[Narnia Content Note: Bullying, Slavery, Mind Control]
Narnia Recap: The Green Witch has been killed and now we are nyoom.
The Silver Chair, Chapter 13: Underland Without The Queen
This book has sixteen chapters in it and it's easier now for me to see what some of you all were saying at the beginning of this, about Silver Chair being your least favorite, because holy shit I am kind of bored? The main antagonist died in the most contrived chapter ever--she basically walked in from being on the other side of the country and then talked for a bit before dying in the most blatantly silly manner ever. (Troops? What are those, I can turn into a snake and attack three armed men!)
Now we have to kill time for a couple chapters to get Rilian back to Narnia, which honestly seems pretty fait accompli, and that's a shame because this could have been a chance to inject some real drama: Aslan's instructions are all done and the protagonists are off-script now, so to speak. But that would have required us to be more in the middle of the book as opposed to "almost done", so that the drama could spread out a little and get cozy. Anyway, let's do this thing.
I'm going to register a nitpick with regards to the title of this chapter (and the previous), in that the Green Witch is continually styled "the Queen". I know we're not supposed to know yet that the earthpeople aren't her uncritical supporters (though the fact that they all look miserable seems like a good hint), but she's not their Queen except in the sense that she somehow completely subjugated them all with... magic... or something... *handwaves*
I have a spurious unresearched feeling that if we went back to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, we would find that the White Witch was not called "queen" by the narrative very often, and it's annoying to me that the Green Witch is called "queen" here, when she's even more of a usurper / illegitimate leader than Jadis was of Narnia. Maybe Lewis didn't have control over the names of his chapter titles, but it bugs me and feels like yet more evidence that the earthpeople are considered less than Narnian people.
ALL FELT THAT THEY HAD EARNED what Scrubb called a “breather.” The Witch had locked the door and told the Earthmen not to disturb her, so there was no danger of interruption for the present. Their first business was, of course, Puddleglum’s burnt foot. A couple of clean shirts from the Prince’s bedroom, torn into strips, and well greased on the inside with butter and salad oil off the supper table, made a fairly good dressing. When this had been applied, they all sat down and had a little refreshment, and discussed plans for escaping from the Underworld.
I mean, okay, I guess there's no need to instill a sense of urgency especially when the tense theologies of the last chapter had me on the edge of my seat, but I greatly dislike (again!) this idea that the earthpeople aren't people. Like, dude, you just hacked to death a giant serpent, you can't tell me that made no noise whatsoever. There was shouting and swordy sounds, and we're just banking on the earthpeople being slavish meek servant archetypes who don't investigate or interfere because they were told not to. And there's zero consideration of the idea that the Green Witch might have had a trusted lieutenant who might check in or know magic of hir own, because apparently earthpeople don't have the right genes for leadership?
One of the things that Richard Burlew has done really right, imho, is take the idea of the underling goblin race and recognize that even minions have power, ambition, personalities, loyalties, and are, you know, people. I can't help but wonder how much of Eustace's dismissal of the earth people (Eustace who was a communist, Eustace who cared about workers, Eustance who has apparently been purged of all character and consistency) we're supposed to agree with; he's wrong about the earthpeople being mindlessly singular in obedience to the Witch, but at the same time, they're singularly focused on something else: the return to Bism. You'd think at least someone would be curious, would want to see the dead Witch, would want to storm the dining hall to kill her dangerous paramour, would want to do something more than what every other earthperson is doing. This hivemindery depersons them.
Rilian explained that there were quite a lot of outlets by which one could get to the surface; he had been taken out through most of them at one time or another. But he had never gone out alone, only with the Witch; and he had always reached these outlets by going in a ship across the Sunless Sea. What the Earthmen would say if he went down to the harbor without the Witch, and with three strangers, and simply ordered a ship, no one could guess. But most likely they would ask awkward questions.
Hey, you know what? If the protagonists had been observing and talking to their captors on the boat ride here, rather than sneering at everything, I'll bet they could have hazarded a "guess" as to the best way to snowball them into providing an escape now. But I guess we'll never know.
On the other hand the new outlet, the one for the invasion of the Overworld, was on this side of the sea, and only a few miles away. The Prince knew that it was nearly finished; only a few feet of earth divided the diggings from the outer air. It was even possible that it had now been quite finished. Perhaps the Witch had come back to tell him this and to start the attack. Even if it was not, they could probably dig themselves out by that route in a few hours—if they could only get there without being stopped, and if only they found the diggings unguarded. But those were the difficulties.
