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
Ana's Note: Today's post is a short one, because I'm composing this whilst battling some kind of cold/flu. Consider this interesting filler material.
I'm reading Terry Pratchett's Hogfather because while I'm not really sold on the Discworld series as a whole (I tend to avoid franchises with 30+ books, for reasons that I've never bothered to adequately suss out), I saw the movie and found it utterly delightful. Furthermore, it's getting nippy weather here finally and since I tend to find A Christmas Carol depressing, I can't bear It's a Wonderful Life, and I don't care for A Charlie Brown Christmas, that means that if I want yuletide entertainment, I have to reach for something a little non-traditional. And Hogfather fits that bill.
For those who haven't read the book, Hogfather takes place in Pratchett's alternate/fantasy universe where Christmas is represented by something called "Hogswatch" and where a big piggy fat man in red robes delivers presents to children while riding on a sleigh pulled by four giant boars. On this particular Hogswatch in question, a nefarious group is trying to erase children's belief in the Hogfather, and so the personification of Death has to step in and pretend to be the Hogfather in order to buy his granddaughter Susan time to make things right. And I think that's really all you need to know in order to read this post.
So I'm reading Hogfather as innocent as you please and who do I find in the smack middle of the book but Eustace Clarence Scrubb:
The boy gave the Hogfather an appraising stare as he sat down on the official knee.
“Let’s be absolutely clear. I know you’re just someone dressed up,” he said. “The Hogfather is a biological and temporal impossibility. I hope we understand one another.”
AH. SO I DON’T EXIST?
“Correct. This is just a bit of seasonal frippery and, I may say, rampantly commercial. My mother’s already bought my presents. I instructed her as to the right ones, of course. She often gets things wrong.”
The Hogfather glanced briefly at the smiling, worried image of maternal ineffectiveness hovering nearby.
HOW OLD ARE YOU, BOY?
The child rolled his eyes. “You’re not supposed to say that,” he said. “I have done this before, you know. You have to start by asking me my name.”
AARON FIDGET, “THE PINES,” EDGEWAY ROAD, ANKH-MORPORK.
“I expect someone told you,” said Aaron. “I expect these people dressed up as pixies get the information from the mothers.”
AND YOU ARE EIGHT, GOING ON…OH, ABOUT FORTY-FIVE, said the Hogfather.
“There’s forms to fill in when they pay, I expect,” said Aaron.
AND YOU WANT WALNUT’S INOFFENSIVE REPTILES OF THE STO PLAINS, A DISPLAY CABINET, A COLLECTOR’S ALBUM, A KILLING JAR AND A LIZARD PRESS. WHAT IS A LIZARD PRESS?
“You can’t glue them in when they’re still fat, or didn’t you know that? I expect she told you about them when I was momentarily distracted by the display of pencils. Look, shall we end this charade? Just give me my orange and we’ll say no more about it.”
I CAN GIVE FAR MORE THAN ORANGES.
“Yes, yes, I saw all that. Probably done in collusion with accomplices to attract gullible customers. Oh dear, you’ve even got a false beard. By the way, old chap, did you know that your pig—”
“All done by mirrors and string and pipes, I expect. It all looked very artificial to me.”
The Hogfather snapped his fingers.
“That’s probably a signal, I expect,” said the boy, getting down. “Thank you very much.”
HAPPY HOGSWATCH, said the Hogfather as the boy walked away.
Uncle Heavy patted him on the shoulder.
“Well done, master,” he said. “Very patient. I’d have given him a clonk athwart the ear hole, myself.”
OH, I’M SURE HE’LL SEE THE ERROR OF HIS WAYS. The red hood turned so that only Albert could see into its depths. RIGHT AROUND THE TIME HE OPENS THOSE BOXES HIS MOTHER WAS CARRYING…
HO. HO. HO.
His name is Aaron, not Eustace, and he doesn't call his mother by her first name, but the boys fit on all other points. Aaron is intelligent to the point of being what we might call a "know-it-all", he doesn't believe in magic or the supernatural, and he's interested in non-fiction books, dead animals, and banal things like fresh pencils.
I don't think -- and here is where all you Pratchett fans can jump into the comments with links if I'm wrong -- that Aaron is a deliberate homage to Eustace. I think that the trope of the Eustace-esque boy is so common that it's tremendously easy to write a Eustace without even having to realize that's what one is doing. But what I still don't fully understand is: what is the sin of boys like Eustace and Aaron?
Because Eustace and Aaron are sinners in a literary sense. Eustace will have to be redeemed through his ordeal with the dragon in order to become a proper protagonist; Aaron will be punished for his non-belief by having his expensive and asked-for presents turned into socks (the Pratchett equivalent of coal in the stocking) by the magic of Hogswatch. But what isn't clear is what specific sin is the reason for these retributions.
