knows not to carry out her plan.

Aslan does allow her next act of poor judgment, however. By way of consolation for being denied beauty beyond the lot of mortals, Lucy says the spell that will let her hear what her friends think about her. This spell doesn’t threaten to cause geopolitical upheaval like the last one, but it does cause considerable sorrow for Lucy. When she hears what her friends say behind her back, she learns the danger of knowing that which is not hers to know.

The next page of the magician’s book, by Aslan’s grace, contains a spell “for the refreshment of the spirit.” It’s a very different spell from the other two that have enchanted Lucy. Those spells promised her power. They put her in the position of actor, put her at the center of things. Remember the picture of Lucy, terrible in her power, chanting the beauty spell. But this spell puts Lucy in the posture of recipient rather than actor. It’s more story than spell, and as she reads the story, she loses herself in it. The story-spell offers the refreshment and release of forgetfulness. Lucy forgets, in fact, that she is even reading. She is living the story; she has left her world of self-imposed sorrows. Having laid aside the will to exert her own power, Lucy is again in a position to receive Aslan’s blessings.

When Lucy speaks the spell to make invisible things visible, Aslan appears. He has been there all along. And when Lucy sees him, his face is lit by a beauty like the beauty of the Lucy in the picture. True beauty comes not through the self-conscious rituals of vanity, but through the joy of the Lion. It’s no minor detail that when Lucy’s face does take on beauty beyond the lot of mortals, she doesn’t even realize it. The misery brought on by her eavesdropping seems far away as Lucy loses herself in Aslan.

One can hardly remain self-conscious in the presence of such a terrible and joy-giving being as Aslan. Lucy “bur[ies] herself in his shining mane.” She has died to self. She asks if she will ever be allowed to read the story that had so refreshed her spirit. “Indeed yes,” answers Aslan, the story’s Author. “I will tell it to you for years and years.” For years and years she will live in a story so beautiful that she won’t even bother to think about what anyone but Aslan thinks of her. That is paradise indeed.

Desire, Choice, Consequence: Building Character Through Stories

This is a version of an article I wrote for LifeWay’s ParentLife magazine. It appeared in the July, 2010 issue.

At writing seminars everywhere, writing teachers are giving stuck story-writers the same advice: “Ask yourself, ‘What is it that my character wants?’”

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Why? Because once you know what a character wants, you know what choices he or she is likely to make. Once your character starts making choices, consequences follow. And then a story begins to take shape.

Desire. Choice. Consequence. That’s what a story is made of.

When we speak of the other kind of character—an individual’s character or integrity—we’re usually talking about the choices that person makes. A person of character chooses the good over the bad, the better over the good, the best over the better, whatever the circumstances. And why does a person make such choices? Because he or she wants what is good or better or best.

Each of us is a welter of warring desires. You want to lose weight, but you also want that other piece of cake. You want to make good grades, but there are a million things you want to do instead of studying. You want to please God, but you also want to please yourself. So how do you choose? You choose according to what you want at the moment of choosing. And your choices have consequences, which shape the next part of your story.

Desire. Choice. Consequence. It’s what character is made of too.

It is that parallel between story development and character development that makes story such a valuable tool in shaping your child’s character. In the midst of life’s battles, it can be hard for a child—for any of us—to step back far enough to see the connection between desire, choice, and consequence. In a well-told story, on the other hand, it is easier to see the big picture, even as we inhabit it in a small way.

If you are going to use stories as a means of shaping your child’s character, it is important, of course, to find stories that teach the right things. But that is not the only important thing; it is at least as important that you get in the habit of talking to your child about the stories he or she experiences. Help your child see the connection between desire, choice, and consequence by asking questions like these about the stories you read together:

  • Why do you think the character made that choice? What was he trying to get?
  • Did that choice get him what he wanted?
  • What else did it get him?
  • What was the cost of that choice?
  • Do you think the choice was worth the cost?

And here’s the thing: these are the kind of questions that can help redeem even a questionable story. You might slip up with a book choice or a movie choice; it happens. But if you’re talking with your child, helping him or her make explicit the connection between desire, choice, and consequence, even a story that isn’t altogether appropriate can be a great learning opportunity. As character-building goes, a questionable story with great follow-up questions might be more valuable than a perfectly appropriate story with no discussion.

