Narnia: The Home Shopping Network Tragedy

[Content Note: The violent massacre of a village; Slavery; Republican agendas]

Narnia Recap: In which the crew finds a destroyed village, a Sea Serpent, and a Midas pool.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 8: Two Narrow Escapes

So, hey: Chapter Eight!! Not Seven anymore. Boom! This one is full of good stuff but is also pretty short, so I hope to cover everything in maybe three posts, which will then free up loads of time for us to gape at Chapter Nine and compare ALL THE NOTES on how we didn't notice how fucked up Chapter Nine was when we read the book as kids. (Or perhaps that's just me.)

In today's half of Chapter 8, the crew will find a ruined village and will acquire a boat for Reepicheep. And just to be really clear, it's the boat that is the important thing there, as far as Lewis and the crew is concerned.

    EVERYONE WAS CHEERFUL AS THE DAWN Treader sailed from Dragon Island. They had fair winds as soon as they were out of the bay and came early next morning to the unknown land which some of them had seen when flying over the mountains while Eustace was still a dragon. It was a low green island inhabited by nothing but rabbits and a few goats, but from the ruins of stone huts, and from blackened places where fires had been, they judged that it had been peopled not long before. There were also some bones and broken weapons.
   “Pirates’ work,” said Caspian.
   “Or the dragon’s,” said Edmund.

And that's all you get.

No, really, that's as far as the crew explores or expostulates on the matter. And I have thoughts on that, but let's finish out this piece. 

   The only other thing they found here was a little skin boat, or coracle, on the sands. It was made of hide stretched over a wicker framework. It was a tiny boat, barely four feet long, and the paddle which still lay in it was in proportion. They thought that either it had been made for a child or else that the people of that country had been Dwarfs. Reepicheep decided to keep it, as it was just the right size for him; so it was taken on board. They called that land Burnt Island, and sailed away before noon.

These four short paragraphs confused me as a child, but I wasn't the sort of child who argued with books, so I just assumed I was stupidly missing something obvious. Now I'm not so charitable.

The text claims that the ruined village had been "peopled not long before", but apparently there are no bodies. I say "apparently" because if there were bodies, then it seems like those bodies would hold a clue on the whole Pirate vs Dragon debate: are the bones nommed on with teeth marks or are they damaged with the sorts of weapons that humans tend to use when they fight. (It's already been established that at least some of the Lone Island pirates used bows and arrows.)

Also: The crew have been on Dragon Isle for six or seven days, so is this "not long before" period prior to that? If the village was attacked while the Dawn Treader was on Dragon Island, this would not only be relevant in the Probably Not A Dragon sense (since Eustace was the only dragon in the area, them being solitary creatures), but would also be highly relevant in the "are we safe" sense. You'd think that Drinian would kinda care about knowing if there's a pirate ship waiting in the waters on the other side of the island ready to shoot fiery arrows into his ship, even if Caspian wouldn't think of it.

Second: HOLY SHIT WAIT WHAT. That is a direct transcript of my adult thoughts on reading that the crew can't figure out if the boat was made for a human child or if the ruined village was a village of dwarfs. Because, um, I would sort of think you could make a rough guess at the average height of the local people based on the sizes of the stone huts and how big the doorways are and what eye level the pictures and/or other decorations were hung at and the size of the broken tools and weapons all over the ground.

Is it lack of imagination that caused this error, such that Lewis didn't bother to imagine the village in his mind's eye for a moment before plunging ahead? Or is it lack of empathy, that he just didn't care whether the villagers were tall or short, nor whether they were killed by dragons or pirates?

And the question sticks with me even more when I realize that this whole sequence feels rushed and out of place; it almost seems like the only reason for this village to exist at all was to insert Reepicheep's boat so that he would have it for the next chapter when he teaches kayaking to the Dufflepuds (and, of course, the boat returns in the final chapter so that Reepicheep can sail up a vertical wall of water). Which, if that really were the only reason to insert that here, means that Lewis felt it was easier to stick an off-screen massacre into his children's book so that the heroes could loot the burnt remains rather than to have the Dawn Treader properly fitted out with a boat-slash-lifeboat which would accommodate the needs of its one non-human member. SURE!

I kinda feel like that's a metaphor for this whole series. Nameless, faceless people die so that the heroes can profit from their deaths. And while you could probably level that accusation at a lot of books, never has it seemed so blatant and repetitive to me as with this blood-thirsty series; if it's not a reign of terror or a genocide it's an island-wide massacre.

