Narnia: Serving at the Pleasure of the King

[Content Note: Genocide, Slavery]

Narnia Recap: In which Lucy and Edmund are shown around the ship and we are introduced to King Caspian (as opposed to Prince Caspian from the previous book) and a reasonable amount of backstory is given in order to bring everyone up to speed on the plot.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 2: On Board the Dawn Treader

One of my favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes is called "The Horrors of Spider Island". A group of women dancers are plane-wrecked on a deserted island, and their single male companion is accidentally turned into a paranormal man-spider-monster-thing. In the final chase scene of the movie, the doomed man flees across a barren waste, and one of the characters stops the others from pursuing him by saying, "Stop! The quicksand starts here!"

Since the quicksand has never, ever been mentioned before this point, and is only now being introduced in order to kill the monster and end the movie, the bots have a blast saying, "OH, RIGHT! THE QUICKSAND! REMEMBER?" because this is really the worst kind of deus ex machina, but it's also a pretty effective example of in-movie retconning. We left the bit with the quicksand foreshadowing on the cutting-room floor (or never filmed it in the first place)? No problem, we'll just assert that it's there so that the viewer can follow along. PROBLEM SOLVED.

When we last left Chapter 2, Caspian was busy retconning everything that happened in Prince Caspian so that our setting would be less Narnia and more Arthurian Britain. And that means that Chapter 2 will bear the brunt of initial world-building for this book, so let's dive in. But first!

   “Where is Eustace?” asked Lucy.
   “In bed,” said Edmund, “and I don’t think we can do anything for him. It only makes him worse if you try to be nice to him.”
   “Meanwhile,” said Caspian, “we want to talk.”

Here is another case where Lewis falls down on the show-and-tell, because I would very much like to see how Edmund came to the conclusion that it only makes Eustace worse when they try to be nice to him. What experiments, precisely, helped to form this theory?

It's very possible that they tried to give Eustace drink to settle his stomach, but it's equally unlikely that they gave him the sorts of drink that Eustace would find comforting. We've already seen that the spiced wine which was supposed to warm his toes and put hair on his chest instead went down very badly indeed and then immediately came back up after giving Eustace's stomach a quick how'd-you-do. And while they must have water on the ship, it's probably not the same flavor of water that Eustace is used to -- Narnian water may be just as unclean and unwholesome to drink as Tudor water apparently was. (Alison Weir notes in The Six Wives of Henry VIII that young Princess Katherine of Spain was advised by English ambassadors at an early age to "accustom herself to drink wine, as the water of England was not drinkable.")

Nor are the idea of vegetarian meals apparently a concept much in vogue in Narnia, despite being a world where non-sentient (and therefore morally-acceptable-to-eat according to the social mores of the day) meat must be in rather short supply given that the Humans are in constant competition with the Wolves, Tigers, Lions, Leopards, and so forth for what naturally occurring animals do exist. So it seems unlikely that any comforting food was brought to Eustace, or that it would sit well in his stomach after two recent bouts of vomiting and a serious case of sea-sickness -- but even if the attempt had been made, I'm hard-pressed to see how it would have made Eustace worse to know that there were people on the ship committed to ensuring that he would have safe and familiar food to eat while he was there.

Maybe Edmund tried to cheer Eustace up with words, but again we run into the problem that Edmund seems unlikely to try to see things from Eustace's point of view. Exhorting Eustace to buck up and smile because a Very Big Adventure Awaits Him! probably would make him worse, but it seems disingenuous for Edmund to describe such a speech as an attempt to "be nice" to Eustace, given that he knows (from familiarity) that Eustace would be miserable in a fantasy adventure and he knows (from experience) how traumatizing it can be to be unexpectedly dumped into a magical fantasy world without the slightest clue of how to get out and what will happen to you if you can't.

So instead we just have Edmund announce that being nice to Eustace makes him worse, with the undertone that Eustace is just being willful and stubborn by not accepting this glorious adventure as the gift that it is. And meanwhile we can pat Edmund (and by extension Caspian) on the back for being good chaps who gave the whole nurturing thing an honest attempt, without having to get bogged down with details as to how two people utterly lacking in empathy for Eustace to the point of engaging in bullying behavior against him would go about making a good faith attempt to be nice to him.

   [...]“It’s a year ago by our time since we left you just before your coronation. How long has it been in Narnia?”
   “Exactly three years,” said Caspian.
   “All going well?” asked Edmund.
   “You don’t suppose I’d have left my kingdom and put to sea unless all was well,” answered the King. “It couldn’t be better. There’s no trouble at all now between Telmarines, Dwarfs, Talking Beasts, Fauns and the rest. And we gave those troublesome giants on the frontier such a good beating last summer that they pay us tribute now. And I had an excellent person to leave as Regent while I’m away—Trumpkin, the Dwarf. You remember him?”

