Repost: The Clean and Tidy Poor

[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.

The original post is here. I have not edited the content.] 

Narnia Recap: The four children have found their way into the magical land of Narnia, and have traveled as far as Mr. Tumnus' house, only to discover that he has been arrested by the Witch. Now the children are lost, cold, and hungry, and must decide what to do next.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 7: A Day With The Beavers

   They were all still wondering what to do next, when Lucy said, "Look! There's a robin, with such a red breast. It's the first bird I've seen here. I say!--I wonder can birds talk in Narnia? It almost looks as if it wanted to say something to us." Then she turned to the Robin and said, "Please, can you tell us where Tumnus the Faun has been taken to?" As she said this she took a step toward the bird. It at once flew away but only as far as to the next tree. There it perched and looked at them very hard as if it understood all they had been saying. [...]
   "Do you know," said Lucy, "I really believe he means us to follow him."

I really like this scene for several reasons. I like the image of children and bird as the bird trains the children (who I imagine with little tilted heads, not unlike puppies) with little hops and significant looks to follow him. (I was going to question how Lucy knew the robin was a "he", but then I seem to recall that particularly bright plumage generally falls to the males in bird species, so score one to both Lucy and Mr. Lewis there. Let it not be said that I am above being completely wrong at least once per post. *wink*)

I also like the credulity of the children to up and follow a robin, because in the context given it makes perfect sense: they're in a magical land of fauns and river nymphs and wolves that can stove in a door and post a written notice on the carpet, so why wouldn't robins be intelligent? Of course, not all robins in Narnia are intelligent, because of the Animal/animal divide, but that won't really be sussed out until much later so for now we'll let it slide.

And I lastly like that this almost feels like grasping at straws for poor Lucy. She's led her siblings into a magical land which has seemed to them to be nothing but frightening and terrible: no food, no warmth, and death and destruction at the one place she knew to lead them. There's a touching child-like clinging to this idea that maybe, somehow, the robin is here to make things better. Yes! We need to follow him! And then we won't be lost anymore, because we'll have a destination to reach! It's terribly sweet.

It is also, perhaps, not terribly smart.

    They had been traveling in this way for about half an hour, with the two girls in front, when Edmund said to Peter, "if you're not still too high and mighty to talk to me, I've something to say which you'd better listen to."
   "What is it?" asked Peter.
   "Hush! Not so loud," said Edmund; "there's no good frightening the girls. But have you realized what we're doing?" [...] "We're following a guide we know nothing about. How do we know which side that bird is on? Why shouldn't it be leading us into a trap?"
   "That's a nasty idea. Still -- a robin, you know. They're good birds in all the stories I've ever read. I'm sure a robin wouldn't be on the wrong side."

So today I'd like to talk a little about race and class in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

We've already touched a bit on the issues with the Witch's claim to the throne and what it means to be supported by a racial faction of Narnia that is composed of Always Chaotic Evil races. This brought up the same issues that ACE races usually bring up, which is to say that if a god or evolution made a race a natural predator of Humans or Talking Animals, does that automatically make the members of that race "evil" anymore than fluffy bunnies who eat carrots and weeds are automatically "good"? I still can't answer that question, but I would now like to look at the flip side: the "good" races in Narnia.

Peter claims here -- in what may or may not be an intentional attempt to inject a little more child-like credulity -- that the robin they follow is probably trustworthy because robins as a race are good animals. In other words, Peter considers it perfectly reasonable (at least in a pinch and with nothing better to go on) to judge the trustworthiness of an individual based on his perceived trustworthiness of that individual's race.

It's hard to say, within the confines of Narnia, that Peter is factually wrong. Yes, some of the trees are on the Witch's side, but apart from that the Witch's ranks seem almost completely composed of "bad" races and the Aslan loyalists seem to be almost entirely filled with "good" races. Even when we will later meet a rare good giant, the text will take a moment to point out that the Good Giant is descended from a long line of rare Good Giants as opposed to, say, being an individual who broke off from his family's values and forged his own path. Thus it begins to seem like identifying allies in Narnia is a simple matter of kingdom-division-class-order-family-genus-species with maybe a quick look-up table for known family exceptions like the Buffins giants.

   "If it comes to that, which is the right side? How do we know that the Fauns are in the right and the Queen (yes, I know we’ve been told she’s a witch) is in the wrong? We don’t really know anything about either."
   "The Faun saved Lucy."
   "He said he did. But how do we know? And there’s another thing too. Has anyone the least idea of the way home from here?" [...]

