After a long hiatus, I decided to pick up on my project of re-reading the Narnia books. This is the the third in the series, and it has major recurring characters from the first two, although the story is mostly self contained.
This story is a series of adventures, and most of the individual episodes are quite enjoyable. It features one of the best opening lines in literature: "There once was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." The first half or so of the book shows us how Eustace learns to be a better person, and it's a little heavy-handed with the message, but mostly fun. Even though it makes something that any real fantasy fan would want to see as wonderful as terrible -- I'll comment on that below the cut. Then we have a few more good adventures, with some moral messages thrown in but not really in a bad way. Unfortunately, as far as I'm concerned, I do see the overt Christian propagandizing in the end of the book that I commented on not having really seen in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, despite some people's railings against it. Aslan does everything but actually outright say that he is Jesus and only by being a good Christian can you go to Aslan's country. And that explicit and specific identification with Christianity retroactively colors Aslan's previous appearances in the story and makes them feel more like proselytism. I know I read this book more than once as a child, and while I remembered some of the adventures pretty well, I didn't remember the Christian message, so maybe it isn't really that overwhelming unless you're reading as an adult and you've been sensitized by hearing criticism. But right now, after finishing it, I'm feeling that it's not really an appropriate book for children. Committing to a particular religion is for consenting adults.
6 out of 10. Liked it more until the end.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
Edmund and Lucy are sent to spend the summer with their cousin Eustace, a selfish, mean-spirited, bullying little snot. Edmund and Lucy are looking at the picture in Lucy's bedroom -- which they think is the only nice thing in the house -- and saying it looks like a Narnian ship when Eustace comes in to taunt them. They start to argue about it, and then fall into the picture, and Caspian dives into the water to rescue them. Caspian, having secured his rule, is off on a quest to find out what happened to 7 Narnian lords who were exiled by Miraz, and Reepicheep, the valiant talking mouse, is on his own quest to fulfill a prophecy that he will sail to the utter east. In the first adventure, Caspian, Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace foolishly go off alone and get captured by slavers. Caspian is separated and bought by one of the missing lords, to whom he reveals himself. Then they rescue the others, depose the corrupt Governor, and put the lord in place. Next, after a great storm, they come to an island, and Eustace sneaks off on his own to avoid having to work. He gets lost and happens to be present just as an old dragon dies, drinks from the pool the dragon bled into, and seeks shelter from the rain in the dragon's cave. When he wakes up, he's transformed into a dragon. By this time he's sorry and has come to realize that the others would be nicer to him than he'd deserved and he just wants to go back. After a bit, he has a dream in which he meets Aslan, who strips off the dragon skin and turns him into a boy again. Then they evade a sea serpent and a river whose waters turn anything they touch into gold, and go on to an island where they are captured by mysterious invisible beings (who are remarkably stupid), who demand that Lucy sneak into the house of the Magician to read a spell to turn them visible again (they don't like being invisible, but they're afraid to go into the house to fix it themselves). Lucy agrees, is tempted by other spells in the book but steered away by Aslan (who appears in the book's pictures) and performs the correct spell. The mysterious creatures made visible turn out to be dwarves who were transformed to have only one giant foot, so they get around by hopping. The magician is a decent sort, but can't really do anything about the fact that the Duffers are so stupid that they mess everything up. Next comes a place of mysterious darkness, where they rescue what turns out to be another of the missing lords, who tells them that this island is the place where dreams come true. Not daydreams, but real dreams, and (although they don't actually say it) apparently only the bad ones. Then they arrive at another island where they find a huge table set with a glorious banquet, with three odd piles of hair at one end, which they discover are actually the last three of the missing lords, who have been placed in magical sleep. At first they fear that the banquet is cursed, but then Ramandu, who dwells there, explains that this is Aslan's Table, and the sleepers were cursed because they quarreled over the Knife of Stone -- the same knife with which Aslan was sacrificed in Lion. Ramandu tells them that the curse can be broken if they sail all the way that they can to the east, and they leave at least one of their party behind there. Rhoop, the lord who is nearly crazy from the bad dream place, joins the other sleepers, Reepicheep vows to be the one to go all the way to Aslan's Country, Caspian gets the hint that he can have Ramandu's daughter on the way back, and they sail on. The sun gets too bright, the water becomes sweet, it becomes overgrown with lilies, and eventually it's too shallow for the ship to continue, so Reepicheep continues east in his coracle. Caspian tries to abdicate the throne and go east himself, but the others force him to recognize that as king, he has a greater duty than to follow his own heart, and he agrees to go back. They turn sideways and find a place where they meet Aslan, who takes the earth children back home. When they ask for assurance that they will see Aslan and his country again, Aslan basically says that he's Jesus, his country is heaven, and they'll meet him again if they're good Christians.
I remembered the part of the story where Eustace becomes a dragon and then Aslan saves him fairly well (and most clearly of the whole story) from thirty-odd years ago, but I don't remember feeling such disappointment that Eustace could have something as wonderfully cool as being a dragon, and only be unhappy about it, and then have to be turned into a human again. I probably hadn't read much of anything about dragons then -- certainly not about good dragons. When I read it now, I want Eustace's adventure to end with Aslan taking off the arm-ring that cuts into his flesh because it's much too small for his dragon foreleg, and instead of turning him human again, giving him the ability to talk and somehow letting him join the quest as a dragon.