Finding Self, Forgetting Self–Post 5 of 5

At the end of my last entry about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lord Rhoop had been rescued from his solipsistic nightmare and was settling down to his first good rest in a long time. This last section addresses Reepicheep’s pursuit of Utter East. This fifth post in the series is the conclusion of the chapter titled “Finding Self, Forgetting Self” in my book, The World According to Narnia.

The new VDT movie releases December 10.

Rest isn’t the ultimate goal of self-forgetfulness. Even Rhoop, when his sleep is over, will sail back to Narnia and get on with his life.  Not Reepicheep, though. His obsessive wish is for the “utter east.” He will sail, then paddle, then swim if he needs to, ever eastward, ever closer to Aslan’s country. “And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise.” He is the picture of pure focus. Aslan’s country is his telos, his end, in every sense of the word: the end of the world, the end of his life, the goal and purpose toward which he bends his every effort.

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Finding Self, Forgetting Self — Part 4 of 5

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a book about the blessings of self-forgetfulness. Part 3 of this series dealt with Lucy’s surprising moment of self-will in Coriakin’s house. Part 4 addresses the personal hell that is Dark Island–where dreams come true.

Self-absorption is distilled to its terrifying essence in the episode of Lord Rhoop on Dark Island. When the Dawn Treader leaves the light of day and is enveloped in an uncanny darkness, it becomes apparent that we are entering another kind of world—one that has no connection to the world of sky and wind and light. The travelers’ instincts tell them to avoid this eerie place at all costs. But the voice of Reepicheep urges the Dawn Treader onward. He’s not afraid of the dark, and he puts his shipmates in the uncomfortable position of compromising their honor if they don’t plunge in.

Out of the darkness they hear the ghost-like voice of Rhoop: “Mercy! Even if you are only one more dream, have mercy. Take me on board. Take me, even if you strike me dead.” When they bring Rhoop on board, his eyes are wild with terror. He urges the crew to row as hard as they can from this cursed place. This, he explains, is the island where dreams come true. And not daydreams either—not the self-flattering reveries of an idle hour. Here the dreams of sleep, the spawn of the deepest, darkest subconscious, come to life.

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Finding Self, Forgetting Self — Part 3 of 5

We’re just a couple of days from the release of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader Movie. I’ve been reproducing the VDT chapter from my 2005 book, The World According to Narnia. The gist of the chapter is that VDT is all about finding your true self by forgetting yourself–by losing yourself in something bigger and more interesting than the cramped little self that the selfish always find themselves in. Part 2 from last week focused on Eustace and his recovery from stifling selfishness. This week’s entry is about Lucy in Coriakin’s house.

Eustace’s is the most fully developed case of self-absorption and its cure in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but two others deserve a closer look too. The first is that of Lucy reading Coriakin’s book of spells. One of the most remarkable things about this episode is the fact that it is Lucy who falls victim to vanity. Lucy is the most spiritually sensitive and spiritually mature of the characters in the Chronicles of Narnia. And yet even Lucy is not immune to the sins of self-centeredness and vanity.

Lucy finds herself flipping through the book of spells for wholly noble reasons. She has shown considerable bravery coming into Coriakin’s house to reverse the spell that made the Duffers invisible and thereby to save her shipmates who are being held hostage. But she is enchanted by the book of enchantments.

She lingers over the spell that would make her beautiful beyond the lot of mortals. Its accompanying pictures depict her, Lucy, changing the spell “with a rather terrible expression on her face,” then becoming a dazzling beauty—so dazzling that the real Lucy has to look away. But the book also shows the terrible effects of such beauty. Kings throughout the Narnian world fight for her, and whole kingdoms are laid waste on her account. She sees herself back in England, where she eclipses Susan, the beauty of the Pevensie family. And not only is the Susan in the picture less beautiful than the beautiful Lucy, she is less beautiful than the real Susan, and she wears a “nasty expression” on her face. She is jealous of her little sister, “but that didn’t matter a bit, because nobody cared anything about Susan anymore.”

