Narnia: Talking Animals Should Be Seen, Not Heard

[Content Note: Examples of Historical Marginalization]

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

Not a lot happens in Chapter 2 except a good deal of world-building that is clearly intended to over-write whatever you readers might inconveniently happen to remember from Prince Caspian. This is pretty blatant later on in the chapter -- REMEMBER THAT OATH I TOOK ON CORONATION DAY? *WINK* *WINK* -- but for today we'll be continuing this concept of Arthurian Chivalry as it affects the Animals, now that we've already talked about how it affects women and feminine men.

And it's important to note that one of the reasons (I think) that the reader is asked to forget what's been written about Narnia before, and to just pretend that this is King Arthur's Britain with one Talking Animal added for flavor text, is because King Arthur's setting works much better as a male patriarchal fantasy land than does Narnia.

   “AH, THERE YOU ARE, LUCY,” SAID Caspian. “We were just waiting for you. This is my captain, the Lord Drinian.”
   A dark-haired man went down on one knee and kissed her hand. The only others present were Reepicheep and Edmund.

The first sentences of Chapter 2 reinforce the chivalric setting again: Lord Drinian is kneeling at Lucy's feet as though she were as much a queen to him as Caspian is his king.

We don't get to hear if Drinian repeated this gesture of humility to King Edward. Presumably for the sake of consistency he did so off-screen, but I do think it is noteworthy -- and not an accident -- that the majority of chivalric gestures in this book will be directed at Lucy (as the one female person on the ship) and later at the Star Ramandu's Daughter. The islanders that the adventurers meet will be haughtily informed on her behalf that Lucy is a queen, Reepicheep will drink a pledge to the Star Ramandu's Daughter, and when the men aren't kneeling at Lucy's feet, they're standing in the Star Ramandu's Daughter's presence "because they felt that she was a great lady". The fact that they don't bother to ask her name or to introduce themselves to her is not a contradiction of this courtesy so much as a clue as to its nature: chivalry is expressed to women in deeds, not words.

Words have a special relationship with men in this book, as we can see in the use of titles. Edmund is King Edmund, Drinian is Lord Drinian, Caspian is King Capsian, and the Lost Lords are "the Lord Revilian, the Lord Bern, the Lord Argoz, the Lord Mavramorn, the Lord Octesian, the Lord Restimar, and ... the Lord Rhoop." And while there are five references in the book to "King Edmund", there are none to "Queen Lucy". When Lucy is referred to as a Queen, it is almost always when someone is referencing her in the third person: Eustace is described by Reepicheep as being "of the Queen's blood"; Lucy's choice is euphemistically referred to by Reepicheep as "if the Queen's heart moves her"; and Reepicheep informs the islanders that "the lady is a queen", and not a little girl. (Though it's worth noting that Lucy is both, and that the terms are not contradictory.)

I find it telling that Lucy is almost never a Queen to be addressed but is instead a Queen to be discussed. And when she is a queen, she is no longer Lucy, by the removal of her name and the obscuring of her age. "Edmund" and "King Edmund" may be one and the same, but "Lucy" and "the Queen" seem to be two different persons entirely, based on the way the men around her treat her.

Coming back to the passage at hand, I find Drinian's gesture of humility interesting since it's presented to us as sincere and yet I find it unconvincing on those grounds. Lucy is presented to us as a sort of queen emeritus on the grounds that she once was a queen and did a reasonably good job of it, in the sense that she helped to usher in the Golden Age of Narnia before disappearing forever whilst on a pleasure hunt and immediately prior to everything going to hell in a handbasket. Yet while it makes sense for Reepicheep to honor the Pevensies, the Telmarines really do not owe anyone thanks for a Golden Age they weren't around to partake in.

Nor do the Telmarines seem to be entirely aware of that facet of Narnian history -- when the children were here last in Prince Caspian, the Telmarines were seen mocking them for their strange outlandish clothes and seemed largely ignorant of the crucial piece of information that these strange children were actual great rulers of old. (Probably not surprising, given that the Telmarine version of history was deliberately inaccurate.) And perhaps Drinian here is just taking his cue from King Caspian as to how he should treat these odd children that have been dumped onto his ship, but that just underlines the falsity of this scene all the more: it's not convincing to me that this adult Telmarine Lord would consider these strange English children to be his legitimate superiors in the case of something happening to incapacitate Caspian.