Looking at Aaron for a moment, we might speculate that his sin is his disrespect for his mother. He states that he has to make sure she gets the right presents, because she often gets these things wrong. Yet having disrespect for his mother be Aaron's sin doesn't really scan; Death assesses the woman in an equally disrespectful manner, judging her in highly dismissive language to be a "worried image of maternal ineffectiveness". Nor would I consider Hogfather to be a feminist text: there is one front-and-center female character in this book out of a cast of over a dozen main characters. Any other women briefly mentioned in the text are fit into unflattering stereotypes -- the Social Climber, the Silly Governess, the Mannish Mother, the Deliberately Frail Man-trap, etc. -- and our one female character spends a great deal of her inner monologue expressing strong dislike of all other women. So I don't think Aaron's sin is meant to be sexism.
It's possible that the sin of Aaron and Eustace are sins of banality: they prefer dead animals to living ones, non-fiction to fantasy, and pencils and journals to proper pastimes. The issue here isn't, I think, that they are cruel -- though mounting bugs on pins and lizards on paper isn't particularly humane -- but rather that they are more interested in dullness and static things than in the wonderful world of living and vibrant experiences. The problem here, though, the war of Non-fiction against Fantasy, is that the people writing the Eustaces and the Aarons are not remotely unbiased. Having a fantasy fiction author rail against those children who perversely prefer non-fiction to fantasy -- indeed, even to such wonderful fantasy which can be found at your nearest local retailer, ask for "Narnia" and "Discworld" by name, local taxes may apply, etc. -- is not convincing to me as a reader. Though I may be in the Fantasy Is Good camp by virtue of reading said fantasy, I'm not automatically therefore in the Non-Fiction Is Bad camp.
And funnily enough, I think Pratchett at least gets that. Aaron Fidget, lover of the banal, may be a sinner, but Ponder Stibbons, who prefers his somewhat-mundane computer Hex to the magical world of the wizard's university is presented as a mostly sympathetic character. He recognizes that he, much like Aaron and Eustace, was intolerable (to certain persons) as a child, but there's no suggestion in the text that he needs to change or be something different as an adult. And adult!Ponder really drives home another problem with child!Aaron and child!Eustace, which is this: though Aaron and Eustace are presented as "bratty" and "bullying", it seems to me that they'd be far more likely to be the target of bullies rather than the companion of bullies.
Aaron and Eustace are different. They read non-fiction, and they collect dead animals. They act in ways that seem disrespectful to adults (such as Eustace calling his parents by their first name), but in an Othering and different sort of way rather than in a too-cool-for-school kind of way. They lack social skills, and alienate almost everyone they meet with their know-it-all attitude. They're intelligent, but in the sort of way that would make them a target for bullies, the sort of way that Madeline L'Engle recognized that her Charles Wallace would be bullied when she made him enjoy reading physics textbooks and biology dissertations. Indeed, Aaron and Eustace seem like they would be the classic geek-insert-figure for the sorts of self-identified geeks reading these same books, were it not for the one detail that they don't believe in the fantastical -- or, at least, they don't believe in the fantastical whilst living in a fantastical world.
And perhaps it is non-belief that is the sin of Aaron and Eustace. They've been born -- or plunked down in -- an Obviously Magical World, but they're too dull, underneath all their outward intelligence, to see what is perfectly plain to the reader. And yet. Aaron Fidget isn't wrong to say that Hogswatch is more commercial than magical: five minutes before Death burst onto the scene, the store's fake Hogfather display was operating with commercial gain in mind. Nor is Aaron wrong to say that the Hogswatch display isn't genuinely real: Death may be providing a different fictional narrative about the Hogfather, but it's still a fictional narrative nonetheless. Albert and Death outline this explicitly in a later exchange:
BUT THE HOGFATHER CAN CHANGE THINGS. LITTLE MIRACLES ALL OVER THE PLACE, WITH MANY A MERRY HO, HO, HO. TEACHING PEOPLE THE REAL MEANING OF HOGSWATCH, ALBERT.
“What, you mean that the pigs and cattle have all been slaughtered and with any luck everyone’s got enough food for the winter?”
WELL, WHEN I SAY THE REAL MEANING—
“Some wretched devil’s had his head chopped off in a wood somewhere ’cos he found a bean in his dinner and now the summer’s going to come back?”
NOT EXACTLY THAT, BUT—
“Oh, you mean that they’ve chased down some poor beast and shot arrows up into their apple trees and now the shadows are going to go away?”
