Content Note: Genocide, Torture, War, Racism, Sexism, Essentialism
Narnia Recap: Prince Caspian has begun the process of gathering Old Narnians for war.
Prince Caspian, Chapter 7: Old Narnia In Danger
One of the frustrating things about not being a Straight White Male is that I tend to be treated as a member of some kind of hive mind of identically-shaped robots, each stamped out with the same personalities, opinions, and tendencies. I am a woman, so therefore I supposedly dream the same dreams, harbor the same desires, am motivated by the same factors, and behave in the same way as all other women. And if I don't fit that stereotype, well, then, I must just fit the exact opposite stereotype. It's all very confusing and frustrating and deeply tiring.
This shows up in the oddest places. Let slip to a group of gamers that I am a "girl gamer" and half the room assumes that I only play casual games like The Sims and Farmville; the other half decides that I'm probably a fragtastic hardcore badass because only the really dedicated girls game. When I walk into professional engineering meetings at work, I'm frequently assumed to be either the person in the room with the best interpersonal and communication skills because that's what women supposedly excel at, or I'm believed to be the most competent coder in the company because why else would I go into this industry, really.
The middle ground -- that I am decently good at some things and decently good at other things -- never seems to be made available to me, because places with depth and nuance seem reserved for the non-women in the room. Though most people seem willing to wait to get to know my Husband before judging his strength at documentation and his proficiency at code, I come pre-equipped with competing sets of expectations, usually impossible for me to reach since they tend to run along the lines of "best of the best" and "worst of the worst" simultaneously.
This stuff isn't just academic, or little annoyances to be endured without real consequence. When I first enrolled in engineering school and went to my advisor's office for the first time, the first thing he said to me after "hello" and before I'd sat down was that "I can tell you will be good in engineering." He had incorrectly assumed that because I'd decided to major in engineering despite the hurdle of being a woman, it must be my Grand Driving Passion as opposed to something I figured I'd be decent at and could make a living from. Two years later, in the first and only one of his classes that I signed up for, he told me that I was a "great disappointment" to him because apparently despite attending all classes, taking notes, reading the book, asking questions, and making the same grades as everyone else, I'd somehow failed to be as enthusiastic as he'd expected me to be about the subject. And all this unwarranted praise and pressure simply because I'd come decked out with a different model of primary and secondary sexual characteristics than his other students.
And this is damaging, this process of being defined by stereotypes and then beat about the head with them.
My company tries to control for this with diversity training. The teacher asks us to write down five things that people see or assume or believe when they initially look at or interact with us. Then we're asked to write down five things that we feel really define us as people. Usually, the lists have nothing in common, with the point being that there's very little you can tell about a person immediately on meeting them and that true understanding takes a great deal of time and emotional investment.
Whether or not this sinks in on a large scale is anyone's guess. (And it's not at all helped by the Myers-Briggs class where I invariably score 50/50 across all the letters and then the teacher ultimately 'assigns' me a personality based on the data point that I'm obviously cheating. *sigh* One thing is clear: whether there are 2 types of people in this world or 16 types, I fit poorly in all the buckets.)
I've talked in the past about my frustrations with the one-dimensional characterization of Animals in Narnia. And I want to underline once again that I am not criticizing the author or his authorial choices so much as I am simply expressing an opinion. Who am I, for instance, to say that it's a wrong choice to characterize, say, all Cats identically, just because my two litter-mate cats are both exceedingly different from each other and also different from the usual stereotypes (for instance, the fluffy-clumsy-lazy one is also the skillful and determined Hunter of Moths)? Who am I, also for instance, to say that the Sherlock Holmes stories -- which I greatly enjoy -- are wrong to have the characters adhere so obligingly to class-, race-, gender-, and nationality-stereotypes that Holmes can immediately tell every little thing about them at a glance? Why, I'm nobody to say those things are wrong! I'm Someone on the Internet. Close that browser right now if you want! I won't know that you did!
What I will say is that it bothers me. I will say that I feel like the repetition of these themes in literature commonly given to children can possibly prime some children to expect strict adherence to stereotype when it comes to real people. I can point out the startlingly high number of times people -- Real Life People -- have told me that they rely on stereotypes because "stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason" (intimating that reason is Because They're True and not Because They Are Convenient To The Patriarchal Narrative) or that "stereotypes are based in fact". I can point out that stereotypes are deployed most frequently and most harmfully against groups which are traditionally marginalized and othered as different, exotic, strange, or deviant from "normal" people.
