Repost: Identifying with the Aggressor

[Ana's Note: By popular demand, this is a re-post of an old deconstruction, partly to have content while I struggle with my ongoing disability challenges and partly so that newcomers can comment on old conversations.

Incidentally, I don't usually pledge-drive, but if you're wanting to donate now is maybe a good time to do it. I am having some major job crisis / medical crisis stuff going on that I don't have the spoons to talk about but that's a background thing I'm dealing with. Okay, that's enough about me, back to the Narnia.

The original post is here. I have not edited the content. I kinda want to give Edmund a big hug and reassure him that everything is going to get better. (Credit to David Lanham for the Riceball images.)] 

Narnia Recap: Lucy has stepped into the Wardrobe and found herself in the magical land of Narnia. She takes tea in the home of a faun before he confesses that he has been employed to kidnap human children. Lucy begs to be let go and the faun accompanies her back to the magical portal so that she might escape.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 3: Edmund and the Wardrobe

   LUCY RAN OUT OF THE EMPTY ROOM into the passage and found the other three.
   "It's all right," she repeated, "I've come back." [...]
   "So you've been hiding, have you?" said Peter. "Poor old Lu, hiding and nobody noticed! You'll have to hide longer than that if you want people to start looking for you."
   "But I've been away for hours and hours," said Lucy.
   The others all stared at one another.
   "Batty!" said Edmund, tapping his head. "Quite batty."

Edmund, the second youngest Pevensie, has already been rather unsubtly telegraphed to us as something of a villain -- his first recorded words in the novel, after all, are a harsh grumble at his sister Susan to stop imitating their mother, and his attitude does not improve materially from there. Now that Lucy has tumbled from the wardrobe back into her own world and is about to receive a harsh lesson in Narnia Time, Edmund will be the first and the most vociferous voice labeling Lucy insane.

Able-ism issues aside (and I apologize in advance for any able-ism of my own that may seep into this post), Edmund is not entirely without a point, even if he expresses it inappropriately. His sister has been in the adjoining room alone for something like a few seconds -- maybe a few minutes at the most -- and has suddenly come tumbling back out of the room with wild stories of magical lands and impossible creatures. (Creatures that, incidentally, Freud would have something of a field day with, given that fauns in classical literature are rather usually associated with sex and virility!) This is unusual behavior, to say the least.

This isn't just a matter of an overactive imagination putting together a vivid new world in a matter of minutes; Lucy very clearly believes her story and conveys as much with both her body language and her speech. Peter, the "good guy" of the family tries to rationalize Lucy's odd behavior while providing her an easy out of the situation -- it's all make-believe, he assures the others, isn't it, Lucy? Just a joke. Lucy insists that it's not, and the other children are forced to examine a perfectly ordinary wardrobe for a magical portal that they all believe to be impossible.

   "No, Peter, I'm not," she said. "It's -- it's a magic wardrobe. There's a wood inside it, and it's snowing, and there's a Faun and a Witch and it's called Narnia; come and see. [...]
   "Why, you goose," said Susan, putting her head inside and pulling the fur coats apart, "it's just an ordinary wardrobe; look! there's the back of it."

What can be made of Lucy's odd behavior? Well, quite a bit, actually, but we'll get to that in Chapter 5. For now, in Chapter 3, I'd like to focus on the character of Edmund as it unfolds over the next few pages.

   For the next few days she was very miserable. She could have made it up with the others quite easily at any moment if she could have brought herself to say that the whole thing was only a story made up for fun. But Lucy was a very truthful girl and she knew that she was really in the right; and she could not bring herself to say this. The others who thought she was telling a lie, and a silly lie too, made her very unhappy. The two elder ones did this without meaning to do it, but Edmund could be spiteful, and on this occasion he was spiteful. He sneered and jeered at Lucy and kept on asking her if she'd found any other new countries in other cupboards all over the house.

The Wikipedia entry for Edmund states the following:

   In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund is one of the main characters, at the age of 10 years old, and the character who develops the most over the course of story.
   It is implied in the book that Edmund started life as a likeable person, but then changed for the worse and began to act meanly after attending a new school. However, in the 2005 film adaptation of the book, it is implied that he is upset that their father was forced to serve in the war and that they are sent away from home as a result. In the 1988 BBC version, the reason for his change in behavior is not mentioned.

That, in a very small nutshell, showcases the differences in literary characterization between external forces and internal drives: Book!Edmund acts badly because a boarding school has made him a bad person; Movie!Edmund acts badly because he misses his parents and he is terribly upset about the war and the effect it has had (and may yet have) on his family.

