C.S. Lewis’ Narnia story The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read in a children’s book, or in any other book for that matter: ‘There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb—and he almost deserved it.’
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a wonderful story that works on at least two levels. On the surface, we have a classic tale about a sea voyage and the adventures of the sailors along the way. But on a deeper level we have a story about the transformation of Eustace Clarence Scrubb. Eustace starts off as a thoroughly self-centred and unpleasant character, but as the story progresses, he’s gradually changed into a person who thinks of others and has a more realistic view of himself. And this transformation is accomplished through the power of Aslan the Lion.
This is a very important theme for us as we continue our journey through Lent. C.S. Lewis is our guide, and especially his Narnia stories. Last week we thought about the character of Aslan the Lion. We discovered he’s definitely not a tame lion, and neither is he safe: “Course he isn’t safe!” Mr. Beaver exclaimed, “But he’s good!” Aslan helps us understand our Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us with a love that’s absolute and uncompromising. His love isn’t just about being nice to us. It’s about telling us the truth about ourselves and helping us become more than we are right now, even when that growth is hard and unpleasant. We approach this Jesus with absolute confidence in his love for us, but also in absolute obedience to his authority.
This week we have to grapple with the subject of change, and how change takes place. We have to look at the reality of sin, and how sin has a literally monstrous effect on us. We have to realize how hard it is for us to change—in fact, unless we have the help of Christ, change isn’t going to happen. And we have to look at some of the effects of that change when it finally comes about.
So—back to Eustace. Eustace is the cousin of the four Pevensie children we met last week: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. Chronologically, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the fifth of the seven Narnia stories, and by this time Edmund and Lucy have a lot of experience with Narnia. Now, however, they’re back in ourworld, and they find they have to spend their summer with their cousin Eustace. Lewis lets us know right from the start what sort of person Eustace is:
Eustace Clarence liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card…Deep down inside him he liked bossing and bullying…He knew that there are dozens of ways to give people a bad time if you are in your own home and they are only visitors. He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators.
In other words Eustace is a thoroughly selfish person, intensely practical, with absolutely no imagination—which, for Lewis, was one of the worst things you could say about someone. He also enjoys inflicting misery on other people, and he’s gotten quite good at it.
In the first couple of chapters of the book the three children are transported magically back to the land of Narnia. There they find themselves on the Dawn Treader, a Narnian ship on which King Caspian is on a voyage into unknown seas to find seven lost lords. The Dawn Treader is a sailing ship, and Eustace loses no time in starting to criticize it. He ‘kept on boasting about liners and motor boats and aeroplanes and submarines.’ Of course, boasting is all about trying to seem better and more important than other people.
We get more opportunities to find out what a self-centred character Eustace is as the story continues. One of the finest characters in the entire Narnian series is Reepicheep, a valiant and chivalrous talking mouse who comes across as a sort of ‘D’Artagnan’ figure from The Three Musketeers. One day Eustace finds Reepicheep perched on the figurehead of the ship:
As soon as (Eustace) saw the long tail hanging down…he thought it would be delightful to catch hold of it, swing Reepicheep round by it once or twice upside down, then run away and laugh.
Unfortunately things don’t quite work out the way Eustace thinks they will, as Reepicheep is just as good with his sword upside down as he is right way up! On another occasion, when the ship is becalmed and the water is running low, Eustace makes excuses to try to get more than his fair share of the water supply. In these and many other ways Eustace makes a thorough nuisance of himself through his selfishness and self-centredness.
Eventually, after a severe storm, the Dawn Treader arrives at an island where they can get fresh water and repair the ship. Eustace slips off into the hills by himself, and comes by chance to the cave of a dragon. Of course, he finds the cave filled with treasure. I say ‘of course’, because you’re all very imaginative people, and so you know that treasure is exactlywhat you expect to find in a dragon’s cave! But Eustace doesn’t know this, and so he doesn’t suspect that he’s stumbled on a dragon’s lair. All he sees is the treasure, and his mind immediately begins to play on what it could do for him. Eventually he falls asleep on the pile of treasure with his mind still full of greedy and selfish thoughts. But when he wakes up, he discovers to his horror that in his sleep he has been transformed into a dragon himself. As Lewis puts it, ‘Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard, with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.’
This is what sin does to us: it reduces our humanity. Romans 3:23 says ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ John Bowen says, ‘Sin may tempt us to try to become more than we were made to be, but its effect is ultimately to make us less than we were made to be.’
Eustace chose long ago to be a selfish and self-centred person. The dragon he has now become is just an outward expression of the inner state of his heart. This forces him to begin to face the truth about himself. He realizes he doesn’t like the person he has become. Lewis spells this out for us:
He wanted to be among friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realized he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him. He began to see that the others had not really been fiends. He began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed. He longed for their voices.
So he goes back to join the others, and succeeds in letting them know that even though outwardly he’s a dragon, inwardly he’s Eustace. They want to receive him back but they can’t decide how they can possibly take him along on the ship in his dragon form. For Eustace, this just shows up the fact that all along he’s chosen to be a misfit. As Lewis puts it,
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.
