[Narnia Content Note: Rape, Forced Marriage, Non-consensual BDSM, Self-Harm, Racism, Violence]
Narnia Recap: Shasta and Bree have met up with Aravis and Hwin. Bree has demanded Aravis tell her story.
Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.
The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 3: At the Gates of Tashbaan
Chapter 3 is one of the flashback chapters that Lewis loved so much; we saw a similar one in Prince Caspian, and there will be a lot of parallels that I want to bring up. But let's get started.
First, Aravis notes her lineage: She is a noble woman, the only daughter of her father, with a deceased elder brother and a surviving younger brother.
“MY NAME,” SAID THE GIRL AT ONCE, “is Aravis Tarkheena and I am the only daughter of Kidrash Tarkaan, the son of Rishti Tarkaan, the son of Kidrash Tarkaan, the son of Ilsombreh Tisroc, the son of Ardeeb Tisroc who was descended in a right line from the god Tash. My father is the lord of the province of Calavar and is one who has the right of standing on his feet in his shoes before the face of Tisroc himself (may he live forever). My mother (on whom be the peace of the gods) is dead and my father has married another wife. One of my brothers has fallen in battle against the rebels in the far west and the other is a child.
She also has an Evil Stepmother because (a) adult women are evil in this series and (b) Lewis was nothing if not willing to rip off other fairy tales for material.
Now it came to pass that my father’s wife, my stepmother, hated me, and the sun appeared dark in her eyes as long as I lived in my father’s house. And so she persuaded my father to promise me in marriage to Ahoshta Tarkaan. Now this Ahoshta is of base birth, though in these latter years he has won the favor of the Tisroc (may he live forever) by flattery and evil counsels, and is now made a Tarkaan and the lord of many cities and is likely to be chosen as the Grand Vizier when the present Grand Vizier dies. Moreover he is at least sixty years old and has a hump on his back and his face resembles that of an ape. Nevertheless my father, because of the wealth and power of this Ahoshta, and being persuaded by his wife, sent messengers offering me in marriage, and the offer was favorably accepted and Ahoshta sent word that he would marry me this very year at the time of high summer.
Let's review that really quick. Aravis is a very young girl. We're not told how old she is, and I would hope that she's reached menarche, but there's no reason to assume that. For the sake of moving forward, let's say she's fourteen years old. She is being married off to a man in his sixties (or older), who has a "hump on his back" (thanks, Lewis) (postscript: So do I), and "his face resembles that of an ape". Aravis does not want this marriage. By any reasonable expectation and understanding of how patriarchy works, this "marriage" represents rape for her.
“When this news was brought to me the sun appeared dark in my eyes and I laid myself on my bed and wept for a day. But on the second day I rose up and washed my face and caused my mare Hwin to be saddled and took with me a sharp dagger which my brother had carried in the western wars and rode out alone. And when my father’s house was out of sight and I was come to a green open place in a certain wood where there were no dwellings of men, I dismounted from Hwin my mare and took out the dagger. Then I parted my clothes where I thought the readiest way lay to my heart and I prayed to all the gods that as soon as I was dead I might find myself with my brother. After that I shut my eyes and my teeth and prepared to drive the dagger into my heart. But before I had done so, this mare spoke with the voice of one of the daughters of men and said, ‘O my mistress, do not by any means destroy yourself, for if you live you may yet have good fortune but all the dead are dead alike.’”
“I didn’t say it half so well as that,” muttered the mare.
Aravis, in fact, wants out of this marriage so much that she is perfectly determined to commit suicide. Hwin has to physically intervene by pushing her face between Aravis and her knife.
“When I heard the language of men uttered by my mare,” continued Aravis, “I said to myself, the fear of death has disordered my reason and subjected me to delusions. And I became full of shame for none of my lineage ought to fear death more than the biting of a gnat. Therefore I addressed myself a second time to the stabbing, but Hwin came near to me and put her head in between me and the dagger and discoursed to me most excellent reasons and rebuked me as a mother rebukes her daughter.
And all of this passage seems to indicate that, yes, Aravis and Hwin really ought to have had the "not your horse" conversation before now, if Hwin is acting as a surrogate mother for Aravis.
‘O my mistress,’ answered the mare, ‘if you were in Narnia you would be happy, for in that land no maiden is forced to marry against her will.’
This is the crux, the underlying foundation, of why Aravis is on this journey: she doesn't wish to be forced into a marriage against her will and raped. That point is so important to me and I am truly frustrated at how much it will be glossed over in the chapters to come. Aravis is running away because she doesn't want to be raped. That is a good enough reason. That should be a good enough reason!
