Narnia: Native Occupiers, White Discoverers

[Content Note: Body Transformation, Racism]

Narnia Recap: In which Eustace is turned into a dragon.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 6: The Adventures of Eustace

When we were last in Narnia, we were dealing with the Theologies of rolling around in a pile of dragon gold and considering how best to spend it, which is obviously a sin when Eustace Scrubb does it but was not a sin when the four Pevensies were merrily digging through their swiffy hidden treasure vault back in Prince Caspian.

   Eustace (unlike most boys) had never thought much of treasure but he saw at once the use it would be in this new world which he had so foolishly stumbled into through the picture in Lucy’s bedroom at home. “They don’t have any tax here,” he said, “and you don’t have to give treasure to the government. With some of this stuff I could have quite a decent time here—perhaps in Calormen. It sounds the least phony of these countries. I wonder how much I can carry? That bracelet now—those things in it are probably diamonds—I’ll slip that on my own wrist. Too big, but not if I push it right up here above my elbow. Then fill my pockets with diamonds—that’s easier than gold. I wonder when this infernal rain’s going to let up?” He got into a less uncomfortable part of the pile, where it was mostly coins, and settled down to wait. But a bad fright, when once it is over, and especially a bad fright following a mountain walk, leaves you very tired. Eustace fell asleep.

There's, like, a billion words between this description (which I have quoted in entirety) and the eventual explanation for what happens next, so I'm going to go ahead and paste the explanation here so that I can talk about this scene properly. Here is the explanation for why Eustace transforms into a dragon: Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself. Like you do, apparently. And the thing that strikes me about this is how deeply unfair this explanation is as a means of describing the scene here.

If you set aside the extremely racist implications that we talked about last week -- that Eustace is a bad English boy for wanting to leave the English-like country to go live in the foreign-and-othered Calormen country -- literally the only thing we have left about this scene to charge Eustace with the sin of being "greedy" and "dragonish" is that he (a) plans to use some or all of the treasure to vaguely improve his life circumstances and (b) efficiently charts out how to best take the treasure with him. Neither of which are particularly sinful or even unusual things to be thinking when presented with a windfall like this.

Now, if Lewis wanted to explicitly make the case that Eustace is bad for not wanting to use this windfall to help others as well as himself -- i.e., the sin of Uncharity -- as seen in the fact that Eustace doesn't want to pay taxes and (presumably) doesn't intend to give charitably, then I might be on board with that. But the consistency of this potential message is fatally undermined from the first step: King Caspian is the one who would be in charge of implementing taxes in order to aid the poor, yet he apparently has not seen fit to do so. Furthermore, when Caspian and Edmund find the Midas-pool on Deathwater Isle, there's no suggestion in that entire interlude that charity is on their minds, yet the worst treatment they get is seeing Aslan in the distance. And the poor still get screwed in the end because Caspian doesn't then use the water responsibly; he just doesn't use it at all -- the poor and needy are completely removed from any consideration in the equation.

So maybe, since Deathwater ends in not using the gold at all, the proposed lesson here is simply that windfalls should be left alone -- that any kind of desire to gain wealth and improve one's circumstances is a sin. The sin of being Unsatisfied, maybe, since Eustace and Edmund and Caspian have all their worldly needs met already and don't need to crave more than that. Birds of the air, etc. Except that this view is at odds with Caspian's unfortunate tendency to claim ownership over and thoroughly loot every island they stumble upon. Surely if claiming a few diamonds out of a dead dragon's hoard is a sin, so much more is it is a sin to claim ownership over an entire island which may already be inhabited?

What also strikes me about this passage is how easy it would have been to make Eustace genuinely greedy and dragonish. Instead of having him fill his pockets with lightweight diamonds and his arms with easily carried bracelets, an old author favorite is to have the victim load themselves down with so much gold that they can barely move, thus ironically prioritizing the existence wealth over their ability to use it. (Think the Laura Ingalls Wilder story about her being "greedy" and filling her pockets too full of stones.) Which is still a massively problematic trope, but would have at least been recognizable as a known "sin" because Eustace is prioritizing the windfall too much rather than just enough. Yet we don't get that -- Eustace is filling his pockets sensibly, and I don't even get the impression that he intends to return for the rest of the coins after he leaves. He appears to be, if anything, undervaluing the treasure and taking only what he can carry and leaving the rest for whoever next finds it. That's not very "dragonish".

Furthermore, since Lewis would like us to believe that Eustace is a bully who doesn't care for the bodily autonomy of others (see the Reepicheep episode), why not invoke slavery again and have Eustace explicitly call out that he wants to move to Calormen in order to own slaves? This would be an example of the formerly-oppressed person learning precisely the wrong lesson from their oppression and deliberately joining the ranks of the oppressors. If Lewis didn't want to go that far, he could at least have shown Eustace planning to use his new money to lord it over his Pevensie relatives, or planning to use it to somehow force Caspian to treat him like rich royalty rather than like an regular member of the crew*, or anything beyond (paraphrase) "god, my kidnapping experience sucks, I think I'll emigrate to a non-white country".