There's something very off to me about the passage above. Maybe it's that the sentence doesn't describe harmony between "Telmarines and Narnians" but rather breaks out a bunch of different groups of Narnians (Dwarfs, Talking Beasts, Fauns, etc.) as though (a) Telmarines are just another type of Narnian subgroup with no difference whatsoever of privilege between them and the other groups and (b) the "trouble" being mentioned was akin to some form of intramural squabbling between all the groups rather than being a problem between the Telmarines and Everyone Else.

There's really only three ways that I can see to make this work. One is an in-universe explanation that posits turmoil between the Narnian in-groups after the Narnian Revolution. In this scenario, as the Telmarine power waned (by the near-forcible removal of a large portion of their population to another world) and the Narnians stepped forward to take a more public role in society, the differences between the different Narnian factions surfaced once there was no longer a common enemy to unite against. This is sort of plausible -- and may well be what the author intended -- but it's a pretty rotten explanation for a couple of reasons, not the least being that it continues the trend of making the Narnians seem foolish and stupid, as well as fractitious. No sooner do they gain their freedom than they turn around and squander it on petty disputes.

They're so stupid, in fact, that they need a strong god-appointed monarch to boss them around and save them from themselves, which leads to another problem with this explanation and it's that Caspian has been doing a really terrible job if it took him three years to soothe over the factional disputes of a number of people so sparse that it was lately possible to pretend they didn't even exist.

But I object to this in-universe attempt to reconcile Prince Caspian with Dawn Treader because I continue to have ideological problems with characterizing the brave freedom-fighters of the previous book with stupid, short-sighted, squabbling factions the minute they gain their peace. Considering that the Telmarines apparently maintained a uniform and peaceful front (outside of a few cases of quiet regicide and a subsequent orderly redistribution of power), this detail again reinforces the idea that humans are just plain better than the Narnians: more intelligent, more unified, more aware of the long-term goals, and more adept at identifying what their shared goals are and then achieving them. Contrasting the Narnians as fractitious and stupid to the Telmarines' multi-generational unity and wisdom leads to Unfortunate Implications.

The second way to make this work, as far as I can see, is to embrace the idea that Caspian is not an ideal Narnian king after all, and that he's unable or unwilling to acknowledge the vast gulf of privilege between his favored Telmarines -- who were the ruling class for centuries, who are still the ruling class by virtue of the "human-only" rule of kingship and lordship, and who must still outnumber the Narnians by quite a bit -- and the Narnians. In this scenario, it's not that the Narnias are fractured groups scrabbling for each others' throats, but rather than Caspian is just more comfortable viewing them that way since it eases the pressure off the Telmarines for that whole near-genocide thing. After all, it's not like the Fauns are perfect, either, what with all the noise complaints coming in from all corners of the country about their pipe playing at odd hours of the night. Noise complaints are, after all, totally the same magnitude of "trouble" as the Telmarines who continue to murder and eat Animals in cold blood because they refuse to accept the new edicts of the usurper king.

The problem with this interpretation, of course, is that the narrator is doing his level best to paint Caspian as the best thing since white bread, and thus everything in the above paragraph while potentially interesting and realistic simply cannot be what the narrator intends us to take away from Caspian's statement about the current state of Narnia.

The third, and I think least-objectionable explanation, is that this painting of Telmarines as Just Another Narnian Faction is meant to be a quick retcon from the last book. Forget that whole near-genocide thing, as well as the fact that the Telmarines outnumber the Narnians to the point where most of them lived their entire lives thinking that Narnians were nothing more than fairy tales. Instead, let's posit a roughly equal number of Fauns, Dwarfs, Talking Animals, Water Spirits, and Telmarines, and all that business with Prince Caspian in the last book was really just about unifying the country under the banner of a strong and charismatic warlord. You know, just like that other guy, King Arthur (depending on the mythical version of your choice). Or, if you'd prefer to be Biblical, that David guy. Those unifying faction guys.