Much will be made later of how Aravis needs to be humbled and broken and beaten down by men and their gods, but the fact of the matter is that had she already been broken into obedience, she would not have escaped. This story wouldn't have happened the way it did. The very characteristics that Aslan wants to rip out of her with his sharp claws are the characteristics that drove her to flee her home and run to another land.
Here we see that Aravis is witty and clever and capable of being deceitful--and of course this brings up shades of Jill in The Silver Chair, when she was 'gay and merry' for the giants. Both then and now Lewis seemed uncomfortable with this feminine tactic: there's respect within the narrative at how the women use their powers to get out of a tight scrape, but it is coupled with a sort of wariness at how those same women can turn their powers of deceit upon unsuspecting 'good' men at any time.
“And when we had talked together for a great time hope returned to me and I rejoiced that I had not killed myself. Moreover it was agreed between Hwin and me that we should steal ourselves away together and we planned it in this fashion. We returned to my father’s house and I put on my gayest clothes and sang and danced before my father and pretended to be delighted with the marriage which he had prepared for me. Also I said to him, ‘O my father and O the delight of my eyes, give me your license and permission to go with one of my maidens alone for three days into the woods to do secret sacrifices to Zardeenah, Lady of the Night and of Maidens, as is proper and customary for damsels when they must bid farewell to the service of Zardeenah and prepare themselves for marriage.’ And he answered, ‘O my daughter and O the delight of my eyes, so it shall be.’
“But when I came out from the presence of my father I went immediately to the oldest of his slaves, his secretary, who had dandled me on his knees when I was a baby and loved me more than the air and the light. And I swore him to be secret and begged him to write a certain letter for me. And he wept and implored me to change my resolution but in the end he said, ‘To hear is to obey,’ and did all my will. And I sealed the letter and hid it in my bosom.”
“But what was in the letter?” asked Shasta.
“Be quiet, youngster,” said Bree. “You’re spoiling the story. She’ll tell us all about the letter in the right place. Go on, Tarkheena.”
Part of the problem with Shasta's lack of characterization is that it's terribly unclear what tone of voice he says things in. He interrupts Aravis here, which could be taken as very rude (and later in the chapter he will be quite rude indeed), but none of that is clear on the page. Is he curious and swept up in the story, unable to contain himself? Is he accustomed to an oral tradition of prompts and audience participation? (Which does exist! Although it is hard to imagine Arsheesh telling him stories, let alone interactive ones.) Or is he just being disrespectful and rude, prioritizing his impatience over the flow set by the storyteller?
I mean, it's probably the latter (given how rude and surly he is later), but I really would have preferred the author show us that.
“Then I called the maid who was to go with me to the woods and perform the rites of Zardeenah and told her to wake me very early in the morning. And I became merry with her and gave her wine to drink; but I had mixed such things in her cup that I knew she must sleep for a night and a day. As soon as the household of my father had committed themselves to sleep I arose and put on an armor of my brother’s which I always kept in my chamber in his memory. I put into my girdle all the money I had and certain choice jewels and provided myself also with food, and saddled the mare with my own hands and rode away in the second watch of the night. I directed my course not to the woods where my father supposed I would go but north and east to Tashbaan.
“Now for three days and more I knew that my father would not seek me, being deceived by the words I had said to him. And on the fourth day we arrived at the city of Azim Balda.
Wait, no, this makes no sense.
Aravis is in her father's house. ("We returned to my father’s house", "the household of my father", "I always kept in my chamber") She is in her room, in her father's house. While in her room, the night before she is meant to leave for the woods, she drugs her servant girl. Then she bolts out with armor and gold and horse. Then we're told that she has a safe three day start on this journey because everyone expects her to be in the woods... but she left a drugged servant girl in her room.
Are... are we supposed to accept that everyone assumed that when the servant girl overslept, the noblewoman just left on her own and that everything is normal and nothing has gone wrong or is overly suspicious? That's not how nobility works! That's not how any of this works! There is absolutely no way Aravis' father would look at this situation and be all "pfft, can't get good help these days but eh, I'll see my virgin daughter in three days and talk to her about getting her a new maid then when she gets back." The servant isn't just for bathing and waiting upon her mistress; she's a chaperone. If Ahoshta ever gets fussy about the quality of his virgin bride, the servants can swear that they never left her side and no man ever touched her. That's half of what they're for in a patriarchal society like this!
None of this makes any damn sense.
