Narnia: Noble and Free-Born People

[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence]

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

Welcome back to Chapter 5! When we last left Shasta, he was idling in the corner while the Narnians planned their escape. That's fine. I explained why I'm theoretically okay with this as a rhetorical device. But now the author is faced with a rather big problem, namely: since the Narnians are going to where Shasta wants to go, and since their way seems a lot more fun and less dangerous, why can't he go with them?

This is the kind of problem that I think authors confront fairly often. Certainly I've been here! You want your protagonist to be faced with choices and to make them on their own rather than being forced into them (autonomy!) but you'd also like their choices to end badly for them (irony! twists!) but it's sometimes tricky to convincingly explain why they picked the path lined with thorns and bones picked clean by the plot demons when there was a perfectly nice primrose path RIGHT THERE.

These situations are where I find empathy really helps. I try to settle into the character, and look at what they know and what they don't know. "What would they need to believe in order for this choice to make sense to them?" is the key question here. And... Lewis kind of tried? But... kind of failed, because he still can't work out how cozy or grimdark this book should be and ends up trying to do both in a really weird way.

   “This is perfectly dreadful,” thought Shasta. It never came into his head to tell these Narnians the whole truth and ask for their help. Having been brought up by a hard, closefisted man like Arsheesh, he had a fixed habit of never telling grown-ups anything if he could help it: he thought they would always spoil or stop whatever you were trying to do. And he thought that even if the Narnian King might be friendly to the two horses, because they were Talking Beasts of Narnia, he would hate Aravis, because she was a Calormene, and either sell her for a slave or send her back to her father. As for himself, “I simply daren’t tell them I’m not Prince Corin now,” thought Shasta. “I’ve heard all their plans. If they knew I wasn’t one of themselves, they’d never let me out of this house alive. They’d be afraid I’d betray them to the Tisroc. They’d kill me. And if the real Corin turns up, it’ll all come out, and they will!” He had, you see, no idea of how noble and free-born people behave.

Wait, let's break this down a little.

First of all, I can see why you wouldn't share things with Arsheesh, but not because he "spoil[ed] and stop[ped]" things. He regularly beat Shasta. I'm not making this up. It's in Chapter 1, so I'm not sure why it can't be referenced in Chapter 5. This weird cozy detail ("adults try to stop you kids, amiright?") doesn't make the book less grim, just more inconsistent. It comes away feeling like a weird outreach to children ("hello, fellow kids!") in a way that doesn't give them real credit for being able to deal with things like "sometimes adults do hurtful things". This passage instead starts off by painting adults as a nuisance, by using an abusive father as a springboard.

Now, I will add that "I Wrongly Believe These Adults Are Useless" can work in a book! But I think it needs a much younger protagonist (isn't Shasta supposed to be 12 or 13? at the earliest?) and the book should still set a consistent tone, not this ping-ponging back and forth where Arsheesh beats Shasta and sells him to the first bidder only to later be someone who merely stops all your fun. Especially since "stops all your fun" in book-trope-speak usually acts as a comforting shorthand for "cares about you but worries unnecessarily". Like, I don't know, the Hardy Boys' mother or something. When fun is stopped, it's a big bummer but you know it's because they love you and are just being stuffy adults.

Second of all, I do appreciate that Shasta is looking out for Aravis here (Sort of. I could also point out that she feels like a millstone around his neck, only remembered when it's time to make the Wrong Decision), but I mean... Edmund is literally saving Susan from rape and he's spoken out against slavery several times. Sure, he totally could be a hypocritical douchebag who would throw the brown girl under the bus, and in fact it is plausible that he would be! But it's an interesting choice to have Shasta consider that. And, of course, it's a very interesting choice to have his assumption turn out to be So Very Wrong, when of course normally it's a safe bet to assume that white upper-class men can act in ways that further racism and rape culture.

So we simultaneously have a white boy who is aware that racism and rape culture exist (which is... kinda rare, but okay! good!) but he's wrong and it's the impetus behind his Wrong Decision. Hmm.

