Narnia: Only One Right Answer

[Narnia Content Note: Genocide, Religious Abuse, Chivalry, Racism, Slavery]
Extra Content Note: Suicide, Contempt of Consent, Disproportionate Punishment]

Narnia Recap: Our heroes meet a retired Star.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 14: The Beginning of the End of the World

We're gonna try to whip through Chapter 14 in one week, for a couple of reasons. One, the first half of the chapter is mostly world-building around Ramandu and Coriakin as stars, none of which is particularly noteworthy this far after the fact and in light of the fact that, you know, Coriakin keeps slaves. And Ramandu doesn't give very many shits apparently about his own ensorcelled prisoners. So wev.

Two, the main thrust of this chapter--Caspian's brow-beating of the Reluctant Sailors--has already been touched on in a previous post, so we can return to that and mop up some of the theologies that we didn't get to yet. So let's get started!

   SLOWLY THE DOOR OPENED AGAIN AND out there came a figure as tall and straight as the girl’s but not so slender. It carried no light but light seemed to come from it. As it came nearer, Lucy saw that it was like an old man. His silver beard came down to his bare feet in front and his silver hair hung down to his heels behind and his robe appeared to be made from the fleece of silver sheep. He looked so mild and grave that once more all the travelers rose to their feet and stood in silence.

This is your regularly-scheduled reminder that things which look human but aren't human, are evil. Except when they're not, I guess. I do kinda like how, just like with Ramandu's daughter in the last chapter, the Caspian Team all immediately give deep honor and respect to this person based entirely on how he looks. Whereas, you know, so many chapters ago, they were sneering at Governor Gumpas for being "a bilious-looking man with hair that had once been red and was now mostly gray". Obviously that's awesome. (Shoulda gone with silver hair instead of gray, Gumpas! Better luck next time!)

   Then something seemed to be flying at them out of the very center of the rising sun: but of course one couldn’t look steadily in that direction to make sure. [...] They were birds, large and white, and they came by hundreds and thousands and alighted on everything; on the grass, and the pavement, on the table, on your shoulders, your hands, and your head, till it looked as if heavy snow had fallen. 

The birds give a special type of food to the old man (either fruit or a live coal), and then literally clear the table: they eat all the food and take away anything that can't be consumed. Later that night (at the end of the chapter), the food will be "magically renewed" and okay. You know? Okay. I don't need to point out that there is starvation and slavery and scarcity in other parts of this world, do I? No, I didn't think so. This is either gonna work for you as a "eye on the sparrow" magical neat interlude, or you're gonna be uncharitable like me and ask why the Emperor's manna isn't being dropped off in a more convenient location. Either way is a valid response to the book, I think.

   Now at last the Old Man turned to the travelers and bade them welcome.“Sir,” said Caspian, “will you tell us how to undo the enchantment which holds these three Narnian Lords asleep.”
   “I will gladly tell you that, my son,” said the Old Man. “To break this enchantment you must sail to the World’s End, or as near as you can come to it, and you must come back having left at least one of your company behind.”
   “And what must happen to that one?” asked Reepicheep.
   “He must go on into the utter east and never return into the world.”
   “That is my heart’s desire,” said Reepicheep.

Hey, that's super convenient! But, you know, this essentially means that if you're in the same room as someone who touches the Knife of Longinus, you're not waking up until someone in this world commits what is, canonically, suicide for you. Going to heaven and never coming back is, as Fred Clark has aptly pointed out elsewhere, dying. It may be a more comfortable death than the other ones on offer, but it's still joining the choir invisible.

And I reckon all this makes Reepicheep our Narnian Saint Paul who has fought the good fight and run the race and is ready for his rest and reward. But in a typically more feisty Lewisian kind of way: Reepicheep doesn't long for heaven because he's tired or because he is finished now that the civil war has been won or because he doesn't want to labor any longer with the burden of his dead countrypeople, most of whom were slaughtered in the last 300 years. No, he wants to get to heaven in order to plant a FIRST! flag, like heaven is an internet comment field.

Anyway, Ramandu mentions that he is, or was, or whatever state-of-being verb you'd like, a Star.

