Narnia: Far Worse Than You Think

[Narnia Content Note: Death, Old Age, Insensitive Treatment of Hearing Disabilities]

Narnia Recap: Jill has been given really unhelpful instructions by Aslan and now we can get on with it

The Silver Chair, Chapter 3: The Sailing of the King

I really liked the comparison last time to the prophetic instructions being given to Jill by Aslan as being "plot coupons". I've been writing a lot in my quiet sabbatical from the internet, and I think I also mentioned that I've been running a role playing game. In both cases--as writer and storyteller--it actually is pretty hard to give clues and plots to the reader/players such that they feel like they're participating actively in the story as opposed to just being pulled along by the nose.

Here again I wonder if Narnia wouldn't have been a better story if Lewis had left out the religion, because I really do think that the plot coupons could have been done so much better if he hadn't felt the need to make them all vague and prophecy-like to suit his religious bent. All this stuff about memorizing the signs and rules seems to be a combination of the commandment in Deuteronomy to remember god's laws, filtered through the modern Christian interest in being ready for the future because (a) Jesus' Second Coming or (b) your own personal death and judgment, whichever comes first.

But, first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. 
--Silver Chair, Chapter 2

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth. 
--Deuteronomy 11:18-21

As a means to crowbar Deuteronomy into your book, it's not the most inelegant approach Lewis could have taken. But once Deuteronomy has been awkwardly crowbar'd into your book, now it's sitting there like a lumpy frog squatting over everything else, because--as everyone pointed out very nicely in the last installment--this basically ensures that Jill and Eustace have been setup to fail. Case in point, let us remember the first "sign" (which is not really a sign at all, but whatever):

First; as soon as the Boy Eustace sets foot in Narnia, he will meet an old and dear friend. He must greet that friend at once; if he does, you will both have good help.

So. Okay. Eustace and Jill have now set foot in Narnia. What do we see there?

On the near side was a quay of white marble and, moored to this, the ship: a tall ship with high forecastle and high poop, gilded and crimson, with a great flag at the mast-head, and many banners waving from the decks, and a row of shields, bright as silver, along the bulwarks. The gangplank was laid to her, and at the foot of it, just ready to go on board, stood an old, old man. He wore a rich mantle of scarlet which opened in front to show his silver mail-shirt. There was a thin circlet of gold on his head. His beard, white as wool, fell nearly to his waist. He stood straight enough, leaning one hand on the shoulder of a richly dressed lord who seemed younger than himself: but you could see he was very old and frail. He looked as if a puff of wind could blow him away, and his eyes were watery.
   Immediately in front of the King—who had turned round to speak to his people before going on board the ship—there was a little chair on wheels, and, harnessed to it, a little donkey: not much bigger than a big retriever. In this chair sat a fat little dwarf. [...]
   Farther back, in a half-circle, stood what Jill at once knew to be courtiers. They were well worth looking at for their clothes and armor alone. As far as that went, they looked more like a flower-bed than a crowd. But what really made Jill open her eyes and mouth as wide as they would go, was the people themselves. If “people” was the right word. For only about one in every five was human. 

Okay. So, first of all, Eustace has not "met" Caspian. He has seen him. From a distance. About to board a ship. In the middle of a noisy crowd. Even if Eustace knew beyond a shadow of a doubt who this was and what to do with him, I have strong doubts that he even could.

Other fun things to note here: Caspian is 70 years older than he was when Eustace was last here. His son (the missing prince) was kidnapped 10 years ago, and was "a very young knight", which Wikipedia places in the early 20s. We will also learn that Caspian brought Ramandu's daughter back as his bride. Apparently--and I do not well understand this--Caspian's son was born when he was nearly 60, and he spent 40 years prior to that without a stable heir. And this is only now becoming a concern, on the grounds that Caspian is very very old.

