Narnia Recap: In which Caspian asserts kingly authority.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 4: What Caspian Did There
Chapter 4 -- which my meme-goggled eyes cannot see as anything other than "I see what Caspian did there" -- is a strange chapter because on the one hand I think it is very prettily written but on the other hand it is packed to the gills with unfortunate implications. Much like the rest of Narnia, I realize, but in an interesting microcosm.
You'll recall that when we last left King Caspian, he was playing a game to pretend that he had more ships and soldiers than what he'd actually brought. This show of force was deemed necessary based on information from the fortuitously-found Lord Bern that the local governor would very likely assassinate Caspian (through legal means or illegal ones, we aren't told) if he knew who Caspian was and felt safe in doing so without immediate reprisals from cranky armed guards wielding pointed sticks. And absolutely no one thought that this might be the case before Caspian showed up totally unannounced and thought to ask Lord Bern if the governor was loyal to a Narnian king that hasn't existed for a thousand years and a Narnia kingdom that hasn't had any contact with the isles for hundreds of years. Well done, King Caspian and his councilors.
Anyway. Caspian assembles his thirty-or-so men and Bern bulks up the numbers a bit with a few of his freemen -- who presumably don't mind being put in serious danger if the governor and his guards do decide not to blink at this game of chivalric chicken -- and everyone shines up their armor to look really expensive and well-maintained and intimidating and kingly. And then the parade starts:
When they reached the jetty at Narrowhaven, Caspian found a considerable crowd assembled to meet them. “This is what I sent word about last night,” said Bern. “They are all friends of mine and honest people.” And as soon as Caspian stepped ashore the crowd broke out into hurrahs and shouts of, “Narnia! Narnia! Long live the King.” At the same moment—and this was also due to Bern’s messengers—bells began ringing from many parts of the town. Then Caspian caused his banner to be advanced and his trumpet to be blown and every man drew his sword and set his face into a joyful sternness, and they marched up the street so that the street shook, and their armor shone (for it was a sunny morning) so that one could hardly look at it steadily.
At first the only people who cheered were those who had been warned by Bern’s messenger and knew what was happening and wanted it to happen. But then all the children joined in because they liked a procession and had seen very few. And then all the schoolboys joined in because they also liked processions and felt that the more noise and disturbance there was the less likely they would be to have any school that morning. And then all the old women put their heads out of doors and windows and began chattering and cheering because it was a king, and what is a governor compared with that? And all the young women joined in for the same reason and also because Caspian and Drinian and the rest were so handsome. And then all the young men came to see what the young women were looking at, so that by the time Caspian reached the castle gates, nearly the whole town was shouting; and where Gumpas sat in the castle, muddling and messing about with accounts and forms and rules and regulations, he heard the noise.
And I have mixed feelings about this.
On the one hand, this is kind of a rare moment of Lewis just showing without letting all his telling bullshit get in the way of the narrative. I can see this passage happening in my mind, and it's a very vivid event. I also like the juxtaposition of the comic schoolboys and un-serious ladies with the deathly seriousness of the occasion -- the parade-watchers don't know it, but Caspian has to be sweating bullets under all that joyful sternness. There's a good chance, after all, that he won't be alive by the end of the day.
But on the other hand, a lot of the things I like about this passage are continuations of things I don't like in the series as a whole. The comic juxtaposition loses something when it's part of the bigger pattern of coziness that suffuses these books, and when -- as always -- the dangerousness of the enterprise is buried under a thick overlay of Everything Is Going To Be Alright Because They're The Good Guys. As much as I generally don't like grimdark literature where everything that can go wrong will, I can see why it appeals to some people who've been raised on nothing but Cozy Fantasy. There's a middle ground between these that I long for, and Lewis just doesn't hit that spot.
But beyond personal preference, there's problems here in the way the crowd is presented, just as we have talked about the problems with the Silly Talking Animals. Yes, there is historical precedence and realistic examples of silly people who care more about ooh, pretty king than about his policies and the socio-political consequences of helping him to seize power. Sure, of course there are. But when an author makes the choice to fall back on that aspect of human nature as though it's a sort of default form, then there are issues that crop up.
The Lone Islands are currently-as-of-today an effectively free territory ruled by a governor who appears to be elected by some kind of Council. The details on this situation are vague, but the island government would appear to be a sort of limited or constitutional monarchy, but with the title of "governor" going to the elected-by-Council leader rather than "king". As of tomorrow, thanks to the triumphal entry of King Caspian, the Lone Islands will be a territory owned by Narnia (which is ruled by a hereditary monarch without any known constitutional limitations) and responsible for paying tributes in perpetuity to Narnia (despite the fact that the kingdom is located far across the sea and has provided the islands with no aid or succor, and is not in a position to do so any time soon owning to the fact that they have no reliable sea-transport to the islands in the first place).
