Narnia: Rearranging the Bookends

[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence, Rape]

Narnia Recap: Shasta has been taken in by the Narnians so that we can observe their conversation from the character's POV.

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

The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 5: Prince Corin

When we last left Chapter 5, Edmund was asserting without any evidence at all that he thinks their host is likely to forcibly marry Susan and/or make her into a slave (which is worse, according to him).

   “But how can he? Does the Tisroc think our brother the High King would suffer such an outrage?”
   “Sire,” said Peridan to the King. “They would not be so mad. Do they think there are no swords and spears in Narnia?”
   “Alas,” said Edmund. “My guess is that the Tisroc has very small fear of Narnia. We are a little land. And little lands on the borders of a great empire were always hateful to the lords of the great empire. He longs to blot them out, gobble them up. When first he suffered the Prince to come to Cair Paravel as your lover, sister, it may be that he was only seeking an occasion against us. Most likely he hopes to make one mouthful of Narnia and Archenland both.”

I've been staring at this passage for a couple of weeks now with no idea what to do with it because there's just so much to unpack here and I don't know where to start. I'd like to attempt a summary.

SUSAN: But Peter.
PERIDAN: But army.
EDMUND: Have you noticed they both suck?

Why doesn't Susan and Peridan already know this? Why wasn't this discussed before the Narnia delegation put two of its four monarchs into the hands of the Tisroc along with the sole surviving heir of Archenland? For that matter, why isn't Archenland being discussed at all except as a minor afterthought? I'd think the fact that Corin is part of this party should be more than a little pertinent. Even if they don't get His Dazed Majesty's opinion on all this--a decision I applaud, for the record--they should at least be concerned about how this situation endangers him. Edmund is supposed to be his chivalric guardian, and he's doing a very terrible job at it.

Also, what on earth is going on with this sentence: When first he suffered the Prince to come to Cair Paravel as your lover, sister, it may be that he was only seeking an occasion against us.

That makes no damn sense whatsoever! Is Edmund seriously suggesting that Rabadash is not merely a violent untrustworthy inferior candidate for a husband but that his suit has all along been a ruse set up by his father in an attempt to declare Just Cause on Narnia for a war of unjustified aggression? Suspicious much, Edmund? And I don't know what to do with this because not only is it a conspiracy theory up there with Edmund insisting that jet fuel can't melt steel beams, but additionally I'm getting flashbacks to Silver Chair where Puddleglum's bizarre and implausible racist fantasies were correct by virtue of the world itself being written to suit racist fanatics.

   “Let him try,” said the second Dwarf. “At sea we are as big as he is. And if he assaults us by land, he has the desert to cross.”
   “True, friend,” said Edmund. “But is the desert a sure defense? What does Sallowpad say?”
   “I know that desert well,” said the Raven. “For I have flown above it far and wide in my younger days” (you may be sure that Shasta pricked up his ears at this point). “And this is certain; that if the Tisroc goes by the great oasis he can never lead a great army across it into Archenland. For though they could reach the oasis by the end of their first day’s march, yet the springs there would be too little for the thirst of all those soldiers and their beasts. But there is another way.”
   Shasta listened more attentively still.

Why is this the first time this is coming up!? Why does Edmund and Susan not already know this stuff? I... I can see why Edmund is the The Just and not The Wise because everyone used wisdom as a dump stat in this campaign. The relative military threat of the country you're planning to visit and maybe cement a marital alliance with is kind of important.

We've talked before about this chapter being a bookend to the upcoming one, in which Aravis learns a secret (namely, that Rabadash is planning to invade and kidnap Susan). I actually like "bookends" in fiction (*glances askance at current work-in-progress*) so I'm willing to give the idea of this scene a teeny-tiny bit of a pass as a decent brainstorm. And I'm going to indulge myself for a moment in some writerly shop-talk. (NB: All opinions my own, your mileage may vary, there is not one right way to write.)

