Narnia: Either English or Empty

[Narnia Content Note: Genocide, Religious Abuse, Chivalry, Racism, Slavery]
Extra Content Note: Missionaries, Hell, Colonialist narratives about One True Religion]

Narnia Recap: The ship travels to an island where they find enchanted sleepers.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 13: The Three Sleepers

So I checked this morning and our first Dawn Treader post was in November 2012. That means we've been on VoDT for a good year and a half by my calculations. I'm actually kind of surprised by that number. I was going to say that it simultaneously feels like we've been on this book for forever and yet not long at all, but the numbers would seem to lean more towards the forever spectrum, ha. (Although I guess if we've been doing Twilight for four years now, it's a question of perspective!)

I mention all this to point out that we're getting very near to the end of this book: we have four more chapters to go, but to a certain extent they seem a little rushed, a little vacant, and a little like Lewis was either in a hurry to finish or wasn't quite sure how to tie everything up. Case in point: We're going to find the last three lords all dumped together on the same island as opposed to evenly spaced out like before.

THE WIND NEVER FAILED BUT IT GREW gentler every day till at length the waves were little more than ripples, and the ship glided on hour after hour almost as if they were sailing on a lake. 

I don't pretend to understand how the wind can be strong enough to fill the sails of a sea-faring boat--which I would have thought would be, by definition, bigger and needier than the sails of a lake ship---and yet not strong enough to create surface waves, but maybe this is a thing. 

And every night they saw that there rose in the east new constellations which no one had ever seen in Narnia and perhaps, as Lucy thought with a mixture of joy and fear, no living eye had seen at all. Those new stars were big and bright and the nights were warm. 

Narnia isn't a round world like Earth--it's canonically flat--so I'm not really sure how this works since it's not like the new stars are coming to them via the usual earthly method of sailing south into a new hemisphere. I guess the sky is also flat and therefore constellations that couldn't be seen in Narnia (the country) can now be seen from the ship?

Only this raises, like, ALL THE QUESTIONS about how stars work in this universe, let alone the moon and the sun, and I'm not even sure how to grapple with it. Apparently Narnians can see the sun and moon on both horizons, so are we meant to take that to mean that the sun and moon are bright enough to overcome the extreme distance, but the star light is not sufficiently bright? Or is starlight blocked by some kind of parallax problem? But if it were parallax or positioning, wouldn't that affect sun/moon visibility during their cycles since presumably their path across the sky would include areas where the positioning would prevent their being seen clearly? (Even if the sunlight still bled through somehow, is it possible that the sun itself might be obscured from sight at times during the day?) I'm not enough of a flat-earth astronomer to know the answers to these things.

Obviously, this doesn't really matter: Narnia is clearly setup to not obey physical laws. Complaining that the stars in Narnia don't make sense is like complaining about Peter Pan being able to fly. Except but hang on. My problem here isn't so much the physics: Peter Pan can fly and Narnia can have impossible geography and astronomy. But the physics leads me up to a larger point.

Here is a picture of Neverland (which is available for purchase on Etsy and I envy whoever snags it because pretty!!), which I include here for contrast to Narnia and which I will note was conceived by J.M. Barrie some 40 or so years before Lewis wrote about Narnia:

imaginactory on Etsy

Neverland is an island. A small island--in Chapter 5, when the boys are hunting Peter and the pirates are hunting the boys and the Indians are hunting the pirates and the animals are hunting the Indians, it is outright stated that the hunting circle is going "round and round the island" in the course of a single evening--but an island which is teeming with life. Off the top of my head, there are Peter and the Lost Boys and the Darling children and the pirates (enough so that random killings don't cause much impact to their number) and the Indians (who form and maintain family groups so, again, more than just a dozen people) and the wild beasts and the mermaids and the fairies and probably quite a few other entities I'm missing. Now contrast that with this map of the Dawn Treader's voyage:

This is not a canonical map of the voyage; the canonical map which came with the book has even less detail:

Both the fan-map and the canonical-map seem equally strange to me since the text would seem to indicate that the ship is sailing in a straight line due east. There are repeated references to "the sunset behind them" and the rising sun before them getting bigger until they're almost literally sailing into the sun as well as references to "lands behind the sun". They ask Coriakin about "lands further east" and the text talks about their "eastward voyage" and looking into "the eastern horizon" and Eustace's diary is about sailing east and Reepicheep is looking for "utter East" and east-east-east-east-east peppers this book.

Yet these maps would seem to indicate that the ship is sailing in a south-easterly direction. And now that I check, the book confirms this with several references to sailing "south and a little east" and southeastern winds. This isn't just map-failure or a need to stick everything on a smaller chart or the way that maps of round planets (which Narnia is not) need to be bendy in order to work. They really are sailing south and east. It might be accurate to say they are sailing south more than they are sailing east.

