Narnia: Boys Do It Better Than Marsh-Wiggles

[Narnia Content Note: Misogyny, Ableist Language, Self-Harm, Child-Harm]

Narnia Recap: The trio have reached Harfang and suspect that they are now prisoners.

The Silver Chair, Chapter 9: How They Discovered Something Worth Knowing

Chapter 9 is somehow the best and the worst chapter of this book. On the one hand, we finally get to see the female ostensible-protagonist actually do something; on the other hand, what she does do is coded heavily with female stereotypes, and the narrator even explicitly tells us that she's the best of the trio at this social stuff because she's a girl.

And the thing is, I don't think this necessarily has to be terrible. I don't recommend doing it when you only have one female protagonist in your book, because then you get into the small-sample-size problem of stereotyping minority characters, but the thing is that there is some small justification for female characters being decent at social skills in the sense that:

IF your female protagonist lives in a world that pressures her to be good at social skills
THEN she may have social skills that are useful in social situations

But just because it might make sense to equip a female character with female-stereotype powers doesn't mean that the end result is going to be palatable. We are, at the end of the day, left with a situation here where the one thing Jill is allowed to do well is a "girly" social skill.

We could be charitable and file what Jill does here under "subterfuge", but let us also be clear that what she is doing would more accurately be called "simpering" (and really only works because the giants are too stupid to recognize how far overboard she is going). And because Lewis hated simpering girls, and because hatred at what Jill is doing drips off the page, that also kinda takes away from any of the possible empowerment in this situation. As the reader, you're probably not thinking "aw yeah, Jill is Narnian Black Widow" so much as "yuck, girls sure are good at sucky things". (Because let's be clear: Eustace shoots food with a motherfucking bow and arrow, and Jill prattles and giggles. These are the skills being brought to the table here.)

And it's not just the narrator who hates what Jill is doing; Jill hates what Jill is doing. Again, I think this could be done well in the right hands, like with a character working through her anger at being forced to conform to these expectations by a patriarchal system, but I just plain don't think that's what Lewis was going for here.

  THE OTHERS ADMITTED AFTERWARD that Jill had been wonderful that day. 

This is such a weird sentence that I have to point it out. There are two other people in this party, Eustace and Puddleglum, who are being grouped into this odd "the others" framing. And the "admitting" indicates almost an unwillingness to praise Jill. I really don't think Lewis put that much thought into stuff like this--it seems pretty clear to me that this entire book was hammered out at a quick clip and sent off without a lot of polish--so I don't think anything in particular was meant here, but it reads so oddly. They don't "brag" that Jill had been wonderful that day, or "reminisce" over her actions, or really anything positive. They "admit" it, and possibly this is more of the same shaming we're going to encounter in this chapter: Jill may have saved all their lives, but she acted like a disgusting girly-girl in order to do it. 

As soon as the King and the rest of the hunting party had set off, she began making a tour of the whole castle and asking questions, but all in such an innocent, babyish way that no one could suspect her of any secret design. Though her tongue was never still, you could hardly say she talked: she prattled and giggled. She made love to everyone—the grooms, the porters, the housemaids, the ladies-in-waiting, and the elderly giant lords whose hunting days were past. She submitted to being kissed and pawed about by any number of giantesses, many of whom seemed sorry for her and called her “a poor little thing” though none of them explained why. She made especial friends with the cook and discovered the all-important fact there was a scullery door which let you out through the outer wall, so that you did not have to cross the courtyard or pass the great gatehouse. In the kitchen she pretended to be greedy, and ate all sorts of scraps which the cook and scullions delighted to give her. But upstairs among the ladies she asked questions about how she would be dressed for the great feast, and how long she would be allowed to sit up, and whether she would dance with some very, very small giant. And then (it made her hot all over when she remembered it afterward) she would put her head on one side in an idiotic fashion which grown-ups, giant and otherwise, thought very fetching, and shake her curls, and fidget, and say, “Oh, I do wish it was tomorrow night, don’t you? Do you think the time will go quickly till then?” And all the giantesses said she was a perfect little darling; and some of them dabbed their eyes with enormous handkerchiefs as if they were going to cry.

