Narnia: Passing Time

[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence]

Narnia Recap: Shasta has run away from the Narnians.

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

The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 6: Shasta Among the Tombs

Haha, did you think we were going to see Aravis any time soon? I DID TOO, but we were wrong. It would seem that Lewis has a really hard time being crowbarred out from the white male point of view character he's imprinted on.

Okay, I will freely admit I am starting out snarky here. It is a valid writing choice to follow Shasta's path out all the way to the "dead-end" and then backtrack to take up Aravis' path. It's not a writing path I would use here, and it reminds me personally too much of video game mechanics where split-the-party mechanics end with everyone hanging out in a big waiting room, but it's a valid choice. However, I went to sleep last night thinking "well, at least I get to write about Aravis in the morning" and that isn't panning out, so y'all get snark.

  SHASTA RAN LIGHTLY ALONG THE ROOF on tiptoes. It felt hot to his bare feet. He was only a few seconds scrambling up the wall at the far end and when he got to the corner he found himself looking down into a narrow, smelly street, and there was a rubbish heap against the outside of the wall just as Corin had told him. Before jumping down he took a rapid glance round him to get his bearings. Apparently he had now come over the crown of the island-hill on which Tashbaan is built. Everything sloped away before him, flat roofs below flat roofs, down to the towers and battlements of the city’s Northern wall. Beyond that was the river and beyond the river a short slope covered with gardens. But beyond that again there was something he had never seen the like of—a great yellowish-gray thing, flat as a calm sea, and stretching for miles. On the far side of it were huge blue things, lumpy but with jagged edges, and some of them with white tops. “The desert! the mountains!” thought Shasta.

I said waaaaay back in a previous chapter that there are glimpses and pieces where I feel Shasta was channeling an earlier ideal of a City Street Rat. I don't know if there was an earlier draft (seems unlikely) or if Lewis got the idea from 1,001 Nights (along with much of the rest of the aesthetic) or if it's only there for me, but there's these glimpses of a Shasta that isn't our Shasta. He's good at stealing, and good at not being caught. Now he's running over roofs like a pro despite never before having left the ground.

He's also getting his bearing pretty quickly, given that this place really ought to feel impossibly big to him. I mean, he's lived his entire life among rural villages of maybe a few hundred people but now he's capable of taking in at a glance where he is and how to get to the meeting-point they've already agreed upon. I'm impressed, and I don't know whether to chalk this up to spotty characterization (Shasta is what the narrative needs him to be), racist characterization (Shasta is the best because he's white), or my pet theory that this is a glimpse of an older, earlier, more competent and morally-gray Shasta who was a proper "city pauper" in contrast to Corin's princeliness.

Though I suppose that breaks down a bit, too, since Corin the prince is equally capable or even more so, what with his highly implausible escapades in the previous chapter. So maybe Lewis really just can't conceive of a white boy who isn't the best at everything. (Unless he's named "Eustace", obviously.)

  He jumped down onto the rubbish and began trotting along downhill as fast as he could in the narrow lane, which soon brought him into a wider street where there were more people. No one bothered to look at a little ragged boy running along on bare feet. Still, he was anxious and uneasy till he turned a corner and there saw the city gate in front of him. Here he was pressed and jostled a bit, for a good many other people were also going out; and on the bridge beyond the gate the crowd became quite a slow procession, more like a queue than a crowd. Out there, with clear running water on each side, it was deliciously fresh after the smell and heat and noise of Tashbaan.

I'm kind of disappointed with the Tashbaan guards. For one, apparently none of them recognize that the very visually-distinct visiting Prince of Archenland. The ones chasing Corin didn't recognize him, the ones at the entrance gate this morning didn't recognize Shasta, and these here at the exit don't recognize him either. And now I guess we have to pause and dive into the world-building, because we have a problem and that problem is: Is Shasta the only white person in Calormen?

In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, white people were being sent to Calormen as slaves at an alarming pace, but here we have to remember that was ~1,300 years after the Pevensies' reign. In the time of the Pevensies, there are exactly four humans in Narnia and an unspecified amount of humans in Archenland because Lewis didn't want to have a majority non-human cast for this book.

(Though of course when we remember that Narnia should have exactly four humans in it, much of this book becomes incomprehensible: why does Bree think that Shasta is Narnian when there are no Narnian humans save the four rulers? It seems infinitely more likely that Shasta is a pale Calormen or maybe an Archenlander than a Narnian.)

It would seem that Shasta may be the only white person in Calormen simply on the grounds of availability. Narnia has no humans to export and Archenland seems fairly small in comparison to Calormen. There might be a small number of white slaves in the country, but they don't seem to exist in the narrative in any way--Shasta doesn't run into them or remark on them. And most slave populations aren't self-replicating, particularly not when the slaves are a tiny minority in the country. So even if the Calormen have some existing slaves and maybe even get an occasional fresh influx from Archenland skirmishes, there probably aren't enough white people in the country for someone like Shasta to seem commonplace or unremarkable.