Why are they sailing south when they want to go due east? Obviously, south is where the islands are in relation to them, but they don't know that. They're sailing into literally uncharted waters, and it seems to me that if you're sailing into the unknown and can literally pick a direction at random, "due east" might be both easier to chart and easier to come back from. Forget navigating by the stars; you can just sail directly into the sun. Which is, coincidentally, exactly what they plan to do and precisely what they end up doing. Somehow. 

But setting that aside for a moment, the reason I wanted to show these maps is to show how utterly desolate they are. Dragon Island was apparently empty of all life, minus one dying dragon. Burnt Island was apparently empty of all life, minus one ravaged village. Deathwater Island was apparently empty of all life, minus a magically-preserved person of dubious aliveness. Dufflepud Island was apparently serving as a prison for a Star, with an apparently smallish staff of native slaves. Dark Island was apparently empty of all life, minus Rhoop. Ramandu's Island will have three Lost Lords, another Star, and the Star's daughter. The final island, where they meet Lamb-Aslan, will apparently be empty of all life.

Over the course of this adventure novel, we've been to dozens of fantastical places and seen wondrous sights, but the whole world has felt incredibly empty. On none of the previously-unknown islands have we found a local populace that is thriving and self-sufficient without intervention of the heroes. On most of the islands, they have been entirely empty of life, minus the occasional not-native (either Lost Lords and/or exiled Stars). In the Narnia 'verse, it would seem a plausible theory that god created the important-to-him, central-of-the-universe country first (Narnia) and then everything that spread out from that, geographically speaking, was left as unimportant, unpeopled, and largely waiting for the Important Folks to travel out and seize it.

It's important, I think, to underscore that this self-centered view of the universe is very common in certain strains of Christianity. I wasn't raised believing that the earth is flat or that it is the center of the universe (though those folks do exist in the fringes of Christianity!), but I was raised to understand that America was a Christian Nation (as was Most Of Europe) (and therefore especially important to god) and that Other Places where Christianity wasn't as big of a thing needed us to travel there in order to save them. The missionaries we were encouraged to support with our tithes may have been bringing clothing and education and medicine with them to needy communities*, but those things were definitely viewed as secondary to their Main Purpose, which was to bring people the news about Jesus and save them from Hell.

* Please note that I am neither endorsing nor condemning non-religious missionary work, nor do I mean to characterize it as harmless in comparison to religious missionary work. I recognize that "white saviors" can cause more harm than good.

And, of course, the idea that the entire world exists for Christians to spread out and conquer and subdue it is not a new idea either. And that same idea has often been sanitized by removing the "conquest" portion and pretending that the lands taken by Christian people were just magically empty before they showed up to "discover" and subdue it--this sanitation is done by invisibling both the existence of native people and their accomplishments in making the land their own first. In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen notes:

Words are important—they can influence, and in some cases rationalize, policy. In 1823 Chief Justice John Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that Cherokees had certain rights to their land in Georgia by dint of their “occupancy” but that whites had superior rights owing to their “discovery.” How American Indians managed to occupy Georgia without having previously discovered it Marshall neglected to explain.

[emphasis mine]

Peter Pan isn't intended to be a work of religious instruction for young people, nor is it seeking to impart religious truths to the audience. Therefore that book can have vibrant non-English, non-Christian communities (however harmfully stereotyped those communities may have be, since I'm not going to pretend that a book written by a white man in 1902 didn't have racial issues in it!) without it becoming some kind of theological problem about their souls or about Peter Pan's supposed god-given right as an English Christian to take and use their land however he wants. The native people in Peter Pan are sometimes allies, sometimes enemies, and most of the time characterized as their own people with their own shit to deal with and whose lives don't revolve around the protagonist.

In contrast, Narnia provides us with a world where the white English Christian man (Peter, followed by his successor Caspian) explores the world literally from its spiritual center (the lamppost in Narnia) out to the farthest reaches where the world ends and Heaven begins, and literally everything he finds is either:

1. Already his. (Narnia and the Lone Islands)
2. Empty and therefore now his. (Dragon Island, Burnt Island, Deathwater Island)
3. Owned by someone equally English and Christian. (Coriakin, Ramandu, Aslan)

The very, very few "native" people they encounter all unilaterally need his help to sort their shit out and are additionally coded as being lesser-than and often very weak or foolish. The Talking Animals of the first and second book, who fatally hesitate over sewing machines and bicker over meeting protocols. The people of the Lone Islands who are easily manipulated into embracing him as a new ruler, coming out to support the parade merely because his lords are pretty and their armor is shiny. The Dufflepuds who ask him to undo their own 'silly' error and embrace their new nature just as soon as it turns out to have its own conveniences.

The one exception to the "needs help from English folks" rule of native people in this book would appear to be the populace of Burnt Island, who needed help, past tense. They aren't characterized as silly--indeed, they aren't characterized at all; the text doesn't even note the size of their houses or if their bodies were left behind--but they can easily be read by the reader as vulnerable, under-defended, and not worth worrying over any further. They're gone and Caspian gets a free island and Reepicheep gets a free boat.