And I can point out that the stereotypes employed against the Animals in Narnia don't make a whole lot of sense to me.
THE PLACE WHERE THEY HAD MET THE Fauns was, of course, Dancing Lawn itself, and here Caspian and his friends remained till the night of the great Council. To sleep under the stars, to drink nothing but well water and to live chiefly on nuts and wild fruit, was a strange experience for Caspian after his bed with silken sheets in a tapestried chamber at the castle, with meals laid out on gold and silver dishes in the anteroom, and attendants ready at his call. But he had never enjoyed himself more. Never had sleep been more refreshing nor food tasted more savory, and he began already to harden and his face wore a kinglier look.
Caspian, of course, is not a stereotype. He was raised as a prince with all the privileges inherent therein, but he isn't defined by his background and upbringing. When faced with new situations and relative privations, he adapts, thrives, and changes. If he has an essential nature, it's a nature of Narnian Kingliness, but this nature is clearly highly adaptable or else he would not have been able to survive and thrive under Midaz' watchful eye for so long.
The Bulgy Bears were very anxious to have the feast first and leave the council till afterward: perhaps till tomorrow. Reepicheep and his Mice said that councils and feasts could both wait, and proposed storming Miraz in his own castle that very night. Pattertwig and the other Squirrels said they could talk and eat at the same time, so why not have the council and feast all at once? The Moles proposed throwing up entrenchments round the Lawn before they did anything else. The Fauns thought it would be better to begin with a solemn dance. The Old Raven, while agreeing with the Bears that it would take too long to have a full council before supper, begged to be allowed to give a brief address to the whole company. But Caspian and the Centaurs and the Dwarfs overruled all these suggestions and insisted on holding a real council of war at once.
The Animals, in contrast, do conform to stereotypes. The three Bears are sleepy and indulgent and hungry and lazy. The thirteen Mice are feisty and fast and impetuous and hasty to the point of carelessness. The Squirrels are noisy and chattering and easily distractable and lack focus. The Moles are so focused on digging that they think every situation requires it; the Raven is portentous. And so on.
It is the human, and those creatures which most resemble humans, that brings order to the chaos. Though the Animals are so consumed by their natures that they cannot work together or accomplish a common goal, the human is able to navigate each side successfully and bring order and authority for the Animals to look up to and follow.
As a world-building detail, maybe this is appropriate. Maybe this is finally the example for why it simply has to be a human as ruler for Narnia, and maybe this finally explains why an intelligent Beaver or wise Rabbit couldn't accomplish the job just as well. Lewis-or-Aslan (I genuinely cannot be sure which) may have deliberately called the Animals into being with these inherent limitations for reasons that I am not supposed to question. Fine. Not my world, either in the God-Ruler sense or in the Authorial sense.
But as a reader, all this makes me terribly uncomfortable. I feel like I'm being presented with a scale of intelligence and adaptability-to-challenging situations, with Humans on the top, Half-Humans next in line, Resembles Humans thirdly, and Animals down at the bottom. And it's this fundamental inequality that makes me very uncomfortable, as though we're looking at a sort of Narnian caste system. If you're born into the Squirrels, no matter how exceptional a Squirrel you may be, you are not qualified to rule. It may be justifiable, but it seems wholly unfair and pre-ordained to me -- isn't one of the mainstays of Standard Fantasy Tropes the protagonists who achieves greatness not by birth or biology or upbringing but rather by strength of character?
When all the other creatures had been persuaded to sit down quietly in a great circle, and when (with more difficulty) they had got Pattertwig to stop running to and fro and saying "Silence! Silence, everyone, for the King's speech," Caspian, feeling a little nervous, got up. "Narnians!" he began, but he never got any further, for at that very moment Camillo the Hare said, "Hush! There's a Man somewhere near." [...]
"Two badgers and you three Dwarfs, with your bows at the ready, go softly off to meet it," said Caspian. "We'll settle 'un," said a Black Dwarf grimly, fitting a shaft to his bowstring.
