Narnia: The White Barbarian King

[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence]

Narnia Recap: The four runaways enter Tashbaan.

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

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

These are increasingly becoming harder to write for me, and I don't think it's because of the toxic sexism and misogyny so much as... the writing is just so bad. And I know that's taboo to say in Lewis circles but this writing is awful. I don't know why I didn't recognize it as much before--maybe the earlier books were better, maybe the experience I have under my belt as a writer is to blame--but here we are and every page, every paragraph, screams "I had no real outline or plan for this and I disdained the concept of edits!"

*deep breath*

Look, I brought you pretty things so that we can go through this together. First, pie:


Next, here is a pretty keychain:

via Etsy

Isn't that pretty? Okay. Here we go!

Rewriting is important. Because, without it, here we are with disguised horses and it seems to have popped into Lewis' head that, huh, yeahno, horses don't disguise like that. What to do? Go back and write a new plan? Have Aravis pretend to be a noble youth in that armor which has since disappeared? (Seriously, is Hwin still carrying all that armor? No wonder she's so quiet!) No! Because that would be hard! Instead we'll just press on: the disguise doesn't work but it's alright because no one cares.

   At the far end of the bridge the walls of the city towered high above them and the brazen gates stood open in the gateway which was really wide but looked narrow because it was so very high. Half a dozen soldiers, leaning on their spears, stood on each side. Aravis couldn’t help thinking, “They’d all jump to attention and salute me if they knew whose daughter I am.” But the others were only thinking of how they’d get through and hoping the soldiers would not ask any questions. Fortunately they did not. But one of them picked a carrot out of a peasant’s basket and threw it at Shasta with a rough laugh, saying:
   “Hey! Horse-boy! You’ll catch it if your master finds you’ve been using his saddle-horse for pack work.”
   This frightened him badly for of course it showed that no one who knew anything about horses would mistake Bree for anything but a charger.
   “It’s my master’s orders, so there!” said Shasta. But it would have been better if he had held his tongue for the soldier gave him a box on the side of his face that nearly knocked him down and said, “Take that, you young filth, to teach you how to talk to freemen.” But they all slunk into the city without being stopped. Shasta cried only a very little; he was used to hard knocks.

Wow, such adventure, much reader payoff. The build-up of whether the disguise would work, and whether Aravis and Bree were walking right, and the cutting off of the tails really comes to a satisfactory head here in this passage where none of it works but it doesn't matter because no one bloody cares.

And yes, I'm aware that the cut-tails will be a vanity thing later, but I mean... that's kind of the point; this whole "disguise" seems fabricated to fit that situation for later and then Lewis realized that good horse-flesh can't be hidden that way. Which, yes, good, ten points for recognizing that, but when you realize a problem mid-writing, then you go back and change things. You don't just handwave it away with a breezy "meh, lazy guards".

And of course these aren't just any lazy guards. These are lazy indolent dark-skinned guards who hurl abuse at slaves. And on the one hand, Caspian and Bern would fit right in here but on the other hand, yeah, it's worse when authors have dark-skinned people from the land of Hot-Blooded Colored Men do it because we have a context for that and the context is a bad one.

   Inside the gates Tashbaan did not at first seem so splendid as it had looked from a distance. The first street was narrow and there were hardly any windows in the walls on each side. It was much more crowded than Shasta had expected: crowded partly by the peasants (on their way to market) who had come in with them, but also with water sellers, sweetmeat sellers, porters, soldiers, beggars, ragged children, hens, stray dogs, and barefooted slaves. What you would chiefly have noticed if you had been there was the smells, which came from unwashed people, unwashed dogs, scent, garlic, onions, and the piles of refuse which lay everywhere.

I'm just going to leave here that the medieval Europe that Lewis worshiped was fully one zillion times filthier than Lewis' "grunge" version of The Thousand and One Nights that he gives us here. The Thousand and One Nights do have water sellers, sweetmeat sellers, porters, soldiers, beggars, children, and barefoot slaves but they also have lots and lots of bathing. Europe, in contrast, had human poop flowing in the streets and historians are still debating how accessible baths were (short answer: it heavily depends).

   Shasta was pretending to lead but it was really Bree who knew the way and kept guiding him by little nudges with his nose.

Wait, so Bree has been here before?? Earlier he seemed not to have been! Why are Shasta and Bree leading at all when Aravis and Hwin have been here before and must know the way better than either of the two males? But, of course, that's the answer; Aravis and Hwin are girls and girls do not lead men.

   They were zigzagging up to the center of Tashbaan. Soon they came to finer streets.



