Narnia: Ten Thousand Triggers

[Narnia Content Note: Genocide, Religious Abuse, Chivalry, Racism, Slavery]
Extra Content Note: Nightmares, PTSD, mentions of trigger warning discussions including rape and disordered eating]

Title Drop: There are a few, very few, Christian songs I miss. Ten Thousand Joys is one of them. Watch a free version, adapted to be slightly easier to sing but still stunning, here.

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

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

So we're in the middle of a dark void, the heroes have just pulled a lone and very disheveled man on-board (while also promising him unconditional allyship because people still keep letting Reepicheep speak against all logic), and he's announced that the ship needs to turn the fuck around and hightail it out of there.

Reepicheep has belayed his order and insists that instead they just sit there dead in the water (for I presume the rowers have stopped and are taking a break) while the Disheveled Man explains himself. And I know I'm harping on this a bit, but it just seems weird to promise to fight a guy's enemies for him--on the basis of no good reason except his say-so--and yet to ignore him when he tells you to leave the scary void. Like, this only makes logic-sense if you just rilly, rilly like fighting people with swords.

Which, you know, Reepicheep does like fighting people with swords. I'm just not sure how I feel about the ethics and theologies here.

   The stranger started horribly at the voice of the Mouse, which he had not noticed before.
   “Nevertheless you will fly from here,” he gasped. “This is the Island where Dreams come true.”
   “That’s the island I’ve been looking for this long time,” said one of the sailors. “I reckon I’d find I was married to Nancy if we landed here.”
   “And I’d find Tom alive again,” said another.
   “Fools!” said the man, stamping his foot with rage. “That is the sort of talk that brought me here, and I’d better have been drowned or never born. Do you hear what I say? This is where dreams—dreams, do you understand—come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams.”

And here is one of those continuity moments that we're not supposed to think about. (You can skip this section if you want!)

Why have the sailors (and Rhoop) even heard about this place? Narnia-the-country has been cut off from all contact with sea-faring peoples and magic-in-general for 300+ years, ever since the Telmarines invaded and started killing everything remotely magic-shaped with pointed sticks. The Telmarines were so afraid of the sea and anything coming from it that they developed a rich mythology about it being a place of death and ghosts and bad things--which I think means that the sea is basically Hades (the place, not the person) in Telmarine mythology. So I guess they might have posited an Elysian Fields in the center of it?

Except that would mean that the Island Where Dreams Come True is something the Telmarines made up for their mythology, rather than something that someone visited and then came back to warn them about (and/or spread by word-of-mouth). Which... is still possible? If Narnia is operating on that one mythos rule where "if enough people believe it, reality calls it into existence" then that would at least answer our next question which is:

Why is this island even here? Did the Emperor make this place as-is? Did someone travel to this place and use magic to enchant it into what it is now? Was the point of this place to be awful and evil, or was it corrupted in some way or was this all some kind of mistake? Like, when Hogfather introduced a world where dreams come true, it was an elaborate magical defense system. Here, we're given a place that essentially tortures people for no discernible reason and without any way to leave once you're there.

And, again, it's really hard for me to reconcile stuff like this in Narnia with the existence of a god who is perfectly willing to be really hands-on and yet doesn't take care of stuff like this but still expects to be considered loving (and just and fair and whatnot). When people in the real world refuse to clean up major safety hazards because it's not their problem and they haven't fallen into that huge pothole (or whatever) lately, we generally consider them to be assholes. With omnipotent gods who are perfectly willing to get involved when it comes to vanity spells, not so much.

So, again: why is this island here and why hasn't it been made not-here by Aslan? 

   There was about half a minute’s silence and then, with a great clatter of armor, the whole crew were tumbling down the main hatch as quick as they could and flinging themselves on the oars to row as they had never rowed before; and Drinian was swinging round the tiller, and the boatswain was giving out the quickest stroke that had ever been heard at sea. For it had taken everyone just that half-minute to remember certain dreams they had had—dreams that make you afraid of going to sleep again—and to realize what it would mean to land on a country where dreams come true.
   Only Reepicheep remained unmoved.
   “Your Majesty, your Majesty,” he said, “are you going to tolerate this mutiny, this poltroonery? This is a panic, this is a rout.”
   “Row, row,” bellowed Caspian. “Pull for all our lives. Is her head right, Drinian? You can say what you like, Reepicheep. There are some things no man can face.”
   “It is, then, my good fortune not to be a man,” replied Reepicheep with a very stiff bow.