And that's about as much as he could be bothered to write of Jill being awesome; this is actually a rather short chapter.

I want to note again that I like the idea of a character being all sneaky and subterfugey and using social skills to clever effect. Characters who social well are honestly my favorite type to play with. But the execution here just does not work for me: every sentence seems to hate on Jill for stooping to this level, and to hate on the giants for finding her delightful. The pleasure to be had in clever characters with good social skills is that they understand people, and they understand social norms, and they are clever enough to manipulate people and conventions to benefit themselves. A character who has contempt for those social norms is one thing; a character who has contempt for herself for mastering those social norms is another.

Again, something that the right kind of author could do well, but here it comes off as less like an exploration in self-loathing and more like an exploration into Lewis' hangups about femininity. 

  Scrubb and Puddleglum both did their best, but girls do that kind of thing better than boys. Even boys do it better than Marsh-wiggles.

Not helped by asides like this. Conveniently, Eustace and the author-favorite are not good at the thing that the narrator hates and sneers at. No lavish descriptions of how "idiotic" Puddleglum looks. And this is an interesting contrast, because Puddleglum either was three-sheets drunk or was pretending to be just a few chapters ago, yet the narrative treated him with significantly more dignity. His lapse in decorum was comedic and even lightly mocked at, but there wasn't this sneering condemnation, and certainly no insistence on telling us about his lasting red-faced shame.

  At lunchtime something happened which made all three of them more anxious than ever to leave the castle of the Gentle Giants. They had lunch in the great hall at a little table of their own, near the fireplace. At a bigger table, about twenty yards away, half a dozen old giants were lunching. Their conversation was so noisy, and so high up in the air, that the children soon took no more notice of it than you would of hooters outside the window or traffic noises in the street. They were eating cold venison, a kind of food which Jill had never tasted before, and she was liking it.

No. No, this makes no goddamn sense. The three travelers are convinced (again, without any evidence to think so, but okay) that these giants mean them harm. That they are prisoners. That they need to find a sneaky way to leave as soon as possible. That they may have one chance to get away. And in the face of that belief, they are tuning out the nearby conversation? They aren't hanging on every word, trying to get a sense of the culture here and how they can effectively escape? The characters can be incurious or excessively paranoid, but it it not consistent for them to be both!

(Although that is a decent description of your average privilege group who believes in spite of all evidence to the contrary that they are being persecuted, so... unintentionally spot on?)

  Suddenly Puddleglum turned to them, and his face had gone so pale that you could see the paleness under the natural muddiness of his complexion. He said:
  “Don’t eat another bite.”
  “What’s wrong?” asked the other two in a whisper.
  “Didn’t you hear what those giants were saying? ‘That’s a nice tender haunch of venison,’ said one of them. ‘Then that stag was a liar,’ said another. ‘Why?’ said the first one. ‘Oh,’ said the other. ‘They say that when he was caught he said, Don’t kill me, I’m tough. You won’t like me.’” For a moment Jill did not realize the full meaning of this. But she did when Scrubb’s eyes opened wide with horror and he said:
  “So we’ve been eating a Talking stag.”

This strikes me as a very roundabout way to inform your companions that you've just been engaging in the world-equivalent of cannibalism. I sympathize with Lewis that the sequence wouldn't have had the same impact if Puddleglum had started with the important bit and then backed it up with the recitation that they missed, but let us all bow our heads and ponder the value of second drafts that let us consider things like "maybe they could have overheard the giants saying that the first time, rather than having it all relayed awkwardly second-hand?"

  This discovery didn’t have exactly the same effect on all of them. Jill, who was new to that world, was sorry for the poor stag and thought it rotten of the giants to have killed him. Scrubb, who had been in that world before and had at least one Talking beast as his dear friend, felt horrified; as you might feel about a murder. But Puddleglum, who was Narnian born, was sick and faint, and felt as you would feel if you found you had eaten a baby.
  “We’ve brought the anger of Aslan on us,” he said. “That’s what comes of not attending to the signs. We’re under a curse, I expect. If it was allowed, it would be the best thing we could do, to take these knives and drive them into our own hearts.”
  And gradually even Jill came to see it from his point of view. At any rate, none of them wanted any more lunch. And as soon as they thought it safe they crept quietly out of the hall.