Sooooo... why does no one remark on it? Why do the villagers of Shasta's youth find it perfectly normal that his "father" has a white foundling? (Surely the fisherman could have proactively sold Shasta long ago as a curiosity to a nobleman? Children are expensive to feed and their labor potential does not outpace that expense early on!) Why do the villagers where Shasta buys clothes and food on his journey not find his presence odd enough to remember and remark upon? (We here recall that there is supposedly a nobleman actively chasing Shasta because he stole a very expensive war-horse.) Why do the Tashbaan guards not recognize the Prince of Archnland outright or at least suspect that this white servant should be detained, questioned, and taken to either the Tisroc or his white guests?

Instead, not only are they entirely incurious about this strange boy, they're willing to let an underage kid stroll out the exit into the desert. There is nothing waiting for him out there except death, so their willingness to let him pass without question is particularly glaring here. Even if life is cheap in Tashbaan and the life of a child is nothing much to remark upon, I should think Shasta's owners might feel the loss if their slaves started wandering into the desert to die whenever they felt like it. (Why are the guards even here? There's nothing in the desert. No one is likely to attack from that side. If they aren't there to collect tolls or taxes, nor there to stop the unwary or confused, why are they there?)

Of course, we know why they are there and incurious: in-universe, they serve as a minor obstacle to wave at the reader (I would argue somewhat ineptly since they are easily passed and nothing ever comes of the suspense-building, but) and from a world-building perspective they are lazy and wasteful because Tashbaan is a lazy and wasteful place, built on decadence and luxury, where guards are everywhere (violence! military state!) but ineffective and easily bribed or tricked because they are not made of sterner (whiter) stuff and their discipline is lacking, yada yada. So my "why" questions are less of an invitation to an answer and more of an exhortation for the author to think about what they seek to convey, and why, and whether they should.

Anyway, there's a desert.

  It was like coming to the end of the world for all the grass stopped quite suddenly a few feet before him and the sand began: endless level sand like on a sea shore but a bit rougher because it was never wet. The mountains, which now looked further off than before, loomed ahead. Greatly to his relief he saw, about five minutes’ walk away on his left, what must certainly be the Tombs, just as Bree had described them; great masses of mouldering stone shaped like gigantic beehives, but a little narrower. They looked very black and grim, for the sun was now setting right behind them.
  He turned his face West and trotted toward the Tombs. He could not help looking out very hard for any sign of his friends, though the setting sun shone in his face so that he could see hardly anything. “And anyway,” he thought, “of course they’ll be round on the far side of the farthest Tomb, not this side where anyone might see them from the city.”
  There were about twelve Tombs, each with a low arched doorway that opened into absolute blackness. They were dotted about in no kind of order, so that it took a long time, going round this one and going round that one, before you could be sure you had looked round every side of every tomb. This was what Shasta had to do. There was nobody there.

These are laid out so specifically in the text that I assume Lewis was working off of a picture of something, but I don't care and don't plan to dwell on it. On a personal level, I am unapologetically vexed that we get scenery detail of Tashbaan and the surrounding rivers and the mountains and the desert sand and the tombs, but we can't get anything like character consistency from Shasta or even a clear mental picture of Aravis.

  It was very quiet here out on the edge of the desert; and now the sun had really set.
  Suddenly from somewhere behind him there came a terrible sound. Shasta’s heart gave a great jump and he had to bite his tongue to keep himself from screaming. Next moment he realized what it was: the horns of Tashbaan blowing for the closing of the gates. “Don’t be a silly little coward,” said Shasta to himself. “Why, it’s only the same noise you heard this morning.” But there is a great difference between a noise heard letting you in with your friends in the morning, and a noise heard alone at nightfall, shutting you out. And now that the gates were shut he knew there was no chance of the others joining him that evening. “Either they’re shut up in Tashbaan for the night,” thought Shasta, “or else they’ve gone on without me. It’s just the sort of thing that Aravis would do. But Bree wouldn’t. Oh, he wouldn’t—now, would he?”
  In this idea about Aravis Shasta was once more quite wrong. She was proud and could be hard enough but she was as true as steel and would never have deserted a companion, whether she liked him or not.

There are a few mentions of Hwin in this chapter--we haven't hit them yet--but it's very strange that Shasta continues to ignore her existence. Was she a late edition to the novel? Does she just keep getting written off because she's an Animal and a female and therefore the least interesting or important person in the friendly foursome? Anyway, uhhh, points for sticking up for Aravis, I guess, but this all just feels so clumsy. If we don't already know that Aravis is true as steel and if Shasta can't already tell, having the narrative assert it seems awkward.

