Evaluating Trustworthiness (In Narnia)

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Chronicles of NarniaWhile re-reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for Carrie’s Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge, I was struck by the theme of trustworthiness, and the question of how to determine who and what to trust.

It seems as though Peter, Susan, and Lucy instinctively know who to trust when they enter Narnia–and know which side is the right side. Edmund, on the other hand, is a skeptic–and when he does trust, he trusts the wrong side.

When all four children make their way into Narnia and discover that the faun’s home has been destroyed, they encounter a bird that appears to want to lead them. The children follow the bird, fearing nothing until Edmund whispers a word of caution to Peter.

“…Have you realized what we’re doing?”

“What?” said Peter, lowering his voice to a whisper.

“We’re following a guide we know nothing about. How do we know which side that bird is on? Why shouldn’t it be leading us into a trap?”

The robin, of course, leads the children to the beaver, who all the children initially distrust, but eventually warm up to. All but Edmund are quickly convinced that the beaver is a good guy. And they end up being right. Mr. Beaver is a good guy. The witch was a bad guy. Lucy and Susan and Peter were right. Edmund was wrong.

But this assessment, this black and white view in which Edmund is wrong and the others are right, breaks down when we consider the faun.

Lucy trusted Tumnus implicitly, visiting him in his house after just meeting him in the woods. She trusted that he was a good guy. And he was a good guy, right?

Not actually. He was a bad guy. He was in the employ of the witch. He was a kidnapper. He was the gentleman with candy inviting Lucy into his car, just as much as the witch was the lady with candy inviting Edmund into her sleigh. He couldn’t be trusted, shouldn’t have been trusted.

Lucy was only saved because the faun’s conscience, smote by his grandfather’s picture, got a hold of him and forced him to confess his crime and repent. His repentance turned out to be total–a fact that is confirmed by his letting Lucy go a second time despite the threat of imprisonment.

Yet the point remains–Tumnus was not all good, and should not have been trusted, at least at first.

And what of the witch? How could Edmund have known that she was wicked? In truth, how was Edmund’s response to her different than Lucy’s response to Tumnus? It wasn’t. Lucy entered Narnia, met someone she knew nothing about, at his food, and enjoyed the comfort he offered. She believed every word he said. Edmund did the same.

One situation turned out badly, one turned out well enough. What was the difference between the two?

Really, I’m inclined to think that the difference was sheer luck. Lucy trusted someone who intended evil towards her but repented before he carried out his evil scheme. Edmund trusted someone who intended evil towards him and who never repented of her evil plan. The rest of the children trusted the beaver–who just happened to be good.

None of these situations can be taken as a positive example of discovering whether someone or something is trustworthy.

That’s not to say, of course, that Lewis does not offer suggestions on how to determine who or what to trust. In fact, Lewis includes a little scholarly lesson on just that under disguise as the professor.

Peter and Susan go to the Professor, concerned about their sister’s preposterous tale of having entered another world.

“How do you know,” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”

“Oh, but–…but Edmund said they had only been pretending.”

“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance…does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?”

“Madness, you mean?” said the Professor quite coolly. “Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad.”

“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

Lewis offers three interconnected means of determining trustworthiness of a character or statement: Character, Evidence, and Logic. First, he asks what one knows of the character of the speaker–is Edmund or Lucy generally more likely to be truthful? Second, one must evaluate the evidence for or against each option–is Lucy likely to be mad? Finally, one must evaluate the evidence logically–There are only three possible explanations and having ruled out two, they must assume that the third is correct. Of course, the Professor includes another caveat “unless any further evidence turns up.” It is wise, the Professor says, to delay making conclusions and to continue to evaluate the evidence even after drawing conclusions.

This last bit of wisdom, of course, is perhaps the most useful for the Penvesies in evaluating the beings they meet in Narnia. Having no knowledge of the creatures’ characters and little information regarding how that world worked, they could have done with a bit more caution. They could have reserved judgment, not made a decision to trust until they had more evidence. That much is true of them all. Edmund, especially, could also have been more open to evaluating new evidence as it “turned up” (take, for example, how the “Queen” destroyed Tumnus’s house.)

Really, though, all four children made their decisions of what people and what information to trust based on their guts. True–Lucy, Peter, and Susan escaped virtually unscathed–but all of them could have done with a bit more logic, practically applied.

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Reader Comments (2):

  1. But do you think if you demand that much logic, practically applied as you say, that there would have been a story at all? Because that sort of logic should have kept them out of Narnia all together. I think there must be some suspension of belief in order to get into Narnia in the first place. And they had to talk to someone.

    (By the way, this is a most awesome post and I’ve been sitting here arguing out your arguments in my head!) =D

    As for Tumnus being evil, I’m going to have to keep thinking about that one. I see your point and there are aspects of it that I agree with strongly. At the same time, everyone in Narnia was under the rule of the White Witch even though they didn’t like it. All had to at least appear to be in support of her. It wasn’t until the Pevensies arrived on the scene that some allowed themselves to be more brave than they had previously. After all, Aslan was on the move.

    In the case of Tumnus however, he didn’t know that Aslan was on the move. As you point out, his conscience convicts him. It’s kind of an Old Testament scenario where there is knowledge that something is wrong and there is a need for repentance. Moses, et al, believed in a future promise. Tumnus reacts and repents to something he knows is ultimately correct.

    I don’t know. I think your thoughts here are fascinating and I will keep thinking on this!

  2. Davene says:

    I agree with Carrie: these thoughts are fascinating. I never considered Narnia from this angle before. Thanks!

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