Sigh. I don't even know what to do with this. More self-flagellation about the signs that they have no reason to believe they have missed. Not one person even thinks to say "maybe we didn't miss the signs and if we'd asked to leave this morning they would have let us?" because the characters are all 100% on the same page as the author about this being a hostage situation. (And they are captives here, to be clear, but they need to have a reason to all three be so convinced of all the things they are convinced of.)

Then there's this "gradually Jill came to see his point of view" that they should commit suicide over this? I'm pretty sure he is suggesting self-harm because of the crime of eating a Talking Animal, and not because they are "under a curse" with more bad things to come, but either way is just... wow. I guess it's just as well that the narrative asserts that his point that they are sinners under Aslan and worthy of death for their sin (the sin of eating food served to them by their captives) is really persuasive because I'm having a hard time imagining a version of that argument which would persuade me. I'm pretty sure this situation is Aslan's fault in at least four different ways, and not Jill's.

And there's something else. I don't want to belabor this point, because I don't really like this passage at all (for a lot of reasons), but I'm not okay with Lewis reaching for the most triggering thing he could think of. Eating an adult Animal is not like eating a baby. Eating a baby is like eating a baby. I'm not going to argue the ethics of one over the other--I'm pretty firmly in the "no eating people" camp--but Lewis (and other people of privilege) had a bad habit of throwing around analogies willy-nilly. "X is just as bad as Y!" No. No, it's not, and it's not okay to just thoughtlessly co-opt real tragedies in order to try to make a point. It's bad authorship, to be unable to make clear a character's feelings without digging randomly around in the tragic analogy bucket, and it's a bad way to present any kind of argument.

  It was now drawing near to that time of the day on which their hopes of escape depended, and all became nervous. They hung about in passages and waited for things to become quiet. The giants in the hall sat on a dreadfully long time after the meal was over. The bald one was telling a story. When that was over, the three travelers dawdled down to the kitchen. But there were still plenty of giants there, or at least in the scullery, washing up and putting things away. It was agonizing, waiting till these finished their jobs and, one by one, wiped their hands and went away. At last only one old giantess was left in the room. She pottered about, and pottered about, and at last the three travelers realized with horror that she did not intend to go away at all.

Back to the "best of chapters, worst of chapters" problem, we see this. A society unlike any we've seen before: a giant society. I'm not asking for much, I know this isn't Tolkien we're reading, but something would be nice. Lewis' protagonists are so astonishingly incurious about the world around them. Jill and Eustace have never before seen a society of giants. They will never see one again. But they don't ask questions. They don't listen to conversation. We have no sense of what the story that the bald one is telling is about.

I'm struggling with the proportions, because the giants are described as being taller than apple trees. Their fireplaces look like they have "five whole trees" in them. The bath towels span "acres", although that is probably an exaggeration? The wooden toy horse that they give Jill is "the size of an elephant". How does this even work? They kill Talking Stags for meat, but wouldn't that be the size of a rat (or possibly a cat?) for a human? I'm not sure you can feed an entire human court on one stag, but possibly with creative use of side-dishes you could. But I'm fairly certain you can't feed an entire human court on one cat.

I know that world-building isn't what Lewis was here for. But I'm reminded again of the worst excesses of the Left Behind books. Lewis doesn't seem to care how his world works; his characters very certainly do not care. To a certain point, that's alright; it's okay for an author to write a fantasy story without having nailed down the country's major export and gross national product. But I do think that in a story that so heavily is intended to feature The Theologies, Lewis ignored the cultures within his world to the detriment of the finished product. The writing comes across as sloppy (such as when we have to wonder if the towels really are an acre-wide or not), the characters come across as inconsistent and incurious, and the theologies are muddled when we have so little insight into the giants that it's entirely unclear whether they eat Humans and Talking Stags because they are cheerfully evil or if it makes some sort of cultural sense to them. Lewis doesn't seem to know or care--the giants sin because they are sinful.

