Narnia: Fiends in Human Form

[Content Note: Dehydration, Death, Slavery, Victim-Blaming]

Narnia Recap: In which there is a storm and Eustace wanders off.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 5: The Storm and What Came of It

When we last saw the Dawn Treader, everyone on board had survived a narrow brush with dehydration-induced death and things were looking up as the ship came into view of a mysterious-and-unknown island on which there is presumably water. In expectation of this hope, Caspian has ordered increased water rations for the night and preparations to be made to go ashore the next morning.

   When morning came, with a low, gray sky but very hot, the adventurers found they were in a bay encircled by such cliffs and crags that it was like a Norwegian fjord. [...] Indeed the whole place was very silent and the water of the bay as smooth as glass. It reflected every detail of the cliffs. The scene would have been pretty in a picture but was rather oppressive in real life. It was not a country that welcomed visitors.

Lewis has a gift for scenery description which juxtaposes rather jarringly against the colonialist privilege constantly on display in the Chronicles of Narnia. We have here a perfectly beautiful untouched island wilderness and all the things which make it beautiful and untouched are the things which Caspian intends to despoil as quickly as possible: his goal is to tear up trees to replace the mast on the Dawn Treader and root around in the wilderness to find repair materials -- ropes and vines and pitch and wood and whatever else -- and kill animals for food and tramp about in the streams in order to bathe and dilute wine for a big beach party and refill the large water caskets. And this perfectly beautiful untouched wilderness that Caspian intends to use up and then abandon (just as he did the Lone Islands) is given by Lewis the non-neutral descriptor of "oppressive" and stated to be "not a country that welcomed visitors".

This sounds like an indictment, and I think it is meant to. We've left the territorial waters of the country of Narnia, but King Caspian will continue to treat every island they encounter on their journey as objects for him to assert his ownership over -- and the narrative will insist that it's his right and duty to do so as a god-appointed sovereign of one tiny country that makes up not even a quarter of the world map. Islands which get kind of pissy about this arrangement and resist Caspian's natural ownership are, I think, considered by both Caspian and Lewis to be Naughty Islands who aren't properly fulfilling their role in a larger divine plan which demands their absolute submission.

At Deadwater island, for instance, Caspian will announce: "I claim this land forever as a Narnian possession." He's under the influence of greed and possibly magic during that announcement, but I don't think this behavior is uncharacteristic of him. He's planning even now, for example, to use this new 'unwelcoming' island as much as possible for food and water and supplies because he views it as his right as a king to do so. And when they leave the island, Caspian will leave behind a "CASPIAN WAS HERE" scrawling on a cliff wall, claiming that he "discovered" the island and (whether he means that he was the first or not) that he therefore has the right of naming it [citation needed on that assertion, Caspian]. He dubs it "Dragon Island", despite the fact that there are no longer any dragons on it:


And I want to be careful here because I don't want to be misinterpreted in the comments. I'm not saying that environmentalism is so important that Caspian et. al. should die of thirst rather than alter the pristine wilderness they've encountered. But I am saying that there is a difference in behavior between people who value the environment and consider how to treat it carefully and act with respect versus people who see an environment merely as something to own and deface in order to demonstrate that ownership.

Caspian et. al. aren't carefully filling water casks, repairing the ship to the bare minimum necessary, and then continuing on (or going back to the Lone Islands because clearly they aren't equipped for this voyage and another storm like that will sink them) while respecting the land as much as possible in the process; they're actively running around carving their signatures in rocks in order to assert their dominance over the island. And I think that Caspian believes he has the right to own and deface the islands he encounters because no one else has visibly defaced the islands yet. Caspian (and Lewis) are apparently the sort of people who consider the destruction of nature as part-and-parcel with ownership: if someone hasn't carved their name into every cliff face on an island, then the island -- whether it be Deadwater or Dragon Island or wherever -- must be up for grabs to King Caspian, Professional Island Collector. And once he's chiseled his name onto the unsullied natural beauty, and possibly pissed on a few tree stumps for good measure, then the island belongs to him. That's how property rights work in Narnia, apparently.

I'd find this a distasteful view of property rights and egocentrism in any fictional world -- especially because it centers Caspian's ideals as the only ones which matter and effectively invisibles any island owners/users/visitors who live a half-mile to the west (or wherever) because clearly they should have been carving their names in rocks like Caspian rather than respecting the natural state of the island so thoroughly that (to the visitor's naked eye) the island looks uninhabited or unvisited -- but I especially find this view of property rights interesting in a world where, theoretically, the majority of inhabitants are sentient Plants and Animals.

And this just reinforces to me why Lewis pretty much had to leave sentient Plants and Animals (minus one comic-relief Mouse) off the Dawn Treader and off the Lone Islands and off every other island in this book and off the entire face of the narrative: it wasn't a failure of imagination but rather a clash of ideology. In the same way that you can't have a Vegetarian Villain in a world of talking Cows and Pigs and Chickens, you can't have an Environmentalist Villain in a world where cutting down trees for masts is literally murder and sullying up a stream with two weeks' worth of ship laundry literally means driving an impoverished Beaver family from their home. In the world which Narnia should be, vegetarians and environmentalists would be the real heroes and people like Caspian, who despoil nature without care or thought because that's what Real Men supposedly do, would be the villains. And because Lewis was not stupid, I think he understood that and knew to keep the talking Plants and Animals far away from his didactic narrative.

