[Narnia Content Note: Misogyny, Fat Hatred]
Narnia Recap: The trio have reached Harfang.
The Silver Chair, Chapter 8: The House of Harfang
The hardest thing for me about going through Silver Chair is seeing how much of a decoy protagonist Jill is when I really dig into who-does-what-and-when. I really did like this book best of the series when I was a kid, and I really do think part of the appeal was having an actual female protagonist who isn't a straight-up saint (Lucy) or being slandered by the narrative at every turn as the sinsyest of sinners (Susan). Jill was a chance to have a "normal" girl, just like me, having adventures and doing epic things.
So it's incredibly disappointing to me that she... doesn't. We've given a lot of well-deserved flack to, say, Bella Swan for being the most unmotivated of protagonists, but when you really dig into the action of Silver Chair, Jill comes across to me as so much worse. At least Twilight is about a high school romance and I can realistically expect that homework assignments and long Saturday afternoons will be boring and unepic. Jill, in contrast, is on an adventure where epic things are constantly being hurled in her direction, and she keeps essentially playing dodgeball with any kind of plot involvement, character growth, and even just on-page screentime. She literally seems to be here for two reasons: (a) to mess up the signs so that we can have a plot where people keep messing up, and (b) to take the blame.
I was thinking about this when I was sitting down to write this post, and it occurred to me that I can't even say that Jill isn't the protagonist we were "promised", because every cover of this book that I've ever seen has always had Rilian on the front, not Jill, doing his manly stabbing of either the serpent or the silver chair itself. And, you know, I can't even imagine what iconic Jill scene you could use to replace that. My first thought was flying on the owl's back, but that would be the scene where Jill fell asleep and left the actual exciting adventures to Eustace. So not very exciting and iconic after all.
I've already complained that much of the book so far has been Puddleglum being the real protagonist and getting significantly more screentime for his opinions and thoughts than Jill. Chapter 8 is now going to expand that trend in order to give more screentime to Eustace. Hooray.
“GO ON, POLE, DO YOUR STUFF,” WHISPERED Scrubb.
Jill found that her mouth was so dry that she couldn’t speak a word. She nodded savagely at Scrubb.
Thinking to himself that he would never forgive her (or Puddleglum either), Scrubb licked his lips and shouted up to the King giant.
“If you please, Sire, the Lady of the Green Kirtle salutes you by us and said you’d like to have us for your Autumn Feast.”
Sigh. This is a short little exchange--the narrative immediately segues into talking about how awful the queen looks for being fat, which I'm not going to quote because fuck that--but it's a rather perfect snapshot of the entire book. Eustace tries to flub off something that he should, by rights, be better at than Jill; he was, after all, the one who hung out with Arthurian royalty for months on end last time, and there's no way that he didn't observe courtly manners on the Dawn Treader. Jill refuses out of fear or terror or weak girlishness or whatever, and so then Eustace steps up and does his job like a Brave Courageous Man. He could have done his job properly to begin with, but then we wouldn't have a girl failing us and a man bailing her out. Staples of literature, this stuff.
I went back and checked, for purposes of this chapter. When Glimfeather first found the children in Narnia, Eustace did almost all the talking. When Jill finally piped up with something relevant, he argued with her and tried to shut her down. When the kids were taken before Trumpkin, Glimfeather did all the talking. The Parliament of Owls was mostly Eustace asking the actual questions; Jill played the part of the recap-chorus and then fell asleep halfway through. Bringing Puddleglum up to speed was, again, mostly Eustace talking; when Jill tried to chime in, Puddleglum was aggressively rude to her.
So why, in the name of all nine hells, would Jill "do her stuff" here? She's not the person who normally speaks in these situations. When she does speak, she gets argued with and shut out of the conversation. And she can't even do her little recitation of the signs, because Puddleglum made them promise not to tell. There's absolutely no damn point to Lewis arranging the scene this way except for Jill to be fearful and Eustace to be better than her. Great protagonisting, much equality.
“And what’s that?” asked the King, pointing to Puddleglum.
“Reshpeckobiggle,” said Puddleglum.
“Oh!” screamed the Queen, gathering her skirts close about her ankles. “The horrid thing! It’s alive.”
