Narnia: Shasta Thought All This Very Silly

[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence, Rape, Slavery]

Narnia Recap: The four runaways approach Tashbaan.

Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.

The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 4: Shasta Falls In With The Narnians

We covered last time that the approach to Tashbaan doesn't make a lot of sense in-text. Partly, there's the problem of geography: previously, the country of Calormen was this wide-open thing that Shasta and Bree could cross pretty much however they wanted. Now it was apparently all a funnel designed to pack them into the Hot Gates where their numbers would mean nothing, or something. The map included in the book is not helpful:

Thanks, Lewis et al.

Most of this could have been justified in-text--several of you mentioned a mountain pass or even just "we need more supplies for the trip through the desert than any small village can provide"--but it really wasn't. At a rather late stage here Lewis tries to do something with rivers, but it doesn't make a lot of sense why the kids can't ford across. (There's some talk of barges here and pleasure palaces downstream but no clear reason why poor people crossing a river would be weird enough to cause everyone to drop everything in order to chase them. I am pretty sure poor people living in the stream-crossed country have been fording streams in order to go about their daily work since pretty much forever.)

Setting aside the geographical problem, it's strange that Aravis apparently didn't plan for this. She had a really competent escape plan (or at least as good a one as Lewis could give her) but then seems to have planned to just improvise her way through Tashbaan. Being as charitable as I can, maybe the implication is meant to be that the chance encounter with the lion blew her off-course from a different crossing point, or perhaps she planned to bluff her way through in armor but now that's impossible because of Shasta.

The problem with that is that the addition of Shasta actually works better than before. If Calormen is anything like France in the Dark Ages (seriously, I cannot recommend A Distant Mirror often enough; also the Audible version is divine) (and Calormen might not be like France but the very real problem is that Lewis doesn't tell us what Calormen is like, so we're left falling back on the familiar because we have to have some context in order to understand the text--if the author refuses to provide, the reader must fill in the blanks with what they know), then a nobleman in armor on a fine mare while his servant boy brings up the rear on foot while walking the expensive war steed should be perfectly normal. Or, at least, more normal than two peasant children walking alongside two horses that--despite their raggedly-cut hair and muddy coats--should be too expensive for them. That setup just screams "runaways" and "thieves".

The thing is, I'm actually willing to excuse a lot of these sins for the sake of narrative convenience, but to my mind the sins need to be justified by some payoff in characterization. If Aravis' previous plan (unknown and unmentioned; I merely posit the existence of such a plan because she planned everything else out!) was torpedoed by the presence of Shasta, that ought to be explored so that we can see how her character reacts. Does she keep quiet so as not to embarrass her new companions? Does she resent their intrusion and let them know how inconvenient their presence is? In short, how does she react to this? Lewis doesn't care because he has Plot to get to.

And the Plot is a mashup between a Helen of Troy plot and Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper.

   AT FIRST SHASTA COULD SEE NOTHING in the valley below him but a sea of mist with a few domes and pinnacles rising from it; but as the light increased and the mist cleared away he saw more and more. A broad river divided itself into two streams and on the island between them stood the city of Tashbaan, one of the wonders of the world. Round the very edge of the island, so that the water lapped against the stone, ran high walls strengthened with so many towers that he soon gave up trying to count them. Inside the walls the island rose in a hill and every bit of that hill, up to the Tisroc’s palace and the great temple of Tash at the top, was completely covered with buildings—terrace above terrace, street above street, zigzag roads or huge flights of steps bordered with orange trees and lemon trees, roof-gardens, balconies, deep archways, pillared colonnades, spires, battlements, minarets, pinnacles. And when at last the sun rose out of the sea and the great silver-plated dome of the temple flashed back its light, he was almost dazzled.