This is so badly explained, there's no reason for them to have been forced through this geography chokepoint into Tashbaan, and there's definitely no reason to herd them into the Best Streets In The Center Of The City. Doylistically this is so Shasta (and Shasta alone!) can run into the Narnians (who will be slumming it by walking because they're virtuous and friendly and don't believe in slaves and social classes--except for when they do!) (but I note that since they're slumming it anyway, there's no reason they couldn't be strolling through the main market because why wouldn't they?), but from a Watsonian perspective why is this even here?

Why was Tashbaan planned so that the route from "Point A - Entrance" and "Point B - Desert" looks like something from The Family Circus? Why not just write one realistic main huge thoroughfare that the kids follow through the lower city levels and they run into the Narnians there?

   Great statues of the gods and heroes of Calormen—who are mostly impressive rather than agreeable to look at—rose on shining pedestals. [...] And through the arched gateways of many a palace Shasta caught sight of green branches, cool fountains, and smooth lawns.

Glass houses, Lewis.

   At every turn Shasta hoped they were getting out of the crowd, but they never did.

WAIT. They're still in a crowd??? Surely the whole point of routing them through the upper levels would be to get them out of the crowd so that Shasta has a better chance of being spotted, like what is this even here for? No. No, this makes no sense.

Why is there a crowd shuffling around in the upper levels of Tashbaan, where the huge estates lie and the lawn-gates are wide and far apart and there's no selling or buying allowed on the front lawns of the nobility because that's what walled-off noble estates are for, to keep the press of humanity at bay? Why, if there's a crowd winding its way through this place, does Bree need to lead them at all; why are they not following the flow to the desert exit that by rights ought to have a lot of traffic going to it (to greet the newly arrived merchants and buy the freshest and best... uh... spices? meat? something!).

The whole point of having "upper levels" in a city is to rise above the noise and heat and crush of the riff-raff, so why in the name of Aslan's left bollock is there a slow-moving crowd of noisy downtrodden peasants outside the gate of my pleasure palace every morning when I'm trying to sleep in or shag countesses or play polo on the lawns??

   This made their progress very slow, and every now and then they had to stop altogether. This usually happened because a loud voice shouted out “Way, way, way for the Tarkaan,” or “for the Tarkheena,” or “for the fifteenth Vizier,” or “for the Ambassador,” and everyone in the crowd would crush back against the walls; and above their heads Shasta would sometimes see the great lord or lady for whom all the fuss was being made, lolling upon a litter which four or even six gigantic slaves carried on their bare shoulders. For in Tashbaan there is only one traffic regulation, which is that everyone who is less important has to get out of the way for everyone who is more important; unless you want a cut from a whip or punch from the butt end of a spear.

Unlike those civilized places in Narnia where you just get punched in the face by a guy wearing a mail gauntlet or whatever. Also, you have to looooove the "fifteenth Vizier" tidbit because if there's one thing that makes the world decadent and sinful, it's bureaucracy, right, Lewis? (Fact: Civilization basically can't exist as we understand it without bureaucracy and it's actually pretty damn useful.)

   It was in a splendid street very near the top of the city (the Tisroc’s palace was the only thing above it) that the most disastrous of these stoppages occurred.
   “Way! Way! Way!” came the voice. “Way for the White Barbarian King, the guest of the Tisroc (may he live forever)! Way for the Narnian lords.”

Oh, so apparently they had to come all the way up to the Tisroc's palace in order to go back down the other side to leave because while the Narnians will slum through the city on foot, they aren't going to leave the comforting shade of the castle. Sure. I'm pretty sure no city has ever been designed this way and it actually makes the Narnians look worse, not better (are they not brave enough to go down into the main market to buy their daily allotment of candied figs?), but fine okay you do you, Lewis.

Anyway. Getting back to the text, there are so many layers to this "barbarian" thing that I don't even know where to start tackling it, but I guess we sort of have to because it's going to be a thing.

For one, it's worth noting that "barbarian" applied to white people is not the same word when it's applied to non-white people, because of the context of white privilege and white supremacy. Robert E. Howard can call Conan and his people "barbarians" all day, but they're the good kind of barbarians: idealized white men in loin-cloths who fight anything that looks at them funny and loll around on animal skins with beautiful women after a hard day of killing things. This is the libertarian mythos with a heavy scoop of evo psych and viewed through rose-filtered history goggles; the idea that life was Purer and Better and Cleaner and Honester when every (white) man could do as he saw fit and the strongest prevailed.

It's not a fantasy that works out well for anyone except white men, and even the white men don't do too good when they all die of abscessed teeth a few years out after the abolition of dentistry, but that's not the point. Very few people really want to give up their toilet paper and live in an unheated cave, but the fantasy can be used to justify all kinds of hurtful behavior out here in the real world. Fewer women in STEM than there ought to be, statistically speaking? Nothing to see here, they're all just making babies like cavewomen do. Fewer black people winning Oscars than there ought to be? Well, if you'll just sit down and listen to this racist powerpoint presentation about IQ scores and bell curves and evolution...