It's not a secret that Lewis has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to boarding schools and schooling methods -- both of his child villains (Edmund and Eustace) are bad children because of their school situations. Edmund is a bad child because he has been to boarding school and the loneliness and isolation he has experienced there has corrupted him into a bully; Eustace is a bad child because he has been to a progressive mixed school and the lax attitudes towards discipline have spoiled him. All authors have biases, and perhaps it is fair to grant Lewis this one in light of his own personal history with boarding schools.

However, I'm honestly not sure if Lewis is projecting himself onto the character of Edmund (which would be curiously self-loathing, but would fit with the Christian themes of sin and redemption within the narrative) or if he is instead projecting childhood bullies from his past onto Edmund. From my own reading, I am tempted to think the latter case is closest to the mark. Here and there in the pages of TLWW, there are glimpses of true sympathy for Edmund, but the glimpses are few and far apart and almost always punctuated with Edmund doing or saying something particularly nasty in order to drive home the point to the reader that Thou Shalt Not Sympathize With Edmund.

And yet, I do sympathize with Edmund. I didn't, I am sure, as a child; but as an adult, it's hard for me not to see a very vulnerable child. The boy is a mere 10 years old, which is really not very old at all for dealing with the life conflicts being thrown at him. He's been separated from his parents frequently and for long stretches of time -- first at boarding school and now because of the war. If he is a brat and a bully, we have to ask ourselves where he learned this behavior, and since the in-text finger is pointed at the shadowy Boarding School, I have to wonder if Edmund's behavior isn't a classic case of identification; my gut feeling is that he has become an aggressor in emulation of his teachers or fellow students as a defensive technique against a world that keeps throwing very real and painful challenges at him.

It can be difficult sometimes for an author to write a villain, because an author's job is to essentially get into their characters' heads, dig around, and understand what makes them tick. In order to write a character really well, the author will have to avoid the cliches and stereotypes and instead understand their character as a person. Why do they do the things they do? What makes them think that way? Why do they view the world through that lens? What, essentially, makes them who they are as opposed to someone else entirely? Digging through a character's head can be difficult; it's hard not to identify at least a little with the character once you're in there, and then how do you keep writing them as a villain once you've come to understand them so well? But Lewis doesn't seem to identify with Edmund at all over the course of the novel, and he clearly doesn't want the reader to, either.

It distresses me somewhat that we can look at the same character, and where I see a hurt and frightened young boy, he sees only a nasty bratty child. It's good, I suppose, that Lewis allows Edmund to be redeemed and saved, but it's telling perhaps that I don't think the boy needs redemption. I think he needs love and stability and safety, and possibly a stern talking-to if he has trouble shaking his aggressor-identification behaviors off over time, but I don't see Edmund as a 'sinner' deserving  death. It's possible that this difference of opinion simply boils down to a difference of philosophy, yet still it surprises me that getting inside Edmund's head didn't apparently cause Lewis to identify with him at all.

   That day, when it came to the afternoon and there was still no sign of a break in the weather, they decided to play hide-and-seek. Susan was "It" and as soon as the others scattered to hide, Lucy went to the room where the wardrobe was. She did not mean to hide in the wardrobe, because she knew that would only set the others talking again about the whole wretched business. But she did want to have one more look inside it; for by this time she was beginning to wonder herself whether Narnia and the Faun had not been a dream.

And it is scenes like this one that proves that Lewis can get into characters' heads, when he wants to: in a moment of privacy, Lucy returns to the wardrobe. Not because she wants to return to Narnia, but simply because she wonders if she has in fact imagined the whole thing. The event was vivid and real to her, real enough that she can't admit to telling a story even to make peace with her siblings, but at the same time she can't reconcile what she has experienced with the world that she knows thus far. She is a seeker, and Lewis skillfully gets and conveys that.

Nevertheless, Edmund has to tromp in behind her and ruin everything with his awful awfulness.

   Now the steps she had heard were those of Edmund; and he came into the room just in time to see Lucy vanishing into the wardrobe. He at once decided to get into it himself -- not because he thought it a particularly good place to hide but because he wanted to go on teasing her about her imaginary country.

Knowing what we know, this is pretty beastly behavior from Edmund. Lucy has had the terribly bad luck of finding a new world and then having that world vanish when she tried to show it to her siblings. She's been wearing the label of "liar" and "crazy" since then, and even though her older siblings aren't intending to hurt her feelings, nevertheless she feels understandably hurt and confused by the entire situation. Now here Edmund is deliberately planning to make it worse by following her to the wardrobe and starting the whole argument up again.

And yet, from another point of view, Edmund's behavior is not so much evil as rather understandably petty. His younger sister has spent the last several days adamantly insisting that she has found a secret magical world that only she can enter, and his older siblings have spent a disproportionate amount of time dwelling on her preposterous tales. "Could Lucy possibly be telling the truth?" they must be asking when she's not around, and "Is she sick? Should we somehow get word to our parents?" Indeed, in Chapter 5, Susan and Peter will have a very similar conversation.

