Narnia Recap: The Pevensie children have rescued a dwarf.
Prince Caspian, Chapter 4: The Dwarf Tells of Prince Caspian
Hey! You know what would be awesome? I'm going to tell you what: leaving these Pevensie protagonists behind for four chapters or so. I mean, the book only has fifteen chapters total, so it's not like that's more than a quarter of the book. Let's go find a new protagonist, one who is less burdened by hurtful memories and sad emotions and muddled theological implications about gods who override choice despite ostensibly being all about free will. A new protagonist who represents everything that good, right-thinking people want and need in a protagonist: an innocent white male who will most definitely not be blamed for the heaping amounts of privilege he's been cozily wrapped in his entire life.
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Who needs a White Witch when you can have a White Knight?
And sarcasm aside, I really do not think it's a coincidence that the Prince Caspian narrative takes over here, with the Pevensie stuff being more like an unusually long prologue to the book, because Prince Caspian is very quickly going to be the glue that holds these books together, a sort of combination Protagonist-MacGuffin-WorldBuildingFillerPutty. Let's examine the series in the order in which it was written:
- LWW: English children help Aslan take back Narnia from hostile forces.
- PC: English children help Prince Caspian take back Narnia from hostile forces.
- VDT: English children help Prince Caspian journey to the edge of the world.
- SC: English children help Prince Caspian by finding his lost son.
- HaHB: Prequel. (Sort of.)
- MN: Prequel.
- LB: English children help Prince Caspian descendent/Expy go to heaven.
So what I'm saying is to settle in because this Prince Caspian guy isn't going anywhere any time soon.
I don't think this is a coincidence; I think after LWW, the series needed something to coalesce around. Aslan isn't really a good focal point, since he's vague and mysterious and apparently all-powerful and how much help is the Son of God going to need from English children, anyway? The Pevensies aren't much of a focal point, either, or at least not one the author seemed willing to sustain -- already we're seeing the characterization wave-form collapse on itself, and it's not terribly surprising that he'll vote the oldest two off the island at the end as being dreadfully difficult to write. So much easier to pare the family down to the two youngest, and then toss in Eustace in the next book (and Jill in the book after that) to serve as the Outsider who doesn't know what's going on as well as the one to reform into a Better Person by the power of Narnia.
But you still need a focal point, so now we have Prince Caspian riding in to save the day. And of all the characters to coalesce the series around, he is a very problematic character indeed! (Whoops!) He's a human who is Ruler By Birthright in a land of talking animals, which was pretty problematic to start with when it was the Pevensies in LWW, but at least their rule was A Prophecy and they had been Brought There By Magic and good stuff like that. Caspian, on the other hand, rules because he's the descendent of some guy who conquered Narnia and then genocide'd all the inhabitants as best he could. I mean, Aslan gives Caspian his stamp of approval, but we're still basically stuck with Ender, Son of Hitler as the ruler here.
(Yes, I just Godwin'd Narnia. And, yes, I know Ender was not Hitler's son. That was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the controversy and concerns surrounding the character.)
And like Ender, the narrative wants to make this all very, very clear that none of the Bad Things are Caspian's fault. Just because he's a white male from a conquering race who enslaved and killed the indigenous peoples and now expects to rule over them by virtue of his pedigree doesn't mean he should be blamed for all that. In fact, despite his absolute buckets of privilege, we should feel very sorry for him, and we are going to feel sorry for him because the narrative is going to focus very closely on how rough his life has been and is going to pretty much disregard how rough all the non-privileged peoples' lives have been. K?
PRINCE CASPIAN LIVED IN A GREAT CASTLE in the center of Narnia with his uncle, Miraz, the King of Narnia, and his aunt, who had red hair and was called Queen Prunaprismia. His father and mother were dead and the person whom Caspian loved best was his nurse, and though (being a prince) he had wonderful toys which would do almost anything but talk, he liked best the last hour of the day when the toys had all been put back in their cupboards and Nurse would tell him stories.
And now we come to the first thing that is really rough about Caspian's life: he's an orphan and he's being raised by his evil aunt and uncle. Isn't that just awful?