  Now that Shasta knew he would have to spend the night alone (it was getting darker every minute) he began to like the look of the place less and less. There was something very uncomfortable about those great, silent shapes of stone. He had been trying his hardest for a long time not to think of ghouls: but he couldn’t keep it up any longer.
  “Ow! Ow! Help!” he shouted suddenly, for at that very moment he felt something touch his leg. I don’t think anyone can be blamed for shouting if something comes up from behind and touches him; not in such a place and at such a time, when he is frightened already. Shasta at any rate was too frightened to run. Anything would be better than being chased round and round the burial place of the Ancient Kings with something he dared not look at behind him. Instead, he did what was really the most sensible thing he could do. He looked round; and his heart almost burst with relief. What had touched him was only a cat.
  The light was too bad now for Shasta to see much of the cat except that it was big and very solemn. It looked as if it might have lived for long, long years among the Tombs, alone. Its eyes made you think it knew secrets it would not tell.
  “Puss, puss,” said Shasta. “I suppose you’re not a talking cat.”

SPOILER: it's totally Aslan.

You guys. You guys, this is the most boring chapter in the whole world. I'm just going to summarize this because it's awful and boring and nothing happens and how was this chapter not cut because it is so boring. I can only assume it's meant to be some kind of parallel to, iunno, Jesus keeping vigil or something except there's literally nothing at stake here except "wait until Aravis shows up" so it's just killing time.

Shasta follows the cat and lies down on the sand next to it.

  The cat stared at him harder than ever. Then it started walking away, and of course Shasta followed it. It led him right through the tombs and out on the desert side of them. There it sat down bolt upright with its tail curled round its feet and its face set toward the desert and toward Narnia and the North, as still as if it were watching for some enemy. Shasta lay down beside it with his back against the cat and his face toward the Tombs, because if one is nervous there’s nothing like having your face toward the danger and having something warm and solid at your back. The sand wouldn’t have seemed very comfortable to you, but Shasta had been sleeping on the ground for weeks and hardly noticed it. Very soon he fell asleep, though even in his dreams he went on wondering what had happened to Bree and Aravis and Hwin.

He wakes up to a scream. Oh no, jackals.

  He was wakened suddenly by a noise he had never heard before. “Perhaps it was only a nightmare,” said Shasta to himself. At the same moment he noticed that the cat had gone from his back, and he wished it hadn’t. But he lay quite still without even opening his eyes because he felt sure he would be more frightened if he sat up and looked round at the Tombs and the loneliness: just as you or I might lie still with bedclothes over our heads. But then the noise came again—a harsh, piercing cry from behind him out of the desert. Then of course he had to open his eyes and sit up. [...]
  “I hope it’s not more lions,” thought Shasta. It was in fact not very like the lion’s roars he had heard on the night when they met Hwin and Aravis, and was really the cry of a jackal. But of course Shasta did not know this. Even if he had known, he would not have wanted very much to meet a jackal.

He does nothing but in, like, a charaterized way.

  I suppose that if he had been an entirely sensible boy he would have gone back through the Tombs nearer to the river where there were houses, and wild beasts would be less likely to come. But then there were (or he thought there were) the ghouls. To go back through the Tombs would mean going past those dark openings in the Tombs; and what might come out of them? It may have been silly, but Shasta felt he had rather risk the wild beasts. Then, as the cries came nearer and nearer, he began to change his mind.

Gosh, something will need to happen soon! 

  He was just going to run for it when suddenly, between him and the desert, a huge animal bounded into view. As the moon was behind it, it looked quite black, and Shasta did not know what it was, except that it had a very big, shaggy head and went on four legs. It did not seem to have noticed Shasta, for it suddenly stopped, turned its head toward the desert, and let out a roar which re-echoed through the Tombs and seemed to shake the sand under Shasta’s feet. The cries of the other creatures suddenly stopped and he thought he could hear feet scampering away. Then the great beast turned to examine Shasta.
  “It’s a lion, I know it’s a lion,” thought Shasta. “I’m done. I wonder will it hurt much. I wish it was over. I wonder does anything happen to people after they’re dead. O-o-oh! Here it comes!” And he shut his eyes and teeth tight.
  But instead of teeth and claws he only felt something warm lying down at his feet. And when he opened his eyes he said, “Why, it’s not nearly as big as I thought! It’s only half the size. No, it isn’t even quarter the size. I do declare it’s only the cat!! I must have dreamed all that about its being as big as a horse.”
  And whether he really had been dreaming or not, what was now lying at his feet, and staring him out of countenance with its big, green, unwinking eyes, was the cat; though certainly one of the largest cats he had ever seen.

something something footprints in the sand poem.