The idea that the tunnel was made ready to go and that this was why the witch came back early and ahead of schedule is not a bad one, and in a perfect world with things like second drafts, that would have been established back when it actually mattered and not as an authorial footnote here.
Has the prince even seen this tunnel? We're taking it as read that it exists and that the Witch's plans to invade were the truth, but why would she share all that with him? Especially when he was apparently credulous enough to spill it all to the first visitor who fell into their lap. Why would she need to tell him anything? He's her mind-controlled puppet, and there seems to have been zero reason to confide in him. Did she fancy herself in love with him? Why are we taking as read that this tunnel exists and why does he know about it?
Here is another way that the book could have been spiced up: everyone could just not know where to go. Then the earthpeople would actually be necessary to the plot; the trio would have to trick them or collaborate with them or persuade them or something in order to get out from the underworld and back up to the surface. That could have injected some much-needed drama ("Where do we go and how do we find out the way?") as opposed to a quickly disposed of obstacle ("How do we get to the tunnel, oh nevermind they're on our side.").
“If you ask me—” began Puddleglum, when Scrubb interrupted.
“I say,” he asked, “what’s that noise?”
“I’ve been wondering that for some time!” said Jill.
Okay, now Lewis is just rubbing Jill's faux protagonism in our faces now.
The very first thing they noticed was a great red glow. Its reflection made a red patch on the roof of the Underworld thousands of feet above them, so that they could see a rocky ceiling which had perhaps been hidden in darkness ever since the world was made. The glow itself came from the far side of the city so that many buildings, grim and great, stood up blackly against it. But it also cast its light down many streets that ran from it toward the castle. And in those streets something very strange was going on. The closely-packed, silent crowds of Earthmen had vanished. Instead, there were figures darting about by ones, or twos, or threes. They behaved like people who do not want to be seen: lurking in shadow behind buttresses or in doorways, and then moving quickly across the open into fresh places of hiding. But the strangest thing of all, to anyone who knew gnomes, was the noise. Shouts and cries came from all directions. But from the harbor there came a low, rumbling roar which grew steadily louder and was already shaking the whole city.
[...] “Oh, what can be happening?” cried Jill. “Fire and water and all those people dodging about the streets.”
“I’ll tell you what it is,” said Puddleglum. “That Witch has laid a train of magic spells so that whenever she was killed, at that same moment her whole kingdom would fall to pieces. She’s the sort that wouldn’t so much mind dying herself if she knew that the chap who killed her was going to be burned, or buried, or drowned five minutes later.” “Hast hit it, friend wiggle,” said the Prince. “When our swords hacked off the Witch’s head, that stroke ended all her magic works, and now the Deep Lands are falling to pieces. We are looking on the end of Underworld.”
What is this even. I'm tempted to sit down and refuse to go any further until the author explains this to my satisfaction. Can we review the Green Witch's powers at this point? Apparently she has the following abilities:
1. The ability to thoroughly and completely mind-enslave an entire race of people. (“And I’ll tell your Honors all I know. About an hour ago we were all going about our work—her work, I should say—sad and silent, same as we’ve done any other day for years and years. Then came a great crash and bang. As soon as they heard it, everyone says to himself, I haven’t had a song or a dance or let off a squib for a long time; why’s that? And everyone thinks to himself, Why, I must have been enchanted. And then everyone says to himself, I’m blessed if I know why I’m carrying this load, and I’m not going to carry it any farther: that’s that. --Chapter 14)
2. The ability to seed her domain with magics such that her death causes an apocalypse of earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters.
3. The ability to turn into a giant snake.
4. The ability to ensorcell a prince such that his memories are blocked and his personality is somewhat different, but unlike the ensorcellment of the earthpeople, the spell only works for 23 hours out of the day and he has to be restrained in an apparently magical device in order to renew the spell. Maybe.
5. The ability to sort of vaguely confuse four people in a room, as long as she has the necessary props: music, soothing vocals, scented fire.
None of this makes any sense! She can mentally enslave an entire race of people, but she can only barely affect Narnians and humans? Bad writing or racism, the ultimate effect is the same: an inconsistent narrative and the understanding that the earthpeople are lesser than the Prince and protagonists. She can decimate a country with natural disasters, but she needs Rilian to conquer Narnia: why? This is such rough first draft material that I'm almost insulted as a writer; the concept was fine (missing prince, ensorcelled to a witch, quest to save him) but you owe it to your readers to clean up your first draft into something coherent.
I've been reading Fred Clark for a long time and his excellent points about craftsmanship, and it just... bugs me. "The world goes boom because witch kapow kapow!" is not thoughtful interaction with the reader, imho.
“But are we just going to stay here and—wait?” gasped Jill.
