[Narnia Content Note: Genocide, Religious Abuse, Chivalry, Racism, Slavery]
Extra Content Note: "Noble Savage" Stereotypes]
Narnia Recap: Our heroes meet Sea People and start drinking sea water.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 15: The Wonders of the Last Sea
We're getting close to the end here; we only have two more chapters to go. This week we'll meet one of the few cultures in this book who don't need to be saved by the traveling human circus, but unfortunately they will be entirely caricatured by our heroes (and by our narrator) as Noble Savages with an emphasis on the savage part. So that's gonna suck.
VERY SOON AFTER THEY HAD LEFT Ramandu’s country they began to feel that they had already sailed beyond the world. All was different. For one thing they all found that they were needing less sleep. One did not want to go to bed nor to eat much, nor even to talk except in low voices. Another thing was the light. There was too much of it. The sun when it came up each morning looked twice, if not three times, its usual size. [...]
“How beautifully clear the water is!” said Lucy to herself, as she leaned over the port side early in the afternoon of the second day.
There's then a lot, a lot, of info-dump about how Lucy can see all the way to the bottom. And she sees water-forests and water-hills and water... roads, which seems a touch odd because I'm not sure I understand the value of roads when the people who live in the water-country don't (apparently) walk on the water-ground. And there's also a lot of stuff about how it is so strange and weird that the water-people would build water-castles on their water-mountains instead of in their water-valleys, only it makes sense because water-mountains are comforting and warm like our earth-valleys, whereas water-valleys are cold and dark and dangerous like our earth-mountains.
And absolutely none of this made sense to me as a kid--nor does it now--because you can't call water-valleys deep, cold, dangerous, unknown places when you've already said that Lucy can see clear down to the bottoms, fathoms below. So, what, she can see through to this huge depth of X, but a slightly bigger depth of X+1 is not only impossible for her eyes to penetrate, it would also be a major impediment keeping the locals from building down there. Huh? Additionally, building castles on hills and mountains is a thing people do; mountains are more defensibly than valleys and are additionally less likely to flood. So there's this weird, very weird, justification for things that would seem to assume that reality isn't what it is and the whole thing ends up feeling (to me) like this is something Lewis recycled out of an earlier fanfic.
What is depressing to me about all this is that so much of this book has indefensibly vague parts in it, where just a little more detail would have perhaps fixed things--like, for example, an explanation of why they couldn't be arsed to at least try to help the golden statue--but here we get pages and pages of bizarre scenery porn that isn't and doesn't (imho) work.
And then—Lucy nearly squealed aloud with excitement—she had seen People.
There were between fifteen and twenty of them, and all mounted on sea-horses—not the tiny little sea-horses which you may have seen in museums but horses rather bigger than themselves. They must be noble and lordly people, Lucy thought, for she could catch the gleam of gold on some of their foreheads and streamers of emerald-or orange-colored stuff fluttered from their shoulders in the current.
I realize that Lewis is writing in an Arthurian mindset at all times, but if you read this passage in the book that comes with illustrations, it's sort of hilarious that Lucy is still wearing the simple pink dress she came over from in England. (On the one hand, you'd think it would be ratty by now; on the other hand, she's had one shopping trip only, there's no one else her size on the ship, and I can't imagine they stocked up enough, so god help this poor girl.) She's a queen of Narnia and a noble lady, but she's judging the nobility and lordliness of others based on whether they're wearing clothes that she herself does not wear.
There's possibly a subtext in this that Lucy doesn't view herself as lordly, despite literally lording over an entire kingdom for a decade or two, but it's kind of worrisome that someone with as much experience as she is still so taken with the trappings of royalty, here represented as Shiny and Colorful. I mean, I fully acknowledge that court pageantry has its uses, but it's still ultimately a form of decoration, communication, and (potentially positive) manipulation that would expect someone with Lucy's history to recognize as a useful tool, rather than something inherently impressive.
Caspian is, after all, a king but I think one could easily argue against him being "noble" and from a "lordly people", given that his ancestors were pirates and then genocidal conquerors. Throwing on a green cape isn't going to change those facts.