   "The robin!" cried Lucy, "the robin. It's flown away." And so it had -- right out of sight.
   "And now what are we to do?" said Edmund, giving Peter a look which was as much as to say "What did I tell you?" [...]
   "There's something moving among the trees over there to the left." [...]
   "I know what it is," said Peter; "it's a beaver. I saw the tail."
   "It wants us to go to it," said Susan, "and it is warning us not to make a noise."
   "I know," said Peter. "The question is, are we to go to it or not? What do you think, Lu?"
   "I think it's a nice beaver," said Lucy.
   "Yes, but how do we know?" said Edmund.

I have to admit that I'm actually quite surprised at how much I'm liking Edmund as a character in this read-through. When I was a child, I didn't like him at all, and I interpreted his behavior in this scene as very different than I do now. Before, it seemed like Edmund's logic chain was so much equivocation trying to distract or confuse or muddle his siblings from the path of Good. From that point of view, if Edmund is The Sinner in our narrative, he also spends a fair amount of time in The Deceiver role: of course the robin and the beavers are kind and trustworthy, and any aspersions that Edmund casts upon them just slows down his siblings (and, indeed, the story) in their quest to greatness.

Now, however, Edmund seems a very different character to me. He argues perfectly logically with Peter that perhaps they can't trust everyone they meet and that perhaps the Narnian civil war they're about to be plunged into is more complicated than has been represented to them by a faun who works for blackmarket goods as a kidnapper of children. There's another possible perspective here than just Edmund the Deceiver, and it's perhaps best termed Edmund the Cautious. In text, and with as little interpretive spin as I can put on it, Edmund has meet a woman who at first seemed dangerous and then seemed very pleasant indeed. She greeted him with hospitality and fed him food that he enjoyed, but the food made him feel unpleasant afterward. She has ordered Edmund to return to her with his siblings in tow and she will make them royalty and rulers... but of a country that seems bitterly divided over her legitimacy to rule and, for that matter, to appoint heirs.

It wouldn't take a rocket scientist to put together that something is rotten in the state of Narnia and that perhaps the children would be safest not declaring their allegiances to any one group at the moment. There's a conflict brewing under the surface, and the only representatives of that conflict that they have met in person were a Witch who calls herself Queen and a Faun who drugged a little girl and seriously considered kidnapping her before he apparently had a change of conscience. This doesn't seem to be the best sample set to base an important decision on -- and thus it doesn't surprise me terribly that Edmund might be in a trust no one and get back to a safe place quickly mindset.

It's not that I can't still see where the Edmund the Deceiver interpretation stems from; it's that I now see a perfectly valid alternative interpretation that seems -- to me -- to be completely supported in the text. Like all changes in paradigm, the fact that I'm reading the book from a new perspective surprises me -- it's like one of those retro Magic Eye puzzles, only it's got two perfectly good perspectives and suddenly I can see both. (And then I worry that there's a third or fourth or fifth one and things get really strange.)

Ahem. There's a lot of talking with Mr. Beaver about the trees being spies and the importance of the children keeping their voices down, and they eventually head off to Mr. Beaver's home which is build for a family of beavers but will nicely accommodate four human children for dinner, natch. And now we get back into the race and class issues and I'm just going to quote a couple of big blocks of text:

   Just below them a dam had been built across this river, and when they saw it everyone suddenly remembered that of course beavers are always making dams and felt quite sure that Mr. Beaver had made this one. They also noticed that he now had a sort of modest expression on his face -- the sort of look people have when you are visiting a garden they've made or reading a story they've written. So it was only common politeness when Susan said, "What a lovely dam!" And Mr. Beaver didn't say "Hush" this time but "Merely a trifle! Merely a trifle! And it isn't really finished!" [...]
   The first thing Lucy noticed as she went in was a burring sound, and the first thing she saw was a kind-looking old she-beaver sitting in the corner with a thread in her mouth working busily at her sewing machine, and it was from it that the sound came. She stopped her work and got up as soon as the children came in.
   "So you've come at last!" she said, holding out both her wrinkled old paws. "At last! To think that ever I should live to see this day! The potatoes are on boiling and the kettle's singing and I daresay, Mr. Beaver, you'll get us some fish." [...]
   Meanwhile the girls were helping Mrs. Beaver to fill the kettle and lay the table and cut the bread and put the plates in the oven to heat and draw a huge jug of beer for Mr. Beaver from a barrel which stood in one corner of the house, and to put on the frying-pan and get the dripping hot. Lucy thought the Beavers had a very snug little home though it was not at all like Mr. Tumnus's cave. There were no books or pictures, and instead of beds there were bunks, like on board ship, built into the wall. And there were hams and strings of onions hanging from the roof, and against the walls were gum boots and oilskins and hatchets and pairs of shears and spades and trowels and things for carrying mortar in and fishing-rods and fishing-nets and sacks. And the cloth on the table, though very clean, was very rough.
   Just as the frying-pan was nicely hissing Peter and Mr. Beaver came in with the fish which Mr. Beaver had already opened with his knife and cleaned out in the open air. You can think how good the new-caught fish smelled while they were frying and how the hungry children longed for them to be done and how very much hungrier still they had become before Mr. Beaver said, "Now we're nearly ready." Susan drained the potatoes and then put them all back in the empty pot to dry on the side of the range while Lucy was helping Mrs. Beaver to dish up the trout, so that in a very few minutes everyone was drawing up their stools (it was all three-legged stools in the Beavers' house except for Mrs. Beaver's own special rocking chair beside the fire) and preparing to enjoy themselves. There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr. Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes, and all the children thought -- and I agree with them -- that there's nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago. And when they had finished the fish Mrs. Beaver brought unexpectedly out of the oven a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot, and at the same time moved the kettle onto the fire, so that when they had finished the marmalade roll the tea was made and ready to be poured out. And when each person had got his (or her) cup of tea, each person shoved back his (or her) stool so as to be able to lean against the wall and gave a long sigh of contentment.