That... is generally not how monarchies work. I mean, I don't want to tell Lewis his job, but this makes no sense to me, that only now is the lack of an heir becoming a major concern. This should have been a big deal for the 40 years prior to Rilian's birth, it should have been a big deal after his disappearance, and frankly it should have been a moderately big deal during his 20 years of life since having only one heir is generally a worrisome thing in monarchies.

Other interesting thing to note: in seventy years, the population of Narnia has changed from "so few native Narnians that the Telmarines can plausibly believe they never even existed" to 80% of this crowd. If the crowd is meant to be representative of the national population, then... wow. I don't even know how to brain at the political implications of this. Let alone the biological ones. Do the Talking Beasts reproduce at the same rate as non-talking beasts? The canon implies that they have "human" larger sizes and longer lifespans, so... probably they aren't having litters of babies? Maybe? Who knows!

   “Scrubb!” she whispered, grabbing his arm. “Scrubb, quick! Do you see anyone you know?”   
   “So you’ve turned up again, have you?” said Scrubb disagreeably (for which he had some reason). “Well, keep quiet, can’t you? I want to listen.”
   “Don’t be a fool,” said Jill. “There isn’t a moment to lose. Don’t you see some old friend here? Because you’ve got to go and speak to him at once.”
   “What are you talking about?” said Scrubb.
   “It’s Aslan—the Lion—says you’ve got to,” said Jill despairingly. “I’ve seen him.”
   “Oh, you have, have you? What did he say?”
   “He said the very first person you saw in Narnia would be an old friend, and you’d got to speak to him at once.”
   “Well, there’s nobody here I’ve ever seen in my life before; and anyway, I don’t know whether this is Narnia.”
   “Thought you said you’d been here before,” said Jill.
   “Well, you thought wrong then.”
   “Well, I like that! You told me—”
   “For heaven’s sake dry up and let’s hear what they’re saying.”


I really have no clue what she could have done differently here, but holy hell is the narrative stacked against her. We're informed that Eustace had "some reason" to be cross, and I guess that's just supposed to excuse that he completely disregards her urgency and talks all over her and interrupts her.

The thing that bugs me about Eustace here (well, besides everything) is that I really do think we're supposed to view him as changed. I realize that this is subjective, and I also know that many people view him as consistent across VoDT and SC, and think he stays annoying throughout, but I personally do not. I liked Eustace in VoDT. He interrupted sometimes to snark at the camera when things didn't make sense, but he generally snarked up. King Caspian got the worst of his temper, and after that King Edmund, and damned if I didn't agree that those two needed some healthy disagreement.

Here Eustace is being disagreeable again, but he's snarking down. Jill has just been terrified out of her wits (a paradigm with which Eustace should be very familiar in this world!), and instead of trying to comfort her or work with her or at the very least snark at Aslan ("Well, he didn't give you very good instructions, did he? What a tossrag."), he's taking all his frustration out on her. He's a Christian now, but honestly this Eustace feels more like a bully to me than the "bully" Eustace in VoDT.

Subjective, I know. But I think the power politics then (Eustace as the powerless one) and now (Eustace as the more experienced one) matter in the context we're given.

   The King was speaking to the Dwarf, but Jill couldn’t hear what he said. And, as far as she could make out, the Dwarf made no answer, though he nodded and wagged his head a great deal. Then the King raised his voice and addressed the whole court: but his voice was so old and cracked that she could understand very little of his speech—especially since it was all about people and places she had never heard of. 

So the kids are really far away. Just need to stress that. Anyway, an owl shows up to propel the two further down the plot-path.  

   “Too true, too true,” said the Owl sadly, shaking its big head. “But who are you? There’s something magic about you two. I saw you arrive: you flew. Everyone else was so busy seeing the King off that nobody knew. Except me. I happened to notice you, you flew.”   “We were sent here by Aslan,” said Eustace in a low voice.
   “Tu-whoo, tu-whoo!” said the Owl, ruffling out its feathers. “This is almost too much for me, so early in the evening. I’m not quite myself till the sun’s down.”
   “And we’ve been sent to find the lost Prince,” said Jill, who had been anxiously waiting to get into the conversation.
   “It’s the first I’ve heard about it,” said Eustace. “What prince?”