   The whole ship’s company went ashore in two boatloads and everyone drank and washed deliriously in the river and had a meal and a rest before Caspian sent four men back to keep the ship, and the day’s work began. There was everything to be done. The casks must be brought ashore and the faulty ones mended if possible and all refilled; a tree—a pine if they could get it—must be felled and made into a new mast; sails must be repaired; a hunting party organized to shoot any game the land might yield; clothes to be washed and mended; and countless small breakages on board to be set right. For the Dawn Treader herself—and this was more obvious now that they saw her at a distance—could hardly be recognized as the same gallant ship which had left Narrowhaven. She looked a crippled, discolored hulk which anyone might have taken for a wreck. And her officers and crew were no better—lean, pale, red-eyed from lack of sleep, and dressed in rags.

There are somewhere between 30 and 50 people on-board the Dawn Treader: when Lucy, Edmund, Eustace, and Reepicheep were captured by slavers, Caspian stated that he had "about thirty swords" if it came to a fight, and later the narrative states that he has "less than fifty men". I think we can presume that there might be a few people on-board who are decent sailors but wouldn't be useful in a battle (and/or wouldn't have brought swords with them on a voyage which was not intended to be military in nature) and there are also earlier references to archers being on-board the ship who may or may not also be counted in the "swords" number. So let's tentatively put the number of mouths at 45.

Those forty-five mouths just spent three weeks (21 days) mooching off the Lone Islanders without, apparently, paying for their keep in money or labor and without care for the impact of their actions on the local economy. After a two-week storm (12+ days) in which a large portion of their food and water was either naturally consumed or lost to the storm, they are now going to spend one week (6+ days) stuffing the hull to the brim (again) with food that they intend to scavenge from the area without care for the impact of their hunting on the local ecology. And then they are going to continue on their journey, presumably with the intent to stop here on the way back and pillage it all over again for good measure. 

What all this says to me is that the entire Dawn Treader paradigm is inherently contingent on pillaging in order to survive. I understand that a ship isn't going to be self-sufficient; even if water is available for free, it's unlikely that they'd be able to carry enough and varied food on-board that it becomes unnecessary to procure food elsewhere; in short, I get that the Dawn Treader isn't going to have a vast hydroponics system or whatever. But I see no indication that they've brought the money necessary to purchase their food, and I see no indication that their foraging and hunting tactics are intended to have low ecological impact. And while a pillaging paradigm isn't an unusual one, I once again point out that Caspian is supposed to have the backing of god-Aslan on this one.

It seems, as far as I can tell, that King Caspian set out on this voyage knowing full in advance that he would need to stop every couple of weeks to replenish his food stores in order to feed his 45-person crew and he genuinely expected that every place they stopped at would either possess people who would feed them for free or would be an uninhabited wilderness that could be hunted and foraged for all necessary supplies. Because Colonialism, I guess. The thought honestly does not seem to have occurred to him that he could land on an island which might be inhabited by people unwilling to feed him for free and not easily conquered and pillaged against their will.

And I find myself marveling at that attitude, because it's basically the same attitude which caused Caspian to sail into the Lone Islands without a single thought as to how he would be received if he showed up on the doorstep of another country claiming to be their long-lost emperor and demanding tribute paid in full. He apparently just assumed that would all work out for the best and no one would raise any real objection ... just as he has apparently assumed that sailing to the end of the world with a ship that needs frequent restocking FOR FREE would work out for the best because why wouldn't people just turn over food as needed? It's not like food is hard to come by or whatever, right?

King Caspian is like the Marie Antoinette of Narnia. Except he actually does think bread and cakes are magic, whereas she was probably just the victim of bad press.

Anyway, let's finish up Chapter 5 while we're here.

   As Eustace lay under a tree and heard all these plans being discussed his heart sank. Was there going to be no rest? It looked as if their first day on the longed-for land was going to be quite as hard work as a day at sea. Then a delightful idea occurred to him. [...] He would take a stroll inland, find a cool, airy place up in the mountains, have a good long sleep, and not rejoin the others till the day’s work was over.

I see no other way to interpret this than to understand that this means that Eustace has been working on the Dawn Treader for quite some time and not just in storm-related emergencies, since he genuinely thinks he will be expected to work now in a non-storm-related emergency. And I see no other way to interpret that than to either assume that:

(a) Eustace is working on the Dawn Treader of his own free will for reasons unknown (boredom? to maximize his chance at survival since he thinks everyone else is incompetent?) but doesn't enjoy the work and wants a break without having to justify his actions to everyone.

