Narnia: Cruel and Ancient People

[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence]

Narnia Recap: It's time for a new adventure!

The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 1: How Shasta Set Out On His Travels

We went through this in the last post, but I want to hang a couple disclaimers over the blog for this book:

1. This book is racist.

2. Most books are racist.

3. That this book is racist is not an attack that needs arguing against or defending.

4. Whether the racism in this book was entered deliberately (Lewis choosing to be racist), or secondhand (Lewis mimicking someone else's racist style), or accidentally (Lewis just happened to whoops insert racism that he didn't mean to insert but alas here it's there now) is largely irrelevant to the deconstruction of this book. Comments along these lines are not welcome in this space--feel free to post on your own blog and link people over.

5. Whether the racism in this book was specifically directed against Muslim people or Persian people or Babylonian people is largely irrelevant to the deconstruction of this book. Comments along these lines are not welcome in this space--feel free to post on your own blog and link people over.

Okay. Let's get into Chapter 1. *rolls up sleeves*

   THIS IS THE STORY OF AN ADVENTURE that happened in Narnia and Calormen and the lands between, in the Golden Age when Peter was High King in Narnia and his brother and his two sisters were King and Queens under him.
   In those days, far south in Calormen on a little creek of the sea, there lived a poor fisherman called Arsheesh, and with him there lived a boy who called him Father. The boy’s name was Shasta. On most days Arsheesh went out in his boat to fish in the morning, and in the afternoon he harnessed his donkey to a cart and loaded the cart with fish and went a mile or so southward to the village to sell it. If it had sold well he would come home in a moderately good temper and say nothing to Shasta, but if it had sold badly he would find fault with him and perhaps beat him. There was always something to find fault with for Shasta had plenty of work to do, mending and washing the nets, cooking the supper, and cleaning the cottage in which they both lived.
   Shasta was not at all interested in anything that lay south of his home because he had once or twice been to the village with Arsheesh and he knew that there was nothing very interesting there. In the village he only met other men who were just like his father—men with long, dirty robes, and wooden shoes turned up at the toe, and turbans on their heads, and beards, talking to one another very slowly about things that sounded dull. But he was very interested in everything that lay to the North because no one ever went that way and he was never allowed to go there himself. When he was sitting out of doors mending the nets, and all alone, he would often look eagerly to the North. One could see nothing but a grassy slope running up to a level ridge and beyond that the sky with perhaps a few birds in it.

This is one of the setting pieces (of which there are so many in the book) where the reader is just going to see and read what makes sense to them. To me, this is overwhelmingly drenched in the aesthetic of the Thousand Nights. I could point out how many fishermen inhabit those tales, I could talk about the donkeys that crop up in so many of the stories as beasts of burden, I could point out the long robes, the turbans, the beards. And you could argue that all those things technically exist in other places. *shrug* That's not wrong. Lots of places have donkeys and robes and turbans and beards and poor fishermen. The reader is going to see the aesthetic that they see.

If you want them, here are some Thousand Nights quotes for fun, but they aren't going to convince anyone. I just like peppering them in as something nice for my eyes and brain after Lewis:

Tale of the Third Kalandar. The captain seemed thunderstruck by these words of the lookout; he threw his turban on the deck and snatched at his beard, crying: 'Here is death for all! Not one of us will come out alive!'

The Tale of the Christian Broker. I went on regulating my business affairs until the evening and, when the donkey-boy came for me, set forth, carrying another fifty gold dinars in a handkerchief.

The Tale of the Wazir Nur al-Din, his Brother the Wazir Shams al-Din, and Hasan Badr al-Din. He was dressed in the fine robes which he had worn at Basrah, on his head was a tarbush wound in the mode of Basrah, with a wide silk turban embroidered in silver and little tinted flowers; he wore a cloak enriched with falls of silk and broad decorations in gold thread. All this only added to his beauty.