I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that any old story will do for your child or that all stories are of equal value when it comes to character-building. Some are indeed better than others. In the examples below, I offer three foundational character truths, each with three books that portray it.

Character Truth #1: This world does not define you.

Children’s fiction is full of stories in which the main character suspects he isn’t who he appears to be. Why does that idea ring so true? Because it is true. We weren’t made for this world, and in the end it’s not the world that names us or gives us our identities. To live a life of Christian character is first to come to terms with this truth.

Consider the mouse Despereaux in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick Press): he is rejected by his fellow mice because he cannot bring himself to cringe or scurry. He is brave, adventurous; and as he follows his heart he finds out who he really is. Another of my favorites in this vein is Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga (On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and North! Or Be Eaten, Waterbrook Press). In these fabulously engaging books, two brothers and a sister find out that they aren’t who they thought they were.

The Story of Ruby Bridges (Scholastic) is a non-fiction picture book that tells the beautiful story of a six-year-old black girl who faced incredible hatred from whites in her hometown of New Orleans when she became the first black child to attend Frantz Elementary School in 1960. Her determination not to be defined by the hatred of the whites who verbally abused her every day—and her willingness to forgive—is inspiring.

Character Truth #2: You find your life by losing it.

This paradoxical truth is at the heart of the Christian faith. As with any paradox, we come closer to understanding it in story form than in its stated form. Generations of children have been introduced to the sacrificial nature of friendship through the spider Charlotte, who devotes the last of her life’s energies to rescuing the pig Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web (HarperCollins). And The Velveteen Rabbit only becomes “real” after his beauty has been loved to shredded ugliness. Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Candlewick Press), also about a toy rabbit, plumbs a similar theme.

Character Truth #3: Grace is primary.

True character is not a question of will power. Character that lasts must grow out of God’s grace—and the realization that we don’t have it in us to live a life that is up to God’s standards. That’s a hard thing to teach; grace is another of those paradoxes that can be better grasped as story rather than as precept. And yet it is hard to find children’s books that truly make grace come alive for the reader.

I have fallen in love with a picture book called Sidney and Norman: A Tale of Two Pigs, by Phil Vischer (Nelson Publishers). Sidney the Pig is a mess, even by pig standards. His neighbor Norman has it all together. Both pigs are astonished to learn that God loves them without regard to their ability (or lack of ability) to keep things together.

Eleanor Estes’s The Hundred Dresses (Sandpiper) is an achingly beautiful depiction of a poor girl’s willingness to show grace and forgiveness to classmates who torment her—and her willingness, in the end, to bless them with beauty.

And I couldn’t offer a list of character-building children’s books without mentioning Sally Lloyd-Jones’s Jesus Storybook Bible. It is a reminder that the Bible is a series of stories that add up to one big story—the story of Jesus. “The Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes,” Lloyd-Jones writes.

It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne—everything—to rescue the one he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!

That, in the end, is why story is so valuable to the parent who wishes to shape a child’s character. All the best stories are but faint echoes of the truest Story. And as that Story finds its way deeper into our hearts, we cannot help but be changed.

Book Note: THE RISE AND FALL OF MOUNT MAJESTIC

It’s release day for a book I’ve been looking forward to for a while: Jennifer Trafton’s The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic. I’ve read the first chapter or two, and I really liked what I read. And the artwork is fantastic. It was illustrated by Brett Helquist, who illustrated the Lemony Snicket books.Check it out–and read a sample chapter–at www.jennifertrafton.com.
I leave you with Publisher’s Weekly‘s starred review of The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic:

Framed as an account written by Professor Barnabas Quill, “Historian of the Island at the Center of Everything,” Trafton’s debut is a lively adventure about magical pots, pepper, manners, poison-tongued jumping tortoises, poetic soldiers, and downtrodden yet resilient heroine Persimmony Smudge. One night, Persimmony becomes lost in the woods and overhears a plot to dig for gold buried beneath the king’s castle at the top of the mountain. Informing bratty 12-year-old King Lucas (“His motto had always been ‘Eat first, think later,’ and somehow he usually never managed to get around to the second part”), she learns the gold is actually an enormous belt buckle, and she is sent to investigate the rumor that there’s a giant asleep underneath their small island, the mountain rising and falling as he breathes. Gathering proof, she and her friends must convince the island’s fractured races that the giant is real before he wakes up and causes widespread devastation. Trafton imbues her tale with a delightful sense of fun and fascinating, well-rounded characters–playful wordsmithing and flowing dialogue make this an excellent choice for bedtime read-aloud.

