Narnia Recap: In which Lucy and Edmund Pevensie are pulled into Narnia through a picture on the wall, along with their annoying cousin Eustace Scrubb.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 1: The Picture in the Bedroom
Sometimes I wonder what certain books would be like had they been written by different authors. I've been thinking that a lot lately with regards to Dawn Treader, and as the winter holiday season comes upon us in my region of the world, I find myself imagining what the result would be if we pulled Charles Dickens' opening lines from A Christmas Carol...
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergy-man, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change for anything he chose to put his hand to.
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
...and crossed them with Dawn Treader. I think we'd get something like this:
Aunt Alberta was evil, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. Her evilness could be seen first in her female form, second in her Communist ways indoctrinated upon her innocent child, third in her dislike for all things Narnian, and fourth in her unwomanly rejection of traditional chivalry and her embrace of all the evils of Feminism. Lucy and Edmund witnessed it. And their name was good enough for Law in Narnia for anything they chose to put their hands to.
Aunt Alberta was as evil as sin.
I'm being tongue-in-cheek, but I do think that the narrative of Dawn Treader does its best to ensure that we understand that Aunt Alberta is as wrong as wrong can be. She is most frequently invoked as the cause of Eustace's badness (Uncle Harold is let off relatively lightly, with fewer in-text mentions), and she absolutely stands in opposition to the two things that the narrator seems to cherish most: Narnia and Arthurian Chivalry.
I'd like to talk about these things today, and I ask your indulgence as I skip around just a little. Aunt Alberta's issues are split across multiple chapters and are especially notable in Chapters 1 and 2, and I wanted to gather them up into a single post. We'll come back and go through Chapter 1 (and finish it!) properly next week, but today we'll be skipping ahead a little.
Chapter 1 introduces us to Aunt Alberta's evil when we come to the Magic Picture through which the children will be sucked into Narnia. But the Magic Picture is more than just a portal to another world; it also represents Aunt Alberta's profound dislike for Narnia and (according to the preferences of Lucy, Edmund, and the Narrator) her utter failure at interior design:
They were in Lucy’s room, sitting on the edge of her bed and looking at a picture on the opposite wall. It was the only picture in the house that they liked. Aunt Alberta didn’t like it at all (that was why it was put away in a little back room upstairs), but she couldn’t get rid of it because it had been a wedding present from someone she did not want to offend.
I'm almost certain that this passage isn't supposed to inspire me with sympathy for Aunt Alberta, but it nevertheless does. I've been on the receiving end of "house-warming" gifts that I absolutely did not want in my home, and have been faced with the unenviable conundrum of (a) where to put it so that I don't have to look at it and (b) how long is a decent interval before I can get rid of it. (There is also a third potential complication in the form of (c) what to do when Husband decides he likes it just fine and can a trade be negotiated in some form or fashion.)
But, no, I really do think this passage is a red flag right at the beginning that Aunt Alberta's opinions are Objectively Wrong. Not only does she not like the Narnian picture, but she also has no other pictures that protagonists Lucy and Edmund enjoy looking at. And this is a shame, because it didn't need to be this way. There are an infinite number of ways that this picture could have been brought into the house and placed in Lucy's bedroom; it's just that somehow we ended up with the nastiest possible path from point A to point B.
Consider how much more sympathetic this framing is: Aunt Alberta has lots of lovely pictures in her home, and this Magic Picture is simply the one that Lucy and Edmund like the best. She bought the picture herself because she liked it, and she placed it in Lucy's bedroom as an act of hospitality because she wanted her young niece to feel comfortable and happy during her visit.
Too cozy for you? Alright, try this one on for size: Aunt Alberta was gifted the picture, yes, but it's not that she Didn't Like It At All but rather that as pretty as the picture is, it sadly just does not fit her decor. The rest of the house is done over in woodland vines and green meadows, and a sea-scape just didn't fit with the theme. She kept the picture not because she Did Not Want To Offend, but because she cherishes the giver and the thought behind the gift. As a compromise to her interior decor, she did the guest bedroom over in sea themes. There's also a shell-studded Kleenex box somewhere in the room, too.