"Don't shoot if it is alone," said Caspian. "Catch it."
"Why?" asked the Dwarf.
"Do as you're told," said Glenstorm the Centaur.
It is, of course, a Black Dwarf who is the member of the party most inclined to violence. It is that way because that is part of their nature, Unfortunate Racist Implications notwithstanding. And it is also part of their nature to question authority and to not merely do something because a human has told them to do so.
And, again, I find this so strict and limiting in a way that "being human" in the Narnia-verse is not. Humans are manifestly capable of great violence -- Caspian's lineage attests to that; his ancestor conquered the country of Narnia and instigated a brutal program of genocide, and his uncle murdered his own father in cold blood. Humans are also capable of questioning authority and asking why or why not before choosing whether or not to do as they are told.
But humans are also capable of peace and obedience. Some humans are capable of these things in greater measure than others, but as variance across the species, that capability is undoubtedly there. But are we ever shown a Black Dwarf in this series who is capable of the "good" qualities of peace and obedience? Or a Black Dwarf who uses those "bad" qualities of violence and questioning to an ultimately good end? I'm not certain that we do. (For those who wonder, a quick search of "The Last Battle" yields one mention of "Black Dwar*" and no mention of "Red Dwar*".)
"Doctor Cornelius!" cried Caspian with joy, and rushed forward to greet his old tutor. Everyone else crowded round.
"Pah!" said Nikabrik. "A renegade Dwarf. A half-and-halfer! Shall I pass my sword through its throat?"
"Be quiet, Nikabrik," said Trumpkin. "The creature can't help its ancestry."
"This is my greatest friend and the savior of my life," said Caspian. "And anyone who doesn't like his company may leave my army: at once. [...]"
"But there's no time to go into that now. We must all fly from this place at once. You are already betrayed and Miraz is on the move. Before midday tomorrow you will be surrounded."
"Betrayed!" said Caspian. "And by whom?"
"Another renegade Dwarf, no doubt," said Nikabrik.
"By your horse Destrier," said Doctor Cornelius. "The poor brute knew no better. When you were knocked off, of course, he went dawdling back to his stable in the castle. Then the secret of your flight was known. I made myself scarce, having no wish to be questioned about it in Miraz's torture chamber. [...] Yesterday I learned that his army is out. I don't think some of your -- um -- pure-blooded Dwarfs have as much woodcraft as might be expected. You've left tracks all over the place. Great carelessness. At any rate something has warned Miraz that Old Narnia is not so dead as he had hoped, and he is on the move."
(I am gratified to have guessed correctly that Miraz has a torture chamber and knows how to make use of it.)
The named Black Dwarf of the group practices racial hatred and murder; the named Red Dwarf rebukes him. Nothing to see here, move along.
And yet... is there? As much as I truly hate the "essentialized" characterization of people in Narnia, it's part of the world. I didn't write the world, I don't like the way it's been written, and I'd change it if I could, but I seemingly cannot. Squirrels are chatterboxes. Centaurs are wise. Ogres are evil. These things are true by narratorial fiat, they are tautologically true. "Ogres are evil because Ogres are evil" is not a statement of racism in Narnia; it's just a statement of fact. Surely this is what Mr. Beaver was referencing in LWW when he made his famous statement about things that don't look like their essential nature.
[...] "No, no, there isn't a drop of real human blood in the Witch."
"That's why she's bad all through, Mr. Beaver," said Mrs. Beaver.
"True enough, Mrs. Beaver," replied he, "there may be two views about humans (meaning no offense to the present company). But there's no two views about things that look like humans and aren't."
"I've known good Dwarfs," said Mrs. Beaver.
"So've I, now you come to speak of it," said her husband, "but precious few, and they were the ones least like men. But in general, take my advice, when you meet anything that's going to be human and isn't yet, or used to be human once and isn't now, or ought to be human and isn't, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet."
Nikabrik is evil because he's a Black Dwarf. It makes sense, in the light of the world-building, for him to be predisposed towards violence and treachery. He literally can't change his nature.
