Narnia: Good People, Harmful Actions

[Narnia Content Note: Genocide, Religious Abuse, Chivalry, Racism, Slavery]
Extra Content Note: Nightmares, PTSD, Marginalization by Allies]

Narnia Recap: The ship travels to the island where dreams come true.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 12: The Dark Island

When we last left our heroes [sic], Reepicheep was brow-beating Caspian by asserting that if they don't explore the dangerous-n'-scary void of light sitting smack dab in the center of the ocean, then they'll be Without Honor and no better than peasants, etc.

   Several of the sailors said things under their breath that sounded like “Honor be blowed,” but Caspian said:
   “Oh, bother you, Reepicheep. I almost wish we’d left you at home. All right! If you put it that way, I suppose we shall have to go on. Unless Lucy would rather not?”
   Lucy felt that she would very much rather not, but what she said out loud was, “I’m game.”

And here's some more of chivalry being patriarchal and tricksy.

Arguably, if the people on this boat actually cared about the safety of the Women And Children (of which Lucy is ostensibly the only representative, unless we assign Eustace and/or Edmund to the Children Category, which I'm okay with but Lewis probably wouldn't be), they wouldn't require Lucy to speak up in her defense in a situation clearly fraught with social consequences. Her closest friend, Reepicheep, and the King of Narnia, Caspian, have already made up their minds to go, so Lucy would be actively thwarting their orders--this is dangerous and socially difficult to do even when Caspian is acting reluctant. This is the social equivalent of The Boss laughing along with a sexist joke and then showing token reluctance and putting the Token Woman on the spot by asking if she minds.

And (quod erat demonstrandum, quid pro quo, e pluribus unum) it's explicitly stated here that Lucy doesn't say what she wants to say, but rather what she feels pressured to say. And I can guaran-fucking-tee that Reepicheep will go to bed tonight secure in the knowledge that he's the most honorable chivalric knight ever to swing a sword because he gave the lady a chance to back out, and it won't bother him one iota that he didn't put her wants or needs proactively first, nor did he make it a priority to create an environment where she could assert her needs safely without fear of social reprisal, disapproval, shunning, loss of friendship, etc. Because chivalry as a system (and many, many of the men who subscribe to it) don't actually care about the needs of women, except in rare cases where those needs might be convenient to leverage.

   So the three lanterns, at the stern, and the prow and the masthead, were all lit, and Drinian ordered two torches amidships. Pale and feeble they looked in the sunshine. Then all the men except some who were left below at the oars were ordered on deck and fully armed and posted in their battle stations with swords drawn. Lucy and two archers were posted on the fighting-top with bows bent and arrows on the string. Rynelf was in the bows with his line ready to take soundings. Reepicheep, Edmund, Eustace and Caspian, glittering in mail, were with him. Drinian took the tiller.
   “And now, in Aslan’s name, forward!” cried Caspian. “A slow, steady stroke. And let every man be silent and keep his ears open for orders.”

Beyond all the rest of the ridiculousness of this chapter, what precisely are they supposed to do in here? Row until they come out the other side? Hope they don't crash into a reef or island or rock or iceberg or whatever else might be in here? This episode makes no sense on a number of levels, but fundamentally it breaks immersion into the story since it's patently clear that everything that has happened so far in this chapter is an excuse manufactured by the author. "We must go in Because Honor!!" Why? To do what? What, precisely, is the exit criteria for this manufactured adventure? There isn't any, which underscores that this is just the author putting everyone on the rails in order to run into Rhoop.

   [...] Apart from that, the fighting-top, lit by the masthead light which was only just above her, seemed to be a little lighted world of its own floating in lonely darkness. And the lights themselves, as always happens with lights when you have to have them at the wrong time of day, looked lurid and unnatural. She also noticed that she was very cold.
   How long this voyage into the darkness lasted, nobody knew. Except for the creak of the rowlocks and the splash of the oars there was nothing to show that they were moving at all. Edmund, peering from the bows, could see nothing except the reflection of the lantern in the water before him. It looked a greasy sort of reflection, and the ripple made by their advancing prow appeared to be heavy, small, and lifeless. As time went on everyone except the rowers began to shiver with cold.

