Content Note: Loss of Family, Execution Methods
Narnia Recap: The Pevensie children have determined that the ruined castle they have found themselves in is their old home, Cair Paravel.
Ana's Note: Because there has been some discussion in the comments about this, I want to reiterate that the charter for my deconstructions is not to say a book is bad, or that an author is bad, or that a fandom is bad. I believe art is subjective, that most problems occur in text despite (rather than because of) the author's intentions, and I believe people should enjoy what they enjoy without guilt.
My deconstructions are about having a conversation with Society, about voicing my opinion about an aspect of art and how Society at large frequently chooses to interact with it, and about using that art as a stepping-stone for discussing feminist issues. Discussing long-dead authors may be interesting, but discussing our modern society and how we are influenced by and interact with their works is much more so for me -- and this is what I've tried to do.
I hope you enjoy the result, and thank you for reading.
Prince Caspian, Chapter 3: The Dwarf
It's time for someone to come along.
This is a fantasy rule: someone native to the fantasy country must come along to meet the children and provide plot exposition and embroilment into the mandatory plot conflict. In LWW, this someone was for Lucy the faun Mr. Tumnus, and this someone was for Edmund the antagonistic White Witch.
But a very real problem here is that it's very difficult to tell whether the someone who comes along is good or bad. Mr. Tumnus seemed good, with his faun-legs and bright umbrella and cheery packages, but he was a spy in the employ of the Witch Witch and was bound to turn over any human children he met to her. He didn't do this, of course, having a change of heart once he actually met Lucy, but the risk was there. And the White Witch was not with Edmund for more than a few minutes before she had tricked him into eating magically poisoned food that overrode his will and made him subservient to her.
So it would seem that caution would be in order when meeting a new person in a fantasy land. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
THE WORST OF SLEEPING OUT OF DOORS is that you wake up so dreadfully early. And when you wake you have to get up because the ground is so hard that you are uncomfortable. And it makes matters worse if there is nothing but apples for breakfast and you have had nothing but apples for supper the night before. When Lucy had said -- truly enough -- that it was a glorious morning, there did not seem to be anything else nice to be said. Edmund said what everyone was feeling, "We've simply got to get off this island." [...]
"We'll have to swim," said Edmund.
"It would be all right for Su," said Peter (Susan had won prizes for swimming at school). "But I don't know about the rest of us." By "the rest of us" he really meant Edmund who couldn't yet do two lengths at the school baths, and Lucy, who could hardly swim at all.
What is interesting to me is how delicately the Pevensie children have avoided the real subject: they're back in Narnia, and yet everything has changed. Yesterday, Susan was reduced to tears on discovering the little gold chess-piece. The children then broke into their storage room and found proof positive that they were in Cair Paravel, along with a great deal of evidence in the form of copious dust and dilapidated ruins, that indicates that something has gone horribly wrong. They don't yet know what, but they know it's something serious: this is not the Cair Paravel they left behind.
The children want to get off the island, and this is not in itself a bad idea, but it's strange that they don't seem to have a destination in mind. There are many possible reasons for this -- maybe they can't remember enough to formulate a plan, maybe they're too overwhelmed to think far ahead, maybe the author didn't bother to give them a goal that wouldn't be met anyway -- but it's strange to me that they seem to be making this decision without any planning.
They've come to their home and the seat of their government only to find everything awfully wrong: now what? Was there ever designated a fallback position of government, maybe in the form of another castle elsewhere in Narnia? Are there any great cities or port towns to head towards? Might they strike out for the home of a close friend -- Mr. Tumnus, perhaps? -- or a landmark such as the Stone Table? Even if they can't think of a place to head to for help, they should at least do something other than wander randomly. Even now, when they've finally agreed that this is Narnia, they don't use that knowledge to guide their footsteps. The Pevensie children seem to follow mindlessly the line laid out by the narrative.
