Narnia: Bother the Signs

[Narnia Content Note: Depression, Misogyny, Death by Exposure]

Narnia Recap: The trio have met the Green Lady and are now obsessed with going to Harfang.

The Silver Chair, Chapter 7: The Hill of the Strange Trenches

I've mentioned throughout this book that I really like the traveling parts of this tale. I like travel tales, probably because I can't travel so there's a vicarious interest there. I was one of those who really liked the bits in The Hunger Games where Katniss had to, like, iodize water or whatever because I think shit like that is cool. One of my biggest gripes when I tried to read the unabridged version of Journey to the Center of the Earth (it's awful) was that they took meat and biscuits "enough to last six months" but "of water, not a drop". Instead they took gourds expecting to find all the drinkable water they'd need on the way. Gah!

I mention all that to now mention this: I'm in a spring cleaning mood because of the nice weather, and I've been reading a lot of DIY organization sites which are a real head-trip for me, but in a good way. I got to a tip about storing nails and screws and tiny things in DYMO labeled Altoid tins and I was like "aha! something I can do!" because fuck putting up shelves and things on my nice empty walls. (Empty walls for the win, is all I'm saying.) Anyway. I was startled and pleased to realize that there is an entire industry of used Altoid tins on eBay and you should never throw your Altoid tins away because you can sell them for, like, a dollar each.

Why? you ask. Because survivalists and campers and such have all these lovely instructions for making first aid kits and camping kits out of Altoid tins. I read up on several of these and was fascinated and very amused to find that the survivalist kits recommend carrying condoms in the Altoid tin because a condom can hold a gallon of water. One, I am dubious about this measurement. Two, I was sad to see that not every instruction site mentioned getting condoms which are not pre-lubed or spermicided, as this seems an important detail to neglect like that. Three, one site suggested that in the absence of purification tablets, a day in the sun will kill all nasty things in the water, and I'm dubious about this as well. Four, mostly I really just want condoms to be handed out at, like, Boy Scout meetings in order for the Texas politicians to have a fit, because this would amuse me.

None of that really has anything to do with anything except to say that I'm actually very sympathetic with Jill and Eustace wanting to get to a safe town that has water in containers that are presumably not the condoms they've been carrying with them all these days (weeks?). Also there's a blizzard going on and I'm pretty sure that the trio would die of exposure if they didn't reach the city. Aslan has not set them up for success here. So anyway, time to "mess up" the third sign which Lewis very carefully does not repeat for us here, so I'll do it:

Sign 3: You shall find the writing on a stone in that ruined city, and you must do what the writing tells you.

Writing on "a" stone. Got it.

   THERE IS NO DENYING IT WAS A BEAST of a day. Overhead was a sunless sky, muffled in clouds that were heavy with snow; underfoot, a black frost; blowing over it, a wind that felt as if it would take your skin off. 

I will here remind everyone that Jill is wandering around with exposed skin below the knee. No word on the guys' clothes. 

   At about ten o’clock the first tiny snow flakes came loitering down and settled on Jill’s arm. Ten minutes later they were falling quite thickly. In twenty minutes the ground was noticeably white. And by the end of half an hour a good steady snowstorm, which looked as if it meant to last all day, was driving in their faces so that they could hardly see.
   In order to understand what followed, you must keep on remembering how little they could see. 

So they basically have zero visibility. This is canon in the text. Then we get a lot of description about ruined roads and low walls and climbs and Jill falling once (no word on the guys falling, sigh). They're supposed to be climbing stairs, with each step four feet high, and just not noticing that they're on an unusually ledgey slope, but I mean... stairs form naturally in the wild? I mean, maybe not outside (I honestly don't know), but there are definitely cave steps that are natural formations. And they already know they're on a ruined road, so... I don't even know what Lewis is trying to do, honestly.

Like, later there will be a forehead-slapping moment of oh of course we were on stairs how foolish of us but... they were on a road. And before that a bridge. Literally none of their travel for days has been away from the remnants of this old civilization, so I'm not sure why stairs were supposed to cause an epiphany. The implication is that they should have said "welp! We've arrived, let's find this writing then!" but they're in a blizzard and there's apparent safety (with a hard time-limit of noon) right over there, it makes a lot of sense to me to go to the warm non-blizzardy place for today and sort shit out tomorrow.