I want to note here that Reepicheep doesn't help row the boat.

He can't, of course, because of his size and because the boat wasn't built to accommodate people his size. But it's still worth noting that when Reepicheep doles out work with his chivalric mandates, it's not him who does the work. He can't row. He can't make the difference in a fight (except when he calls out strategy, as with the sea monster). He doesn't help navigate. The only thing Reepicheep does on the ship is play chess with Lucy and play at being a warrior in situations where what battles they do get into aren't ones that play to his strengths and advantages. Warrior Mice shine in land battles on long grass where they can cut down opponents at the foot and ankle; they do not excel at all in ship battles where projectiles make the most difference and sword fights on the decking lack any cover from which to strike.

That's okay in the sense that not everyone excels in every situation. But it also means that when Reepicheep is demanding that everyone on board better row into that dark, cold void over there because are they chicken buk-buk-baKAA, he's signing other people up for being cold and tired and miserable and dehydrated and sore muscles and dead in battle and whatever else may happen to them in there. More than anyone else on board, as long as the ship doesn't go down, Reepicheep will go to bed tonight warm and well-rested and pretty-much perfectly pampered.

This is why, by the by, the Reepicheep from earlier in the book kept company with the lookout at the front of the ship, and why he stayed up long nights with Eustace the dragon, and why he guarded the water when they were on water rations. That Reepicheep understood that, through no fault of his own and for reasons involving the ways humans build their ships and divide their work, there wasn't much added value work that he had been assigned to do aboard the Dawn Treader. And so that Reepicheep took it upon himself to proactively rectify that situation and find work that he could do that would add value. He could keep the sailors company and comfort Eustace and guard the water.

But this Reepicheep seems to have forgotten that mentality of trying to help ease the burdens on others by contributing to the cause and instead feels totally okay in handing out imperious demands. Those cowardly peasants down in the galley (assuming they are not noble, which frankly we just don't know) can row until their arms ache and can shiver when their sweat hits the cold air, and Reepicheep will stand at rest in his warm coat on the deck and bask in his honor.

I note this for two reasons. One, it's a miracle that Reepicheep isn't quietly tossed over board after this (especially considering Telmarine attitudes towards Talking Animals in general), and really underscores that everyone on this ship is pretty damn decent even though Lewis never mentions the sailors except to make them grumbly or stupid or cowardly or recalcitrant. (More on that later.)

And two, this is a perfect example of how privilege-point-of-view in books can obscure the marginalized people doing the actual work in the background. Our heroes in this book don't do the rowing or empty the chamber pots or peel the potatoes. That's okay, if you like reading or writing that sort of thing, but it's important to me that those sorts of heroes at least be aware of the times when they're doling out more work for others. It's one thing to sort of ignore the fact that your work-a-day soldiers aren't having as fun a trip as the noble generals and commanders; it's another thing if you start picking a fight with everyone you meet because war is a blast and we have reserves.

And it's a huge problem that we generally only associate this with villainy when the heroes are aware that they're treating their people like canon-fodder (see Trope Namer above), but if they remain blissfully unaware of their rampant disregard for the lives of others, then they just have a really robust sense of Honor.

   Suddenly, from somewhere—no one’s sense of direction was very clear by now—

So, seriously, what is going to keep them from getting horribly lost as a result of plunging into the void? Authorial intervention, of course, but I'm terribly disappointed that Drinian the navigator didn't at least point out that, being that there were no other landmarks in sight, it was going to be hella-easy to lose track of their position, which I feel would be important when they need to hit every island they passed on the way back in order to have sufficient supplies to make it home. 

   there came a cry, either of some inhuman voice or else a voice of one in such extremity of terror that he had almost lost his humanity.
   Caspian was still trying to speak—his mouth was too dry—when the shrill voice of Reepicheep, which sounded louder than usual in that silence, was heard.
   “Who calls?” it piped. “If you are a foe we do not fear you, and if you are a friend your enemies shall be taught the fear of us.”


