middle brother syndrome in British fantasy literature

Every once in a while on this blog, I like to write about Edmund Pevensie (here is an example) because he is one of my favorite fictional characters, even though he spends most of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a selfish brat.  (Selfish brats are easy to identify with, at least for me.)  In one post, I paired him with Percy Weasley because they both suffer from the same condition: both are middle children who feel they’ll never live up to their older siblings’ perfection and who need to assert their superiority to their younger siblings, so they end up betraying their family (in Edmund’s case) or at least betraying their values (in Percy’s case).  And both are, prodigal son-like, restored to their families, but not before suffering humiliation and loss.

Just the other day, I realized there’s another character in British fantasy literature who fits in with these two.  I’m teaching Peter Pan in children’s lit this week, so I’ve been immersing myself in the story and its context for the past few days: watching the Disney cartoon and Finding Neverland, reading a biography of J. M. Barrie and the Llewellyn Davies boys called The Real Peter Pan, and even bringing my flying Peter Funko Pop to my office, where he’s currently about to take off from a stack of books (including a volume of Barrie’s representative plays) on my desk.  And now I have just one question for you: Can we give a little love to poor overlooked John Darling?

John is, unlike Edmund and Percy, an exact middle child, the second of three.  And though he seems, unlike them, to have a good relationship with his siblings, I always sense a subtle bitterness toward Wendy for her obsession with Peter Pan (John’s natural rival in age and leadership ability—notice how annoyed John gets when Wendy won’t let him sit in Peter’s chair) and a bit of jealousy of Michael for being everybody’s cute little favorite.  And there is that moment where John comes perilously close to signing up for a life of crime with Captain Hook; it’s only when he finds out he’d have to forswear loyalty to the King that he refuses.  Note that he doesn’t seem, in that moment, to care about abandoning his family—just about being a bad British citizen.  Doesn’t that sound like Percy?  John has that same self-importance—and, related to that, desperation to be seen as grown up—that we see in our other two examples.  The detail Barrie includes of John “seizing his Sunday hat” before flying out the nursery window is brilliant—it confirms our impression of him as a stolid, middle-aged, middle-class banker in a ten-year-old’s body.  (The Disney movie really plays this up, giving John a fussy little umbrella and a prodigious vocabulary.)  And that’s why my heart melts when I’m reminded that he is still a boy, a tired and homesick boy who is ultimately very glad to go home.

One reason I love all these characters is that everyone else seems to either forget about them or hate them.  I’ve never been a middle child or anyone’s brother, but I know what it’s like to wish to be taken seriously, so I feel for these boys, selfish and self-important as they may be.  Can you think of anyone else who might fit into this category?

my discussion board post

I’m teaching my first real graduate class this week (it’s in a one-week intensive format), and let me just tell you that I’ve been having major imposter syndrome (i.e., that voice in your head that tells you you’ve fooled everyone into believing you’re smarter than you actually are and that the truth is about to come out) all weekend and into today.  Fortunately, these graduate students are kind and understanding and (since most of them are graduate student assistants) know something about feeling unprepared to teach, so today went pretty well.

I teach at a Christian university, and tonight I’m having my students write a discussion board post about how their Christian worldview impacts their scholarly career.  (These are English M.A. students, many of whom will go on to careers in academia.)  So I thought I, too, should do what I’m asking them to do, but since I don’t want to crash their creative party by becoming the awkward authoritative presence in the virtual room, I’m writing my thoughts here.

  1. How my Christian worldview has impacted me as a writer and researcher.  As Gilderoy Lockhart once said, “For full details, see my published works” (flashes award-winning smile).  All I mean by that is that I won’t take the time to go into great detail here because I’ve already written about this at length in the introduction to my dissertation.  In summary, I said that I’m more comfortable than a secular scholar would be with talking about authors as real personalities, not merely constructs, because I believe that God, a very real personality, inspired the Bible and had a clear authorial intent in mind when he did so.  Therefore, even though I know that a degree, perhaps a large degree, of uncertainty is inevitable when we interpret texts (even when we interpret the Bible with our finite rational capabilities), it is imperative that we respect the text–any text–and its author and do our best to understand the intention, even if we don’t agree with it, and even if we see interpretive possibilities that may not have been in the author’s conscious thought.  That’s not a popular view in literary criticism, but I think it’s a Christian view.
  2. How my Christian worldview has impacted me as a teacher.  In many ways, I hope!  I hope my Christian worldview, along with the Holy Spirit inside me, has helped me to see the value of all students, to be patient with them, and to listen to them before I start telling them what I think they should think.  (I don’t always succeed at all of this.)  I know my Christian worldview has helped me to see teaching as a meaningful calling, not a frustrating but necessary side effect of being a scholar.  My Christian worldview also has a direct impact on what I say in class, something I’ve been focusing on more deliberately in the past few years as I’ve come to realize that not all of my students a) are Christians and b) understand the Bible and their faith well.  I teach English, not theology, but there are so many opportunities to speak Jesus’s name and the truth of the gospel in my classes, whether we’re looking at the triumph of grace over law in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or the resurrection symbolism in Much Ado about Nothing.  (A lot of the depressing short stories I assigned in English 102 were great purely for their clear demonstration of how badly sin has messed up our world.)

There it is, my discussion board post.  I’ve written twice as much as I asked my students to write, but we teachers are known for being a bit long-winded. 😉

You and I are Edmund Pevensie.

