Narnia: Marginalized Characters vs. Marginalized People

[Content Note: Body Transformation, Genocide, Racism]

Narnia Recap: In which Eustace is turned back into a boy.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 7: How The Adventure Ended

Chapter 7 has a very peculiar sub-title: How The Adventure Ended, even though the book has sixteen chapters total and we're nowhere near the end. What Lewis means, I suppose, is how the-adventure-in-which-Eustace-was-turned-into-a-dragon ended, and indeed this directly references the sub-title of Chapter 6, which was The Adventures of Eustace.

I find this wording rather interesting, because framing Eustace's time as a dragon as the adventures he experiences -- that is, with a definite article instead of an indefinite one -- almost seems to suggest that these are the only adventures of Eustace and that, after they are "ended", his job in this story ceases to exist.

This was certainly true for our first child in need of redemption; you will all recall that after Edmund was saved in the middle of LWW, he pretty much never spoke again in that book. (And when he appeared in Prince Caspian, he spoke like an entirely different person -- not in the sense of "better now that he's redeemed" so much as in the sense of "who is this person and what did he do with Edmund".) At the time I speculated that perhaps Lewis wasn't comfortable trying to write a reformed sinner in such a way that it would be clear he had reformed and yet was still the same character.

Eustace fares somewhat better than Edmund: after Chapter 7 and the "end" of his adventures, Eustace is allowed to speak 268 words of the remaining 25,786 words. (I counted the former; Microsoft Word counted the latter.) My calculator tells me that means Eustace gets to utter 1% of the remaining novel, which isn't bad for a Lewisian Reformed Sinner but isn't terribly good by any other metric, especially considering that the book opened with a whole chapter on Eustace Clarence Scrubb, whom I'm tempted to dub Sir Not Appearing In The [Remainder] Of This Novel.

I suspect it is this sparsity of spoken words which (partly) determines how a lot of people view Eustace post-conversion: some people view him as having essentially the same personality as before, but with a Christian twist (i.e., "not perfect, just redeemed"); others feel like he's herded into the same party line as Lucy and Edmund to serve as the awed Greek chorus to Caspian the Protagonist. I haven't decided how I feel about post-conversion Eustace yet, but I will note that when he is allowed to speak, he is now suddenly allowed to be the resident semi-expert on flora and fauna. Which is what we've been saying he should have been all along, but he's apparently not allowed to be right about things until after he's been inducted into the Church of Aslan. I think that's a real shame.

But now I'm jumping ahead.

   “Look at the device on the gold,” said Caspian.
   “A little hammer with a diamond above it like a star,” said Drinian. “Why, I’ve seen that before.”
   “Seen it!” said Caspian. “Why, of course you have. It is the sign of a great Narnian house. This is the Lord Octesian’s arm-ring.”

We know absolutely nothing about Drinian, except that he's a Telmarine Lord. But we don't know if he's from a long and established line of lords or if Caspian lorded him as a lordly-come-lately after the Coronation Day Massacre carried off the flower of Telmarine youth. Who can say? NOT US. So I choose to believe that Drinian is a newly-created lord who is at this moment giving Caspian the stink-eye for forgetting that Drinian's childhood didn't consist entirely of memorizing the crests of defunct Telmarine lineages.

Additionally, since the Telmarines came into Narnia as pirates and (presumably) did not have their own noble crests at the time, then we must assume that they created their crests later after invading Narnia and genociding the inhabitants. Octesian's crest of a hammer and diamond evoke mining to my mind, which is a reminder that whether his family did so peaceably or not, they were very likely responsible for the encroachment on the dwarven homes in the Narnian mountains which caused Nikabrik and Trumpkin to flee to the forests. And since they adopted the hammer-and-diamond motif for their house crest and since interbreeding with Narnians was a crime punishable by death in Telmarine society, I'm guessing the takeover of the mines was not due to peaceable intermarrying and cultural exchange since you really don't want to advertise "peaceful relations with the natives" in your publicly-viewable crest in the middle of a totalitarian dystopia.