Using non-parents as stand-ins for evil parents is not a new thing; the Brothers Grimm were editing folk stories in the 1800s so that it was step-mothers doing the killing of children and step-fathers trying to wed the daughters against their will. (And speaking as a step-mother, this grates my gorgonzola a bit, but that's another story for another time, I suppose.)
But there's more going on here, I think, than just setting up a father figure who can be killed with impunity because it's not like he's Caspian's dad or anything, and we're back to this notion of divine right of kings. Caspian should be the ruler, because he's the genetic descendent of the guy who conquered Narnia; Miraz should not be the ruler, because he's also the genetic descendent of the guy who, wait. Hang on, I got myself confused there. Here we go, Miraz should not be the ruler because despite being the brother of the last king, he also killed him. There we go. Anyway, point being that Miraz is a usurper whereas Caspian is the real deal, blessed by god and Aslan and the lady of the lake.
And I hate this more than I hate most things because we're back to the same issue we saw with the White Witch, this bizarre insistence in the text that it's not enough that a ruler be evil or good as the determining factor for their reign, they have to also be illegitimate or legitimate. And this bugs me because if there's one thing that history has taught us, it's that the genetic legitimacy of a ruler has absolutely nothing to do with their awesomeness. And for that matter, where does that legitimacy come from? For the Pevensies, they were the only descendents of Adam and Eve in all of Narnia. That's still a bad thing to hinge legitimacy on, but it's something. Caspian is now one of lots (hundreds? thousands?) of descendents of Adam and Eve, now that the Telmarines have spread throughout the land. So why is Caspian special simply because his ancestor was the lead guy in the invasion?
Free elections for Narnia, folks, is what I'm saying.
Anyway, Miraz who is TOTES EVIL is grooming Caspian to be king. Which he doesn't get points for, obviously, because Caspian is supposed to be the true king anyway (by virtue of being the sperm-baby of the last king) and Miraz is only keeping him alive until he has his own sperm-baby. And because of all those things -- because Caspian's parents were killed by his awful uncle and because his awful uncle is keeping him alive and teaching him and training him and raising him like the princeliest prince that ever princed past the princing parlor -- we should probably feel really bad for Caspian.
"I wish -- I wish -- I wish I could have lived in the Old Days," said Caspian. (He was only a very little boy at the time.)
Up till now King Miraz had been talking in the tiresome way that some grown-ups have, which makes it quite clear that they are not really interested in what you are saying, but now he suddenly gave Caspian a very sharp look. [...] "Who has been telling you all this nonsense?" said the King in a voice of thunder. Caspian was frightened and said nothing. [...]
"N -- Nurse," faltered Caspian, and burst into tears.
"Stop that noise," said his uncle, taking Caspian by the shoulders and giving him a shake. "Stop it. And never let me catch you talking -- or thinking either -- about all those silly stories again. There never were those Kings and Queens. How could there be two Kings at the same time? And there's no such person as Aslan. And there are no such things as lions. And there never was a time when animals could talk. Do you hear?"
Next day Caspian found what a terrible thing he had done, for Nurse had been sent away without even being allowed to say good-bye to him, and he was told he was to have a Tutor.
Caspian missed his nurse very much and shed many tears; and because he was so miserable, he thought about the old stories of Narnia far more than before. He dreamed of Dwarfs and Dryads every night and tried very hard to make the dogs and cats in the castle talk to him. But the dogs only wagged their tails and the cats only purred.
Isn't that sad? Oh my gosh, that is very sad. Prince Caspian was only a very little boy, and his uncle yelled at him and then took his nurse away and he didn't even get to say goodbye to her. That is so very sad. And then he cried and dreamed of things he wanted but couldn't have and tried to teach the castle animals to talk and they wouldn't. That is so so sad.
(Hey! You know who else had all their loved ones taken away from them without being able to say goodbye and who could only experience the wonderful things of Narnia in dreams and wishes and tears and who may very well have tried to teach their pets to talk but they wouldn't? No, never mind, moving on.)
In all seriousness, it is sad. Miraz really is evil and Caspian really is being raised in an environment that is neither safe nor loving. This is basically the life Edmund would have had if LWW had been totally different and the White Witch really had taken him to raise as a prince.