Sadly, we don't get Thanks-So-Much-For-The-Thought-Alas-It-Doesn't-Fit-My-Decor Alberta. Instead we get Absolutely-Hates-The-Picture-But-Is-Cowed-By-Social-Shaming Alberta, and hating Narnian things, much like hating the name of Aslan, is not usually a sign of sympathetic characterization in these books. Though, for the record, I can hardly blame her for her antipathy in this case. The picture is described as:
It was a picture of a ship—a ship sailing straight toward you. Her prow was gilded and shaped like the head of a dragon with wide-open mouth. She had only one mast and one large, square sail which was a rich purple. The sides of the ship—what you could see of them where the gilded wings of the dragon ended—were green. She had just run up to the top of one glorious blue wave, and the nearer slope of that wave came down toward you, with streaks and bubbles on it. She was obviously running fast before a gay wind, listing over a little on her port side. (By the way, if you are going to read this story at all, and if you don’t know already, you had better get it into your head that the left of a ship when you are looking ahead, is port, and the right is starboard.) All the sunlight fell on her from that side, and the water on that side was full of greens and purples. On the other, it was darker blue from the shadow of the ship.
It's a picture of a dragon-shaped boat with the dominant colors being Purple and Green. So, in other words, it was painted by someone who had nothing but contempt for the idea of complimentary colors.
Movie-makers do understand complimentary colors, so in the promotion photos for the most recent adaptation they down-played the offending green as much as possible and played up a complimentary yellow as much as they could via the gold detailing on the sail and ship as well as the nearby sunset in order to serve up something a bit more palatable (to my eyes):
But my point, I have wandered away from it at full mosey. We were talking about Aunt Alberta. Let's talk a little about King Arthur and Chivalry. The narrator brings the subject up in his usual direct style:
If you spent a hundred years in Narnia, you would still come back to our world at the very same hour of the very same day on which you left. And then, if you went back to Narnia after spending a week here, you might find that a thousand Narnian years had passed, or only a day, or no time at all. You never know till you get there. Consequently, when the Pevensie children had returned to Narnia last time for their second visit, it was (for the Narnians) as if King Arthur came back to Britain, as some people say he will. And I say the sooner the better.
And this is one of those places where it's so dang difficult to deconstruct Narnia, because I read passages like this one and just go: Whut.
This book was published in 1952. The story is set in 1942. The narrator is telling us things that he claims to have learned when he interviewed Lucy (and the others), presumably as adults (Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterward. Lucy could only say, “It would break your heart.” “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.), in which case the book is claiming to have been written down as fact sometime after 1942. The addition of The Last Battle to the series imposes an upper limit of 1949, since that is when Lucy is killed in the railway accident. So, one way or anther, we have on our hands a narrator writing sometime between 1942 and 1952 saying that King Arthur very much needs to come back to Britain and the sooner the better.
What does one do with this sort of thing? Discard it as just another piece of cozy fluffy world-building not to be taken seriously? Or does one sit down and genuinely try to work out what our narrator expects or hopes a messianic King Arthur to do were he to come back in an age where nuclear weapons have either been developed and deployed or (depending on the timeline) very soon will be? Why would a returning King Arthur be in the least bit qualified to rule 1940s Britain, and for that matter why would he want to? Why would the narrator want him to? I feel like this small sentence, placed here innocuously to demonstrate the vagueries of the Narnia timeline, has broken my brain.
And yet. I don't think this mention of King Arthur is an unconnected throw-away that has nothing to do with the rest of the book. I think this is a signal to the reader about the type of book we're about to read. King Caspian is something of a King Arthur figure within this text. He came to his throne as a boy, and he's on a religious pilgrimage to rescue valiant knights and find a connection to his god. He is acclaimed as a good ruler despite the fact that, technically, he's not really doing his job as a ruler -- he's left his kingdom in the hands of a regent in order to go off on this exciting quest. But that's alright because exciting quests are what Arthurian kings do. And -- above all else -- he is a king and his is a court and this is a book that emphasizes Arthurian Chivalry as ideal behavior.
We'll being seeing a lot of this as we go through the text. But today we're going to cover how this emphasis on chivalry intersects with the characterization of Aunt Alberta. Skipping ahead a little, Lucy and the boys are drawn into the picture and pulled onto the deck of the ship. Casian tells Lucy:
I’ll give you my cabin of course, Lucy, but I’m afraid we have no women’s clothes on board. You’ll have to make do with some of mine.
