Narnia: Swallowing Up Girls

[Narnia Content Note: Heights, Animal Violence, BDSM (done badly and/or treated as mandatory)]

Narnia Recap: Eustace has fallen off a cliff and been blown into Narnia; Jill remains behind to cope with all these lion shenanigans.

The Silver Chair, Chapter 2: Jill Is Given A Task

So I went ahead and read the whole thing last night because my kindle said the average read time for this book was 3 hours and I figured we could beat that. I still stand by my initial feels that Silver Chair is the least offensive of the series because there is fewer politics and fewer theologies and more of everyone being miserable and cold, but damned if I hadn't forgotten how contrived a lot of it feels.

Like, I remember starting these deconstructions feeling that Lewis was a good writer with terrible theologies, but I can't imagine now why I thought that. I know things have improved in the world of writing, Because The Future, but ye gods this book is the definition of a railroaded plot. The first two chapters are Aslan saying "go here", then there are owls saying "go there", then there is walking, then the villain shows up saying "go over there", and then there is actual writing that can be seen from space saying "go here", and then cake. Jill and Eustace might as well be wheeled about on dollies.

I also found Puddleglum both better and worse than I remember him, but more on that later. First we have to slog through Aslan being Aslan.

   WITHOUT A GLANCE AT JILL THE LION rose to its feet and gave one last blow. Then, as if satisfied with its work, it turned and stalked slowly away, back into the forest.
   “It must be a dream, it must, it must,” said Jill to herself. “I’ll wake up in a moment.” But it wasn’t, and she didn’t.
   “I do wish we’d never come to this dreadful place,” said Jill. “I don’t believe Scrubb knew any more about it than I do. Or if he did, he had no business to bring me here without warning me what it was like. It’s not my fault he fell over that cliff. If he’d left me alone we should both be all right.” Then she remembered again the scream that Scrubb had given when he fell, and burst into tears.

The rest of the book is going to alternate between Jill taking all responsibility for everything that happened in the first chapter and Jill taking some responsibility for everything that happened etc. When Jill only takes some responsibility, Eustace (who is a Christian now and infinitely less likeable than he was in VoDT, I'm sorry to say) is quick to remind her that he is blameless.

I'm pretty sure that we're not supposed to agree with Jill here: that she was criminally misinformed (though I'd argue from Aslan as opposed to Eustace, but I think there's plenty of blame to spread between them), and that it wasn't her fault that Eustace fell. She did something ill-advised and stupid, yes, but that's why I would call it an accident. Add onto that the fact that her body just flat-out stopped working properly by author fiat, and you've got a good argument for frame-up. Jill, please contact a literary lawyer as soon as you feasibly can.

Of note: Aslan does not bother to reassure the fearful crying girl that her friend is safe and not dead.

Anyway, Jill is suddenly terribly thirsty, so thirsty that she's certain she's about to die from lack of water. I presume this is a allegory for the Water of Life or somesuch, but it instead comes back to the plot being not character-driven ("What would Jill do if her friend fell over a cliff?") and instead just author-mandated by sudden life-threatening thirst. Fine, whatever.

   Jill got up and looked round her very carefully. There was no sign of the lion; but there were so many trees about that it might easily be quite close without her seeing it. For all she knew, there might be several lions. But her thirst was very bad now, and she plucked up her courage to go and look for that running water. She went on tiptoes, stealing cautiously from tree to tree, and stopping to peer round her at every step.
    The wood was so still that it was not difficult to decide where the sound was coming from. It grew clearer every moment and, sooner than she expected, she came to an open glade and saw the stream, bright as glass, running across the turf a stone’s throw away from her. But although the sight of the water made her feel ten times thirstier than before, she didn’t rush forward and drink. She stood as still as if she had been turned into stone, with her mouth wide open. And she had a very good reason; just on this side of the stream lay the lion.
   It lay with its head raised and its two fore-paws out in front of it, like the lions in Trafalgar Square. She knew at once that it had seen her, for its eyes looked straight into hers for a moment and then turned away—as if it knew her quite well and didn’t think much of her.

And then you have stuff like this. I know that Lewis is all about how god and lion-Jesus just aren't that into you because how dare you think you're something special (unless you're a white educated man in a position of authority over others in which case you really are something special aww yisss) but, I mean, if this were my first introduction to a supposedly benevolent deity who wanted my love and died for my sins, I'd tell him to fuck off. Sizing me up with a fabulous bitch-stare without bothering to reassure me that my friend isn't spaghetti carbonara at the bottom of the nearest guardrail-free cliff is not a loving action.

But lion-Jesus isn't about love, he's about power politics, so he's got to first make it very clear to Jill that her boundaries are so much shit here because Aslan needs total power exchange to occur before you get any actual "love" or "reassurances" or "kindness". (I don't need to rant here that when Edward Cullen does this, we as a culture largely recognize it's an abusive relationship dynamic that only works well in fantasy, but that when lion-Jesus does this, we as a culture find this all well and good and normal, do I? I don't need to point out the disparity between author gender between these two examples? We can just carry on without a ten-page argle bargle from me? Yes good yes.)