But as sad as this genuinely is, this eclipses all the sads that are happening to people who aren't Prince Caspian, who aren't white and male and human and princes. Outside the castle walls, people are being killed if they don't look human enough. Those non-humans who can't pass for human and who want to survive have to go into the deepest hiding, driven from their homes. The persecution and bloodshed is so much worse than that which everyone suffered under the White Witch's reign -- who, after all, allowed pretty much everyone to live and go about their daily business as long as they kept their heads down -- and has been going on for much longer. The snowpocalypse lasted for 100 years; the Telmarines have been wiping out the Narnian peoples for 300 years. Three hundred years.
It can be argued that these things shouldn't be shown in a children's book and... maybe that's true. I honestly don't know. But I do know that this framing -- the Loss of Narnia as encompassed not by those people who have personally suffered the loss, but by those people who have romanticized it as something they'd sort of enjoy -- struck me as entirely natural as a child. Why shouldn't it? I was a privileged child living in a world of privilege wrapped in comfy privilege blankets at night. It never struck me as odd that the Loss of Narnia should be seen through the eyes of someone different from me. And I wish, deeply, that more stories did show that loss through the eyes of the natives who have actually had to suffer that loss. People who don't miss the romantic version, but the real one -- the one where their homes weren't burned and their families weren't murdered.
And it all reminds me so much -- too much -- of Pocahontas where the stealth protagonist John Smith is providing the Privilege Gaze throughout the film of look at this beautiful paradise we're ruining, isn't that so sad and stuff? and the many, many problems with that is that we really should hear from the people who have actually have their homes there and whose lives are being actively destroyed because THEIR VIEWPOINT IS THE ONE THAT MATTERS MOST. But it's being shoved aside in favor of Privilege Gaze because privilege lets you do stuff like that. And the worst thing about privilege is that you frequently aren't even aware you're doing it.
Caspian felt sure that he would hate the new Tutor, but when the new Tutor arrived about a week later he turned out to be the sort of person it is almost impossible not to like. He was the smallest, and also the fattest, man Caspian had ever seen. He had a long, silvery, pointed beard which came down to his waist, and his face, which was brown and covered with wrinkles, looked very wise, very ugly, and very kind. His voice was grave and his eyes were merry so that, until you got to know him really well, it was hard to know when he was joking and when he was serious. His name was Doctor Cornelius.
Speaking of which, it's good to see that the first Native Narnian in Caspian's story isn't pissed off over that whole genocide thing. Always ready to smile and laugh for the privileged people, that's what I like in my oppressed natives. (More on that next week.)
Of all his lessons with Doctor Cornelius the one that Caspian liked best was History. Up till now, except for Nurse's stories, he had known nothing about the History of Narnia, and he was very surprised to learn that the royal family were newcomers in the country. [...]
"Please, Doctor," asked Caspian one day, "who lived in Narnia before we all came here out of Telmar?"
"No men -- or very few -- lived in Narnia before the Telmarines took it," said Doctor Cornelius. [...]
For a moment Caspian was puzzled and then suddenly his heart gave a leap.
Do you want to hear a funny joke? Of course you do!
"The difference between America and England is that Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way." --Earle Hitchner
However, I am going to opine that if you're building a fictional world that doesn't exist more than about 2,500 years total, then calling a 300 year chunk in the middle of that a not-really-that-long-of-a-time is maybe not thinking everything through super well. Especially since the Caspian family which has ruled for ten generations or so are "newcomers" to Narnia, in the same way that the current British royal family are "newcomers" to the throne, what with George I being the first British monarch from the German House of Hanover.
Anyway, Caspian's heart leaps at the news that the Old Stories might be true, which you can really understand from his point of view, but I feel compelled to point out that if the Old Stories ARE true, that means that a whole lot of genocide has been going on for the last 300 years which is the sort of thing that might give you pause if you hadn't been socialized from birth to only view things in terms of how it affects you, personally.
