Narnia: Thirsty and Alone

[Content Note: Isolation, Sexism, Sexual Violence, Ableism in text, Dehydration, Death]

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 left Narnia, Lucy was hanging about the ship in her swiffy new clothes eating yummy dinners and playing chess with Reepicheep.

   But this pleasant time did not last. There came an evening when Lucy, gazing idly astern at the long furrow or wake they were leaving behind them, saw a great rack of clouds building itself up in the west with amazing speed. [...] While she was noting these things and wondering at a sinister change which had come over the very noise of the wind, Drinian cried, “All hands on deck.” In a moment everyone became frantically busy. The hatches were battened down, the galley fire was put out, men went aloft to reef the sail. Before they had finished the storm struck them. [...]
   “Get below, Ma’am,” bawled Drinian. And Lucy, knowing that landsmen—and landswomen—are a nuisance to the crew, began to obey. [...] Then she made a dash for the cabin door and got in and shut out for a moment the appalling sight of the speed with which they were rushing into the dark, but not of course the horrible confusion of creakings, groanings, snappings, clatterings, roarings and boomings which only sounded more alarming below than they had done on the poop.
   And all next day and all the next it went on.

Pretty much everything about this passage strikes me as off, and I wonder perhaps if the difference between how I understand this passage and how Lewis seems to have understood it stems from the fact that I make a practice of placing myself in a position of empathy with characters whereas Lewis seems to have embraced a position of only observing (and, in the case of Eustace, judging) them, as though he were a literal narrator hovering in the air over the ship.

For starters, I get that VoDT is supposed to be travelogue escapist literature and that Lewis didn't fancy the children in the audience would want to hear about Lucy, Queen of Narnia, swabbing decks and getting blisters on her fingers. But I also can't get over how incredibly boring it would be for her to have literally nothing to do on this ship but eat food and play chess with a Talking Mouse who has a tendency to take offense at the slightest hint of unchivalric attitudes or behaviors in others.

But it's the segue into the storm that really sets off my internal conflict about this scene, because it really inadvertently drives home just how alone Lucy is on this voyage. The cabin that she laboriously makes her way to is HER cabin, and her cabin alone, because there are no other women (human or Animal) on-board this ship, and Caspian/Lewis felt that a lone girl needed a private place where she would be free to change her clothes and poop and sleep and whatnot without being vulnerable to sexual violence. (Which, okay. But a problem is that she is a "lone girl" in a narrative where she didn't need to be.) Now, in the midst of this terrifying storm, Lucy is alone and effectively trapped in her cabin, listening to the sounds of the storm and with no company to reassure her or take her mind off of the imminent danger. I'm not even sure it's safe for her to poke her head out the door to see if her brother and cousin are still alive.

In a very real way that is not true of the rest of those on-board, Lucy is isolated. She apparently has no real work on the ship, and it's not clear to me if she would be allowed to work even if she asked to, thanks to the "chivalry" of the men surrounding her. (It's presumably not mete for a Queen of Narnia to scrub the decks, and what if the sailors started checking out her ass?, etc.) Her only companions are her blood-relatives (Eustace and Edmund), King Caspian, and one Talking Mouse: or, to frame it in Sexist Hierarchy Terms where Men > Women > Male Animals > Female Animals, her only companions are her owners and her only subordinate on the ship. When Caspian and Edmund and Eustace retire to their bunks for the night, they can swap stories and sing shanties, but Lucy has only a silent room to retreat to, and her isolation is a constant reminder that she is vulnerable to a violence that the boys (allegedly*) are not.

* NB: Not only girls are vulnerable to sexual violence.

So imagining her huddled alone in her cabin, listening to the frightening storm and finding some way to pass the long hours until the storm passes over (which will take just shy of two weeks before it does), just reminds me that this horrifying interlude of isolation only differs in intensity from what she must already be experiencing. This whole trip has consisted of her being mostly alone in her cabin and finding "acceptable" ways to while away the long hours until they reach Aslan's country and get sent home.

Lucy isn't having adventures in the ship rigging that she would otherwise be denied back home, nor is she learning strange and exciting cuisine from the royal chef working the galley and learning skills she could employ to her enrichment back home. She's not growing in knowledge or spirituality or skills or muscle or anything; she's just passing time. And while I definitely appreciate the appeal of a vacation at sea, she doesn't even have engaging company or interesting reading material: all she has to entertain her are chess games with a Mouse and an endless sea to stare at. And all the while, she's being taught that her isolation is normal and necessary; that work is gendered (with sea-work reserved for men), and that men are dangerous and must be avoided.

And the point here isn't just that Lucy's life would probably get boring after an endless stream of nothing-to-do-but-wait, nor that Lucy is being taught harmful social narratives, although those are certainly important. But my larger point is that Lewis appears to consider this to be an ideal situation for Lucy: sitting on a boat, waiting for something to happen to her. I find that incredibly sad, and not a little limiting.