There's a desert, like, right next door to all this. This is where Shasta will meet up with his friends int the next chapter: "endless level sand like on a sea shore but a bit rougher because it was never wet". Here's a picture:

I'm genuinely unsure how you have have a city so entrenched in criss-crossing streams that you can legitimately call it an "island", and the streams spread out for so long and so far in every direction that you can't go around the city, yet right next door to the city there's a desert with sand in every endless direction that is never wet. Maybe Lewis was going for some kind of Nile valley callback, but even that doesn't really work here, does it? The Gezira Island is a thing that exists, but this seems to be taken up to eleven, geography-wise.

Come to think of it, how is Shasta looking down into a valley and seeing an island that is one big towering hill? And the valley also contains an endless desert? This is like M.C. Escher geography.

Whatever, I don't care, got to keep moving.

   “Get on, Shasta,” Bree kept saying.
   The river banks on either side of the valley were such a mass of gardens that they looked at first like forest, until you got closer and saw the white walls of innumerable houses peeping out from beneath the trees. Soon after that, Shasta noticed a delicious smell of flowers and fruit. About fifteen minutes later they were down among them, plodding on a level road with white walls on each side and trees bending over the walls.
   “I say,” said Shasta in an awed voice. “This is a wonderful place!”
   “I daresay,” said Bree. “But I wish we were safely through it and out at the other side. Narnia and the North!”

Wait, has Bree not been here before? I mean, "daresay" isn't conclusive, but it's the sort of word I would use when I have no direct knowledge or experience of a place. I can absolutely understand why Bree wouldn't want Shasta to get too enamored of this place--and honestly, of the four of them, Shasta is probably the one who could stay the most safely, as he's neither a talking Animal nor a runaway nobledaughter, and as such could possibly get employment here as a servant--but I would have gone with something a little stronger if this were a place whose horrors I was familiar with as a slave, which is what Bree is. Instead this comes off like all this is as new to Bree as it is to Shasta. How can that be?

   At that moment a low, throbbing noise began which gradually swelled louder and louder till the whole valley seemed to be swaying with it. It was a musical noise, but so strong and solemn as to be a little frightening.
   “That’s the horns blowing for the city gates to be open,” said Bree. “We shall be there in a minute. Now, Aravis, do droop your shoulders a bit and step heavier and try to look less like a princess. Try to imagine you’ve been kicked and cuffed and called names all your life.”
   “If it comes to that,” said Aravis, “what about you drooping your head a bit more and arching your neck a bit less and trying to look less like a war horse?”
   “Hush,” said Bree. “Here we are.”

I think the city gates are closed nightly because (if I recall correctly) this is a plot point later. I'm not really sure whether that's historically accurate in a place that seems to have no local enemies and is the jewel of the world, but of course we don't really have a history to go on since Lewis refuses to tell us anything about this place. Which is an ongoing point with me; I don't mind that the city gates close, but I do mind that we're not given any kind of reason and we have to fill in the blanks. Are they worried about robbers? Bandits? Ghouls? Are they just really bureaucratic? Do they tax people when they come in and don't want to employ a night-guard for that? That latter one actually makes the most sense to me, except then the four would have to pony up money. Do they still have any?

Anyway, I both love and hate the dialogue here: I do enjoy seeing Aravis and Bree develop a witty and affectionate-if-you-squint-at-it working relationship, but I also hate the ongoing "spoiled princess" bullshit and of course Hwin and Shasta are again silent. The thought occurs that if Bree were human, his regular repartee with Aravis would fit easily into a Slap-Slap-Kiss romantic framework--it's not much to imagine Han Solo and Leia Organa here. If Lewis actually cared about the Aravis/Shasta romance rather than just tacking it on in a clumsy Rahab-esque ending, he might have done well to consider giving these lines to Shasta rather than Bree. But, eh, second drafts, amiright?

  And they were. They had come to the river’s edge and the road ahead of them ran along a many-arched bridge. The water danced brightly in the early sunlight; away to their right nearer the river’s mouth, they caught a glimpse of ships’ masts. Several other travelers were before them on the bridge, mostly peasants driving laden donkeys and mules or carrying baskets on their heads. The children and horses joined the crowd.
   “Is anything wrong?” whispered Shasta to Aravis, who had an odd look on her face.
   “Oh it’s all very well for you,” whispered Aravis rather savagely. “What would you care about Tashbaan? But I ought to be riding in on a litter with soldiers before me and slaves behind, and perhaps going to a feast in the Tisroc’s palace (may he live forever)—not sneaking in like this. It’s different for you.”
   Shasta thought all this very silly.


