Narnia: Painted Princesses

[Narnia Content Note: Genocide, Religious Abuse, Chivalry, Racism, Slavery]
Content Note: Virgin/Whore dichotomy and relevant misogynistic language.]

Title Reference: Previous Twilight post here.

NB: This is a sex-work positive space. The term "whore" is used advisedly here to reference (and deconstruct) an existing trope.

Narnia Recap: In which Lucy goes into the Magician's tower to read a spell.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 10: The Magician's Book

When we last left Lucy, she was reading the Magician's book:

   Then she came to a page which was such a blaze of pictures that one hardly noticed the writing. Hardly—but she did notice the first words. They were, An infallible spell to make beautiful her that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals.

And we're only a couple sentences in and already I have to stop and unpack things.

A really good question about this episode--which, as I pointed out way back at the beginning of things, spans a hugely significant portion of the book--is why it is even here. I definitely think it's safe to say that Lewis obviously had a big bug up his butt about female beauty and female sexuality; there's a reason why vanity is Lucy's Big Sin (despite having never been mentioned or hinted at before now) and why lipsticks and nylons (as opposed to literally anything else that could distract from Christianity) are the stated reason for Susan's pseudo-damnation.

It's also been pointed out here and elsewhere that the sexually attractive women in this series (Jadis / the White Witch + the Green Witch + Susan in THaHB) are the villains and theologically wrong people in these books and that they are punished for their "maddening tinkle of female laughter" (credit Kit Whitfield for that wonderful insight and turn of phrase). Whereas the good women in Narnia are younger, largely unsexualized, and defined in terms of their relationship to men: daughter, mother, wife. Lucy in all her incarnations is written as a boisterously boyish girl, almost as good as a man; Ramandu's Daughter literally has no name or identity beyond daughter to Ramandu, wife to Caspian, and mother to Rilian; Queen Helen is a wife and mother; etc.

Additionally, if you've been following the comments, you may have seen Fynisment's excellent insight that this passage establishes that Lucy may be a "boy-girl", but she will not be a "mannish woman": Lucy will properly crave (though not give in to, because she's a Good Girl) feminine beauty and will properly recoil from the image of her face surrounded by a false beard in the dwarf-faced mirror.

And there's a lot to unpack there, that women in Narnia are expected to want to be beautiful, but not try to be beautiful nor be aware that they are beautiful, because trying to be beautiful is vanity and awareness of beauty is the ultimate sin for a woman. See also Bella in Twilight and Rachel in Friends:

Instead we get this oh-I-didn't-realize-I'm-gorgeous standard trope affair, because the one unpardonable sin in a pretty girl is to somehow know she's pretty [...] So now in order to appease the patriarchy, you have to be both pretty AND worried about being pretty (as evidenced by committing compliments to memory so that you can re-create the pretty later) but through all this you have to nurture an innocent unawareness of your pretty. That's totally not an impossible standard at all, and also Ross Geller sucks.

And, in case you don't want to re-read the Ross post, here is the relevant bit:

Instead, [Ross] participates in the patriarchy and further entrenches Monica and Rachel in their struggles by buying into the idea that women "should" be reaching an impossible ideal: beautiful, but unaware of it; intellectual, but not intimidating; driven, but not selfish. The conglomerate demand, which Ross actively participates in, is that Rachel be beautiful at all time in every way (no chubby ankles!) without being too concerned with her looks. She should be career-driven to be more than "just a waitress", but in no way should she be spoiled or self-entitled or led to believe that she deserves more out of life than, well, a job as a waitress.

That's how pervasive this impossible double-standard is. Be feminine because the kyriarchy is strengthened by oppressive gender roles and be pretty because the patriarchy likes having pretty women to look at, but don't try to be pretty because that exposes the standard that we're holding you to (and plus it's easier to oppress people when they have to navigate their oppression with secrecy) and definitely don't be aware of your prettiness because then you might try to use it to achieve your goals and agency in a woman is the one thing we cannot forgive.

That's why women who know they are pretty are almost invariably portrayed as bitches in fiction, because they can "use" that prettiness (and usage requires awareness) to their advantage. A woman who knows she is pretty is a manipulator of men (heroes and villains alike), an antagonist to the other good women in the book, a sexually loose woman damned to hell, and someone who must be vilified and destroyed over the course of the story.