Literally, this is the weaksauceiest "sin" ever.

   [...] In most places the snow was still hardly lying at all, for the wind kept catching it up off the ground in sheets and clouds, and hurling it in their faces. And round their feet little eddies of snow ran about as you sometimes see them doing over ice. And, indeed, in many places, the surface was almost as smooth as ice. [...]
   Fighting her way forward with hood up and head down and numb hands inside her cloak, Jill had glimpses of other odd things on that horrible tableland—things on her right that looked vaguely like factory chimneys, and, on her left, a huge cliff, straighter than any cliff ought to be. But she wasn’t at all interested and didn’t give them a thought. The only things she thought about were her cold hands (and nose and chin and ears) and hot baths and beds at Harfang.

I just really don't know of a way to read this book without seeing Aslan as a cruel and dangerous sadist. This isn't like Jill was craving food and luxury in moderately chilly weather with her feet kinda hurting. She's in shorts and this is a full-scale blizzard. The fact that she's still alive at this point is frankly astounding to me. Did... did Lewis just not understand that snow storms were a big deal? Did he not care? Making this out as a sin of gluttony or luxury just strikes me as so incredibly out of touch with anything and everything ever. Like, "zomg she cared about her cold hands!", yes, of course she did, because if they don't get somewhere warm quickly, she is going to lose a finger.

   Suddenly she skidded, slid about five feet, and found herself to her horror sliding down into a dark, narrow chasm which seemed that moment to have appeared in front of her. Half a second later she had reached the bottom. She appeared to be in a kind of trench or groove, only about three feet wide. And though she was shaken by the fall, almost the first thing she noticed was the relief of being out of the wind; for the walls of the trench rose high above her. The next thing she noticed was, naturally, the anxious faces of Scrubb and Puddleglum looking down at her from the edge.
   “Are you hurt, Pole?” shouted Scrubb.
   “Both legs broken, I shouldn’t wonder,” shouted Puddleglum.
   Jill stood up and explained that she was all right, but they’d have to help her out.

Remember when we first started these books and I went through and counted all the dialogue and made that pie chart graph about how many words Susan got to, say, Edmund who went missing for half the book? I'm almost tempted to do that again for this book, because it's become intensely disturbing to me that most of the spoken words come from Puddleglum and not Jill. I pointed this out last time, but I want to do it again: a female protagonist isn't really that big of a win for me as a reader when her older male companion gets more words in and is always-right to her always-wrong.

   “What’s round the corner?” asked Scrubb. 
   Now it happened that Jill had the same feeling about twisty passages and dark places underground, or even nearly underground, that Scrubb had about the edges of cliffs. She had no intention of going round that corner alone; especially when she heard Puddleglum bawling out from behind her:
   “Be careful, Pole. It’s just the sort of place that might lead to a dragon’s cave. And in a giant country, there might be giant earth-worms or giant beetles.”
   “I don’t think it goes anywhere much,” said Jill, coming hastily back.
   “I’m jolly well going to have a look,” said Scrubb. “What do you mean by anywhere much, Ishould like to know?” So he sat down on the edge of the trench (everyone was too wet by now to bother about being a bit wetter) and then dropped in. He pushed past Jill and, though he didn’t say anything, she felt sure that he knew she had funked it. So she followed him close, but took care not to get in front of him.

Case in point: When it comes to someone actually doing something for the first time in a long while, Jill begs off and Eustace does the doing. This is not how we do female protagonists and frankly I just want to take all the points from Lewis' Gryffindor for this sort of thing.

Sigh. Anyway, they explore the "trench" and it keeps dead-ending in weird ways, and I'll just save everyone the trouble now: it's a letter that has been carved into the earth. The letters together spell out UNDER ME and this is the "writing" (except it's really not) that was "on a stone" (except it's really not) that is "telling them" something to do (except it's really not).

