Narnia: Cabbages or Books or Instruments

[Content Note: Violence, Slavery, Hostility to Reproductive Rights, Kink]

Narnia Recap: In which Caspian asserts kingly authority.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 4: What Caspian Did There

When we last left our heroes [sic], they had marched through the streets in full armor with drawn swords and had physically assaulted the castle doorkeeper for failing to take off his hat in the presence of a king whom he presumably didn't even know existed, given that there hasn't been a Narnian kingdom in some thousand years or so.

   “’Ere? Wot’s it all about?” began the doorkeeper, but no one took any notice of him. Two of Caspian’s men stepped through the postern and after some struggling with bars and bolts (for everything was rusty) flung both wings of the gate wide open. Then the King and his followers strode into the courtyard. Here a number of the governor’s guards were lounging about and several more (they were mostly wiping their mouths) came tumbling out of various doorways. Though their armor was in a disgraceful condition, these were fellows who might have fought if they had been led or had known what was happening; so this was the dangerous moment. Caspian gave them no time to think.
   “Where is the captain?” he asked.
   “I am, more or less, if you know what I mean,” said a languid and rather dandified young person without any armor at all.

The best part about Narnia is playing "spot the prejudice". Is the young man "dandified" in the sense that he is "showing excessive concern about his clothes or appearance", meaning that he's either/or insufficiently masculine or overly feminine, and possibly identifying with a sexual orientation C.S. Lewis' audience would very likely not have approved of? Or is the young man "dandified" in the sense that he is "self-consciously sophisticated or elaborate", meaning that he's pretentious and shallow, which is a common criticism lobbed at the Scrubbs?

Either way, I note that both the "excessive concern" and "self-consciousness" is a value judgment being imposed on the young man from a third-party and which we are presumably meant to take as an insult. Which is interesting, because I'm not sure how a hypothetical spit-and-polished captain of the guards would be ideally better in this situation: I imagine that in Lewis' world he'd recognize Caspian as his true king and get to kneeling, but in my world he'd view the armed and armored invaders as a threat and wouldn't be put off by Caspian's bluster.

So it seems rather rude for Lewis to insult the young man for doing his best to help the plot along.

   “It is our wish,” said Caspian, “that our royal visitation to our realm of the Lone Islands should, if possible, be an occasion of joy and not of terror to our loyal subjects. If it were not for that, I should have something to say about the state of your men’s armor and weapons. As it is, you are pardoned. Command a cask of wine to be opened that your men may drink our health. But at noon tomorrow I wish to see them here in this courtyard looking like men-at-arms and not like vagabonds. See to it on pain of our extreme displeasure.”
   The captain gaped but Bern immediately cried, “Three cheers for the King,” and the soldiers, who had understood about the cask of wine even if they understood nothing else, joined in. Caspian then ordered most of his own men to remain in the courtyard. He, with Bern and Drinian and four others, went into the hall.

And it's nice to see that Caspian can speak patriarchy, now that High King Peter isn't here to do so.

What's somewhat terrifying to me is how closely this resembles an actual military coup. And what gets to me is how much it didn't need to be this way: I've read hundreds of Triumphant Return stories where the disenfranchised populace and heart-of-gold-captain (who has long been troubled by the excesses of the Man In Power, but has never felt able to do more than use his position and influence as a buffer between evil authority and the little people in the streets) rise up to welcome the True King with open arms. Not because he comes bearing sexy hair and free wine, but because he comes bearing freedom and goodness and justice.

But we don't get that. Instead, we get Caspian very clearly threatening the guards, suggesting that the alternative to a joyous welcome is one of "terror", and asserting his power and authority to have and dispense "displeasure", with all the implied violence that brings. (Especially given that the gatekeeper is probably bleeding off to the sidelines.) And Bern being the one to sound the cheer -- Bern who purchased Caspian as a slave, Bern who placed his own armed men in Capsian's parade, Bern who will rule the islands after Caspian leaves -- is a very different situation than someone else not of the party and not personally invested in the politics of the moment sounding the cheer.