  “Well, dearies,” she said to them. “That job’s about through. Let’s put the kettle there. That’ll make a nice cup of tea presently. Now I can have a little bit of rest. Just look into the scullery, like good poppets, and tell me if the back door is open.”
  “Yes, it is,” said Scrubb.
  “That’s right. I always leave it open so as Puss can get in and out, the poor thing.”

THEY KEEP CATS AND DOGS. Is this like humans keeping pigmy marmosets??

  “I can’t bear this,” thought Jill. To distract her mind, she began looking about her. Just in front of her was a clean wide table with two clean pie-dishes on it, and an open book. They were giant pie-dishes of course. Jill thought that she could lie down just comfortably in one of them. Then she climbed up on the bench beside the table to look at the book. She read:  MALLARD. This delicious bird can be cooked in a variety of ways.
  “It’s a cookery book,” thought Jill without much interest, and glanced over her shoulder. The giantess’s eyes were shut but she didn’t look as if she were properly asleep. Jill glanced back at the book. It was arranged alphabetically: and at the very next entry her heart seemed to stop beating; It ran—
  MAN. This elegant little biped has long been valued as a delicacy. It forms a traditional part of the Autumn Feast, and is served between the fish and the joint. Each Man—
  but she could not bear to read any more. She turned round. The giantess had waked up and was having a fit of coughing. Jill nudged the other two and pointed to the book. They also mounted the bench and bent over the huge pages. Scrubb was still reading about how to cook Men when Puddleglum pointed to the next entry below it. It was like this:
  MARSH-WIGGLE. Some authorities reject this animal altogether as unfit for giants’ consumption because of its stringy consistency and muddy flavor. The flavor can, however, be greatly reduced if—

And that's the big reveal. Five minutes before they were about to escape anyway, they noticed in a random off-handed manner that they were right to be escaping in five minutes.

Second drafts. I can't recommend them enough. They can do magical things to your story, like let the heroes find out they are in danger of being eaten first, which will then justify the extreme lengths of subterfuge and paranoia that they go to because they have a reason to be suspicious and concerned, and then the ticking clock element to tomorrow night's feast becomes genuinely ominous rather than something that just sort of seemed ominous at the time because otherwise the author wouldn't have kept harping on it.

I will here note that it is the boy character who is actually curious about the thing that many of the readers will be curious about, i.e., the actual contents of this damn book. There's a point where I think the reader almost can't help but be frustrated with Jill, because she is this excuse that Lewis keeps hanging on to keep from having to write the interesting bits. "Oh, you can't hear what the owls are saying because Jill fell asleep." "Oh, you can't know what was in the book because Jill was distracted." "Sorry, I totally wanted to write interesting things, but hands-tied." GAH. 

Anyway, the elderly woman falls asleep and they sneak out. 

To make matters worse, they were now in the clothes that the giants had provided for them last night: except Puddleglum, whom nothing would fit. Jill wore a vivid green robe, rather too long for her, and over that a scarlet mantle fringed with white fur. Scrubb had scarlet stockings, blue tunic and cloak, a gold-hilted sword, and a feathered bonnet.
   “Nice bits of color, you two are,” muttered Puddleglum. “Show up very prettily on a winter day. The worst archer in the world couldn’t miss either of you if you were in range. And talking of archers, we’ll be sorry not to have our own bows before long, I shouldn’t wonder. Bit thin too, those clothes of yours, are they?”
  “Yes, I’m freezing already,” said Jill.

A long robe with a mantle trimmed in fur is cold on a non-blizzard day, where previously Jill was wearing shorts and a short cloak that (if I recall correctly) barely reached the backs of her knees. I just cannot get over how the day of the blizzard was stacked against them in order to make a theological point that makes no sense.

