Narnia Recap: The Telmarines have surrendered to the Narnias.
Prince Caspian, Chapter 15: Aslan Makes a Door In The Air
AT THE SIGHT OF ASLAN THE CHEEKS OF the Telmarine soldiers became the color of cold gravy, their knees knocked together, and many fell on their faces. They had not believed in lions and this made their fear greater. Even the Red Dwarfs, who knew that he came as a friend, stood with open mouths and could not speak. Some of the Black Dwarfs, who had been of Nikabrik's party, began to edge away. But all the Talking Beasts surged round the Lion, with purrs and grunts and squeaks and whinnies of delight, fawning on him with their tails, rubbing against him, touching him reverently with their noses and going to and fro under his body and between his legs. If you have ever seen a little cat loving a big dog whom it knows and trusts, you will have a pretty good picture of their behavior. Then Peter, leading Caspian, forced his way through the crowd of animals.
There are SO many things I love about this paragraph.
I love that, because I'm a Texan and our "gravy" is usually white gravy, that this imagery of gravy-colored cheeks makes the Telmarines look like the ghostiest ghosts that ever ghosted down the ghosting aisle. I love that Lewis goes full throttle with the over-the-top race-essentialist color-coded framing that Red Dwarves are all that is good and wonderful but Black Dwarves are pretty much as a whole shifty and untrustworthy and always on the precipice of being the enemy. (I mean, they could have all just been dwarves without any colors, with some good and some bad, but no we had to Color Code 'Em For Our Convenience.) But most of all, I love that Peter -- white Peter, human Peter, English Peter, Magnificent Peter -- FORCES his way through the crowd of Narnian natives who are touching their king and god for the first time in 300+ years rather than wait his turn for a few measly minutes.
LINES ARE FOR LITTLE PEOPLE!
(You just know Peter would be a little terror in the malls at Christmas. "Let me through to see Santa!" he'd yell indignantly. "I"m Peter the Magnificent and we're on speaking terms ever since that one time he gave me a sword. Now move aside!")
"This is Caspian, Sir," he said. And Caspian knelt and kissed the Lion's paw.
"Welcome, Prince," said Aslan. "Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Narnia?"
"I -- I don't think I do, Sir," said Caspian. "I'm only a kid."
"Good," said Aslan. "If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been a proof that you were not. Therefore, under us and under the High King, you shall be King of Narnia, Lord of Cair Paravel, and Emperor of the Lone Islands. You and your heirs while your race lasts. And your coronation -- but what have we here?"
So let's talk about a little pet peeve I have with the You Are Not What You Think trope.
I don't care for this trope, if only because it's eight parts too simplistic and two parts overused like whoa. At least for me, it was drilled into me as a child, never directly but through its constant repetition in things like, well, like Narnia. Those who think themselves first are actually last; those who think themselves unqualified are really the best people for the job. And so forth.
And probably this trope was started because there's a ring -- a tiny, but true ring -- of realness to it. I will always be fond of Douglas Adams' insistence that "anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job." Adams is saying (I would argue), that the amount of personal drive and ambition that is required in order to be elected to power are precisely the capabilities that make the candidate least suited for the job. But even if that framing is true then the statement can be taken to be as much about the brokenness of the political process as it can be about the value of self-assessment.
Aslan's statement here is not, I think, about the brokenness of the political process, because there is no "political process" in Narnia other than "have the correct parents". (See how Narnia's next king will be Caspian's sperm-baby, with no regard to whether or not he is competent to do the job.) Instead, Aslan's statement is a reflection on the wrongness of self-assessment: Caspian thinks he will be a bad (or inadequate) ruler, so therefore he will be a good one. If Caspian thought he would be a good ruler, it would prove he wouldn't be. It's simplistic and childish, but it's also dangerously insidious. Because sometimes -- I would even argue oftentimes -- when people think they would be bad at something they are right.
One of the reasons that some victims stay with their abusers is because some abusers very candidly admit that they are doing bad things. When a victim has been raised from childhood to think along the process that Aslan outlines, this admission of guilt is processed along these guidelines: if James recognizes that he is a bad person doing bad things and unsuited for a relationship at this time, then James must be the opposite! The very fact that James recognizes these things about himself constitutes not only an apology, but an awareness of the problem! Since Knowing Is Half The Battle, James will make a conscious effort to fix his problems and then everything will be better!