The Tale of the Woman Cut in Pieces. The Khalifah, after listening to these lines, said to Jafar: 'Both the song and the appearance of this poor man would seem to indicate most grievous misery.' Then going up to the old man he said: 'Father, what is your trade?' 'Master, I am a fisherman,' the other answered, 'also I am very old and have a large family. From noon until now I have laboured beyond my strength and yet Allah has not seen good to provide me with even a morsel of bread for my children. I am tired of myself and tired of life, and death is all I wish for.'

Ah. That's better. I may be doing a lot of that.

Shasta is our protagonist, though I rather wish he were not because this book would have been far superior (in my opinion) without him. There is, I believe, a reason we tend to remember this book for Aravis rather than for Shasta--I don't think even one person listed Shasta as a source of nostalgia when discussing the remembered merits of this book. That doesn't surprise me; as a character, I think Shasta is fatally burdened with Lewis' white fantasies: already we see him yearning for the North, the place where he was born, as if his very genetics drew him to Narnia. Not the sea for him, nor the sinful luxuries of the South, no. He longs for good ol' England.

   Sometimes if Arsheesh was there Shasta would say, “O my Father, what is there beyond that hill?” And then if the fisherman was in a bad temper he would box Shasta’s ears and tell him to attend to his work. Or if he was in a peaceable mood he would say, “O my son, do not allow your mind to be distracted by idle questions. For one of the poets has said, ‘Application to business is the root of prosperity, but those who ask questions that do not concern them are steering the ship of folly toward the rock of indigence.’”

Here is our first proverb in this book, such as it is. Proverbs liberally pepper the Thousand Nights source material. Here are some randomly-selected ones, but each story usually has multiple proverbs and poems in them:

The Tale of King Shahryar and of his Brother, King Shahzaman. As the poet says:
She comes, a torch in the shadows, and it is day;
Her light more brightly lights the dawn.
Suns leap from out her beauty
And moons are born in the smiling of her eyes.
Ah, that the veils of her mystery might be rent
And the folk of the world lie ravished at her feet.
Forced by the great light of her sweet glancing
Wet tears smart forth from every watching eye.

And the poet said, besides:
Friend, trust not at all in women, smile at their promising,
For they lower or they love at the caprice of their parts.
Filled to the mouth with deceit, they lavish a lying love
Even while the very floss fringing their silks is faithless.
Respect and remember the words of Yusuf. Forget not
Iblis worked all Adam's woe with one woman.
Rail not, my friend. At this house, at whom you are railing,
Mild love tomorrow will give place to madness.
Say not: "If I love, I'll escape the follies of loving,"
But rather: "Only a miracle brings a man safe from among them."

The Fisherman and the Jinni. Seeing this, he recited the stanza of a certain poet:
Be not astonished that the golden wind
Blows the world forward, leaving you behind;
     There are no dinars in a rose-wood pen
For any but a merchant's hand to find.

The proverb does not lie which says:
If you would know the taste of bitterness
Seek sorrow out and comfort her distress,
You need not feed a jackal cub to see
Just how ungrateful gratitude can be.'

The fact that there are fully one million "as the poet says" and "as the proverb goes" in the Thousand Nights points to the oral history of the tales, finding touchstones in common with the intended audience and summarizing important plot and characterization throughout the stories. Repetition is particularly important in oral stories, when the audience can't "flip back" to catch a missed plot point, and words are more likely to be missed when hearing a story without visual cues. Summaries are important in stories meant for large audiences, when people can wander in late (or zip out to use the bathroom). The proverbs and poems are in the stories for a multitude of reasons that don't just boil down to "huh, they must really like poems, eh?"

The Chronicles of Narnia are not oral stories. The "proverbs" here are provided to indicate setting through callback to real things in our real world: "These fictional folks recite a lot of flowery poems, just like Those Real World folks in that book you've read." It's the fantasy equivalent of trying to sketch out I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Japan by throwing in cultural elements that the audience will attune to. You may have a setting full of orcs and elves, but once katana and tea ceremonies enter into play, the (white) audience is supposed to understand that the folks in the fantasy setting being referenced are intended to look and feel like Japanese people rather than, say, ruddy red-haired Scottish folks.