The thing is: This is workable. I could make this work. Yes, it continues the "spoiled princess" bullshit that is the standard tool in Lewis' he-man woman-hating toolbox, but it is possible to see a glimmer of real humanity in here if we discard all his shit and rewrite everything from the ground up.

Aravis is a child of privilege, yes. She's lost everything, and she feels not only the pain of that loss but the unfairness of it. She did everything right only to have her father turn around and sell her into a situation that she is allowed to view as sexual captivity--as if she were no more to him than a slave he'd bought at the market that morning. Her frustration at the loss of her privilege may not be noble or honorable, but there's a human element there, that primal cry of "UNFAIR!" when something we are accustomed to is snatched away.

And now she has what exactly to look forward to? If she is captured, she will be dishonored and raped. If she makes it through Tashbaan, she has a vast uncrossable desert to brave--there is every likelihood she will die in the attempt. If, if, she makes it to Narnia, she will be one human of five (since we are in the LWW timeline and I refuse to give Lewis all the Telmarine-esque humans he wants for this book) living in a country of talking animals. She will be as Hwin has been in Calormen: an oddity, a weirdness, something to be gawked and stared at. She will be free from rape, but very likely uncomfortable.

In light of all this, sure, it's possible to view her complaint here as "silly". Or it is possible to view it as a piece of mourning that she's capable of putting into words. It's emotionally difficult to complain that Narnia may be terrifying to you when you still have to go there out of necessity. It's easier by far to say: "Look! Look at the things around us! Those were my things, I had them, now they are lost, and I miss them terribly. I lost them not through my own fault or folly; they were taken from me by people I should have been able to trust."

If this were a romance, or even just a good story written by someone capable of experiencing empathy, this wouldn't be swiped away with "Shasta thought all this very silly." Even the most jaded of street rat romantic heroes would recognize that, silly or not, this was important to her. There would be some basic reflection on the differences in their lives thus far, on what she has loved and lost and how that has affected her. The reflection might end in "and that's why we're too different to ever understand each other" (wink, wink) but it would be performed. In contrast, Lewis, and thus Shasta, don't care about Aravis enough to spare her another thought and so she's dismissed here as silly. Wiped away.

Two more things:

One, when we do meet a more girly-girl, Lasaraleen, Lewis will have forgotten this exchange and therefore so will Aravis. She'll damn with the faintest of praise Lasaraleen's lifestyle: "I’m sure you’ll have a lovely life—though it wouldn’t suit me." We'll talk about that more when we get there, but in the hands of a better author this would be a character arc: Aravis longs for the richness she has lost, then she sees the rot underneath, and she realizes that this isn't what she wants after all. Instead, we just receive this clumsy flogging of "spoiled girl things", with the nearest and most girly-girl taking on the mantle of "silly". In Chapter 4, Aravis; in Chapter 9, Lasaraleen.

Two, Shasta--as he has been written thus far--cannot think all this is "silly" without being a misogynistic ass like his author, because he wanted these same "silly" things. Shasta has dreamed all his life of leaving the poor hut of his father and finding something brighter and richer and better. He was excited to be sold to the Tarkaan because he imagined "he’d set me free and adopt me as his son and give me a palace and a chariot and a suit of armor". Those things he wanted in Chapter 1 are the things that Aravis feels the sting of losing in Chapter 4. Again, in the hands of a better author, this could be a chance for empathy and/or romance: Shasta might confess (to himself, or even to Aravis!) that he longed for those things once.