  “Steady, steady,” said Puddleglum. “Don’t look back. Don’t walk too quickly. Whatever you do, don’t run. Look as if we were just taking a stroll, and then, if anyone sees us, he might, just possibly, not bother. The moment we look like people running away, we’re done.”  The distance to the City Ruinous seemed longer than Jill would have believed possible. But bit by bit they were covering it. Then came a noise. The other two gasped. Jill, who didn’t know what it was, said, “What’s that?”
  “Hunting horn,” whispered Scrubb.
  “But don’t run even now,” said Puddleglum. “Not till I give the word.”
  This time Jill couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder. There, about half a mile away, was the hunt returning from behind them on the left.
  They walked on. Suddenly a great clamor of giant voices arose: then shouts and hollas.
  “They’ve seen us. Run,” said Puddleglum.
  Jill gathered up her long skirts—horrible things for running in—and ran. There was no mistaking the danger now. She could hear the music of the hounds. She could hear the King’s voice roaring out, “After them, after them, or we’ll have no man-pies tomorrow.”

There. Phew. A man is back in charge and we're done with all that girly simpering flibberty-gibbet nonsense, and also we've had confirmation that Puddleglum was right all along to be certain that the giants were evil.

Let's wrap up this chapter quickly:

1. Jill runs the slowest because of her dress, and I'm continually amused that the chivalry that these books harp on boil down to things like "yell at your enemies for not addressing a lady with enough respect" but don't include things like "hang back and make sure that the lady isn't torn apart by wild dogs first".

2. Puddleglum finds a crevice in the ground for them to all dive into. He just... finds it. And it happens to lead them all directly to the lost Prince. I suppose it's best not to dwell on this, but I just... nothing in this book happens because of skill or trying, it's all just random fucking chance. He didn't see the hole before because there was a blizzard; now he sees the hole because we had our fun and it's time to get back on the plot-rails now. Natural 20 on the Spot Check, I guess.

3. They scramble into this tiny hole and fill the opening with stones. The dogs can't get at them and the giants don't even try.

4. They find they can stand up (despite the hole being super tiny a minute ago) and also there's a huge twisty-turny passage behind them that they follow for a very long stretch. Um. Okay.

  “The question is,” came Puddleglum’s voice out of the darkness ahead, “whether, taking one thing with another, it wouldn’t be better to go back (if we can) and give the giants a treat at that feast of theirs, instead of losing our way in the guts of a hill where, ten to one, there’s dragons and deep holes and gases and water and—Ow! Let go! Save yourselves. I’m—” 
  After that all happened quickly. There was a wild cry, a swishing, dusty, gravelly noise, a rattle of stones, and Jill found herself sliding, sliding, hopelessly sliding, and sliding quicker every moment down a slope that grew steeper every moment. It was not a smooth, firm slope, but a slope of small stones and rubbish. Even if you could have stood up, it would have been no use. Any bit of that slope you had put your foot on would have slid away from under you and carried you down with it. But Jill was more lying than standing. And the farther they all slid, the more they disturbed all the stones and earth, so that the general downward rush of everything (including themselves) got faster and louder and dustier and dirtier. From the sharp cries and swearing of the other two, Jill got the idea that many of the stones she was dislodging were hitting Scrubb and Puddleglum pretty hard. And now she was going at a furious rate and felt sure she would be broken to bits at the bottom.

Lord, they had Jill walking last behind them, so that now she's above them. And the stones she is dislodging are... hitting the boys beneath her? Um, I don't know that this is how falling and gravity works? But, hey, anything to make Jill more of a load on "the others".

Incidentally, here is a fun post on chivalry. I'll be over here lolsobbing.

  “We can never get up that again,” said Scrubb’s voice.
   “And have you noticed how warm it is?” said the voice of Puddleglum. “That means we’re a long way down. Might be nearly a mile.”
  No one said anything. Some time later Puddleglum added:
  “My tinder-box has gone.”
  After another long pause Jill said, “I’m terribly thirsty.”
  No one suggested doing anything. There was so obviously nothing to be done. For the moment, they did not feel it quite so badly as one might have expected; that was because they were so tired.
  Long, long afterward, without the slightest warning, an utterly strange voice spoke. They knew at once that it was not the one voice in the whole world for which each had secretly been hoping; the voice of Aslan. It was a dark, flat voice—almost, if you know what that means, a pitch-black voice. It said:
  “What make you here, creatures of the Overworld?”

Coincidence and plot-contrivance, mostly.


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