Bookend scenes should be nicely mirrored and this one has all the right elements: the Narnian boy glimpses an inside look into Narnian politics and the Narnian flight, while the Calormene girl glimpses the underbelly of Calormene politics and the Calormene fight. You even have some minor mirroring between Corin the side-kick boy and Lasaraleen the girly best-friend. And of course each of the protagonists learn a Vital Secret that helps them work together to save the day. As a concept, I understand what Lewis was going for and I don't hate it!

Buuuut, once again we're left with a terrible implementation on several narrative levels. Starting with the fact that here in Chapter 5 is a very strange time to suddenly info-dump military information that the monarchs should already know. And isn't it convenient that the one solitary Talking Animal in the entire delegation was the one who'd flown over this desert?

(Speaking of, without wishing to provoke any jokes on the airspeed velocity of an unladen Raven, is it even remotely plausible that this Talking Animal would have flown "far and wide above" this desert in his younger day? Beyond all the other many problems with this, his "younger day" would have been smack in the midst of the eternal winter that Lewis keeps forgetting happened. Were Birds able to leave? Why did they come back? Were they part of the trade agreement bringing back marmalade? Except no, that doesn't work because the Calormen have had so little contact with Talking Animals that they believe them to be a myth. Which fits the Telmarine timeline that this book so clearly wants to be.)

   “He that would find that way,” said the Raven, “must start from the Tombs of the Ancient Kings and ride northwest so that the double peak of Mount Pire is always straight ahead of him. And so, in a day’s riding or a little more, he shall come to the head of a stony valley, which is so narrow that a man might be within a furlong of it a thousand times and never know that it was there. And looking down this valley he will see neither grass nor water nor anything else good. But if he rides on down it he will come to a river and can ride by the water all the way into Archenland.”
   “And do the Calormenes know of this Western way?” asked the Queen.
   “Friends, friends,” said Edmund, “what is the use of all this discourse? 

Hahahaha, wow.

I take back everything I've ever said about Lewis being a decent writer because oh my gosh. When you find your characters wondering why they're even having this conversation, that is a cue to go back and do some editing. You don't just hang a lampshade on it and brazenly keep going.

   “We are not asking whether Narnia or Calormen would win if war arose between them. We are asking how to save the honor of the Queen and our own lives out of this devilish city. For though my brother, Peter the High King, defeated the Tisroc a dozen times over, yet long before that day our throats would be cut and the Queen’s grace would be the wife, or more likely, the slave, of this prince.”

Having now said all that about the lampshade, I'm now going to throw some shade at Edmund.

First and fairly: There are times when it is legitimate to shut down an anxiety-brain and say "okay, that's too many steps ahead, let's deal with this problem first". This may well be that moment, and it may well be appropriate to say okay, hey, let's reset the scope here: we're trying to figure out how to escape, not how to win. Fine.

However and secondly: If-and-only-if Narnia can't win a war with Calormen, that might be relevant to question of whether or not they should escape. Or at least how they might frame their escape. The way they decide to go about the escape is about the biggest "fuck you" they possibly could have arranged: they all but agree to the wedding, trick the Calormenes into letting them load up their ship, and then sail off laughing into the sunset like this is a jolly spring break prank. That will pretty much guarantee a war, in which case "can we win that war" becomes rather relevant to the question of whether the monarchs sworn to protect their kingdom ought to embroil it in an impossible conflict.

Now, I'm trying to talk about this carefully and not suggest that Susan should suck it up and be raped for the rest of her life. I want it very clear that this is not my opinion or position. But I also think there are a lot of alternatives that simply are not discussed here, and from a standpoint of characterization I think that makes Edmund out to be a pretty dreadful ruler. And of course the fact that they're here at all in such a weakened position doesn't speak volumes for Aslan's chosen ones as strategists.