   But it was dreadful to be out on top again. Down in those narrow slits of trenches, their ears had almost begun to thaw. They had been able to see clearly and breathe easily and hear each other speak without shouting. It was absolute misery to come back into the withering coldness. And it did seem hard when Puddleglum chose that moment for saying:
    “Are you still sure of those signs, Pole? What’s the one we ought to be after now?”
   “Oh, come on! Bother the signs,” said Pole. “Something about someone mentioning Aslan’s name, I think. But I’m jolly well not going to give a recitation here.”
   As you see, she had got the order wrong. That was because she had given up saying the signs over every night. She still really knew them, if she troubled to think: but she was no longer so “pat” in her lesson as to be sure of reeling them off in the right order at a moment’s notice and without thinking. Puddleglum’s question annoyed her because, deep down inside her, she was already annoyed with herself for not knowing the Lion’s lesson quite so well as she felt she ought to have known it. This annoyance, added to the misery of being very cold and tired, made her say, “Bother the signs.” She didn’t perhaps quite mean it.
   “Oh, that was next, was it?” said Puddleglum. “Now I wonder, are you right? Got ‘em mixed, I shouldn’t wonder. It seems to me, this hill, this flat place we’re on, is worth stopping to have a look at. Have you noticed—”
   “Oh Lor!” said Scrubb, “is this a time for stopping to admire the view? For goodness’ sake let’s get on.”

There's absolutely no reason for Puddleglum to think of the signs right now except that he's the author favorite (and, as an older man, the closest thing to an author insert for this adventure) and he gets to be right and Jill and Eustace get to be wrong. This book is and continues to be fanfiction for Puddleglum that desperately hopes we won't notice and take away the female protagonist cred card. This is me noticing.

And I need to again point out that they're in the middle of an active blizzard. The fact that they can have this conversation at all and hear one another really ought to be impossible. It's a miracle that they haven't been separated, since they don't seem to be holding hands and they definitely aren't tied together. I've given the Little House books a lot of (well-deserved, imho) drubbing, but one thing they got right was that cold weather kills.

   “Oh, look, look, look,” cried Jill and pointed. Everyone turned, and everyone saw. Some way off to the north, and a good deal higher up than the tableland on which they stood, a line of lights had appeared. This time, even more obviously than when the travelers had seen them the night before, they were windows: smaller windows that made one think deliciously of bedrooms, and larger windows that made one think of great halls with fires roaring on the hearth and hot soup or juicy sirloins smoking on the table.
   “Harfang!” exclaimed Scrubb.
   “That’s all very well,” said Puddleglum. “But what I was saying was—”
   “Oh, shut up,” said Jill crossly. “We haven’t a moment to lose. Don’t you remember what the Lady said about their locking up so early? We must get there in time, we must, we must. We’ll die if we’re shut out on a night like this.”
   “Well, it isn’t exactly a night, not yet,” began Puddleglum; but the two children both said, “Come on,” and began stumbling forward on the slippery tableland as quickly as their legs would carry them. The Marsh-wiggle followed them: still talking, but now that they were forcing their way into the wind again, they could not have heard him even if they had wanted to. And they didn’t want. They were thinking of baths and beds and hot drinks; and the idea of coming to Harfang too late and being shut out was almost unbearable.

Oh my god, it's like Lewis actively enjoys breaking character. Puddleglum is supposed to be the most morose, depressive, worst-case-scenario-spinning person in the entire canonical universe and he's arguing with Jill about their survival chances if they get locked out of Harfang. She's not wrong. The book clearly states that the blizzard continues all day long. It's pre-noon, yes, but there's not some magical day-exemption to dying from exposure. Here, have a hypothermia-related deaths per year chart. I realize that Lewis didn't have google when he was writing, but this is just so massively unfair.

Everything is stacked against Jill here. The visibility. The weather. Her clothing! The arbitrary time-limit that Harfang doesn't let people in past noon. (Which will quickly be discarded in the morrow because otherwise absolutely nothing that follows will make sense.) And then Puddleglum goes entirely out-of-character to argue that they could definitely all survive this and should definitely try to stay out in a blizzard without any kind of shelter whatsoever and nothing with which to make a fire even. All so that Jill can be wrong (and girly and luxury-focused and sinful!) and Puddleglum can be right. 