“Not by my counsel,” said the Prince.
NO PROTAGONISTING FOR YOU, YOUNG LADY.
“Will your Highness not put on armor?” asked Puddleglum. “I don’t like the look of those”—and he pointed down to the street. Everyone looked down. Dozens of creatures (and now that they were close, they obviously were Earthmen) were coming up from the direction of the harbor. But they were not moving like an aimless crowd. They behaved like modern soldiers in an attack, making rushes and taking cover, anxious not to be seen from the castle windows.
“I dare not see the inside of that armor again,” said the Prince. “I rode in it as in a movable dungeon, and it stinks of magic and slavery. But I will take the shield.”
Everyone who is surprised that Puddleglum is a racist conspiracy theorist may now raise your hand. (If you raised your hand, I am sorry but you have not been paying attention. Please go back and read all the chapters with giants in.) I also totally love that frightened people running AWAY from the castle and "anxious not to be seen" is here characterized as "modern soldiers in an attack".
As they run away.
From the castle and its protagonists.
That's an attack now.
...I feel like I should make a joke about that, except we really do live in a world where a marginalized person running away from a privileged armed person (who has, in this case, sworn genocide on them at least once and probably more times in the past in their hearing) actually is treated by privileged people as an "attack" and that's how white people get away with literal murder and it's just not funny. At all.
Then Rilian goes to get his shield and it has been magically transformed to have Aslan's face on it (he can't be arsed to show up and do anything, but he can repaint shields) and Rilian tells them to all kneel and kiss Aslan's face and it's either a sweet metaphor for Christianity or CREEPY AS FUCK and I'll leave the decision to the individuals in the audience.
And they all did as the Prince had said. But when Scrubb shook hands with Jill, he said, “So long, Jill. Sorry I’ve been a funk and so ratty. I hope you get safe home,” and Jill said, “So long, Eustace. And I’m sorry I’ve been such a pig.” And this was the first time they had ever used Christian names, because one didn’t do it at school.
I... kind of find it adorable that Lewis considers this a deeply meaningful proof of Srs Bzn and deadly situation and great friendship. They used each other's CHRISTIAN names, ya'll. (Also, fuck liberal schools, amiright.) Like, there are all kinds of wonderful moments in fiction where the sharing and using of names is meaningfully handled (here thinking of most recently in Mady Max: Fury Road), but Lewis is just so damn giddy about it being their CHRISTIAN names because they are CHRISTIANS now that they've kissed the CHRISTIAN pope-lion-god.
Like, this passage feels more earnestly enthusiastic than anything else in the book, and I would find that heart-warming except that it's basically insults, self-flagellation, and pissing on liberals in addition to the CHRISTIAN stuff. (And yes, yes, at least the series is consistent, but I'd kind of rather it wasn't consistently vile, you know?)
The Prince unlocked the door and they all went down the stairs: three of them with drawn swords, and Jill with drawn knife. The attendants had vanished and the great room at the foot of the Prince’s stairs was empty. The gray, doleful lamps were still burning and by their light they had no difficulty in passing gallery after gallery and descending stairway after stairway. The noises from outside the castle were not so easily heard here as they had been in the room above. Inside the house all was still as death, and deserted. It was as they turned a corner into the great hall on the ground floor that they met their first Earthman—a fat, whitish creature with a very piglike face who was gobbling up all the remains of food on the tables. It squealed (the squeal also was very like a pig’s) and darted under a bench, whisking its long tail out of Puddleglum’s reach in the nick of time. Then it rushed away through the far door too quickly to be followed.
Oh god. Burn everything.
So, okay, I was wrong. We do have one earthperson who isn't acting like a hivemind to swarm the escape route. We have a gluttony pig person who is piggy pigging out on food like a pig. Not eating rushed and hurriedly because he's starving and been kept in appalling conditions by the Witch for years on end, nope, he's a piggy fatty mcfatperson. Who is a fat pig.
Fuck you, Lewis, that the first freed slave you showed us was this animalistic fat-shaming utterly-unnecessary-to-the-story void of heartlessness where your conscience should be. Haha, yes, slavery is hilarious.
A magnificent rocket had risen from somewhere beyond the castle walls and broken into green stars.
“Fireworks!” said Jill in a puzzled voice.
“Yes,” said Eustace, “but you can’t imagine those Earth people letting them off for fun! It must be a signal.”
“And means no good to us, I’ll be bound,” said Puddleglum.
I have mixed feelings about this, because okay, yes, the protagonists are wrong. It's even sort of supposed to be a stinger that ohmigosh, these Obviously Evil People aren't evil after all; they're trying to get home and they're genuinely happy at being allowed to get home. But so much time is spent dehumanizing them that anything later feels like too little too late.
