“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
Wow. Could there be a better opening line and character description? Immediately readers, even the children for whom the story is meant, will be able to identify the Eustace’s in their lives. With one sentence the “nails on the chalkboard” existence of Eustace is firmly planted in our minds.
C.S. Lewis draws us in with the first pages of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and he continues to lead us through the misadventures of Eustace. We can understand the sentiments of Lucy and Edmond as they deal with his attitude of superiority, and we find it too easy to give in to the idea that he gets what he deserves as things fail to go in his favor. He tries our patience just as he does the same to every creature on the Dawn Treader.
When an author so completely gives us an image of his or her characters, it’s easy for them to become real to us. Suspending our disbelief to accept Narnia and Aslan and dragons as real is only natural. But a great description is only the beginning.
In a well-told story, readers get to know the characters. They get to see beyond the actions and outward appearances to who the characters are at their core. C.S. Lewis describes this occurrence in another quote from Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
“‘In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’
‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.'”
There is more to a star than what is is made of. There is more to a character than their looks and behaviors. It is an author’s job to give their characters souls. In doing so, readers are able to enjoy a fully formed person as complex as the ones sitting beside them while they read.
But in a well-told story the characters evolve through their failures and triumphs. This is not to say they become perfect versions of themselves. Readers don’t want perfection. They want a better understanding of reality. Even in fantasy, there has to be something for the reader to connect to. If readers see themselves in the characters then they also need to see attainable hope. We won’t reach perfection, and I find it frustrating to read about someone who always does the right thing. I want to see the one who tries and fails and gets up to try again. It makes a character work. It made Eustace Clarence Scrubb work.
“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.”
It had begun. It was not finished. And we can appreciate this in the characters we read about. Sometimes it is more difficult to appreciate in the real world with the people affecting our day to day lives. We sit in church and judge the one who tried and failed or the one who is traveling at a snail’s pace in their journey of faith. We place people on a pedestal of perfection that no man since Jesus has been able to attain. We hold them to this impossible standard and crucify them when they fall. Just like we did with Eustace at the beginning of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we fight pleasure at their circumstances when they seem to get what they deserve.
But often we fail to let ourselves relate to them. We color over our own failures. In Jesus’ words, we “look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye”. (Matthew 7:3) When we realize we are all Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and we almost deserve it, we find patience we didn’t know we possessed. We find empathy that desires to see those we previously rooted against become the people God created them to be. We learn how to come along beside our brothers and sisters to encourage each other to continue to grow in faith. We stop taking note of every failure and choose to look at God’s cure in them that has already begun.