Oh, Eustace. You and I just aren't going to get along well on this read-through, are we. I have to keep reminding myself that you're just as much a victim in this as all the other children that Aslan pulls over into Narnia, but son you are on thin ice.

Seriously, if you are in a magic land and you get separated and one of you comes back with a Mission From God, don't question your friend in public, dammit. Just smile and nod and ask them in private later. This is how you're kept from having your royal escort and whatnot, Eustace, not because you didn't schmooze with the king. (Except not really, because it's vitally important that this be Jill's fault for some reason.)

   “What is the King’s name?” asked Eustace.
    “Caspian the Tenth,” said the Owl. And Jill wondered why Scrubb had suddenly pulled up short in his walk and turned an extraordinary color. She thought she had never seen him look so sick about anything. 

Finally! A reaction! It's been four books and this is the first time there's been a real canon reaction to the announcement that everyone the children cared about just a few months ago is now dead or dying. I mean, we had Susan being sad for a paragraph, but Susan is a sinner and doesn't count. Now we finally have emotions from a man and therefore they are Valid Emotions, and I'm wondering if Lewis hadn't started receiving feedback from the first books at this point. Because holy shit human-feels in a human-character, it's more than I've come to expect from the kids in these books.

Yes. Please let us sit very quietly with the realization that a young man, barely older than Eustace, who was his friend and his mentor and like a big brother to him, is now on the cusp of dying from old age, just a few months later. That would hurt most people. And Eustace probably didn't know to expect it. He's been dreaming about Aslan maybe-sorta-kinda implying that he might be able to come back, hoping against hope to see his friends again, and now that dream has come true and HAHA everyone you ever knew and loved is dead. ZING!

That hurts.

So instead of dwelling on that, let us now make fun of people with hearing disabilities. (Seriously, Lewis, fuck you so much.) 

   “Tu-whoo! Ahem! Lord Regent,” said the Owl, stooping down a little and holding its beak near the Dwarf’s ear.
    “Heh? What’s that?” said the Dwarf.
   “Two strangers, my lord,” said the Owl.
   “Rangers! What d’ye mean?” said the Dwarf. “I see two uncommonly grubby man-cubs. What do they want?”
   “My name’s Jill,” said Jill, pressing forward. She was very eager to explain the important business on which they had come.
   “The girl’s called Jill,” said the Owl, as loud as it could.
   “What’s that?” said the Dwarf. “The girls are all killed! I don’t believe a word of it. What girls? Who killed ‘em?”
   “Only one girl, my lord,” said the Owl. “Her name is Jill.”
   “Speak up, speak up,” said the Dwarf. “Don’t stand there buzzing and twittering in my ear. Who’s been killed?”
   “Nobody’s been killed,” hooted the Owl.
   “All right, all right. You needn’t shout. I’m not so deaf as all that. What do you mean by coming here to tell me that nobody’s been killed? Why should anyone have been killed?”
   “Better tell him I’m Eustace,” said Scrubb.
   “The boy’s Eustace, my lord,” hooted the Owl as loud as it could.
   “Useless?” said the Dwarf irritably. “I dare say he is. Is that any reason for bringing him to court? Hey?”
   “Not useless,” said the Owl. “EUSTACE.”
   “Used to it, is he? I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m sure. I tell you what it is, Master Glimfeather; when I was a young Dwarf there used to be talking beasts and birds in this country who really could talk. There wasn’t all this mumbling and muttering and whispering. It wouldn’t have been tolerated for a moment. Not for a moment, Sir. Urnus, my trumpet please—”
   A little Faun who had been standing quietly beside the Dwarf’s elbow all this time now handed him a silver ear-trumpet. It was made like the musical instrument called a serpent, so that the tube curled right round the Dwarf’s neck. While he was getting it settled the Owl, Glimfeather, suddenly said to the children in a whisper:
   “My brain’s a bit clearer now. Don’t say anything about the lost Prince. I’ll explain later. It wouldn’t do, wouldn’t do, Tu-Whoo! Oh what a todo!”
   “Now,” said the Dwarf, “if you have anything sensible to say, Master Glimfeather, try and say it. Take a deep breath and don’t attempt to speak too quickly.”
   With help from the children, and in spite of a fit of coughing on the part of the Dwarf, Glimfeather explained that the strangers had been sent by Aslan to visit the court of Narnia. The Dwarf glanced quickly up at them with a new expression in his eyes.
   “Sent by the Lion Himself, hey?” he said. “And from—m’m—from that other Place—beyond the world’s end, hey?”
   “Yes, my lord,” bawled Eustace into the trumpet.
   “Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve, hey?” said the Dwarf. But people at Experiment House haven’t heard of Adam and Eve, so Jill and Eustace couldn’t answer this. But the Dwarf didn’t seem to notice.
   “Well, my dears,” he said, taking first one and then the other by the hand and bowing his head a little. “You are very heartily welcome. If the good King, my poor Master, had not this very hour set sail for Seven Isles, he would have been glad of your coming. It would have brought back his youth to him for a moment—for a moment. And now, it is high time for supper. You shall tell me your business in full council tomorrow morning. Master Glimfeather, see that bedchambers and suitable clothes and all else are provided for these guests in the most honorable fashion. And—Glimfeather—in your ear—”
   Here the Dwarf put his mouth close to the Owl’s head and, no doubt, intended to whisper: but, like other deaf people, he wasn’t a very good judge of his own voice, and both children heard him say, “See that they’re properly washed.”


