One of my favorite scenes in C.S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian, is when the ever-chivalrous mouse, Reepicheep, mortally wounded in battle, is brought (lying on a stretcher) by his eleven loyal followers to Aslan the Lion–the King.
Lucy uses her healing to tend his wounds–which heal instantly.
And yet, his tail–his precious tail–has been lost in battle. This is no small crisis:
On the litter lay what seemed little better than a damp heap of fur; all that was left of Reepicheep. He was still breathing, but more dead than alive, gashed with innumerable wounds, one paw crushed, and, where his tail had been, a bandaged stump.
“Now Lucy,” said Aslan.
Lucy had her diamond bottle out in a moment. Though only a drop was needed on each of Reepicheep’s wounds, the wounds were so many that there was a long and anxious silence before she had finished and the Master Mouse sprang from the litter. His had went at once to his sword hilt, with the other he twirled his whiskers. He bowed.
“Hail, Aslan!” came his shrill voice. “I have the honor–” 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 made his bow; perhaps it altered something in his balance. He looked over his right shoulder. Failing to see his tail, he strained his neck further till he had to turn his shoulders and his whole body followed. But by that time his hind-quarters had turned too and were out of sight. Then he strained his neck looking over his shoulders again, with the same result. Only after he had turned completely around three times did he realize the dreadful truth.
“I am confounded,” said Reepicheep to Aslan. “I am completely out of countenance. I must crave your indulgence for appearing in this unseemly fashion.”
“It becomes you very well, Small One,” said Aslan.
“All the same,” replied Reepicheep, “if anything could be done . . . Perhaps her Majesty?” and here he bowed to Lucy.
“But what do you want with a tail?” asked Aslan.
“Sir,” said the Mouse, “I can eat and sleep and die for my King without one. But a tail is the honor and glory of a Mouse.”
“I have sometimes wondered, friend,” said Aslan, “whether you do not think too much about your honor.”
“Highest of all High Kings,” said Reepicheep, “permit me to remind you that a very small size has been bestowed on us Mice, and if we did not guard our dignity, some (who weigh worth by inches) would allow themselves very unsuitable pleasantries at our expense. That is why I have been at some pains to make it known that no one who does not wish to feel this sword as near his heart as I can reach shall talk in my presence about Traps or Toasted Cheese or Candles: no, Sir–not the tallest fool in Narnia!”
“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 waiting to cut off our own tails if our Chief must go without his. We will not bear the shame of wearing an honor 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, and still more for the kindness your people showed me long ago when you ate away the cords that bound me on the Stone Table (and it was then, though you have long forgotten it, that you began to be Talking Mice), you shall have your tail again.”
Before Aslan had finished speaking the new tail was in its place.C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, 221-224.
His tail is important to his dignity. Aslan confronts his apparent vanity, but is answered with a very nuanced reminder that this isn’t merely cosmetic–his defense of his tail is symbolic of his defense of the dignity of his people–an important check in a world of would-be bullies. A very noble answer. His loyal followers are instantly ready to sacrificially show that this is important.
Our bodies matter. Our dignity matters. Our wounds (from battle, sin, or disease) distort and steal. We work to clothe, we work to restore bodily losses. We’ll even shave our heads in solidarity. This is not vanity. This is good. Very good.