And there's no real genuine inflection on the part of the protagonists that maybe they shouldn't be racist asshats anymore; instead, the earthpeople are treated like an exception. Like, in any other circumstance with any other people, the protagonists would be totally right to be very suspicious of fireworks (and to assume that it had something to do with them) but just this once, thank Aslan, everything was okay. But no need to change our internalized prejudices or anything.
(Indeed, the ending climax of this book involves beating up the bullies at school, rather than trying to understand them; a curious choice when one of the protagonists is himself an ex-bully who should recognize that those children may have more going on beneath their surface villainy.)
The horses were both frightened by the strange lights and the noises. Jill, who had been so cowardly about going through a black hole between one cave and another, went in without fear between the stamping and snorting beasts, and she and the Prince had them saddled and bridled in a few minutes. Very fine they looked as they came out into the courtyard, tossing their heads. Jill mounted Snowflake, and Puddleglum got up behind her. Eustace got up behind the Prince on Coalblack. Then with a great echo of hoofs, they rode out of the main gateway into the street.
I'm including this passage almost entirely because Jill was allowed to finally do something: be good at girly horse stuff. And also maybe because I want shipfic of Rilian and Eustace, and I'm willing to do my part to inspire that.
“Courage!” said the Prince. “The road there goes down steeply. That water has climbed only half up the greatest hill of the city. It might come so near in the first half-hour and come no nearer in the next two. My fear is more of that—” and he pointed with his sword to a great tall Earthman with boar’s tusks, followed by six others of assorted shapes and sizes who had just dashed out of a side street and stepped into the shadow of the houses where no one could see them.
OH MY GOD THEY ARE POSING LITERALLY ZERO THREAT TO YOU, RILIAN. YOU ARE A RACIST TRASHBABY AND THE WHOLE WORLD DOES NOT REVOLVE AROUND YOU.
I would like to remind everyone that Rilian is going to be king of Narnia by the end of this book and that this is treated as a good thing and not a horrible disaster.
But there were many places where neither of these lights fell, and those places were jet-black. And in and out of those places the shapes of Earthmen were darting and slipping all the time, always with their eyes fixed on the travelers, always trying to keep out of sight themselves. There were big and little faces, huge eyes like fishes’ eyes and little eyes like bears’. There were feathers and bristles, horns and tusks, noses like whipcord and chins so long that they looked like beards. Every now and then a group of them would get too big or come too near. Then the Prince would brandish his sword and make a show of charging them. And the creatures, with all manner of hootings, squeakings, and cluckings, would dive away into the darkness.
So, omg, it's not like the earthpeople can even talk to them because the Prince is deliberately trying to frighten and terrorize them. This is what privilege looks like, and it's not enough that the earthpeople turn out to be innocent, because no one ever calls out that what the Prince is doing is actively guilty.
Again: This guy threatened genocide on these people the last time he was in the silver chair. There's no reason to think that they haven't heard him say stuff like that before. They have a reasonable belief that he may be in cahoots with the Witch now, or carrying on in wake of her death; they don't know he's not enchanted anymore. He knows all this. He could call out to them, communicate with them, something. Instead, he treats them like mindless violent beasts, charging at them in an attempt to scare them off. He doesn't treat them like people.
But when they had climbed many steep streets and were far away from the flood, and almost out of the town on the inland side, it began to be more serious. They were now close to the red glow and nearly on a level with it, though they still could not see what it really was. But by its light they could see their enemies more clearly. Hundreds—perhaps a few thousands—of gnomes were all moving toward it. But they were doing so in short rushes, and whenever they stopped, they turned and faced the travelers.
“If your Highness asked me,” said Puddleglum, “I’d say those fellows were meaning to cut us off in front.”
“That was my thought too, Puddleglum,” said the Prince. “And we can never fight our way through so many. Hark you! Let us ride forth close by the edge of yonder house. And even as we reach it, do you slip off into its shadow. The Lady and I will go forward a few paces. Some of these devils will follow us, I doubt not; they are thick behind us. Do you, who have long arms, take one alive if you may, as it passes your ambush. We may get a true tale of it or learn what is their quarrel against us.”
OR YOU COULD JUST ATTEMPT TO TALK TO THEM. THEY ARE RIGHT THERE YOU ARE LOOKING AT EACH OTHER. THIS ISN'T A STEALTH SITUATION WHERE TALKING WOULD GIVE YOUR POSITION AWAY.
Honestly, the fact that they haven't killed you with rocks or knocked a building on top of you means they're probably not hostile.
