New Starts: Looking at the World Rightly
Near the end of chapter seven of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the narrator steps in to tell us about the change that has occurred in the formerly obnoxious Eustace.
It would be nice, and fairly nearly true, to say that “from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.” To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.
The fiction of C. S. Lewis is replete with characters who make a 180-degree change in the direction they have been on and make a new start, but in no case does Lewis over-simplify or misrepresent the difficulty of the process. No where does Lewis suggest that change is easy or painless, or can take place without acquiring a radically new perspective.
In The Great Divorce, Lewis’s weird and wonderful ghost story, he tells the tale of a busload of departed souls who get one last chance to change the way they have been thinking and set out on a new path. In the book’s Preface, Lewis writes, “I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A wrong sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working afresh from that point, never by simply going on.”
Lewis draws on this same idea of correcting a wrong sum as a metaphor for repentance in Mere Christianity, where he points out “If you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road…. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start again, the faster I shall get on.”
Not all of Lewis’s characters who are given the chance to start afresh do so. For every Eustace who undergoes a successful, albeit painful, transformation, we can find one who refuses to change. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Gumpas, who is serving as the Governor of the Lone Islands, is told by Caspian that he must stop the slave trade. Gumpas objects stating, “That would be putting the clock back.” In The Great Divorce nearly all of the ghosts on the bus reject the opportunity they are given to make a new start. As the George MacDonald character explains, “There is always something they prefer to joy.” This something always involves holding on to a false perception.
If making a new start begins with seeing the world rightly, Lewis would hold that seeing the world rightly begins with seeing ourselves rightly, something that Gumpas and most of the ghosts in The Great Divorce are either unable or unwilling to do. As Lewis notes in Mere Christianity, “A moderately bad man knows he is not very good; a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right.”
If it is so difficult to see ourselves as we truly are, what can be done? In The Problem of Pain, Lewis argues that God “whispers” to us in our pleasures, “speaks” through our conscience, and, if these voices are not heeded, “shouts” to us in our pains. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis gives us a number of characters who are transformed when Aslan comes looking for them—sometimes coming with a whisper, sometimes with a spoken word, but other times with a shout when needed.
Eustace, as Paul Ford notes in Companion to Narnia, is an “arrogant” and “obnoxious” boy who, like all those in his condition, has a “complete misperception of himself.” Eustace, who has not once shown any consideration for anyone else on board The Dawn Treader writes in his diary, “I always try to consider others whether they are nice to me or not.” After his experience on the Lone Islands as a slave no one will buy fails to open his eyes, Eustace is turned into a dragon, a transformation that enables him to finally see himself as he is. As Lewis points out in The Problem of Pain, “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 external alteration mirrors his dragonish inner condition, and—to use Lewis’s metaphor from The Problem of Pain—becomes Aslan’s “megaphone” to rouse the selfish boy’s deaf soul.
For Lewis personally, the idea of marking a new start by seeing the world rightly was both something that happened in a big way at one specific moment of his conversion—where he gave in and admitted that God was God—as well as something that happened in smaller ways again and again. In The Problem of Pain Lewis recounts his own pattern of becoming inordinately focused on “a merry meeting with friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today” and needing to be once again see that “all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ.”
Eustace, while providing Lewis’s most dramatic example of a new start, is by no means his only illustration of a character who undergoes a transformation and comes to see the world rightly. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund reverses the path he is on, as does Elwin Ransom, the protagonist in Lewis’s Space Trilogy. In fact, it could be argued that all of Lewis’s characters, in ways big and small, are continually called to journey “further up and further in” their ways of seeing.
In Prince Caspian, the first comment Lucy makes when she finally meets Aslan is to declare that he seems to have grown bigger. However, as Aslan points out, he has not altered since their last encounter—it is Lucy’s perception that has changed. Aslan explains, “Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
And the same can be said for us as well. Each time we grow in awareness—each time we come to see the world and our place in it more accurately—can be viewed as a new start, or, as Lewis writes at the close of The Last Battle, as a new chapter of that Great Story “in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and Professor of English at Asbury College, where, among other duties, he teaches a class on Lewis. He is the author of Inside Narnia: A Guide to Exploring The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Baker 2005) and Inside Prince Caspian: A Guide to Exploring the Return to Narnia (Baker 2008). He is currently working on Inside the Voyage to the Dawn Treader to be released in fall 2010 in advance of the third film.