Narnia: Knowledge and Belief

[Narnia Content Note: Genocide, Religious Abuse, Chivalry, Racism, Slavery]
Extra Content Note: Hell, Death Penalty]

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

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

So when we last left our heroes, they had established that:

1. Honor could best be had, not by taking the sleeping Lost Lords back to the ship and (hopefully) away from whatever is ensorcelling them, but rather instead by The Caspian Five sitting stubbornly at the table all night long to see what happens.

2. It is extra-special super-duper honorable for The Caspian Five to do this by their lonesome selvesies, because having extra soldiers around to guard the one guy who is keeping Narnia from slipping back into chaotic civil war is for wimps and losers.

3. The narrator is still (and always will be) a dirty no-good liar because he promised us, way back on the Slavery Island of Financial Privilege (aka Bern's Badass Base Camp) that end-book Caspian would stop pulling these stupid solo stunts because they're stupid and stuntastic.

   They took some time choosing their seats at the perilous table.


I really am trying not to belabor this point--I know it's not on level with the missing children in Left Behind or the fact that they don't need to breathe in Twilight--but I just have to point out that there is no way this narrative is going to get me to accept that proactively (ahem) sitting at this table all night is a super-honorable, super-brave, super-heroic thing to do. I mean, they're not even sitting here because they think it will help wake the Lost Lords; Reepicheep has clearly said that this is about adventure and feeling like he faced every challenge head-on. That's just pride, not honor or bravery or courage.

And I also want to point out that this sentence was written in a series where, not two books ago, a Christmas feast was laid out for a party that had been magicked into stone by the passing White Witch. Now we see a party that has been magicked into sleepy Cousin It'dness, so the crackerjack plan of The Caspian Five is to sit down and hold their breaths until the universe relents and sends someone to explain itself. Which means that this plan--Sit Here Until Something Happens--really only makes sense here because the characters have a direct line to the author. If Peter et. al. had employed the Sit Here Until Something Happens plan in Lions, and Witches, and Wardrobes Oh My! they'd have felt like a right wally when absolutely nothing happened except them dying of exposure.

Annoyingly, it will also turn out to be the case that the table isn't perilous--well, not precisely, anyway; it's not the food or the table that caused the sleep spell, but rather the Holy Grail Stabbing Knife--so here again we see this device used to make the reader feel superior when zie looks back later and sees how silly The Caspian Five were for being worried that anything bad would happen to them in the place where bad things have demonstrably happened to other people. (See also Lucy and her Scary Runic Doors and Creepy Dwarf Mirror. And, to a related extent, the Superstitious Sailors worried about their nightmares coming to life on the island where nightmares come to life.) Clearly they should have just eaten the food that was theirs by right of their god-given privilege and not allowed their fear to get the best of them, etc. And so again we have this overused writing device of the narrator simply asserting that the situation is scary in an attempt to ratchet up the tension in a book that is deeply under-tense on account of Aslan showing up to fix everything on every third island.


   They took some time choosing their seats at the perilous table. Probably everyone had the same reason but no one said it out loud. For it was really a rather nasty choice. One could hardly bear to sit all night next to those three terrible hairy objects which, if not dead, were certainly not alive in the ordinary sense. On the other hand, to sit at the far end, so that you would see them less and less as the night grew darker, and wouldn’t know if they were moving, and perhaps wouldn’t see them at all by about two o’clock—no, it was not to be thought of. So they sauntered round and round the table saying, “What about here?” and “Or perhaps a bit further on,” or, “Why not on this side?” till at last they settled down somewhere about the middle but nearer to the sleepers than to the other end. It was about ten by now and almost dark. 

To a certain extent, I want to like this passage because I feel like I get what Lewis is doing here: The Caspian Five are brave and strong and good and bold and Proper Christians, but they're not unreachably perfect. This is, I believe, an attempt to reach out to the intended child-reader and reassure them that the fears they would have in a situation like this are okay fears to have (if not to speak aloud, obvs), and are in fact the same fears that even brave kings and queens would have. (And, okay, to be less charitable, this also continues the trend of coziness in these books--even the dangers are simple seating arrangement dangers.)

But this just keeps bringing me back to all the times when The Caspian Five didn't do anything to help people who needed helping. They're willing to poke and ponder and spend real, genuine effort on the question of Where Do We Sit For Our Brave Nighttime Vigil, but that just emphasizes all the many, many times they sailed past human (and/or dwarvish) suffering without a single thought on their behalf. In other words, making them thoughtful here just highlights how thoughtless they've been elsewhere.