Finding Self, Forgetting Self–Part 2

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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.

Finding Self, Forgetting Self – Part 1

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In the fall of 2005–shortly before the movie of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe came out, I published a book called The World According to Narnia. That book, alas, is out of print now. Which is a shame; I’m proud of that book and think it’s quite good. I have the print rights back. I hope to release an electronic version in the not-too-distant future, but I’m a little vague on the status of the electronic rights. In the meantime, in honor of the upcoming release of the Dawn Treader movie, I’ll be reproducing the chapter of The World According to Narnia that concerns itself with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This will be a several-part series.The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my least favorite of the Narnia books. I should quickly add, however, that that is like saying peach pie is my least favorite kind of pie. I still like it very, very much–just not quite as much as I like the other Narnia books.

This chapter is called “Finding Self, Forgetting Self.” Here’s the first section:

One of the enduring images of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is Reepicheep in the front of the ship, up by the dragon’s head, urging the Dawn Treader onward, eastward toward his destiny. Indeed, it seems as if it is Reepicheep’s desire, as much as the westerly wind, that drives the ship along. The smallest of the characters in The Chronicles of Narnia, Reepicheep embodies magnanimity—literally, largeness of soul. He is a mouse of vision, and his whole life is defined by the song the Dryad sang over his cradle:

Where sky and water meet,
Where waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek,
There in the utter east.

Reepicheep is forever looking east, seeking more and greater adventures.

It seems at times that a sense of adventure is the only sense Reepicheep has. An utter disregard for his own safety is one of the more obvious expressions of the self-forgetfulness that shapes his character. He has mastered every instinct that might induce him to turn inward, to protect himself, to draw back. He knows no fear but the fear of missing out on an adventure. Even his one vanity—his overdeveloped sense of personal honor—takes him beyond himself, forces him to turn his attention outward, upward, onward. Jesus said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.” Reepicheep, in forgetting about himself, in refusing to hold too tightly onto his life, is more alive than anyone else on the Dawn Treader.

The exaggerated outwardness of Reepicheep’s life calls attention to one of the central ironies of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: in this story of adventure on the high seas, of uncharted islands and strange creatures, the reader is struck by the inwardness of so many of the major conflicts. There are, of course, “real” struggles and battles—with the Governor of the Lone Islands and with the Sea Serpent, to name two. But the most memorable struggles in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader tend to be characters’ struggles with themselves. Eustace meets a living, breathing dragon; but the struggle turns out to be not a battle between Eustace and that dragon, but between Eustace and his own dragonish tendencies. Even in the battle with the Sea Serpent, the most significant moment is Eustace’s act of bravery—wholly ineffectual as regards the outer battle, but demonstrating the boy’s triumph over a lifetime of cowardice and self-protection.

For Eustace, the chief danger of the voyage is neither Dragon nor Sea Serpent, neither storm nor slave trader, but his own self-absorption. His soul is in constant peril of being smothered underneath his petty self-regard. He suffers the affliction of the thoroughly selfish: in all his self-centeredness, he has lost track of himself. His only hope of finding himself is in self-forgetfulness. That’s a recurring theme in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The overweening self appears again and again—and not just for Eustace. Lucy, usually so level-headed, falls prey to vanity as she reads Coriakin’s book of spells. The Duffers are trapped inside their own self-consciousness and yet, like Eustace, they are perfectly devoid of self-knowledge. Lord Rhoop’s personal hell is to be trapped deep within his unconscious, unable to live in the world outside. True freedom in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is freedom from the self, freedom to turn one’s attention outward, toward the things that give purpose and meaning to the self. Those who receive the gift of self-forgetfulness discover liberty. Those who will not receive it, like the Duffers, stay trapped in a prison of their own making.

