The reluctant convert
The storyline of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (VDT) begins not on the ship – an enduring symbol of the Christian church – but with someone who doesn’t want anything to do with such a ship. His name? “Eustace Clarence Scrubb – and he almost deserved it”! He is a most unpleasant bully, who uses his intelligence to browbeat others. He is also hopelessly modern; when C.S. Lewis says he’s “very up-to-date and advanced,” that’s not a compliment.
When I read Lewis’s autobiographical work Surprised by Joy (published in 1955, three years after VDT), I was convinced he poured a lot of his personal story into the character of Eustace. Let’s look at some points of contact.
We start with a boy who has name issues: the narrator implies that Eustace’s name is as unpleasant as his character, and his first name is rarely used. C.S. Lewis informed his parents at age four that he wouldn’t use his given name, Clive, but would only answer to “Jacksie.” Eustace had no friends; a statement that Lewis also makes of his own childhood. Eustace is incessantly explaining or demanding “logical” things (like asking for a British consul in Narnia); he would “talk the hind leg off a donkey.” Lewis called himself an “intolerable chatterbox” as a lad.
More significantly, at several points in Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes his childhood as fundamentally adrift at sea. After the untimely death of his mother: “It was sea and islands now.” His first, horrifying, boarding school experience (the headmaster was later certified insane) was like a sinking ship: “I…left the ship only when she went down under us.”
But the most important key to this convergence of Lewis and Eustace is the entrance into Narnia itself: petulant Eustace is dragged against his will into the magical world of Narnia, and onto the ship. Lewis, in Surprised by Joy, described himself famously as “perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” This was, however, only a conversion to theism from atheism. It took two more years, including some influential conversations with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, before Lewis came to accept the God of the Christian Bible.
Eustace, like the real-life Lewis, is certainly not “on board” with the rest of those aboard the ship, in terms of sharing their convictions and purpose. But he is being forced to reckon with the undeniable reality of Narnia, like Lewis with Christianity.
All of this adds depth and conviction as we approach the chapter of Eustace’s “un-dragoning” – call it his restoration, or conversion. In one of the most memorable scenes in all the Chronicles, we see a powerful parable of Jesus’ salvation, immersed in the imagery of baptism. The symbolism is rich: we can only dip into a few strands of meaning here.
Eustace has been a pain in the neck the entire journey – but it has taken a pain in the arm to get him to see the fact. Driven by circumstance to a dragon’s cave, filling his mind with greedy, dragonish thoughts, he is brought face to face with his true self: greedy, dragonish, power-hungry. And for the first time ever, he sees his own moral ugliness. Being transformed by dragon’s treasure, he realizes his true poverty. His loneliness blossoms into repentance.
Soon the monstrous transformation becomes a work of providential grace. In his reptilian form, Eustace returns to the Dawn Treader and helps, as only a dragon can, in the rebuilding of the ship: providing logs for masts, wild game for food, scaly fire-hot flanks for warmth on a cold night. It’s a marvellous kingdom parable of welcoming the repentant, awkward outsider into the church – and being ministered to by them.
But more grace is needed: Eustace cannot return to his proper form on his own. And thus, by the grace of God, he meets Aslan, Lord of Narnia, for the first time. It happens at night, in the darkness, with a silvery light around Aslan, to show the mystery of the transformation – it can’t really be explained, only experienced.
There is the pool of deep, clear, healing water: an image of baptism. There is the command to “undress” – an allusion to the biblical language of “putting off” the old self and “putting on” the new (see Colossians 3:9–14), and the ancient Christian baptismal practice of candidates being clothed with white robes upon emerging from the water.
And there are the claws of Aslan: an image of Christ as the Great Physician, whose surgeries are sometimes excruciating. As the Scriptures tell us – just ask Isaac, Jacob, or Jesus – the entrance into the kingdom is sometimes a death, sometimes a wounding.
–Randy Klassen teaches at Bethany College, Hepburn, Sask., where one of his favourite courses is “Literature and Faith.” He is a member of West Portal Church.