Third of all, whoaaaaa, whiplash at how quickly he went from "adults spoil my fun" to "and also probably murder me". This... this paragraph reads like a first draft where Lewis just threw every possible objection at the page and didn't go back to edit for tone. I've written stuff like this! In a first draft! Which then needs to be edited! And that's okay! Sometimes you have to take out some of the reasons because they don't all mesh together tonally. And I would argue that "adults are a drag" and "adults are brutal murder-beasts" don't mesh well together.

Fourth of all: "He had, you see, no idea of how noble and free-born people behave." I... what.

So the racism about how slaves are worthless and stuff--all that isn't just a character flaw of Edmund's? That's supposed to be actual canon of How Things Are? Free Noble people behave in objectively different ways from Common Slaves? (Are we sure Lewis didn't read Conan the Barbarian in his spare time?) And I guess the Tisroc doesn't count because... well, he's Free and Noble, but he's... I don't know. Not-Noble, because he's brown? Not-Free, because he approves of slavery even if he isn't himself a slave?

Come to think on it, is Aravis a Free Noble? Would she make a different choice here? Does Corin count as a Free Noble, because it doesn't occur to him to help Shasta? These are the questions we are left with.

   “What am I to do? What am I to do?” he kept saying to himself. “What—hullo, here comes that goaty little creature again.” [...]
   “Now, princeling,” he said. “Make a good dinner. It will be your last meal in Tashbaan.”
   It was a fine meal after the Calormene fashion. I don’t know whether you would have liked it or not, but Shasta did. There were lobsters, and salad, and snipe stuffed with almonds and truffles, and a complicated dish made of chicken livers and rice and raisins and nuts, and there were cool melons and gooseberry fools and mulberry fools, and every kind of nice thing that can be made with ice. There was also a little flagon of the sort of wine that is called “white” though it is really yellow.

This seems like a really rich meal to give a child suffering from sunstroke, but the fuck do I know. (And I guess it would fit the medieval theme that Lewis is going for. Shasta is lucky they didn't feed him gold-coated food.)

The thought occurs to me that Shasta is being super chill about the Faun, a creature he's never seen before and if he's heard of them at all it would have been in the context of Northern Demons Who Eat Children. If Lewis really wanted to explain why Shasta didn't go with the Narnians--and here is where that character-empathy comes in, because I'd have to shed what I know as the author--I'd have filled the Narnian cast up with more animals and non-humans and let Shasta be a little frightened of them.

This would be a tricky line to walk, as you don't really want your protagonist to be racist against adorable talking bunnies, but at the same time Shasta has been raised to believe that something like a Giant Talking Minotaur would be a dangerous demon monster. Throw in some ambiguous dialog about food supplies or something, and it could be plausible to worry that Shasta and/or Aravis might be kept as food for the bigger animals. (I mean, the Animals are already eating meat, i.e., other animals; I think it's reasonable to not understand the food-distinction and worry they're all cannibals.)

And, honestly, I don't think it's totally unreasonable to not want to go sailing with Dionysus. So I think this was totally do-able and even could have been an important point about Racism. But instead we get an important point about Wrongly Assuming The White Dude Is Racist When He's Totally Not, so I mean. Priorities. *jazz hands*

   While Shasta was eating, the good little Faun, who thought he was still dazed with sunstroke, kept talking to him about the fine times he would have when they all got home; about his good old father King Lune of Archenland and the little castle where he lived on the southern slopes of the pass. “And don’t forget,” said Mr. Tumnus, “that you are promised your first suit of armor and your first war horse on your next birthday. And then your Highness will begin to learn how to tilt and joust. And in a few years, if all goes well, King Peter has promised your royal father that he himself will make you Knight at Cair Paravel. And in the meantime there will be plenty of comings and goings between Narnia and Archenland across the neck of the mountains. And of course you remember you have promised to come for a whole week to stay with me for the Summer Festival, and there’ll be bonfires and all-night dances of Fauns and Dryads in the heart of the woods and, who knows?—we might see Aslan himself!”

No mention of whether the Aslan name gives Shasta shivers? Lewis, I am disappoint.

