Its not my favourite Narnia book, but it has always held a special place in my heart.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader can still make me cry.
What is it about this old-fashioned and politically incorrect tale that affects me?
I am moved to tears by the harrowing journey of its unlovely and seemingly unloveable antihero (played with vehemence by Will Poulter in the film).
In Voyage, Eustace is a prig raised by vegetarians (but let's not hold that against him - or them) who seems to have been planted into the story to provide a foil for the friendly and morally upright Pevensies. (You know, the ones who found the secret land of Narnia in the back of a wardrobe filled with moth eaten furs). When their parents travel to America, Lucy and Edmund are forced to spend the holidays at the house of Eustace and his parents.
Filled with self-hatred and jealousy for his happier and more social cousins, Eustace spitefully determines to spoil their stay. He is, by turns, logical, vindictive, argumentative and most definitely a non-believer - he doesn't believe in magic, or in the magical land of Narnia and takes every opportunity to ridicule his cousin's beliefs. His solitary and perverse demeanour contrasts with that of the open and friendly Pevensies, whose ability to acclimatise to the privations of an unexpected sea voyage, marks them as thoughtful - and responsible. Without Eustace, Voyage would be a rather dull adventure story. Most of us, I suspect, secretly identify with him and I certainly identify with his journey of transformation and friendship through intense pain.
Halfway through the book, Eustace begins his own rather unexpected narrative arc.
On a shore trip to gather provisions, in a cowardly sulk and with the aim of avoiding the work of re-stocking and repairing the ship, Eustace deserts his shipmates and sets to exploring the island, spotting the treasure studded lair of a dragon. Exploring the cave, he sets upon the gold glimmer of a beautiful bracelet, unwisely choosing to clip it onto his arm. His lack of belief in magic (and in particular, dragons) leaves him distinctly unprepared for the spectacular consequences of his greed.
The price for attempting to steal a dragon's treasure is to become one, and Eustace wakes to intense pain from the pinching bracelet, now far too small for his engorged and scaly arm, an intimation of the high price he is to pay for his transformation back into human child.
The dragon Eustace flies over his colleagues and eventually makes it known that he is their shipmate transformed into the fire-breathing beast. Whilst they debate what to do about him, Eustace decides to make himself useful traversing the island to gather tree-trunks for a new mast. He also helps the becalmed ship make passage by blowing (air rather than fire) into its sails.
As a dragon, Eustace immeadiately demonstrates far more vulnerability than he does as a boy, and is able to connect with his shipmates and make friends despite his scaly exterior. Reepicheep, the courageous talking mouse at the end of whose rapier Eustace is initially humiliated, now becomes his special friend, staying with him during the long difficult nights of his dragon-life and witnessing with compassion his scalding, hopeless tears.
Of course, we know that things cannot remain as they are and that Eustace must either be left behind or must somehow transform back into a boy.
When he is discovered by Edmund wandering near the shore in the dead of night, Eustace recounts the tale of his transformation.
Late one night, he was awakened by the voice of Aslan who led him to a secret garden high up in the mountains of the island.
In the midst of the garden is a deep pool where he is invited to bathe. But first he must "undress" and remove his scaly skin. Losing his dragon skin proves both much more painful and more difficult than he could have imagined and Eustace must seek Aslan's help to shed his skin and reveal the more loveable human underneath. He initially pulls his own skin off, but this is not enough and Aslan intervenes, ripping the scales with his frightening claws.
It is not too long a leap to see these scales as the defences he has unwittingly developed in response to a childhood filled with inflexible rules and logic rather than magic. As we learn in The Silver Chair, Eustace has also been mercilessly bullied at the ominously named "Experiment House" (Lewis seems to have had an aversion to alternative lifestyles and schooling).
Obviously C.S.Lewis was writing from a Christian perspective and Eustace's immersive cleansing in the magical pool is meant to signify a kind of baptism. But I think that Lewis was also (and certainly not in a mutually exclusive way) interested in the psychological journeys of his characters, their pain and joy and more importantly, their growth. I feel that these two ways of reading his works overlap and also resonate with one another, providing greater depth and meaning to these now classic children's tales. One doesn't need to have Christian beliefs to gain meaning and joy from his work.
Returning to the Dawn Treader with Edmund, Eustace must deal with the fallout from his nastiness (most of which we might sum up as a defence against underlying vulnerability) and the hurt he has caused to others in his pre-dragon persona. As he becomes more fully himself and opens to the people around him, his friendship with Reepicheep deepens.
But by the end of the novel, Reepicheep's own journey takes him away from his new friend and the mouse starts his final voyage in a tiny boat, heading into the sweet water waves of the end of the world.
Eustace's grief at the loss of his first friend hurts deeply. He has come so far, and as part of his transformation has taken the risk of caring for someone, but now must let them go - a moment that is dense with sorrow - and meaning.
Eustace's redemption reminds us of our own journey to connect and how we must all, in the end, learn to let go.
Sometimes the worst characters are the ones who can tell us the most.