And this retcon is surely meant to make Caspian just a bit more palatable to the audience as well as reinforcing the all-important Arthurian atmosphere that Lewis wants for his book. Because it just doesn't look good to have a Telmarine king from the Telmarine ruling class abandon the Narnian people to go on a quest for lost Telmarine lords with a ship staffed almost entirely by Telmarine sailors and Telmarine lords if the world-building is of the sort where one might be reasonably concerned that the majority class of Telmarines back home might be seriously infringing on the liberties of the Narnian peoples while the Narnian regent left behind as a loyal placeholder for Caspian (since a Telmarine couldn't be trusted not to seize control of the kingdom in his absence) is powerless to protect his kinsfolk.

That is not a feel-good tale, is what I am saying. Much better to rework the entirely of Narnia into a bunch of separate-yet-equal-in-power clan factions, all of them entirely capable of defending themselves while Caspian is away, and his only real function as ruler being to serve as a charismatic figurehead to keep everyone peaceful and content rather than being the one person holding the gap between the wholesale slaughter of every Narnian in Narnia. RETCON ACCOMPLISHED.

And I think this retcon is also suggested by the offhand mention of "those troublesome giants" (OH, RIGHT! THE GIANTS! REMEMBER?) Because nothing in Prince Caspian makes sense if all that time there were non-human creatures north of the border menacing the Telmarines and peskily reminding everyone that, yes Virginia, there really are supernatural non-human beings in the world. And we already know courtesy of LWW that giants just aren't clever enough to remain hidden during the centuries of Telmarine rule but coming out to menace the Narnians immediately after the Narnian Revolution. (And even if that were the case, how would the Pevensies remember the giants if the giantish aggression started after they left? Caspian is dropping it too casually into the conversation for that.) But if we go with the retcon version where the Telmarines were just one clan faction in Narnia among many and Caspian was the young warlord who united them all under a single banner, well then it's all well and good for there to have been a northern threat all along. Why not.

Anyway, let's all point and laugh at how silly and vain Reepicheep is.

   “Dear Trumpkin,” said Lucy, “of course I do. You couldn’t have made a better choice.”
   “Loyal as a badger, Ma’am, and valiant as—as a Mouse,” said Drinian. He had been going to say “as a lion” but had noticed Reepicheep’s eyes fixed on him.

LOL. That Reepicheep, what a card. It'd take someone pretty vain to take offense at having his race passed over for valiantry in favor of a reference to the ultimate god-sovereign of Narnia, but it takes all kinds, doesn't it?

   “Well,” said Caspian, “that’s rather a long story. Perhaps you remember that when I was a child my usurping uncle Miraz got rid of seven friends of my father’s (who might have taken my part) by sending them off to explore the unknown Eastern Seas beyond the Lone Islands.”
   “Yes,” said Lucy, “and none of them ever came back.”


And, you know what? I approve of this retcon. I really do. Prince Caspian showed us precisely the wrong way to do backstory, by giving us three goddamn chapters of Caspian's childhood and favorite colors and his nurse's repertoire of bedtime stories and all his favorite bathtime gurgles. NO. We do not care. That stuff is for the fanfic'ers to sort out. Here we just assert the utterly ludicrous idea that sometime between the nighttime V-Day celebration (which was when Caspian met Lucy for the first time) and the Coronation Day Massacre (which was when Lucy left), Caspian found time to angst about those seven lords (from the clans of Sung, Tang, Hong, Fang, and McSweeney, no doubt) whom he totally remembers from his childhood and most definitely misses because they were besties with his murdered dad. DONE.

[Update: Welp, it has been pointed out in the comments that the seven lost lords were mentioned in Prince Caspian, albeit not by name, by Cornelius to Caspian, and apparently paraphrased to the Pevensies by Trumpkin in Chapter 5. Which means I must withdraw my approval for this quick-and-efficient method of world-building, and reassert my objection to info-dumping Caspian's entire childhood on the reader some umpteen chapters before it becomes relevant. But Lucy Pevensie at least gets more points than I do for her memorization skills.]

   “Right. Well, on my coronation day, with Aslan’s approval, I swore an oath that, if once I established peace in Narnia, I would sail east myself for a year and a day to find my father’s friends or to learn of their deaths and avenge them if I could. These were their names: the Lord Revilian, the Lord Bern, the Lord Argoz, the Lord Mavramorn, the Lord Octesian, the Lord Restimar, and—oh, that other one who’s so hard to remember.”
   “The Lord Rhoop, Sire,” said Drinian.
   “Rhoop, Rhoop, of course,” said Caspian. “That is my main intention. But Reepicheep here has an even higher hope.” Everyone’s eyes turned to the Mouse.
   “As high as my spirit,” it said. “Though perhaps as small as my stature. Why should we not come to the very eastern end of the world? And what might we find there? I expect to find Aslan’s own country. It is always from the east, across the sea, that the great Lion comes to us. [...] When I was in my cradle a wood woman, a Dryad, spoke this verse over me:
   “Where sky and water meet,
   Where the waves grow sweet,
   Doubt not, Reepicheep,
   To find all you seek,
   There is the utter East.