   “If I run away, it’ll be after me in a moment,” thought Jill. “And if I go on, I shall run straight into its mouth.” Anyway, she couldn’t have moved if she had tried, and she couldn’t take her eyes off it. How long this lasted, she could not be sure; it seemed like hours. And the thirst became so bad that she almost felt she would not mind being eaten by the lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water first.
   “If you’re thirsty, you may drink.”
   [...She] realized that it was the lion speaking. Anyway, she had seen its lips move this time, and the voice was not like a man’s. It was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way.
   “Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
   “I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
   “Then drink,” said the Lion.
   “May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
   The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
   The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
   “Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
   “I make no promise,” said the Lion.
   Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
   “Do you eat girls?” she said.
   “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
   “I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
   “Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
   “Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
   “There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
   It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion—no one who had seen his stern face could do that—and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand. 

The thing is, if your flavor of religion really does require a total power exchange a la "you don't get to have boundaries, you don't get to hold anything back, you have to submit entirely to me" Aslan here, and if that works for you? That's really okay. I'm not trying to belittle that or act like that's something unhealthy. That really is between you and your god, just the way I'd consider it between you and your partner(s) if that was what did it for you in bed.

But. I super-strongly object to this being frequently put forth as The One True Way to Christian and/or Religion. Not all flavors of god require total and utter submission and surrender of boundaries, just as not all flavors of love require that level of total submission. And it's stuff like this that lends us to "straw-atheism" questions like "what if you dreamed god told you to murder puppies, huh?!?" (Answer: "I'd tell hir 'no'." Like, seriously, this question is not actually a silver bullet to religious people who aren't TPEing with their deity.)

And, really, I just fundamentally object to this sort of thing being fed to children: that authority figures aren't going to care about your fears, so don't even bother asking for reasonable accommodations like "maybe you could go away while I drink from the stream" or "maybe you could promise to not gobble me up". Again: in my lexicon, this is not a loving act, and presenting it not only as love but as the only way to love strikes me as irresponsible and dangerous.

   “Come here,” said the Lion. And she had to. She was almost between its front paws now, looking straight into its face. But she couldn’t stand that for long; she dropped her eyes.
   “Human Child,” said the Lion. “Where is the Boy?”
   “He fell over the cliff,” said Jill, and added, “Sir.” She didn’t know what else to call him, and it sounded cheek to call him nothing.

Just saying: Copious use of honorifics to set apart the authority power's specialness-over-you + inability to maintain eye contact are staples of power exchange erotica. Again: Not a bad thing if you're into it, but not the One True Way to do religion or love. And again-again: We notice this when it's Christian Grey but not when it's Aslan. I find that interesting, given the disparity between cultural influence.

   “How did he come to do that, Human Child?”
   “He was trying to stop me from falling, Sir.”
   “Why were you so near the edge, Human Child?”
   “I was showing off, Sir.”
   “That is a very good answer, Human Child. Do so no more. And now” (here for the first time the Lion’s face became a little less stern) “the Boy is safe. I have blown him to Narnia. But your task will be the harder because of what you have done.”

Just to recap last chapter, Jill and Eustace showed up in this place and walked around for a long while, being generally unattended. Then Jill walked right up to the edge of a cliff that they just didn't see (Failed a Spot Check) and Eustace yanked her away from the edge. Jill was in a touch of a mood over being yanked around without any kind of apology (after being yanked into this fairytale world against her better judgment) and walked up to the cliff edge to demonstrate that she wasn't afraid of heights. Then it turned out she was afraid of these heights because it was a Special Epic Uber-Cliff, and her legs stopped working. Instead of just pulling her back again, Eustace got into a cliff-side tussle with her, and a girl who has been habitually bullied pushed him away because she didn't like being grappled.

Got all that? Now EVERYTHING EVER is her fault. Let's see what these instructions are that Eustace needed to hear with her in order to make everything better.

   [...] And now hear your task. Far from here in the land of Narnia there lives an aged king who is sad because he has no prince of his blood to be king after him. He has no heir because his only son was stolen from him many years ago, and no one in Narnia knows where that prince went or whether he is still alive. But he is. I lay on you this command, that you seek this lost prince until either you have found him and brought him to his father’s house, or else died in the attempt, or else gone back to your own world.”
   “How, please?” said Jill.
   “I will tell you, Child,” said the Lion. “These are the signs by which I will guide you in your quest. 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. Second; you must journey out of Narnia to the north till you come to the ruined city of the ancient giants. Third; you shall find a writing on a stone in that ruined city, and you must do what the writing tells you. Fourth; you will know the lost prince (if you find him) by this, that he will be the first person you have met in your travels who will ask you to do something in my name, in the name of Aslan.”

