Content Note: Nightmares]
Narnia Recap: The ship travels to the island where dreams come true.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 12: The Dark Island
Today's chapter is a short one, and I feel bad about dragging the Dufflepuds out for so long (though not near so badly as I felt at Lewis for making the episode so long to begin with) as well as generally just writing less often because of pain issues, so let's see if we can get through a whole chapter in one post.
AFTER THIS ADVENTURE THEY SAILED on south and a little east for twelve days with a gentle wind, the skies being mostly clear and the air warm, and saw no bird or fish, except that once there were whales spouting a long way to starboard. Lucy and Reepicheep played a good deal of chess at this time. Then on the thirteenth day, Edmund, from the fighting-top, sighted what looked like a great dark mountain rising out of the sea on their port bow.
Oooh, couldn't get past the first paragraph without stopping.
So, I've talked about this before, but it seems really dreadfully awful in retrospect how little Lucy (and maybe the two boys) have to do on this voyage. I know for a fact I edited all this out as a child and replaced it with swabbing the decks and hoisting the mainsail and cutting the gib and walking the plank and clambering around the rigging, because Peter Pan was my favorite book in the whole world and things like Treasure Island were part of my surrounding cultural consciousness.
And so one thing I knew, deep down in my bones, was that ship voyages were hard work, but fun work because it was different than picking up your toys because this stuff was important and also people were treated like adults, and the work was worth it because you ate big wonderful meals at night (with the sea air making everything taste more) and you slept in hammocks that swayed gently to the motion of the water. You worked hard and you feasted your senses and you fell into a deep sleep every night, proud of the work you'd accomplished. It was a stupid, poorly-informed, harmful romanticization of a difficult and frequently deadly job (see also: farming fantasies), but I was a little kid who didn't know any better.
Now, Lewis gets a lot of pass from some folks on his racism because he employs the stereotypes that white people like to invoke, stereotypes which exotify and Other "fictional" lands and people which just-happen-to-have an analog to real places and real people in our world. But the excuse given is that he's just a really romantic writer and all this harmful exotification gets a pass because it's fun and interesting for the (white) reader and is all about sucking the (white) reader in. Only here we see, time and again, that Lewis can't (or won't) romanticize for shit when he doesn't have a foreign culture to work with or when it would mean compromising his belief that King Arthur Archetypes shouldn't sully their hands like fucking commoners.
Because it would be extremely easy--and I'm certain vastly preferable to many of his target audience--to explicitly give the children something interesting to do on this voyage that has taken weeks, if not months, of their lives. Instead he had Lucy feed the chickens once before they washed overboard and now she does nothing but play chess. Almost every chapter feels like it opens with her playing chess. It's like the voyage of the damned souls destined for purgatory up in here. And while technically the boys could be busy-by-omission-of-detail, the fact that Eustace and Edmund are generally shown slouching about when things happen seems to indicate that they're not taking a turn at the oars or peeling potatoes in the gallery.
I understand why none of this would have been appealing to Lewis; he was a grown man who probably fully understood that life on a ship is no picnic for anyone, let alone for small children. But that's kind of my point: we can't give him an authorial pass for exotifying things he doesn't give a shit about (foreign countries, people of color, etc.) under the auspices of "oh, that's just how he writes; Narnia is a fantasical fantasy" and then not point out all the times and all the things that he conspicuously chooses not to romanticize.
Once again: Racism/Sexism/etc. are not merely measured in terms of proactive actions; they can also be measured in terms of who and what aren't subjected to the same rules. Jadis is evil, but Coriakin is not; life in a foreign country is exotic and weird, but life on a ship is not. It is within our ability as mindful readers to notice when the rules are different, and ask why the exception was made.
Anyway. They head for the dark mountain thing because it's not like they're on any kind of schedule dictated by availability of food and water and because everyone knows that black voids in the center of the ocean are great things to approach.
They altered course and made for this land, mostly by oar, for the wind would not serve them to sail northeast. When evening fell they were still a long way from it and rowed all night. Next morning the weather was fair but a flat calm. The dark mass lay ahead, much nearer and larger, but still very dim, so that some thought it was still a long way off and others thought they were running into a mist.
About nine that morning, very suddenly, it was so close that they could see that it was not land at all, nor even, in an ordinary sense, a mist. It was a Darkness. [...] For a few feet in front of their bows they could see the swell of the bright greenish-blue water. Beyond that, they could see the water looking pale and gray as it would look late in the evening. But beyond that again, utter blackness as if they had come to the edge of moonless and starless night.