Reepicheep is literally saying that if someone is friendly to them, then they pledge themselves to fight whatever battles this guy might be embroiled in. Not only is that hugely problematic from, like, eighteen different directions (not least being that Evil People can be friendly, especially when there are tangible benefits to being so, so what the fuck, is Reepicheep seriously going to ally himself with the local version of Jadis The White Witch as long as she's nice to them haha what am I saying of course they will, see also Coriakin), but also it's kinda important to note that Reepicheep does not have the authority to pledge treaties on behalf of Caspian, King of Narnia Emperor of the Lone Islands Grand Poobah of the Royal Sock Drawer Etc.

Like, there is no way, no way, that this would be put up with in the Arthurian Kingship that Lewis loves to invoke. And this isn't a first time fluke; Reepicheep tried to get involved in a battle with Eustace The Dragon, and with the Dufflepuds while they were invisible. (Which was the point where I started yelling that Reepicheep isn't allowed on away missions anymore.) I don't care how Adorable and "Honorable" this guy is, he's a massive liability to have around and it's a matter of time before he gets Caspian either massacred or embroiled in a political situation that Narnia can't afford to be embroiled in. And Caspian, if he's the King Arthur that Lewis wants him to be, should know that and take the necessary steps to ensure that this guy is either never, ever, EVER allowed to talk to foreigners or is never allowed to leave his room.

From a Doylist standpoint, it's extremely interesting that Lewis was so wedded to the idea of authority being Right that he's totally okay with body transformation in the case of the mildest of disobedience--to the point where I'm not sure he even noticed the similarities between Good Coriakin and Good Aslan in comparison with Bad Jadis--yet he is totally willing to tolerate major, life-threatening disobedience outside the proper, god-ordained chain on command if and only if we're talking about a case where Honor (sic) or Killing People is at hand. Then it's okay because obviously those are special cases where the ideal justifies any necessary disobedience. So just to be clear:

Defy authority in order to water the garden the "wrong" way: Not Okay, body transformation.
Defy authority in order to go on a nature hike rather than work: Not Okay, body transformation.
Defy authority in order to force everyone into a deadly adventure for Honor: Okay.
Defy authority in order to get everyone killed in an unnecessary armed conflict: Okay.

Are we all clear now? This will be on the test.

   “Mercy!” cried the voice. “Mercy! Even if you are only one more dream, have mercy. Take me on board. Take me, even if you strike me dead. But in the name of all mercies do not fade away and leave me in this horrible land.”
   “Where are you?” shouted Caspian. “Come aboard and welcome.”
   [...] Edmund thought he had never seen a wilder-looking man. Though he did not otherwise look very old, his hair was an untidy mop of white, his face was thin and drawn, and, for clothing, only a few wet rags hung about him. But what one mainly noticed were his eyes, which were so widely opened that he seemed to have no eyelids at all, and stared as if in an agony of pure fear. The moment his feet reached the deck he said:
   “Fly! Fly! About with your ship and fly! Row, row, row for your lives away from this accursed shore.”
   “Compose yourself,” said Reepicheep, “and tell us what the danger is. We are not used to flying.”

kj;eurqo[ hfklashkjewyqrufjkabmwqeriqwio welkjfl;k iower oi r

(This is also false: They are definitely used to flying, because they scarpered away from those pirate slave ships that they encountered early on in the book. Because fighting slavers off the immediate coast of Narnia was too dangerous for a boat carrying the king--arguably true--but diving into cold voids of darkness for no reason whatsoever is not too dangerous.)

There are just no words for what a jackass Reepicheep is being right now. This guy is clearly terrified and probably knows way more about the local situation inside the supernatural void of cold darkness than a m'fucking Mouse from Narnia knows but we're not going to take his advice or any damn fool thing like that because our privilege requires calm explanations before we make our decisions.