And all that reminds me that, if Caspian is successful, he plans to bring back home seven Lost Lords whose family lineages were complicit in the horrific marginalization of the Narnian natives and whose family possessions are no doubt already hotly disputed on the grounds that the lands were stolen from the Natives and encompass their natural habitats from whence they can't just simply pick up and move, nor should they be expected to. Caspian seems completely unaware of how potentially alienating his quest is, nor how deeply it favors the privileged Telmarines over the marginalized Narnians.

Once again, we are entitled to ask why Lewis wrote it this way, instead of (for example) having Caspian search for Narnian natives who fled the Telmarine oppression in order to let them know that they are welcome back in Narnia should they choose to return? But of course, the reason Caspian is searching for Unfairly Displaced Ruler Class people and not Unfairly Displaced Native Inhabitants people might have something to do with the time period during which this book was written:
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was published in 1952. In 1945, Canada joined the United Nations as an independent member, separate from the United Kingdom. In 1947, India and Pakistan were officially recognized as independent countries by the United Kingdom; King George VI officially abandoned the title of Emperor of India in 1948. In 1949, Ireland declared itself a republic and officially completed the process of separation from the British Empire. In 1960, the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave his famous Winds of Change speech to the Parliament of South Africa, in which he signaled that the British government intended to grant independence to many of its territories; most of the British possessions in Africa became independent nations in the 1960s.

[...] it is notable to me that King Caspian ... renewed his birthright claim of Emperor of the Lone Islands at about the same time as King George was abandoning his own title as Emperor of India.

Moving on, when we last left our heroes, Reepicheep was demanding that the crying dragon (who may or may not have just lost its mate or parent very recently to unknown causes which may or may not be related to our heroes' invasion of the island) swear friendship to them before they can engage in communication together. Now Reepicheep accuses the dragon of murder and villainy, despite the fact that Reepicheep would (one might suspect) have reason to believe that a Sentient Animal might have a good reason to kill a Telmarine Lord. What with all the genociding they tend to do.

   “Villain,” said Reepicheep to the dragon, “have you devoured a Narnian lord?” But the dragon shook his head violently.

So it's really great how Lewis' token minority on the ship completely takes the side of the human invaders who (at best, in the case of Caspian) claim ownership over everything they see and (at worst, in the case of Caspian's peers and ancestors) murder the native inhabitants willy-nilly for the crime of existing on "their" (the Telmarines') property. Stellar. (And it's worth pointing out that when Aslan devours people, nobody says boo.)

But hang on a minute, because I want to harp on this point a little deeper.

It is not coincidental that Lewis uses the token Sentient Animal (Reepicheep) to chastise the foreign Sentient Animal (the dragon) for defending its territory from invading humans. Lewis is using this framing to deflect criticism; if Caspian or Drinian or Edmund called the dragon a villain for protecting itself and its territory from a genocidal Telmarine lord -- or even just a lord who leaped to wrong conclusions based on racial prejudices, as Caspian has already done by intending to battle the dragon rather than communicate with it -- then we might be more inclined to see the gulf of privilege between the community of white human aristocratic armed men versus the solitary dragon who recently died (of age or disease, we don't know) alone and unmourned in the valley above. (And Reepicheep is chastising that old dragon, though he doesn't realize it. We know that this young dragon, Eustace, didn't devour Lord Octesian, but we don't know that the elderly dragon didn't.)

Much later, on the Isle of Dufflepuds -- and I have FULLY ONE BILLION THINGS to say about the Isle of Dufflepuds -- Lewis will deliberately use Lucy to contradict the local inhabitants about their concern over their appearance and their own unwanted bodily transformation, and Lewis will have her do so immediately after Lucy herself was tempted to change her own body into a form more socially accepted as beautiful and thereby improve the ways in which people treat her. So, you see? It's okay for her to lecture the Dufflepuds about vanity and marginalization, because Lucy experiences those things too! (NO.)

