C.S. Lewis and the dragon-ness of human hearts
I’m an ardent fan of The Chronicles of Narnia book series by C.S. Lewis. He was particularly gifted at using fiction to deepen our grasp of truth. The story of Narnia and Aslan and the children who find themselves caught up in this fictional world’s struggles, battles, and victories help us better understand the truth of our world, our stories, and ultimately point us to the one true King.
“I am [in your world],” 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 that is the very reason Lewis created Narnia and invited us to share in its story. He hoped that by knowing Aslan there, we might know Jesus better here.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about one scene in particular found in the fifth book of the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There is a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb. He is described as being without friends and a bossy bully who enjoys giving people a bad time. Shortly after the story begins, Eustace finds himself in Narnia with his cousins Peter, Edmund, and Lucy. Quite frankly, you quickly find yourself regretting that he was brought along on the adventure because he really is a horrible boy.
As the story progresses, Eustace finds himself separated from the others. While trying to find his way back, he stumbles across a hoard of dragon treasure. The dragon is dead, and Eustace realizes the hoard of treasure is his for the taking. His heart, already selfish, prideful, and cruel, is overcome with greed as he falls asleep in the comfort of his newly acquired wealth.
When he wakes, though, something has drastically changed. He is no longer a boy. While sleeping, his outward appearance has been transformed to reflect his inward heart. He has become a dragon! And he is in great pain. A bracelet found among the treasure, and which he placed on his arm while still a boy, is much too tight for his dragon leg and is cutting into his flesh.
At first, Eustace doesn’t recognize that a dragon is what he has become; he didn’t grow up hearing about dragons and didn’t know what they were. When he sees his reflection in the water, he sees a monster. He begins to weep deeply and loudly. He doesn’t want to be a monster, but he has no power to make himself a boy again.
He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realized that he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him.
He ends up reuniting with his group, who realizes the dragon is actually Eustace and accepts him, but being a dragon among his peers leaves him feeling separated and lonely and, of course, he continues in pain from the bracelet squeezing into his flesh. All is not lost for Eustace, though. As he endures the trial, he begins to change on the inside.
At just the right moment, Aslan comes to him. He leads him to a garden at the top of a mountain. At the center of the garden, there is a large, clear, bubbling well. Eustace is drawn to bathe in the well. He’s convinced the cool, inviting water will ease the pain in his leg, but Aslan tells him he must undress first.
Eustace tries. He tries to peel off his dragon skin. He scratches himself deeper and deeper, and a layer of skin does peel off just like a snake’s. Unfortunately, another layer of nasty dragon skin is underneath. He tries again and again, and two more layers of skin peel away, but another layer is always underneath. His attempts to free himself are futile.
Then Aslan says, “You will have to let me undress you.” At first, Eustace is afraid of Aslan’s sharp claws, but he is also desperate. He rolls over and lays flat down on his back.
“The very first tear [Aslan] made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was, lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the other had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”
What does Eustace’s experience in Narnia teach us about ourselves and our world? I think a lot. And just as C.S. Lewis intended, Eustace’s story points us to the one true King and our only hope for salvation.
The image of God means human beings can be something animals can’t: evil.
Human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). We are set apart from all creation and given a special dignity and value by God. Because of the fall, though, we are no longer able to perfectly reflect God’s righteousness and holiness (Genesis 3). We are born sinners in rebellion against God (Romans 5:12). In this way, the image of God in humanity has been tarnished or diminished.
Although no human being can ever lose his or her humanity, because of sin human beings can live and function in ways we recognize as being no better than animals and even much worse.
If a lion brutally kills a zebra, no one claims it is a monster, only that it is a lion. Humans, though, being created in God’s image, are moral creatures able to choose right and wrong which means humans are capable of what animals are not: good and evil.
If a man brutally kills a woman, we recognize it as a monstrous act precisely because he isn’t an animal but a human being. And a human has the capability of being much worse than a lion. Human beings can be cruel and delight in their cruelty.
Read the accounts of the Holocaust, the horrors of the medical experimentation and torture, study the Nanking Massacre, the Rwandan genocide, the Armenian genocide, take in the atrocities of slavery, open your newspaper or news app and read the horrific stories of child abuse and rape, listen to families terrorized by MS-13 and other gangs. Human beings can be monsters but not because they’ve lost their humanity. It is their humanity that makes being monsters possible.
In a dragon cave, atop a hoard of treasure, Eustace became a dragon, but his heart had been dragonish for a long time before. Eventually, who we are on the inside will be revealed in what we become. Of course, no one is actually going to be transformed into a physical dragon as Eustace was, but humans given over to their sinful desires can become very much like dragons, very much like monsters.
Jesus is the Knight in shining armor who gives his life for the dragon.
But here is the good news. God, in Christ Jesus, can set us free from our dragonish existence. He can cut right through our thick dragon skin and scales and get right to our stony hearts, dead in their trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:1-3), and make them alive! God can make us new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17).
When Aslan set Eustace free, He didn’t just free him from the physical dragon he had become but from the dragon he had always been even when he appeared to be merely a boy. He set Eustace free from his dragonish heart.
Eustace still had his struggles. He wasn’t perfect, but he was different. Yes, Aslan made Eustace a boy again, but he wasn’t the same boy he had been before. He was a new boy with a new heart. He had been stripped of his old nature, washed in living water, and dressed in new clothes. In an instant, having changed who Eustace was, Aslan also changed the trajectory of what Eustace would become (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Jesus is the ultimate Knight in shining armor who, instead of slaying the dragon as the dragon deserved, gave His life for the dragon.
You are more wicked than you ever dared believe and yet, you are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than you ever dared hope.”
― Tim Keller
We must recognize who we are (sinners with dragonish tendencies) and our hopelessness to do anything about it and allow that truth to pierce us right to our hearts, much like Aslan pierced Eustace (Romans 3:10; Ephesians 2:8-9). We must stop scratching at our dragon skin in an attempt to save ourselves and surrender laying flat down on our backs at the foot of the cross. There, Jesus takes our old nature, washes us, and clothes us in His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). We won’t be perfect, yet. We will still wrestle with former ways, but He who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6).
If we fail to admit we human beings can stoop to monster-like behavior, we not only deny our humanity and therefore the image of God but also the hope of the Gospel.
That a human being is capable of acting much more like an animal, or a dragon, than a human, isn’t surprising. We hear about it every day in the news and even feel the tendency toward dragon-ness in our own hearts. That a dragon can become a saint…that’s the real scandal! And, yet, God so loved the world…(John 3:16)
Thank goodness He did!