To Edmund, this must be the height of annoying. There is Serious Business going on back in London and their parents could be dead or dying any minute. Instead of dwelling on the seriousness of their situation (which would at least acknowledge the situation) or finding something fun and diverting to do to pass the time (which would at least distract from the situation), they are instead spending an awful lot of time and brain power humoring this obvious fantasy of Lucy's. The youngest child of the family is getting all the attention with this ridiculous story she has concocted, and what's more she has the gall to mope around with sad eyes because PETAH WON'T BUHLIEVE HER rather than, you know, because they might all be made orphans tomorrow.

From Edmund's point of view, I imagine this would be insufferably irritating. And now Lucy is returning to the wardrobe, no doubt to concoct another "adventure" that only she can have, and the whole thing will start over again. It makes sense that Edmund would follow her to be a witness and nip this whole thing in the bud; and if it means getting a few digs in at his sister, well, it's been a rather trying week all told. It's not good behavior, but neither is it evil behavior; it's the sort of thing I would expect from a sometimes-bratty older brother as part of normal sibling rivalry.

   There was crisp, dry snow under his feet and more snow lying on the branches of the trees. Overhead there was a pale blue sky, the sort of sky one sees on a fine winter day in the morning. Straight ahead of him he saw between the tree-trunks the sun, just rising, very red and clear. Everything was perfectly still, as if he were the only living creature in that country. There was not even a robin or a squirrel among the trees, and the wood stretched as far as he could see in every direction. He shivered.
   He now remembered that he had been looking for Lucy; and also how unpleasant he had been to her about her "imaginary country" which now turned out not to have been imaginary at all. He thought that she must be somewhere quite close and so he shouted, "Lucy! Lucy! I'm here too -- Edmund."
   There was no answer.

And now Narnia Time is back in full force and even more sinister than before -- in the few seconds of Real World time difference between Lucy's entrance into Narnia and Edmund's own, minutes or even hours have passed in Narnia and this time skip has effectively separated the two children. Edmund is all alone in a cold wintery forest, and after days of calling Lucy "crazy", he has to suddenly wonder about his own sanity. Cognitive dissonance will be hitting him hard about now -- if he was right that believing in magical worlds is "crazy", then he too must now be "crazy"; if he was wrong, then his sanity will be cold comfort to him in this strange and frightening wilderness.

Lucy was rather lucky to enter Narnia when she did. The forest was dark and dreamlike, and she almost immediately met a colorful and child-like faun who treated her to a warm and cheery tea. The experience was fantastical in every way, and could easily feel like a dream -- Lucy was never confronted with fears for her sanity or her safety because she was so busy processing this strange new world that she never had time to come to grips with the impossibility of it.

Edmund is not so lucky. His forest is bright and cold and harsh. The experience isn't dreamy or fantastical; he is lost and alone in a bleak and cold wasteland. He is older than Lucy and has furthermore had quite a bit of time in the last few days to think about magical worlds and all the reasons why they don't and can't exist. He can't experience Narnia in the childlike wonder that Lucy could luxuriate in -- he is frightened, and with good reason.

When Lucy first came to this land, her experience was profoundly impacted by her first contact -- an affable and ridiculous faun carrying packages and an umbrella. Edmund, too, will have his first glimpse of Narnia deeply influenced by his first contact -- a beautiful and regal woman drawn on an expensive sleigh pulled by beautiful reindeer.

   "And what, pray, are you?" said the Lady, looking hard at Edmund.
   "I'm -- I'm -- my name's Edmund," said Edmund rather awkwardly. He did not like the way she looked at him.
   The Lady frowned. "Is that how you address a Queen?" she asked, looking sterner than ever.
   "I beg your pardon, your Majesty, I didn't know," said Edmund.

Throughout TLWW, Lewis will repeatedly remind us that Lucy is good and Edmund is bad -- and maybe this is so. But it may also be the case that when a very young child meets an authority figure in a strange and overwhelming new situation, that child may instinctively identify with the authority figure as a defense mechanism.

Edmund has already shown himself to be susceptible to aggressor identification, as with his "personality change" owing to his time at boarding school. I wonder, as we go forward, if we can really view Edmund as evil and damned, or if he isn't simply a victim of bad luck in meeting the White Witch first instead of someone a little more affable, like Mr. Tumnus.

And yet, if Lucy is "good" through a matter of random chance, and Edmund is "bad" through a similar roll of the universal dice, how does that affect this allegory of damnation and redemption?


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