   “Golly,” said Edmund under his breath. “He’s a retired star.”   “Aren’t you a star any longer?” asked Lucy.
   “I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu. “When I set for the last time, decrepit and old beyond all that you can reckon, I was carried to this island. I am not so old now as I was then. Every morning a bird brings me a fire-berry from the valleys in the Sun, and each fire-berry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at earth’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.”
   [...] And in this world you have already met a star: for I think you have been with Coriakin.”   “Is he a retired star, too?” said Lucy.
   “Well, not quite the same,” said Ramandu. “It was not quite as a rest that he was set to govern the Duffers. You might call it a punishment. He might have shone for thousands of years more in the southern winter sky if all had gone well.”
   “What did he do, Sir?” asked Caspian.
   “My son,” said Ramandu, “it is not for you, a son of Adam, to know what faults a star can commit. 

Well, for the love of Pete, why did you bring it up. That's just rude, I think. But beyond that, I am dubious about a system of criminal judgment which puts people who have committed crimes in the position of owning other people as slaves. And I feel like we're scratching the surface of something genuinely awful and ugly, like if Coriakin had wanted to own slaves, then that would have been a Bad Thing, but if owning slaves was thrust upon him by higher powers, then that makes it all okay.

Which, come to think of it, is pretty much how Prince Caspian justified that a twelve-year-old should rule over the people his people just spent 300 years genociding. So there's that, but I'm giving a seriously side-eye to a moral system which insists that people not be judged by their actions (like being a shit king, or being a shit slave-owner), but rather judged on the basis of whether or not they "wanted" the power they then turn around and abuse. This reminds me (as so much of this does lately) of Fred's Clark take on the theology in the Left Behind books here:

Rayford hasn’t done a single thing to try to stop him. Worse than that, Rayford has assisted and enabled this slaughter.

The authors do not seem to think that this makes Rayford culpable for the mass-death they’re now describing, but I don’t see any way to avoid that conclusion. Nicolae is killing people. Rayford is helping him.

and here:

This twisted soteriology of faith-versus-works tends to produce an equally twisted ethics in which what one does never matters, only what one feels or thinks about it. Intent becomes the only morally significant variable.

This is true in these books for “good” characters as well as for the villain. That’s why our heroes are excused for co-operating with Nicolae’s slaughter. They may have obediently carried out his every command, but their thoughts and feelings were disloyal.

On the one hand, I'm aware that comparing C.S. Lewis' theology to Tim LaHaye's theology will probably cause some heads in the audience to explode. On the other hand, I don't know how to resolve this repeated pounding of the twin drums that (a) intent is all that matters and actions don't matter in the least, and (b) power is best conferred by bestowing it on people who don't want it, aren't prepared for it, or shouldn't have it, because then (because bizarro-logic!) they won't abuse it like those power-seeking power-mongers obviously would. I mean, when Douglas Adams wrote up this problem:

To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.

he was being satirical. A ruler of the universe who refuses to believe in the existence of the universe is not actually going to result in a good universe for people. So to, a little kid who doesn't want to be king because that's a lot of responsibility and he'd rather sail around the world on a fancy quest is not going to be a good king. And a sinful star thrown to earth for some unknown act of rebellion against the powers that be isn't going to be a good master to the poor sods given to him to rule. DUH.

Anyway, Reepicheep says that of course they're gonna sail to the end of the world because why wouldn't they, etc.

   “I think the same, Reepicheep,” replied Caspian. “And even if it were not so, it would break my heart not to go as near the World’s End as the Dawn Treader will take us. But I am thinking of the crew. They signed on to seek the seven lords, not to reach the rim of the Earth. If we sail east from here we sail to find the edge, the utter east. And no one knows how far it is. They’re brave fellows, but I see signs that some of them are weary of the voyage and long to have our prow pointing to Narnia again. I don’t think I should take them further without their knowledge and consent.

Let the record show the following:

1. The crew did not sign on to reach the rim of the earth; if Caspian asks them to do so, he's asking them to do something they didn't agree to when they signed up for this mission. 

2. Caspian believes the crew to be "brave fellows" who are "weary of the voyage" and that they would like to go home. He also expresses sympathy for them.