The proverbs Lewis provides also point rather damningly to character. Here we see that Arsheesh is physically and emotionally violent: he beats Shasta to keep him working, or he uses flowery language to provide non-answers to what ought to be a fairly normal question of geography. The "proverb" is almost comically overwrought with tortured metaphor: "the ship of folly" steered towards "the rock of indigence", mixed with another metaphor about the "root of prosperity", as though growing things and sea-navigation were somehow causally linked. It is, in short, a bad proverb, and probably deliberately bad. At best, it makes Arsheesh look like a fool for treating this answer as deep or meaningful; at worst, it makes the entire Calormen culture look bad for considering this proverb to be worth sharing and repeating.

Note also the formulaic flowery speech: "O my father", "O my son". That will continue to be a thing.

   Shasta thought that beyond the hill there must be some delightful secret which his father wished to hide from him. In reality, however, the fisherman talked like this because he didn’t know what lay to the North. Neither did he care. He had a very practical mind.

We just came from The Silver Chair where even the least (formally-)educated member of the population knew what lay to the north of the Narnian borders. And, in fact, almost everyone in that novel including Puddleglum, was implied to be fairly well-traveled as well as aware of the gossip from travelers who passed through.

Further, I take rather strong objection at the characterization of "quotes flowery bullshit poetry rather than answering a question" as a "practical mind". A practical mind would answer the damn question properly so that it wouldn't keep coming up. "You know, I don't really know. Another kingdom, if you walk far enough. Back to work, kiddo."

Already we're seeing a cultural difference between the earthy "practicality" of Puddleglum (who never lacked for knowledge, even if it was laced with his characteristic attitude) and the flighty dreamy "practicality" of Arsheesh, who has not the slightest working knowledge of geography and tries to hide it with flowery double-talk.

   One day there came from the South a stranger who was unlike any man that Shasta had seen before. He rode upon a strong dappled horse with flowing mane and tail and his stirrups and bridle were inlaid with silver. The spike of a helmet projected from the middle of his silken turban and he wore a shirt of chain mail. By his side hung a curving scimitar, a round shield studded with bosses of brass hung at his back, and his right hand grasped a lance. His face was dark, but this did not surprise Shasta because all the people of Calormen are like that; what did surprise him was the man’s beard which was dyed crimson, and curled and gleaming with scented oil. But Arsheesh knew by the gold on the stranger’s bare arm that he was a Tarkaan or great lord, and he bowed kneeling before him till his beard touched the earth and made signs to Shasta to kneel also.

Spiked helm. Silken turban. Curved scimitar. Dark face. Dye and scented oil. Curled beards. Kneeling.

Genuflect, show some respect, down on one knee!

None of this exists in a vacuum.

   The stranger demanded hospitality for the night which of course the fisherman dared not refuse. All the best they had was set before the Tarkaan for supper (and he didn’t think much of it) and Shasta, as always happened when the fisherman had company, was given a hunk of bread and turned out of the cottage. On these occasions he usually slept with the donkey in its little thatched stable. But it was much too early to go to sleep yet, and Shasta, who had never learned that it is wrong to listen behind doors, sat down with his ear to a crack in the wooden wall of the cottage to hear what the grown-ups were talking about. And this is what he heard.
   “And now, O my host,” said the Tarkaan, “I have a mind to buy that boy of yours.”
   “O my master,” replied the fisherman (and Shasta knew by the wheedling tone the greedy look that was probably coming into his face as he said it), “what price could induce your servant, poor though he is, to sell into slavery his only child and his own flesh? Has not one of the poets said, ‘Natural affection is stronger than soup and offspring more precious than carbuncles?’”