Yet I'm not sure that Lewis could have written a triumphal return and goodly captain collaborating with Caspian to correct the rot of government. If Caspian were installed as king by the will of a politically-sensitive crowd seeking justice and good government (as opposed to sexy hair), that might suggest that he wasn't already king by virtue of his birthright and religion. And if the overthrow of Gumpas were tied to him being a terrible ruler as opposed to him being an illegitimate one, then there remains always on the table the right of the populace to later overthrow Bern or even Caspian, should they similarly fail. (And we are back to criticizing the White Witch not for being evil but for being illegitimate.)

If you believe that Caspian deserves to rule the Lone Islands because he's a socially powerful male born from a lineage of socially powerful males, and because he was deemed by a god no one in the Lone Islands has (presumably) ever seen to be lord over them, then it's really not in the interests of your ideology to suggest that the populace supports him for his competency as opposed to the markers of his social power, and especially not in a story where Caspian has abdicated all the boring parts of rulership to other people.

   Behind a table at the far end with various secretaries about him sat his Sufficiency, the Governor of the Lone Islands. Gumpas was a bilious-looking man with hair that had once been red and was now mostly gray. He glanced up as the strangers entered and then looked down at his papers saying automatically, “No interviews without appointments except between nine and ten p.m. on second Saturdays.”
   Caspian nodded to Bern and then stood aside. Bern and Drinian took a step forward and each seized one end of the table. They lifted it, and flung it on one side of the hall where it rolled over, scattering a cascade of letters, dossiers, inkpots, pens, sealing-wax and documents. Then, not roughly but as firmly as if their hands were pincers of steel, they plucked Gumpas out of his chair and deposited him, facing it, about four feet away. Caspian at once sat down in the chair and laid his naked sword across his knees.

And then there's this.

It's been pointed out by several people in the comments that Gumpas is, rather unusually for a typical Evil Overlord, doing his job. He may not be doing it well; he may be incompetent or cowardly. He may not be doing it for the right reasons; he may be greedy and may even be lining his pockets with the proceeds of government. (I suspect the shabby state of the castle is supposed to mean "embezzlement" rather than "thrift".) But he is at least sitting there, butt-in-chair, doing paperwork.

This is not the usual state of things. Usually when writers want to convey decadence and embezzlement, they do actually show this stuff: Gumpas should be lolling about on cushions with an entourage of lovely young nymphs. Or eating to excess while the masses starve in the streets, like Dives feasting while Lazarus dies. In addition to actually showing Gumpas being a bad ruler, that setup would also provide Lewis with an easy Biblical hook. But instead we get Department of Motor Vehicles Gumpas, which is an established choice of evil -- see also: Lewis and Evil Boardrooms -- but an unusual one.

Especially in contrast with our actual protagonists. Have we ever seen the Pevensies or Caspian do paperwork and mundane stuff as part of their reign? It seems like they're always either fighting or feasting or fucking being wooed by foreign kings and princes. They stumble out of Narnia in LWW while on a hunt, and VotDT is very much taken up with food and fun, including the night before when Caspian feasted while the Pevensies stewed in a slave ship off the island coast.

One could say, of course, that Narnia is about adventure for the children, and therefore of course the kings and queens won't be doing paperwork, yet it doesn't seem like anyone forced Lewis to make his protagonists royalty. Indeed, quite a few problems would have been solved in this volume (and in the previous Prince Caspian) if Caspian had decided that he really wasn't cut out to be king, stepped down to be a knight in service to Narnia, and had Trumpkin crowned in his place. As an idealist story to the kids as well as a message about grappling with privilege and making restitution to marginalized people, I would have found that more fascinating.

But I digress. The larger point here is that, for whatever reason, Gumpas is bad not because he demonstrably wastes money or doesn't care about his people, possibly because Caspian demonstrably has the same issues with his own privilege.

   “And we are come to inquire into your Sufficiency’s conduct of your office,” continued Caspian. “There are two points especially on which I require an explanation. Firstly I find no record that the tribute due from these Islands to the crown of Narnia has been received for about a hundred and fifty years.”
   “That would be a question to raise at the Council next month,” said Gumpas. “If anyone moves that a commission of inquiry be set up to report on the financial history of the islands at the first meeting next year, why then …”
   “I also find it very clearly written in our laws,” Caspian went on, “that if the tribute is not delivered the whole debt has to be paid by the Governor of the Lone Islands out of his private purse.”
   At this Gumpas began to pay real attention. “Oh, that’s quite out of the question,” he said. “It is an economic impossibility—er—your Majesty must be joking.”