Worth noting is that again we have a mention of Susan's swimming prowess, and Susan will be instrumental in this chapter as the single child responsible for saving their new guide. And it's interesting to me that Susan, who spoke so little in LWW and who has spoken comparatively little in PC so far, will turn out to be the child most skilled at living and working in Narnia, no matter what body she's in. Possibly this is narrative convenience -- Peter will need someone to help him pull a boat to shore, so why not the second-oldest child? -- as well as a stab at narrative consistency since Susan's bow from LWW will come into play here, but it strikes me as somehow sad that Susan (as a character) will be so useful here and then tossed aside so callously at the end of this novel, not to be picked up again until The Last Battle
"But, Peter," said Lucy, "look here. I know I can't swim for nuts at home -- in England, I mean. But couldn't we all swim long ago -- if it was long ago -- when we were Kings and Queens in Narnia? We could ride then too, and do all sorts of things. Don't you think -- "
"Ah, but we were sort of grown-up then," said Peter. "We reigned for years and years and learned to do things. Aren't we just back at our proper ages again now?"
And now it occurs to me that possibly Lewis was just as confused about his characters, their personalities, their memories, and their abilities as I currently am. Yet, it seems like this is precisely the sort of thing one can expect when in a single paragraph in a final chapter, an author gives their characters entire lives off the page and then just as quickly yanks it all away and tosses them back through a time portal. If an author isn't planning to put serious thought into how something like that will affect the characters' memories, skills, and mental processes (as well as how it affects them individually, allowing for variations in type and personality), then I don't think they can expect to just brush past all that when it comes time to write a sequel, because nit-picky readers like me are going to be confused and frustrated.
But I digress. Lucy has asked a valuable question: at some point in her mental past -- though possibly not in her current body's physical past -- she knew how to swim. Where has that skill gone? Does she have all the knowledge of how to swim, but none of the muscle memory? Could she regain this skill more quickly now that she has that knowledge, or does she only retain a memory of that knowledge? (I.e., I remember being able to flap my wings and fly last night in my dreams, but I have neither the muscle memory for that nor the mental understanding of the technique.)
The obvious answer would seem to be to let Lucy wade out with Susan at her side and see how it goes. But we don't get to see that because there's a whole host of accompanying world-building questions that would answer (and probably new ones that would be created) and that's not what we're here for.
"Oh!" said Edmund in a voice which made everyone stop talking and listen to him. [...] "You know what we were puzzling about last night, that it was only a year ago since we left Narnia but everything looks as if no one had lived in Cair Paravel for hundreds of years? Well, don't you see? You know that, however long we seemed to have lived in Narnia, when we got back through the wardrobe it seemed to have taken no time at all?"
"Go on," said Susan. "I think I'm beginning to understand."
"And that means," continued Edmund, "that, once you're out of Narnia, you have no idea how Narnian time is going. Why shouldn't hundreds of years have gone past in Narnia while only one year has passed for us in England?"
"By Jove, Ed," said Peter. "I believe you've got it. In that sense it really was hundreds of years ago that we lived in Cair Paravel. And now we're coming back to Narnia just as if we were Crusaders or Anglo-Saxons or Ancient Britons or someone coming back to modern England!"
"How excited they'll be to see us -- " began Lucy, but at the same moment everyone else said, "Hush!" or "Look!" For now something was happening.
I don't really understand why this was some kind of revelation all the way into Chapter 3 as we are. Edmund already pointed out last night that Cair Paravel had hundreds of years of ruin heaped on the site, and they've had an entire night on the hard ground to think all this through, but regardless here is the reveal: they children are back in Narnia, but 1,300 years have passed since their reign...
...and Peter's and Lucy's immediate reactions are how awesome it will be to pitch up on someone's doorstep claiming to be King Arthur. Yeeeah.
I'm sure that's going to go really well for them. I mean, why wouldn't it? They've only been gone thirteen hundred years. Our personal equivalent would be Hesiod or Homer or Sargon II showing up*. As small children. Without pretty much any of the skills or memories or qualities that made them most famous as rulers, except for a talent with the bow. In a world where written records are apparently rare (if not entirely non-existent) and paintings, portraits, statues, and the like don't seem to exist at all. Gods, they'll be lucky if anyone even remembers them considering that they reigned less than a couple of decades and their most notable achievement after defeating the White Witch (which was probably mostly credited to Aslan anyway) was disappearing mid-reign without an established heir.
* Correction: 700 BC is not the same as 700 AD, no matter how much a sleep-deprived Ana may think it so. See comments below.