On a wider-scale of Empathy Fail, it seems like maybe Lewis didn't realize that "pirates" aren't just things that exist on the ocean, like sea monsters and dragons, but rather are actual people who the heroes have actually encountered. Were the pirates who (possibly) wiped out the people of this village the same pirates operating around the Lone Islands earlier in the book? On the one hand, this island is approximately three weeks out from the Lone Islands and that was farther out than "all the oldest sea captains whom [they] could find in Narrowhaven" had traveled. But on the other hand, there's no indication that Caspian asked the presumably younger pirate captains, which he had recently released from any semblance of legal justice and who probably wouldn't want to hang out in the same tavern with him in case the King With The Pointy Sword changed his capricious mind. And if it were slavers who hit the island, that would actually explain why no bodies are present.

But if anything, that just makes this so much WORSE. Because, (a) could Caspian have prevented this relatively-recent attack if he hadn't let the pirates go in order to seem magnanimous? Worse, did he indirectly cause this incident by making it harder to raid the Lone Islands for slaves to sell to Calormen and therefore indirectly encouraging the pirates to go further out for new merchandise? Could this have been a peaceful community who never heard of slavery until a bunch of recently-driven-out-of-the-Lone-Islands pirates showed up on their doorstep and hauled them all off to Calormen? Because christ, that would be very awful and while Caspian wouldn't be responsible for the pirates' actions, he would be responsible for creating this situation by letting go people who he knew to be armed, dangerous, and perfectly willing and capable to continue pirating and slaving.

And all this comes back to an established problem with Caspian in that he doesn't actually DO things (kingly things!) to protect people until they actually become valuable to him. A few nameless faceless natives who might have been captured or killed by the slavers Caspian didn't effectively try to stop? Wev. He's like a Republican-conservative-dream king who doesn't do jack-shit in his own country (because he left) and instead sort of half-heartedly wars on other people but only when he gets something concretely valuable out of it for him, and not for all the stuff government shouldn't get involved in like Entitling People To Food and Safety From Privileged People With Guns Arrows. WHAT AN AWESOME ARTHURIAN KING, LEWIS!

Then, (b) we see that once again Caspian is shit at facilitating the things he DOES want to do. If this village was hit by pirates, and if that happened before the Lone Island incident (and therefore couldn't have been prevented or caused by Caspian), then that would mean that the pirates did know their way out here and Caspian was wasting his time pouring wine for a bunch of elderly men in taverns rather than actually going and talking to the people who currently own boats and travel in them. Many of us have read adventure stories where the amoral-but-greedy (and probably debonair, depending on the genre) sea captain is willing to answer questions for coin; I refuse to believe that a properly-determined Caspian couldn't have found at least one pirate captain to talk to him about their trip.

And several of you have wonderfully pointed out in the comments that despite going to Galma to have a tournament and visit the Duke's daughter, no one on-board considered asking about the Galmian sailors hired by the Lost Lords (who have vanished just as thoroughly from the novel as the villagers of Burnt Island have). Even if the Galmian sailors were never heard from again, I'd want to talk to their surviving relatives and see if they filed a flight plan or something. ("Oh, yes, my dad was the captain of that ship. He always used to tell me that a true sailor sets his sights on the second star to the left of Aslan's Mane and sails straight on 'till morning.")

Caspian doesn't talk to the families of the lost Galmian sailors for the same reason that he doesn't talk to pirate captains and doesn't bring back souvenirs for the relatives of the dead Lost Lords, and I think it's because they're beneath him. Arthurian Chivalry can allow him to rub elbows with the hoi polloi to a limited degree -- he can, for instance, speak with Elderly Respectable Retired Captains since they have a sort of earned nobility from surviving on the Lady Sea for long enough to grow old -- but he can't talk to younger sailors or surviving relatives or people who haven't earned their Privilege Patches. And the last time someone without a Privilege Patch tried to talk to him, Lord Bern bashed the poor fellow about the head with a hand encased in a gauntlet.

Last time, bekabot pointed out that the world of Narnia feels deeply depopulated at times. I agree wholeheartedly, and I really do believe that background characters -- the characters who have to exist in order for the world-building to be true -- really do stop existing when Lewis doesn't need them. A lot of books invisible their background characters to various degrees (sometimes problematic and sometimes not), but the people of Narnia don't seem to be there-but-hidden; they seem to be not-there-at-all. At no point were we worried in the trip from the Lone Islands to here that pirates might attack the ship, and yet here at Burnt Island they pop briefly back into existence again. And then Reepicheep gets a boat and we never speak of pirates ever again.

But this means that Narnia is built upon a privilege which is almost breath-taking in its totality. For marginalized people to not exist when not wanted is the impossible dream of privilege. Invisibling us is the next best thing, the consolation prize to not being able to summon us from the ether when needed and banish us back to the void when not. Narnia has achieved this, and I suspect in large part because it's a work by a privileged author about a privileged culture with a privileged religious message for privileged children who are intended to grow up to maintain the privileged order. (And woe betide the children who would undermine that order with vegetarianism and feminism and lipstick.)


Post a Comment