The Dwarf proposes a Final Stand which will very likely end in everyone's death, and Susan dissolves into tears:

   “I am the cause of all this,” said Susan, bursting into tears. “Oh, if only I had never left Cair Paravel. Our last happy day was before those ambassadors came from Calormen. The Moles were planting an orchard for us … oh … oh.” And she buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
   “Courage, Su, courage,” said Edmund. “Remember—but what is the matter with you, Master Tumnus?” For the Faun was holding both his horns with his hands as if he were trying to keep his head on by them and writhing to and fro as if he had a pain in his inside.
   “Don’t speak to me, don’t speak to me,” said Tumnus. “I’m thinking. I’m thinking so that I can hardly breathe. Wait, wait, do wait.”

I really do take issue here that Edmund (and implicitly Lewis) consider Susan's breakdown to be one of cowardice and inconvenience. She's considering the death of her friends, relatives, and countrypersons with mournful responsibility--yes, it's misplaced responsibility in the sense that it isn't her fault that Rabadash has decided to rape her, but at the same time it's striking to me that she's the only person here who seems concerned about the lives that may soon be lost.

It is also noteworthy that while Lewis added some silent women--presumably Archenland nobles?--to wait upon Susan, they aren't really here in any meaningful sense. No one has spares a breath for whether those ladies are also in danger in the proposed Final Stand.

   “The only difficulty is how to get down to our ship—with some stores, too—without being seen and stopped.” [...] “All we need is some pretext for going down to our ship today and taking stuff on board.”
   “Yes,” said King Edmund doubtfully.
   “Well, then,” said the Faun, “how would it be if your majesties bade the Prince to a great banquet to be held on board our own galleon, the Splendor Hyaline, tomorrow night? And let the message be worded as graciously as the Queen can contrive without pledging her honor: so as to give the Prince a hope that she is weakening.”
   “This is very good counsel, Sire,” croaked the Raven.
   “And then,” continued Tumnus excitedly, “everyone will expect us to be going down to the ship all day, making preparations for our guests. And let some of us go to the bazaars and spend every minim we have at the fruiterers and the sweetmeat sellers and the wine merchants, just as we would if we were really giving a feast. And let us order magicians and jugglers and dancing girls and flute players, all to be on board tomorrow night.”
   “I see, I see,” said King Edmund, rubbing his hands.
   “And then,” said Tumnus, “we’ll all be on board tonight. And as soon as it is quite dark—”
   “Up sails and out oars—!” said the King.
   “And so to sea,” cried Tumnus, leaping up and beginning to dance. [...]
   “Oh Master Tumnus, dear Master Tumnus,” said the Queen, catching his hands and swinging with him as he danced. “You have saved us all.” 
   “The Prince will chase us,” said another lord, whose name Shasta had not heard.
   “That’s the least of my fears,” said Edmund. “I have seen all the shipping in the river and there’s no tall ship of war nor swift galley there. I wish he may chase us! For the Splendor Hyaline could sink anything he has to send after her—if we were overtaken at all.”
   “Sire,” said the Raven. “You shall hear no better plot than the Faun’s though we sat in council for seven days. And now, as we birds say, nests before eggs. Which is as much as to say, let us all take our food and then at once be about our business.”
   Everyone arose at this and the doors were opened and the lords and the creatures stood aside for the King and Queen to go out first. Shasta wondered what he ought to do, but Mr. Tumnus said, “Lie there, your Highness, and I will bring you up a little feast to yourself in a few moments. There is no need for you to move until we are all ready to embark.” Shasta laid his head down again on the pillows and soon he was alone in the room.

Behold the Trojan Horse.

I have mixed feelings about this plan. It is a clever plan, or at least it is a plan that seems very clever as long as you don't wonder why the Calormen do not post guards on the boat to protect all those sweetmeats. (In a grimdark book, I suppose there would be a good dozen or so guards available to have their throats slit. Susan would produce her bow and arrows. The night scene in the inevitable movie almost films itself. Pffffffft goes the silent arrow, splash goes the dead body into the harbor waters.)

