Narnia: Ideals and Reality

[Content Note: Violence, Slavery, Rape]

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 If

Our child-king and his companions have now spent three weeks looting the Lone Islands and are preparing to sail off into the sunset. No, really, that's how this chapter opens:

   IT WAS NEARLY THREE WEEKS AFTER their landing that the Dawn Treader was towed out of Narrowhaven harbor. Very solemn farewells had been spoken and a great crowd had assembled to see her departure. There had been cheers, and tears too, when Caspian made his last speech to the Lone Islanders and parted from the Duke and his family, but [...], the first real wave ran up under the Dawn Treader’s prow, and she was a live ship again. The men off duty went below, Drinian took the first watch on the poop, and she turned her head eastward round the south of Avra.


And now we will never speak of the Lone Islands ever again.

    The next few days were delightful. Lucy thought she was the most fortunate girl in the world, as she woke each morning to see the reflections of the sunlit water dancing on the ceiling of her cabin and looked round on all the nice new things she had got in the Lone Islands—seaboots and buskins and cloaks and jerkins and scarves. And then she would go on deck and take a look from the forecastle at a sea which was a brighter blue each morning and drink in an air that was a little warmer day by day. After that came breakfast and such an appetite as one only has at sea.

No, I just can't. I can't not speak of the Lone Islands again.

Here is what I genuinely think happened. I genuinely think that Lewis wanted to have a fun little interlude on the Lone Islands. He wanted to have a King Comes Back scene, where the lost Arthurian king rolls up and fixes stuff, because that's what lost Arthurian kings are supposed to do. And Lewis thought, in typical privilege logic, that he'd pick something so bad that everyone would immediately agree that the thing needing fixing was a Really Bad Thing Indeed. (This is the same logic that results in rape being used as a Special Kind of Evil all the freaking time.) And because Lewis couldn't reach for rape, Because Children, he reached for slavery. Surely we can all agree that slavery is bad!

The problem is the same problem that always happens with Johnny McPrivilegeDude reaches for something Super Bad without having experienced it, and it's that the portrayal comes across as offensive and trite and ignorant. So slavery becomes this cozy thing that is sorta uncomfortable but not so much that Caspian can't feast and enjoy himself while his friends are locked up. And slavery becomes this easily escapable thing that is sorta dangerous but not so much that Caspian can't take his sweet time moseying down to the docks to save everyone. And slavery becomes this objective morality thing that is sorta wrong but not so much that the slave buyers can't correctly judge Edmund's and Eustace's relative worth to one another.

And because Lewis lacked the capacity or the desire to understand what slavery is, he similarly failed to understand what not-slavery is. Not-Slavery isn't merely the fact that the slave market next to the harbor has had a big CLOSED sign draped over the entrance. Not-Slavery needs to involve the people of the islands being compensated for their labor, if not with money than with goods or services or protection from threat, because their labor is exerted in order to provide for themselves and their loved ones. But they don't have that -- Caspian has clearly taken a huge amount of goods and services from them while giving absolutely nothing in return except a bullshit 'protection' against his coming back and robbing them through conquest.

Those seaboots that Lucy is wearing were made by someone else's labor. Someone killed an animal, skinned its hide, tanned the leather, worked that leather into something approaching water-proofness, and then laboriously turned that material into a boot that would fit a small girl. The same is true for everything else she "got" in the Lone Islands: her buskins needed lacing, her jerkin needed sewing, her cloak needed hemming. At best, the raw materials for these goods were grown/cultivated/created in the Lone Islands or traded for something else that was; at worst, they were obtained as part of the slave trade with Calormen.

I don't get the impression that Lucy paid for these items, or provided work in exchange for them. I think they're supposed to be seen by the reader as gladly-given tribute to the saviors of the Lone Islands, as "gifts" given to Caspian and crew for taking care of that whole slavery problem.

But that framing is unsustainable, given what we know about "that whole slavery problem" as Lewis has outlined it. The Lone Islanders have been shipped into Calormen for years. The nation of Calormen is so dependent on the slave trade that there might be a war to force the Lone Islands to continue supplying men and women at market. All of this framing suggests that the entire economy of the Lone Islands was so steeped in the slave trade that they'll need to buckle down severely in order to recover, especially given that Caspian effectively let Gumpas loot the castle on the way out (by not making him give back that which he'd embezzled for years, assuming that he even did embezzle anything in order to justify his violent removal) before coming back to loot it himself a second time. (Also note: That three weeks' stay living the high life at the islands' expense supported not just Caspian and Pevensies but also fifty sailors.)

None of this even begins to cover the fact that the ex-slaves are going to need support while they integrate back into the economy as paid workers; they can't all have local families capable of absorbing them into an existing property-ownership slash sustenance-work structure, since at least several whole families would have been kidnapped by the slavers. And those properties would have been grabbed by the rich and powerful: Gumpas' upper-class supporters who were so invested in keeping the slave trade going for their enrichment. Unless Caspian and Bern are going to wrest those properties away from the local gentry and redistribute them to the ex-slaves, they're not going to necessarily have a place to live, let alone to work.

And none of this addresses the fact that there are Lost Slaves languishing in Calormen and waiting to be bought back home. But the larger point remains that the people of the Lone Islands simply do not have the luxury to shower the king and his fifty sailors with unlimited gifts and food for three weeks, no matter how grateful they are. Caspian should recognize this, or he would if he gave even the tiniest of fucks about the people of the Lone Islands instead of about supposedly Ending Slavery in one afternoon's work. (Allyship Achievement Unlocked!) But he doesn't; he's here for the big ideological battle that can be checked off the ideology list and then he's more than willing to bask in cookies, no matter how impossible or burdensome they might be to bake.