Anyway, they wrap up in cloaks and try to talk to each other (but mostly fail) and then they fall asleep and probably this is a reference to the disciples not being able to stay awake in their vigil with Jesus at Gethsemane, except that I don't really care. (Not in a hostile way; I just don't have anything to say about that.) And then they all wake up to the realization that something major is happening:

   Before them, beyond the pillars, there was the slope of a low hill. And now a door opened in the hillside, and light appeared in the doorway, and a figure came out, and the door shut behind it. The figure carried a light, and this light was really all that they could see distinctly. It came slowly nearer and nearer till at last it stood right at the table opposite to them. Now they could see that it was a tall girl, dressed in a single long garment of clear blue which left her arms bare. She was bareheaded and her yellow hair hung down her back. And when they looked at her they thought they had never before known what beauty meant. 
   Lucy now noticed something lying lengthwise on the table which had escaped her attention before. It was a knife of stone, sharp as steel, a cruel-looking, ancient-looking thing.
   No one had yet spoken a word. Then—Reepicheep first, and Caspian next—they all rose to their feet, because they felt that she was a great lady.
   “Travelers who have come from far to Aslan’s table,” said the girl. “Why do you not eat and drink?”
   “Madam,” said Caspian, “we feared the food because we thought it had cast our friends into an enchanted sleep.”

I'm going to fast-forward through a lot of the dialogue here so that I can get to my point for this chapter. In short, the girl (who never gets a name) explains that the Lost Lords never touched the food, and that they are instead asleep because--in the midst of an argument about whether to stay or go forward or go backward in their travels--one of them picked up the Stone Knife, and all three of them fell into a deep eternal sleep.

Eustace asks what the Stone Knife is, which is interesting because I think I would have asked why the hell it put three people to sleep when only one person touched it (and I would especially want to know that if Reepicheep was in the room, or on second thought, I would just leave the room very quickly) and Lucy (who is the only one there who saw the Passion of Aslan) identifies it as the knife that the White Witch used to kill Aslan.

   Edmund, who had been looking more and more uncomfortable for the last few minutes, now spoke.
   “Look here,” he said, “I hope I’m not a coward—about eating this food, I mean—and I’m sure I don’t mean to be rude. But we have had a lot of queer adventures on this voyage of ours and things aren’t always what they seem. When I look in your face I can’t help believing all you say: but then that’s just what might happen with a witch too. How are we to know you’re a friend?”
   “You can’t know,” said the girl. “You can only believe—or not.”

And finally, finally, Edmund--he who has experience with magic food and mysterious beautiful women--speaks up and says that he's not 100% comfortable with eating this food thankyouverymuch. To which the girl gives literally the worst answer ever given to anything ever. Um.

The Chronicles of Narnia series is a series where a little boy is condemned to real, physical death by god because he committed the crime of betraying his family by trusting a beautiful woman and eating the enchanted food she offered him. It is a series where, in the next book (The Silver Chair), the heroes will triumph over evil by refusing to listen to the words of a beautiful woman as she seeks to explain something about the nature of Aslan which seems fundamentally wrong.

Yet here, in this book and at this table, it's not a betrayal for Reepicheep to eat the food being offered by the Beautiful Woman Girl and it's not a betrayal for Lucy to listen to the Beautiful Woman Girl explain something about the nature of Aslan which seems fundamentally wrong and unfair, and it's not a betrayal for Caspian to take the Beautiful Woman Girl back to Narnia and install her as queen over a people she's never known and has no reason to care for. All of which adds up to make Narnia seem like a vision of a horrifyingly arbitrary religion-n-deity, if trusting the words and food of beautiful women will get you killed by god himself but trusting the words and food of other beautiful women girls is the right-n-honorable thing to do.

And I'm going to do that thing again where I shill other, better children's books and bring up George MacDonald who was a Scottish author, a Christian minister, a major influence on C.S. Lewis (although not, to my mind, major enough), and author of The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and The Princess and Curdie (1883). In the latter book, the protagonist Curdie grapples with how he can be expected to recognize Jesus Aslan Queen Grandmother Irene when she can appear in any form at will. George, who apparently understood that arbitrary rules in both religion and novels are unsettling to the reader-slash-religionist, provided this answer:

'But if you want me to know you again, ma'am, for certain sure,' said Curdie, 'could you not give me some sign, or tell me something about you that never changes--or some other way to know you, or thing to know you by?'