Lucy and Susan.

Bella and Lauren.

Mina and Lucy Westenra.

Victoria and Emily. (A gentler version in that both the destroyed sexual girl and the good virginal girl are morally "good", but a continuation of the idea that the sexy girl doesn't get the happy ending. And a good example, I think, of how even when this trope isn't "malicious", it still can underscore this idea that sexy girls don't get happy/happiest endings.)

Or just go read the trope page on Virgin/Whore Complex and note how many of the "Whore" tropes are tied into being not just sexual and/or sexually aware, but also evil, mean, bitchy, etc. There's no reason to link "sexually aware woman" with "evil" outside of the patriarchal reasons outlined above. (Certainly we rarely presume that sexually aware male characters in fiction are automatically evil.) 

Anyway, that was a long tangent on why we're here. Let's talk about the text:

   Then she came to a page which was such a blaze of pictures that one hardly noticed the writing. Hardly—but she did notice the first words. They were, An infallible spell to make beautiful her that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals.

*sigh* Where to start with this?

For starters, the spell title clearly has the word "her" in it, presupposing that only a woman would want to read this spell and/or that the spell will only work on a woman (possibly because men can't be "beautiful"). This may be an example of the book adapting to Lucy, except that the other spells she reads (the Eavesdropping Spell, the Story Spell, and the Visibility Spell) don't have "her" in the title. The Story Spell is titled "for the refreshment of the spirit" and not for your spirit or her spirit or Lucy's spirit.

Additionally, none of the other spells show her casting the spell. The toothache spell clearly shows a man: The picture of the man with toothache was so lifelike that it would have set your own teeth aching if you looked at it too long [...] From this we can conjecture that the book doesn't automatically cast every reader into the role of every spell via a $READER variable. The one other spell with personalized pictures is the Eavesdropping Spell, and those pictures only appear after Lucy has invoked the spell, not before.

We might therefore reasonably wonder whether the book is adapting at all (pre-spell-reading, of course), or whether another reader would also see Lucy in the Beauty Spell. If magic is possible, so too is future-seeing, and this spell may have been written entirely with the assumption that only Lucy would ever need it. (Doylistically, that is in fact precisely what has happened.)

Since the spell appears to only hold bad things for the future (wars, ruined relationships, etc.), one might reasonably ask why the spell is here at all: either the spell is a trap for Lucy (laid by Lewis at a Doylist level and/or by Coriakin at a Watsonian level) intended to ensnare and/or instruct Lucy (this and/or is determined by intent and doesn't really matter to me) or the spell is genuinely intended to cause wars, in which case Coriakin is a warmonger in addition to being a slaveowner. He seems peachy keen.

   Lucy peered at the pictures with her face close to the page, and though they had seemed crowded and muddlesome before, she found she could now see them quite clearly. The first was a picture of a girl standing at a reading-desk reading in a huge book. And the girl was dressed exactly like Lucy. In the next picture Lucy (for the girl in the picture was Lucy herself) was standing up with her mouth open and a rather terrible expression on her face, chanting or reciting something. In the third picture the beauty beyond the lot of mortals had come to her. [...] 

I'm going to repeat what I said before:

Lucy will be wrong to try to cast the beauty spell not because it is a wrong action (we will not be allowed to examine the rightness or wrongness of the action) but because she is, right now, in the wrong frame of mind.

And add on that now Lucy also has a "terrible expression" on her face, so obviously casting a beauty spell is wrongity sinful. What more evidence could you need than making an ugly face? (I guess we could draw on an evil mustache.) 