And yet I do think this display of chivalry here is meant to be seen as genuine fealty and not dissembling courtesy -- a fact that really only works if we discard all the Telmarine history and social culture that we learned in Prince Caspian and just rework the whole thing as Arthurian Britain, with Lucy and Edmund being the iconic and much-admired forebears of the Telmarine Lords that they're now meeting for the first time. RETCON ACCOMPLISHED.

And speaking of these Lords, what is it that Lord Drinian is lord of? Here in not-Narnia, the word means someone who has power or control over something, usually (though not always) land. Does that mean that Drinian owns land back in Narnia? And yet for the term "lord" to have any real meaning, there have to be non-lords so that the lords are properly set apart from the commoners. (And the non-lords Rynelf and Reepicheep provide this contrast in text.) If Drinian's lordship is based on landholding, that would mean that the majority of Telmarines and Narnians back home do not own land. Once again we see that Arthurian chivalry really only works when there is persistent marginalization in place to prop it up.

Yet there is the very real question of what landholding would even mean and how it would work in a world where half of the Animals and almost all of the Trees are sentient, and the Rivers and Lakes and Wells have spirits who have strong ideas about how to use their water. Can a "lord" in Narnia really have any power if King Caspian is doing his job to protect each individual Talking Animal and all the Old Narnians? How does a lord in Narnia build a grand house (as opposed to a hole-in-the-ground) if he can't chop down the Trees or convert the nearby River into a site for brick-making? (And stone-quarrying carries its own environmental impact.) How does a lord in Narnia go on hunts if he has to answer murder charges any time his hounds mistake a Fox for a fox and run it down? For a medieval-style lordship to really work, it requires that the lord be a sort of mini-king over his realm, and largely not answerable to anyone else for the daily governance of the people on his land -- certainly not to the point where every possible use of Animals and Trees and Rivers is curtailed as an unjustifiable attack on the personal liberties of subjects of the king.

Lordship in Narnia doesn't work, not really. Which is why I think the omission of Talking Animals (minus one Token character) is deliberate rather than an unthinking mistake or lazy workaround on Lewis' part. If you're writing a love letter to the concept of chivalry and conservatism as being inherently better than feminism and liberalism, then you really can't include things that prevent chivalry from working in your world, and having too many Talking Animals on board the ship would almost certainly undermine all this lordship we have going on. Competent Animals who are valuable members of the crew (rather than silly, vain swords-Mice who basically can't-by-definition pull their weight on board the ship) would provoke a number of questions: why aren't the competent-and-awesome Badgers and Seagulls and Dolphins also Lords like Drinian? And if some of the Animals are Lords, then what are they lords of and how does that work? Does a Lord Rabbit have any kind of enforced power over a Commoner Wolf? 

In a world of intelligent Trees, the adventures can't just go chopping down pine trees willy-nilly to make a new mast, as they do in Chapter 5. In a world of Talking Animals, the adventurers couldn't slaughter goats and pigs with abandon in order to refresh their supplies and feed their dragon as they do in Chapter 7. In a world of Talking Birds, the adventurers wouldn't need a Magical Albatross to guide them away from the Island of Nightmares as they do in Chapter 12, nor would they consider a Talking Albatross to be so clearly supernatural that it must be Aslan in disguise. (And not, you know, a Good Samaritan bird who lives nearby and guides ships from the area.)

In a world where meat really is murder, and where environmentalism becomes a much more thorny issue than it already is in our world, feudalism and lordships based on landholding is even more barbaric than it already is. Because now you're not just oppressing women and children and non-wealthy men and people of color and people with disabilities and marginalized people in general -- you're also oppressing all the cute Birds and Cats and Dogs and Badgers. The ones who bravely fought and died in the last two books so that Narnia might be free from precisely that kind of oppression. And the ones that the children who are the audience for your book are very naturally going to latch onto as the most interesting and sympathetic characters, just as young Prince Caspian tried to coax the castle house-cat into speaking to him.

The only way this works, the only way to maintain the underlying tale that is all about Chivalry and Conservatism conquering the evils of Feminism and Liberalism and Vegetarianism and Funny Underwear is to completely remove all the Animals and Trees. Because you can't have Talking Animals, not intelligent, sympathetic, non-caricatured ones, in a book where vegetarians are the villains, and you can't have Sentient Trees in a book where liberals are the bogeymen.