When we first meet Eustace Scrubb, he is not the sort of boy who would read books like The Chronicles of Narnia. “He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators and fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools.” Eustace is the product (and victim) of an educational philosophy that devalues imagination and emotion—debunking both the inner life and any belief in transcendence, but placing uncritical faith in information, in planning and progress, in bureaucracies and systems. By way of a “very advanced and up-to-date” asceticism, his vegetarian, tee-totaling, non-smoking, parents (who also wear a special kind of underwear) propose to keep all human appetites in check. But, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man, “without the aid of trained emotion, the intellect is powerless against the animal organism.” Deprived of spirit, Eustace cannot help but fall victim to his own basest instincts, in spite of his high-sounding talk.

Eustace is the fullest fictional embodiment of that class of educated moderns whom Lewis called “men without chests.” The chest, according to the ancients, is the seat of Magnanimity—largeness of soul, “emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments,” by Lewis’s definition. The head (reason) rules the belly (appetite) through the chest. So then, unless we cultivate the right feelings (Jonathan Edwards famously called them “affections”), we cannot hope to make the right choices. A human being without a chest isn’t human at all, according to Lewis, for it is Magnanimity that raises us above our animal beings. Men without chests like to fancy themselves intellectuals, but Lewis vehemently denies them that honor. “It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out,” he says. “Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.” Eustace, true to his type, is characterized by intellectual pride, but he possesses no special intelligence.

It is magnanimity that allows the self to expand beyond its own borders. The magnanimous grow ever larger while the pusillanimous—the small-spirited—collapse on themselves. Eustace cannot reach beyond himself. He is so self-absorbed, in fact, that he couldn’t possibly take a step back to judge his own motives, to see himself as others see him, to gain self-knowledge of any kind.

Eustace, you might say, is the anti-Narnian. He is perfectly at home in the dehumanizing atmosphere of his too-modern world. It is one thing to be resigned to life in such a world; Eustace revels in it. He has drunk deeply of the myth of Progress, and he has no interest in chivalry or honor, in tall ships or swordplay, in anything the modern world has left behind. He is the sort of boy who, offered a flagon of spiced wine, asks instead for Plumptree’s Vitamized Nerve Food, made with distilled water.

Eustace’s doubts about his cousins’ stories are understandable. Even a person of imagination could hardly be expected to believe Edmund and Lucy’s tale of Narnia if he has never seen Narnia for himself. The amazing thing about Eustace is that he can’t see anything remarkable in Narnia once he gets there. His sense of wonder is so stunted that even the experience of being flung through a picture frame and into another world neither impresses him very much nor alerts him to the fact that he is in for experiences that his modern assumptions won’t help him make sense of. His repeated demands to be taken to the nearest British consulate demonstrate how little he understands what has happened to him.

Eustace is a critic at heart. He stands far enough back from the people and events around him that he can criticize without getting personally involved in any of it. Edmund and Lucy immediately fall in love with their graceful little ship. Eustace, unaffected either by the Dawn Treader’s beauty or the romance of a sea voyage, boasts of the superiority of submarines and liners and motorboats, in spite of the fact that, before boarding the Dawn Treader, he had only been to sea once, on a very short trip, and was seasick the whole time.

Eustace lacks the one critical skill that makes it possible for a critic to be of some actual use. He lacks the ability to see anybody’s perspective but his own. He stands aside from the goings-on around him, and so he believes he enjoys an objective view of things. In fact, his refusal to engage leaves him with no outside point of reference. It leads to the grossest sort of subjectivity. Because he is seasick, he is convinced that the ship must be sailing through a storm. Nothing can convince him of the truth that the weather is perfect for sailing. Nothing, in fact, can induce him to be interested in the truth, regardless of what he might say about Facts and the dangers of wishful thinking. He clings to an almost psychotic version of events that corresponds only to his inner states and has nothing to do with the facts of the outer world. As he grows more and more disaffected, he comes to believe that Edmund and Caspian, who have been exceedingly generous and tolerant, are “fiends in human form.” As Eustace himself says, “one of the most cowardly things people can do is to close their eyes to the Facts.”