So bekabot (who is awesome and also gave us a great T-shirt idea in the same thread) mentioned last time that a possible charitable interpretation of Reepicheep in this chapter, or at least, in this part of the chapter, is that maybe he doesn't personally dream (or doesn't have bad dreams) and therefore just can't comprehend why everyone wants to leave. And, you know, it's never entirely clear how much interaction he has with people, what with hiding from Telmarines all his life and now only playing chess with Lucy, so maybe he has gotten through life without ever being told that other people have bad dreams.

But, you know, the thing is--and I would have hoped Lewis would have recognized this--everyone on-board is still clearly scared. Reepicheep must recognize fear, as a soldier and commander if not as a decent person. If literally everyone on board is terrified and wants to take the advice of the guy who says they need to leave now posthaste, plus there's no good reason to stay (since there was no good reason to enter in the first place) (with the exception of looking for other survivors but more on that later), it's just a really jackassery position to take here: "okay, I can't stop you, but I can mock and criticize and shame you all for your fear."

Funnily enough, this is kind of topical. There's been a couple of hand-wringing (and strawman-building) articles last week about how we've "gone too far" with trigger warnings slash content notes and how sure it's one thing to warn for rape but warning for survivors of disordered eating is just silly and oversensitive. And right now, this very moment, as you read, someone is jotting down the content notes on this post in order to "prove" how silly and oversensitive people have gotten and how content notes are just an attempt at being Holier Than Thou and "performance feminism" and definitely not because the author is a survivor of a conservative Christian community that privileged harmful notions of chivalry.

And if the author does find all that stuff triggering, then she's a big oversensitive baby. Those are literally your only options now: you're either an oversensitive baby (in cases where you use TWs/CNs for things you personally need) or you're a hypocrite performing for cookies (in cases where you use TWs/CNs for things you don't personally need).

Rhoop almost certainly does have post-traumatic stress disorder at this point, though of course Lewis wouldn't be aware of that term (since the term was coined in the 1970s, per my memory and confirmation from Wikipedia). And, depending on how you read the text, I think it's possible to read VoDT as trying to treat Rhoop's condition with a measure of respect. Certainly I would think that Lewis would be somewhat familiar with residual trauma after having been a soldier in WWI and having experienced trench warfare.

But Reepicheep--who, it should be noted, is not necessarily an authorial mouthpiece (again, depending on how you interpret the text)--does not treat Rhoop's condition with respect, but rather with disdain and the suggestion that this is either vulnerability ("panic") or stubbornness ("mutiny"). I here quote Melissa McEwan:

Having PTSD or other trauma-induced mental illness isn't a "vulnerability." That's a disablist mischaracterization.

And it's one that the blogosphere has been making with alarming frequency of late. So the question becomes: what understanding of trauma does the text attempt to leave us with?

   “Drinian,” [Caspian] said in a very low voice. “How long did we take rowing in?—I mean rowing to where we picked up the stranger.”
    “Five minutes, perhaps,” whispered Drinian. “Why?”
   “Because we’ve been more than that already trying to get out.”
   Drinian’s hand shook on the tiller and a line of cold sweat ran down his face. The same idea was occurring to everyone on board. “We shall never get out, never get out,” moaned the rowers. “He’s steering us wrong. We’re going round and round in circles. We shall never get out.” The stranger, who had been lying in a huddled heap on the deck, sat up and burst out into a horrible screaming laugh.
   “Never get out!” he yelled. “That’s it. Of course. We shall never get out. What a fool I was to have thought they would let me go as easily as that. No, no, we shall never get out.”
   Lucy leant her head on the edge of the fighting-top and whispered, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little—a very, very little—better. “After all, nothing has really happened to us yet,” she thought.

This passage is kind of tricky. (And kind of long; I cut the specifics of what people are fearing because it wasn't relevant.) The crew (by which I mean "everyone on board" and not "those nameless sailors what aren't royalty" by the way) start to hear, or start to think they hear, the approach of their nightmares. But there's not independent verification to validate that these sounds are real*; one crew member hears gongs and another hears scissors but neither mention whether they heard the others' greatest fears or just their own.

* Here meaning "real" like the people who use validity prisms to validate others' experiences use the term. My own understanding of how the world works is that these nightmares would be traumatizing regardless of whether they were Really Real (TM) versus "merely" real to the crew-member possessing that fear but not to anyone else. The trauma suffered in both cases is the same; the only value provided by the difference in situations is so that privileged people can dismiss the trauma if it wasn't caused by Really Real (TM) stimuli.

