Narnia: Swearing Friendship with Invaders

[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 last saw Caspian and Company, they were standing about on the beach fruitlessly shouting for Eustace before deciding that they might actually in fact have to search for the missing nine-year-old boy.

   Lucy was sleeping very soundly for she had sat up till the return of the search party in hope of good news about Eustace. It had been led by Caspian and had come back late and weary. Their news was disquieting. They had found no trace of Eustace but had seen a dead dragon in a valley. They tried to make the best of it and everyone assured everyone else that there were not likely to be more dragons about, and that one which was dead at about three o’clock that afternoon (which was when they had seen it) would hardly have been killing people a very few hours before.
   “Unless it ate the little brat and died of him: he’d poison anything,” said Rhince. But he said this under his breath and no one heard it.

Once again we see that it's perfectly acceptable in this atmosphere to hate Eustace, it's just considered very gauche to say so in front of The Queen, His Cousin (said with capital letters because Lucy isn't a person or a friend so much as she is a concept to these men). Unless this is supposed to be taken as gallows humor by Rhince who really does miss Eustace but doesn't dare say so lest he burst into uncontrollable tears thus slowing down the search efforts, but I rather doubt that on the grounds that no one has been shown to actually care one iota for Eustace so it seems unlikely to me that this is just putting a brave face on the situation.

Strangely, if I read the narrative and timing correctly, Caspian and Company saw the dead dragon while Eustace was sleeping inside the cave. I suppose I don't blame them for not wishing to scale a sheer cliff just to check the valley, its pool, and the nearby cave for the missing boy if they had no sure means for getting back up (Do they even have rope with them? They almost have to have rope with them if they're planning to cut down a tree for a new mast and haul it back to the ship and hoist it up, right?), but wouldn't it be entirely possible for Eustace to have fallen into the valley and hurt himself? Or to have sought shelter in the cave from the rain?

It sounds like the search party didn't actually search for Eustace or shout for him or anything; they just sort of glanced into the valley and called it a day when they didn't immediately see anything moving. Apparently Caspian is as competent at searches as he is at ruling kingdoms and planning ocean voyages.

   But later in the night Lucy was wakened, very softly, and found the whole company gathered close together and talking in whispers.
   “What is it?” said Lucy.
   “We must all show great constancy,” Caspian was saying. “A dragon has just flown over the tree-tops and lighted on the beach. Yes, I am afraid it is between us and the ship. And arrows are no use against dragons. And they’re not at all afraid of fire.”

"Constancy" is not quite the same thing as "steadiness" or "courage", but rather than bust Lewis on a Twain violation, I'd sooner point out (once again) that flowery speech is Bad when people of color use it and Good when white people use it. Just so we're all clear on the rules here.

What is also interesting about this passage is that Caspian is "afraid" (feeling fear or anxiety; anxious) that the dragon is between their selves and the ship: if I were forced to confront a hungry flying monster that breathes fire, I think I'd rather do it on land than on the sea contained in a very small and very fragile wooden boat. Caspian seems to see the ship as a possible-but-unreachable means of escape; does this mean that Caspian believes his storm-battered ship -- you know, the one missing a mast? -- could outrun a young dragon? And given that the dragon is immune to arrows and fire and fiery arrows, that means their only hopes are to reason with the dragon or to fight it with swords; in either case, I'd think that meeting him on the ground is the safer course of action.

   “Perhaps it will go away,” said Lucy.
   “It’ll be worse if it does,” said Edmund, “because then we shan’t know where it is. If there’s a wasp in the room I like to be able to see it.”

I still don't know if the experiences of the children from their time as adults in Narnia are supposed to stick with them. Lucy and Edmund seem to remember an awful lot about their reign in Narnia, as seen in the earlier conversation in which they talked about the Lone Islands and what was beyond them and how they came to be owned by Narnia. Yet for all that King Edmund was supposed to be renowned for his wisdom and justness and King Solomon-esque qualities, he's been persistently stupider than a stump in both Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, seeming always to serve as a secondary stringer to either High King Peter or King Caspian.

This dragon should not be here. It's already been established by the narrator that dragons rarely cohabitate together because they naturally prey on each other. It's already been established that Caspian and Company are aware of this fact and are aware of the existence of a dead dragon on the island, as well as its likely nest: they found a lovely valley, inaccessible except from the air, with a cave and a pool and a dead dragon. Furthermore, knowledge of dragons can't be exactly rare in these parts, considering how much they apparently get out and about in order to gather crowns. All of this is just as much known to the kings and crew as to the reader.

Here is where Edmund The Not Monumentally Stupid Wise has a chance to point out that because of the rarity of two unrelated dragons sharing overlapping hunting regions, it is therefore very likely that the dragon before them almost certainly has to be either the dead dragon's child, mate, or enemy. Therefore if the dragon leaves the beach, it is very likely to return to the dead dragon in the valley, either because it nests there or because it has recently taken it over and needs to take inventory and eat the previous owner. And if the dragon doesn't leave the beach, the first and foremost thing that needs to be established before they "give it battle" in the morning (which is Caspian's plan), is that Caspian and Company may have washed up on the beach yesterday morning and the dead dragon in the valley may have died a few hours thereafter, but that the two events were entirely unrelated and also the crew is terribly sorry for the dragon's loss. Because if the dragon is not Eustace and is not responsible for the dead dragon's death, then it's probably looking to find out who is.