Or this:

And that one moment where everyone had to luxuriously stare, rather than following the voice of someone who knew the way out, was what damned them all. If only they hadn't been so full of their preconceived notions about Talking Animals being one-dimensional stereotypes instead of three-dimensional characters like humans (and note that no one stopped to stare at Eustace's character development). The ship sank to the sea and we all went home! Buh-bye everybody! 

Ask me how interesting it is to me that Reepicheep, as a character written by a privileged man who seems to have had very conflicted feels about privilege and marginalization in general, can experience marginalization and then turn around and inflict that same marginalization on people with lesser privilege than him.

He has briefly experienced disability, and yet lacks meaningful sympathy for those who are being forced to live with their disability without respite. (Because I don't believe that Reepicheep's "teaching" the Dufflepuds to boat is intended to be read as anything more than an amusing pastime for them and a pass for Coriakin because the slaves are "happy" now.) He has experienced poverty and genocidal oppression and slavery, yet calls peasants and slaves "cowards". He has experienced being belittled and ignored and passed over, yet he is happy to wield what privilege he is given to belittle and ignore those with less privilege: the sailors rowing in the cold; the frightened man advising them to flee.

This is important. If you don't listen to anything else I ever say about social justice, please listen to this: Being a marginalized person, or experiencing oppression, doesn't make a person immune from oppressing others. Big White Feminism is a thing. There are feminists who wield privilege against women of color, against women with disabilities, against fat women, against trans women, against women of different religions or philosophies, against poor women and women of other classes, against women who perform sex work, against women who are not Like Them. There are male allies who harm women, because they can or because they were asked to check their privilege and chose to lash out instead, or because they rilly-rilly wanted to use rape metaphor language to defend their author besties, or because it was Tuesday.

We have to get away from these absolute ideas that being disabled or being a woman or being oppressed means that you are a Good Person who only does Good Things. Good People, genuinely good people who do good things, still fuck up regularly and cause harm. And the flip-side: Some of the baddest people, people who espouse truly terribly ideals, can have a good thought or deed from time to time because people are complicated like that.

Every time we move the conversation away from the action and towards the person, we risk this. "Lewis can't be bad because he wrote these good things!" or "Reepicheep can't be classist because he was nice in this other chapter!" or "[Mainstream White Feminist] who advocated these terrible classist, racist things can't mean it because she's usually so much better on topics that affect middle-class white women!" or "[Mainstream Male Ally] can't have meant that harmful thing he said or did because he's one of the good guys! Give him some credit!" All these protests appeal to our need to see people as Heroes and Villains, instead of seeing people as complex creatures with a myriad of intersecting privileges and marginalizations.

It's entirely possible for a woman to be a super advocate for middle-class women but not for poor women. It's entirely possible for a man to be a great ally to cis women but not to trans women. It's entirely possible for a person to experience and empathize with manual (i.e., hand and arm) disabilities but to then fail spectacularly to empathize with people who possess movement disabilities. It's entirely possible for one man to advocate freedom and self-determination for white people, but then to deny those same ideals to people of a different race. It's entirely possible for a person to experience being ignored and marginalized by those in power and yet, when granted a touch of power of their own, to turn around and do the exact same thing to others.

If we can't understand this--if we can't understand that social justice isn't a matter of the personalities involved, but rather a matter of the choices made--then we can't really do social justice work, I feel. Because if we can't set aside the personalities involved, then we go down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out how Lewis could have been against tyranny for some people, but not all people, and trying to reconcile the differences or understand what changed, all in service of pegging down whether, precisely, this author was good enough to be a Good Guy or bad enough to be a Bad Guy. And then we've stopped talking about harmful ideologies that are still being used in literature and still hurt people every day and we've instead centered ourselves and our need to neatly categorize everyone in our heads. And that's true whether we're talking about C.S. Lewis or Neil Gaiman or Joss Whedon or Amanda Marcotte or anyone else.

Reepicheep doesn't have to be a Bad Person overall in order to be harmful in this moment. And if that's true for him, and for his author, and for everyone else on this earth, it's also true for each of us.


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