Even outside of the confines of abuse, there is a common stereotype that women like to "change" the men they are dating, to turn them into something they aren't. In my experience, men are just as likely to try to change women, but leave that aside for a moment. Could it be that at least some of these hypothetical Looking For Change people aren't actually expecting a personal transformation so much as they are expecting that the outward self-assessments offered by Jack or Jenna in the early stages of a relationship actually belie their internal, and opposite, nature?
The "Different On The Inside" trope is so common that it's almost a fundamental archetype for fiction. Farmer boys are really brave and glorious heroes. Inexperienced children are really wise and capable rulers. Lowly stablehands are actually high-born princes. And so forth. I don't think there's anything wrong with this trope per se but there's something of a line crossed when we take Different On The Inside and extend that even further to You Are Not What You Think. A farmer girl who has always known deep down inside that she is capable of great feats of bravery is fine. A farmer girl who never suspected that she was capable of great feats of bravery but turns out to be so is fine. A farmer girl who assesses herself and decides that, no, she probably isn't capable of great feats of bravery but it turns out she totally is, is... problematic.
On the one hand, I see the good intent behind the trope. I recognize that there's an element there of "you are capable of things greater than you ever imagined". I can also see it as pushback against a patriarchal society, that even if society manages to convince you that you are not brave or wise or wonderful, being convinced doesn't make it true. I think the trope comes from a good place. But when it's overused -- or used badly, as it is here, where confidence is automatically a grounds for disqualification because people are binary like that -- then there's a very great danger that people may internalize that they are always wrong about themselves because self-assessments can never be trusted.
Aslan says "If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been a proof that you were not," [emphasis mine] but why? Caspian would be well within reason to assume that he will rule well: the evil and astonishingly incompetent Miraz handled the kingdom just fine, Caspian has dozens of loyal and intelligent advisers in his army, and oh yeah he's standing next to four people who were "just kids" when they took the crown of Narnia, and that ended up being the freaking "Golden Age" for the entire country. I'm not saying that Caspian must be confident -- that should really be left to the individual to decide and assess -- but that his confidence should in no way be an automatic assessment of unsuitability.
In the same vein, Caspian may be unconfident to rule because he isn't fit to rule. Sometimes people who self-assess themselves to be Bad At X really are bad at X. I'm bad with languages other than English. I'm bad at coding languages that aren't XML-based. I'm bad at telling time on analog clocks and at remembering right from left. When people try to argue -- as they sometimes do -- that I can't be as bad at those things as I think I am, that indeed my humility must mean I'm secretly good at them but just waiting to blossom, I usually try to politely shut them down. Thank you for your esteem, I say when I am feeling particularly eloquent, but I do believe I am competent to gauge my strengths and limitations.
It's probably naive of me to ask for nuance in the writing for a children's book, but it would have resonated with me much better if Lewis had made Aslan much less sure of himself, and much less emphatic about How The World Works. If Aslan had told Caspian that he believes Caspian will make a good ruler, and that humility and uncertainty are good traits in moderation because they will prevent him from being an autocratic dictator unwilling to listen to the advice of others, then I'd have little reaction to this section beyond a nod at the attempt at encouragement and advice. But Aslan's Word Of God from on high that self-assessments are always Opposite Day is just grating. Because the world doesn't work like that -- and people can and do get hurt when they buy-in to that sort of framing.
"Hail, Aslan!" came his shrill voice. "I have the honor -- " But then he suddenly stopped.
The fact was that [Reepicheep] 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. [...]
"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."
Prince Caspian was published in 1951. I honestly don't know how much it was understood in 1951 that the majority of animal tails are not decorative, that they are vital for balance, for equilibrium, for (in some species) object manipulation, and for communication. Furthermore, I don't know how much of that information was available to C.S. Lewis who did not, of course, have access to Wikipedia. However, the text does note that Reepicheep's balance is affected, which... you think? Humans have balance issues if we lose a piddly little toe, let alone an entire limb.
Reepicheep is a warrior. He serves his kingdom with his sword, and presumably puts food on his table in the same way. He lives and fights in a world where he is the smallest and weakest among all the sentient species, where brute strength is simply not an option for him -- he has to have balance and equilibrium in order to survive. And probably not just in battle: how else is a Mouse going to survive in a world with literal Giants, if not by being quick and sure on his feet?