And the most interesting thing about this passage, as far as I can see, is the idea that Mice families have small enough litters -- or possibly even single births -- to warrant individual cradles for each child rather than group-sleeping, and that they have enough financial privilege and/or bargaining power to arrange for childcare from the local Dryads while the Mice parents go off to do ... whatever it is that Mice parents do in order to maintain their financial privilege and/or bargaining power. (I'm also wondering what sorts of things a Dryad might want in exchange for the service of her time as a child-caretaker. Something else for the fanfic'ers to work out, I reckon.)

Anyway. Lucy asks their position and Drinian hauls out a chart. We get the aforementioned exchange regarding the Galma tournament and Caspian's rejection of the Duke's daughter. Then:

   “And we sailed from Galma,” continued Drinian, “and ran into a calm for the best part of two days and had to row, and then had wind again and did not make Terebinthia till the fourth day from Galma. And there their King sent out a warning not to land for there was sickness in Terebinthia, but we doubled the cape and put in at a little creek far from the city and watered. Then we had to lie off for three days before we got a southeast wind and stood out for Seven Isles. The third day out a pirate (Terebinthian by her rig) overhauled us, but when she saw us well armed she stood off after some shooting of arrows on either part—”
   “And we ought to have given her chase and boarded her and hanged every mother’s son of them,” said Reepicheep.

I genuinely think this is supposed to be another point-and-chuckle moment at Reepicheep. The silly Mouse is so distractable; here they are on a Very Important Voyage and he wants to hunt down every pirate ship on the sea just because they're shiny and he values Honor Before Reason. Why, at that rate, they'd never make it to Aslan's kingdom! If he were smarter, he'd realize that, but it's best just to humor him and make up some excuse. (Good thing that Lucy is here as a chivalrous scapegoat, since if it happens again they can just take Reepicheep aside and say "It's too dangerous to meet them in battle with a lady on-board; think of the danger to her person if we were to lose." It's an obvious trick, but the Mouse never sees through it.)

But this innocuous paragraph, meant to flesh out the world-building and set up some foreshadowing for Chapter 3 when Caspian and the others get captured by pirate slave-traders, makes my jaw drop because -- once again -- we see that the Ideal Arthurian King is really shitty at his job if you consider his job to be "protecting the weak" rather than "unseating brave knights and boinking fair maidens".

Caspian is supposedly going on this voyage to help his subjects. He wants to rescue the Seven Lost Lords, sure, but Narnia is also well overdue for a survey of its sea territories and reestablishment of relations with its island allies, considering that the Telmarines from the previous several centuries of Narnian occupation were so terrified of the water that the Seven Lost Lords had to hire Galmian sailors and buy a Galmian ship (it's canon; we just haven't gotten to that bit yet) just in order to be properly banished by Miraz. In that light, Caspian stopping for a tournament and a quick-but-failed flirtation is a responsible thing to do -- whether Galma is a Narnian territory or an ally, they needed to meet the new Narnian liege and affirm that Galma's friendship and loyalty to Narnia is secure.

But then Caspian and his crew zip by Terebinthia fast enough to give you whiplash because ew, sick people. And, okay, yes, this is perfectly normal royal behavior for, say, Henry VIII. But it's not perfectly idealistic royal behavior, which is what Caspian -- as the god-appointed ruler -- is supposed to be. Caspian and his people don't try to send a message back to Narnia instructing them of the plight of the Terebinthians and asking Regent Trumpkin to send whatever aid he can to relieve the plague. If nothing else, food would almost certainly be welcome since sick people aren't so great at putting in a good day's work in the fields. And an envoy from Trumpkin offering to provide aid to the city would almost certainly engender more goodwill than a lousy tournament. (Discussion question: Given that most diseases are limited to just a few species rather than all of them -- i.e., what can affect a Human may not affect a Cat or a Dryad -- how would the treatment of plagues in Narnia differ from our world once it was discovered that various species of nurses and doctors wouldn't be affected by certain diseases?)

But wait, I hear you ask, how could Caspian get a message back to Trumpkin in the first place? IF ONLY WE HAD TALKING DOLPHINS AND SEAGULLS AND THINGS. But more seriously, if Caspian was doing this correctly at all, there would be some means of sending a message back to the capital. The King of Terebinthia was able to get a message through to Caspian, either via a person in a boat or via signal flags, and Caspian should be able to respond. If via a person in a boat, then he could send a royal command with his seal attached; if via signal, I still think there would be ways and means to offer help to the Terebinthians. Caspian, we're told, doesn't even try.