“But won’t the others all come rushing at us to rescue the one we catch,” said Jill in a voice not so steady as she tried to make it.
“Then, Madam,” said the Prince, “you shall see us die fighting around you, and you must commend yourself to the Lion. Now, good Puddleglum.”
Exhibit number infinity that chivalry is worthless bullshittery. "Welp, no time to think of a plan where you might actually be safe, milady. If our stupidly aggressive tactics don't work, just try to think of Aslan while they kill you. We'll already be dead and won't have to watch." Ugh ugh ugh.
The Marsh-wiggle slipped off into the shadow as quickly as a cat. The others, for a sickening minute or so, went forward at a walk. Then suddenly from behind them there broke out a series of blood-curdling screams, mixed with the familiar voice of Puddleglum, saying, “Now then! Don’t cry out before you’re hurt, or you will be hurt, see? Anyone would think it was a pig being killed.”
I can't. I cannot even.
This is a book where the climactic enemies are school bullies, and the problem is solved with a liberal application of bullying. That is Lewis' theology, in Narnia at least, whether he meant to portray that or not: not that Jesus teaches us to eschew bullying, but rather that Jesus is the biggest bully and the biggest bully wins.
And we see that here. The narrative is bullying this freed slave, by (again!) making the dehumanizing fat-shaming "piggy" comparisons. And Puddleglum uses the language of the bully: "Don't protest the harm I'm doing to you, or you'll be harmed worse!" That's literally bullying. Puddleglum is assaulting this person who never did him any wrong, because he and the Prince are too steeped in their privilege to ask the earthpeople to talk and to risk that they may not consent. These two men only know the language of force.
Yet even as they force and aggress against the earthpeople, they also gaslight their victims. "It's not that bad!" Puddleglum scolds as he attacks an innocent person. "It could be worse! You'd better stop calling out my attack as such--you'd better react the way I tell you to--or I'll hurt you even more!" None of this is okay. None of it is moral. And none of it will be called out by the narrative as bullying behavior. But why would it be? Bullying isn't bad in Narnia; Aslan is the biggest bully of them all. What matters in Narnia is whether you have the right to bully. If you're human or Christian or Aslan, yes; if you're inhuman or non-Christian or a witch, no.
“That was good hunting,” exclaimed the Prince, immediately turning Coalblack and coming back to the corner of the house. “Eustace,” he said, “of your courtesy, take Coalblack’s head.” Then he dismounted, and all three gazed in silence while Puddleglum pulled his catch out into the light. It was a most miserable little gnome, only about three feet long. It had a sort of ridge, like a cock’s comb (only hard), on the top of its head, little pink eyes, and a mouth and chin so large and round that its face looked like that of a pigmy hippopotamus. If they had not been in such a tight place, they would have burst into laughter at the sight of it.
“Now, Earthman,” said the Prince, standing over it and holding his sword point very near the prisoner’s neck, “speak, up, like an honest gnome, and you shall go free. Play the knave with us, and you are but a dead Earthman. Good Puddleglum, how can it speak while you hold its mouth tight shut?”
“No, and it can’t bite either,” said Puddleglum. “If I had the silly soft hands you humans have (saving your Highness’s reverence) I’d have been all over blood by now. Yet even a Marsh-wiggle gets tired of being chewed.”
“Sirrah,” said the Prince to the gnome, “one bite and you die. Let its mouth open, Puddleglum.”
“Oo-ee-ee,” squealed the Earthman, “let me go, let me go. It isn’t me. I didn’t do it.”
“Didn’t do what?” asked Puddleglum.
“Whatever your Honors say I did do,” answered the creature.
“Tell me your name,” said the Prince, “and what you Earthmen are all about today.”
“Oh please, your Honors, please, kind gentlemen,” whimpered the gnome. “Promise you will not tell the Queen’s grace anything I say.”
“The Queen’s grace, as you call her,” said the Prince sternly, “is dead. I killed her myself.”
“What!” cried the gnome, opening its ridiculous mouth wider and wider in astonishment. “Dead? The Witch dead? And by your Honor’s hand?” It gave a huge sigh of relief and added, “Why then your Honor is a friend!”
The Prince withdrew his sword an inch or so. Puddleglum let the creature sit up. It looked round on the four travelers with its twinkling, red eyes, chuckled once or twice, and began.
Oh yes gods, and as if the ex-slave wasn't a thing now we have classist bullying. "Your Honors" my foot. Not that I blame him for being servile; if he'd called the Prince "your asshatted bullying fool", I presume they would have just run him through or beaten him senseless, in proper Caspian tradition.