But what is Cornelius? Cornelius looks human, or human enough that he was able to safely walk in Telmarine society without being murdered for all these years, as well as live in the court of Miraz without fear. And not just live in the court -- he scored a job as tutor for the heir, and just when Miraz was looking for someone above suspicion who wouldn't fill the boy's head with tales of Old Narnia. Cornelius is very, very good at looking human.
Were Mr. Beaver here, he might well recommend that Cornelius be put to death on the spot. They're in a vulnerable position, and they can't risk any treachery to reveal them to Miraz's more powerful and numerous forces. Nikabrik certainly does recommend this.
And yet... despite all this Narnian essentialism, when it comes down to it, Cornelius really is better than all the other dwarves. He knows magic, and explicitly calls out that his woodcraft skills -- despite not living in the forest himself for years -- is better than those dwarves who have made their home in this forest and whose skill at woodcraft literally means the difference between their life and death. Cornelius-the-dilettante is simply better. And he's wiser. Kinder. More adaptable. And brave enough and smart enough to retrieve Queen Susan's lost horn, and good enough to hand it over to a human child in an hour of need.
By the rules of Narnia, Cornelius shouldn't be better. He shouldn't be better because he should be limited by his non-Platonic nature. He shouldn't be better because it is impossible for Narnians to transcend their nature and become something greater. But he is.
He is also, at least partially, human.
And I think that the rules of Narnia are a smokescreen for the real rule: be a White Straight (Human) Male. That is why Cornelius is Better: because he is half-human. That is why Lucy is better than Susan: because she is half-male. And it is why Peter and Caspian are the best of all: they are all-human and all-male. But it's just a theory.
"Is there time for this foolery?" asked Nikabrik. "What are our plans? Battle or flight?"
"Battle if need be," said Trumpkin. "But we are hardly ready for it yet, and this is no very defensible place."
"I don't like the idea of running away," said Caspian.
"Hear him! Hear him!" said the Bulgy Bears. "Whatever we do, don't let's have any running. Especially not before supper; and not too soon after it neither." [...]
"Your Majesty," said Doctor Cornelius, "and all you variety of creatures, I think we must fly east and down the river to the great woods. The Telmarines hate that region. They have always been afraid of the sea and of something that may come over the sea. That is why they have let the great woods grow up. If traditions speak true, the ancient Cair Paravel was at the river-mouth. All that part is friendly to us and hateful to our enemies. We must go to Aslan's How." [...]
It was after they had taken up their quarters in and around the How that fortune began to turn against them. King Miraz's scouts soon found their new lair, and he and his army arrived on the edge of the woods. And as so often happens, the enemy turned out stronger than they had reckoned. Caspian's heart sank as he saw company after company arriving. And though Miraz's men may have been afraid of going into the wood, they were even more afraid of Miraz, and with him in command they carried battle deeply into it and sometimes almost to the How itself. Caspian and other captains of course made many sorties into the open country. Thus there was fighting on most days and sometimes by night as well; but Caspian's party had on the whole the worst of it.
At last there came a night when everything had gone as badly as possible, and the rain which had been falling heavily all day had ceased at nightfall only to give place to raw cold. That morning Caspian had arranged what was his biggest battle yet, and all had hung their hopes on it. [...] But it had all failed. No one had warned Caspian (because no one in these later days of Narnia remembered) that Giants are not at all clever. Poor Wimbleweather, though as brave as a lion, was a true Giant in that respect. He had broken out at the wrong time and from the wrong place, and both his party and Caspian's had suffered badly and done the enemy little harm.
Time passes. Giants are not clever. Wise strategists take into account the essential Narnian natures of their troops.
And it's hard -- it's so hard -- to not point out here sarcastically that women shouldn't be put in positions of power because we're always thinking with our baby-makers or that people of color are well-suited to low-wage labor because of unscientific bell curves. I'm trying not to fling off a sarcastic reference to these things because I really, truly, honestly, openly do not think that was what Lewis was trying to do with all this. Seriously. I think he was trying to write a fun and whimsical childrens' fairy story with, yes, heavy-handed Christian morality, but ultimately all these stereotypes about silly Squirrels and un-clever Giants was very probably meant to be all in good fun.