And here is a thing: the Talking Animals of Narnia, when they talk, are silly. The Narnia books may be about deep magic and deep theology and deep sacrifice and deep personal growth, but the people who inhabit Narnia (as opposed to the people who visit it, either from The Emperor's Kingdom Across The Sea or from England) are silly to the core. The Beavers of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe may be single-handedly responsible for delivering the Pevensies safely to Aslan, but they also fret and fuss and fidget about whether or not to leave a luxury material possession behind when their lives and their country are in grave danger. And rather than be considered rude by speaking up and pointing out that Edmund has the look of the Queen's Bewitched, they wait until after he's fled into the night, thus dooming Aslan to the tender mercies of the Stone Table. While at a serious parley, Mr. Beaver doesn't know enough to keep his mouth shut in front of his betters, and instead leaps at the chance to jeer at the Witch, presumably from behind the safety of Aslan. The Beavers, in short, are more silly than sympathetic.

The other oppressed Animals in LWW are no less uniformly silly and childish when they open their mouths to speak. The Stoned Lion is monumentally silly, more interested in toadying up to Aslan and bragging about his racial superiority than in the dangerous civil war at hand. The Animals at the Christmas banquet table may not be able to lie to the Witch -- since it is Not Okay To Lie To Satan -- but theirs is a "terrified", not a dignified, silence and they do not receive the benefit of a stately and moving speech of defiance to the Witch. Instead, their defiance takes the form of a young squirrel throwing a temper tantrum (“He has—he has—he has!” it squeaked, beating its little spoon on the table.).

Prince Caspian expands the Animal cast by introducing Trufflehunter the Badger (whose sole purpose in life is to reassure Caspian that being a Telmarine prince doesn't mean living with crushing guilt for the crimes of your people), Pattertwig the Squirrel (who is only barely less flighty and more dependable than the other, even more silly, squirrels), the Bulgy Bears (who suck their paws during important duels), and Reepicheep the Mouse (who is vain and self-obsessed). The rest of the nameless Animals are foolish and short-sighted and single-minded, as we see in the first War Council meeting where they are all bound and determined to derail the meeting from the get-go in their own particular idioms: 

   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 have to be overruled by the humanoids -- the Men and the Centaurs and the Dwarfs -- because the Animals are stupid and silly. It's as simple as that. And by the time we come around to Dawn Treader, the only remaining Animal in the novel-world will be Reepicheep, who will be as silly and vainglorious as ever.  

Silver Chair will, if I recall, have no major Talking Animals at all. The Horse and His Boy will have vain Bree and submissive Hwin, who will both be appropriately appalled at having insufficient familiarity with Narnian customs ("The Horses had expected that Aravis and Cor would ride, but Cor explained that except in war, where everyone must do what he can do best, no one in Narnia or Archenland ever dreamed of mounting a Talking Horse. This reminded poor Bree again of how little he knew about Narnian customs and what dreadful mistakes he might make."), which is obviously a very important concern after a lifetime of abject slavery and the achievement of glorious freedom against all odds.  

The Magician's Nephew will feature a whole cadre of Animals who are unbelievably silly on account of them having been called into existence just that afternoon. Nevertheless, despite knowing what Trees are and despite having seen and smelled Humans, the Animals will mistake an unconscious human for a tree and will "plant" him in the ground because that sort of thing is always hilarious and is totally not a continuation of a unfortunate trend where the native inhabitants of Narnia -- and it must be said the habitually marginalized inhabitants of Narnia -- are near-constantly silly and vain and stupid. And, of course, the Animals in The Last Battle will believe that a donkey draped in a lion's skin is Aslan. Because why wouldn't they be able to see or smell or hear something amiss in that scenario?

And that is how we never once, not really, have an intelligent, sympathetic, well-characterized, sensible, person-like Talking Animal in the seven-book series of Narnia. Because marginalization starts to look pretty damn bad, and Aslan starts to look pretty fucking tardy, when the oppressed people are people instead of humorous caricatures. And because things like liberalism and animal rights and vegetarianism and environmentalism start to look like extremely good ideas in a world where animals and trees are no lesser people than humans are. And because lordship and kingship start to seem like really awful ideas when they're limited to one race, unless you bend over backwards to assure your readers that all the other races are Just So Silly, aren't they, dear reader? And because obviously the alternative -- in which a Badger rules over a Man -- is hilariously unthinkable because didn't God give dominion over the Animals to Adam? Theologies! Very important.