I’m listening to the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  (By the way, I’m pretty much addicted right now to the FOTF Radio Theatre adaptations of classics, and I’ve nearly exhausted my church library’s stash.  If you have any recommendations in that series or other audio dramatizations I might enjoy, let me know, and I will start looking elsewhere.)  I’m remembering how much I love this story.  The title of my post is pretty obvious to anyone who’s even shallowly considered the Christian implications of C. S. Lewis’s classic.  Duh, of course Edmund represents the sinner who is redeemed by Christ’s (Aslan’s) sacrificial death.

But this time, I’ve been thinking about why it’s so easy for me to identify with this rather unpleasant little English boy from a time before I was born.  I’ve always liked Edmund most of the four siblings–Lucy is basically just cute; Peter is too heroic, and Susan (I hate to say it) is pretty boring.  But that doesn’t explain why I’m so overcome at that point when Aslan comes out of the tent with Edmund and says, “Here is your brother.  There is no need to talk to him about what is past.”  Certainly, I’m moved by the truth behind the scene, but allegory, true as it may be, can often be cold and dry.

I think the reason I identify with Edmund, and why most people, if honest with themselves, probably do too, is that his sins are so mundane.  He is not trying to take over the world; he is not flagrantly cruel; he does not craft audacious lies or tempt with the voice of Satan.  Those are the White Witch’s sins.  Edmund’s sins are a child’s sins: He is jealous of his older brother, pettily mean to his little sister, and generally cross with all of his siblings.  He does tell a few lies, but not the kind that could hurt anyone (so he thinks).  He wants people to recognize that he’s important.  And yeah, he loves sweets a bit too much.

These are a child’s sins, but adults don’t grow out of them.  All of these have been my sins, some of them often.  So that’s why this story means so much to me.  Jesus doesn’t just save flamboyantly evil sinners; he also saves sinners who are cranky, greedy, cowardly, and prideful despite not having very much to be proud about.

For more on unpleasant English boys (in Narnia and at Hogwarts), see my post Sometimes humility must come through humiliation.

Sometimes humility must come through humiliation

Luke 15:17-24 But when [the younger son] come to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Make me like one of your hired servants.'”  And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.  And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against haven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  But the father said to his servants, “Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.  And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”  And they began to be merry.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis, chapter 7 (Eustace’s story about turning from a dragon back into a boy)*: “Then the lion said” – but I don’t know if it spoke – “You will have to let me undress you.” I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

“The very first tear he 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.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” said Edmund.

“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 others 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. You’d think me simply phoney if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they’ve no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian’s, but I was so glad to see them.

“After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me – ”

“Dressed you. With his paws?”

“Well, I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes – the same I’ve got on now, as a matter of fact. And then suddenly I was back here. Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream.”

“No. It wasn’t a dream,” said Edmund.

“Why not?”

“Well, there are the clothes, for one thing. And you have been – well, un-dragoned, for another.”

“What do you think it was, then?” asked Eustace.

“I think you’ve seen Aslan,” said Edmund.

“Aslan!” said Eustace. “I’ve heard that name mentioned several times since we joined the Dawn Treader. And I felt – I don’t know what – I hated it. But I was hating everything then. And by the way, I’d like to apologize. I’m afraid I’ve been pretty beastly.”

“That’s all right,” said Edmund. “Between ourselves, you haven’t been as bad as I was on my first trip to Narnia. You were only an ass, but I was a traitor.”

“Well, don’t tell me about it, then,” said Eustace. “But who is Aslan? Do you know him?”

“Well – he knows me,” said Edmund. “He is the great Lion, the son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea, who saved me and saved Narnia. We’ve all seen him. Lucy sees him most often. And it may be Aslan’s country we are sailing to.”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling, chapter 30 There was a scuffling and a great thump: Someone else had clambered out of the tunnel, overbalanced slightly, and fallen.  He pulled himself up on the nearest chair, looked around through lopsided horn-rimmed classes, and said, “Am I too late?  Has it started?  I only just found out, so I–I–”

Percy spluttered into silence.  Evidently he had not expected to run into most of his family.  There was a long moment of astonishment, broken by Fleur turning to Lupin and saying, in a wildly transparent attempt to break the tension, “So–‘ow eez leetle Teddy?”

Lupin blinked at her, startled.  The silence between the Weasleys seemed to be solidifying, like ice.

“I–oh yes–he’s fine!” Lupin said loudly.  “Yes, Tonks is with him–at her mother’s–”

Percy and the other Weasleys were still staring at one another, frozen.

“Here, I’ve got a picture!” Lupin shouted, pulling a photograph from inside his jacket and showing it to Fleur and Harry . . .

“I was a fool!” Percy roared, so loudly that Lupin nearly dropped his photograph.  “I was an idiot, I was a pompous part, I was a– a–”

“Ministry-loving, family-disowning, power-hungry moron,” said Fred.

Percy swallowed.

“Yes, I was!”

“Well, you can’t say fairer than that,” said Fred, holding out his hand to Percy.

Mrs. Weasley burst into tears.  She ran forward, pushed Fred aside, and pulled Percy into a strangling hug, while he patted her on the back, his eyes on his father.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” Percy said.

Mr. Weasley blinked rather rapidly, then he too hurried to hug his son.


 

*The selection I really would have liked to include here is a passage from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that doesn’t actually exist: the talk that Aslan has with Edmund after rescuing him from the White Witch.  That talk takes place off-stage, and afterward Aslan simply says to the other children, “Here is your brother . . . and – there is no need to talk to him about what is past.”  The passage I’ve posted here isn’t quite what I wanted, but I thought of it because my sister posted a link on Facebook to a song by the Oh Hellos called “The Lament of Eustace Scrubb.”  And I do like this passage, because it features both of Narnia’s repentant sinners comparing notes about Aslan.