“Now for three days and more I knew that my father would not seek me, being deceived by the words I had said to him. And on the fourth day we arrived at the city of Azim Balda. Now Azim Balda stands at the meeting of many roads and from it the posts of the Tisroc (may he live forever) ride on swift horses to every part of the empire: and it is one of the rights and privileges of the greater Tarkaans to send messages by them. I therefore went to the Chief of the Messengers in the House of Imperial Posts in Azim Balda and said, ‘O dispatcher of messages, here is a letter from my uncle Ahoshta Tarkaan to Kidrash Tarkaan lord of Calavar. Take now these five crescents and cause it to be sent to him.’ And the Chief of the Messengers said, ‘To hear is to obey.’
“This letter was feigned to be written by Ahoshta and this was the signification of the writing: ‘Ahoshta Tarkaan to Kidrash Tarkaan, salutation and peace. In the name of Tash the irresistible, the inexorable. Be it known to you that as I made my journey toward your house to perform the contract of marriage between me and your daughter Aravis Tarkheena, it pleased fortune and the gods that I fell in with her in the forest when she had ended the rites and sacrifices of Zardeenah according to the custom of maidens. And when I learned who she was, being delighted with her beauty and discretion, I became inflamed with love and it appeared to me that the sun would be dark to me if I did not marry her at once. Accordingly I prepared the necessary sacrifices and married your daughter the same hour that I met her and have returned with her to my own house. And we both pray and charge you to come hither as speedily as you may that we may be delighted with your face and speech; and also that you may bring with you the dowry of my wife, which, by reason of my great charges and expenses, I require without delay. And because thou and I are brothers I assure myself that you will not be angered by the haste of my marriage which is wholly occasioned by the great love I bear your daughter. And I commit you to the care of all the gods.’
Okay. Aravis had a letter forged from her betrothed to her father, in which a sixty-year-old newly-minted "noble" (but not really noble, and that distinction is important in societies with noble families! and Lewis would know that!) became inflamed with lust, kidnapped the daughter of a nobleman, married her on the spot in the woods without any witnesses or ceremony, and then carried her off to his house. And this is presented as perfectly normal and believable enough that Aravis' father will find it plausible. (It isn't noted whether his reaction will be "aww, you darn kids" or "holy fuck no you didn't", but his reaction apparently is not likely to be "wow, this is very obviously a forgery and something is up".)
If this is even remotely considered the normal state of affairs in Calormen, then whoooooa rape culture with a huge side of Lusty Dark Barbarians, which doesn't combine well at all with Rabadash basically proposing to do exactly this later on in the story. When not one but two men in this book are acting like this is a perfectly acceptable state of affairs--kidnap a woman, rape her, inform her family that she's your wife now--then we have to point out that this is problematic in very racist ways. Could it be a coincidence and the rest of Calormen would never consider this approach appropriate? Well, yes, but that's not how racist tropes work.
Setting the racism aside (though we really can't), this also has massive implications for rape culture within the country of Calormen. Men can "prepare the necessary sacrifices" and marry a woman on the spot, without a single witness to speak to her consent on the matter. Yes, Aravis was already betrothed to him, but part of the reason for witnesses and priests and third-parties to marriage in general is to prove that everyone consented on all sides.
Granted, this hasn't always been out of altruism so much as protecting a man's property and investment (as a father doesn't want his deflowered-and-now-worthless daughter returned the next day with a note to the effect that "we had sex but we didn't get married and now I don't want her anymore"), but the fact that women are and were protected as property meant that they were at least granted some limited protections. Calormen doesn't have the barest minimum of these protections apparently, which is again (a) very racist given that the Brown Rape Land is being contrasted with White Chivalry World and (b) kind of germane to Aravis' willingness to do whatever it takes to get away from this place.
“As soon as I had done this I rode on in all haste from Azim Balda, fearing no pursuit and expecting that my father, having received such a letter, would send messages to Ahoshta or go to him himself, and that before the matter was discovered I should be beyond Tashbaan. And that is the pith of my story until this very night when I was chased by lions and met you at the swimming of the salt water.”
“And what happened to the girl—the one you drugged?” asked Shasta.
“Doubtless she was beaten for sleeping late,” said Aravis coolly. “But she was a tool and spy of my stepmother’s. I am very glad they should beat her.”
“I say, that was hardly fair,” said Shasta.
“I did not do any of these things for the sake of pleasing you,” said Aravis.
Rage seethe boil.
First of all, "I did not do any of these things for the sake of pleasing you" is basically the best line ever. Team Aravis forever and fuck Shasta. Seriously, hon, you can do so much better than him.
Second of all, I want to note that for all that the servant girl will come up again, we will (I think) never again hear about the servant who wrote the letter. It seems likely that he will be found out: there has to be a limited number of "secretaries" in her father's household and obviously Aravis couldn't write the letter herself or else she would have. I presume his punishment is immaterial to Aravis' story since he consented to help with her escape.