To be continued…

The Correspondence Course

Granny Ross

I’m sorry it’s been almost a week since I’ve posted here at Jonathan-Rogers.com. The first few days of idleness were intentional; they were my Thanksgiving break. But on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, my grandmother died, and I spent the weekend offline and in Georgia until her funeral on Monday. My grandmother was a beautiful woman in every way and a joy to the end of her ninety-two years. In the picture to the left she was at least ninety. She had a dignity and grace that had nothing to do with her outward circumstances. In her honor, I wanted to tell a little story that says a lot about who she was and where she came from. My grandmother Evelyn was born 1918 in Pitts, Georgia, a tiny little town in Wilcox County. She was one of eight children in a loving and lively family that worked hard to scratch a living out of South Georgia’s sandy soil. There were two older brothers—Carl and Oliver—and then six beautiful girls: Leone, Aline, Irene, Judy, Evelyn, and Audrey. Evelyn was the one with flaming red hair—a slip of a girl with a ready smile and blue eyes that were quick and kind.

On Evelyn’s ninth birthday, her brothers—who had gone away to Florida to seek their fortune—sent her a little money for her birthday. She spent it on a correspondence course to learn to play the piano. This in spite of the fact that her family had no piano.

But Evelyn loved beauty, and she believed in things she couldn’t see as firmly as she believed in things she could.  When the correspondence course arrived in the mail, she found a plank and measured and marked the 88 keys of a piano—the white keys and the black keys containing every musical possibility there is, if only in the imagination of a little girl who heard music where others heard silence.

Every day she pounded away on that plank, as faithful to the work as any concert pianist. And every day she prayed that God would give her the gift of musicianship, that she might give the gift right back to him for his glory.

In time her father, seeing how hard his daughter had worked, figured out a way to buy a used piano on installments, and little Evelyn filled that dusty farmhouse with the hymns of the faith. She was never a great musician, but she was faithful to her promise. She gave her gift back to God, serving for many years as a church pianist.

Funny Things Are Everywhere: A Thanksgiving Meditation

Travis Prinzi, a colleague from the Rabbit Room, posted on Facebook a bedtime prayer his young daughter prayed a week or two ago:

God is good, God is great.
Funny things are everywhere.
You need to go to sleep.

There’s a whole worldview in that little prayer.

Turkey

Turkey

I am thankful for jokes and funny things. I believe they represent more than a break from life’s “serious” matters. By preventing us from taking this life too seriously, funny things remind us that there are things that are much more serious. In light of heaven’s weighty joys, how can we help but treat the things of earth with a certain levity? Indeed, we place ourselves in grave danger if we take this world or our own selves too seriously.

Funny things soften us to the possibility that joy is a greater force than sadness or hurt or even death. The gospel vision of the universe is a comic vision, overturning the tragedy that seems to have its way wherever we look. I love what Frederick Buechner has to say on the subject of the gospel and comedy:

Blessed are those who see that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, [Jesus] is who he says he is and does what he says he does if they will only, at admittedly great cost to their pride, their common sense, their sad vision of what is and is not possible in the stormy world, let him do it. Blessed is he, in other words, who gets the joke.

And more from Buechner:

The Gospel itself as comedy–the coming together of Mutt and Jeff, the Captain and the Kids, the Wizard of Oz and the Scarecrow: the coming together of God in his unending greatness and glory and man in his unending littleness, prepared for the worst but rarely for the best, prepared for the possible but rarely the impossible. The good news breaks into a world where the news has been so bad for so long that when it is good nobody hears it much except for a few. And who are the few that hear it? They are the ones who labor and are heavy-laden like everybody else but who, unlike everybody else, know that they labor and are heavy-laden. They are the last people you might expect to hear it, themselves the bad jokes and stooges and scarecrows of the world, the tax collectors and whores and misfits. They are the poor people, the broken people, the ones who in terms of the world’s wisdom are children and madmen and fools.

Funny things are everywhere, reminding us that, in the end, this story we’re living turns out to be a comedy rather than a tragedy. This world’s little absurdities may not be absurdities at all, but glimmers of a deeper joy that this world’s sorrows are hardly able to conceal.

Unlikely Heroes

hobbits

hobbits

I gave a talk before a reading at Nashville’s St. Paul Christian Academy last week. This is a version of that talk. That picture to the left, by the way, is by Justin Gerard, one of my favorite illustrators. Here’s a link to his blog posts about his illustrations of The Hobbit.

Of all the characters in The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits seem the least qualified to deliver the Ring to Mordor. We love the fact that they do. The very pedestian muggles who raise Harry Potter believe he’ll never amount to anything, yet he is the object of hope and wonder in the much more wonderful world of the wizards.