Maybe if they're really lucky, they can find a Tree to vouch for them. Assuming the invaders didn't torch the forest surrounding the lamppost, and also assuming that the Trees can live 1,300 years. Otherwise, good luck with that.
But beyond that, there's an obvious issue that Lewis has either not thought of or shoved aside in the hopes that we won't notice it and it's this: everyone they've ever known in Narnia is dead. Mr. Tumnus is dead. Philip the Horse (who only existed in the movies, but won all our hearts) is dead. The men and boys who courted Susan and Lucy are dead. The nymphs and naiads who (I'm guessing) flirted with Peter and Edmund are (probably) dead. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are dead. Everyone at their court, everyone they knew and loved in Archenland, everyone the Pevensies have ever known in this land, they are all now dead.
Except Aslan. But they surely can't know that. Why would the lifespan of Aslan automatically be "infinite" and not just "super longish"?
For me, something like this would be a bit of a blow. It would be like waking up tomorrow in a Rip Van Winkle scenario and finding out that Husband, Mom, Dad, Best Friend, and both my cats died and I never even got to say goodbye. (All the blubs just thinking about it.) For Lucy, it doesn't seem to sink in at all. "How excited they will be to see us," she says, but who is "they"? Does she think the Narnians she remembers are still alive and waiting to see her again? If she does, she's in for a bit of a shock. Does she mean those Narnians' descendents will be happy to see them? And, if so, why would they be? The Pevensies are now strangers to Narnia, and potentially dangerous ones to the existing political order.
Imagine if, say, Edward V of England showed up today and it could be conclusively proven that he was who he claimed to be. What do you then do with him? Does he have some kind of claim on the throne, even though he has no concept of the modern age nor how to rule the modern British kingdom? And what do you do with the fact that he's been transported to our time by a magical portal that no one can understand or explain? And that this magical portal is somehow linked to his initial mysterious disappearance? My head hurts just thinking about it.
There was a wooded point on the mainland a little to their right, and they all felt sure that just beyond that point must be the mouth of the river. And now, round that point there came into sight a boat. [...] Both these people seemed to be soldiers. They had steel caps on their heads and light shirts of chain-mail. Their faces were bearded and hard. The children drew back from the beach into the wood and watched without moving a finger.
"This'll do," said the soldier in the stern when the boat had come about opposite to them.
"What about tying a stone to his feet, Corporal?" said the other, resting on his oars.
"Garn!" growled the other. "We don't need that, and we haven't brought one. He'll drown sure enough without a stone, as long as we've tied the cords right." With these words he rose and lifted his bundle. Peter now saw that it was really alive and was in fact a Dwarf, bound hand and foot but struggling as hard as he could. Next moment he heard a twang just beside his ear, and all at once the soldier threw up his arms, dropping the Dwarf into the bottom of the boat, and fell over into the water. He floundered away to the far bank and Peter knew that Susan's arrow had struck on his helmet. He turned and saw that she was very pale but was already fitting a second arrow to the string. But it was never used. As soon as he saw his companion fall, the other soldier, with a loud cry, jumped out of the boat on the far side, and he also floundered through the water (which was apparently just in his depth) and disappeared into the woods of the mainland.
Susan, pale-faced but grimly determined, has in a moment strung her bow and utterly routed the two soldiers in the boat. (She missed fatally striking the men on purpose because this is a children's book and Susan is The Gentle, but it will be underlined that she missed on purpose.)
She has, presumably, taken this action because she couldn't stand by and watch someone be drowned to death. And this is actually very admirable and courageous, given that the children have no idea if there are more soldiers waiting across the channel to provide reinforcements against the four largely-unarmed children.
And yet this is a fairly decisive action, and not a little risky. The children know that they are in Narnia, but they are as ignorant as to the political and social situation as they were a year ago (or 1,300 years ago, depending on your timeline) when Lucy and Edmund were meeting Tumnus and the White Witch. The dwarf could be an incredibly dangerous villain; the soldiers could be good stewards of the land carrying out Aslan's peculiar orders. The children simply don't know.