So, best I can tell, it basically looks like one of those pond globes that lights up, only instead of being light it's an absence of light. Definitely something you wanna sail into.
Caspian shouted to the boatswain to keep her back, and all except the rowers rushed forward and gazed from the bows. But there was nothing to be seen by gazing. Behind them was the sea and the sun, before them the Darkness.
“Do we go into this?” asked Caspian at length.
“Not by my advice,” said Drinian.
“The Captain’s right,” said several sailors.
“I almost think he is,” said Edmund.
Lucy and Eustace didn’t speak but they felt very glad inside at the turn things seemed to be taking. But all at once the clear voice of Reepicheep broke in upon the silence.
“And why not?” he said. “Will someone explain to me why not.”
Well, hey, I'll give it a try.
One, we can't see where we're going and have no means of creating artificial light short of using torches which is generally not something you want to rely on when your entire ship is flammable. Without the benefit of sight, it's pretty likely that eventually the ship will sail into something that will tear its pretty hull and then the ship will sink and everyone will die (immediately or soon thereafter).
Two, we have a finite amount of supplies on this voyage and we're on a journey into the complete unknown. Take the supplies we have when we set out from an island, cut those in half, and that's as far as we can travel before we have to either give up and turn back or keep going and face starvation. We are literally sailing against a clock and every moment spent (a) not moving forward and (b) not finding good food and water is a wasted moment.
Three, we actually have a sacred vow to be working on. This isn't a pleasure cruise with scheduled stop-offs to buy souvenirs at the local gift shop. If you wanted one of those, you should have brought your own ship and crew rather than mooching off of the guy with the solemn vow, i.e., an actual job he's supposed to be doing (however admittedly bad he is at it).
Four, we are actually supposed to be trying to get that guy there and back again safely, given that we're one unfortunate death away from plunging Narnian in chaotic civil war all over again. Caspian does not have a blood-heir picked out, which means the only options are a Narnian who the Telmarines may hate or a Telmarine who the Narnians may hate. As foolish as it was for Caspian to go on this voyage, nevertheless his companions should be moving hell and high water to keep him as safe as possible.
Five, the fact that Lion Jesus apparently would like us to stay alive is not an invitation to start engaging in ridiculously foolish behavior just to test his patience. We just came from an island where the guy appointed by Lion Jesus mutilated the entire population because of how they watered the garden; it's maybe not a good idea to test actual Lion Jesus with even more tediously foolish decisions than anything the Dufflepuds could ever dream of.
No one was anxious to explain, so Reepicheep continued:
“If I were addressing peasants or slaves,” he said, “I might suppose that this suggestion proceeded from cowardice. But I hope it will never be told in Narnia that a company of noble and royal persons in the flower of their age turned tail because they were afraid of the dark.”
“But what manner of use would it be plowing through that blackness?” asked Drinian.
“Use?” replied Reepicheep. “Use, Captain? If by use you mean filling our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be no use at all. So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honor and adventure. And here is as great an adventure as ever I heard of, and here, if we turn back, no little impeachment of all our honors.”
I hate Reepicheep so much in this chapter, I really do.
I mean, I realize that Lewis basically felt like characterization was for losers, and so 90% of the time Reepicheep is totally different and I like him fine. He's great in the movie; a much needed breath of fresh air, particularly when you consider that he's one of the very few members of the main cast who isn't tucked into bed under privilege-blankets every night. And I like him when, for example, he's patiently asking his god to please heal him while his god is pointing and chortling at him because disabled people are so vain amiright. That Reepicheep I just wanna give all the hugs and tell him it'll be alright and the nasty lion won't get him because I won't let him.
But this Reepicheep is a douchebag.
For one: Reepicheep has just finished being the one polite person in the party to actual peasants and slaves, and didn't seem to feel the need to be a classist asshole who believed them to be cowards by virtue of their lot in life. Hell, Reepicheep has been a slave in this very book, and it's hard to imagine he wasn't a peasant (in at least the economical sense) when the Telmarines were running things. Arguably, Reepicheep might be the least noble / least royal person on this boat, depending on whether the crew was recruited from Telmarine low-ranking nobles and second sons. (Given that the popular new king has invented ship-sailing from scratch, it's entirely possible that the nobles would jump on the bandwagon.)