And then Lucy notes that, technically speaking, nothing has actually happened yet. Which could be read as hopeful (i.e., Aslan is taking care of them) or fearful (i.e., the bad things may still happen if Aslan doesn't get them out) or as dismissive (i.e., there is nothing to fear except fear itself and this is a choice that the crew is making out of weakness or stubbornness and Reepicheep was right all along to stand his ground and Be Brave and the only thing dangerous about this place is the power that you give it to hurt you).

The problem with Nothing To Fear Except Fear Itself narrative arcs is that while they can be read as affirming for some people, they can also be deeply harmful to people who live with PTSD, panic attacks, and other forms of mental illness. (See also: the issues with Just Choose To Be Happy narratives which can be affirming to some while deeply harmful and dismissive of people who live with depression.) People with mental illnesses that induce fear and/or panic can't just choose to not be fearful and can't just turn off their fear with "but it's actually totally safe!" logic. It is entirely possible for a person to flat-out know that there's nothing to fear while still having a full-blown panic attack. I have experienced this. 

And then we get to the two different endings, which Evan has wonderfully already dissected for us and who I will be quoting in a moment.

   “Look!” cried Rynelf’s voice hoarsely from the bows. There was a tiny speck of light ahead, and while they watched a broad beam of light fell from it upon the ship. It did not alter the surrounding darkness, but the whole ship was lit up as if by searchlight. [...]
   Lucy looked along the beam and presently saw something in it. At first it looked like a cross, then it looked like an aeroplane, then it looked like a kite, and at last with a whirring of wings it was right overhead and was an albatross. It circled three times round the mast and then perched for an instant on the crest of the gilded dragon at the prow. It called out in a strong sweet voice what seemed to be words though no one understood them. After that it spread its wings, rose, and began to fly slowly ahead, bearing a little to starboard. Drinian steered after it not doubting that it offered good guidance. But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, “Courage, dear heart,” and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s, and with the voice a delicious smell breathed in her face.

British (original) Edition: 

   In a few moments the darkness turned into a grayness ahead, and then, almost before they dared to begin hoping, they had shot out into the sunlight and were in the warm, blue world again. And all at once everybody realized that there was nothing to be afraid of and never had been. They blinked their eyes and looked about them. [...]
   “I reckon we’ve made pretty good fools of ourselves,” said Rynelf.
   [...] “Thank you,” [Rhoop] said at last. “You have saved me from … but I won’t talk of that. And now let me know who you are. I am a Telmarine of Narnia, and when I was worth anything men called me the Lord Rhoop.”
   “And I,” said Caspian, “am Caspian, King of Narnia, and I sail to find you and your companions who were my father’s friends.”
   Lord Rhoop fell on his knees and kissed the King’s hand. “Sire,” he said, “you are the man in all the world I most wished to see. Grant me a boon.”
   “What is it?” asked Caspian.
   “Never to bring me back there,” he said. He pointed astern. They all looked. But they saw only bright blue sea and bright blue sky. The Dark Island and the darkness had vanished for ever.
   “Why!” cried Lord Rhoop. “You have destroyed it!”
   “I don’t think it was us,” said Lucy.

American (pre-1994) Edition:

   In a few moments the darkness turned into a grayness ahead, and then, almost before they dared to begin hoping, they had shot out into the sunlight and were in the warm, blue world again. And just as there are moments when simply to lie in bed and see the daylight pouring through your window and to hear the cheerful voice of an early postman or milkman down below and to realise that it was only a dream: it wasn’t real, is so heavenly that it was very nearly worth having the nightmare in order to have the joy of waking, so they all felt when they came out of the dark. [...]
   [...] “Thank you,” [Rhoop] said at last. “You have saved me from … but I won’t talk of that. And now let me know who you are. I am a Telmarine of Narnia, and when I was worth anything men called me the Lord Rhoop.”
   “And I,” said Caspian, “am Caspian, King of Narnia, and I sail to find you and your companions who were my father’s friends.”
   Lord Rhoop fell on his knees and kissed the King’s hand. “Sire,” he said, “you are the man in all the world I most wished to see. Grant me a boon.”
   “What is it?” asked Caspian.
   “Never to ask me, nor to let any other ask me, what I have seen during my years on the Dark Island.”
   “An easy boon, my Lord,” answered Caspian, and added with a shudder. “Ask you: I should think not. I would give all my treasure not to hear it.”