For the text to treat a genuine issue of disability as a silly question of vanity is frankly monstrous. And for Aslan to chastise this poor soul for thinking "too much" about his honor in a land where Peter the Magnificent (by the gift of Aslan, by election, by prescription, and by conquest, High King over all Kings in Narnia, Emperor of the Lone Islands and Lord of Cair Paravel, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Lion, Wearer of the Shiniest Armor, etc.) and Caspian the Tenth (King of Narnia, Lord of Cair Paravel, Emperor of the Lone Islands, and Possessor of the Nicest Hair) are losing sleep over whether a paw-sucking Bear is too silly to be allowed on their football team is flabbergasting beyond all measure. Aslan finally shows up after 300+ years and the first person he dresses down for un-Christian behavior is an honest-to-god disabled Mouse.
On the other hand, since Narnia is meant to be a religious allegory, perhaps this is C.S. Lewis' explanation to the annoying problem of why amputees are never miraculously healed: Because god is amused and saddened by their obvious vanity at wanting to have fully functioning limbs.
"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."
Tears. A torrent of tears.
This is the true face of the god of Narnia. When presented with a disabled person who He decides should stay disabled, Aslan doesn't offer to walk in the shoes of the disabled with them. It's not Aslan who is standing by to slice off his tail, to experience the humiliation and prejudice of living in an ableist world, or the trials and difficulties of living inside a disabled body. Aslan is amused and bored, and issues his judgement from the comfort of his able-bodied form. What's so rough about being disabled? he asks. Lots of people are, and you don't see them crying about it.
This isn't the reaction from Peepiceek, nor from the rest of the Mice. If someone they love must remain disabled, then they will join that person in hir disability. They stand up, before the gods and kings of Narnia, and flat-out state that sympathy is not enough. Sympathy is insufficient. Anything less than empathy -- and, for them, the only real empathy is that which comes from walking in the shoes of the disabled -- is worthless. It's a piercing show of support and love for Reepicheep, but it's also a devastating attack on Aslan and his followers.
"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. Then, at Aslan's command, Peter bestowed the Knighthood of the Order of the Lion on Caspian, and Caspian, as soon as he was knighted, himself bestowed it on Trufflehunter and Trumpkin and Reepicheep, and made Doctor Cornelius his Lord Chancellor, and confirmed the Bulgy Bear in his hereditary office of Marshal of the Lists. And there was great applause.
Just to be totally clear:
- Caring about a life-altering disability: Proud, vain, overly obsessed with false "honor".
- Caring about a bunch of meaningless titles after your name: Honorable and righteous.
I know there are people who think I'm too hard on Narnia, even people who think I bear some kind of grudge against C.S. Lewis. I don't have any such grudge. I'm not trying to ruin everyone's childhood. Every time I start these posts, my goal is to be kind and positive and thoughtful and upbeat.
But I didn't write this. The stuff above, it's not cut and edited to look bad. This scene literally went:
1. Caspian gets some titles.
2. Aslan tells a wounded Mouse that he cares too much for false "honor".
3. Caspian gets more titles.
No gaps. No segues. No scene changes.
I don't know what to make of this. I'd like to believe that somehow this was deliberate, that this interruption in the title-giving ceremony by the mouse that needs scolding is somehow meant to be a clever commentary on ... something. If I had to guess, I'd say that we weren't meant to agree with Aslan and the rest, that this whole scene was designed and set up to make Aslan -- and the silent and presumably-agreeing Caspian and Peter -- seem like people so comfortable in their privilege that they are carelessly exhibiting cruelty.
But if that's the case, if Aslan is supposed to be wrong here, then ... what does that say about the rest of the series? And what does that say about the Theologies? It's hard for me to imagine that this is supposed to be a deliberate allegory for how god cannot or will not relate to disabled people. I have to assume -- because I don't know how else to read it -- that I'm supposed to agree with Aslan, to view Reepicheep as (adorably!) vain and proud. Because he wanted to have the able-body that was taken from him in a battle for the freedom of Narnia, and asked for that body from people with the power and privilege to bestow it, and who are indebted to him for his service and sacrifice.
I don't know how to get on board with that view. I can't.
Note: We'll pick up the remainder of Chapter 15 next time.