So here I am, Vice-Chancellor of Nofunnington, pointing out that marginalized people have been consistently denied valuable positions in society because of the prejudice that they cannot rise above their nature, and it's like talking about sexism in Dr. Seuss books. Some people are going to see the connection and nod along and say yes, that is an endemic attitude in our society and it's an important conversation to have, and other people are going to say it is a fairy tale story with mythological creatures so where do you get off comparing fairy apples with real life oranges. And I'm just going to have to point up at the site tagline and shrug.
Wimbleweather isn't clever because he's a Giant and Giants are not clever. Apparently, though, they're really good at hiding their un-cleverness because this particular defeat came apparently pretty late in the war (how long has this been going on?), and he's been with them since the Recruiting Day, so he's served with quiet enough distinction that Caspian was willing to gamble big on him in hopes of a decisive win. And, indeed, they are so good at hiding their un-cleverness that in the 1,300 years since the Pevensies have been gone and communication in Narnia has withered, everyone has forgotten their essential un-cleverness. So Giants are not clever... some of the time. At crucial plot moments, let's say.
But this ignores the fact that humans are not clever all of the time. Even Caspian makes mistakes, though they're framed entirely as "trusted the wrong person to not disappoint him with suckage". But here we have basic confirmation bias: when Caspian the Human makes mistakes, it's in spite of his noble nature; when Wimbleweather the Giant makes mistakes, it's his true nature finally asserting itself.
And, yes, this is exactly like how women and people of color and QUILTBAG people and marginalized groups are kept from sharing in the same roles and responsibilities and privileges as Straight White Men. Whether Lewis realized it or not.
"If your Majesty is ever to use the Horn," said Trufflehunter, "I think the time has now come." Caspian had of course told them of his treasure several days ago.
"We are certainly in great need," answered Caspian. "But it is hard to be sure we are at our greatest. Supposing there came an even worse need and we had already used it?"
"By that argument," said Nikabrik, "your Majesty will never use it until it is too late."
"I agree with that," said Doctor Cornelius. [...]
"Then in the name of Aslan we will wind Queen Susan's Horn," said Caspian.
"There is one thing, Sire," said Doctor Cornelius, "that should perhaps be done first. We do not know what form the help will take. It might call Aslan himself from oversea. But I think it is more likely to call Peter the High King and his mighty consorts down from the high past. [...] "I think," went on the learned man, "that they -- or he -- will come back to one or other of the Ancient Places of Narnia. [...] I should like very much to send messengers to both places, to Lantern Waste and the river-mouth, to receive them -- or him -- or it."
"Who would you think of sending, Doctor Cornelius?" asked Caspian. [...]
"I won't go," said Nikabrik. "With all these Humans and beasts about, there must be a Dwarf here to see that the Dwarfs are fairly treated."
"Thimbles and thunderstorms!" cried Trumpkin in a rage. "Is that how you speak to the King? Send me, Sire, I'll go."
"But I thought you didn't believe in the Horn, Trumpkin," said Caspian.
"No more I do, your Majesty. But what's that got to do with it? I might as well die on a wild goose chase as die here. You are my King. I know the difference between giving advice and taking orders. You've had my advice, and now it's the time for orders."
And then there's this.
It's a council of war deep in the heart of Aslan's How, which is a mound erected over the stone table. The council is not using the Stone Table for common counseling as that would be sacrilegious; they've instead procured some logs to sit on, which must have taken a good deal of resources, particularly given that there's no way to tell a sentient-but-sleeping tree from a regular one and there are no beavers in the party, but I'm not going to tell people how to religion.
The council is counseling Caspian on whether or not to use the horn, and it's interesting to me that they still haven't used it yet. Caspian is vacillating on the issue and is determined not to use the horn until they're at their greatest hour of need. Surely that wouldn't be until they were truly defeated and surrounded by Miraz's armed soldiers, no?
I find this interesting because no such condition was originally attached to the horn. When it was given by Father Christmas to Susan, he merely told her:
And when you put this horn to your lips and blow it, then, wherever you are, I think help of some kind will come to you.
Not only are there not any guidelines for when to use the horn, Santa isn't even sure that help will come at all! He thinks it will. Probably. Maybe. (I can't shake the image of Santa adding, "I found this in my storeroom of assorted magical treasures. My Identify skill isn't what it used to be, but maybe it will help? I dunno.")