3. Caspian feels that they shouldn't sail further without the informed consent of the crew.

I agree with all this. But, hey, look over there a puppy--Rhoop is put into a dreamless (and presumably healing) sleep until the Dawn Treader returns--and when we come back from the puppy distraction, we get this:

   “What some of us have been wanting to ask for a long time, your Majesty, is how we’re ever to get home when we do turn, whether we turn here or somewhere else. It’s been west and northwest winds all the way, barring an occasional calm. And if that doesn’t change, I’d like to know what hopes we have of seeing Narnia again. There’s not much chance of supplies lasting while we row all that way.” 
   “That’s landsman’s talk,” said Drinian. “There’s always a prevailing west wind in these seas all through the late summer, and it always changes after the New Year. We’ll have plenty of wind for sailing westward; more than we shall like from all accounts.”
   “That’s true, Master,” said an old sailor who was a Galmian by birth. “You get some ugly weather rolling up from the east in January and February. And by your leave, Sire, if I was in command of this ship, I’d say to winter here and begin the voyage home in March.”

Ye gods, I don't even with the consistency in these books. Drinian is not any more of an experienced sailor than anyone else on this ship--he literally cannot be--and even if he were, these seas are uncharted. Drinian cannot know that there's "always" a prevailing wind "in these seas" because no one has ever gone to these seas and reported back before. Even Ramandu, the Star, doesn't know what the further seas hold. So this is in no way informed consent of anything, just to be clear.

Now we've gotta have more words from Rynelf than I think we've had from him in the entire book: 

   “Your Majesties and gentlemen and ladies all,” said Rynelf, “there’s just one thing I want to say. There’s not one of us chaps as was pressed on this journey. We’re volunteers. And there’s some here that are looking very hard at that table and thinking about king’s feasts who were talking very loud about adventures on the day we sailed from Cair Paravel, and swearing they wouldn’t come home till we’d found the end of the world. And there were some standing on the quay who would have given all they had to come with us. It was thought a finer thing then to have a cabin-boy’s berth on the Dawn Treader than to wear a knight’s belt. I don’t know if you get the hang of what I’m saying. But what I mean is that I think chaps who set out like us will look as silly as—as those Dufflepuds—if we come home and say we got to the beginning of the world’s end and hadn’t the heart to go further.”

So, lemme add this up... carry the nine... we've got "Nobody Forced Us To Come" as though that were in any way relevant to whether anyone is forcing them to continue, "What Are You Chicken" because that's definitely the best way to get someone to make an informed consent decision, "It's a Privilege Just To Be Here" which is definitely true except in the sense that it isn't, and a broad smattering of shaming and racism by invoking the Dufflepuds.

   “This isn’t going to be much fun,” whispered Edmund to Caspian. “What are we to do if half those fellows hang back?”
   “Wait,” Caspian whispered back. “I’ve still a card to play.”
   [...] At this point Caspian jumped to his feet. “Friends,” he said, “I think you have not quite understood our purpose. You talk as if we had come to you with our hat in our hand, begging for shipmates. It isn’t like that at all. We and our royal brother and sister and their kinsman and Sir Reepicheep, the good knight, and the Lord Drinian have an errand to the world’s edge. It is our pleasure to choose from among such of you as are willing those whom we deem worthy of so high an enterprise. We have not said that any can come for the asking. That is why we shall now command the Lord Drinian and Master Rhince to consider carefully what men among you are the hardest in battle, the most skilled seamen, the purest in blood, the most loyal to our person, and the cleanest of life and manners; and to give their names to us in a schedule.” 
   He paused and went on in a quicker voice, “Aslan’s mane!” he exclaimed. “Do you think that the privilege of seeing the last things is to be bought for a song? Why, every man that comes with us shall bequeath the title of Dawn Treader to all his descendants, and when we land at Cair Paravel on the homeward voyage he shall have either gold or land enough to make him rich all his life. Now—scatter over the island, all of you. In half an hour’s time I shall receive the names that Lord Drinian brings me.”

I... just... have... no words. The irony is that this actually comes across as worse to me, after having heard Caspian be (for a very short moment and just to indemnify him from criticism, I'm sure) a decent human being for five seconds. But now that he's shown me that he's capable of empathizing with his crew, however briefly, it's just that much more jarring when he leaps to his feet and screams his racist, classist, Christianist, exclusionary, reverse-psychology screed at them.

I wanna just point out that before all this, Ramandu said:

   “My son,” said the star, “it would be no use, even though you wished it, to sail for the World’s End with men unwilling or men deceived. That is not how great unenchantments are achieved. They must know where they go and why

C.S. Lewis wrote those words. And then he wrote Caspian's speech up there. And he thinks that the result--the fact that the sailors get on the boat after and sail into the unknown--constitutes men who are willing, men who are undeceived, and men who freely chose their fate.