Thus we come to this: Lucy is the "most fortunate girl in the world" because a lot of other little girls had to suffer in order for her to have all the nice clothes and all the nice food that she can eat to her heart's content with "such an appetite that one only has at sea". The same appetite that all the little Lone Island girls who were shipped to Calormen must surely have had, both because they were at sea and because, as slaves, they will never again receive enough to eat.

And before someone points out that I am the Most Humorless Feminist in All of Nofunnington, I want to preemptively point out that I didn't force Lewis to stick a decades-old slave trade in his novel and then make his protagonists lounge around eating all the pies for three weeks. He could just as easily had Caspian send for reinforcements to clean up everything after Caspian left, but he didn't.

   She spent a good deal of time sitting on the little bench in the stern playing chess with Reepicheep. It was amusing to see him lifting the pieces, which were far too big for him, with both paws and standing on tiptoes if he made a move near the center of the board. He was a good player and when he remembered what he was doing he usually won. But every now and then Lucy won because the Mouse did something quite ridiculous like sending a knight into the danger of a queen and castle combined. This happened because he had momentarily forgotten it was a game of chess and was thinking of a real battle and making the knight do what he would certainly have done in its place. For his mind was full of forlorn hopes, death-or-glory charges, and last stands.

HA HA Animals, amiright?

And yet. I don't know whether we're supposed to feel superior to Reepicheep here or kinship with him. To be honest, I can't parse out Lewis' feelings on Reepicheep which frankly seem rather conflicted from this side of the ereader. But for this passage at least, I'm not really sure it matters.

Reepicheep can't play chess properly because he forgets reality in order to focus on an ideal which doesn't work in real life. This isn't a matter of Reepicheep forgetting that the game isn't real, nor is it a matter of Reepicheep forgetting that real life isn't a game. This is a third thing: Reepicheep is forgetting that reality -- both in-game reality and external reality -- are incompatible with his perception of the way things "should" be. Which is kind of this whole series in a microcosm.

A death-and-glory charge -- not "death-or-glory", which would seem to indicate that there's some sort of choice between the two and at least in the context of "forlorn hopes" and "last stands" there isn't, and (relatedly) folks need to stop quoting Tennyson wrong because it's "theirs not to reason why / theirs but to do and die" and the and is important to the poem, and also that's your quota of pedantry from me for the month -- is not a good idea in either chess or in real life because if you're only doing the death-charge for glory and not in service to a larger strategy, you'll just end up losing the game or your life for nothing except this ideal you hold.

Which, you know, if you're okay with losing the game or your life to this ideal, then fine. But don't think that it helps anyone other than you.

As much as Lewis likes to pretend Caspian is practical whenever he remembers to play up the twelve-dimensional chess angle, it's also a fact that Caspian's head is full of fantasy and idealistic fluff. At the end of the novel, he'll have to be forcibly talked out of sailing off into Aslan's country because Narnia needs a king and Caspian needs to go home and put on his big boy crown and deal. (Reepicheep and the Pevensies, however, can sail off into the sunset because being a once-and-always King or Queen or Knight of Narnia doesn't mean you can't ditch whenever something better comes along. Seeya!) But damned if Caspian isn't irked as all get-out about it, and I think a part of Lewis sympathizes.  

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is, in many ways, an idealistic novel about traveling to bad places and leaving them just a little better by the power of Aslany virtue. The fact that we largely find those ideals abhorrent doesn't mean they aren't there. And yet, for just a split second, Lewis seems vaguely aware that having a head full of shitty, abhorrent, unrealistic, unhelpful ideals is a bad thing -- he realizes it enough, at least, to make it part of the characterization of Reepicheep. Yet in the same paragraph, he makes me think that he doesn't get it at all, because to Lewis the problem with Reepicheep's ideals isn't that they're really shitty ideals so much as that he (Reepicheep) has a tendency to forget that the game works differently from real life.

The game does work differently from real life, but the end is still the same. A reckless glory-death-charge loses the game; a reckless glory-death-charge loses a life. The only possible "gain" to be had in either case is Reepicheep's potential satisfaction that he lived by his ideal, but if he weights that satisfaction as paramount, I'm not sure why it matters whether he chooses to pay with the loss of a game or to pay with the loss of a life. From my point of view, the former seems like a less steep payment, and if Reepicheep can catharsis-tically satisfy himself with a few chess games, that seems like a positive thing as opposed to a mock-worthy thing.

And here is the thing. At no point in this book (that I can recall) does Caspian perform a reckless glory-death-charge. But he does recklessly release Gumpas and Pug, despite the fact that this "mercy" denies justice to the Lone Islanders and denies compensation to the royal treasure of funds much needed to aid the troubled country. And he does recklessly continue on with his quest, despite the fact that this "oath-bound" choice leaves the Lone Islands in a precarious position and without any kind of military support against piracy and Calormen reprisals. And he does recklessly continue on this journey, despite the fact that this "honorable" quest could leave Narnia with no king and poised on the brink of a war they may not win. (Note that thanks to the Coronation Day Massacre, the population of the country has been significantly reduced.) And so on.

Caspian is driven by ideals like End Slavery and Be Merciful and Keep Oaths, but without any kind of awareness of the way his ideals play out in reality. Or, worse, he doesn't care about reality because as long as his ideals are satisfied that's the important thing. I'm not sure, but I think we're supposed to view this as a good thing, as an example of God's Chosen Ruler on earth.

Instead I view it as the mark of a dangerous extremist.


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