It’s a little jarring to know that Lucy could harbor such selfish thoughts. It’s even more jarring to see that Lucy, having observed the harm that kind of beauty would bring on other people, seems determined to say the spell in spite of her conscience. It’s the worst sort of self-aggrandizement, this conscious wish to gain at others’ expense. But Aslan intervenes. When Lucy sees the Lion’s snarling face, she knows not to carry out her plan.

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How Sally Apokedak Rescued The Charlatan's Boy

Sally Apokedak saves the day.

The Charlatan’s Boy was an exceedingly difficult book for me to write. Before writing this book, I had never experienced writer’s block. I didn’t, in fact, believe it existed. “Writer’s block” conjures up images of the tortured artist, misunderstood by the world. Me, I’ve always been a plain procrastinator. I thought it would be distinctly unhelpful to dignify my procrastination with the term “writer’s block.”

But in the writing of The Charlatan’s Boy, I experienced something that went beyond procrastination. I don’t know any word for it besides writer’s block. I had set a task for myself that I wasn’t at all sure I could accomplish. I’ve always been comfortable writing raucous, whoop-it-up stories, but The Charlatan’s Boy, for all its robustiousness is really a story about a boy’s inner life. It’s one thing to write about alligator wrestling; it’s quite another to write about a boy’s wrestling with his loneliness, his hurt, his ugliness. Writers often talk about how terrifying it is to write; I usually dismissed that as mostly self-indulgence. But I was pretty terrified by the thought of trying to go deeper into a character’s inner life. I literally pictured readers saying, “Really? That’s what you call insight into the human condition? Why don’t you stick to alligator wrestling?”

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Desire, Choice, Consequence: Building Character Through Stories

This is a version of an article I wrote for LifeWay’s ParentLife magazine. It appeared in the July, 2010 issue.

At writing seminars everywhere, writing teachers are giving stuck story-writers the same advice: “Ask yourself, ‘What is it that my character wants?’”

Why? Because once you know what a character wants, you know what choices he or she is likely to make. Once your character starts making choices, consequences follow. And then a story begins to take shape.

Desire. Choice. Consequence. That’s what a story is made of.

When we speak of the other kind of character—an individual’s character or integrity—we’re usually talking about the choices that person makes. A person of character chooses the good over the bad, the better over the good, the best over the better, whatever the circumstances. And why does a person make such choices? Because he or she wants what is good or better or best.

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Finding Self, Forgetting Self--Part 2

This is the second of a several-part series reproducing the chapter on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader from my 2005 book, The World According to Narnia. Here’s hoping it prepares you to enjoy the movie more when it comes out next week. At the end of our last installment, we had left Eustace Scrubb, the boy who almost deserved his name, seasick and miserable on the deck of The Dawn Treader.

Eustace’s cowardice comes into sharpest focus in his conflicts with Reepicheep; here mean-spiritedness and magnanimity are juxtaposed. Eustace likes animals, as long as they are dead and pinned to cards—in other words, as long as they are reduced to mere objects to be observed. Nothing in Eustace’s experience has prepared him to meet a talking mouse, and certainly not a talking mouse who is his moral superior in all respects. Because Eustace knows nothing of courage, he believes he is safe bullying a creature so much smaller than he. Courage is a virtue no doubt debunked at the model school Eustace attends, for its basis is emotional. More to the point, courage is “emotion organized by trained habit into stable sentiment.” And it is that habit, that training, that both informs Reepicheep of the proper response and steels him to carry it through in spite of the danger.

With no code of honor (or, indeed, any other code of behavior) to shape his response, Eustace runs through a series of tentative responses, none of which he manages to stick to in the face of the inexorable wrath of an injured mouse. None of Eustace’s responses are noble—which is to say, he never takes responsibility for his actions. His first response at the sight of Reepicheep’s sword is simply a schoolmarmish dismissal: “Put that thing away. It’s not safe.”

Reepicheep won’t be dismissed. Eustace tries to make his cowardice more respectable by wrapping it in a philosophy: he’s a pacifist. Reepicheep still demands satisfaction. “I don’t know what you mean,” says Eustace, and he is no doubt telling the truth on many levels. Still refusing to take responsibility for his own actions, he faults Reepicheep for not being able to take a joke. He finally runs away from the “birching” that he has earned, and when he takes up the matter with Caspian, he threatens to “bring an action.”