(b) Eustace is working on the Dawn Treader because someone (Edmund? Caspian?) is forcing him to work via coercive methods unknown (refusing to feed him otherwise?) and he wants a break and knows it won't be given to him if he asks for permission.

If (b), then yes, Caspian and/or Edmund are literally making Eustace "work like a slave" in the sense that they have removed his autonomy and his physical freedom (they might let him leave the ship, but they won't take him where he wants to go; i.e., the wardrobe exit) after he was kidnapped and nearly drowned by god-Aslan, and are forcing him to work for "room and board" that he doesn't want but needs in order to survive. That is suuuuuuuuuuuuuper problematic, especially after Caspian's little self-righteous I was a slave for five minutes once speech. Fuck you, Caspian and/or Edmund; you are grody people who are enslaving a nine year old. That's totally grody behavior.

If (a), then we're back to the point that pretty much 99.9% of the narrative-hatred directed against Eustace boils down to Lewis not liking his mental tone. "Oh, it's not that vegetarianism is wrong, it's that he's doing it for the wrong reasons, as a popular fad! Oh, it's not that he won't help around the ship, it's that he's so snotty about helping around the ship!" Seriously, Lewis? Yes, those seem like really valid reasons to hate someone as viscerally as you hate Eustace: because his brain doesn't conform to the thoughts you would prefer. It's a shame you were never able to weigh in on convention cosplayers who you just know aren't Real Fans because telepathy and also pretty girls are all devious trickster gods or whatever. You're a grody person who is policing a nine-year-old's thoughts with ultra-violence and body transmogrification, and that's grody behavior on your part.

   The ground began sloping steeply up in front of him. The grass was dry and slippery but manageable if he used his hands as well as his feet, and though he panted and mopped his forehead a good deal, he plugged away steadily. This showed, by the way, that his new life, little as he suspected it, had already done him some good; the old Eustace, Harold and Alberta’s Eustace, would have given up the climb after about ten minutes.

UGH. Eustace is physically stronger after being kidnapped and forced into slavery twice (most recently by the good guys!) and so therefore this experience has "done him some good". There is not enough What The Fuck in the world. I am literally sending off for more what-the-fucks in the mail because I do not have enough and I need more pronto. Because what. the. fuck. 

   But he didn’t enjoy himself, or not for very long. He began, almost for the first time in his life, to feel lonely. At first this feeling grew very gradually. And then he began to worry about the time. There was not the slightest sound. Suddenly it occurred to him that he might have been lying there for hours. Perhaps the others had gone! Perhaps they had let him wander away on purpose simply in order to leave him behind! He leaped up in a panic and began the descent.
    [...] It is very unpleasant to have to go cautiously when there is a voice inside you saying all the time, “Hurry, hurry, hurry.” For every moment the terrible idea of being left behind grew stronger. If he had understood Caspian and the Pevensies at all he would have known, of course, that there was not the least chance of their doing any such thing. But he had persuaded himself that they were all fiends in human form.

I honestly don't know what I find more profoundly confusing about this sentence: the fact that Lewis blithely thinks that Caspian et. al. are awesome good guys because they wouldn't leave Eustace behind (though they would force him to work as a galley slave on their ship!), or the fact that Lewis thinks that Eustace feeling lonely and missing the human contact of his captors indicates that they are really genuinely good guys and Eustace is learning a valuable lesson about how awesome he has it by being with them. I genuinely do not understand how Lewis could have come to either of these conclusions.

In the Real World, most bad guys do not hover at the "Sith Lord" setting of evil. It is entirely possible for a bad person to do bad things and yet not callously abandon a family member (or the family member of a friend) -- even an annoying one -- to certain death on a deserted island. Eustace is nine years old, has zero hunting skills whatsoever, and is from an entirely different universe; the fact that Caspian doesn't want to abandon him doesn't make him good, it makes him (at best, in this moment, no other moments apply to this semi-verdict) a not-murderer. *ding* Here is the "doesn't deliberately try to murder a helpless child" award for the day. But that award doesn't mean that Caspian is therefore a great guy. Far from it.

And, in the Real World, victims can like their victimizers without that feeling magically indicating that no harm has been done and/or that the victimizers were right all along. Lewis should know that; even if he never experienced any feeling of sympathy for people who treated him badly, it's not difficult to look around at the rest of the world and find copious evidence of good people who have tender feelings for bad people, in spite of the harm the bad people inflict on the good.

Then there's this statement that Eustace "had persuaded himself", which sounds suspiciously similar to Edmund's "he managed to believe, or to pretend he believed" in LWW. Once again, we see that Genuine Mistakes are as deliberately excluded from Narnia as they are from the Trilemma: all sinners know they are wrong and if they won't admit it, they're just being stubborn. Just like if they feel lonely or miss their loved ones, then they know they deserved whatever bad behavior drove them away? I don't know.

I won't say that Lewis was writing apologetics for victim-blaming narratives, but I am disturbed by the suggested implications of this scene.

[...] The light increased every moment and made him blink. The fog lifted. He was in an utterly unknown valley and the sea was nowhere in sight.


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