Devin Brown is a Professor of English at Asbury University where he teaches a class on C. S. Lewis. He is the author of Inside Narnia (2005), Inside Prince Caspian (2008), and Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).
“Further Up and Further In”
Narnia as an Introduction to Lewis’s Thought and Theology
In The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis presents in story form many ideas that he further develops in his non-fiction writings. The following five lessons each explore a major concept from Lewis’s thought and theology found in the Narnia stories and connect it with what Lewis had to say about this topic in his other works.
NOTE: Since there are a number of different editions of most of Lewis’s books, each with different page numbers, chapter numbers or names will be given to help anyone who wants to look up specific passages.
LESSON 4: The Undragoning of Eustace: Lewis’s View of Divine Grace—PART II
In the story of Pinocchio, the famous puppet begins to turn into a donkey, an animal that embodies his disobedience and rebellion. In Beauty and the Beast, the Beast undergoes a similar corrective transformation. In chapter six of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace falls asleep on a dragon’s hoard “with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart” and wakes to find that he has turned into the selfish creature he has been behaving like.
In a well-known passage from chapter six of The Problem of Pain, Lewis describes the way that God uses affliction—the type which Eustace, Pinocchio, and the Beast are faced with—as an instrument in our salvation. Lewis observes that as long as all seems to be well, we will not surrender our self-will, and that the deeper sin and error are “the less their victim suspects their existence.” Lewis continues:
But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world…. Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call “our own life” remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make “our own life” less agreeable to us?
Eustace’s pain—the pain from a gold ring he put on his much smaller boy’s arm and, even more, the pain of seeing his own hideous reflection in the dragon’s pool—has become Aslan’s megaphone, his tool to rouse someone who has been deaf to all other attempts to get his attention and blind to the reality of his inner condition.
A chapter later in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Edmund wakes to find a dark figure moving on the beach. It is Eustace, now transformed back into a boy, but so changed that at first Edmund thinks it is Caspian. This may seem a small detail, but the fact that the new Eustace may be mistaken for the young king says a great deal about him.
Edmund’s failure to recognize Eustace is understandable. Eustace is not the boy he was but instead the boy he was meant to be, and so is only now truly Eustace. Gradually he shares with Edmund the details surrounding his transformation, or as he says, the story of how he stopped being a dragon.
Eustace tells of his dream-like meeting with Aslan and their journey to a garden on the top of a mountain. There Aslan shows Eustace a well and—in a way that does not use words—tells him that he must undress before bathing in the healing waters. As a dragon who is not wearing clothes, Eustace understands this to mean that he must remove his scaly skin, like a snake. And so he peels off a layer of his dragon hide and starts to go down into the well only to find that there is another layer of dragon skin beneath the one he has removed.
Eustace tells Edmund what happens next, and this passage merits a close look if we are to understand what Lewis is saying through it. Eustace reports:
“Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this under-skin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.
“Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.
“Then the lion said—but I don’t know if it spoke—‘You will have to let me undress you.’”
Lewis shows us that on his own, Eustace is, in some measure, successful in ridding himself of several layers of his dragonish nature. He is partially able to “undress” himself—but only partially. He frees himself of one dragon skin, then a second, and then a third. Thus Lewis seems to suggest that humans, after they have seen the error of their ways, may be able to improve somewhat on their own, but not at all to the degree needed. Lewis shows that Eustace can shed the surface layers of his dragon nature somewhat easily, without much pain, and without Aslan’s help. The deeper layers will be just the opposite. Lewis’s point is that man’s unassisted efforts to change himself may result in a limited success, but not one that goes to the heart of the problem.
In The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, we find a moving account of Lewis’s own spiritual transformation, one that mirrors Eustace’s attempt to remove layer after layer of dragon skin. In a letter dated January 30, 1930, Lewis writes about his battle with his “besetting sin” of pride and observes, “I have found out ludicrous and terrible things about my own character. . . . There seems to be no end to it. Depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration.”
