It might be the best movie line of the year:
“Unhand the tail!”
So said the two-foot mouse, Reepicheep, rapier drawn in menacing fashion, to the prig Eustace Scrubb near the beginning of the latest Narnia movie, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The tail, believes Reepicheep, is “the glory of a mouse,” and his own tail is especially prized because it was given him directly by Aslan himself, the great Lion-Christ. Reepicheep had lost the tail (and almost his life) in battle in Prince Caspian (the second book/movie); and Aslan had been loath to feed the mouse’s overabundant conceit of personal “dignity” by replacing the tail — until all of Reepicheep’s fellow mice had made moves to cut off their own tails in solidarity with their mousely leader. Aslan had relented and, with one breath, restored the appendage in honor of the love the other mice showed for Reepicheep.
When Eustace grabbed the tail, therefore, he was asking for a serious comeuppance — and the mouse proceeded to give the boy a good and embarrassing thrashing.
By the end of that amusing thrashing, long before Reepicheep demonstrated to Eustace that great kindness can accompany great valor, my five nieces and nephews watching the movie already were rapt fans of this Talking Mouse, this great little hero who surely is one of the most memorable and admirable fictional characters of the 20th Century. A scene in the book but not the movie well captures Reepicheep’s chivalry. An excellent chess player, Reepicheep nonetheless is prone to needlessly losing some games because he too readily sacrifices other pieces to protect the honor of their queen — for that is how he would act, always, if he were in those pieces’ places. A knight does not ask the queen to fight his battles.
When the Dawn Treader is attacked by a sea serpent — in book and movie both — it is Reepicheep who is first to counter-attack. When Eustace is turned into a dragon and feels miserably alone, it is Reepicheep who is the only one willing to brave the dragon’s randomly dangerous fiery breaths in order to keep him company through long and otherwise lonely nights. Reepicheep swims with the mermaids and mer-men the voyagers encounter; he rides the bow of the Dawn Treader like a sentry; and he always is at hand to help the child Lucy Pevensie, discoverer and once-and-future queen of Narnia, in whatever hour of need might arise.
Mostly, though, Reepicheep feels a destiny, a destiny to find Aslan’s country beyond the sea, whatever the risk and whatever the cost. The movie made mincemeat of the verse, but the book explains that a dryad nursing him in his crib had recited to him the following prophecy:
Where sky and water meet
Where the waves grow sweet
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek:
There is the utter East.
Narnia, unlike our Earth, really is a flat world; at story’s end, one of the great lasting scenes of literature is of Reepicheep on a little coracle, having found that the sea’s taste had turned sweet as the sky came down to meet it, paddling for all he is worth through the torrent and over the great falls at the world’s eastern edge. Surely Aslan’s country waited, just beyond.
Frankly — as a ten-time reader, while growing up, of each of Narnia’s seven books — I never quite found C.S. Lewis’s great, Christian-allegorical land quite so alluring or exciting again, after that matchless scene… until Reepicheep reappeared at the end of the final story, The Last Battle, to greet, St. Peter-like, all those who arrive at the gates of the Emperor’s Garden in the heavenly country that lasts forever. With the laying down of his rapier and a deep bow, proud tail flourishing behind him for balance and visual effect, the valiant mouse welcomes all whose own good hearts have followed Aslan to journey’s end.
As an old year closes and a new one beckons, here’s the question before us all, a question that challenges us each annum. Do we boldly paddle ahead, no matter how small and unstable our vessel seems, into whatever awaits beyond the year’s final edge? Or do we desperately hold on or, worse, cower before the unknown? Do we rest on laurels or, instead, try to accomplish more, do more good, and brave (as a verb) new worlds?
For our part, conservatives made significant strides this year, but the civic waves are not yet sweet enough for the lasting health of this, our nation. Like Reepicheep, we conservatives have been conditioned, in this case by Ronald Reagan rather than a dryad, to believe we have a rendezvous with destiny. Nor should we forget that we serve not just a nation, but the One who created all nations and endowed us with the liberty to choose. We are at this year’s tail end. Unhand the tail, and reach for the next great task before us.