THAT IS DEFINITELY A MEANING, BUT I—
“Ah, then you’re talking about the one where they light a bloody big bonfire to give the sun a hint and tell it to stop lurking under the horizon and do a proper day’s work?”
Death paused, while the hogs hurtled over a range of hills.
YOU’RE NOT HELPING, ALBERT.
“Well, they’re all the real meanings that I know.”
I THINK YOU COULD WORK WITH ME ON THIS.
“It’s all about the sun, master. White snow and red blood and the sun. Always has been.”
VERY WELL, THEN. THE HOGFATHER CAN TEACH PEOPLE THE UNREAL MEANING OF HOGSWATCH.
Death isn't the real Hogfather. Death does have a fake beard. Death's narrative that he's selling isn't the "real" meaning of Hogswatch; it's just a different unreal meaning than what the store owners are trying to sell. Aaron is right about these things. Aaron may come to the wrong conclusion when he rejects all interpretations of the Hogfather rather than settling on the one right one in a sea of wrong ones, but being wrong in his conclusion (There is no Hogfather) doesn't mean he was wrong in his premise (You're not the real Hogfather).
Aaron's sin seems to be that he's resisting the narrative. He doesn't want presents from the Hogfather. Presumably he didn't even want to visit the Hogfather display and he seems anxious to get it over with as quickly as possible -- perhaps he only submitted to this exercise to please his mother. Aaron just wants to get home and get back to his non-fiction books. He doesn't want more out of life than what he already has. But Aaron will be punished for this complacency: his presents will turn into socks and he'll see, just you wait, that the Hogfather was real and that he was wrong to snub him. Aaron will become a Believer because his punishment will show him the value of Belief, and he'll join the ranks of the unresisting children who were Believers because it got them more and better presents. (As Susan's charge is described: "She’d believe in anything if there was a dolly in it for her.")
It's this "sin" of disrespect and disbelief that are integral to the Aaron Fidget and Eustace Scrubb characters that reminds me of the old Nancy Drew villains in Bobbie Ann Mason's The Girl Sleuth:
Evil is not only sexy in Nancy's universe, it's disgustingly lower class. And the men aren't just evil, they're strange. Their names tell that: Rudy Raspin, Tom Tozzle, Tom Stripe, Mr. Warte, Bushy Trott, Grumper, Alonzo Rugby, and Red Buzby. They are all good-for-nothings who want to upset the elitist WASP order. They are tricksters and hucksters who sneer at the authorities -- the paternal benevolence of the businesses, institutions, and laws of the reigning upper classes. [...]
Good and evil are strictly white and black terms. Criminals are dark-hued and poor. One crook is "dark, with a mottled complexion and piercing black eyes." [...] Piercing dark eyes are the most common characteristic of Nancy's foes. Their greedy eyes are piercing because they are disrespectful, gazing threateningly beyond their station, perhaps seeing through the facades of the gentry whose power they crave. All the virtues of refinement, taste, intelligence, and beauty belong to Nancy's class, while everyone else is vulgar, greedy, ill-tempered, insolent. [...]
Thus, the original Nancy Drew series -- the first thirty-five or so volumes which accumulated throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s-portrays a fading aristocracy, threatened by the restless lower classes. [...] When minorities know their place, Nancy treats them graciously. She is generous to truck drivers and cabbies and maids. But woe betide the upstarts, the dishonest social climbers who want to grab at the top.
The problem here -- or, at least, a problem here -- is that disrespect isn't a sin, nor is disbelief. We choose on a daily basis to reserve respect and belief from those things which have not earned our respect and belief. Not respecting and believing in everything that requests our respect and belief is a good thing: it's what keeps us from giving all our money to hucksters, what prevents us from following after demagogues.
It's possible to make the case that reserving respect and belief from things that deserve respect and belief is a bad thing, but I think that path is fraught with peril. I think we are entitled to ask why the Hogfather deserves Aaron Fidget's belief to the point where it is necessary and just to punish him if he withholds it. I think we have a right to ask why fantasy and fantastical worlds and Aslan and The Emperor deserve Eustace Scrubb's belief to the point where it is good and right to tie his physical salvation to his capitulation to those ideals.
And I think the reader has the responsibility to remember that disbelief and disrespect are most often railed against as sins when they are held by the lower classes against the higher ones: when the poor disrespect the rich, and when the weak don't believe in the religious platitudes of the strong. There's a pattern there, a pattern that runs through our literature and our language, and it's one that I think is worth remembering.
General Thread Note: Advocating for bullying children with prank gag gifts is disallowed in this space. If you do not understand why prank gag gifts from powerful adults to powerless children is buillying, read this thread here.