In the chapter titled “Faith” in Mere Christianity, Lewis describes the process of transformation and notes that in one sense the road to God is a “road of moral effort” that consists of “trying harder and harder.” But Lewis points out, “It is not trying that is ever going to bring us home. All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, ‘You must do this. I can’t.’”
Thus we see that while Eustace can make some surface changes, ultimately he needs Aslan to change him completely. It is also significant that Eustace has a choice of whether to remain as he is or be transformed. Aslan will not act without his consent, as he tells Eustace, “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace tells Edmund, “I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.” In letter eight of The Screwtape Letters, Lewis’s senior tempter makes this same observation about God’s way of intervening—writing about God, “He cannot ravish. He can only woo.”
Lewis, through his own experience, knew that the convert always has a choice. In chapter fourteen of Surprised by Joy, he uses the images of a lobster and a suit of armor, which can be seen as Lewis’s own versions of Eustace’s dragon shell, and concludes, “I could open the door or keep it shut.”
In the transformation of Eustace into a dragon and back into a boy, we are given a moving account of salvation. Lewis makes it clear that Eustace can say no to Aslan’s offer to undress him, and if so, he can expect the same fate as the old dragon he replaced—to live as his own little god, to follow no law beyond his own dragonish desires, and to die alone.
Permission is also a critical element for the transformation of the ghosts in The Great Divorce. In chapter eleven, we find a man with a red lizard, which represents lust, who must give his bright angel permission to kill it. When asked why the angel does not simply kill the creature without consent, the angel replies, “I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?” Finally the man gives his consent to the painful process, and Lewis as narrator tells us, “Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth.”
Eustace’s ordeal is equally painful. He tells Edmund, “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart.” After this initial painful tear, there comes a second, more horrible pain of “pulling the skin off”—which Eustace describes as hurting “worse than anything I’ve ever felt.” Once the skin is off, there will come yet a third pain of being thrown into the water, an action Eustace claims “smarted like anything.”
How can anyone endure the terrible pain which dying to old ways brings about? Eustace confesses, “The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.” In chapter six of The Problem of Pain, Lewis sums up his point about the difficult process of transformation with these words: “Pain hurts. That is what the word means. I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made ‘perfect through suffering’ is not incredible.” Eustace, through the pain and suffering of being transformed into a dragon, is prodded and pushed to see the only path that will lead out of his spiritual misery.
In the film Amazing Grace, John Newton says, “I once was blind but now I see. Didn’t I write that?” When William Wilberforce agrees, Newton declares, “Now at last it’s true.” Eustace, too, is initially blind to his dreadful spiritual condition. But after The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace, like Newton, can proclaim, “I once was lost but now am found.” Through Eustace—one of the most memorable and most loved characters in the Chronicles—Lewis powerfully communicates the bad news about our sinful state and the good news of God’s grace and his cure for us.
Eustace’s transformation into a dragon and then back into a boy is one of the most moving episodes in all the Chronicles and also one of the most unforgettable.
1. Why do you think this incident is so well-known, so effective, and so well-liked?
2. What do you think Lewis is saying about the human heart and the process of transformation through these events?
Throughout his writings, Lewis makes use of a number of comparisons to capture the process of dying to one’s former self. Here in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he suggests that dying to self is like having an old skin torn off and being dressed in new clothes. In Surprised by Joy, as was noted, he compares his transformation to removing a suit of armor. Later in that same work he says the process was like a snowman “at long last beginning to melt.” Christ also used a number of images for this process, including that of a seed falling to the ground and dying.
3. Which of these images resonates with your own experience of dying to self? Are there other images you might suggest?
4. How accurate do you think Lewis is in his inclusion of pain as a part of some, and perhaps even of all, great changes?
In a letter dated February 2, 1955, Lewis wrote that we should be careful not to expect or demand that the salvation of others should conform to “some ready made pattern of our own” because “God has His own way with each soul.”
5. Despite this caution, what aspects of Eustace’s story of being saved by grace might be said to be universal?
Devin Brown is an English Professor at Asbury University and the author of Inside Narnia (2005), Inside Prince Caspian (2008), and Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).