I need to pause for a moment here and really point at the fact that sins in this series are "girly" sins. Edmund eats luxurious candies and obeys a woman. Susan loses religion over lipstick and nylons. Jill wants hot food and a warm bed. Eustace listens to his domineering mother and her feminist ways. We'll get to Aravis and Polly later, but they fit the same pattern, in my opinion. Sins of greed and pride and violence and rudeness--sins that Caspian or Peter or Puddleglum or Aslan could commit--are not mentioned and not dwelt upon. Sin, in Narnia, is being girlish and luxurious and that is a problem.

This stuff isn't occurring in a vacuum. We can't look at Susan's "sin" apart from Jill's "sin", or Edmund's "sin" from Eustace's "sin"; when we do, we miss the larger picture that Lewis is painting with this series. Jill is sinful not because she refused to feed the poor or clothe the sick or because she turned away the needy. She is sinful because rather than listen to a man, she sought safety and shelter and communication and society with foreign people that the man didn't trust. She's not giving up the quest. She's not saying "fuck Aslan and fuck this prince I've never met". She's looking to have food and warmth (basic survival needs) and communication about the area (which will help their quest) and in doing so she is arguing with a man who believes he knows better.

And the narrative wants to make absolutely, totally, 100% certain that you know he knew better.

I'd say this is doing female protagonisting wrong, but I honestly think this is operating as intended for Lewis: this is him showing us how (in his opinion) Jill, and women like her, sin. I honestly think the reason we hear so little about Susan's sin later is because he figured he laid all this out already. She sought luxury and society with the wrong people (like Jill) and didn't listen to the men who advised her otherwise. Same woman, different name; same sin, different day. 

   In spite of their haste, it took them a long time to cross the flat top of that hill. And even when they had crossed it, there were still several ledges to climb down on the far side. But at last they reached the bottom and could see what Harfang was like.
   It stood on a high crag, and in spite of its many towers was more a huge house than a castle. Obviously, the Gentle Giants feared no attack. There were windows in the outside wall quite close to the ground—a thing no one would have in a serious fortress. There were even odd little doors here and there, so that it would be quite easy to get in and out of the castle without going through the courtyard. This raised the spirits of Jill and Scrubb. It made the whole place look more friendly and less forbidding.

Also there is a blizzard still going on.

   However tired you are, it takes some nerve to walk up to a giant’s front door. In spite of all his previous warnings against Harfang, it was Puddleglum who showed the most courage.
   “Steady pace, now,” he said. “Don’t look frightened, whatever you do. We’ve done the silliest thing in the world by coming at all: but now that we are here, we’d best put a bold face on it.”
   With these words he strode forward into the gateway, stood still under the arch where the echo would help his voice, and called out as loud as he could.
   “Ho! Porter! Guests who seek lodging.”
   And while he was waiting for something to happen, he took off his hat and knocked off the heavy mass of snow which had gathered on its wide brim.
   “I say,” whispered Scrubb to Jill. “He may be a wet blanket, but he has plenty of pluck—and cheek.”

If there is a list somewhere with Gary Stu characteristics, it will surely involve (1) getting all/most of the spotlight for talking, and (2) having other characters talking the Gary Stu up privately behind his back. I flatly refuse to believe that with so many other things to talk about, like the cold and the giants, that Jill and Eustace are over there fanning themselves and trying not to swoon at Puddleglums ROXXOR COURAGE RAWR. No. I refuse to believe it, it is not canon.

I will here remind everyone that "Mary Sue" was a derogatory term that we only realized we needed when girl characters started getting the same fannish treatment that boy characters have been getting for basically as long as fictional writing has existed.

Back to the book: why is this courage? Puddleglum supposedly wakes up every day certain that he'll never see another dawn because he's going to, I dunno, choke on a chicken bone or something, so even if he's certain that the giants will kill him, it's not like he wasn't already certain he'd be dead by the day's end anyway. They're also literally in the middle of a blizzard. (I mean, I realize Lewis has forgotten this, but I have not. Consistency!) Which means that Puddleglum needs to yell just in order to be heard over the wind. Absolutely nothing he says would be especially courageous even if they weren't staring down a definite-death-by-exposure against a possible-death-by-giants. They also have zero reason to believe that these giants mean them ill; only Puddleglum's (and Lewis') racism have suggested that the giants might be evil.