And then there are the pirates. These aren't the awesome fictional Good Guy pirates who are noble Chaotic Good rebels working on behalf of the Lawful Narnians and are only really pirates in the "disavow all knowledge of their actions" sense of the word while they plunder evil people and redistribute wealth to the poor. No, these are pirates in the "capture innocent people, tear whole families apart, and sell the individuals into a lifetime of the worst kinds of slavery". FUN. And Caspian doesn't even seriously consider engaging them in battle in an attempt to stop their raping and pillaging and slaving, because protecting your subjects from that sort of thing is not part of the Arthurian chivalric ideal.

Maybe the Dawn Treader isn't outfitted for that kind of battle. Maybe the odds weren't good, and it wasn't safe to risk the king's life in a battle that might not be winnable. Fine. I'm not sure I'd call that "good" so much as "prudent", but fine. I don't require Caspian to make Lawful Stupid choices in order to be a good person. What I do require of him is to give some thought to the pirates and their victims beyond woohoo adventure danger time and a few parting arrow shots. I require him to make a good faith effort to stop those pirates from hurting his subjects, even if it means putting the Seven Lost Lords and the Aslan Country quests on hold for another year or two. I require him to decide that "peaceful enough to leave on an adventure" is a mathematical equation that covers sea-conflict as well as land-conflict with the Northern Giants.

Most of all, I require Caspian to care.

Caspian doesn't care. He will care, come Chapter 3, when he gets sold into (a nice, comfy, cozy) slavery and his dear friends Edmund and Lucy are sold into (nice, comfy, cozy) slavery that is Nice and Comfy and Cozy at least as much in order to exonerate Caspian for his inaction as it is to insulate the child-reader from the horrors of slavery. Caspian cares then because selling him into slavery is an offense on the king's person, and it's an offense that will be paid back in full with a lot of shiny metal objects and the turning over of tables and some very satisfying masculine violence. (Discussion Question: What would Aunt Alberta think?)

But there's no indication that Caspian learns a lesson from this about his greater responsibilities to protect the weak. His anger at the pirates doesn't seem to stem from the scales dropping from his eyes and him seeing marginalization up-close in all its gritty realism. There is no acknowledgment that what he was doing as a king before was wrong and that what he will do as a king after will be better. Instead, he seems largely to be angry simply because the pirates failed to notice that he isn't the sort of person that kind of marginalization should be applied to. And once he's back in power, he makes a token attempt to stop the slavery by basically issuing a royal decree that slavery has to stop now, everyone, I mean it, okay, but without leaving behind any manpower to enforce this massive social upheaval or sending a To-Do yellow sticky note back home to the increasingly over-burdened Trumpkin.

Stopping slavery because slavery is bad is something that would seem like a bare minimum as a qualification for the Ideal God-Appointed Monarch Person. Stopping slavery because slavery is something that you, personally, were subjected to in spite of all your privilege and it was super inconvenient seems like less of a good thing and more like a selfish thing.

And once it's been established that Caspian cares more for his own selfish wants than for the needs of his subjects and allies, then this starts to seem less like a Noble Voyage and more like a Pleasure Cruise.


Anton_Mates said...

"And I had an excellent person to leave as Regent while I’m away—Trumpkin, the Dwarf. You remember him?”

So...why Trumpkin? I mean, he's a good and sensible guy and all, but he's a soldier and survivalist, not a politician. Surely the obvious choice for Regent is Cornelius? He's a biological and cultural hybrid of Telmarine and Old Narnian. He's well acquainted with the remnant of the Telmarine aristocracy, but has the trust of the Old Narnians thanks to his part in the war. He's an excellent diplomat, the official Mr. Exposition, and the wisest guy in the room in pretty much all of his scenes. He'd be a shoo-in for Regent...if he was in this book at all. Did we decide why he's not?

One is an in-universe explanation that posits turmoil between the Narnian in-groups after the Narnian Revolution.

Which--in one way that Lewis almost certainly has no intention of highlighting--is entirely plausible. We know that Team Caspian hates the Aslan-disapproved Old Narnians: hags and ogres and wer-wolves and apostate Black Dwarves. I can absolutely believe that any semblance of cordial relations between them broke down immediately after the war. Unfortunately, that was almost certainly "resolved" by Team Caspian killing or exiling all the undesirables, not by any sort of peace process.

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