Finding Self, Forgetting Self - Part 1


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...