First and foremost, these extra-special vague instructions are a lie: Eustace does not (and never will) "meet" King Caspian in his travels. When he lands, he sees Caspian. Seventy years older than he remembers him, so vastly aged that Eustace doesn't recognize him, from afar, in a crowd that he couldn't push through if he tried. That is not "meeting" by my dictionary, so basically Aslan is just lying through his teeth. That, and only that, will be used to castigate Jill for the rest of the damn book. Enjoy that. (I'm just grateful that she isn't turned over to the White Witch on candy-eating offenses, though, so.)

   As the Lion seemed to have finished, Jill thought she should say something. So she said, “Thank you very much. I see.”
   “Child,” said Aslan, in a gentler voice than he had yet used, “perhaps you do not see quite as well as you think. But the first step is to remember. Repeat to me, in order, the four signs.”
   Jill tried, and didn’t get them quite right. So the Lion corrected her, and made her repeat them again and again till she could say them perfectly. He was very patient over this, so that, when it was done, Jill plucked up courage to ask:
   “Please, how am I to get to Narnia?”
   “On my breath,” said the Lion. “I will blow you into the west of the world as I blew Eustace.”
   “Shall I catch him in time to tell him the first sign? But I suppose it won’t matter. If he sees an old friend, he’s sure to go and speak to him, isn’t he?”
   “You will have no time to spare,” said the Lion. “That is why I must send you at once. Come. Walk before me to the edge of the cliff.”
   Jill remembered very well that if there was no time to spare, that was her own fault. “If I hadn’t made such a fool of myself, Scrubb and I would have been going together. And he’d have heard all the instructions as well as me,” she thought. So she did as she was told. It was very alarming walking back to the edge of the cliff, especially as the Lion did not walk with her but behind her—making no noise on his soft paws.
   But long before she had got anywhere near the edge, the voice behind her said, “Stand still. In a moment I will blow. 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. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters. And now, daughter of Eve, farewell—”

And then there's all this, and I don't even know what to do with it. The silence after his vague bullshit, when Jill is searching for the right thing to say to this guy. Like, "Thank you very much. I see." is just breaking my heart in that context. Her total willingness to shoulder all the blame herself for everything instead of asking why the Lion didn't meet them at the door (since he was calling them, and they only asked to come because he wanted them to--that was in a bit that I cut). And then all this "remember the signs! repeat them daily!" stuff that logically leads us to the Left Behind mentality of caring more about deciphering Revelations than in actually doing things like helping the poor and not being a massive dillhole.

This is as good a place as any for me to plug George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie books. They're not perfect, but for my money they do the Christian allegory stuff worlds better. The Jesus-expy in those books is an old woman who is literally the most powerful person ever and is genuinely kind and loving. (And the kingly authority in the books defers to her because she is so damn smart and awesome and loving and clever and he recognizes that. He does not defer because she'll gobble him up if he doesn't. Fancy that.)

This particular Jesis-expy pets and comforts and loves the children before she gives them all the heavy stuff about sin and missions and adventures. She can look young and beautiful or old and wizened, and neither form is exoticized into a moralistic message--they're just bodily forms that she is comfortable in. And I mention those books here because when the protagonist of the second book (Curdie) asks for a sign to know her in her many forms, she basically says that he needs to know her by her actions and not by some feature that he can memorize--that this would be to know the sign instead of her. And then when he messes up and doesn't recognize her anyway after all that, she's basically like, "no, you tried, gold star and a hug for fixing everything."

Oh, and these books preceded Narnia by about 80 years. In case you were wondering if Kinder, Gentler Girl-Jesus was something that the liberals came up with later after Lewis did the hard foundational work. This is what I mean when I say that Jesus doesn't have to act like a domineering asshat who just read 50 Shades of Grey and thinks he's the bee's knees because he doesn't give two shits for your boundaries or feelings and that's totally good domming, isn't it? (Spoiler: That is not good domming.)


   Scrubb was quite right in saying that Jill (I don’t know about girls in general) didn’t think much about points of the compass. Otherwise she would have known, when the sun began getting in her eyes, that she was traveling pretty nearly due west.

...I'm not even going to comment on this.

   Now she was losing speed. Instead of being carried up the river she was gliding in to the river bank on her left. There were so many things to notice that she could hardly take them all in; a smooth, green lawn, a ship so brightly colored that it looked like an enormous piece of jewelry, towers and battlements, banners fluttering in the air, a crowd, gay clothes, armor, gold, swords, a sound of music. But this was all jumbled. The first thing that she knew clearly was that she had alighted and was standing under a thicket of trees close by the river side, and there, only a few feet away from her, was Scrubb.

And so ends Chapter 2. The children alight in a thicket of trees and they see a man they don't know across a huge crowd and in a giant jumble of color and noise and pagentry and they fail to greet the man they "meet" by glimpsing him briefly from far away and this is how Jill ruins everything. Girls, amiright?


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