* Not that Caspian or anyone else has been treating Eustace with respect, but the narrative seems to claim that they have, so.

But Lewis doesn't give us anything more than that. He doesn't feel he needs to. And while I know that some people will assign this to nothing more than authorial laziness, I'm not willing to give someone who is routinely lauded as a heavyweight religious thinker a free Lazy Pass when it comes to something like this. Not the least being because intent is not magic. You don't get to write a passage in which the only "sin" of the "sinner" is wanting to use treasure to move out of England into Otherland and then say, "oops, yeah, I didn't mean those problematic implications. I totally meant something else that was in no way fleshed out and which is contradicted at various other points in the story." Nope.

Now some quick one-offs, all in a row:

   By the time he was sound asleep and snoring the others had finished dinner and become seriously alarmed about him. 

Eustace has been missing for hours, but they still finished their dinner before they got alarmed enough to look for him. HA HA, THESE PEOPLE.

   They shouted, “Eustace! Eustace! Coo-ee!” till they were hoarse and Caspian blew his horn.

Shouting and blowing horns from the safety of the beach is exactly like looking for a missing nine-year-old boy. Obviously the working theory here is that he just hasn't come back because he didn't know where the beach was. I'm sure the horn will fix everything. 

   “He’s nowhere near or he’d have heard that,” said Lucy with a white face.
   “Confound the fellow,” said Edmund. “What on earth did he want to slink away like this for?”

I CANNOT IMAGINE WHY HE WOULD WANT THAT, EDMUND. Say, come to think of it, haven't you had some experience with being ostracized by older relatives and fantastical group leaders to the point where YOU slunk away from the group and into danger for reasons which seemed compelling to you at the time? Or was that some other Edmund Pevensie? (See above, re: the oppressed joining the ranks of the oppressors.)

   “But we must do something,” said Lucy. “He may have got lost, or fallen into a hole, or been captured by savages.”

Oh my god. They do admit the possible existence of native peoples -- UGH, "SAVAGES"? FUCK YOU, C.S. LEWIS -- but just not their right to own the land, because Caspian "discovered" the island and he's white so obviously that makes the island his. Can we just cut to the chase and call Caspian "Columbus" from now on? Speaking of, here's your daily quote from Lies My Teacher Told Me in response to the text claiming that Caspian "discovered" the dragon island:
We understand Columbus and all European explorers and settlers more clearly if we treat 1492 as a meeting of three cultures (Africa was soon involved), rather than a discovery by one, and several of the new books do this. The term New World is itself part of the problem, for people had lived in the Americas for thousands of years. The Americas were new only to Europeans. Discover is another part of the problem, for how can one person discover what another already knows and owns? Textbook authors are struggling with this issue, trying to move beyond colonialized history and Eurocentric language. Boorstin and Kelley begin their first chapter with the sentence, “The discovery of America”—by which they mean Columbus’s—“was the world’s greatest surprise.” Five pages later, the authors try to take back the word: “It was only for the people of Europe that America had to be ‘discovered.’ Millions of Native Americans were already here!” Taking back words is ineffectual, however. Boorstin and Kelley’s whole approach is to portray whites discovering nonwhites rather than a mutual multicultural encounter. Indeed, they are so Eurocentric that they don’t even notice they left out “the people of Africa and Asia” from their sentence of people who had yet to “discover” America.

The point isn’t idle. Words are important—they can influence, and in some cases rationalize, policy. In 1823 Chief Justice John Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that Cherokees had certain rights to their land in Georgia by dint of their “occupancy” but that whites had superior rights owing to their “discovery.” How American Indians managed to occupy Georgia without having previously discovered it Marshall neglected to explain. [emphasis mine]

And here's another one in response to Lucy calling the hypothetical natives "savages":
For a long time Native Americans have been rebuking textbook authors for reserving the adjective civilized for European cultures. In 1927 an organization of Native leaders called the Grand Council Fire of American Indians criticized textbooks as “unjust to the life of our people.” They went on to ask, “What is civilization? Its marks are a noble religion and philosophy, original arts, stirring music, rich story and legend. We had these. Then we were not savages, but a civilized race.”

Even an appreciative treatment of Native cultures reinforces ethnocentrism so long as it does not challenge the primitive-to-civilized continuum. This continuum inevitably conflates the meaning of civilized in everyday conversation—“refined or enlightened”—with “having a complex division of labor,” the only definition that anthropologists defend. When we consider the continuum carefully, it immediately becomes problematic. Was the Third Reich civilized, for instance? Most anthropologists would answer yes. In what ways do we prefer the civilized Third Reich to the more primitive Arawak society that Columbus encountered? If we refuse to label the Third Reich civilized, are we not using the term to mean “polite, refined”? If so, we must consider the Arawaks civilized, and we must also consider Columbus and his Spaniards primitive, if not savage. Ironically, societies characterized by a complex division of labor are often marked by inequality and support large specialized armies. Precisely these “civilized” societies are likely to resort to savage violence in their attempts to conquer “primitive” societies.