There's.... there's no way to deconstruct that. A character who says he feels sympathy for his crew, and who says he wants their honest, unforced, informed consent, just cannot and does not mesh with a character whose actions convey nothing but contempt for who those crew members are, for their choices, for their decisions, for them as people. One of these things can be true: either Caspian respects his crew, or he doesn't. And since actions speak louder than words--and since words are more likely to be self-serving lies--we end up listening to his actions.

Anything left to say is just that same fact over and over again.

Oh, and also, the sailors' "willingness" is being forced by magic too, because of course it is. What did you think Narnia was about, consent while in an unmeddled-with state of mind? Ha, here, have some Turkish Delight:

   Meanwhile Caspian’s speech, helped perhaps by some magic of the island, was having just the effect he intended. A good many who had been anxious enough to get out of the voyage felt quite differently about being left out of it. 

Let the record show that, by the rules laid out by Ramandu, this means they can never reach the World's End and disenchant the sailors. Logically, everything after this chapter is a lying fever-dream being had by Caspian in the throes of lethal dehydration. 

   And of course whenever any one sailor announced that he had made up his mind to ask for permission to sail, the ones who hadn’t said this felt that they were getting fewer and more uncomfortable. So that before the half-hour was nearly over several people were positively “sucking up” to Drinian and Rhince (at least that was what they called it at my school) to get a good report. And soon there were only three left who didn’t want to go, and those three were trying very hard to persuade others to stay with them. And very shortly after that there was only one left. And in the end he began to be afraid of being left behind all on his own and changed his mind.

OK. OK? OK. Here is the thing.

The thing, it is here. These books are Christian allegory, or whatever high-faluting word that Lewis preferred to apply to it. Aslan is Jesus. The End of the World is heaven (or, in this case here, a glimpse of it, since only Reepicheep gets to stay).

We've already mentioned, briefly, that the reason Susan was left behind was because (imo) Lewis wanted to undercut those Once Saved Always Saved Calvinists and point out that it's possible, in his theology, to become estranged from god. And we've pointed out (again, imo) how this would have been a better lesson if the person left behind wasn't the person who always had the ickiest "sinful" vibe around her, if Lewis had chosen for his scapegoat Peter or Lucy--someone who seemed "safe" but wasn't.

That sort of lesson would still have been, in my opinion, cruel to both the reader and the character, but it would have been a better, purer example of the theology I think Lewis is trying to convey: (a) no one earns their salvation and (b) no one is safe in their salvation. So no matter how good King Peter is, he can't earn his way into heaven with that goodness, and no matter how saved he seemed to be, that doesn't mean he's a shoo-in for the kingdom of heaven. And by saving Susan, he could have illustrated that (c) even the "worst" of sinners can be covered by grace, again underscoring that salvation is not an earned thing.

Here we have a sort of similar parable: the crew, unlike Reepicheep, have fought the good fight (and some of them have even died on this voyage!) and run the good race, and they are tired. They want to lay down their cause and give up and go home to an easier, better existence, and theologies be damned. To Caspian, and I would suspect to Lewis, this is sheer foolishness, the idea of giving up eternal life honor in exchange for an easier, temporary life--sure, you get to eat good food and sleep in soft beds and enjoy the company of friends and family and people who bathe regularly and aren't sweaty muscular sea-men, but what is that life compared with honor, etc.

So, okay, maybe I don't agree with all the theologies there, but long story short, the doubting crew is brought around to the right way of thinking and they all get on the boat and sail to paradise. Our father who art our shepherd cares for the tiniest lost lamb and the most stubborn sweaty muscular sailor, etc.

Except one.

Because fuck him, amiright.

   [...] Caspian accepted all the men but that one who had changed his mind at the last moment. His name was Pittencream and he stayed on the Island of the Star all the time the others were away looking for the World’s End, and he very much wished he had gone with them. He wasn’t the sort of man who could enjoy talking to Ramandu and Ramandu’s daughter (nor they to him), and it rained a good deal, and though there was a wonderful feast on the Table every night, he didn’t very much enjoy it.
   He said it gave him the creeps sitting there alone (and in the rain as likely as not) with those four Lords asleep at the end of the Table. And when the others returned he felt so out of things that he deserted on the voyage home at the Lone Islands, and went and lived in Calormen, where he told wonderful stories about his adventures at the End of the World, until at last he came to believe them himself. So you may say, in a sense, that he lived happily ever after. But he could never bear mice.