  “Oh, Puss,” gasped Shasta. “I am so glad to see you again. I’ve been having such horrible dreams.” And he at once lay down again, back to back with the cat as they had been at the beginning of the night. The warmth from it spread all over him.
  “I’ll never do anything nasty to a cat again as long as I live,” said Shasta, half to the cat and half to himself. “I did once, you know. I threw stones at a half-starved mangy old stray. Hey! Stop that.” For the cat had turned round and given him a scratch. “None of that,” said Shasta. “It isn’t as if you could understand what I’m saying.” Then he dozed off.

Anyway, he wakes up and the city is noisy behind him and he sees the Mount Pire that the raven said to head towards and he makes a mark in the sand. (I guess the mountain might not be there later? I don't know, you guys.)

  The next job, clearly, was to get something to eat and drink. Shasta trotted back through the Tombs—they looked quite ordinary now and he wondered how he could ever have been afraid of them—and down into the cultivated land by the river’s side. There were a few people about but not very many, for the city gates had been open several hours and the early morning crowds had already gone in. So he had no difficulty in doing a little “raiding” (as Bree called it). It involved a climb over a garden wall and the results were three oranges, a melon, a fig or two, and a pomegranate. After that, he went down to the river bank, but not too near the bridge, and had a drink. The water was so nice that he took off his hot, dirty clothes and had a dip; for of course Shasta, having lived on the shore all his life, had learned to swim almost as soon as he had learned to walk. When he came out he lay on the grass looking across the water at Tashbaan—all the splendor and strength and glory of it. But that made him remember the dangers of it too. He suddenly realized that the others might have reached the Tombs while he was bathing (“and gone on without me, as likely as not”), so he dressed in a fright and tore back at such speed that he was all hot and thirsty when he arrived and so the good of his bathe was gone.

I mean, okay, but it's hard to keep up the travelogue porn of how hard all this is on a body et cetera when there's a bath and breakfast ten feet away and apparently not a soul in the world to stop you.

  Like most days when you are alone and waiting for something this day seemed about a hundred hours long. He had plenty to think of, of course, but sitting alone, just thinking, is pretty slow. He thought a good deal about the Narnians and especially about Corin. He wondered what had happened when they discovered the boy who had been lying on the sofa and hearing all their secret plans wasn’t really Corin at all. It was very unpleasant to think of all those nice people imagining him a traitor.
  But as the sun slowly, slowly climbed up to the top of the sky and then slowly, slowly began going downward to the West, and no one came and nothing at all happened, he began to get more and more anxious. And of course he now realized that when they arranged to wait for one another at the Tombs no one had said anything about How Long. He couldn’t wait here for the rest of his life! And soon it would be dark again, and he would have another night just like last night. A dozen different plans went through his head, all wretched ones, and at last he fixed on the worst plan of all. He decided to wait till it was dark and then go back to the river and steal as many melons as he could carry and set out for Mount Pire alone, trusting for his direction to the line he had drawn that morning in the sand. It was a crazy idea and if he had read as many books as you have about journeys over deserts he would never have dreamed it. But Shasta had read no books at all.
  Before the sun set something did happen. Shasta was sitting in the shadow of one of the Tombs when he looked up and saw two horses coming toward him. Then his heart gave a great leap, for he recognized them as Bree and Hwin. But the next moment his heart went down into his toes again. There was no sign of Aravis. The Horses were being led by a strange man, an armed man pretty handsomely dressed like an upper slave in a great family. Bree and Hwin were no longer got up like pack-horses, but saddled and bridled. And what could it all mean? “It’s a trap,” thought Shasta. “Somebody has caught Aravis and perhaps they’ve tortured her and she’s given the whole thing away. They want me to jump out and run up and speak to Bree, and then I’ll be caught too! And yet if I don’t, I may be losing my only chance to meet the others. Oh I do wish I knew what had happened.” And he skulked behind the Tomb, looking out every few minutes, and wondering which was the least dangerous thing to do.

SPOILER: it's totally not Aravis, even though it really ought to have been.

Oh my god, that's how the chapter ends and honestly this shouldn't have been a chapter at all. We had a whole chapter with the Narnians that then split in the middle of a conversation and then split again when Shasta left. All he had to do was get to the tombs and wait.

I get that Lewis wanted to put in all this theologies with Jesus watching over Shasta while he slept, but it doesn't add anything to the narrative tension (Shasta literally does nothing and watches a lion save him) and frankly it introduces a whole mess of whut-fruit to the world-building because if Aslan will save the Prince of Archenland from jackals, why does he never personally interfere to save anyone else? Including and especially his own believers who are presumably calling upon him to save them?

Anyway, that chapter is over and it was garbage and not like the Millennium Falcon is "garbage" but we're all happy to see it anyway but rather like actual garbage. Next chapter will have Aravis in it. Probably.


Post a Comment