Imagine a book where Shasta and Aravis actually bond over those perfectly natural childhood longings. Here, Aravis is presented as shallow, but she only wants what the (male) heroes of these books are regularly rewarded with: power over other men, respect and glory, fine food and feasting. That is what Peter receives in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and what Caspian is awarded at the battle's end in Prince Caspian. The third book--Voyage of the Dawn Treader--has multiple scenes like this, in which Caspian is presented to the local populace as worthy of acclaim and honor, and then sits down to the finest of feasting. And Rillian in Silver Chair receives no less, even if Jill and Eustace skip out on most of it to go whip school-children.

Clearly, then, Lewis does not consider these items as fundamentally illegitimate. (Except maybe the slavery, but we've already seen that's a gray area in his writing.) It's possible that he considers desire for these items illegitimate, but Caspian's behavior in the Lone Isles would seem to fly in the face of that--he not only desires parades and feasts, he demands them from the local populace in order to drive home the point that he owns them. It is more likely that Lewis considers the desire for these things to be illegitimate only when desired by the people who do not deserve riches. I imagine this group of "undeserving" people heavily encompasses "non-Christian", "non-white", and "non-male".

To a certain extent, let it be know that I do believe these desires are shallow. I would like to see Shasta and Aravis both evolve past a desire to own slaves and palaces. (And again, let us not forget that Shasta desires these things too.) But I also think these desires are natural to feel and not shameful to acknowledge--acknowledging a desire and acting on a desire are not the same thing. I would like to see a novel in which Aravis and Shasta had conversation and interaction and dialogue on these points. Where Aravis could confess how much she misses what she had, and Shasta could share how much he longed for those very things.

From that connection, they could come to understand each other. Aravis could tell him about the shiny things he's only known in his imagination. The telling would start out with enthusiasm, dispensing superior knowledge to the peasant boy who hangs greedily on her every word. Yet there would be a point where her voice would falter. Where she would note that no matter how much wealth you had, the Tisroc could take it away, or your father could sell you into captivity. The shininess of the palace and chariot and suit of armor that Shasta so coveted didn't protect her brother from dying in the Tisroc's wars, didn't shelter her from the loss of knowing her older brother would never come home, never carry her on his back again. Her eyes would drift to the armor she's taking out of Calromen with her. Did she really need it as a disguise or could she simply not bear to leave it behind, that one last memory of him?

Shasta would hesitate too, pausing at the unexpected moment of solemnity. He's lost his only family, too, and after finding out that the man never even considered him a son. He'd thought beatings were normal, that his father still loved him through it all, but he'd been willing to sell Shasta to a total stranger. It's not the same, of course, as what Aravis was sold into--he'd offer this in a fumbling way, hardly knowing how to word it--but it hurt. He understands why it hurt her, too, because he felt a similar hurt. And she'd know that even if none of her peers understood, even if Lasaraleen couldn't or wouldn't understand, this boy had been through something similar and knew the deep betrayal of being treated like a pawn by one's own father.

None of that is here in this book. There is no emotional connection, nothing to sustain the hastily tacked-on romance that rings so hollow and left so many readers unsatisfied. That's fine; Lewis wasn't interested in romance. But the lack of emotional connection means a dearth of religious feeling. There is no empathy in this book for Aravis, nor even for Shasta: no empathy from God or Aslan or Bree. Shasta is beaten into princehood through falls and tumbles; Aravis is ravaged into Christianity through whippings. Lewis treats his characters like swords to be hammered into shape, making them as Christian and European as he can through trauma. Empathy, understanding, love, basic human fondness--all these fall to the wayside.

Aravis cries out with pain, but the pain is not there to make her more human or to forge a connection with Shasta. Instead, he briefly ponders the silly vanity of girls and moves along. He forgets that he once wanted the same things. Later, when Lasaraleen is available to take the role of Silliest Girl, Aravis too forgets her previous desires. It is a failure of consistency, yes, and a failure of the author to establish meaningful character arcs of growth and self-actualization. But it is also a basic failure of empathy and kindness, an author so desperate to judge everyone that he rides roughshod over the concept of Christian charity in order to be the first to throw stones.


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