But--and here is the thing--Aslan and Shasta are blaming people within a patriarchal system for things they have little control over. Shasta escaped and left Arsheesh in the lurch, but he won't be punished for that, even if the Tarkaan beat the old man or killed him in a rage. And Aravis drugged a woman, yes, and tells herself that she doesn't care (and may indeed not!), but she "needed to know what it felt like" to be punished.
What if Aravis' father had killed the slave instead of whipping her? What if he had raped her? (Which I remind you is a common thing in societies where people are treated as literal possessions!) What is the line that Aslan draws when handing out commensurate punishment for uppity brown girls? Does Lewis' god rape women or does he just draw the line at whipping and marking them? And lest I seem unfair or over-reactionary, I note again here that, for Lewis, whipping women was sexually pleasurable.
Jill is given a crop in The Silver Chair and told to whip the girls. In The Horse and His Boy, Aravis is clawed by Aslan in a way which resembles (and is meant to feel like) "the stripes laid on [the servant girl's] back" by a whip. Aravis is harmed and marked in a way that, for Lewis, carried strong sexual connotations. No, Aslan doesn't rape her but he does commit what we would recognize as a sexualized BDSM act on her without her consent. This is how Aravis is redeemed and brought closer to god, by being punished and brought low in a highly sexualized context.
None of this is done to Edmund, who was a traitor deserving of death (though the White Witch did tie him up and put him on a forced march while wielding a whip). None of this was done to Caspian or Cornelius, whose escape from Miraz was almost identical to Aravis' escape: drug the guards, grab a horse, ride for dear life. Eustace was harmed during his conversion sequence, and in ways that could analogize to this scene, which is one of the reasons why I am going through the books in chronological order of writing: I firmly believe that these themes got worse over time in his writings. (Or, alternately, the editors stopped standing up to him as the series went on.)
But moreover, it should be obvious that the sexualized whipping of a brown girl fleeing rape culture by whatever means possible is highly problematic, especially when paired against a relative dearth of such punishments alongside white boys. If the White Witch marked Edmund with her whip (which is never stated in text, I only offer it here as a possibility), at least she was a villain. Eustace was clawed free of his dragon skin, but he was at least theoretically to blame for his greed, and afterwards he was left unmarked. Aravis may well be marked for life, and her whipping was performed by God himself rather than a villain. And her "crime" was drugging someone in order to escape a life of imprisonment and rape.
That's not okay, and it's the first point in this series where I, as a child, felt very uncomfortable and unsafe.
Anyway. Let's finish out this chapter.
“And there’s another thing I don’t understand about that story,” said Shasta. “You’re not grown up, I don’t believe you’re any older than I am. I don’t believe you’re as old. How could you be getting married at your age?”
Aravis said nothing, but Bree said at once, “Shasta, don’t display your ignorance. They’re always married at that age in the great Tarkaan families.”
Shasta turned very red (though it was hardly light enough for the others to see this) and felt snubbed. Aravis asked Bree for his story. Bree told it, and Shasta thought that he put in a great deal more than he needed about the falls and the bad riding. Bree obviously thought it very funny, but Aravis did not laugh. When Bree had finished they all went to sleep.
Next day all four of them, two horses and two humans, continued their journey together. Shasta thought it had been much pleasanter when he and Bree were on their own. For now it was Bree and Aravis who did nearly all the talking. [...] Bree was not in the least trying to leave Shasta out of things, though Shasta sometimes nearly thought he was. People who know a lot of the same things can hardly help talking about them, and if you’re there you can hardly help feeling that you’re out of it.
Hwin the mare was rather shy before a great war horse like Bree and said very little. And Aravis never spoke to Shasta at all if she could help it.
Here we see Shasta calling Aravis a liar. How does he know anything about age and marriage? He should have zero framework for any of this; his backstory does not support his objection. He feels "snubbed" for being called ignorant, yet the narrative carefully avoids telling us how Aravis feels at being called a liar about her own (escaped) rape. She is silent, and the narrative looks away.
Over and over, this book tries to make Aravis out to be a bitch. She's haughty and noble, she's uncaring and cool. She deserves to be taken down a peg or two; she needs a strong man to mark her and remind her of her place; she's brought her punishment on herself for being a proud bitch.
Yet each of her moments of pride so far have been holding her own against a man trying to assert patriarchal privilege over her. Shasta listens to her tale of escaping rape and demands to know why she wasn't kinder, better, more perfect, so she tells him off. Shasta calls her a liar, so she refuses to talk to him. Her moments of Sinful Bitchiness are really moments in which she refuses to submit to him, and so Aslan steps in and breaks her for him. And only once she is broken can she become a bride.