Excessive courtesy, viewed as hypocritical by the "straight-speaking" English audience. (Especially in Narnia where a long-running theme has been how goodness should never blunt itself for the sake of mere politeness.) Greedy haggling. Slavery. Again we're seeing characterization of the Calormen setting, and that characterization is racist and plays into western stereotypes about Middle Eastern societies. And again: terrible poetry that is supposedly lauded by this culture as the best thing ever.

Seriously. "Stronger than soup". I cannot even.

   “It is even so,” replied the guest dryly. “But another poet has likewise said, ‘He who attempts to deceive the judicious is already baring his own back for the scourge.’ Do not load your aged mouth with falsehoods. This boy is manifestly no son of yours, for your cheek is as dark as mine but the boy is fair and white like the accursed but beautiful barbarians who inhabit the remote North.”

The Thousand Nights is not without colorism of its own. Attractiveness is regularly tied up with being "fair" and "white"; slaves are usually described as "dark" and "black", with the darkest and blackest of people being immediately understood to be particularly bad, evil, lowly, or feral. Some of this colorism stemmed from slavery and associated racism, and some of the emphasis on fairness was contextually wrapped up in being rich enough to not have to work in the sun, as well as a cloistered innocence. If you could afford to stay out of the sun, you were wealthy; if you were stashed away from the eyes of society, you were pure.

Which is a long way of noting, again, that very few pieces of fiction are entirely without problems.

But even with that context in mind, this right here is not how the Thousand Nights describe fairness. White skin is regularly described to be beautiful in the tales, yes, but in comparisons to the moon and stars, to innocence and purity, to something worth cherishing and protecting. None of this "accursed and beautiful barbarians" which is the most ridiculously tortured "damn those awesome people who look like the author" construction I think I have ever seen. ("They probably have big penises, too!" he added, shaking his fist in fury.)

Of interest: Shasta is so genetically white that life living by the sea mending nets all day as an impoverished orphan-servant hasn't darkened him up one bit. He is, in fact, so ivory-white that he will later be able to trade places with a cloistered prince later and no one will notice a difference. He is genetic marshmallow fluff.

Also of interest: The visiting Tarkaan does not even consider that Arsheesh might have legitimately adopted Shasta and could consider him a genuine son. Or that he might be Arsheesh's genetic son while taking physically after his (white, Narnian) mother. This is partly because the Tarkaan is an evil unsentimental asshole and partly to get to the plot, yet again this provides characterization of the culture on display, whether intended or not: adoption and inter-marriage with non-Calormen is rare enough to not be considered as likely as Shasta being a slave.

Also of extra interest: Slavery is so cheap and common in this culture that (a) the Tarkaan does not find it odd or unusual that a fisherman could afford a slave, and (b) an impoverished fisherman can raise a baby in slavery and still consider to have profited from the foundling.

   “How well it was said,” answered the fisherman, “that Swords can be kept off with shields but the Eye of Wisdom pierces through every defense! Know then, O my formidable guest, that because of my extreme poverty I have never married and have no child. But in that same year in which the Tisroc (may he live forever) began his august and beneficent reign, on a night when the moon was at her full, it pleased the gods to deprive me of my sleep. Therefore I arose from my bed in this hovel and went forth to the beach to refresh myself with looking upon the water and the moon and breathing the cool air. And presently I heard a noise as of oars coming to me across the water and then, as it were, a weak cry. And shortly after, the tide brought to the land a little boat in which there was nothing but a man lean with extreme hunger and thirst who seemed to have died but a few moments before (for he was still warm), and an empty water-skin, and a child, still living. ‘Doubtless,’ said I, ‘these unfortunates have escaped from the wreck of a great ship, but by the admirable designs of the gods, the elder has starved himself to keep the child alive and has perished in sight of land.’ Accordingly, remembering how the gods never fail to reward those who befriend the destitute, and being moved by compassion (for your servant is a man of tender heart)—”


I swear I am going to start cutting pieces because this is awful, but I need to start the deconstruction off with an understanding of just how awful all this is. We have more ridiculous metaphor mixing (capital-S swords versus an... Eye of Wisdom? Not arrows of wisdom? Something that would fit with the sword/shield theme? This is almost undoubtedly deliberately bad--Lewis was a hack, but he knew how to turn a proper metaphor, dammit!) and more bits and pieces of Islamic culture.