So just so we're clear, let's recap.

Caspian marched into the castle with a contingent of guards, all of them armed and all of them with their swords drawn. They physically assaulted the gatekeeper and verbally threatened the captain before blatantly encouraging the guards to loot the palace wine cellar while looking the other way. Then Caspian's men turned over Gumpas' table and paperwork, forcibly dragged him out of his chair, and Capsian sat down with an unsheathed sword in order to intimidate Gumpas with the threat of physical violence. And now Caspian is demanding money.

I'm not sure why Caspian is demanding money. It doesn't really affect the plot substantially. It's used here as the means by which Gumpas pays attention and realizes shit has gotten real, except that being dragged out of his chair by armed guards would probably have already done that. And later Caspian will forgive Gumpas this sort-of-sounds-made-up debt in an attempt to shoo him out of town, but it doesn't work so that Bern can threaten to beat Gumpas instead. So it does nothing to advance the plot and it only characterizes the protagonists badly.

And I can't even tell if it is supposed to be made-up. Narnia was taken over by Telmarines long before 150 years ago, and I don't understand why the Lone Lands would have paid tribute to Telmar given that (a) the Telmarines weren't providing services to deserve tribute, (b) the Telmarines had slaughtered the people who were (i.e., the Narnians), and (c) the Telmarines weren't in a position to attack the Lone Islands in pursuit of tribute. The only head-canon adjustment I can make is that perhaps the Telmarines were fighting with Calormen and the Lone Islanders helped finance the war in an attempt to keep the Calormen busy and off their backs. Then something happened and the war ceased; the Lone Islanders had no longer any reason to pay tribute to the Telmarines and additionally had to pay that tribute (and introduce the slave trade) in order to pay the Calormen off. But that's just rampant speculation.

But furthermore, it seems very unlikely to me that Caspian would have thought to look up tribute dates and obscure tribute law -- which must be very obscure indeed if no one remembers why the Lone Islands belong to Narnia in the first place, nor why they started paying tribute to them -- and yet never once considered that maybe he wouldn't be able to roll up into town and say hey I'm the king you've not heard of in 150 years, bow down ya'll.

   “Secondly,” said Caspian, “I want to know why you have permitted this abominable and unnatural traffic in slaves to grow up here, contrary to the ancient custom and usage of our dominions.”
   “Necessary, unavoidable,” said his Sufficiency. “An essential part of the economic development of the islands, I assure you. Our present burst of prosperity depends on it.”
   “What need have you of slaves?”
   “For export, your Majesty. Sell ‘em to Calormen mostly; and we have other markets. We are a great center of the trade.”
   “In other words,” said Caspian, “you don’t need them. Tell me what purpose they serve except to put money into the pockets of such as Pug?”
   “Your Majesty’s tender years,” said Gumpas, with what was meant to be a fatherly smile, “hardly make it possible that you should understand the economic problem involved. I have statistics, I have graphs, I have—”
   “Tender as my years may be,” said Caspian, “I believe I understand the slave trade from within quite as well as your Sufficiency. And I do not see that it brings into the islands meat or bread or beer or wine or timber or cabbages or books or instruments of music or horses or armor or anything else worth having. But whether it does or not, it must be stopped.”


So here is the thing. Okay? Here it is: if you are going to put slavery in your novel, but you're going to water it down into a cozified potentially-offensive totally-fictional version of slavery so as not to upset your readers, and you do all that so that you can make a message about Slavery Is Wrong, at least make it a good message. I find myself in the very strange position of continually pointing out that for all his Evil Boardroom talking of the talk, when it comes to walking the literary walk, Lewis' heroes are unusually preoccupied with money.