Why do we so love stories of unlikely heroes? I think it’s because they’re the truest stories. In our story, the Hero is a most unlikely one: the King of the Universe was born not in a palace but in stable. His birth was announced not to the movers and shakers, but to shepherds on a hillside. He grew up in Galilee, a region so rural and backwards that people used to say, “Can any good thing come out of Galilee?” When he grew up, he didn’t have a home or a steady job. He hung out with laborers and tax collectors and losers and misfits of every stripe. And when his time had come, he conquered death through a most unlikely means: he died the shameful death of the cross and rose again from the dead.

Yes, Jesus was the most unlikely of heroes–and the only sort of hero who could rescue a human race that was hell-bent on its own destruction. There is an upside-downness to our story that requires upside-down solutions.

When the gospel began to spread, it didn’t spread rightside-up but upside-down–not through the powerful and the influential, but through twelve poorly educated sons of toil, some of whom, like Peter, were of questionable reliability. The gospel that began by paradox conquered the world by paradox.

I love what Paul told the Corinthians:

Consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

Which is another way of saying that, in the end, the real heroes turn out to be the unlikely heroes. We look at ourselves and say “I don’t bring much to this situation,” but God says, “No, no, no; I use the weak things of the world to shame the mighty, and the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.” We say, “We feel like orphans,” but God says, “No, no, no; you are sons and daughters of the Most High.”

To paraphrase Chesterton, when you’re born upside down, it’s hard to know when you turn rightside up. We aren’t born knowing who we are. We have to be told.

The Charlatan’s Boy grew out of a single sentence, which now, in its published state, is still the first sentence of the book: “I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born.” None of us really knows how we got here–only what somebody told us. We depend on others to tell us, “Here’s who you really are.” A name is something that has to be given us.

The Charlatan’s Boy tells the story of Grady, an unusually ugly orphan boy who has never had anyone who could give him a name. He believes himself to be not only unloved, but unloveable. He was born upside down. The biggest difference between Grady and us, perhaps, is that he is inescapably and constantly aware of his upside-downness. There’s something heroic in his unflagging quest to get rightside-up again. He’s an unlikely hero, yes–but what other kind of hero is there?

A Lapse in Hospitality: Will You Forgive Me?

ImSorry

ImSorry

“You were kind of hard on your blog readers today, weren’t you?” my wife said. She’s always taking your side.
I assumed my wife was getting on to me about articulating my opinions about The Road and The Giving Tree. I began patiently to explain how I had made it clear that I wasn’t criticizing anybody who had recommended those books.

Then my wife patiently explained that she was talking about something else. She was talking about the fact that on Monday I invited people to tell what books they liked, then on Wednesday I told them why they shouldn’t like those books. “If I were Joe, I’d never come back.”

“Joe? Just because I  described one of his favorite books as ‘creepy’? Joe understands. Surely Joe understands.”

I thought on it. “Maybe I’ll write a nice email to Joe. And to Gina. And Aaron [who, by the way, likes both The Giving Tree and The Road].”

“Okay,” my wife said. “But what about everybody else? Because you created an unsafe environment. I wouldn’t answer next time you ask people to give their opinion.” It takes courage, she said, to commit one’s opinions to writing and put them out there for the world to read.

Which is true. I asked you to put yourselves out there, then I smacked some of you on the hand with a ruler. In other words, what we have here is a failure of hospitality. You are my guests here, and you deserve better treatment.

I am a man of strong literary opinions. I hope my blog readers are interested in my opinions, which, if you ask me, are very well-informed. I hope Jonathan-Rogers.com becomes a place where we feel free to respectfully discuss disagree about topics literary and otherwise. But I went about Sad Book Week all wrong. I asked you to tell me what you liked, which is a different thing from asking you what opinions you hold. Your likes sit a little closer to your self than your opinions, and to pass judgment on your likes was beyond my jurisdiction.

So Joe, Gina, and Aaron–and everybody else–I hope you will forgive me for my lapse in hospitality. I want this to be a safe place for people to write and try to tell the truth without having to worry about my sailing down from the rafters to knock them down. In the future, I plan to open the floor to debate many times, but I’ll try to make that clear from the start of the discussion and refrain from the old “Tell me what you like…oh, but you shouldn’t like that” routine.

Fair enough?

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