Narnia: Wife or Slave

[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Sexual Violence, Orientalism]

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

I can't quite believe we're only in Chapter 5. When we last left Chapter 4, Lewis cut a conversation midway through because I presume he was trying to add suspense. But the short version is: Susan doesn't want to marry Rabadash, she suggested that they leave Tashbaan "this very day" (which would be unreasonable and insulting to her host, but I'm not sure if Lewis didn't know that or if Susan didn't), and Edmund looked very grave and asked that the doors be shut against possible spies.

Incidentally, if you missed it in the comments last time, gehayi reminded me that I wrote this: Loving Her Less. I recommend reading it, because I'm pretty proud of it and we're at that place in the book and now moving forward. Onward and upward.

   “MY DEAR SISTER AND VERY GOOD LADY,” said King Edmund, “you must now show your courage. For I tell you plainly we are in no small danger.”

This is a particularly subtle form of negging and not the best way to start the chapter: Edmund exhorts Susan to be courageous, which of course suggests that he doesn't think she is and therefore needs the encouragement. I know folks are going to disagree on this one, and to each their own, but to me there is a big difference between "sit down, this is kind of heavy" versus "I need you to be strong for me right now".

In the right situation, with the right relationship, that framing might be okay but given the context we have with Lewis I'm not inclined to let it slide. Susan has personally witnessed the death and resurrection of god, as well as participated (however briefly) in at least one major battle and the aftermath; she's courageous enough already.

   “What is it, Edmund?” asked the Queen.
   “It is this,” said Edmund. “I do not think we shall find it easy to leave Tashbaan. While the Prince had hope that you would take him, we were honored guests. But by the Lion’s Mane, I think that as soon as he has your flat denial we shall be no better than prisoners.”
   One of the Dwarfs gave a low whistle.
   “I warned your Majesties, I warned you,” said Sallowpad the Raven. “Easily in but not easily out, as the lobster said in the lobster pot!”

A major problem I have with this book--and indeed with a lot of Lewis' writing--is that he doesn't seem to have put a lot of thought into the "how" of how a situation emerged. How did we end up here, with Susan and Edmund in the heart of Tashbaan and no real retinue to speak of save for some pleasant human courtiers, a dwarf, and a bird?

The problem of being potentially taken captive by a hostile king isn't a new one that they should only now be thinking of. This is part of the reason why princesses were married by proxy before being sent over and dumped off on their new husband--sometimes even being turned over on "neutral" ground or a kingdom border to be taken charge of entirely by foreigners. When possession is 9/10s of the law, you don't give a man possession of your sister/daughter until she's safely married to him. That's not a consent-friendly thing, that's basic rules of how to manage your property. (Which is what queens and princesses and women were traditionally viewed as, at least within the confines of Vaguely Fantasy Europe that Lewis is writing.)

I can believe, barely, that the Pevensies just don't know what they're doing. Sure. They're kids who were put in charge of a kingdom. But you can really only run with that two ways: one, they have advisors who knew better (like Swallowpad here) and the kids just didn't listen; or two, the advisors didn't know better because they were just as new at this as the kids were. Since Swallowpad is completely ignored here, this aphorism (like the ones in the previous chapter) feels like it was jammed in here with intent to break up Edmund's wall-of-text and/or shore up Edmund's suspicions.

   “I have been with the Prince this morning,” continued Edmund. “He is little used (more’s the pity) to having his will crossed. And he is very chafed at your long delays and doubtful answers. This morning he pressed very hard to know your mind. I put it aside—meaning at the same time to diminish his hopes—with some light common jests about women’s fancies, and hinted that his suit was likely to be cold. He grew angry and dangerous. There was a sort of threatening, though still veiled under a show of courtesy, in every word he spoke.”
   “Yes,” said Tumnus. “And when I supped with the Grand Vizier last night, it was the same. He asked me how I liked Tashbaan. And I (for I could not tell him I hated every stone of it and I would not lie) told him that now, when high summer was coming on, my heart turned to the cool woods and dewy slopes of Narnia. He gave a smile that meant no good and said, There is nothing to hinder you from dancing there again, little goatfoot; always provided you leave us in exchange a bride for our prince.’”
   “Do you mean he would make me his wife by force?” exclaimed Susan.
   “That’s my fear, Susan,” said Edmund. “Wife: or slave which is worse.”

Wow, okay, lot to unpack here.

I want to highlight again that Rabadash was in Narnia for seven days when Susan first had a chance to meet him and be wooed by him. He was apparently on his best behavior then, and honestly if I ever fan-fictioned this book I would write that to show him genuinely relieved to be away from his abusive father. (And here, at home, his "true colors" would read like anxiety and nervous tension and bad behaviors his father has consciously cultivated.) But I digress and now back to my point: Susan knew Rabadash for seven days before this trip. They've now been out here three weeks. She's known him one month.

What kind of "long delays and doubtful answers" are being issued in the space of a single month? Royal weddings take years to plan and with good reason! And you don't commit to a yes and only then work out the details; you work out the details first and then commit to a yes. There are a million things to work out, like whether or not any children of this union would have a claim on Narnia. Like, beyond anything else, this very premise does not fit this world. At all.

The warning signs that Edmund and Tumnus are noting are, indeed, troubling. They don't fit this world that we've been shown because frankly everything that has led up to this doesn't work, but if we discard all that and just look at this passage here: yes, it is troubling. I am troubled. I will note, however, that Edmund is about to suggest a rash course of action that would be insulting beyond belief to their host and would be a political nightmare if he's wrong. It may well be worth the risk! He doesn't have a way to be sure, and that part is a part that I can get on-board with. But it is interesting that literally no one in the entourage brings up that he could be wrong.

It's Puddleglum with the giants again: he's not right because he has a good reason to be right, so much as he's right because in a world written by a racist, racism is the right way to view the world. That's a problem. Which, oh by the way, let's not forget to unpack this:

   “Do you mean he would make me his wife by force?” exclaimed Susan.
   “That’s my fear, Susan,” said Edmund. “Wife: or slave which is worse.”

That's now the second time that Edmund has spoken poorly of slaves. Being a slave is bad, there is no doubt. But I'm not sure of the distinction in his mind between a wife taken by force and a sex slave--surely the end result is the same to Susan in this case. So it sounds like Edmund is drawing a line not between what Rabadash will do to Susan (which is rape in either case) but to the status she'll be allowed to hold while he's doing it. Being raped with a crown on her head is, in this framing, better than being raped with chains on her wrists. I am not at all sure I agree with that, and I really do not see why it needed to be included here.

Nor do I know how to unpack all the problems in it. There is the suggestion that a forced marriage is somehow less of a valid thing to want to escape than sex slavery. (Which we have seen and will continue to see in Aravis' forced marriage plot.) There is the trope of the swarthy brown man making the white woman his sex slave. All this baggage of sex slaves and harem girls and brown men subjugating women in hyper-sexualized ways (i.e., not "merely" forced into marriage but additionally forced into chains) is established Orientalism that doesn't occur in a vacuum.

It's sexualized racism being invoked here, whether deliberately or through racism, and in a children's book where it adds no value to the actual plot. I'm not qualified to unpack it all. But I recognize it when I see it.


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