   When it was over Eustace made the following entry in his diary:
   “September 3. The first day for ages when I have been able to write. We had been driven before a hurricane for thirteen days and nights. I know that because I kept a careful count, though the others all say it was only twelve. Pleasant to be embarked on a dangerous voyage with people who can’t even count right! I have had a ghastly time, up and down enormous waves hour after –hour, usually wet to the skin, and not even an attempt at giving us proper meals. Needless to say there’s no wireless or even a rocket, so no chance of signaling anyone for help. It all proves what I keep on telling them, the madness of setting out in a rotten little tub like this. 

We're not supposed to like Eustace and the narrative has already established that his point of view is so flawed that if he tells us the sky is blue, we're to reject that as Obviously False, but the problem with this framing is that it doesn't really bear examination -- when we actually strip away tone arguments and the little incidences of wrongness (like whether or not it was 'storming' the first day and how many days this actual storm lasted), we see that when it comes to larger things Eustace is invariably correct (like Caspian enjoying himself while the others were slaves). (And note here my contempt for Lewis as an apologist if he genuinely thought it was fair to try to direct attention from Big Truths via Small Lies; someone need not be right all the time to be right some of the time.)

It is very foolish for Caspian et. al. to voyage into the unknown in a ship that isn't well-equipped for the expected sea storms. This would probably be foolish even if they were just adventurers seeking to understand the world better, but on top of all this there is the context that Caspian is the ruler of a nation (and a ruler without an heir, so Narnia can expect yet another civil war if he doesn't come home; and if the Telmarines win, what's to say the new king won't continue the genocidal campaign that Caspian's very short reign only briefly stopped?) and that he has no really pressing reason to be doing this except that he would like to know what happened to a bunch of privileged Telmarine nobles who left Narnia approximately a whole decade ago and who will almost certainly have nothing of value to contribute to the political situation in the here and now.

That doesn't mean the Lost Lords aren't worth finding, but it does mean that I'm not seeing a good Risk-vs-Reward scenario here. And it seems like Lewis is trying to distract from the fact that Caspian is basically putting his desire for chivalry and adventure above his kingly duties -- or, to quote King Lune in The Horse and His Boy, "For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land." --by basically sticking all those objections in Eustace's mouth and hoping that our distaste for snarky vegetarian boys will poison the well enough to distract us from noticing that the Strawman Has a Point.

   It would be bad enough even if one was with decent people instead of fiends in human form. Caspian and Edmund are simply brutal to me. The night we lost our mast (there’s only a stump left now), though I was not at all well, they forced me to come on deck and work like a slave. Lucy shoved her oar in by saying that Reepicheep was longing to go only he was too small.

And then there's this, which makes no sense to me, given that I can't imagine that Eustace would be anything but a hindrance in the midst of a serious storm that was literally washing people overboard to their deaths. Didn't Drinian (and the narrator) say that people without experience working on a ship are nothing but a nuisance to sailors in an emergency?

I simply cannot imagine how "every male human on deck plus Eustace" would be a net productivity gain over the alternative of "every male human on deck except Eustace". I can only assume that Caspian (and the narrator) thought that Eustace should be included just for the principle of the thing -- possibly on some kind of "if you don't work, you won't eat" mentality which ignores the fact that god literally forced Eustace to chose between coming on board or drowning -- which tells me that the storm couldn't have been as serious as previously stated. Which means this whole chapter now officially contradicts itself. Stellar.

Also? When Eustace says he was forced to "work like a slave", he's actually had some small experience in that state-of-being very recently. So either this is a case of Lewis forgetting that he wrote about slavery and appropriating it again (because why appropriate someone's lived experience once when you can do it twice, amiright), or we are meant to understand Eustace to be genuinely comparing his treatment under Caspian as similar to his recent treatment under Pug. And that Lucy was hovering around through all this (so I guess she was allowed to leave her isolation chamber at least once!) trying to either guilt-trip Eustace or somehow make him feel better by missing the point that just because Reepicheep consents to hypothetically being in a life-threatening situation doesn't mean that Eustace must consent to being in an actual life-threatening situation, because that is not how consent works.

Our heroes, folks. 

   Today the beastly boat is level at last and the sun’s out and we have all been jawing about what to do. [...] The real trouble is water. Two casks seem to have got a leak knocked in them and are empty. (Narnian efficiency again.) On short rations, half a pint a day each, we’ve got enough for twelve days. [...]
   “If we could, of course, the sensible thing would be to turn west at once and make for the Lone Islands. But it took us eighteen days to get where we are, [...] The others all voted for going on in the hope of finding land. I felt it my duty to point out that we didn’t know there was any land ahead and tried to get them to see the dangers of wishful thinking. Instead of producing a better plan they had the cheek to ask me what I proposed. So I just explained coolly and quietly that I had been kidnapped and brought away on this idiotic voyage without my consent, and it was hardly my business to get them out of their scrape.

In the last chapter, Edmund noted with disappointment that the supplies situation meant that the Dawn Treader could only sail for a fortnight before having to decide whether to prudently turn around or to recklessly continue on in hopes that they would find new supplies before everyone died of thirst. The storm has conveniently made the decision for them: they've already traveled past the point of return, so it's either continue on and hope or futilely turn around and die.