Arsheesh has never married because of his poverty. Now, yes, this is a thing people do all over the world; it's also a thing that comes up in western discussions on Islam: the Qur'an requires that a man only marry if he can support a wife.

Then there is that obligatory (and "hypocritical" to many white western eyes) phrase that will appear after the Tisroc's name: "may he live forever". This is strongly reminiscent of honorifics commonly said or written alongside Allah, such as "may he be glorified and exalted" and "may his glory be glorified". The first one (subḥānahu wa ta'āla) was taught to us in my conservative Christian community growing up: the fact that it is sometimes abbreviated as "swt" was taken as evidence of hypocrisy, that the speaker didn't really mean the words but was just going through the motions. As all the Calormen in this book will be shown to do; indeed, the "may he live forever" will be discussed in detail. And, again, the things that Lewis remembers to pay attention to usually point to where his priorities lay.

Could all these cultural markers be coincidence? Sure. Please refer to point #4 above.

   “Leave out all these idle words in your own praise,” interrupted the Tarkaan. “It is enough to know that you took the child—and have had ten times the worth of his daily bread out of him in labor, as anyone can see. And now tell me at once what price you put on him, for I am wearied with your loquacity.”
   “You yourself have wisely said,” answered Arsheesh, “that the boy’s labor has been to me of inestimable value. This must be taken into account in fixing the price. For if I sell the boy I must undoubtedly either buy or hire another to do his work.”
   “I’ll give you fifteen crescents for him,” said the Tarkaan.
   “Fifteen!” cried Arsheesh in a voice that was something between a whine and a scream. “Fifteen! For the prop of my old age and the delight of my eyes! Do not mock my gray beard, Tarkaan though you be. My price is seventy.”
   At this point Shasta got up and tiptoed away. He had heard all he wanted, for he had often listened when men were bargaining in the village and knew how it was done. He was quite certain that Arsheesh would sell him in the end for something much more than fifteen crescents and much less than seventy, but that he and the Tarkaan would take hours in getting to an agreement.

It is worth noting that Calormen has been so carefully shown to us as a place built on slavery. In Dawn Treader, the Calormen were the ones supporting the slave trade in the Lone Islands; now here in Horse and His Boy, we see a society so casually accepting of slavery that: (a) the Tarkaan (correctly) assumes Shasta is a slave rather than a legitimate "son" (regardless of birth) to Arsheesh, (b) Arsheesh instantly leaps at the chance to sell Shasta, and despite giving us (the reader, and Shasta) the story of his finding, he doesn't consider trying to use any of that to drive up the price.

I don't remember if Shasta is given an age, but let's say he's 12 or 13 at this point. Arsheesh has lived and worked with him his entire life. Yet despite wanting to haggle the Tarkaan up to a better price, it doesn't even occur to him to argue that he's fond of the boy. Instead, he immediately points out that Shasta is monetarily valuable to him, without ever once invoking an emotional value. That emotional value doesn't need to actually exist, but it is striking that Arsheesh and the Tarkaan both find it so unlikely that it isn't even brought out as a polite hypocritical haggling chip.

Of course, that choice may have been driven by authorial concerns to make it very clear to the young audience that Shasta isn't leaving behind a loved one. But nevertheless, the cultural implications read loud and clear: slavery is common here, and the idea that one might be emotionally attached to a slave (or to a child, as we will see later with Aravis) is completely foreign in the minds of these foreigners. They are characterized in a single swoop as cold, heartless, and cruel.

Maybe I'm being too harsh, judging an entire culture by two bad men.

What does the author say about their culture in Dawn Treader?

   Two merchants of Calormen at once approached. The Calormen have dark faces and long beards. They wear flowing robes and orange-colored turbans, and they are a wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient people. 



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