   And now the pictures came crowding on her thick and fast. She saw herself throned on high at a great tournament in Calormen and all the Kings of the world fought because of her beauty. After that it turned from tournaments to real wars, and all Narnia and Archenland, Telmar and Calormen, Galma and Terebinthia, were laid waste with the fury of the kings and dukes and great lords who fought for her favor. Then it changed and Lucy, still beautiful beyond the lot of mortals, was back in England. And Susan (who had always been the beauty of the family) came home from America. The Susan in the picture looked exactly like the real Susan only plainer and with a nasty expression. And Susan was jealous of the dazzling beauty of Lucy, but that didn’t matter a bit because no one cared anything about Susan now.
   “I will say the spell,” said Lucy. “I don’t care. I will.” She said I don’t care because she had a strong feeling that she mustn’t.
   But when she looked back at the opening words of the spell, there in the middle of the writing, where she felt quite sure there had been no picture before, she found the great face of a lion, of The Lion, Aslan himself, staring into hers. It was painted such a bright gold that it seemed to be coming toward her out of the page; and indeed she never was quite sure afterward that it hadn’t really moved a little. At any rate she knew the expression on his face quite well. He was growling and you could see most of his teeth. She became horribly afraid and turned over the page at once.

Oh, for fuck's sake.

You know what would have been slightly less terrible than this? If Aslan had been sad and disappointed in Lucy. Or if Aslan had been sad about Susan being treated poorly by their family now that Lucy was the pretty one, and additionally sad that Susan and Lucy's previously strong relationship together had been ruined. Or maybe if Aslan had been sad about everyone in Narnia getting killed over Lucy's pretty face. (Though that wouldn't be Lucy's fault, and seriously Lewis has fucking missed the point by a mile if he really thought the point of the Helen of Troy story was that pretty women were to blame for all that. NOPE.)

At the very least, a Lucy who becomes "horribly afraid and [turns] over the page at once" because the god she loves is disappointed in her choice or because she herself is scared by the implications of her almost-actions, that might be something worthwhile in terms of personal growth. A moral like "consider the consequences of your actions and whether you can live with the disappointment and pain that you cause others" would maybe not be so bad. But for fuck's sake, she becomes afraid and turns over the page because god is angry and showing his lion-teeth. "Be good or god will eat you" is a really shitty moral philosophy, if only because there's no yardstick by which to determine what is "good" or not except doing each and every thing that pops into Lewis' head.

But, of course, a moral philosophy that denies Lucy agency and makes her an obedient puppet to Lewis'/Aslan's will is a feature, not a bug. A Lucy whose moral philosophy measures her actions against harm caused is a Lucy would would fight to free the Dufflepuds. A Lucy whose moral philosophy cherishes her relationship with her friends and loved ones over the say-so of her god would object to Susan being abandoned in The Last Battle. A Lucy whose moral philosophy requires her to use her judgment and exercise agency is a Lucy that might come up with different answers to the Life Questions than what C.S. Lewis has come up with, and his theology is deliberately crafted to be One Sizes Fits All. A Lucy who doesn't buy into that is a Lucy that the child-reader might dangerously imitate.

Better to tell the children that Aslan will eat you if you're not good and Jesus will burn you if you're not good and Santa will not bring you presents if you're not good. People who remain at a Kohlberg Level 1 Pre-Conventional Moral Stage are easier to control with threats of punishment, after all.

(Note that there are serious objections to Kohlberg's stages, but my point remains.)

...and I lost my train of thought somewhere in there while I was googling how to spell "Kohlberg".

The thing is, the thing is this. This is the thing.

We don't get any real development of why Lucy changed her mind on reading the spell. Nor do we get any real development of why she wanted to read the spell in the first place. There's brief suggestions of selfishness and vanity and jealousy and Younger Sibling Syndrome (i.e., feeling left out of the family) and maybe some sense that Lucy doesn't feel she's developing as fast or as prettily as Susan. But you could just as easily argue that Lucy was ensorcelled in this scene, as much as Edmund and Caspian apparently (BUT MAYBE NOT, WHO KNOWS) were ensorcelled on Goldwater Island to suddenly be greedy-yes-indeedy.

If this book was intended to be thoughtful moral instruction that would actually help people navigate the hard questions in life, therefore, it is a big Epic Fail. (imho, ymmv.) Because without understanding Lucy's motives and without understanding why she chose to do the right thing instead of the wrong thing, we can't really apply her situation and decision to our own lives. All we can really take away from this book is that if we find a magic grimoire with a beauty spell that will make us prettier than anyone else ever, we shouldn't read it. But the jury is still out on literally everything else, including beauty spells that are just supposed to make us decent-looking.