There is a pattern here, and it is a pattern in which Lewis uses a marginalized character to criticize marginalized people for bucking against what Lewis sees as the established order. So Reepicheep, a survivor of centuries of genocide, chastises another Sentient Animal slash Native Inhabitant for proactively trying to protect itself and its territory when it should have submitted humbly to the human ruler class who sailed up to its shore. And Lucy, a girl who lives with the marginalization that is heaped on girls for being insufficiently beautiful, chastises an island of indentured servants whose "vanity" leads them to complain about the body transformation that was imposed on them against their consent by the local Aslan-appointed magician overlord -- they should have submitted quietly to whatever ugly or unwanted form their man-ruler chose to impose on their inferior dwarven bodies.

Will Wildman notes in his Ender's Game analysis -- which you should totally read the whole thing because it is awesome -- how deeply problematic it is to try to portray a post-racial future where all the "now harmless" racial slurs are still directed only at marginalized people and it's up to the White Kid to teach the Token Minorities how to sing along with each other in Perfect Harmony:
[...] I don't know what Card thought was going on here, but--is it supposed to be reclamatory usage indicating that this generation of children is truly 'postracial' but not so far advanced that they've forgotten racism used to be a thing?  Did it occur to Card that there's a problem when 'postracial' is largely defined by PoC not complaining about racism? [...]

Does it not seem like a problem to anyone in this postracial situation when the now-'harmless' racial slurs are still only directed at the black kid and the Chinese kid? Battle School is supposed to be super-international and its slang borrows from languages all over the world and no one's got a choice epithet for whitey?  Gwailo?  Yaku?  Alai could easily know 'firanji'* at least?  If you're going to argue that equality comes about when everyone's not upset about racial slurs anymore, take your own goddamn medicine, Card.

And I believe what we are seeing with Narnia is a similar problem.

This is not a whoops thing that just accidentally happens, this convenient appropriation of marginalized identities into marginalized characters who then expound on how marginalized people (in the case of Narnia) should know their place and stop being so damn uppity about their marginalization and take centuries of horrific persecution like a champ, or (in the case of Ender's Game) have learned their place and stopped being so damn uppity about their marginalization and take centuries of horrific persecution like a champ.

There's a trap that a lot of readers fall into, particularly readers with privilege, in letting a Watsonian mindset override a Doylist remembrance of the author's own privileges. So we think, well, if Alai wasn't offended by Ender's use of the n-word, then I guess that's his prerogative, while forgetting that Alai is not really a black person; he is a black character written by a white person, and that this is a very important distinction. Or we think, well, the Dufflepuds don't seem to be too bothered by their indentured servitude to a powerful magician, and thereby forget that the Dufflepuds are fictional characters written by a privileged person who was never in his life on the receiving end of that kind of marginalization.

It is important -- deeply, powerfully, crucially important -- for privileged writers to include more marginalized characters in their work; the Science Fiction / Fantasy genres in particular are overwhelmed with a majority of white cis straight able male characters, and diversity is needed in desperate measure. Yet at the same time, it is the author's responsibility to include marginalized characters as realistic three-dimensional characters in their own right and not as one-dimensional tokens intended to represent how Those People really are or should be or need to be. And it is absolutely inappropriate to deliberately appropriate a marginalized identity solely for the sake of creating a marginalized character to lecture marginalized people (explicitly, other characters in the book; but implicitly, the people in the audience) about how You People should act.

And it is the reader's responsibility to remember that when an author does appropriate an identity in this harmful manner, the resulting token characters do not represent real people of that identity merely because the author announced that they supposedly have that identity. It is in those cases that a Watsonian analysis can be actively harmful, when we accept a privileged authors' quote-unquote marginalized characters have a valid say in the issues marginalized people face simply because the privileged author claims that they do.


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