And so: It is a clever plan. It feels like a plan that ought to be in a better book, or at least a better-written version of this book. Edmund is right that they are in danger and it turns out that this is 100% the best plan they could make, but at this point all of it is paranoid speculation. He is right by author fiat and because the world building itself is so racist that only racists see the world clearly. Edmund's wild guesses are correct, yes, but they shouldn't be. And his risking so much on so little actual knowledge of the situation is jarring to me as a reader.

This didn't need to be so, which brings me back to the problematic implementation of the genuinely good idea of mirrored bookends: Aravis' scene should have come first.

In Aravis' chapter, she will find out about Rabadash's determination to make Susan his wife, even against her will. She ought to have then met up with Shasta, who was taken by the Narnians in the earlier scene; Lasaraleen would help Aravis sneak through the palace to rescue him. Aravis would then tell Shasta what she knows of Rabadash.

That information could then be relayed to the Narnians--either through Corin, who arrives to switch back with Shasta, or through Shasta himself while posing as Corin. I prefer the "posing" option because when the Narnians reasonably ask how "Corin" knows this vital information about Rabadash's intentions, he can say he discovered it while he absent--which was why he wouldn't answer any questions before when they found him on the streets. And in the case where Shasta is informing the Narnians of the imminent threat, he could then learn the Secret Desert Way that Lewis wants the party to take.

Either way, the Narnians would then take the information--real, actual information instead of racist guessing--and spin up this same escape plan that is now clever without being riskily audacious. For bonus points, Susan wouldn't need to be upbraided for not guessing that her dark-faced lover was secretly evil, and Edmund could be far less of a sanctimonious prat.

There is the problem of why Aravis and Shasta don't go with the Narnians, of course. But perhaps the boat wouldn't fit two horses (this frankly feels rather plausible to me anyway) or perhaps Aravis and Shasta wrongfully believe that the Narnians wouldn't want Calormen-raised children on their boat. Or maybe they have to go down to the docks another way (as they are not part of the Official Narnian Party) and they get separated. The Raven could act as a go-between messenger to let everyone know each other was alright and they'd meet up later. Really, separations can be arranged in many ways.

I think part of reason this implementation was so badly flubbed is because Lewis only grudgingly sinks into Aravis' perspective, and then only when he has to. He wrote Shasta as the main character up until this point, even choosing to relay Aravis' own mirrored escape tale secondhand--which rendered it garbled and without any real tension. Now we have the obvious switching point of Shasta being taken; the POV should jump to Aravis in order to maintain tension (where is he? is he safe? do they know who he is? is he coming back?) and to bring in new revelations about Rabadash.

Instead, Lewis clings stubbornly to his white boy. All tension is immediately lost because Shasta is shoved into a corner and given ice to drink. And the Rabadash "reveal" to come later is utterly defanged because we already know the Narnians are safe and away. Everything that happens in the Aravis chapter to mirror this one comes too late to be of any real revelation to the reader, all because Lewis' racism and sexism made him hesitant to switch to the POV of the brown girl when it would have best served the narrative.

So in closing, here is a better outline (imo) that he should have followed.

  • Shasta runs away from home, leaving the donkey behind.
  • Aravis runs away from home, leaving the servant girl behind.
  • Shasta and Aravis meet up and are herded together. 
  • Aravis and the others plan their way into the capital city. 
  • Shasta observes the capital city as the POV character; he is then taken by the Narnians and hauled off.
  • Aravis and Lasaraleen search for Shasta; in the process they overhear Rabadash planning to force Susan's hand. 
  • Shasta is found by Aravis while he "rests" from the sun; he informs the Narnians of Rabadash's threat and learns of the desert passage.
  • Aravis expresses concerns about escaping with the Narnians and the four are separated (by mistake or on purpose) from the barge party.
  • [to be continued]


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