I just took my fifth grade students for a voyage on the Dawn Treader, and I have to confess something that might be shocking to those who are familiar with what I consider to be the best book in the series.
I love Eustace Scrubb.
Yes, he is irritating, shrill, mean-spirited, spiteful, and if I had I had a student like Scrubb in my fifth grade class, I would likely duct-tape him to the wall even if it cost me my job. He might just be the most infuriating young character in all of children’s literature, but God help me, I love the kid, and have for a long time.
There. I’ve said it, and I feel better.
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and his masters called Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none.
C.S. Lewis opens the novel by rapping us on the forehead and firmly saying, “You must not like this boy!” just in case we have any inclination to give Scrubb the benefit of the doubt. Lewis then goes on to paint a picture of just how bloody awful the kid is.
First, Scrubb is horrible to our two favorite Pevensies: the ever-patient Lucy and the just-barely-not-irritating-himself Edmund. He teases them about their talk of Narnia that he believes to be make-believe, and Lewis holds nothing back, telling us that Scrubb “was far too stupid to make anything up himself.” (I love it, Clive! Love it!)
Second, Scrubb disrespects the ‘cheep. Reepicheep, among the most beloved of all the Narnian characters, one of the last characters you would want to disrespect, and Scrubb thinks it a funny idea to grab the mouse by the tail and swing him about like a rag doll. Of course, Reepicheep quickly and effectively lets the boy know that he is not a mouse to be trifled with, but the damage to his honor was already done.
And the list of irritants grows. Scrubb can’t be given away at a slave market because of his complaining, he constantly grumbles about the lack of a British Consul in Narnia, he keeps the whiniest diary in the history of diaries, he attempts to steal from the ship’s water supplies, and he calls the King of Narnia an idiot.
Despicable. The kid is absolutely despicable. And yet he is one of my favorites. Am I pathetic? Do I just have bad taste in literary characters? Does insanity run in my family?
To understand why I’m so drawn to Eustace Scrubb, you have to understand Narnia. And to understand Narnia, you have to attempt to understand the Creator of Narnia, and I don’t mean Clive Staples. Of course, I’m referring to the lion. The great lion. The King of the Beasts, and the real ruler of Narnia.
Does the name bring out some emotion when you read it? It does for me, which is surprising, because it’s just a name, and a name of a fictional character at that. But the name represents someone so incredibly wonderful that when I read it – it brings out a mixture of hope, joy, and awe.
Aslan created Narnia, as we read about in The Magician’s Nephew, the first book in the series (chronologically), and so everything in the country obeys him, and plays by his rules. Reading the series, you find that his influence doesn’t end at Narnia’s borders, but extends into our own world, where he can choose to bring people to Narnia.
I wonder how many people (children and adults alike) have wished to be transported from our world to Narnia in the 64 years since the first book was published? Millions, I would guess. I know I have. I’ve spent countless hours sitting in front of wardrobes longing for the back to open up and allow me passage. A student at my school painted a picture of a ship at sea and each time I pass the picture, I imagine it flooding the hallways with water and sucking me into the Great Eastern Ocean.
But here’s the thing. I can stare all day at the wardrobe, and touch the painting longing for wetness, and it won’t matter. We can wish all we want, but the only way we would ever be brought to Narnia would be if it were Aslan’s will.
And this brings me back to Eustace Scrubb, and the question that is raised when you consider his awfulness. Why in the world would Aslan will for such a beastly boy to be brought into the country that he created? The answer is surprisingly simple.
Aslan brought Eustace into Narnia so that Eustace could come to know him, and in coming to know him in Narnia, he could also come to know him back in our world.
“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are -are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
And as we see time and again in the Chronicles, you can’t know the Great Lion without being changed for the better. Even the White Witch, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is afraid to be in the same place as Aslan without having him tied down and completely submissive, which could only happen if Aslan permitted it to happen, and even then she fools herself into thinking that she is in control of the situation.
But what about Scrubb? He’d heard about Aslan while on the Dawn Treader, but had hated the name, as he’d hated everything that was happening to him from the moment he’d been sucked in through the picture on his bedroom wall.
But he had been sucked in for a reason – to know Aslan.
As a boy, Eustace burned people with his words and his bad attitude, and so Aslan permitted him to be transformed into a literal beast, because really, that’s what he was anyway. What was the purpose? Because Eustace needed to see himself for what he really was, so that he could see his need for change, and see that he was incapable of changing on his own.
And this is it – the crux of the matter – and why I love the character so much. Because Eustace is me. I am him. We are one and the same. If you peel away my skin and get a good look at what lies just beneath the surface, you’ll see pure unadulterated ugliness. Dig in deep and you’ll find that greed, lust, selfishness, drunkenness, ignorance, laziness, unfaithfulness, will all come oozing out from the deepest and darkest parts of my being.
Dig in deep and you’ll see that I am a person in desperate need of Narnia.
I don’t need Narnia because it would be cool to see a faun or a giant. I don’t need Narnia because it’s a place untouched by modernity and technology. I don’t need Narnia because it would help me return me to magic and hope, as the movie adverts say.
I need Narnia because I need the one who will look past all of my mistakes and pay more attention to my potential. I need Narnia because I need the one who will care enough about me to allow me experience adversity, pain, and conflict so that I will remember that I need him. I need Narnia because I need the one who is willing to undergo humiliation and suffering to make certain that I don’t have to, and who does it because of his love for me.
In short, like Eustace, I need Aslan.
Like Eustace, like Edmund, like Peter, like Susan, like Diggory, like Jill, like Caspian, like Mr. Tumnus, like the Beavers, like Reepicheep, like Polly, like Tirian, like Trumpkin, like Frank, like Strawberry, like Helen, like Puddleglum, like Prince Rillian, like Puddleglum, like Lucy, and a whole host of others…
I need Aslan.
And so I love Eustace Scrubb. I love him because I see myself in him so very clearly. I love him because he represents the hope in me that although I am so very flawed, there is someone who loves me in spite of myself. There is someone who wants to make certain that I don’t remain flawed, but that I draw closer to him, so that I can become more like him.
And with all due respect to Mr. Liam Neeson, the name of Aslan – the name of the one who C.S. Lewis was hoping that we would find when we returned from our adventures in Narnia with the great lion – that name is not up for grabs.