Of course, the soldiers have "hard faces" and the method of execution they are following is not a terribly kind one. (Though possibly better than whatever the Pevensies had when they were rulers. I think I would rather die by drowning than die by axe beheading, having been reading up on Tudor history lately. And the Pevensies must have had some means of executing the unrepentant werewolves and giants they captured in their campaigns against the north.) But once again we see the children rushing in to side with one side of a Narnian civil war when they know almost nothing about the facts and history behind it. And now we're back to our dear little Edward V again because WHO WOULD EDWARD V BOMB? (My guess is France.)
It's really only a matter of narrative luck that the children haven't ended up on the side of the White Witch (that nice lady fighting that horrible lion who eats people alive with his huge jaws) or on the side of King Miraz against his nephew (he's a human trying to exercise his divine right to rule and doing his best to keep the trains running, after all). And how does any of this mesh with the Platonic codswallop fed to us in LWW where humans were divinely selected to rule and things-what-looked-like-humans-but-weren't (dwarfs were explicitly mentioned!) were to be kept at arms length because they were by and large irredeemably evil.
When at last the Dwarf was free, he sat up, rubbed his arms and legs, and exclaimed:
"Well, whatever they say, you don't feel like ghosts." [...] "I've been told all my life," said the Dwarf, "that these woods along the shore were as full of ghosts as they were of trees. That's what the story is. And that's why, when they want to get rid of anyone, they usually bring him down here (like they were doing with me) and say they'll leave him to the ghosts. But I always wondered if they didn't really drown 'em or cut their throats. I never quite believed in the ghosts. But those two cowards you've just shot believed all right. They were more frightened of taking me to my death than I was of going!"
"Oh," said Susan. "So that's why they both ran away." [...] "I wasn't shooting to kill, you know," said Susan. She would not have liked anyone to think she could miss at such a short range.
"Hm," said the Dwarf. "That's not so good. That may mean trouble later on. Unless they hold their tongues for their own sake."
He has a good point. As much as I admire Susan for sticking to her pacifist principles, she's not only declared war on the ruling powers in Narnia, she's also left them alive to report back what she's done. On the other hand, since no blood has been spilled, there's still a chance to write the whole thing off as a hilarious misunderstanding if it comes to that.
"You tell us your story first," said Peter. "And then we'll tell you ours."
"Well," said the Dwarf, "as you've saved my life it is only fair you should have your own way. But I hardly know where to begin. First of all I'm a messenger of King Caspian's."
"Who's he?" asked four voices all at once.
"Caspian the Tenth, King of Narnia, and long may he reign!" answered the Dwarf. "That is to say, he ought to be King of Narnia and we hope he will be. At present he is only King of us Old Narnians -- "
"What do you mean by old Narnians, please?" asked Lucy.
"Why, that's us," said the Dwarf. "We're a kind of rebellion, I suppose."
"I see," said Peter. "And Caspian is the chief Old Narnian."
"Well, in a manner of speaking," said the Dwarf, scratching his head. "But he's really a New Narnian himself, a Telmarine, if you follow me."
"I don't," said Edmund.
"It's worse than the Wars of the Roses," said Lucy.
"Oh dear," said the Dwarf. "I'm doing this very badly. Look here: I think I'll have to go right back to the beginning and tell you how Caspian grew up in his uncle's court and how he comes to be on our side at all. But it'll be a long story."
"All the better," said Lucy. "We love stories."
So the Dwarf settled down and told his tale.
NO NO NO NO NO.
Argh. No, you do not compare this whole mess to the Wars of the Roses as if this is all an academic exercise and you've never heard of Narnia before. You are Kings and Queens of Narnia for crying out loud, and as you continually keep reminding the reader as though the "once an X, always an X" actually had some kind of logical meaning behind it and wasn't just a meaningless platitude. You don't just say "oh, tell us what's going on" in a general sort of way. Is that how you questioned diplomats and spies and generals when you were ruling?
You ask guided questions. If you trust them, you tell them what you know and where you're starting from, knowledge-wise, so that they can fill you in as needed. You don't just clap your hands at the shiny story which is told by the complacent dwarf who is not at all surprised at the fact that you seem to not know any basic history at all and you smell faintly of Edward V. Gah.
The next four chapters will be the story of Prince Caspian. Settle in.