I feel that I'm being asked to accept this massive change-up in government as legitimate because (a) Caspian owned the islands in the first place by virtue of some vague conquering of the islands by a Narnian king that took place so long ago that no one remembered the reason in the Pevensie's time, and (b) the populace supported the change in government by virtue of turning out to enjoy a parade. And the thing is, I don't really accept either of those things as legitimate reasons for Caspian to overturn the local government and demand that everyone on the islands start paying taxes to support the needs of the folks back on the mainland. Which is why, I suppose, we fall back on (c) the governor is slovenly and ignoble.
At the castle gate Caspian’s trumpeter blew a blast and cried, “Open for the King of Narnia, come to visit his trusty and well-beloved servant the governor of the Lone Islands.” In those days everything in the islands was done in a slovenly, slouching manner. Only the little postern opened, and out came a tousled fellow with a dirty old hat on his head instead of a helmet, and a rusty old pike in his hand. He blinked at the flashing figures before him. “Carn—seez—fishansy,” he mumbled (which was his way of saying, “You can’t see His Sufficiency”). “No interviews without ‘pointments ‘cept ‘tween nine ‘n’ ten p.m. second Saturday every month.”
“Uncover before Narnia, you dog,” thundered the Lord Bern, and dealt him a rap with his gauntleted hand which sent his hat flying from his head.
“’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
One of the things that makes it difficult to deconstruct -- and, indeed, to even read -- Narnia is that C.S. Lewis and I just aren't on the same page at all.
The doorkeeper -- who is not given a name here and which I will refer to as "Ernie" because he reminds me of the cart-driver in Terry Pratchett's The Hogfather -- appears to me to be an older man, no longer really fit for the duties of a guard, but given the relatively easy post of doorkeeper as a sort of sinecure to take care of him in his old age. This scene, to me, is like the Narnia version of the Wal-mart Greeter, albeit with Ernie being slightly more surly than the Wal-mart Greeters on account of having presumably even less health care options available and living in a world where he's literally one defaulted payment away from actual slavery. That would put most people on edge.
The rust and the dirt and the overall unkemptedness seems, to my eyes, to be less an unacceptable degradation of the glory of governance and more a factor of fiscal prudence, assuming that the money that isn't going to castle upkeep is going back to the people instead of into the governor's private pocket. (Possibly not a good assumption, but Caspian isn't a much better alternative, given that he's going to demand tributary money and castle upkeep.) Lewis, on the other hand, seems to be implying -- and will continue to imply over-and-over again with heaping descriptions of the dirty doorkeeper and the dirty castle and the dirty soldiers and the dirty governor -- that cleanliness really is next to godliness, and that an unkempt castle points to unkempt governance. All without really examining what it takes to keep castles as clean as he seems to be demanding.
I find this interesting, because I've just recently finished Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, which is a fascinating look at the 14th century and, among other things, carefully examines how the nobility's tendency to equate government spending and purchased shows of grandeur with their legitimacy as rulers wreaked utter havoc on the larger populace by plunging the entire realm into debt and economic turmoil. Even nobles returning home in defeat from war after having been ransomed from capture by the enemy had to travel in style no matter what the cost:
Ransom for the remaining prisoners was finally arranged in June 1397 after prolonged negotiations by the Duke’s ambassadors at the Sultan’s court. The sum was fixed at 200,000 ducats or gold florins, approximately equal in value to French francs. [...] Rapondi advised raising the ransom money from the merchants of the Archipelago, who should be written to amiably and promised profit on the loans and credit they could arrange.
...Repayment of debts amounting to 100,000 ducats which they had incurred for living and traveling expenses since their release, together with the cost of the journey home in appropriate splendor, required nearly again as much as the ransom. The Duke and Duchess of Burgundy did not wish their son to travel through Europe and make his appearance in France looking like a fugitive. The Duke scraped every resource, to the point of reducing the pay and pensions of Burgundian officials, to supply his son with a magnificent retinue and provide gifts for all concerned. Dino Rapondi came to Venice with an order on the Duke’s treasury for 150,000 francs and spent the winter arranging transfers of funds, of which repayment to the merchants of the Archipelago came last. Three years later the Seigneur of Mitylene was still owed the entire sum he had loaned, and a three-cornered transaction among Burgundy, Sigismund, and the Republic of Venice was not settled for twenty-seven years.