Cornelius refuses to tell Caspian any more, saying that he'll end up with his (Cornelius') "head cut off" by Miraz if he tells Caspian any more, but he then takes Caspian up onto a tower in the middle of the night for an astronomy lesson.
"It's a pity that tree gets in the way," said Caspian. "We'd really see better from the West Tower, though it is not so high." [...] "The virtue of this tower," said Doctor Cornelius, "is that we have six empty rooms beneath us, and a long stair, and the door at the bottom of the stair is locked. We cannot be overheard." [...] "Listen," said the Doctor. "All you have heard about Old Narnia is true. It is not the land of Men. It is the country of Aslan, the country of the Waking Trees and Visible Naiads, of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants, of the gods and the Centaurs, of Talking Beasts. It was against these that the first Caspian fought. It is you Telmarines who silenced the beasts and the trees and the fountains, and who killed and drove away the Dwarfs and Fauns, and are now trying to cover up even the memory of them. The King does not allow them to be spoken of."
"Oh, I do wish we hadn't," said Caspian. "And I am glad it was all true, even if it is all over."
"Many of your race wish that in secret," said Doctor Cornelius.
I'm really not trying to be a dreadful, mean, bitter, cynical person here; I'm really not. I'm not trying to suck all the joy out of literature or take away all the nice things. I'm not trying to say that fantasy like this is bad or that you shouldn't enjoy it or that this book didn't resonate with me and enrich my life as a child. I don't want any of those things to be the take-away here.
But for the record, here are some reasons why the above is problematic.
The above is problematic because there is a huge power differential between tutor and child, with one taking all the risk and the other reaping all the reward, and yet the narrative is obstinately focused on the privileged one. Cornelius is telling things to Caspian that could end up with him being executed. He's taking a huge risk, but it's a risk that is barely touched on because he's not the star of this show and Caspian is. So once again -- and this is example 5,674,893,412 if you're counting -- we have a disadvantaged person whose role in the plot is to educate the privileged person, even if it's at great personal risk to themselves. And they do so cheerfully, happily, kindly, sweetly because that's what disadvantaged people do, they coddle privileged people and understand their role in life.
The above is problematic because Caspian has just said to this person who is risking his life to tell Caspian these things that he's "glad it was all true, even if it is all over". And we understand that because we understand Caspian's desire to romanticize that which he has never known. But what Caspian is saying, without realizing it, is that he's glad that Cornelius' people were around to be genocide'd because it makes Caspian feel nice to romanticize the dead. He's making all the horrors of the past about himself and expressing how it makes him feel. Caspian is sad that the Narnians are dead because he would have liked to see all the pretty Others. Caspian is happy that the Narnians existed because he likes dreaming about what it would have been like to see all the pretty Others. He, him, himself.
The above is problematic because the Narnian who has suffered so much is sagely saying "many of your race wish that in secret". And while this is a drop that Cornelius is a Native Narnian, it's also something much more, because Caspian's story isn't just about him joining the Native Narnians and embracing their ways and driving out the invaders. It's a story about the Good White People and the Bad White People duking it out on the battlefield over how the Narnians will be treated henceforth. And, yes, some of the Narnians will be there to help out. And, yes, it's a story of reconciliation between two peoples and bringing peace to a divided country. But it's a story where the country is divided because the privileged people have been murdering the marginalized people for three hundred years, and it's a story where the privileged people get patted on the back by the marginalized people if they reach a bare minimum of decency.
All at once Caspian realized the truth and felt that he ought to have realized it long before. Doctor Cornelius was so small, and so fat, and had such a very long beard. Two thoughts came into his head at the same moment. One was a thought of terror -- "He's not a real man, not a man at all, he's a Dwarf, and he's brought me up here to kill me." The other was sheer delight -- "There are real Dwarfs still, and I've seen one at last."
"So you've guessed it in the end," said Doctor Cornelius. "Or guessed it nearly right. I'm not a pure Dwarf. I have human blood in me too. Many Dwarfs escaped in the great battles and lived on, shaving their beards and wearing high-heeled shoes and pretending to be men. They have mixed with your Telmarines. I am one of those, only a half-Dwarf, and if any of my kindred, the true Dwarfs, are still alive anywhere in the world, doubtless they would despise me and call me a traitor. But never in all these years have we forgotten our own people and all the other happy creatures of Narnia, and the long-lost days of freedom."