Soon, however, they had more important things to think of. They were getting near Tashbaan. There were more, and larger, villages, and more people on the roads. They now did nearly all their traveling by night and hid as best they could during the day. And at every halt they argued and argued about what they were to do when they reached Tashbaan. Everyone had been putting off this difficulty, but now it could be put off no longer. During these discussions Aravis became a little, a very little, less unfriendly to Shasta; one usually gets on better with people when one is making plans than when one is talking about nothing in particular.
The narrative is third-person omniscient, but it's really not. For all that we hear about Shasta feeling "snubbed" and ignored, we never hear how Aravis feels. He's rude to her and unkind and unfriendly, yet not only do we not hear how she feels, we get passages like this, where she becomes "less unfriendly" as though she's just been a cold bitch all this time for no reason. She has been unfriendly because he has been unfriendly to her from the start. He's hectored her and badgered her and interrupted her and argued with her--it's such a mystery that she would be unfriendly to him!
We don't get to hear how she feels, and thus is she silenced. The narrative is on the side of Snubbed Shasta, and Aravis is rendered bitchy in part because we never hear her side, are never invited to her perspective, are never allowed to work through her own thoughts and feelings.
Bree said the first thing now to do was to fix a place where they would all promise to meet on the far side of Tashbaan even if, by any ill luck, they got separated in passing the city. He said the best place would be the Tombs of the Ancient Kings on the very edge of the desert. [...] Aravis asked if it wasn’t really haunted by ghouls. But Bree said he was a free Narnian horse and didn’t believe in these Calormene tales. And then Shasta said he wasn’t a Calormene either and didn’t care a straw about these old stories of ghouls. This wasn’t quite true. But it rather impressed Aravis (though at the moment it annoyed her too) and of course she said she didn’t mind any number of ghouls either. So it was settled that the Tombs should be their assembly place on the other side of Tashbaan, and everyone felt they were getting on very well till Hwin humbly pointed out that the real problem was not where they should go when they had got through Tashbaan but how they were to get through it.
“We’ll settle that tomorrow, Ma’am,” said Bree. “Time for a little sleep now.”
Women. If you're brave and blustery enough, they'll pretend to be annoyed but really they're impressed deep down inside. Trust me.
Hwin said it looked to her as if the safest thing was to go right through the city itself from gate to gate because one was less likely to be noticed in the crowd. But she approved of the idea of disguise as well. She said, “Both the humans will have to dress in rags and look like peasants or slaves. And all Aravis’s armor and our saddles and things must be made into bundles and put on our backs, and the children must pretend to drive us and people will think we’re only pack-horses.”
“My dear Hwin!” said Aravis rather scornfully. “As if anyone could mistake Bree for anything but a war horse however you disguised him!”
Oh dear god, it's worse than Puddleglum, this constant and unnatural need to reinforce how ~amazing~ the middle-aged white dude insert character is. Like, there are literally one million better ways to make this objection that don't sound like this.
“I should think not, indeed,” said Bree, snorting and letting his ears go ever so little back.
“I know it’s not a very good plan,” said Hwin. “But I think it’s our only chance. And we haven’t been groomed for ages and we’re not looking quite ourselves (at least, I’m sure I’m not). I do think if we get well plastered with mud and go along with our heads down as if we’re tired and lazy—and don’t lift our hoofs hardly at all—we might not be noticed. And our tails ought to be cut shorter: not neatly, you know, but all ragged.”
“My dear Madam,” said Bree. “Have you pictured to yourself how very disagreeable it would be to arrive in Narnia in that condition?”
“Well,” said Hwin humbly (she was a very sensible mare), “the main thing is to get there.”
Though nobody much liked it, it was Hwin’s plan which had to be adopted in the end. It was a troublesome one and involved a certain amount of what Shasta called stealing, and Bree called “raiding.”
Gosh, I wonder if the people they stole from maybe hurt their servants over the theft, someone ought to call Aslan, the disher-out-of-harms and maker-of-everything-to-be-even. (Which is very definitely Jesus' job! He dishes out punishments so that everything is very even!)
Anyway, long story short: Tashbaan is the capital of Calormen, where the Tisroc lives. It's impossible to go around for reasons which are not adequately explained or reasonable in the slightest, so they're going to disguise themselves as urchins and plow straight through. And yes, if you're thinking that this sounds like another railroaded Dungeon Master moment, you're not wrong.
Here is Shasta contributing with important advice for the marginalized folks:
“And remember,” said Shasta. “Don’t you two horses forget yourselves and start talking, whatever happens.”
Thanks, dude, super cool advice.