'No, Curdie; that would be to keep you from knowing me. You must know me in quite another way from that. It would not be the least use to you or me either if I were to make you know me in that way. It would be but to know the sign of Me--not to know me myself. It would be no better than if I were to take this emerald out of my crown and give it to you to take home with you, and you were to call it me, and talk to it as if it heard and saw and loved you. Much good that would do you, Curdie! No; you must do what you can to know me, and if you do, you will. You shall see me again in very different circumstances from these, and, I will tell you so much, it may be in a very different shape.

This isn't a new idea; Lewis himself flirts with this quite a bit, such as when he asserts out-of-the-blue (and several chapters after the candy-eating, which makes the knowledge useless since Edmund's agency is already compromised at that point) that Edmund knows deep down inside that the Witch is really evil because, umm, he just knows and that's all there is to it. But MacDonald, unlike Lewis, doesn't use this "knowing" as a litmus test for being a Good Christian or a Bad Christian--he seems to genuinely understand how impossibly unfair that is as a 'test' of sincere religiosity.

So where Lucy Pevensie can see Aslan first because she's The Best, and Susan Pevensie sees Aslan last because she's The Worst, MacDonald has his protagonists utterly fail to recognize Queen Grandmother Irene because sometimes you legitimately have more things on your mind than trying to Sherlock out which person in the room is Jesus. And Jesus is okay with that because you were supposed to have more things on your mind just then. You and Jesus can catch up during the after-party when the bad guys have been taken care of, as far as George MacDonald is concerned.

And so after all that, it's hard for me to be anything but nonplussed when Reepicheep and the rest of The Caspian Five decide that they'll trust this Beautiful Woman Girl on nothing more than her say-so.

   After a moment’s pause Reepicheep’s small voice was heard.
   “Sire,” he said to Caspian, “of your courtesy fill my cup with wine from that flagon: it is too big for me to lift. I will drink to the lady.”
   Caspian obeyed and the Mouse, standing on the table, held up a golden cup between its tiny paws and said, “Lady, I pledge you.” Then it fell to on cold peacock, and in a short while everyone else followed his example. All were very hungry and the meal, if not quite what you wanted for a very early breakfast, was excellent as a very late supper.

Because in another novel, under the authorship of a different writer, this would clearly mean something. I might not understand what it means, or I might not agree with what it means, but I would understand that there is a meaning behind this scene that was important to the author. And I would gather that meaning had something to do with Trust or Belief or Faith or some other concept near and dear to the author. And I would expect that deeper meaning to not conflict with the rest of the series, and to not reveal something fundamentally terrible about the belief system of the author.

But here, I genuinely don't know what C.S. Lewis could mean, or how he couldn't have noticed the depth to which this scene conflicts with so many other scenes in his own books. I think, maybe, this scene might simply be intended as a lesson about bravery and about boldly accepting risks (especially seeing as how it's the Bold One, Reepicheep, who drinks first). And it might be a brief lesson thrown in about faith and how you can never really know that what you believe is true. (Unless you believe one of those things that can be known and tested, like the existence of Australia or whether Lion-Jesus can be seen and touched by little girls. But Christian authors often draw a line between believing in the existence of testable things, like Australia and Lion-Jesus, versus Believing with a capital-B things that can't be tested or demonstrated.)

Yet those potential lessons are undone completely (for me) by the knowledge that, according to this series: (1) eating food offered by a beautiful woman is treachery (Lions and Witches); (2) accepting theological lessons from a beautiful woman is blasphemy (Silver Chair); and (3) trying to wake an enchanted sleeper is a terrible mistake, especially if there's a beautiful woman in the room (Magician's Nephew). It would seem that the only consistency between those lessons and these ones, to be genuinely honest here, is that beautiful women are evil but beautiful girls are probably trustworthy.

And since I'm betting that wasn't the lesson that Lewis would have owned up to wanting to convey, then we're left with a moralistic mess. Eat magic food except for when you shouldn't. Believe the theologies of pretty women except for when they are wrong. Wake enchanted sleepers in all situations except those in which the sleepers really ought to stay enchanted. And if you ever make the wrong choice in those situations, you're not just mistaken or wrong, you're a sinner. A sinner doomed, by god, to physical death (at the very least) unless Lion-Jesus steps up to take one for the team.

At no point do we even get the comforting handwave that, when facing these situations, you'll somehow know, deep in your gut (just to the left of your ovaries), what the right thing to do is. Instead we're just told that we "can't know" and can "only believe--or not". Which, you know, fine, but it's not fair to then turn around and kill people based on whether they picked the right option or not. If they literally can't know which way is right and which way is wrong, then you are literally killing them based on random chance.


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