There are no women's clothes on board because there are no women on board. There are also, not entirely unrelatedly, no Animals or non-humans on board except Reepicheep.
I don't think Narnia is explicitly supposed to be an oppressive patriarchy that forces women and non-humans to stay at home minding the country while the menfolk go off to have exciting adventures, yet this is what we have been effectively handed. Either no woman and no non-human (except Reepicheep) wanted to go on the adventure, or none were qualified to go, or none were allowed to go. These are really the only choices that we have available. And since we know through observation that the first two (lack of desire and lack of qualification) are highly unlikely and that the third (prejudice) is very common indeed, it's hard not to focus on that as the in-universe explanation for why King Caspian, the Telmarine Who Saved Narnia, stocked his ship almost entirely with human men.
And yet Arthurian Chivalry, as we most commonly invoke the term, essentially requires that an oppressive patriarchy be held in place in order for chivalry to exist so that it may protect-and-serve "worthy" women. The concept, particularly as it relates to women and how to treat them -- and note that it is assumed in the chivalric tradition that "woman" is a distinct and separate category from "knight", so we have a gender segregation built in from the very beginning -- was built around the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the ideal that a knight's chosen lady was Mary's representative on earth unlike all those Other dirty, fallen women. I'll just slap Wikipedia in here:
The medieval development of chivalry, with the concept of the honor of a lady and the ensuing knightly devotion to it, not only derived from the thinking about the Virgin Mary, but also contributed to it. The medieval veneration of the Virgin Mary was contrasted by the fact that ordinary women, especially those outside aristocratic circles, were looked down upon. Although women were at times viewed as the source of evil, it was Mary who as mediator to God was a source of refuge for man.
And this is one of many, many problems with Arthurian Chivalry: it doesn't apply to all women, but rather just the "right" kind of woman. The beautiful women, the ones who are gracious and gentle and capable of stirring just the right kind of pantsfeelings. The women who accept their place in the chivalric tradition, and accept that the chivalrous behavior is a reward to women who agree to not buck the system. Chivalric tradition grants that the women who agree to accept their status without question and who do not agitate for the protection of the women lower on the marginalization scale, may reap some relative privilege as a reward for their participation in the patriarchy.*
* I use "participation in the patriarchy" with trepidation here, because there is a problem in some circles with criticizing average women for their choice not to make waves in the patriarchy, and that criticism is misplaced. There is a difference between an activist who actually works to make women's lives worse, and a passive participant who very likely does not have the tools to effectively resist the patriarchal culture she is surrounded by. Women in the latter category -- the participants rather than the activists -- should not be blamed for a bargain made under duress and in an attempt to survive. Our ire is better directed at the actual victimizers who are creating and maintaining situations where women feel they must passively participate or otherwise face serious consequences.
The kind of chivalry we see on the pages of Dawn Treader isn't an idealized version of chivalry where kindness is extended to all women, regardless of their existing privileges of class and/or beauty. Instead, it's the actual realistic everyday kind of chivalry where in order to extend privilege to some, countless others are put down. We see this as early as Chapter 2, when Caspian demonstrates that he doesn't respect non-beautiful women enough to not gossip about their failures behind their backs:
“That’s our position,” he said, laying his finger on it. “Or was at noon today. We had a fair wind from Cair Paravel and stood a little north for Galma, which we made on the next day. We were in port for a week, for the Duke of Galma made a great tournament for His Majesty and there he unhorsed many knights—”
“And got a few nasty falls myself, Drinian. Some of the bruises are there still,” put in Caspian.
“—And unhorsed many knights,” repeated Drinian with a grin. “We thought the Duke would have been pleased if the King’s Majesty would have married his daughter, but nothing came of that—”
“Squints, and has freckles,” said Caspian.
“Oh, poor girl,” said Lucy.
Lucy isn't saying "poor girl" because the young woman has been born into a bullshit patriarchy where she is very likely going to be pawned off in marriage to a total stranger in order to increase the political power of her father. Nor is she lamenting the fact that the "poor girl" is now having the bad fortune of being dissed far-and-wide by the local High King of the region who considers her unworthy of being his bed-mate and feels that fact should be shared in as much detail as possible rather than simply tactfully saying that he's "not ready for marriage" or something that would, you know, be kind and generous and respectful.