And this is something that needs to be said: it is always, always easier to oppress a minority when you paint them as childish or hysterical or silly or stupid first. That is why Native Americans were portrayed as unable to resist gambling or alcohol. That is why African Americans were popularly said to be too stupid to govern their own lives. That is why women were painted as too emotional and hysterical to be allowed to vote, seek education, or hold property. That is why people with disabilities are assumed to have the mental capacity of very small and unusually dim children, even when the disability is an obviously physical one.

It's also why, for the record, some people like to paint Christians and other religious persons as one bad dream away from being a suicide bomber, as though being religious is equated with being dangerously stupid, to the point where a religious person will supposedly unquestioningly follow any foolish idea that finds its way into their head.

I cannot believe that C.S. Lewis could have been unaware of this trend of painting the people you wish to marginalize and oppress as uniformly silly and stupid and not worthy of liberty. And yet time and again, it's employed in the characterization of the Talking Animals of Narnia in the hopes that we might not notice the literary cracks around all the theological and political points the author wishes to dispense about how liberalism and vegetarianism and environmentalism are Not Biblical and do not align with the ideal of man having gentle-but-unquestioned dominion over the earth in much the same way that the ideal chivalrous man has gentle-but-unquestioned authority over women. And I don't believe that this characterization trend is a happy accident for the integrity of C.S. Lewis' ideological points.

We like to pretend that C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christian apologists ever and a deep thinker in his own right, was just cozy and lazy and "didn't think too much about it" when it comes to the problems and inconsistencies in Narnia. We like to believe that there are almost no Animals on the ship because including them would have meant more work for Lewis, who would have had to spend more time world-building his adventure and imagining how a crew of sentient dolphins would change an ocean voyage. We like to believe that there are no intelligent and sympathetic Animals because characterizing them would have taken more time and ink away from the theologies that Lewis wanted to hurry up and impart to impressionable children. We like to think that the greatest share of misogyny and racism and male privilege in the text is just so much carelessness, that if Lewis had really thought through the logical implications of what he wrote, that he would have been appalled. We like to believe that the exercise of privilege is always innocent and unexamined, and that prejudice can't exist in the minds of great thinkers.

But I think that attitude, while it can be comforting, is a harmful one to hold. Marginalized people have always known that the people marginalizing them can be both prejudiced and thoughtful. Marginalized people have always known from experience that their oppressors can be both cruel and kind. It is harmful to pretend that the presence of kindness and thoughtfulness negates or excuses or exempts cruelty and oppression as nothing more than a careless accident. And it is harmful to pretend that the ability to exercise carelessness and thoughtlessness when it comes to the oppression of others isn't Privilege in its purest form.

I don't think C.S. Lewis was thoughtless or careless or intellectually lazy when he wrote Narnia. I think that there are almost no Talking Animals on the ship and no non-silly Talking Animals in the world not because he couldn't be arsed to include them but because he knew that if he included them it would have undermined the entire moral of the story. That doesn't make the text automatically bad in my view, but it does change how I approach it.


Ana Mardoll said...

CN: Othering of Native People, Sexual Abuse

Right. And if you ascribe to a patriarchal view where women are "worth more" depending on the power of their fathers/husbands/"owners", then the daughter of the local ruler is worth more than the daughter of a local farmer. Not because she deserves respect or because she was nobly born or whatever, but because her father would have demanded it from you, had it been in his power to do so.

Basically, it's seen as a big strategy game where "winning" means collecting women as tokens, their worth to be defined by which player you collected them from.

'princess' is an easy way of saying 'sure, she's only one of Those People, but she's a high-status That Person'.

And there's a classism element in giving an Other woman a title, so that valuing or appearing to value her is made more socially acceptable in a world where Other people are explicitly devalued.

So, yes, the man who is her husband/handler/owner is in an arrangement that either looks suspiciously similar to marital monogamy or at least like a relationship in which he values her skills and doesn't totally mistreat her, but it's not like he's 'debased' himself to value one of those "regular Other" people because she's actually a "royal Other". So that's okay then.

Basically, it's a way of elevating an Other person from "very very less than" to "still less than, but close to human".

Eloise Mason said...

See also phrases like "nearly as good as a boy" in Blyton and other such.

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