The "American" edition isn't the version you'll get in American now; the US ebook edition I own has restored the original British ending. And I honestly didn't have a lot of feels on the changes because I was busy thinking about something else (which I'll bring up in a moment). But then Evan pointed out that the differences between the endings continue to feed into this problem of what, precisely, we're meant to understand when Lucy says nothing has happened to them, and how we're supposed to understand the character of Rhoop. I will here quote Evan in full:

Version A (american, pre-1994): The dark island is a real place that continues to exist after you leave it. PTSD is a real thing that you still have after leaving. You're not merely afraid to go back, but so haunted by the specter of flashbacks that you're afraid even to describe aloud what happened there -- and the honorable manly-men on the boat respect and validate your fears, knowing you've been through horrors they can't begin to imagine.

Version B (original british): The dark island seemed to be a place where dreams came horrifyingly true, but actually it was itself nothing more than a bad dream. Once you've put it behind you, it winks into nonexistence, leaving no psychic scarring that anyone need be concerned with. You ask never to go back there; they answer "back where?" Your suffering is now irrelevant.

IMHO Lewis's revision was a real improvement, and not just because it was a more dramatically satisfying end to the episode. The message I got from it is that even the most comically-overwrought knightly-noble pure-hearted arthurian hero can be broken by some things, and that it's neither dishonorable to run away nor honorable to disparage survivors.

So: This. What Evan said.

The original version directly says "everybody realized that there was nothing to be afraid of and never had been". That means that all the emotional and psychological suffering that Rhoop has experienced and will continue to experience is brushed away as something totally avoidable that he brought on himself. And not avoidable in the "sail around the scary dark void" kind of way, but rather avoidable in the "if only he'd been strong/brave like Reepicheep" kind of way.

Post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders and panic attacks and depression and other mental illnesses are not avoidable through strength or will or character or bravery. Possession of those mental illnesses is not a failure on the part of the person, or evidence of a vulnerability--to suggest otherwise is rank disablism. Having a non-mainstream trigger is not evidence of weakness or of Not Trying Hard Enough or failing to "confront" or "deal with" or "handle" one's fears.

"There was nothing to be afraid of and never had been" is blatantly false when simply living on the island gave Rhoop post-traumatic stress disorder or some similar mental illness which he then spends the rest of the voyage trying to cope with. (He will eventually ask for a dreamless sleep on the island of eternal dreamers... which Caspian will then break a couple weeks or months down the line. It's unknown whether his time in the dreamless sleep had a healing effect on him, or if it was just a temporary escape from an existence which was painful to him.)

The fact that the island can impose upon people a serious disability is, uh, something to be potentially afraid of--and saying that there isn't anything to be afraid of dismisses Rhoop's suffering as something that either isn't that big a deal and is easily gotten over or something that was easily avoidable and is his own fault for contracting.

In a way, I'm heartened that Lewis went back and re-wrote this passage to (apparently) validate that the island was real, that its experiences were capable of causing harm (even in the retelling! not just in the direct, immediate experience), and that harmful things and places don't disappear just because you face them bravely. (Or because god waves a magic albatross.) It makes me wonder if there's anything else in these books he might have improved, had he taken a little more time while writing them. It reminds me that it's possible to belatedly check one's privilege. And it makes me sad that the current owners of the franchise apparently have their heads up their own butts.

But I do want to point out one final thing.

   “Sire,” said Drinian, “this wind is fair for the southeast. Shall I have our poor fellows up and set sail? And after that, every man who can be spared, to his hammock.”
   “Yes,” said Caspian, “and let there be grog all round. Heigh-ho, I feel I could sleep the clock round myself.”
   So all afternoon with great joy they sailed southeast with a fair wind. But nobody noticed when the albatross had disappeared.

Unless I missed it somewhere, which is possible, no one asks about Rhoop's companions. Were there other Lords on the island? Were there crew aboard the ship that he must have used to get on the island in the first place? This is especially egregious in the case where the island doesn't disappear (although even when it does, they should be combing the area for swimmers), because now they have an actual good reason to go into the void and they have an actual dilemma of honor on their hands.

Going into the void for no reason? Does not actually increase your Honor stat. (Shut up, Reepicheep, no it doesn't.) Going into the void that you know to be scary but you're doing it in order to rescue people who are trapped in there? Actually does increase Honor. By quite a lot, in my morality book.

No one, as far as I can see, ever asks. Some of you have speculated that Rhoop took an otherwise-unmanned lifeboat or dinghy or whatever into the void alone, but that means that his companions may or may not have left him to die. (Assuming they knew he had left and where he had gone to.) Or it's possible (and I suspect what Lewis intended) that Rhoop is the sole survivor of the island. But it would be good for the heroes to actually verify that before they scarper off.

Otherwise, they just left however many sailors trapped forever on the island where nightmares come true.


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