Of course, absolutely none of this is explored because (a) the very idea of empathizing with another living being (rather than trying to eradicate it) is utterly foreign to everyone in this novel who isn't named Lucy or Eustace, and (b) Lewis didn't actually intend that "dragons are rare because they eat each other" factoid to be part of the world-building and hence used to propel the narrative; he just wanted to punish Eustace some more by forcing him to eat a dead dragon. Klassy!

   “With your Majesty’s leave—” began Reepicheep.
   “No, Reepicheep,” said the King very firmly, “you are not to attempt a single combat with it. And unless you promise to obey me in this matter I’ll have you tied up. 

*that face*

I noted way back at the beginning of this book why we have so few Animals on the ship and why the Animals in the series are persistently silly and stupid rather than reasonable and respected:
The other oppressed Animals in LWW are no less uniformly silly and childish when they open their mouths to speak. The Stoned Lion is monumentally silly, more interested in toadying up to Aslan and bragging about his racial superiority than in the dangerous civil war at hand. The Animals at the Christmas banquet table may not be able to lie to the Witch -- since it is Not Okay To Lie To Satan -- but theirs is a "terrified", not a dignified, silence and they do not receive the benefit of a stately and moving speech of defiance to the Witch. Instead, their defiance takes the form of a young squirrel throwing a temper tantrum (“He has—he has—he has!” it squeaked, beating its little spoon on the table.).

Prince Caspian expands the Animal cast by introducing Trufflehunter the Badger (whose sole purpose in life is to reassure Caspian that being a Telmarine prince doesn't mean living with crushing guilt for the crimes of your people), Pattertwig the Squirrel (who is only barely less flighty and more dependable than the other, even more silly, squirrels), the Bulgy Bears (who suck their paws during important duels), and Reepicheep the Mouse (who is vain and self-obsessed). The rest of the nameless Animals are foolish and short-sighted and single-minded, as we see in the first War Council meeting where they are all bound and determined to derail the meeting from the get-go in their own particular idioms.

The Animals have to be overruled by the humanoids -- the Men and the Centaurs and the Dwarfs -- because the Animals are stupid and silly. It's as simple as that. And by the time we come around to Dawn Treader, the only remaining Animal in the novel-world will be Reepicheep, who will be as silly and vainglorious as ever.

Here we have the little mouse Reepicheep bound and determined to fight a dragon in single-combat, and it's up to King Caspian to restrain him with bodily force.

This didn't have to be written this way. If Lewis had just wanted the honor-before-reason of Don Quixote tilting at giant windmills, Reepicheep could have offered and Caspian could have turned him down and Reepicheep could have dutifully obeyed his sovereign and Caspian could have trusted him to do that because he could know that Reepicheep values his service to Caspian and takes his oath of allegiance and obedience seriously.

We didn't need this threat of physical restraint, as though Reepicheep is so mindless and silly that he must be physically forced not to throw his life away, and as though Reepicheep is so poorly in command of his own faculties that he can't be relied upon to keep his oath to the king. And yet it's here, despite how unnecessary and distasteful it is, to establish that Reepicheep is less than his companions. He may be honorable, but his is an honor that is false and foolish since he's willing to follow that Honor to his death rather than serve his king honorably as an obedient subject.

And he may be intelligent enough to wield a sword, but he's so mindless and impulsive that he can't really be treated like a human member of the crew -- instead, Caspian has to be ready and willing to muzzle and leash him like the animal that Reepicheep really is. Indeed, Caspian didn't even have to wait for Reepicheep to ask his request or state an intention; that's how predictable Reepicheep is, according to the narrative.

Possibly Lewis was trying to be cute and reference Odysseus lashed to the mast, but it doesn't work here. Odysseus lashed himself to the mast, willingly and with his consent; Reepicheep is having this threatened fate imposed on him by others with significantly more power over him. And Odysseus was tempted magically, by a song which no-one could resist; Reepicheep is not a victim of magical circumstance and no other member of the party is volunteering for a meaningless suicide mission. In pretty much every way that matters, this situation is not like that classic one -- if Lewis failed to notice that when crafting his allusion, then that failure is part of the problem here.

And this is not something that is unimportant because Lewis didn't try or didn't care or just felt like goofing off whenever he wrote about the Animals in his work. The Animals in Narnia are the only real glimpses we receive of marginalized people. They are the victims, the ones who suffer war and genocide and prejudice and injustice. The protagonists represent the privileged: they are the humans, who are literally born to rule, and these humans additionally form a powerful priest class, since Aslan will (mostly) only appear when they are present and in order to interact with them.

In light of that reality, making the Animals silly second-class citizens who cannot be trusted with power and cannot be allowed to have self-determination and who must be literally tied and gagged and leashed and muzzled for their own good is highly problematic. At best, the repeated reinforcement suggests to the children reading along that people Not Like Them are even more childish and less-than than they; at worst, the failure to flesh out the Animals from silly stereotypes to real characters fosters privileged and imperialistic attitudes.

