One of my favorite things to read in my early teens was the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, and perhaps my favorite book of the series was Voyage of the Dawntreader. In this book Prince Caspian, now the ruler of Narnia, has decided to sail east to find the end of the world, and is joined by some of the characters of the original The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, plus one other. The other is a cousin of Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy, whom they find quite obnoxious. His name is Eustace.
Eustace is obnoxiously intellectual, secretly jealous of his cousins, and trying to hide it. They’re turned off by his intellectual posing, but can’t tell him about the things they’ve achieved without telling him about Narnia. Maybe they’ve actually tried to tell him, or let things about it slip, I can’t recall. If so, he’s skeptical, which is all the more infuriating.Then Edmund and Lucy find themselves suddenly being drawn into Narnia again, and Eustace is semi-accidentally taken with them.
Edmund and Lucy find themselves in their element. Eustace doesn’t like it. Sailing on a small ship he finds terribly uncomfortable, even in good weather, while everyone else hardly notices any possible discomfort. Eustace sulks, and makes no friends that way. He probably doesn’t have any friends in our world either.
But one of the most memorable scenes of the novel belongs to him. The ship docks at a small island, and Eustace disobediently goes exploring by himself, climbing one of the mountains near the ship. On the other side he finds himself overlooking a dragon’s lair. The dragon crawls from its cave and dies as Eustace watches. Though he prides himself on his rationality, Eustace is aware enough of fairy-tales to know that dragons have hoards of wealth, so he climbs down to explore. He finds the hoard, finds an arm-band that he likes, puts it on his arm, and decides he’s too tired to attempt the trip back to the ship. He decides to take a nap.
On waking up, he discovers that the arm-band, which fit loosely on his arm, has become much too tight. That seems a bit strange, until he realizes why: he’s turned into a dragon.
This is, of course, a moment for regret, but of course regret doesn’t transform him. He’s still a dragon with an arm-band that’s way too tight. The others, having noticed his absence, come looking for him, and find him. He can’t speak to them, but manages to spell words in the dirt, to let them know who he is. Of course they can’t do anything to help him either.
That night, as he’s sleeping, Aslan comes to visit. Aslan is the lion who is the Christ-figure of the Narnia series, having undergone a ritual very much like the crucifiction in the first novel, and who turns up at unexpected moments to direct things into the right course.
Aslan tells him he must shed his skin to turn back into a boy. With great effort, Eustace does so, several times–but remains a dragon. Finally Aslan says that he will help, and claws Eustace deeply, so that Eustace feels penetrated to the heart. He turns back into a boy.
This is the perfect metaphor for the transformation that must take place for one to become a moral being. Realizing one’s sins can penetrate to the heart, and stimulate one either to repair what one has done, or to run away. There are possibly many forms of each.
Repairing one’s self is the only realistic way of beginning the gigantic task of repairing, reforming or revolutionizing the world. Ways of doing this have been laid out in all the great religions, but few manage to practice these ways in real purity. Many have said we must be in the world, but not of it. That’s not so simple. We are all products of our world, and attached to it in more ways than we can see.
Not all of these attachments are bad. Attachment of the farmer to the soil he works is necessary, as Wendell Berry points out, to enjoy any excellence in agriculture, or the culture at large. That means doing the task that needs doing for as long as it takes, or as long as one can. Most of us prefer to turn to entertainment instead.
The problem is ecological: everything affects everything else. When we prefer quantity to quality, eventually we’ll get neither. When we prefer entertainment to work we get depression, and other emotional ills. These easily turn into conflicts, whether substantial or trivial, and harmony is lost.
Berry sees this as the outcome of fragmented life: specialists concentrate on doing one thing, and are unable to do anything well. They have no perspective, since they concentrate on only one subject, so they have no corrective when they make mistakes. Forcing farming into an industrial model throws out all the knowledge of small farmers, and substitutes technology, specifically petrochemical technology. With almost all farming in the country industrialized, farming is impossible without machinery (powered by petroleum), fertilizers and insecticides.
Small farmers, says Berry, were easily able to sell whatever they produced that they didn’t need for themselves when he was growing up. Now milk and butter can no longer be sold by small producers, in the name of sanitation. He remarks that our current agriculture is remarkable for having substituted germs for poisons.
But what of Eustace, in Voyage of the Dawn Treader? After his experience as a dragon he’s no longer so much a focus of the novel, but becomes more like his cousins, and subsequently takes part in further adventures in Narnia. Perhaps CS Lewis saw him as an alienated teenager who needed to be reintegrated into a fairly healthy society. His experience in Narnia seems to do that, though we don’t see his experience in our world. Lewis probably saw all too clearly the sickness in his world, and created Narnia as a way of showing how humans ought to behave, and his belief in the presence of divinity in the world.
All the great religions speak of the divine, and try to interpret its work in the world. If there’s any truth to them, the divine exists, we can find it if we really want to, and it can guide us. Really wanting to is often the problem. In its presence we are likely to become acutely aware of our shortcomings, and tempted to flee the burden of a higher state of consciousness. Fragmentation of consciousness, as well as of activity, is easier, though in the long run profoundly destructive.
But the public face of religions is interpretation. When religion has too much political power it begins thinking in terms of punishing enemies instead of loving them. The path of power is exactly contrary to Jesus’s admonition to love your neighbors, but also your enemies. Having enemies makes fanatics happy, because they can do “God’s work” in working to destroy them. So in this country we get the interpretation on one side of the rich as the enemy, which some wealthy people seem to agree with; on the other side, the poor, the black, the Latin, the gay, the liberal. Deciding you have enemies is an excuse for war. A different interpretation could be an excuse for peace.
Some atheists are so disgusted with the frequently intolerant and power-seeking behavior of institutional religion that they decline to believe in God. I can understand that point of view, but don’t believe one needs to go to that extreme. I persist in thinking there is no NECESSARY conflict between religion and science, though some religious people and some scientifically oriented people certainly think so.
A recent conversation with a friend and her son started with a home-schooling course that taught geocentrism as a fact. Why that is even a religious concern is beyond me, since I think religion ought to be about how humans should behave, rather than about knowledge that science is more adept at obtaining.
On the other hand, the strict exclusion of the “supernatural” from scientific investigation makes Western science an incomplete model. I also persist in thinking that religious practices can be investigated scientifically (tested to see if they produce a different form of consciousness), and that people have done this in the past and present, though this may not be widely known.
C.S. Lewis was certainly a religious person, but not a crackpot, from all that I can tell, One of his remarks in Mere Christianity has stuck with me: that EVERYONE is concerned with right and wrong. Everyone either wants to believe or wants others to believe that they’re doing right, and that it’s the others who are wrong. This is as true of criminals, apparently, (no matter how heinous their acts) as anyone else. Where did this consciousness come from, however misguided? Is it hardwired into our genetic makeup, or is it strictly cultural? The latter is certainly influential, but I suspect the former also has something to do with it.
I loved Lewis’s Narnia books as a child and teenager, and still have a spot in my heart for them. Some would probably consider them a silly fantasy. Fantasy they certainly are, but I don’t consider them silly. They deal with courage and sacrifice, which are behaviors we ought all to aspire to, I should think. Their endings are happy, but, in my opinion, not trivially happy. They have a didactic element, but not one I found as tiresome as I did the novels of Ayn Rand a few years later. I suppose you could call her an idealist, but of a very different sort, and her happy endings didn’t make ME feel happy. Lewis’s did.