I don't suppose I blame Caspian or Cornelius for not knowing this. That was 1,300 years ago and the only 6 people who witnessed the exchange (the four children and two beavers) have been long gone, and apparently the dispenser of the gift doesn't bother to drop by Narnia anymore, eternal winter or no. (Maybe the yearly visit lost its appeal once the rivalry was gone?)
But in addition to demonstrating how information can be lost and how mysticism can be attached to an object over time (as the horn has been upgraded from "blow here for help" to "blow only when the alternative is unimaginably dire"), this is also potentially a case where Caspian is very wrong. He's a Hamlet in charge of the army, agonizing over whether to Do or Do Not, and meanwhile his troops die and are wounded unnecessarily while he waits. He may not be wrong from his perspective -- he's been told to only call it at the hour of greatest need -- but he is, for this one moment in time, wrong nevertheless.
Nikabrik and Trumpkin both believe that Caspian is wrong, too. But Nikabrik the Black Dwarf, the one with the bad hair and the bad attitude, says outright that he won't obey an order from Caspian because he believes that Caspian's bad leadership is detrimental to the safety of his people. Trumpkin the Red Dwarf, with the good hair and the good attitude, rebukes this attitude and tells Caspian to command him, even if his orders do not coincide with his opinion. (And even if those orders end up with him being captured, trussed up, taken out on a boat, and drowned to death.)
And yet -- probably not surprisingly at this point -- I feel sympathy with Nikabrik. Later he will point out that in a single battle yet to occur, his people were killed (or wounded? the narrative is deliberately unclear) by 1 in 5. The Black Dwarves were not merely decimated, they were pentamated. (Note: Probably not a real word.) The Badger will argue with Nikabrik and say that everyone else -- including the King -- "all did as much" in battle as the dwarves, but that doesn't come close to saying that they all lost as much.
Maybe Nikabrik is lying when he says that the dwarves are bearing the brunt of this war. But I'm not sure how he could be. Based on the text, it sounds like everyone in the army is everyone they met on Recruiting Day. In an army of "flighty" Squirrels, tiny Mice, dancing Fauns, Bears so foolish they can't stop thinking about food long enough to flee for their lives and can't stay awake during a crucial upcoming duel that decides the very fate of Narnia, and un-clever Giants, who is on the front lines dealing the most damage and keeping the army from breaking through? The centaurs, maybe, but there only seems to be four of them (Glenstorm and his three sons) and even if there are some unmentioned daughters and/or friends of the family, there doesn't sound to be more than a dozen. And that's assuming they're at the front and aren't providing archery support from the back.
It kind of seems to me that the dwarves have to be the cannon-fodder of this army, if we just look at the dynamics of who is available to throw onto the front lines. And for all that, they're getting... what? A chance at vengeance and freedom, I suppose. But at the end of the day, they're putting the "rightful" heir -- rightful by Telmarine standards, too, which has to sting -- on the throne and he's still a human who still doesn't understand them, who openly sneers at their strategies and philosophies, and whose only connection with their real home of Narnia is the fanciful romanticization of a child.
I'm not sure, in light of all that, that Nikabrik is wrong when he says that he has to remain there to represent the interests of his people. I don't see any other dwarves being invited to the war council -- it's basically just Caspian, his best friend, and the three people who lived in the home he blundered into. When Trumpkin leaves, there won't be another Red Dwarf brought to take his place on the council; certainly there are no centaurs or Squirrels or Bears in there. Apparently if Nikabrik were to leave, the Black Dwarves would have no representation whatsoever in the planning phase, but they would still be expected to lay down their lives.
And we're supposed to accept this, I think, as Trumpkin does, because Caspian is the king. And the king gives the orders. But this king has -- through no fault of his own, but nevertheless -- given bad orders. He took them into open warfare on the advice of an astrologer, and that war has now gone very badly indeed. He placed too much responsibility on a battle general who could not handle his orders. He has cost lives by unnecessarily waiting to blow the horn. Like all Caspian's privilege, like the genocide of the Narnians, this isn't Caspian's fault. But it does, perhaps, like all those other things, make him less suited to rule with an iron fist and unquestioned judgment over the many diverse peoples of Narnia.
It's just strange to me that Nikabrik is treated like a villain for pointing that out.