“He’s quite all right, your Majesty, really, he is,” said Scrubb hastily. “You’ll like him much better when you get to know him. I’m sure you will.”
I hope you won’t lose all interest in Jill for the rest of the book if I tell you that at this moment she began to cry.
FUCK. ALL. THIS.
Fuck you, CS Lewis. Fuck you for giving us a "female protagonist" who never has a chance to do shit, because you won't let her do shit. Fuck you for putting her in a situation where anyone would be scared and upset, only so you can talk up your fucking author avatar Puddleglum as the bravest thing evar and so that you can wink at the reader about how awful and uninteresting Jill is for having a perfectly natural reaction to the stressful conditions you put her in. Fuck your solicitous "concern" that is the actual total opposite of concern and which just sends the message loud and clear that girls with emotions aren't worthy of our time or sympathy.
There was a good deal of excuse for her. Her feet and hands and ears and nose were still only just beginning to thaw; melted snow was trickling off her clothes; she had had hardly anything to eat or drink that day; and her legs were aching so that she felt she could not go on standing much longer. Anyway, it did more good at the moment than anything else would have done, for the Queen said:
“Ah, the poor child! My lord, we do wrong to keep our guests standing. Quick, some of you! Take them away. Give them food and wine and baths. Comfort the little girl. Give her lollipops, give her dolls, give her physics, give her all you can think of—possets and comfits and caraways and lullabies and toys. Don’t cry, little girl, or you won’t be good for anything when the feast comes.”
Jill was just as indignant as you and I would have been at the mention of toys and dolls; and, though lollipops and comfits might be all very well in their way, she very much hoped that something more solid would be provided. The Queen’s foolish speech, however, produced excellent results, for Puddleglum and Scrubb were at once picked up by gigantic gentlemen-in-waiting, and Jill by a gigantic maid of honor, and carried off to their rooms.
My god, you guys. This chapter. We're a handful of paragraphs in and we've already had Jill decide she hates the queen because she's fat, we've had Jill fall down on the "introduce us" task that protagonists usually shoulder, we've had Jill burst into tears while Lewis shakes his head at her, and now we have this "foolish speech" nonsense, I just... I just cannot. I have lost the ability to can.
Let it be noted that it is still considered controversial in most parts of the internet to state that the Chronicles of Narnia has sexist elements that utterly drip with hatred for women. Let it please also be noted that there are women authors who write far less objectionable stuff than this and get rake over far hotter coals.
“Is it still snowing, Nurse?” she asked sleepily.
“No. Raining now, ducky!” said the giantess. “Rain’ll wash away all the nasty snow. Precious poppet will be able to go out and play tomorrow!” And she tucked Jill up and said good night.
I know nothing so disagreeable as being kissed by a giantess. Jill thought the same, but was asleep in five minutes.
"I know nothing so disagreeable as being kissed by a giantess," writes the man who will, a few books from now, write his god-avatar flaying open a terrified young woman.
At that hour there came to Jill a dream. It seemed to her that she awoke in the same room and saw the fire, sunk low and red, and in the firelight the great wooden horse. And the horse came of its own will, rolling on its wheels across the carpet, and stood at her head. And now it was no longer a horse, but a lion as big as the horse. And then it was not a toy lion, but a real lion, The Real Lion, just as she had seen him on the mountain beyond the world’s end. [...] The Lion told her to repeat the signs, and she found that she had forgotten them all. At that, a great horror came over her. And Aslan took her up in his jaws (she could feel his lips and his breath but not his teeth) and carried her to the window and made her look out. The moon shone bright; and written in great letters across the world or the sky (she did not know which) were the words UNDER ME. After that, the dream faded away, and when she woke, very late next morning, she did not remember that she had dreamed at all.
But, it must be noted, the "great horror" of having failed her god and being carried in his jaws was marginally less than the horror of being kissed by a large woman who is, in all respects, kind and caring. Just so that we're all on the same page here.
The sun was shining and, except for a few drifts, the snow had been almost completely washed away by the rain. Down below them, spread out like a map, lay the flat hill-top which they had struggled over yesterday afternoon; seen from the castle, it could not be mistaken for anything but the ruins of a gigantic city. [...] The ledges which they had climbed down on the north side of the hill—and also, no doubt the other ledges which they had climbed up on the south side—were the remaining steps of giant stairs. To crown all, in large, dark lettering across the center of the pavement, ran the words UNDER ME.
