Into the Wardrobe
By David C. Downing
What’s in a Narnian Name?
Names of the Children
Early in 1949, C. S. Lewis’s friend and fellow author Sister Penelope said she was thinking of adopting a pen name for one of her books and asked if he had any suggestions. Lewis replied with several names for her to consider, one of which was Pevensey. He didn’t give any reason for the name; he probably just liked the sound of it. Sister Penelope never used the nom de plume, but it didn’t go to waste. When The Lion, the Witch and theWardrobe was published the following year, the four children who first entered Narnia were the Pevensies. Apparently, Lewis had found a name he liked before he created the characters to go with it.
As for their given names, Lewis seemed to choose what he considered common English names most young readers would find familiar. In his early draft, the four evacuees were called Ann, Martin, Rose, and Peter, the last one being the youngest. When Lewis returned to the project nearly ten years later, the names became Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, with Peter now the oldest. The one passage where Peter’s name takes on added significance is in The Last Battle, when Aslan commands Peter, as High King, to shut the door on the dark, cold space that had once been the old Narnia. Peter pulls the door closed and locks it with a golden key, a gesture that calls to mind the scene in the Gospels in which Jesus tells his disciple Peter he will give him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Lewis dedicated the first Narnia story to be published, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, to his godchild Lucy Barfield, the daughter of his lifelong friend Owen Barfield. Surely, it is no accident that the most pure-hearted character in the chronicles is also named Lucy. Eustace’s co-adventurer Jill in The Silver Chair may also be named in honor of someone Lewis knew. One of the evacuees who came to the Kilns during World War II was Jill Flewett, who lived there for two years and won the hearts of everyone in the household. The Lewis brothers stayed in touch with Jill after she left Oxford and took up an acting career. One of the very few films they attended was The Woman in the Hall (1947), in which she appeared under the name Jill Raymond. It may be only a coincidence, but when Jill and Eustace first arrive in Narnia, Glimfeather the owl confronts them and asks, in his hooting speech, “But who are you? There’s something magic about you two. I saw you arrive: you flew.” The word flew is italicized in the text, perhaps a typographical tribute to the young lady Lewis admired so much, Jill Flewett.
Of course, Eustace’s name stands out from among the other, more common children’s names. This is intentional, as Lewis makes clear in the opening sentence of The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” That line has made several critics wonder about a boy called Clive Staples Lewis, who felt he didn’t deserve it. (The other character in the series who most resembles Lewis has the funny name of Digory.) Eustace is portrayed as a cad and a snob in the early chapters of Voyage, and Lewis admitted to being something of “a fop, a cad, and a snob” during his time away at boarding school. Though he was never a utilitarian fact-monger like Eustace, the young Lewis did write home to Ireland about being surrounded by “coarse, brainless English schoolboys” at Malvern College.
There also seems to be a bit of the author in Eustace’s “undragoning” episode later in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.” Eustace wanders away from the others and falls asleep on a dragon’s horde, thinking greedy, dragonish thoughts. Turned into a dragon himself by some unknown spell, he realizes he has become “a monster cut off from the whole human race” and admits to himself that he has been a self-centered brat the whole voyage. Though the narrator explains that everyone noticed that “Eustace’s character had been rather improved by becoming a dragon,” he is eager to resume his human form but doesn’t know how. Then one night, Aslan appears to him by moonlight, as in a dream, and carries him off to a place with fruit trees and a wide well like a great marble bath. Eustace tries to scratch off his dragon scales, only to find yet another layer of scales underneath, and then another. Finally, he agrees to let Aslan take over, and the great lion seems to rip his dragon flesh to the very core of his being. Then Aslan picks him up and tosses him into the water, which stings at first but then feels delightful. Through great fear and pain, Eustace is given back his human form. The story goes on to explain that though he still had his bad days, Eustace from that time on “began to be a different boy” because “the cure had begun.”
Eustace’s undragoning is a kind of symbolic baptism, an experience of self-transformation that he could not have accomplished on his own. He comes to see that the secret of change lies in submission, not self-effort. This is a lesson very similar to one found in Lewis’s letters during his period of spiritual transition in his early thirties. About six months after his turn toward theism, Lewis wrote his friend Arthur that things were going well for him spiritually, yet he had to admit to being something of a “conceited ass” (the same term used to describe Eustace in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”). Lewis told Arthur he was still struggling, especially with pride and willfulness: “There seems to be no end to it. Depth under depth of self-love and self-admiration. Closely connected with this is the difficulty I find in making even the faintest approach to giving up my own will.” A few years later, Lewis would write that all such regimens of self-effort were ultimately futile. In The Pilgrim’s Regress, the first book he wrote after his conversion to Christianity, Lewis quoted Augustine’s advice that you must “throw yourself down safely” — that is, let go and trust yourself to Another.
When Eustace returns in The Silver Chair, the narrator introduces him by saying, “His name unfortunately was Eustace Scrubb, but he wasn’t a bad sort.” The priggish name hasn’t changed, but the little boy has. Thinking of his own spiritual journey, the writer may have felt the same way about Clive Staples Lewis.
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David C. Downing is a leading C. S. Lewis expert, award-winning author, and professor of English literature at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. His last book on Lewis was selected as a finalist for the 2003 Gold Medallion Award and named one of the Top Ten Religion Books of the Year by the American Library Association.
(c) 2005 Jossey-Bass, Inc. Used by permission.
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