Hahaha, deaf people, amiright?

Moving on from that, I see that we've decided to trod on any established world-building, because I don't care how many Bibles they don't have at Experiment House, Eustace just spent an in-Narnia year or so being called a Son of Adam and hearing Lucy being called a Daughter of Eve, so there's no reason whatsoever for him not to say, "yep, that's us". But how else would we point and laugh at the liberals?

Then there is a lot of scenery porn and we get to meet one of the few women that these books approve of: quiet, feminine, servile, small to the point of being childlike, and nameless. 

   Into these the Owl led them, and there a most delightful person was called to look after Jill. She was not much taller than Jill herself, and a good deal slenderer, but obviously full grown, graceful as a willow, and her hair was willowy too, and there seemed to be moss in it. She brought Jill to a round room in one of the turrets, where there was a little bath sunk in the floor and a fire of sweet-smelling woods burning on the flat hearth and a lamp hanging by a silver chain from the vaulted roof. The window looked west into the strange land of Narnia, and Jill saw the red remains of the sunset still glowing behind distant mountains. It made her long for more adventures and feel sure that this was only the beginning.

In terms of praise, here is an example of why I actually like this book: some comfort porn of nice baths and soft clothes and warm fireplaces right before the adventure begins is always very welcome. It both heightens the contrast when the cold, wintery trudge-over-marshes-and-mountains happens and gives you a nice end-goal to look forward to. Like, everything is miserable now, but someday there will be castles with soft clothes and warm fireplaces again. And exciting heart-stirring scenery to stare at.