The three travelers looked at each other in dismay, and, after a short whistle, Scrubb said what they were all thinking, “The second and third signs muffed.” And at that moment Jill’s dream rushed back into her mind.
“It’s my fault,” she said in despairing tones. “I—I’d given up repeating the signs every night. If I’d been thinking about them I could have seen it was the city, even in all that snow.”
This is ridiculous, and we've already hashed out how ridiculous it is, but just for the record: this is the silliest Nice Job Breaking It moment in the history of anything. They were in a blizzard. The evidence of the city and the letters practically require the party to be sitting at the vantage point that they are in now: above the place. There is zero doubt in my mind that Lewis saw this scene first, wrote the steps leading up to it, and didn't bother overly much with how much his supporting text failed to justify the scene he envisioned.
We also have a dreadful case of protagonists knowing more than they should, in that they "know" they muffed the signs. They have, sort of, in the sense that the giants of Harfang don't want to let them leave. But they don't know that yet! They were told to find the ruined city, and lo! By seeking shelter in a place with a bird's eye view, they have found the city. Sign #3 was completed successfully! Even better, they have a head-start on Sign #4, since they've found the writing and can now get down there and obey it.
The fact that all three of the protagonists will now beat themselves up for how awful they were to "miss" the signs is so utterly jarring. It's like they have a direct line to the author's head, because there's really no other explanation for this uniform insistence that they're screwed. In a better book, at least one of the team would be excited about having gotten back on the adventuring track; at least one of them would see Jill's dream as a good sign. Aslan has blessed them by bringing them to this window and showing them the view, hoorah!
“I’m worse,” said Puddleglum. “I did see, or nearly. I thought it looked uncommonly like a ruined city.”
“You’re the only one who isn’t to blame,” said Scrubb. “You did try to make us stop.”
"I mean, you didn't actually voice what you were thinking or do anything whatsoever to make us safe and comfortable; you instead just asked cryptic questions and tried to goad Jill into a recitation of the signs at an utterly inappropriate moment, but really, you have no blame in this whatsoever, older mentor man who is a mouthpiece for the author's Christianity!"
“Why, you chump!” said Scrubb. “We did see it. We got into the lettering. Don’t you see? We got into the letter E in ME.That was your sunk lane. We walked along the bottom stroke of the E, due north—turned to our right along the upright— came to another turn to the right—that’s the middle stroke—and then went on to the top left-hand corner, or (if you like) the northeastern corner of the letter, and came back. Like the bally idiots that we are.” He kicked the window seat savagely, and went on, “So it’s no good, Pole. I know what you were thinking because I was thinking the same. You were thinking how nice it would have been if Aslan hadn’t put the instructions on the stones of the ruined city till after we’d passed it. And then it would have been his fault, not ours. So likely, isn’t it? No. We must just own up. We’ve only four signs to go by, and we’ve muffed the first three.”
“You mean I have,” said Jill. “It’s quite true. I’ve spoiled everything ever since you brought me here. All the same—I’m frightfully sorry and all that—all the same, what are the instructions? UNDER ME doesn’t seem to make much sense.”
“Yes it does, though,” said Puddleglum. “It means we’ve got to look for the Prince under that city.”
“But how can we?” asked Jill.
“That’s the question,” said Puddleglum, rubbing his big, frog-like hands together. “How can we now? No doubt, if we’d had our minds on our job when we were at the Ruinous City, we’d have been shown how—found a little door, or a cave, or a tunnel, met someone to help us. Might have been (you never know) Aslan himself. We’d have got down under those paving-stones somehow or other. Aslan’s instructions always work: there are no exceptions. But how to do it now—that’s another matter.”
“Well, we shall just have to go back, I suppose,” said Jill.
If you're keeping track, the words for Jill in this chapter are a handful and the words for Eustace and Puddleglum are fully one million words. And most of Jill's words are "gosh, please tell me more" and "I am the worst". Strong female protagonist, much better than that modern dross that the ladies write these days. (What do they teach them in their lady-writing schools?)