I'm endlessly proud of Eustace for standing his ground so calmly and explaining, again, that everyone involved in this voyage has been criminally short-sighted from the get-go. The casks which were knocked silly (and the chickens which were washed overboard in a bit that I cut) were either badly made or badly stored. Lucy has a big fancy cabin all to herself and was sitting in that big fancy cabin all by herself for two weeks while all the food and water on-board were being banged against each other and sloshed over-board. THAT. IS. STUPID.

Why were not those casks lashed to the cabin walls where they would have been safe? Why were not the chicken kept in that cabin as a coop so they wouldn't have been washed over-board? Why is everyone on this space-is-at-a-premium toy-boat acting like the Most Important Thing is for little Queen Lucy to have a suitably queenly presence chamber in which to play chess with a person the size of a housecat? Why is a little nine-year-old boy -- NINE YEARS OLD -- being dragged out in the middle of a storm that is sweeping grown men overboard and being forced to do work that he can't possibly be doing well or helpfully?

We're not supposed to agree with Eustace, but that word up there? "Kidnapped"? That is precisely what has happened to Eustace. He wasn't kidnapped by Caspian, granted, but he was kidnapped by Aslan, and we're just supposed to be okay with that. We're supposed to actively dislike him for not being enthused and happy about being put through a two-week-long life-threatening storm and then placed on a water-ration while the ship under his feet barrels at full pelt towards his imminently possible death from dehydration. We're supposed to disregard the very real override of his bodily consent that put him in Narnia because -- in all seriousness -- we don't like his tone.

That's literally what VoDT is, when it deals with Eustace Scrubb: a tone argument.

   “September 6. A horrible day. Woke up in the night knowing I was feverish and must have a drink of water. Any doctor would have said so. Heaven knows I’m the last person to try to get any unfair advantage but I never dreamed that this water-rationing would be meant to apply to a sick man. In fact I would have woken the others up and asked for some only I thought it would be selfish to wake them. So I just got up and took my cup and tiptoed out of the Black Hole we slept in, taking great care not to disturb Caspian and Edmund, for they’ve been sleeping badly since the heat and the short water began. I always try to consider others whether they are nice to me or not. [...] All was going beautifully, but before I’d drawn a cupful who should catch me but that little spy Reep.[...]
   “I had to apologize or the dangerous little brute would have been at me with his sword. And then Caspian showed up in his true colors as a brutal tyrant and said out loud for everyone to hear that anyone found ‘stealing water in future would ‘get two dozen.’ I didn’t know what this meant till Edmund explained to me. It comes in the sort of books those Pevensie kids read.

And there you have it: a legitimately dehydrated nine-year-old boy tried to steal a sip of water and was threatened with violence. Twice: once from Reepicheep with a sword and once from Caspian with flogging.

I'm not going to defend or condemn Eustace's "theft" of water because I don't fucking care if a dehydrated nine-year-old boy tries to steal a sip of water because I am too busy fucking caring about the circumstances that led to a nine-year-old boy dying of dehydration. I care about the adults on this ship who couldn't be fucking arsed to secure the life-preserving water properly because they were too enamored with ideas of chivalry and privilege and royal prerogative to utilize space efficiently (and which they could have been doing while they were farting about in the Lone Islands for three weeks). I care about the god in charge of this world who is happy enough to intervene when Caspian wants to abandon his kingdom (RAWR! NAUGHTY!) or when Lucy wants to cast a beautification spell (RAWR! SLUTTY!) but doesn't care in the least when a nine-year-old boy is dying of dehydration and wants nothing more than a drink of water. I care about the god in charge of this universe who put Eustace in this terrible position over his stated objections because that god felt it was character-building for this little nine-year-old boy to experience dying of dehydration.

And I care about the author who wrote this scenario as a characterization of how awful, evil, no-good, terrible, sinful, and downright bad the character of Eustace Scrubb is: he is precisely the kind of little nine-year-old boy who would do anything to get a single drink of water when he is dying of dehydration. QUELLE HORREUR. "Hate him, reader," the narrative suggests. "Revile him." 

▲ I care about that.

I don't hate Eustace Scrubb. I won't. The narrative criticisms which invite me to hate him thus far are that he doesn't eat meat, doesn't drink alcohol, doesn't read fiction, doesn't like being kidnapped against his will, doesn't want to be a slave, doesn't quietly die of dehydration without trying to survive, and has a snotty tone. Those reasons are insufficient for me to hate him as a character, and I am perfectly capable of disliking someone as a potential companion without therefore considering them bad to the bone and in need of corrective religious indoctrination via non-consensual body transformation.

Because that's how my feminism works.

   What awaited them on this island was going to concern Eustace more than anyone else, but it cannot be told in his words because after September 11 he forgot about keeping his diary for a long time.

Spoiler: He is turned into a dragon against his will because he thought naughty thoughts while sleeping in someone else's bed.


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