Anyway, it turns out the party of people are a "hawking party", but with fish rather than hawks, and Lucy muses on how she and her siblings used to love to ride out with their falcons and hunt birds, and I am speeding past that little detail very, very quickly in a world where half the birds are Talking Birds and the other half exist to clear away the Emperor's dinner table at the edge of the world or whatever it's called.
She stopped suddenly because the scene was changing. The Sea People had noticed the Dawn Treader. [...] The King in the center (no one could mistake him for anything but the King) looked proudly and fiercely into Lucy’s face and shook a spear in his hand. His knights did the same. The faces of the ladies were filled with astonishment.
And here's more of this really astonishing (to me) worship of kingly trappings. It's not entirely clear from the passage how it was that "no one could mistake him for anything but the King", but a part of me is fully prepared to argue this point until nothing makes sense anymore. Kings are not inherently better looking or more striking than their contemporaries, nor do we usually select Kings based on their appearance. Kings are not always the best dressed (not that these people are dressed, unless you count the capes) people in the room, and especially not while hunting; there are numerous historical examples to the contrary. Nor can Kings always be identified by the deference of their courtiers, and that's assuming that the courtiers in question are remembering to be deferential while gazing up at a concept--a ship omfgwtfbbq--that the text explicitly notes they've never encountered before.
And this spear-shaking thing is not going to be handled well in text. Edmund is going to call them "fierce" on the basis of this single gesture of defiance, and Reepicheep will throw himself overboard in a bound-and-determined-to-get-Caspian-in-some-kind-of-war-and-time-is-running-out kind of way, fully intending to fight the Sea People king. And all this is being written in the context of a book where the author forgot that one of the first things we saw Caspian doing was dressing up in full armor and rattling a sword around in order to bluff his way through a potentially dangerous situation. A book where Edmund's reaction to a noise on the beach (i.e., undragoned Eustace) is to draw his swords. A book where Reepicheep just ran at full pelt towards the "giants" he thought he saw on Ramandu's island, intending to challenge them.
I've been saying, this whole book through, that Caspian and company aren't acting like explorers, that they're acting like conquerors. And now, in this brief moment, that someone else is doing the spear-shaking and sword-rattling, Lewis immediately agrees: Edmund will argue that if these people could breathe air, they'd have left their watery confines and invaded the shit out of Narnia because they're obviously just so savage and barbaric:
“They could live in the air as well as under water. I rather think these can’t. By the look of them they’d have surfaced and started attacking us long ago if they could. They seem very fierce.”
Okay? This is racist dreck. Which I realize (sigh) is par for the course in this book, but still. Based on an extremely quick visual assessment by Lucy and a handful of shiny rocks and nice cloths, the protagonists have decided that these people are definitely Noble; and based on the fact that they carry weapons with them in an explicitly dangerous sea and they're not afraid to show those weapons when/if they see an unidentified threat, they are also clearly Savage. And we all know what you get when you add those two things together. And this is all so much extra bullshit when you add in the fact that "wears shinyies" and "blusters aggressively" isn't just the usual option for the Caspian crew--it's the only option.
“Turn round at once, your Majesties—that’s right, with our backs to the sea. And don’t look as if we were talking about anything important.” [...]
“It’ll never do for the sailors to see all that,” said Drinian. “We’ll have men falling in love with a sea-woman, or falling in love with the under-sea country itself, and jumping overboard. I’ve heard of that kind of thing happening before in strange seas. It’s always unlucky to see these people.”
And then there's this.
Once again, we see that Lewis subscribes to the idea that the sailors are stupid. It is literally not possible for the sailors to not see the Sea People. The ship just passed over cities and castles that looked like cities and castles, and it did so while the sailors are sailing the vessel. Which means that some of them are going to be watching the water, and most of them are going to be in a position to look into the water. There will be people in the sails, or in the lookout up top, or taking soundings, or looking ahead for collisions and sea serpents and dragons, or any number of another million things that involve being near and looking at the water. Whereas apparently we are expected to believe that every man on-board is in the galley peeling potatoes.
Except Reepicheep. Of course. Who sees the King shake his spear and jumps overboard to initiate a war with this society Narnia has never before encountered. Of course. Just as he has done in every episode of this book. At this point, you know, you know, he's only going to Aslan's Country in order to pick a fight with someone. Or everyone.