So this whole classist tirade isn't consistent with Reepicheep's implicit characterization (i.e., the backstory that needs to exist for him in order for the world-building to work), and yet Lewis felt that it aligned with his explicit characterization of being Chivalrous. Though in that much at least--IF Chivalrous, THEN Asshole--it does feels right because chivalrous people are generally classist asshats because the entire system of chivalry is based on classist asshattery. So that much rings true, but it means we have this constant and unpleasant tension with Reepicheep in that we never know if he's going to be polite to slaves or go off on classist tirades about how they're all inferior cowards.
For two: The "because it's there" mentality is value-neutral at best; linking it with "honor" and therefore with a concept of morality, is a major issue that we find with privileged people who want to redefine morality to be more convenient to themselves.
To be clear, "because it's there" isn't necessarily a bad reason to do things for yourself, as long as harm isn't being done. Climb Mount Everest as much as you want, as long as you do it in a manner that lessens adverse impact to the mountain you're climbing and the people you're taking with you--if that's what gets you up in the morning, go with god, but it needs to be understood that undertaking an endeavor merely "because it's there" is a personal preference, and not a moral mandate.
Reepicheep is advocating that if they choose not to go into this dangerous situation that they have no reason to go in to and every reason to avoid, then their collective "honor" will be besmirched. No. NO. NO. My god, this book. NONE OF YOU HAVE ANY HONOR. The fact that ironic lightning didn't strike Reepicheep the moment he said those words is almost startling to me; it is completely inappropriate (and completely telling of Lewis' values) for Reepicheep to be invoking the concept at this stage and over this endeavor, out of all the many things he could have (but didn't) apply it to.
Honor would have been actually making an effort to ensure that the Lone Islands didn't devolve into rule-by-piracy or civil war or a war with Calormen the day after Caspian et. al. cheerily sailed off. Honor would have been ensuring that the slavers were properly punished (rather than pardoned) and that the profits they gained were put to use trying to get the slaves back to their families. Honor would have been stating up-front that leaving Eustace The Dragon behind was not and never would be an option under any circumstances.
Honor would have been making an effort to find out what happened to the villagers of the Burnt Village, and freeing them if they'd been captured by slavers. Honor would have been burying the bodies and putting up a memorial and actually giving a shit about what happened to them beside hey free boat! Honor would have been demanding that Coriakin return the Dufflepuds to the form they personally desired, rather than laughing at them and treating them like inferiors.
Honor would have been treating Eustace better than he deserved, not because he was related to the King and Queen but because he was a confused, frightened, sick little boy with nowhere to go and no way to understand. Honor would have been taking real, actual care to keep Caspian alive and safe, not because he's worth a hill of beans but because the lives of thousands of Narnians depend on his safety.
Honor is not whether or not everyone decides to suicidally plunge into a ball of floating dark void, and especially not when there are little children on-board and a king whose safety will prevent an otherwise-very-likely civil war, and especially-especially when there is no damn reason to sail into this thing.
But, you know? All of those things up there that I associate with honor actually require the doer to not only be aware of the kyriarchy and of their kyriarchially-dispensed privilege, but also to be willing to actively subvert and work against it. It's frankly more convenient to treat Eustace poorly, to not bother trying to recover lost slaves, to not bother trying to free existing slaves, to literally sail past every obstacle and hardship plaguing other people (because god and the kyriarchy are on your side!) and never give even the slightest thought to stopping to help. You're busy. You've got things to do. You would save the slaves, but you've got dead Lost Lords to find and collect for your Lost Lord Pokemon Collection.
Real honor, the kind of honor that actually helps people who need help, isn't fun or glamorous or quick or easy. It takes time and effort and hard work and half the time it doesn't turn out quite like you'd have ideally hoped and that can be discouraging. So "honor" gets conveniently redefined into meaninglessness by the people who have the privilege to define it. "Honor" becomes neglecting the people who need your help so that you can find the holy grail, or the Lost Lords, or so you can pootle about in a void of darkness in order to come out later and crow about how fucking badass you are. HEY GUYS, the sailors will get to brag about back home over a beer, I WENT TO A SHADOW ISLAND. And no one will ever point out that they had at least four separate chances over the course of this voyage to free some slaves, and each time they chose not to even try.
Reepicheep doesn't have honor. He shouldn't even be allowed to utter the word. But even if he did have honor or something like it, he wouldn't have one iota left after bullying the expedition leader into making a decision to override the consent of every other person on board in order to do something that could very likely get all of them killed and bring chaos and war to Narnia for another thousand years of suffering and for no better reason than because the island was there and Reepicheep wanted to see it on principle.
(Hey, look at that, we didn't get through the chapter after all. Maybe next time!)