Anyway, I don't really think this is written terribly well, but on the other hand "As You Know, Bob" is a valuable literary tradition that I won't blast too much. Sometimes the audience just has to hear things and we extend our disbelief a little to human conversations. (Like how we take out filler words in written conversation, for the most part.) So As You Know, Corin, you're gonna be a tilty jousty knight soon. This is sort of (inadvertently?) tragic because I like to think Shasta still hates riding and will always hate riding and you just KNOW they're going to insist that he learn all this because jousting is, like, 60% of good kinging.

It's actually kind of a shame that Tumnus doesn't get into things I actually wonder about, like how Archenland nobility even works. Like, apparently Shasta can just up and marry Aravis later, which is... usually not how these things work. She's foreign-born (this is complicated, but the short version is that not every time period nor location approved of that in a royal wife, with England in particular at various points being suuuuper xenophobic in this regard), and she's not well-connected unless she and her parents patch things up. (Which, if her dad had any SENSE, he would. And if the Tisroc had any sense, he would make him patch up even if he didn't want to. You don't snub your daughter the Queen of Your Neighboring Country, even if it is a tiny one.)

But back to Tumnus, we're planning joust training but not meeting marriageable candidates? Lewis' view of rulership really does seem to be all play and no real work. Oh, I mean, Lune can swan in later with his speech about being the hungriest and sleepiest and most miserable or whatever, but they don't LIVE that in Narnia so it's just so much words--much like Puddleglum's famous speech. Which reminds me, here is a nice song that is better than anything Lune can say.

   When the meal was over the Faun told Shasta to stay quietly where he was. “And it wouldn’t do you any harm to have a little sleep,” he added. “I’ll call you in plenty of time to get on board. And then, Home. Narnia and the North!”
   Shasta had so enjoyed his dinner and all the things Tumnus had been telling him that when he was left alone his thoughts took a different turn. He only hoped now that the real Prince Corin would not turn up until it was too late and that he would be taken away to Narnia by ship. I am afraid he did not think at all of what might happen to the real Corin when he was left behind in Tashbaan. He was a little worried about Aravis and Bree waiting for him at the Tombs. But then he said to himself, “Well, how can I help it?” and, “Anyway, that Aravis thinks she’s too good to go about with me, so she can jolly well go alone,” and at the same time he couldn’t help feeling that it would be much nicer going to Narnia by sea than toiling across the desert.
   When he had thought all this he did what I expect you would have done if you had been up very early and had a long walk and a great deal of excitement and then a very good meal, and were lying on a sofa in a cool room with no noise in it except when a bee came buzzing in through the wide open windows. He fell asleep.

I... what?

Wait, so did Shasta forget that he thinks these Narnians will kill him and/or sell him into slavery when they learn his secret? Does he really think he can just bluff his way into a family he's never met and into being a prince he has no training in? Is... is that really the plan here? Does Lewis understand that this makes Shasta seem less like thirteen years old and more like... five? Tops?

It also reduces him to a purely reactive force, which renders his "choice" made above pretty unempowered. Lewis literally has him going into a deeper idle than his previous idle (which was already pretty deep!) until Corin finds him. This is the least active I think I've ever seen a protagonist. And I want to stress again: I have written stuff like this! I venture that most writers have! But then you go back and edit it because it's BORING to have a protagonist being shuffled around on a hand-cart without any agency.

Except Lewis didn't rewrite because he was churning these out one a year along with all his other writings. And that's fine too, you do you, but my problem here is that marginalized writers get flack for EVERYTHING, like I have seen epic fights about Katniss being a "passive" heroine because, sure, she chose to go into the Hunger Games, but she didn't choose for the Hunger Games to EXIST, so how much agency does she have really (WHAT), but no one says boo to a male author because the standards are different.

If you take nothing else away from anything I've ever written, take this: Hold white male authors to the same standard you hold everyone else. (Or vice versa, hold all authors to the standard you use for white men.)