Clearly, the idea that extravagance and expenditure are associated with nobility and legitimacy are not new ones -- but it's strange to find Lewis on the same side of the issue as the royals who spent money they didn't have in order to express a regalness they didn't feel confident of while their subjects literally starved to death in the streets. Reading Dawn Treader, one can come away with the impression that if Governor Gumpas had just hired more maids, then Caspian would have had less cause for complaint.
And this isn't the first time in the Narnia series that Lewis has stressed cleanliness as a literal virtue; in The Clean and Tidy Poor, I noted the parallels between the treatment of dirt in Narnia versus the treatment of evil in Nancy Drew books by quoting Bobbie Ann Mason's The Girl Sleuth:
...the books celebrate and perpetuate some outdated values which turn into stereotypes of good and evil. The sources of good are the property owners and businessmen, the "haves" and "winners," the people who run the world. The proper division of authority is male power and female domesticity. The sources of evil are (1) people too cheap to work for a living, and (2) just plain meanness. There is an accounting for some poor people who reveal nobility of purpose -- meaning that they submit to the authorities but have been waylaid by the evil forces. The way you recognize the fallen poor is that even though they live in a run-down section of town their houses are clean and their lawns are neatly trimmed and their flowers are blooming. They wear clean, but faded, garments.
...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. [...]
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.
It's easy to recognize the slovenly "Governor Gumpas" in the list of strange-named men who are dirty and adverse to good, honest labor, as well as a lower-class man who gives himself airs. He may be elected by a Council, but he's sitting in the chair of a king -- and by the end of this chapter, Caspian will forcibly eject him from it, while millions of silent nobles cheer in the background at seeing a dirty bourgeois man put literally in his place, some short minutes after seeing a dirty lower-class doorkeeper (our poor Ernie) forcefully put in his place.
In researching C.S. Lewis' position on taxes -- something I thought might be pertinent in a post about how the Lone Islanders need to spend more money on cleaning services while also funneling funds in perpetuity to the Narnian mainland -- I happened on this post which talks about Lewis' sermon A Slip of the Tongue:
This was the last sermon Lewis ever preached. He gave this talk at Oxford in a small chapel in Evensong on Jan. 29, 1956. The question he seems to be addressing is the reluctance of the believer to fully commit himself to God. He became aware of this in his prayer life. The difficulty seems to be the real fear that God will require something more than we wish to give at that time. The illustration he uses of paying taxes, we all agree in the necessity of paying taxes, but at the same time we all want to know how little we can get away with paying. So is our thinking with our relationship with God, we desire a relationship with Him but we don't want Him to demand too much of us. We desire to "keep things temporal" as Lewis puts it.
Google Books let me locate the passage in Weight of Glory, and sure enough:
Our temptation is to look eagerly for the minimum that will be accepted. We are in fact like honest but reluctant taxpayers. We approve of an income tax in principle. We make our returns truthfully. But we dread a rise in the tax. We are very careful to pay no more than is necessary. And we hope -- we very ardently hope -- that after we have paid it there will still be enough left to live on.
What I find interesting about this sermon, and about the approach to taxes in Narnia, is this very literal rendition of the idea that we should render taxes under Caesar not because taxes are supposed to provide for the common good from the common goods, but because Caesar apparently deserves our money in the same way that god deserves our devotion, and presumably in the same way that Caspian deserves the riches of the Lone Isles: just because. If there is a reason, says Lewis, the reason was set down thousands of years ago and no one remembers it.
But the reason most demonstrably is not because Caspian is going to use the money of the Lone Islanders to improve their lives in a way that they would not otherwise be able to do without the benefit of organized government to collect and distribute the money. At best, at most, they'll be getting a prettier castle out of the bargain. But without a Queen Elizabeth patrolling the halls to turn off the light switches because that sort of frugality doesn't mesh well with the ideal of extravagant nobility that is on display in Narnia.
And I find that a little distressing, because everything that follows in this chapter -- all the good Caspian supposedly does in violently asserting his kingship over Governor Gumpas -- is overshadowed by this strange and disturbing thread that he is doing this not because the governor is evil or because slavery is a blight on humanity, but because the castle hinges are rusty and there's a dirty middle-class man sitting in a throne that should be reserved for only the most noble of posteriors. It's hard for me to get on board with that, and it's difficult for the triumphs of this chapter to not be overshadowed by these ugly ideologies.