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.

Whatever Lewis' intentions may have been, it cannot and should not be seen as harmless when literature which extols the existence and rulership by a privileged class, also paints a picture of their marginalized subjects as inherently -- by birth and by nature -- silly, stupid, suicidal, foolish, untrustworthy, and otherwise requiring that their wills and bodily autonomy be overridden for their own good because, if they were left to self-determination, they would ultimately destroy themselves. Nor do I think that this characterization should be viewed as entirely coincidental in the time period in which it was written; it is notable to me that King Caspian excoriated the idea of progress and development (“I have seen them both in an egg,” said Caspian. “We call it ‘Going Bad’ in Narnia.) and 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. 

   But when it saw them, instead of rising up and blowing fire and smoke, the dragon retreated—you could almost say it waddled—back into the shallows of the bay.
   “Oh, can’t you see,” said Lucy. “It’s crying. Those are tears.”
   “I shouldn’t trust to that, Ma’am,” said Drinian. “That’s what crocodiles do, to put you off your guard.” [...]
   Reepicheep slipped off Lucy’s shoulder and stepped to the front.
   “Dragon,” came his shrill voice, “can you understand speech?”
   The dragon nodded.
   “Can you speak?”
   It shook its head.
   “Then,” said Reepicheep, “it is idle to ask you your business. But if you will swear friendship with us raise your left foreleg above your head.”

...and once again, we see that Caspian and Company are only focused on themselves, to the detriment of understanding all others. Yesterday they saw an old dragon, recently dead. Today they see a young dragon, weeping profusely and trying to communicate with them in a peaceable fashion. But instead of trying to understand things from the dragon's point of view -- Does it miss the dead dragon, who was perhaps a mate or a parent? Does it require help now that its parent dragon is dead? Does it fear that Caspian and Company killed the dragon and wishes to know why? Is it ill with some affliction that carried off the older dragon? Is it ill with some affliction that Caspian and crew brought with them?? -- they refuse to interact with it in the slightest until it first swears friendship with the strangers it doesn't know, and doesn't know didn't kill a dear member of its family.


We're not supposed to notice or think of this. We're not supposed to view Caspian and Company as invaders on this island, people who came without invitation, took what they saw, and left dead bodies in their wake. We're not supposed to consider that perhaps Caspian and Company are the cause of the dragon's death, that maybe they brought some illness with them, like the Europeans brought to the Americas. We're not supposed to see the dragon as living quietly in its own home, and we're not supposed to think the dragon might legitimately hate or fear the invaders. We're not supposed to consider that perhaps the dragon has heard of the Telmarines who wiped out all non-human life in Narnia and are here to do the same to it; we're not supposed to consider that this dragon might be a refugee from Telmarine-ruled Narnia. We are instead supposed to identify 100% with Caspian and crew, and IT is supposed to swear friendship to US.

In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen notes the power of perspective and the way point-of-view privileges one narrative over the other:
If we cast off our American-ness and imagine we come from, say, Botswana, this typical sentence (from The American Journey) appears quite jarring: “In 1637 war broke out in Connecticut between settlers and the Pequot people.” Surely the Pequots, having lived in villages in Connecticut probably for thousands of years, are “settlers.”The English were newcomers, having been there for at most three years; traders set up camp in Windsor in 1634. Replacing settlers by whites makes for a more accurate but “unsettling” sentence. Invaders is more accurate still, and still more unsettling.

And later in the same book:
Let us try a right-side-up view. “After King Philip’s War, there was continuous conflict at the edge of New England. In Vermont the settlers worried about savages scalping them.” This description is accurate, provided the reader understands that the settlers were Native American, the scalpers white. Even the best of our American history books fail to show the climate of white actions within which Native Americans on the border of white control had to live. It was so bad, and Natives had so little recourse, that the Catawbas in North Carolina “fled in every direction” in 1786 when a solitary white man rode into their village unannounced. And the Catawbas were a friendly tribe! [emphasis mine]

The dragon is crying because the dragon is Eustace and Eustace misses being human. But it isn't supposed to occur to us that the dragon could be crying because it's young or sick or frightened or misses its family. And it's certainly not supposed to occur to us that Caspian and Company treat both Reepicheep and the dragon with the same othering disdain simply because they are not human. Caspian threatens to bodily restrain Reepicheep without even bothering to listen to what he has to say or reason with him in any way; Caspian threatens to murder the dragon without even bothering to find out the source of its motivations and its apparent sorrow. In both cases, the narrative asks us to accept that Reepicheep and non-formerly-human dragons are less thoughtful, less real, less-than the privileged people who rule them.

   It did so, but clumsily because that leg was sore and swollen with the golden bracelet.
   “Oh look,” said Lucy, “there’s something wrong with its leg. The poor thing—that’s probably what it was crying about. Perhaps it came to us to be cured like in Androcles and the lion.” [...]
   Everyone had now crowded round to watch the treatment, and Caspian suddenly exclaimed, “Look!” He was staring at the bracelet.

And that's where Chapter 6 ends.


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