This is vintage Eustace. Faced with a man—or mouse—of action, he runs as hard as his still-wobbly legs will carry him. His idea of action is the kind that is brought in a courtroom. He looks to a bureaucracy, to a system, to settle a matter that could be settled quite easily by two people willing to take responsibility for their own behavior. The simplicity and clarity of Reepicheep’s vision, the Narnian vision, benefits by the comparison.

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Finding Self, Forgetting Self – Part 1

In the fall of 2005–shortly before the movie of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe came out, I published a book called The World According to Narnia. That book, alas, is out of print now. Which is a shame; I’m proud of that book and think it’s quite good. I have the print rights back. I hope to release an electronic version in the not-too-distant future, but I’m a little vague on the status of the electronic rights. In the meantime, in honor of the upcoming release of the Dawn Treader movie, I’ll be reproducing the chapter of The World According to Narnia that concerns itself with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This will be a several-part series.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my least favorite of the Narnia books. I should quickly add, however, that that is like saying peach pie is my least favorite kind of pie. I still like it very, very much–just not quite as much as I like the other Narnia books.

This chapter is called “Finding Self, Forgetting Self.” Here’s the first section:

One of the enduring images of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is Reepicheep in the front of the ship, up by the dragon’s head, urging the Dawn Treader onward, eastward toward his destiny. Indeed, it seems as if it is Reepicheep’s desire, as much as the westerly wind, that drives the ship along. The smallest of the characters in The Chronicles of Narnia, Reepicheep embodies magnanimity—literally, largeness of soul. He is a mouse of vision, and his whole life is defined by the song the Dryad sang over his cradle:

Where sky and water meet,
Where waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek,
There in the utter east.

Reepicheep is forever looking east, seeking more and greater adventures.

It seems at times that a sense of adventure is the only sense Reepicheep has. An utter disregard for his own safety is one of the more obvious expressions of the self-forgetfulness that shapes his character. He has mastered every instinct that might induce him to turn inward, to protect himself, to draw back. He knows no fear but the fear of missing out on an adventure. Even his one vanity—his overdeveloped sense of personal honor—takes him beyond himself, forces him to turn his attention outward, upward, onward. Jesus said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.” Reepicheep, in forgetting about himself, in refusing to hold too tightly onto his life, is more alive than anyone else on the Dawn Treader.

The exaggerated outwardness of Reepicheep’s life calls attention to one of the central ironies of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: in this story of adventure on the high seas, of uncharted islands and strange creatures, the reader is struck by the inwardness of so many of the major conflicts.

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Funny Things Are Everywhere: A Thanksgiving Meditation

Travis Prinzi, a colleague from the Rabbit Room, posted on Facebook a bedtime prayer his young daughter prayed a week or two ago:

God is good, God is great.
Funny things are everywhere.
You need to go to sleep.

There’s a whole worldview in that little prayer.

I am thankful for jokes and funny things. I believe they represent more than a break from life’s “serious” matters. By preventing us from taking this life too seriously, funny things remind us that there are things that are much more serious. In light of heaven’s weighty joys, how can we help but treat the things of earth with a certain levity? Indeed, we place ourselves in grave danger if we take this world or our own selves too seriously.

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Unlikely Heroes

Hobbits in Shelob's Lair

I gave a talk before a reading at Nashville’s St. Paul Christian Academy last week. This is a version of that talk. That picture to the left, by the way, is by Justin Gerard, one of my favorite illustrators. Here’s a link to his blog posts about his illustrations of The Hobbit.

Of all the characters in The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits seem the least qualified to deliver the Ring to Mordor. We love the fact that they do. The very pedestian muggles who raise Harry Potter believe he’ll never amount to anything, yet he is the object of hope and wonder in the much more wonderful world of the wizards.

Why do we so love stories of unlikely heroes? I think it’s because they’re the truest stories.

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In Which I Talk To Canadian Radio Listeners

Last week I was the guest on “Wednesday Bookmark,” a drive-time book discussion on Ottowa’s CHRI Family Radio station. Host Care Stevens was very gracious and informed, though she was under the impression that I had a thick accent. If you’re so inclined, you can listen by clicking the link below. All the “um’s”

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