Two things. One, Caspian's first thought is that his kind, nice, wise, trusting tutor will kill him simply because he's not a white human like Caspian is. Two, the kind, nice, wise, trusting tutor affirms that real Narnians -- ones who don't have the blood of white humans in their veins -- would shun and condemn him for doing what he had to in order to survive the last 300 years of genocide.
So, basically, people who aren't at least partially white humans are very unreasonable and violent and Caspian was probably right to be scared of them. And once again we're back to dwarves being awful just because the narrative says so yet we've still not seen an unambiguously evil dwarf yet who couldn't be explained away by being pressed into servitude by a powerful magician with mind-mojo-magic food.
"I'm -- I'm sorry, Doctor," said Caspian. "It wasn't my fault, you know."
And that's the crux of Prince Caspian, both as a book and as a character.
It's not Caspian's fault that the Native Narnians have been persecuted and murdered for the past three hundred years. He hasn't even been alive for most of that, and when he has been alive he's been a child, and completely isolated from the violence going on in the kingdom. Caspian isn't responsible for the sins of his fathers.
But that's not the point. Privilege doesn't mean Responsible. Privilege doesn't even need to mean that the privileged person is participating in oppression or condoning it or actively furthering it. The horrible thing about privilege is that the privileged person can lie back, close their eyes, and let it wash over them like a warm current, all the while feeling like a very good person for not being at fault for any of it.
Caspian's kingdom was built on the blood of those his ancestors murdered. He's not at fault for that. But he will go on to profit from it. He'll set himself up as the True King and he'll fight his uncle and he'll reign as supreme monarch for the majority of the series. He'll eat the best foods, drink the best wines, marry the prettiest woman, go on the best adventures, and have all the best things because ultimately his ancestors paved the way for him to do these things through brutal conquest.
And if anyone brings up these unfortunate facts, the narrative and the character will make the entire thing about his feelings, his innocence. It's not my fault!, he cries here, even though Cornelius hasn't indicated even the slightest bit of anger or frustration or exasperation at his student. At most, he's allowed some sadness to creep into his voice, and Caspian took that as a cue to point out preemptively that while he's very very sorry about that whole genocide thing, people should most definitely not blame him for it.
In fact, they should set their own feelings aside to coddle the prince. "Poor little prince, who has reaped all the benefits of genocide and feels his conscience slightly troubled by that! Here, let us soothe you. The genocide has been rough on us, it is true, but so much more so on you, since you have to feel vaguely uncomfortable about it."
Will that coddling be enough to make Caspian feel less bad about his privileged origins? No, the coddling will not be enough. But fortunately, there is a solution!
"I am not saying these things in blame of you, dear Prince," answered the Doctor. "You may well ask why I say them at all. But I have two reasons. Firstly, because my old heart has carried these secret memories so long that it aches with them and would burst if I did not whisper them to you. But secondly, for this: that when you become King you may help us, for I know that you also, Telmarine though you are, love the Old Things."
"I do, I do," said Caspian. "But how can I help?"
"You can be kind to the poor remnants of the Dwarf people, like myself. You can gather learned magicians and try to find a way of awaking the trees once more. You can search through all the nooks and wild places of the land to see if any Fauns or Talking Beasts or Dwarfs are perhaps still alive in hiding."
"As penance for your privileged origins, and so that you need not ever again feel guilty about the genocide your ancestors committed on us, we request that you rule over us with absolute, unquestioned power, and that you meet a minimum standard of decency by not continuing to genocide the few of us who are left. We also ask that you revive the pieces of our culture that you've romanticized, without -- you know -- giving up any of that absolute, unquestioned power stuff."
It's a tough job, to be sure, becoming the all powerful king of a rich and beautiful country so that you can then enjoy all the best things for the rest of your life while picking and choosing which aspects of native culture to romanticize and keep and which to throw away as non-valuable or incompatible with your own preferred culture.
But they wouldn't call it the White Man's Burden if it was easy.