That Voyage of the Dawn Treader feels empty can be seen as a literary feature or a bug, depending on the reader. Some people will find these worlds less compelling because they are so empty; others will find the heightened creepiness and loneliness a valuable addition in a book which is very much about sailing away from the safe-and-known and sailing towards the unknown-and-deadly. For myself, as a child, the emptiness mostly worked because of the creepiness although I did spend a lot of time deeply confused about all the many, many sailors that should be with the Lost Lords yet somehow never were. (More on that later. Probably.)

But now that I'm older, and have taken several steps back from the Christianity of my youth and the racist narratives that I was taught about both the mandate of missionary work and the divine right to settle and conquer other lands, I think that the morality of VoDT is impacted very badly by the emptiness of its seascape. If Lewis had included native people who were real characters (and not silly caricatures), he would have had to grapple with either (a) non-Christian communities as a real thing or (b) Christian communities who are just as valid as, yet fundamentally different from, the English Christianity he was so comfortable with.

Narnia is supposed to be about an alternate world from our own, but in a universe that we share. And because God so loved all the worlds, he gave his only begotten son several times over: Jesus for us, and Aslan for the Narnians (well, mostly Edmund. But anyway.). Lewis can easily imagine a fantastical world where all the folks are Christian via a different incarnation of Jesus, because realistically that sort of thing is easy theology.

What is significantly harder theology is to imagine a community of people who aren't Christians as we know them, but who are still in communion with God via non-Jesus/non-Aslan means. And what is harder still is to imagine that there are a community of people who don't commune with the Christian God at all (no, not even a little) but still aren't going to hell because that's not your call to make. See also everything that Fred Clark has said about the sheep-n-goats parable:

The remarkable, but little remarked on, aspect of this story is that Jesus suggests two and only two categories of people. The first type, the sheep, do his will, but have no idea who he is. The goats, by contrast, know who Jesus is and claim to follow him, but they do not do his will.

Lewis will try to weasel around the Missionary Problem (i.e., my term for the problem of believing that some people will go to hell despite having never heard of Jesus and/or being raised in cultures where there were major barriers to becoming a Christian) but his solution is a cop-out: he declares a token Calormen heathen One Of Us, rather than seriously considering the possibility that being One Of Us may not be the prerequisite for heaven that he thinks it should be. (More on this later, when we get to Last Battle, and on why this solution to the Missionary Problem is deeply condescending and colonialist and not the empathic racism-free solution some Christian people like to claim it is.)

I need to wrap this up for now, but I'll end with this.

Part of making a novel which isn't, for example, saturated in sexism is making sure that readers understand that your novel has women in it, living their lives out as people, even if they're not on the page at all times. There are plenty of books and movies which don't pass Bechdel for various reasons, yet still manage to convey that women exist in the background and that those women are people. Conversely, there are plenty of books and movies which technically pass Bechdel, but which treat women like they are a staggeringly small minority of the population, or like they go into cryostasis when not on-page, or like they are walking stereotypes who spend all their time at the walking-stereotype store.

Similarly, part of making a novel which isn't racist isn't just the inclusion of a multi-racial cast of protagonists. Though this is a good thing to do as much as possible, it's not the only thing to be considering. There's also whether or not your world has other races (and other cultures and other religions and other community groups and other classes and so on and so forth for various intersections) in the background, existing apart from their relationship to the protagonist.

Even in cases where the author never writes with these groups directly in mind, the world should be built in such a way that we understand it is possible and indeed probable that these groups exist. We may never see, for example, District 10** in The Hunger Games, but we recognize that they are there, that they have lives apart from Katniss Everdeen, and that they are not intrinsically inferior to her by virtue of not sharing her intersectional privileges and oppressions exactly.

** Or, if we do see District 10, pick another district to insert here. My memory is foggy on which ones we visit over the course of the series.

Narnia, and particularly the lands across its sea as seen in this book, doesn't seem to have that. There are huge, vast swaths of emptiness. And even that might be okay except that when we do meet people, they are intentionally painted as caricatures to be rescued or subdued (or, really, both) by the intrinsically superior main characters. The novel becomes not just overtly racist by virtue of a white Christian man running around taking over the Lone Islands and oppressing the Dufflepuds, but also implicitly racist by creating a world where no other race is off doing their own thing and thriving and surviving and whatnot without interaction with Christian men and intervention by Christian gods. Narnia is supposed to be a picture of an Unfallen World, and yet it is a picture which is overwhelmingly white and European.

That's kind of a problem.

Narnia is so Euro-centric that it cannot and will not show us a community which is not either (a) English or (b) owned by English people, and I believe that is because its author felt that a thriving non-English community would undermine his own theologies about Christianity being the One True Way. And when Narnia does show us a non-English community later in the series, it won't be pretty.


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