Neither is Lucy expressing what a shame it is that the "poor girl" lives in a culture where her marriageability is determined by the layout of her face, rather than the content of her mind. Possibly the young woman in question squints because she has spent a lifetime with her nose in books, learning how to be a good governor to her people. But that doesn't really matter to her suitors because things like "would make a good regent in case of emergency, war, or long sea-voyage" is obviously less important when choosing a prospective queen than the strength of pantsfeelings produced at the first meeting.
So instead Lucy is lamenting that the "poor girl" had the bad fortune to not be born as a total hottie in a world where her entire life -- including how courteously she will be treated by the chivalrous men in her life -- is determined by a mathematical function of Hot Or Not. And Lucy seems to understand and appreciate that this mathematical function applies to herself as well, and really how could she not understand this? How could Lucy not notice that the only reason she was allowed on the voyage was because Aslan dumped her into the sea after the boat had pulled away from the mainland, and that had she been dumped into Cair Paravel prior to the voyage, she might have been kept from participating because of her gender?
How can Lucy not notice that the "chivalry" extended to her has never been and never will be as good as that which was extended to her prettier big sister, Susan? Little wonder, then, that Lucy will be tempted to cast the Hottest Babe Evah spell when they come to the magician's tower. She's not indulging out of vanity; she's trying to receive better treatment in a world where it is perfectly normal, polite, and tolerable to extend respect to women as a function of how erection-stirring they are.
What's most frustrating about all this is that Lewis seems to realize that some women object to this Hot Or Not code of honor, and that some women believe that Equality for Women means equality for all women -- regardless of race, class, beauty, education, breeding, and so forth -- rather than just the privilege-born ones who kowtow meekly to the patriarchy. But those women are all evil, just like Aunt Alberta. In Chapter 2, she is invoked in Eustace's diary while Eustace selfishly lobbies to kick Lucy out of Caspian's cabin so that the nicer quarters might go to Eustace:
Needless to say I’ve been put in the worst cabin of the boat, a perfect dungeon, and Lucy has been given a whole room on deck to herself, almost a nice room compared with the rest of this place. C. says that’s because she’s a girl. I tried to make him see what Alberta says, that all that sort of thing is really lowering girls but he was too dense.
We're not supposed to agree with this, because Eustace is arguing from motives of selfishness, but the danger in breezing past this is that we may lose sight of the fact that Aunt Alberta is right. This sort of thing is lowering to girls. Not the act of giving Lucy the cabin because she's the only girl on board, but rather the culture that ensures that the only way a girl is allowed to board the ship is if god dumps her into the ocean after it's far too late to turn around and put her back on shore. That culture is lowering to girls, and the two things -- the act of giving the cabin and the culture that makes the gift necessary -- are inextricably linked. Chivalry doesn't work without a patriarchy in place, because the entire system is built around extending privilege to a few rather than equality to all.
Treating women as equals to men would mean allowing women to board the Dawn Treader as sailors and warriors and navigators and workers. There would be women's clothes on board for Lucy because there would be women on board with Lucy. Lucy would sleep near, with, or among some or all of these women, and she wouldn't need to be privileged with the nice cabin because she would have the equal conditions in place to sleep with the group rather than cordoned off for her own "comfort". (Which is really just a combination of safety and not having to feel lonely in a crowd where she is the only Other.)
Treating women as equals to men would mean being polite, tactful, and respectful about a woman's desirability regardless of whether that desirability is Hot Or Not. It would mean extending women the same courtesy of narrative characterization as to the men, yet as it stands, beyond whether or not the Duke of Galma's Daughter and the Star Ramandu's Daughter are Hot Or Not, we know absolutely nothing about their characters, their likes and dislikes, or even their names.
And treating women as equals to men would mean understanding that in a patriarchal situation like this one, it's hardly a sin of vanity for a woman to seek to improve her situation by using magic to be the Hottest Babe Evah. Instead, it's an act of desperation -- an attempt to eke out a position of equality to if not all men, then at least some men. It's a cry for help in a world where the layout of a woman's face and body entirely determines whether she'll be treated with respect or if she'll be relegated to the rubbish heap with the rest of the undeserving women.
Aunt Alberta thinks that Arthurian Chivalry is destructive to women. What we're not supposed to notice is that she's right.