Thoughtful moral instruction would require us to empathize with Lucy, because if we Other her as just another Whore in a Virgin/Whore Dichotomy, then we can't use her example to apply to our lives (because obviously Lessons for Bad People don't apply to us). It would require us to understand why she feels drawn to this spell. Is her family showing favoritism to Susan? Is she feeling like she's in the wrong body after years as an adult in Narnia? Is she starting to be interested in boys at school and feeling insecure about her looks? Is she feeling powerless in her life and seeking the power that beauty (supposedly) will bring her? Is she feeling lonely and in need of companionship and assuming that beauty would bring her a pool of companions to select from?

And then that same understanding would lead us to knowing why she turned away from the spell--as well as why it was the right choice. Trying to fix her family's issues by replacing Susan would solve things for Lucy but would just perpetuate the harm on a new target. Seeking companions by gaining beauty neglects to understand that people drawn to her because she is pretty might not appreciate her other qualities, and might not be suitable life-mates for her. Looking to achieve power via beauty will bring its own set of problems with it (beauty privilege is something of a double-edged sword), and won't convey real power anyway; probably Lucy should seek to attain the empowerment she craves by other means. Etc.

But all that detail would only be valuable in a book that seeks to communicate to people about how to best use their agency. If your preferred religion is one that doesn't confer agency, then those details are so much wasted space--and actually do more harm to your philosophy than good. "Don't be bad because god will eat you" is not a nuanced philosophy, but it's a great one for paralyzing the oppressed with fear. Lucy turns over the page quickly, motivated by sheer terror; she is not acting consciously, nor is she slowly and deliberately deciding that the beauty spell isn't right for her. Later, when she tries to turn the pages back (to read the Story Spell again), she finds that she can't. This is an impulsive, frightened, no-take-backs morality being provided here for Lucy.

And there's another way this vagueness and lack of detail benefits the patriarchy (and Lewis). If people complain about Lucy and the Beauty Spell, there's always the fallback that the problem wasn't beauty, it was wanting to hurt Susan or wanting to start wars. Or that it wasn't even really Lucy; the spell was a trap and she was ensorcelled. (How silly of you feminists to read a Beauty Spell episode as being about wanting beauty. Perhaps you should all learn textual analysis instead of watching Fullmetal Alchemist all day.)

And the whole Susan thing wasn't really about Lipsticks and Nylons, it was about valuing temporal things more than godly ones. Or about rejecting your inner self (tomboyish and arrow-shootin') to embrace social gender roles. Or it was about playing grown up and being artificial rather than embracing your own age and self and form and face, which isn't (you silly feminists!) a Moral Lesson which demonizes makeup, but rather a Moral Lesson that demonizes the chemical alteration of your god-given face in order to attain arbitrary adherence to social beauty norms. (Or, in other words, it's about demonizing makeup but in fancier words.)

The reality is that a lot of little girls are going to read these books and come away with the understanding that wanting beauty is wrong and wearing lipstick and nylons will divide you from god. It's possible, possible, that Lewis meant these issues (written, I will remind you, for small children) to be taken at a deeper value than that, but then again he didn't bother to explore or develop them further. And if we respond to the words on the page (beauty + lipsticks), we're wrong because there's a deeper meaning handy to be mansplained to us. And if we respond to deeper meanings (obey god or be eaten), we're still wrong because we picked the wrong deeper meaning. But fortunately there's a man over here willing to 'splain it to us.

Fundamentally, you can't have it both ways. You can't have a Redeemed Virgin and a Damned Whore, you can't have them meet all the virgin/whore checklist criteria where Lucy wears boyish clothes and resists pursuing beauty and is manly without being mannish and has the bestest relationship with male authorial stand-ins (*cough* Aslan Coriakin Edward Van Helsing *cough) and Susan wears dresses and makeup and runs after highly-sexed swarthy foreign men and is too lady-like to fight in wars and has the worstest relationship with god to the point where she doesn't even see him half the time, and basically hit ALL THE VIRGIN/WHORE NOTES, and then insist that, no really, it's way more nuanced than that and totally not slut-shaming, it's just that all the nuancy bits have to be imagined by the reader because, uhm, Lewis' writing hand got tired.

If your writing hand is too tired to fix your slut-shaming and slavery-upholding and privilege-worshiping bits, then you need to write less so that you can edit more. The end.


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