   “Come in,” said Jill. And in came Scrubb, also bathed and splendidly dressed in Narnian clothes. But his face didn’t look as if he were enjoying it.
   “Oh, here you are at last,” he said crossly, flinging himself into a chair. “I’ve been trying to find you for ever so long.”
   “Well, now you have,” said Jill. “I say, Scrubb, isn’t it all simply too exciting and scrumptious for words.” She had forgotten all about the signs and the lost Prince for the moment.
   “Oh! That’s what you think, is it?” said Scrubb: and then, after a pause, “I wish to goodness we’d never come.”
   “Why on earth?”
   “I can’t bear it,” said Scrubb. “Seeing the King—Caspian—a doddering old man like that. It’s—it’s frightful.”
   “Why, what harm does it do you?”
   “Oh, you don’t understand. Now that I come to think of it, you couldn’t. I didn’t tell you that this world has a different time from ours.”
   “How do you mean?”
   “The time you spend here doesn’t take up any of our time. Do you see? I mean, however long we spend here, we shall still get back to Experiment House at the moment we left it—”
   “That won’t be much fun—”
   “Oh, dry up! Don’t keep interrupting. And when you’re back in England—in our world—you can’t tell how time is going here. It might be any number of years in Narnia while we’re having one year at home. The Pevensies explained it all to me, but, like a fool, I forgot about it. And now apparently it’s been about seventy years—Narnian years—since I was here last. Do you see now? And I come back and find Caspian an old, old man.”
   “Then the King was an old friend of yours!” said Jill. A horrid thought had struck her.
   “I should jolly well think he was,” said Scrubb miserably. “About as good a friend as a chap could have. And last time he was only a few years older than me. And to see that old man with a white beard, and to remember Caspian as he was the morning we captured the Lone Islands, or in the fight with the Sea Serpent—oh, it’s frightful. It’s worse than coming back and finding him dead.”
   “Oh, shut up,” said Jill impatiently. “It’s far worse than you think. We’ve muffed the first Sign.” Of course Scrubb did not understand this. Then Jill told him about her conversation with Aslan and the four signs and the task of finding the lost prince which had been laid upon them.
   “So you see,” she wound up, “you did see an old friend, just as Aslan said, and you ought to have gone and spoken to him at once. And now you haven’t, and everything is going wrong from the very beginning.”
   “But how was I to know?” said Scrubb.
   “If you’d only listened to me when I tried to tell you, we’d be all right,” said Jill.
   “Yes, and if you hadn’t played the fool on the edge of that cliff and jolly nearly murdered me—all right, I said murder, and I’ll say it again as often as I like, so keep your hair on—we’d have come together and both known what to do.”
   “I suppose he was the very first person you saw?” said Jill. “You must have been here hours before me. Are you sure you didn’t see anyone else first?”
   “I was only here about a minute before you,” said Scrubb. “He must have blown you quicker than me. Making up for lost time: the time you lost.”
   “Don’t be a perfect beast, Scrubb,” said Jill. “Hallo! What’s that?”
   It was the castle bell ringing for supper, and thus what looked like turning into a first-rate quarrel was happily cut short. Both had a good appetite by this time.

And then I read passages like this, and I realize I can't hate Eustace for being monstrous because he can't help but be monstrous. Not when he's being written by a monstrous person.

I don't mean that as an insult. I know there are a lot of people who read these deconstructions and decide that I'm an emotional woman (is there any other kind?) who has taken it into her head to hate a long-dead writer who never did her any harm. If that paradigm gets people through the day, go with god on that misconception. But I really don't hate Lewis or wish him ill, and obviously even if I did, that would be futile. No, I mean that he is "monstrous" in the sense that, well, I find his worldview truly horrific.

Go back over that sequence. Eustace is mourning, genuinely mourning, over the imminent death of a friend of his. Maybe this doesn't make the most sense logically, since Caspian presumably lived a long and full life in the seventy years he's had since he last met Eustace, but this isn't a logical situation. Eustace has spent days, weeks, months of time longing to come back here and see his friends again, only to have that wish granted in one of the cruelest ways possible: he was brought back just in time to see them decrepit and aged and on the cusp of death. Eustace will never talk to Caspian ever again--he dies at the end of this book before Eustace has a chance to speak with him.

(This is not strictly true; Eustace gets to talk to Caspian after he dies. But hold on that for the moment.)