   What woke him was a loud crash. He jumped up off the sofa, staring. He saw at once from the mere look of the room—the lights and shadows all looked different—that he must have slept for several hours. He saw also what had made the crash: a costly porcelain vase which had been standing on the windowsill lay on the floor broken into about thirty pieces. But he hardly noticed all these things. What he did notice was two hands gripping the windowsill from outside. They gripped harder and harder (getting white at the knuckles) and then up came a head and a pair of shoulders. A moment later there was a boy of Shasta’s own age sitting astride the sill with one leg hanging down inside the room.
   Shasta had never seen his own face in a looking-glass. Even if he had, he might not have realized that the other boy was (at ordinary times) almost exactly like himself. At the moment this boy was not particularly like anyone for he had the finest black eye you ever saw, and a tooth missing, and his clothes (which must have been splendid ones when he put them on) were torn and dirty, and there was both blood and mud on his face.
   “Who are you?” said the boy in a whisper.
   “Are you Prince Corin?” said Shasta.
   “Yes, of course,” said the other. “But who are you?”
   “I’m nobody, nobody in particular, I mean,” said Shasta. “King Edmund caught me in the street and mistook me for you. I suppose we must look like one another. Can I get out the way you’ve got in?”
   “Yes, if you’re any good at climbing,” said Corin. “But why are you in such a hurry? I say: we ought to be able to get some fun out of this being mistaken for one another.”

Meet Corin. I have nothing interesting to say about him because I have always, ALWAYS, found him perfectly boring.

   “No, no,” said Shasta. “We must change places at once. It’ll be simply frightful if Mr. Tumnus comes back and finds us both here. I’ve had to pretend to be you. And you’re starting tonight—secretly. And where were you all this time?”
   “A boy in the street made a beastly joke about Queen Susan,” said Prince Corin, “so I knocked him down. He ran howling into a house and his big brother came out. So I knocked the big brother down. Then they all followed me until we ran into three old men with spears who are called the Watch. So I fought the Watch and they knocked me down. It was getting dark by now. Then the Watch took me along to lock me up somewhere. So I asked them if they’d like a stoup of wine and they said they didn’t mind if they did. Then I took them to a wine shop and got them some and they all sat down and drank till they fell asleep. I thought it was time for me to be off so I came out quietly and then I found the first boy—the one who had started all the trouble—still hanging about. So I knocked him down again. After that I climbed up a pipe onto the roof of a house and lay quiet till it began to get light this morning. Ever since that I’ve been finding my way back. I say, is there anything to drink?”

This is really the best summary of Lewis' chivalry: beating up people, regardless of how much it harms the women you're supposedly defending. (I remind you all that Susan has been frantic and in tears at his absence.) Also, I guess, white people outsmarting brown people, who are all prone to indulgence and drink. I don't even.

   “No, I drank it,” said Shasta. “And now, show me how you got in. There’s not a minute to lose. You’d better lie down on the sofa and pretend—but I forgot. It’ll be no good with all those bruises and black eye. You’ll just have to tell them the truth, once I’m safely away.”
   “What else did you think I’d be telling them?” asked the Prince with a rather angry look. “And who are you?”
   “There’s no time,” said Shasta in a frantic whisper. “I’m a Narnian, I believe; something Northern anyway. But I’ve been brought up all my life in Calormen. And I’m escaping: across the desert; with a talking Horse called Bree. And now, quick! How do I get away?”

Here is the point where I feel like one of those Free Noble people would ask a few more questions, maybe offer some help. Corin has time to be angry about the implied slur on his character that he wouldn't tell Aslan's Honest Truth, but he doesn't have time to offer an "I say, I feel like maybe we could help you out on a safer route than a desert?" I can only conclude that Corin is either not free or not noble, or that those stereotypes are full of shit and only deployed when Lewis remembers them.

   “Thanks,” said Shasta, who was already sitting on the sill. The two boys were looking into each other’s faces and suddenly found that they were friends.
   “Good-bye,” said Corin. “And good luck. I do hope you get safe away.”
   “Good-bye,” said Shasta. “I say, you have been having some adventures.”
   “Nothing to yours,” said the Prince. “Now drop; lightly—I say,” he added as Shasta dropped. “I hope we meet in Archenland. Go to my father King Lune and tell him you’re a friend of mine. Look out! I hear someone coming.”

I... I honestly think Shasta is nicer here to Corin than he is to Aravis in the entire book. But thus ends Chapter 5! We made it!


Post a Comment