There’s nothing Eustace can do to change himself back into human form, and things seen hopeless for him. But then one night he has a mysterious meeting with a lion. We, the readers, know who that lion is – the Great Lion, Aslan himself, the Christ figure in the Narnia stories. Aslan leads Eustace to a well of water. Eustace wants to bathe, but Aslan tells him he must undress first. Eustace remembers that dragons can shed their skin, so he scratches and scratches and eventually the dragon skin comes off. Underneath, however, he finds another dragon skin, and then another, and another. He eventually despairs, and then Aslan says to him, “You will have to let me undress you.” Aslan uses his lion claws, tearing the dragon skin away completely, tearing so deeply that Eustace feels as if it has gone straight through his heart. It hurts him worse than anything he has ever felt, but the next thing he knows Aslan is throwing him into the water, and then he finds to his great joy that he’s been turned into a boy again.
Eustace then goes back to join the others. He knows Aslan’s power has changed him, but he also knows he’s got some things to put right with the others. He meets his cousin Edmund, and he says, “By the way, I’d like to apologise. I’ve been pretty beastly.” He’s now on the way to becoming a much less selfish and unpleasant human being. But the change is not instant. Lewis is far too honest about our Christian experience to pretend this can happen. He says, ‘It would be nice, and fairly true, to say that, “from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.” To be strictly accurate, he beganto be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of these I shall not notice. The cure had begun.’
This story of Eustace has a lot to teach us about transformation. Transformation is what the Christian message is all about. The Greek word is ‘metanoia’, which means change—deep, lasting change. It’s sometimes translated as ‘conversion’; in one place Jesus uses the image of a new birth, which is about as powerful a change as you can imagine. But transformation isn’t a one time only event for us Christians. It’s a process that continues throughout our Christian life.
The story of Eustace tells us what sin is all about. In the Bible, sin is essentially selfishness or self-centredness. It’s rejecting the rule of the one true God and claiming the right to be God for ourselves. It’s a happy coincidence in the English language that the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ in the centre of it. This reminds us that when I put myself at the centre of my life, and see everyone else—even God—as just there for my convenience, then I’m in a state of sin. That’s what Eustace does. He lives a totally self-centred life.
The story of Eustace shows us what sin does to us.I said at the beginning that sin has a literally monstrous effect on us. Sin transformed Eustace into a monster, but the monstrous form was simply a reflection of his monstrous heart. Sin makes us something hideous, something far less than the fully human persons God wants us to be. And sin spoils our relationships, too, isolating us from others. Even Lucy, the youngest Pevensie, who has the kindest heart of anyone in the Narnia series, finds it hard to put up with Eustace. Her brother Edmund, who usually calls a spade a spade, simply calls him a ‘record stinker’!
The story of Eustace shows us that transformation starts by facing the truth about ourselves.The Letter of James, in the New Testament, tells us God’s law is like a mirror that shows us what we are really like. But some people don’t want to face that truth: ‘They look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they are like.’ (James 1:24) But after his dragon experience Eustace can’t do that anymore. He realizes he’s been a thoroughly unpleasant person, he accepts that truth, and he longs more than anything else to change.
The story of Eustace shows us that we can’t change ourselves.Eustace gets to the point where he longs to change. He hates what he’s become, and he wants more than anything else to be just a boy again. That’s a moment we all have to come to. We choose to change direction, to repent of our sins, to learn a new way of life. We read the story of Jesus, we’re inspired by his teaching, and we think, “This is what I want!” So we make some resolutions, plan to make some changes, and off we go.
Crash! It might take twelve hours or twelve days, but sooner or later we come face to face with our human weakness. Sinfulness goes far deeper in us than we thought. Some people say that Christianity is difficult. The truth is far worse than that: Christianity isn’t difficult, it’s impossible! All Eustace can do is make himself into a slightly less wrinkly dragon. He can’t make himself into a boy again.
The story of Eustace shows us that we can only be changed by the power of Christ.Aslan is the only one who can rip the dragon skin off Eustace, and the first tear pierces Eustace all the way to the heart. His problem started with his self-centred heart, you see. Superficial solutions can’t accomplish anything.
Over and over again, Christian people have discovered that only the power of Jesus can help them become different. We come to the point where we cry out desperately: “I’ve tried, I really have, but I just can’t change myself.” So we call out for his help. Often the help is painful to receive. Eustace said it hurt more than anything he’d ever felt in his life. Things happen to us, or we find ourselves asked to do things, that we shrink from because they seem too painful. But, as the Twelve Steps of A.A. say, ‘Half measures availed us nothing.’ If we’re going to be changed, it will have to be with the help of Christ.
Finally, the story of Eustace shows us that transformation is gradual.The mountaintop experience with Aslan leads down to the daily decision to follow him. And this daily decision, too, is made with the help of Christ. Often it feels like two steps forward and one step back—or on some days, one step forward and two steps back! But the Christian disciple is wiser now. She realizes self-confidence is a dead end, so each day she looks to Jesus for guidance and strength to take the next step.
Let’s sum up. Lent is about change, and change is difficult. We’d like to think we can change ourselves, but all our failed attempts only show us how weak we really are. By ourselves, we’re stuck.
But the gospel tells us we don’t have to be stuck. By the power of Aslan, Eustace can be changed from a dragon to a boy, and then he can go on to live like a boy and not a dragon. And by the power of Jesus, I can be changed into a child of God, and then I can go on to learn to live like a child of God. It’s impossible for a human, but with Christ all things are possible. So let’s put ourselves in the hands of Christ and ask him to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.