That's a long passage, isn't it? I apologize for that, but there's so much there that I didn't want to trim.

There's some obvious gender issues here -- the girls stay inside to set the table and cook the potatoes while Peter goes out to 'help' Mr. Beaver catch fish -- but the most interesting thing of all to me is how Edmund disappears completely from the narrative. This is intentional: Edmund will disappear a little while later and a minor plot point will involve everyone trying to decide when they last saw Edmund (a peculiar thing, considering that when in a warm, cozy house, I usually notice exactly when someone opens the door to the freezing air and nips outside), so I'm not surprised that Edmund has been suddenly excised from the action so as to make him and his exit invisible to the reader. However, it's worth noting that even when Edmund is invisible to the reader, he shouldn't be invisible to his siblings.

Additionally, I imagine that Edmund is removed from the action in order to throw his sulkiness and sullen behavior more sharply into relief. Peter and Susan and Lucy help with their designated roles in life -- Peter the Man does the providing, Susan the Woman does the cooking, and Lucy the Child does the setting and serving. Edmund is the odd one out and has no real role, not the least because he isn't Good enough at the moment to accept his role.

But there's something else here that grabs my attention far more than Edmund and the other children, and that's the behavior and lifestyle of these good beavers. I've quoted Bobbie Ann Mason's excellent The Girl Sleuth before in this deconstruction and now I want to do so again:

...the books celebrate and perpetuate some outdated values which turn into stereotypes of good and evil. The sources of good are the property owners and businessmen, the "haves" and "winners," the people who run the world. The proper division of authority is male power and female domesticity. The sources of evil are (1) people too cheap to work for a living, and (2) just plain meanness. There is an accounting for some poor people who reveal nobility of purpose -- meaning that they submit to the authorities but have been waylaid by the evil forces. The way you recognize the fallen poor is that even though they live in a run-down section of town their houses are clean and their lawns are neatly trimmed and their flowers are blooming. They wear clean, but faded, garments.

That passage stuck with me as I read and re-read the description of the Beavers' home. I realize that childrens' escapist literature is traditionally supposed to contain cozy and comforting elements. I realize that the Pevensie children (and the vicarious reader) have been trudging through snow and cold and wet for a very long time now and that this moment of respite is a moment of mental healing and recuperation. I also realize, on an intellectual level, that this coming to safety-and-exposition in the Beavers home is not unlike the coming to the same in Rivendell in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. So I am not criticizing this scene for being here or even really for how it's worded.

But I do think it's interesting that the first "good Narnians" we're presented with (because I really do not and cannot count Mr. Tumnus) are repeatedly emphasized to be "working class" and possibly relatively impoverished (the limited space, the bunk beds, the lack of books and pictures, the limited storage for the daily working tools, the rough tablecloth) but also in the same breath we are reassured that the working class Beavers are very tidy. The home is "snug", but not too small. The beds are folded into the wall and are presumably made up nicely. The rough tablecloth is "very clean". Of course.

Mason's book is as much about class prejudice in childrens' detective series as it is about the series themselves. She argues persuasively that at least some of the writing contains a large amount of cultural backlash -- in many Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, and other child sleuth adventures, the villains are lower class members who refuse to respect their place in the social order. This framing is partly from the necessity for "light" material (most parents don't want their children to read a Nancy Drew mystery featuring a serial rapist, nor was the world clamoring for a Hardy Boys / Hannibal Lector cross-over novel), but nevertheless conveys cultural attitudes: the shiftless, lazy, disrespectful poor represent a danger to the American aristocracy that Drew and her contemporaries represent.