“Drat that mouse!” said Drinian. “It’s more trouble than all the rest of the ship’s company put together. If there is any scrape to be got into, in it will get! It ought to be put in irons—keelhauled —marooned—have its whiskers cut off. Can anyone see the little blighter?”
All this didn’t mean that Drinian really disliked Reepicheep. On the contrary he liked him very much and was therefore frightened about him, and being frightened put him in a bad temper—just as your mother is much angrier with you for running out into the road in front of a car than a stranger would be. No one, of course, was afraid of Reepicheep’s drowning, for he was an excellent swimmer; but the three who knew what was going on below the water were afraid of those long, cruel spears in the hands of the Sea People.
And then there's this passage which is a little off. Or a lot off.
For one, when a man goes overboard, the concern is usually not that he will drown. The concern is that the ship is going very fast and neither stops nor turns on a dime, and therefore there is a good chance that the ship will leave him behind. Lewis knows the ship is going very fast--he talked about it at great length during the underwater scenery porn that I cut earlier--and he even has the sailors rushing up into the rigging to take down the sails. I would guess the implication is that the ship comes to a complete halt when the men take down the sails, then they men hop to the oars in order to get back to Reepicheep, and then when the ship "had come round" to Reepicheep, they must have thrown him a rope to haul him up. And then Drinian pushes forward and was like my rope mine get back in order to keep the sailors from seeing the Sea People.
This plan actually works. The sailors don't see the Sea People because while the text clearly says "everyone could see the black blob in the water which was Reepicheep", they aren't actually looking in the water because none of them are hauling on the rope. Only the rope-hauler is tempted to look into the unnaturally crystal clear water; everyone else has to keep their eyes on the mouse. Apparently.
And despite the fact that this flurry of activity must have taken a reasonable amount of time to enact, the Sea People do nothing to harm the mostly-helpless mouse even though the text asserts that they "were afraid of those long, cruel spears in the hands of the Sea People". And it is definitely great how the narrative has Caspian invading the air-space of the Sea People, and when they make a universal gesture for fuck off, Reepicheep dives in determined to omgwtfbbq kill their king and they hold back and wait for his people to rescue him, and the whole time the narrative is running around going omg omg omg savage killers and yet somehow, impossibly, it's not referring to the people on the Dawn Treader.
But in addition to all that, there is the weird passage about how Drinian doesn't actually dislike Reepicheep, he's just cross and worried about him. Which breaks up the tension of the scene somewhat, but also makes very little sense except as a reassurance to the reader that Reepicheep isn't the horrible crew member that he actually is. This is annoying to me. Drinian should be pissed off at Reepicheep. If this had gone just a little bit differently, they could have all died here and now. Reepicheep could have sparked off a war with a people whose air-space the ship has invaded and those people might have made the decision to strike back. And they might have had the means to accomplish it. Plus I'm guessing that the swords and arrows on the Dawn Treader aren't going to be that useful underwater.
So in light of all that, it's more than a little weird for Drinian to be predominantly cross and frightened because he's worried about Reepicheep when at least a part of him should be cross and frightened about the war that is going to end up with everyone on-board dead. Except that apparently we're not meant to see that as a possibility because it's not like Noble Savages have any real chance of stopping the white invaders in their shiny boat. Ugh.
But when the dripping Mouse had reached the deck it turned out not to be at all interested in the Sea People.
Because he is silly and stupid and easily distracted. We'll get to what distracted him next time.
But, you know? This sentence is kind of tragic in its own way, because it's not just Reepicheep who isn't interested in the Sea People. The author certainly is not; he's more interested in characterizing their pretty underwater country than he is with characterizing them. The characters aren't; for all that they want to look, there's no indication that they're actually trying to see. They don't see the obvious similarities between themselves and the Sea People, at best Lucy tries to compare them to Narnian subjects who existed to entertain High King Peter back in the day.
And that only lasts long enough for Edmund to insist that, no, nope, these Sea People are weird and other and different. And obviously, of course, savage and fierce. And after that, they don't even try. They don't try to communicate and we're expected to assume that they just can't because all the sailors would leap overboard to live in a country they can't live in with women they can't exist with. Sure, that seems like a totally valid reason and not an excuse for the same day-in-day-out selfish disinterest these characters have for everyone not themselves.