So Puddleglum is communicating truth at a noise level necessary in order to be heard to people who (for all they know) are nice normal people who just happen to be a little taller than he. Courage! Let's all go over there and whisper his praise and maybe swoon a bit. You catch me and I'll catch you. We'll take turns.

You know what I think is courageous? Traveling around a magical land you don't know at the behest of a god you don't worship in order to find a prince you've never met and rescue him from a serpent you can't fight in nothing more than shorts and with a Girl Guide knife. Anyone want to take bets on whether the narrator gets the vapors over Jill's badassery? No?

Misogyny is so ingrained in our society that it takes these posts before most of us can see that a book is praising a man for doing perfectly normal things while belitting a girl who is doing extraordinary things. That there can even be an argument over whether Narnia is sexist (of course it is, most things are because we live in a sexist society and sexism seeps into much of our art), that this stuff seems invisible until we pick it apart with tweezers and really stare at it, is part of the problem.

   A door opened, letting out a delicious glow of firelight, and the Porter appeared. Jill bit her lips for fear she should scream. He was not a perfectly enormous giant; that is to say, he was rather taller than an apple tree but nothing like so tall as a telegraph pole. He had bristly red hair, a leather jerkin with metal plates fastened all over it so as to make a kind of mail shirt, bare knees (very hairy indeed) and things like puttees on his legs. He stooped down and goggled at Puddleglum.

Google claims that telegraph poles average about 30 feet, though god only knows if that was the average in the 1950s. Apple trees can reach 30 feet in height, but apparently tend to limit out at 10 feet. So... maybe the giant is 14 feet tall, which makes him about double the size of the tallest NBA player? I don't actually think that would make me scream if I were Jill, not when I've already seen giants several times on this trip and I have a blizzard to contend with, but I'm not a Lewisian girl so there's that.

   “And what sort of creature do you call yourself,” he said.
   Jill took her courage in both hands. “Please,” she said, shouting up to the giant. “The Lady of the Green Kirtle salutes the King of the Gentle Giants, and has sent us two Southern children and this Marsh-wiggle (his name’s Puddleglum) to your Autumn Feast.—If it’s quite convenient, of course,” she added.
   “O-ho!” said the Porter. “That’s quite a different story. Come in, little people, come in. You’d best come into the lodge while I’m sending word to his Majesty.” He looked at the children with curiosity. “Blue faces,” he said. “I didn’t know they were that color. Don’t care about it myself. But I dare say you look quite nice to one another. Beetles fancy other beetles, they do say.”
   “Our faces are only blue with cold,” said Jill. “We’re not this color really.”

Haha, okay, well, points for Jill finding her narrative courage, but this is also an in-joke between the author and the second-time reader because Jill has now offered them up to be cannibalized so this is a Nice Job Breaking It, Female Protagonist moment as opposed to narratively-approved Real Courage like Puddleglum showed. (Alas, we don't get to hear about Puddleglum and Eustace talking her up in the back corner. "She may fall down a lot and doesn't know the compass points, but she has plenty of pluck and cheek!")

Then Puddleglum gets drunk or possibly fake-drunk--I honestly neither know nor care--and they all get to meet the monarchs, but that conversation rolls over to Chapter 8. My god, we're halfway through this book. Someone get me a drink.

   About twenty feet from the thrones, they stopped. Scrubb and Jill made an awkward attempt at a bow (girls are not taught how to curtsey at Experiment House) and the young giant carefully put Puddleglum down on the floor, where he collapsed into a sort of sitting position. With his long limbs he looked, to tell the truth, uncommonly like a large spider.

It'd be interesting to know what it is that girls are taught at Experiment House. I should think at least some of it would be useful on an adventure like this, but Lewis seems determined to insist that none of it is, no how, no way.  


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