Evil is not only sexy in Nancy's universe, it's disgustingly lower class. And the men aren't just evil, they're strange. Their names tell that: Rudy Raspin, Tom Tozzle, Tom Stripe, Mr. Warte, Bushy Trott, Grumper, Alonzo Rugby, and Red Buzby. They are all good-for-nothings who want to upset the elitist WASP order. They are tricksters and hucksters who sneer at the authorities -- the paternal benevolence of the businesses, institutions, and laws of the reigning upper classes. [...]

Good and evil are strictly white and black terms. Criminals are dark-hued and poor. One crook is "dark, with a mottled complexion and piercing black eyes." (The Clue in the Old Album, p. 4) [...] Piercing dark eyes are the most common characteristic of Nancy's foes. Their greedy eyes are piercing because they are disrespectful, gazing threateningly beyond their station, perhaps seeing through the facades of the gentry whose power they crave. All the virtues of refinement, taste, intelligence, and beauty belong to Nancy's class, while everyone else is vulgar, greedy, ill-tempered, insolent. [...]

Thus, the original Nancy Drew series -- the first thirty-five or so volumes which accumulated throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s-portrays a fading aristocracy, threatened by the restless lower classes. [...] When minorities know their place, Nancy treats them graciously. She is generous to truck drivers and cabbies and maids. But woe betide the upstarts, the dishonest social climbers who want to grab at the top.

These prejudices are prejudices we still live with. The poor-and-clean are virtuous and their poverty is unhappy misfortune; the poor-and-slovenly are lazy and their poverty is brought upon themselves. We see a variant of this in Health-At-Every-Size (HAES) training: We have been taught that the unhealthy-and-thin are simply unlucky in their genetics or circumstance; the unhealthy-and-fat are viewed as not prioritizing their health and are frequently told by their medical providers not to seek help until their weight has been reduced. And there are a thousand variations on these social prejudices, the ideas that in order to "deserve" sympathy, the poor or unhealthy or otherwise unfortunate must earn the sympathy through unrelated virtues such as tidiness.

The Witch serves Edmund magically sweet food in attractive packages; the Beavers serve the Pevensie children hearty fresh food in a poor-but-clean setting. There's a lot to be said of this juxtaposition. There's the aspect of things not always being what they appear: the Beavers' food is poor-but-rich (in the "good for your emotional health" sort of richness) while the Witch's food is expensive-looking but dreadful for the soul. Then there's the question of nationality and appropriateness: the Beavers' serve their guests good hearty English fare, while the Witch is peddling foreign candies and spiced drinks to Edmund.

Now, too, I wonder if we can't juxtapose this scene with last week's question of legitimacy for yet another perspective. The Witch will later be accused by the Beavers as a low-class up-start -- she's the Emperor's executioner who fancies herself a queen, they claim. And it's true that the Witch is both a foreigner in Narnia (courtesy of The Magician's Nephew) and does not submit to either Aslan's authority nor the implied authority of the Pevenise children for being human (and therefore potential rightful rulers of the land in which she resides).

The Beavers, of course, are lower class themselves. They work hard for their day-to-day living, and they can't afford a large home, nor fancy furnishings, nor non-rough tablecloths. They sew their bed sheets and tablecloths themselves rather than buy such things new. (Question: Why beavers would need or want bed sheets and tablecloths such that a sewing machine would be a necessary tool in their home? Discuss.) But the Beavers, as poor as they are, are the good-clean-knows-their-place poor. They aren't up-start poor. They don't fancy themselves good enough to rule Narnia despite the fact that they probably know more about ruling a country than the English children Aslan keeps importing every few centuries before then disappearing for decades at a time. No, they keep to themselves, and maintain a clean home, and they even maintain one that is big enough and well-stocked enough to offer succor to passing English humans despite the fact that the creamy milk and beer and lump of butter have to cost a fortune in fish trading. The Beavers are good lower class people, born and raised in Narnia; the Witch is bad lower class, born and raised elsewhere and utterly unwilling to submit to the will of the appropriate authorities.

None of these observations are judgments on Lewis. It's fine that the Beavers are poor in addition to being good, and it's self-evident that anyone who turns to stone all opposition can be pretty safely deemed bad. But I do find it interesting how the good and the bad are described here, and it ties in again with that question of legitimacy that we looked at last time. How would the story be different, I wonder, if the oppressive ruler was ruling with Aslan's seal of approval (Say what you like about her, he would argue, she keeps the Calormen out and she runs the blackmarket dairy trade with remarkable efficiency!) and the deeply annoyed Narnians didn't have clean, tidy homes to telegraph their essential good natures? Can we as a society allow for good people who also can't be bothered to dust everyday without having to go whole hog into Untidy Absentminded Genius territory?

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go clean my house.


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