So Pittencream (who does not get a nice name, because fuck him amiright) doesn't enjoy sitting around with ensorcelled people or getting soaked in the rain or being (literally) devoid of human contact and he can't even pass the time flirting with the girl who is clearly going to be the next queen of Narnia because you know that Caspian wouldn't be okay with some Tristan and Isolde action going on under his nose. He sounds awful and definitely deserving of all the bad things.

I find myself here, at the end of Chapter 14, flailing a bit. It's worth pointing out, again, that every word on a page represents a choice. These books aren't history; they're fiction. And given a choice between Caspian relenting and bringing this last lost sheep into the fold versus the choice of kicking him to the curb to be miserable for the rest of his life--and such gleeful misery it is, too, I mean he went to live in Calormen if you can imagine--Lewis picked the latter.

He picked an exclusionary moral to an inclusive one. And did so in order to underscore a more lesson that seems to be more Lewisian than Christian--I, ahem, seem to remember a lot of Bible stories about people being saved at the last minute and for ignoble reasons like not wanting to be left behind. Here Lewis seems to be staking a claim that that theology is too inclusive for his tastes, and the riff-raff need to be kept out in order to keep the other ruffians properly in line. 

Nor is it even outlined in text why Caspian chooses to leave behind Pittencream. If there's a logic behind it besides just mean-spirited vindictiveness, it would presumably be the logic that he wants to teach the crew a lesson to not mutiny again. Which, if this had been a mutiny, might hold some water, but that ignores the fact that it wasn't--Caspian went to them and asked for their informed consent to extend their contract clause over something that wasn't negotiated for, an extension of the voyage and of the goals of that voyage. So instead the lesson really becomes "the next time I ask for your opinion, you'll say what I want you to say", which means that we're now in 50 Shades of Grey. Again.

And in case you can't wade through the 50 Shades stuff to get to the money quote I want to share from Cliff, here it is:

The "you have to be honest with me" thing really sets me off, because I got a lot of that. A lot of "how can I trust you, you have to tell the truth" silently accompanied by "but it better be a very specific truth or you're in big trouble."

I've complained before that Narnia suffered from lack of a good editor; someone who could have noticed the terribly lack of continuity in places. In some sense, it's possible that we're seeing some of that here--much of this scene does read like a lukewarm mutiny if you can ignore the bits where Caspian and Ramandu stress the necessity of consent in this situation. (And in fact, I've even previously described it as a mutiny scene, because it does read that way to me in large parts.)

It fits into the usual Cowardly Crew / Lukewarm Followers theme for these sorts of stories. And if it were a mutiny, a real one with actual danger and not just inconvenience, then it might make some sort of sense to punish a figurehead of rebellion when you can't punish the whole crew and if, if, pardoning everyone and coming to a better understanding isn't an option. If. If. If. Cannot stress that often enough.

But that mutiny scene isn't this scene. This scene is the one where Caspian goes "with our hat in our hand, begging for shipmates" (even though he claims he isn't), and says, "oh, hey, I know we only contracted you guys to carpet the living room and bedrooms, but can you also do the den and the basement while you're here? And also no one has even been in the basement before and you might not come back alive, thanks." And then despite claiming that he cares about consent and about the safety and feelings of these "brave fellows", he arbitrarily singles out for a genuinely awful punishment the guy who has the bad luck to jump on the bandwagon last.

If that weren't tragic enough, this is occurring in a book where the sailors haven't even had names or voices for most of the book. This is occurring in a book where the sailors won't go on to the end of the world because, oh, hey, the ocean got too shallow so nevermind I guess. This is occurring in a book where the whole other crew or crews that ferried the Lost Lords here are completely missing and never even remarked upon.

And it's in this book that a sailor named Pittencream has his life completely ruined--ran away, didn't go home, didn't go back to his wages, and left the job he must have worked hard to get if indeed "It was thought a finer thing then to have a cabin-boy’s berth on the Dawn Treader than to wear a knight’s belt."--because he didn't consent to what Caspian wanted him to consent to fast enough. Which means, really, that he didn't have any consent in the first place, if anything except the "right" answer would result in disproportionate punishment.

Yet Caspian, Ramandu, and Lewis all seem to consider this the epitome of informed consent. I don't know how to deal with that.


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