Thoughtless use of the terms civilized and civilization blocks any real inquiry into the worldview or the social structure of the “uncivilized” person or society. In 1990 President George H. W. Bush condemned Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait with the words, “The entire civilized world is against Iraq”—an irony, in that Iraq’s Tigris and Euphrates valleys are the earliest known seat of civilization. [emphasis mine]

And now is probably a good time to remind everyone that Voyage of the Dawn Treader was published in 1952. As in, after these court cases and criticisms both occurred and had time to permeate social consciousness for those privileged people who chose to be aware of it. Just in case you'd forgotten.

These terms used by Lewis -- Caspian as "discoverer"; native populations as "savages" -- are not minor, neutral, whoops-lazy-author points. I feel like I need to be saying more about it, like we need to have fully one-billion posts about how deeply, insidiously, horribly racist this entire chapter is, but I don't know how to do more than what I've already done, which is to say, very loudly, that this is a chapter which includes (a) as an example of a mortal sin the wish of a white person to emigrate to a non-white country and (b) privileged white people claiming discovery and possession of a land while admitting the possible existence of native people whom they immediate other as violent "savages".

And also, (c) the leading privileged white person is the descendant of a privileged white group that rolled into a country unannounced and fully tried to genocide the native inhabitants out of existence and the few survivors only recently conducted a civil war in order to put said leading privileged white person in charge after an agreement that he wouldn't keep doing this shit so he should kinda-sorta know that native people here have a right to their land and a right to defend it from apparent invaders who made not even the least attempt to find and contact them before wrecking up their island and claiming it as their own.


And, no, the fact that Lewis was writing in 1952 does not make it blase or normalized or unworthy of mention. If only because there is still a big fucking controversy over whether the Chronicles of Narnia contain any racist elements in it, intentional or otherwise. (Actual quote from linked article: "Anyone attempting to argue that the Chronicles are racist would need to address the strong and unmistakable anti-racist attitudes which run through the entire series." My reasoned response: HAHAHAHAHAHA HAHAHAHAHAHAHA HAHAHA *gasp* HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Ohmygodyou'reserious. o.O)

We-the-white-readers do not get, as privileged members of our culture, to insist until we're blue in the face that something does not have racist elements in it and then, when it's been proven with copious footnotes and shown work that YES, it has racist elements in it, get to fall back to, well, okay, but everyone was racist then so why are you harping on this. NO. That is Moving Goalposts 101 and it is a big fucking problem.

   “Or killed by wild beasts,” said Drinian.
   “And a good riddance if he has, I say,” muttered Rhince.
   “Master Rhince,” said Reepicheep, “you never spoke a word that became you less. The creature is no friend of mine but he is of the Queen’s blood, and while he is one of our fellowship it concerns our honor to find him and to avenge him if he is dead.”

OH MY GOD. They are going to save Eustace because he's related to the Queen. And maybe, maybe, because he's a kinda-sorta-member of the crew. (He better fucking should be considered a member of the crew, given that he's been working on the ship for the majority of the time he's been on it.) But not because he's nine-years-old or because leaving anyone behind to an unknown fate and certain death is totally immoral and would make baby Aslan weep. Because that's not the kind of world and it's not the kind of religion being advocated. Jesus may have advocated helping the helpless, but Aslan only advocates helping people who are related to the royal family.

Note also, that Eustace isn't of the Queen and King's blood, because when chivalry is invoked in this novel, it is frequently invoked against Lucy as the Token Girl. She's like a mandatory spell component for Word of Chivalry, and there's a strong implication here that the reason to rescue Eustace isn't because he's valuable as a member of the royal family, nor because as a Son of Adam he is effectively royalty in Narnia by Aslanian fiat. Instead, the reason given to rescue Eustace is because the Queen will have a sad if her relative dies. So rescuing Eustace becomes a fetch quest in order to protect the little lady queen from having a sad.

Of all the reasons to rescue Eustace, this is pretty much the worst possible one: they don't even rescue him because they care about Lucy as a person and her feelings; they rescue him because "the Queen" will be sad. She's a concept in this chivalric play, and nothing more -- and it is her dear chess partner Reepicheep who is dehumanizing her into nothing more than a lifeless piece in the chivalric game he's playing out in his head. Reepicheep is othering Lucy and pushing her into the marginalized role in the Terrible Bargain: swallow shit, or ruin the entire afternoon?

   “Of course we’ve got to find him (if we can),” said Caspian wearily. “That’s the nuisance of it. It means a search party and endless trouble. Bother Eustace.”

I just don't even. Did anyone -- anyone?!? -- criticize or chastise Caspian for stupidly traipsing about the Lone Islands without a guard, even after knowing for a fact that there were slaver-pirates in the area? Does anyone criticize or chastise Caspian for stupidly sending his entire company to this new island without appointing Lucy as Official Headcount Monitor? And keep in mind that at this point, they still don't know if Eustace is even at fault here; he could have been yoinked by slavers while industriously doing whatever the hell he would have been assigned to do, had they been giving out assignments.

But, you know, bother Eustace for making significantly fewer mistakes than the older, worldly-wisier King in the group has already made and will continue to make in the future.


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