A Tale of Tall Tails

(An occasional paper inspired by the movie Prince Caspian)

“Hail, Aslan!” came his shrill voice. “I have the honour—” But then he suddenly stopped.

The fact was that he still had no tail—whether that Lucy had forgotten it or that her cordial, though it could heal wounds, could not make things grow again. Reepicheep became aware of his loss as he made his bow, perhaps it altered something in his balance. . . .

“Why have your followers all drawn their swords, may I ask?” said Aslan.

“May it please your High Majesty,” said the second Mouse, whose name was Peepiceek, “we are all wanting to cut off our own tails if our Chief must go without his. We will not bear the shame of wearing an honour which is denied to the High Mouse.”

“Ah!” roared Aslan. “You have conquered me. You have great hearts. Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the love that is between you and your people . . . you shall have your tail again.”

(C.S. Lewis, “Prince Caspian,” The Chronicles of Narnia: including an essay on Writing [New York: HarperCollins, 2004], 412-413)

C.S. Lewis has been viewed by many as an outright chauvinist at worst, or an old academic fuddy-duddy at best. Allow me an opportunity to partially dispel both misconceptions.

David C. Downing surveyed the charges of sexist attitudes in his study of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. In this book, he points out that it is generally the “male malefactors” who are sexist, and that both genders are implicated in both good and evil throughout the books. He also notes that the books strongly condemn racism. Further, he notes that Aslan, the figure of the divine representative, always deals one-on-one with others, and does not engage in stereotyping or social-based classifications (David C. Downing, Into the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles [San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2005], 156-160).

Downing's comment about Aslan, although placed in the context of gender issues, can also be considered in the light of claims that disability, or at least its effects, is a social construction. For example, being female is often cited as one of the world’s oldest disabilities: it is a condition that results in perceptions that lead to social limitations. While, as noted, Lewis adhered to several traditions about gender roles, he also reached beyond them. For one instance, he supported the education of women for academic careers at a time when it was not fashionable, thereby undermining the charge of sexism (Downing, 158-160).

In this episode, the Mouse Leader, Reepicheep, has lost his tail in the course of a battle. There are two problems which arise from this, both of which bear on the modern definition of disability. The first is inability or limitation of a major life function. The loss causes Reepicheep to lose his sense of balance. The second definition of a disabling condition is that it causes others to perceive the person in question as being disabled or limited.

The first factor is clear enough. The mouse is initially unable to balance his walk without the tail. The second factor then emerges: the other mice stand ready to cut off their own tails. Then the scene shifts to Aslan, who states that the tail will be restored—and the rationale is a matter of some interest for its portrayal of disability and healing. It is not for the sake of personal “dignity” that the tail will be restored, but because the others refuse to go through life without sharing the condition that their leader will struggle with.

Here is an indication of how, according to Lewis, the divine mind deals with disability. Flashy faith healing or other displays of physical restoration are not the way in which God’s love is made known to us. A miracle that would end the disabling condition is not needed—especially when it is manifest only in the physical realm.

What is needed is acceptance by others in the social group, and even, as shown here, “going the second mile” to insist on living with the condition themselves in a display of solidarity. It is because the others in Reepicheep’s group refuse to go through life without sharing the same condition that restoration of the tail is granted.

There is, however, more to disabling conditions than dignity. Even in the world of the Americans With Disabilities Act, it is often difficult to get around. When this writer relocated in 2007, he visited several churches whose web sites stated they were "accessible." Unfortunately, he found that, despite technical adherence to ADA regulations, that the accessibility was clumsily done and difficult to use in real life. The experience of this difficulty has been repeated in the experience of others in places ranging from aircraft to theaters and schools.

Because of such concerns, one could ask why Lewis does not address the problems faced by those who live with disabling conditions. How will Reepicheep get around in the future?

One would, first of all, hope that the concern expressed by the other mice will result in the necessary accommodations. Perhaps the remaining lack of "dignity" would be viewed as a sign of honor.

To carry that through to a conclusion, we note that ultimately, God's interest is that each person in the community is willing to share the situation of those who are injured or disadvantaged. That attitude, growing from the "Golden Rule," is a first step away from ideas that would present anyone with an excuse to withdraw from the sufferings of others. It points out the difference between such phrases as ministry to and ministry with.

While Lewis held to some social norms that we might think old-fashioned, he was not a chauvinist in the sense of being mean-spirited. In the classical and medieval traditions with which he was so familiar, the incidents he constructs are presented not only for us to read and enjoy, but for us to learn from by looking beyond their outward substance and understanding their meaning. His writings offer us no excuse to withdraw from others and our concern for their lives and well-being.


20 February 2008