...and so it goes. The myth of the White Barbarian isn't something that its proponents want to genuinely create or return to; it is, instead, a useful Just So story for excusing racism and sexism now. "Why is...", the black woman begins; "Because that!" the white man replies, pointing to the Boris Vallejo painting on the wall. White Barbarians are the gods and heroes of white people, and are agreeable to look at but not impressive in the least. (To paraphrase Lewis.)

Which returns me to the text to point out that: calling the white Narnians "barbarians" and "barbaric" comes in a context where white barbarians were already starting to gain popular prominence as a good thing (the first Conan the Barbarian tale was published in 1932) and frankly even if the concept was not already gaining a foothold in popular imagination, it simply doesn't pack the same racist impact as if Caspian were walking around calling the Calormen barbaric. (Which the narrative basically did in Voyage of the Dawn Treader: "They wear flowing robes and orange-colored turbans, and they are a wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient people.")

So why do the Calormen in this book throw that term around like they do?

Well, to start, there's a bit of a not-so-subtle thing going on here where you are what you name-call, so to speak. The Calormen call the Narnians barbaric, but really that's because they are themselves so barbarous that they can't recognize how awesome the Narnians are (and also they're just oh-so-jealous of their beauty and freedom and awesomeness). It's a handy piece of racism, allowing Lewis to heap slurs onto his race of dark-skinned foreigners while still claiming to have been fair and objective; it's not that HE called them barbaric, oh no, they're the ones who even introduced the word.

Throwing around pejorative terms that we recognize as pejoratives makes the Calormen seem racist, prejudiced, superstitious, untrusting, and all the other things that Lewis himself actually was while being happy to decry those things in people who looked different from him. And it works fairly well to shield him from criticisms of racism, because after all, lots of Empires and stuff have mean people in them! This, of course, ignores the context of the previous books where, when an expansionist white empire called someone names, we were meant to take that on faith as being accurate. Now when a xenophobic dark empire calls (white!) people names, we know full well that they are wrong. The more they heap on the name-calling, the more wrong and evil we perceive them to be.

This is convenient in another way, because in a very strict sense of the word, the Narnians are "barbarous" in comparison to the Calormen. This brings us back to the Conanesque use of the term, where 'swarthy Middle Eastern places' are steeped in luxury and decadence that hides rot and corruption, whereas 'white Northern European places' are shining hammered steel where only hard strength remains and all impurities are burned away. Conan, and Peter, are "barbarians" in the sense that they haven't been softened by luxury and decadence.

Yet the pejorative usage of the word remains, and so we have an interesting effect where Lewis can claim to be honest (the Calormen are just stating facts about the relative standard of living between the two countries!) while being aware that the reader will see the contrast brought by connotation. "No, YOU'RE the barbarian!" we cry, reading along. "They might not have toilet paper but they don't have slaves!" etc.

And so here we have a crier calling out "[make] way for the White Barbarian King", noted just after a passage about how when slaves don't move out of the way in time, they take the butt of a spear to the face. It's an effective contrast, inviting the reader to reflect on who is the Real Barbarian here and of course the answer is not the White guy who is, incidentally, so very white.

   Shasta tried to get out of the way and to make Bree go back. But no horse, not even a Talking Horse from Narnia, backs easily. And a woman with a very edgy basket in her hands, who was just behind Shasta, pushed the basket hard against his shoulders, and said, “Now then! Who are you shoving!” And then someone else jostled him from the side and in the confusion of the moment he lost hold of Bree. And then the whole crowd behind him became so stiffened and packed tight that he couldn’t move at all. So he found himself, unintentionally, in the first row and had a fine sight of the party that was coming down the street.


   It was quite unlike any other party they had seen that day. The crier who went before it shouting “Way, way!” was the only Calormene in it. And there was no litter; everyone was on foot. There were about half a dozen men and Shasta had never seen anyone like them before. For one thing, they were all as fair-skinned as himself, and most of them had fair hair. And they were not dressed like men of Calormen. Most of them had legs bare to the knee. Their tunics were of fine, bright, hardy colors—woodland green, or gay yellow, or fresh blue. Instead of turbans they wore steel or silver caps, some of them set with jewels, and one with little wings on each side. A few were bare-headed. The swords at their sides were long and straight, not curved like Calormene scimitars. And instead of being grave and mysterious like most Calormenes, they walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling. You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly and didn’t give a fig for anyone who wasn’t. Shasta thought he had never seen anything so lovely in his life.


No, I'm sorry, I have to go vomit a little. Have at it in the comments and I'll come back to this passage next time.


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