I especially love the "I know what you were thinking" detail, with Eustace speaking for Jill and then arguing with her. ("Tonight the part of 'Jill' will be played by Eustace...") Take note that this is an efficient way to keep female characters from speaking: you can just give your male characters telepathy so that they can carry on both parts of the conversation themselves.
“Easy, isn’t it?” said Puddleglum. “We might try opening that door to begin with.” And they all looked at the door and saw that none of them could reach the handle, and that almost certainly no one could turn it if they did.
“Do you think they won’t let us out if we ask?” said Jill. And nobody said, but everyone thought, “Supposing they don’t.”
It was not a pleasant idea. Puddleglum was dead against any idea of telling the giants their real business and simply asking to be let out; and of course the children couldn’t tell without his permission, because they had promised.
Puddleglum is right, of course, because this book is a love-letter to old Christian men with unpleasant mannerisms towards little girls, but there is no reason for him to be right. This isn't good fiction where suddenly the characters look back over their previous interactions with the giants and feel a little chill as everything now reads very differently in retrospect. (That will happen later, through nothing more than total random chance, which is the least satisfying sort of literary revelation.) Instead, we just have a character assert, without any reason or evidence, that their hosts are evil incarnate. And he ends up being right. While the narrative dances about in the background pointing out that, c'mon, they're giant and fat and foolish, what more evidence do you need, geez.
I feel like this whole arc is crying out for a re-write in which the giants are perfectly sensible people who would let them go on their way without a fuss, but the protagonists keep failing to get free because they refuse to actually let on that they want to leave.
Eustace comes up with an escape plan, because haha you expected the girl protagonist to contribute? Boy, I wish you could see your face right now. Haha. But don't think that Jill has no place in the boys' plan, oh no. She is hereby called upon to be girly and Susanyish.
“It’s hardly what I call a Chance,” said the Marsh-wiggle. “But it’s all the chance we’re likely to get.” As a matter of fact, Scrubb’s plan was not quite so hopeless as you might think. If you want to get out of a house without being seen, the middle of the afternoon is in some ways a better time to try it than in the middle of the night. Doors and windows are more likely to be open; and if you are caught, you can always pretend you weren’t meaning to go far and had no particular plans. (It is very hard to make either giants or grown-ups believe this if you’re found climbing out of a bedroom window at one o’clock in the morning.)
“We must put them off their guard, though,” said Scrubb. “We must pretend we love being here and are longing for this Autumn Feast.”
“That’s tomorrow night,” said Puddleglum. “I heard one of them say so.”
“I see,” said Jill. “We must pretend to be awfully excited about it, and keep on asking questions. They think we’re absolute infants anyway, which will make it easier.”
“Gay,” said Puddleglum with a deep sigh. “That’s what we’ve got to be. Gay. As if we hadn’t a care in the world. Frolicsome. You two youngsters haven’t always got very high spirits, I’ve noticed. You must watch me, and do as I do. I’ll be gay. Like this”—and he assumed a ghastly grin. “And frolicsome”—here he cut a most mournful caper. “You’ll soon get into it, if you keep your eyes on me. They think I’m a funny fellow already, you see. I dare say you two thought I was a trifle tipsy last night, but I do assure you it was—well, most of it was—put on. I had an idea it would come in useful, somehow.”
The children, when they talked over their adventures afterward, could never feel sure whether this last statement was quite strictly true; but they were sure that Puddleglum thought it was true when he made it.
“All right. Gay’s the word,” said Scrubb. “Now, if we could only get someone to open this door. While we’re fooling about and being gay, we’ve got to find out all we can about this castle.”
But, hey, before we end this chapter, can we squeeze in anymore hatred of women? I think we can oblige!
When Jill saw that there were no horses she was at first dreadfully disappointed, for she felt sure that the great fat Queen would never go after hounds on foot; and it would never do to have her about the house all day. But then she saw the Queen in a kind of litter supported on the shoulders of six young giants. The silly old creature was all got up in green and had a horn at her side.
Chapter 9 will feature Jill being cheerful, and I'll just say in advance that while I usually love stories about social intrigue, I like them so much less when there's a pervasive sense that the author wrote all the social intrigue while pinching his nose shut in disgust because eww girly things. That kinda puts a damper on my enjoyment of things.