What is this the takeaway for this speech? Yes, it ends with a "whether it does or not", slavery is still Wrong, but the entirety of the conversation -- a very long conversation, all things considered -- is about the economic value of slavery. Is it necessary? Is it avoidable? How is it conducted? What is the need? Has anyone written some use cases? How are the profits disbursed? Are the profits in coin or in lifestyle accommodations? What is the relative value between staple goods and luxury goods? Oh and I almost forgot, it's wrong and stuff.

There's a little bit of a Devil's Advocacy here that grates on me. I'm reminded a bit of men who insist that womens' bodily autonomy just isn't enough to justify abortion, and so we also need complex and convoluted arguments involving livestock. But to even go down that road is to concede, however rhetorically, that womens' bodily autonomy isn't sufficient. Here, it feels like the message is being sent that bodily autonomy isn't sufficient enough of a reason against slavery, and so let's trot out arguments about its need and profitability.

Here's a thought: let's not. Let's have that "It must be stopped" line come first, and be the last word on the matter. Or maybe surrounded by more words about why it must be stopped since, frankly, Caspian never says why. Presumably because bodily autonomy, but for all we know it's because it makes his kingdom look poor if they have to resort to selling slaves. Who knows? And this is the point: Lewis wasted however many lines of text on the profitability of slaves yet never told us why people have a right to their bodily autonomy. Maybe he thinks that should be self-evident to children, but considering that we live in a culture that is deeply hostile to bodily autonomy, I doubt he could seriously think so.

   “I can take no responsibility for any such measure,” said Gumpas.
   “Very well, then,” answered Caspian, “we relieve you of your office. My Lord Bern, come here.” And before Gumpas quite realized what was happening, Bern was kneeling with his hands between the King’s hands and taking the oath to govern the Lone Islands in accordance with the old customs, rights, usages and laws of Narnia. And Caspian said, “I think we have had enough of governors,” and made Bern a Duke, the Duke of the Lone Islands.
   “As for you, my Lord,” he said to Gumpas, “I forgive you your debt for the tribute. But before noon tomorrow you and yours must be out of the castle, which is now the Duke’s residence.”
   “Look here, this is all very well,” said one of Gumpas’s secretaries, “but suppose all you gentlemen stop play-acting and we do a little business. The question before us really is—”
   “The question is,” said the Duke, “whether you and the rest of the rabble will leave without a flogging or with one. You may choose which you prefer.”
   When all this had been pleasantly settled, ...

When all this had been pleasantly settled by threatening to assault a man. And anyone who might intervene in confusion about this whole invasion thing. I know the line is supposed to be sardonic, but Jesus Christ, did Lewis not remember who in his religion was most famously publicly flogged? (Hint: Jesus Christ.) It is really fucking bizarre for me to see him being all "yay, flogging" given the context of that word within the Christian community. And, given Lewis' apparent interests in kink, the context of that same word within the kink community.

We're not done with the chapter, but we might as well address it now: Caspian doesn't leave any men behind to help Bern. Nor does he send anyone back to Narnia to warn Trumpkin of the socio-political upheaval Caspian is responsible for. Caspian just sails on his way and never looks back or spares another thought for what he's done.

We don't really know why slavery was instituted in the Lone Islands. Maybe the situation was forced due to aggression from Calormen; maybe it wasn't forced in the past but Calormen may force the issue now that they're being cut off from buying new slaves. Maybe Calormen will invade Narnia in retaliation for this act, and catch Trumpkin unaware; maybe the pirates will attack the Lone Islands and kidnap people for an underground slave trade, and Bern won't have the resources to do anything about it. But Caspian -- and Lewis -- don't think this is his problem, despite the fact that a single handwave line could address this issue.

More insidiously, there's absolutely no mention of how all the Lone Islanders exported to Calormen will be brought back, probably because they won't be. Lewis tries to slip in a little tension by noting that Lucy and Edmund "had all been sold but the men who had bought them were staying to bid for other slaves and so they had not yet been taken away". But other slaves have been taken away, to an entirely different country. Caspian isn't interested in ransoming them back. Bern -- who must at least know people with family members who have been sold to Calormen -- doesn't mention it. Even as a child, I noticed this, and yet somehow Lewis didn't.

Maybe he didn't want to bring it to my attention and upset me; maybe he thought I wouldn't notice if he didn't say anything. But he was wrong.


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