This is the moment that Susan and Lucy and Peter and Edmund didn't get to have in Prince Caspian because they were too busy trying to survive on apples and spring water. This is the moment where Eustace sits down and grapples with the realization that for all the good that Narnia brought into his life, it brings pain that he never expected to have to deal with at his young age--pain that most humans never deal with at all, because most humans do not have to see their friends age 70 years in a matter of months. This is the point where he looks at Jill and pours out his soul and starts to say "don't get attached to anyone here! don't love anything you see! it will be taken away and if you do see it again, it will be warped beyond recognition!"

And what does Jill say, echoing the author's own mindset and point of view?  

It’s far worse than you think. We’ve muffed the first Sign.

Fuck your signs, Lewis! Fuck the lost prince that Aslan couldn't be arsed to rescue! (And, oh by the way, lots and lots of people have vanished trying to rescue him and will never be seen again and were presumably killed and I can only assume Aslan didn't lift a paw to save any of them.) Fuck your god and your prophecies and your theologies and just let this little boy--who can't be more than 11 or 12!--sit down and cry at the realization that the one good, bright, shining thing in his life, Narnia, is the source of more pain and sadness than Experiment House could ever have inflicted on him.

The fact that Lewis couldn't see this? The fact that he couldn't think to write in Jill (or someone, anyone) sitting down with Eustace and giving him a hug for a few minutes while he works out these feelings? The fact that Lewis seems to genuinely, honestly think that "muffing the first sign" is worse than watching your friend age and die before your very eyes? That, to me, is genuinely monstrous in a "totally lacking any sense of empathy" kind of way.

Imagine, if you will, an Aslan who is genuinely capable of real empathy. He wouldn't have traumatized these children by letting them footle around on cliffs. He would have approached Eustace as a friend. He would have put Jill's mind at ease. He would have been loving and sweet and kind, and his mane would have smelled of all the good things ever, and he would have been everything the first books (and the movies) want to convince us that he is to Lucy. Then he would have gently broken the news to Eustace about Caspian, and reassured him that he would see him in the second life that is to come. He would have given him space to mourn, and given him a safe place to cry. And only when the children were refreshed and ready would he have sent them on their way.

He would have done that because that is what love does. All this "oh, he's not a tame lion" nonsense is just a cop-out to handwave how Lewis came up with a deity who is so impoverished in kindness and empathy and love that he is more a demon than a god.

It would have been easy to include comfort from Aslan. Or, barring that, comfort from Jill. It could even have fit the theologies: sometimes god isn't capable of manifesting in physical form to hold us, so it is on our fellow humans to comfort one another in time of need. We could have had a good cry, and then the children would have felt better, and there could be a little moral, and then the end of the chapter. We don't get that. Instead we get food porn and a sequel hook. Because priorities.

   Supper in the great hall of the castle was the most splendid thing either of them had ever seen; for though Eustace had been in that world before, he had spent his whole visit at sea and knew nothing of the glory and courtesy of the Narnians at home in their own land. The banners hung from the roof, and each course came in with trumpeters and kettledrums. There were soups that would make your mouth water to think of, and the lovely fishes called pavenders, and venison and peacock and pies, and ices and jellies and fruit and nuts, and all manner of wines and fruit drinks. Even Eustace cheered up and admitted that it was “something like.” And when all the serious eating and drinking was over, a blind poet came forward and struck up the grand old tale of Prince Cor and Aravis and the horse Bree, which is called The Horse and His Boy and tells of an adventure that happened in Narnia and Calormen and the lands between, in the Golden Age when Peter was High King in Cair Paravel. (I haven’t time to tell it now, though it is well worth hearing.)
   When they were dragging themselves upstairs to bed, yawning their heads off, Jill said, “I bet we sleep well tonight”; for it had been a full day. Which just shows how little anyone knows what is going to happen to them next.

Like how you never really know if your best friend is going to age 70 years in a day and drop dead before your very eyes. Little things like that. Haha!


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