Repost: Moral Event Horizons

[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: Edmund has slipped out of the Beavers house and is heading for the Witch's home.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 9: In The Witch's House

   AND NOW OF COURSE YOU WANT TO know what had happened to Edmund. He had eaten his share of the dinner, but he hadn't really enjoyed it because he was thinking all the time about Turkish Delight -- and there's nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magic food. And he had heard the conversation, and hadn't enjoyed it much either, because he kept on thinking that the others were taking no notice of him and trying to give him the cold shoulder. They weren't, but he imagined it.

Regular readers of this deconstruction will possibly recollect that I have an unexpected soft spot in my heart for young Edmund, so in this chapter, it probably won't be too surprising to see me take an issue here or there with the narrative. What I wasn't quite expecting was how soon into the chapter this would occur.

Edmund and his siblings, you will recall, have quarreled rather badly just a few hours before. Edmund let slip that he had, in fact, been to Narnia and then lied about it and Peter responded very angrily to his brother's accidental revelation. And this is unfortunate because if anyone had stopped to ask Edmund why he lied about his visit and what, precisely, occurred during his visit, it may have come out that he met the White Witch and that he has established sympathies with her. And then, knowing that, the Beavers might have been able to have a more open dialogue with the children about why the queen is bad for Narnia instead of spouting racist statements about the ruling legitimacy of non-humans in a country entirely populated by non-humans and whose relatively-recently-deceased royal line was composed almost entirely of non-humans.

So now we have the curious situation where Edmund and his siblings have been cross with one another, and suddenly Edmund drops entirely from the narrative so that there can be a quick mystery of when, precisely, he left. The practical upshot of this, though, is that (a) the children and the Beavers (who claim to have known Edmund to be magicked up) have not involved Edmund in the dinner preparations or the dinner conversation, and (b) so little attention was being paid to Edmund that he was able to get up from the table, open the door out onto a blustery winter night, and step out into the snow without anyone so much as blinking an eye.

I will therefore have to beg to differ when the narrator claims that the others weren't giving Edmund the cold shoulder.

Now let's do something utterly wild and look at this scene from Edmund's point of view. The children are in a magical land that is in a state of civil war. The disputed ruling power has approached Edmund with apparent friendship, and has additionally plied him with magical food (the effect of which is so powerful that supposedly it changes the aspect of one's face and bearing such that other Narnians can recognize those who have been magicked up). Rather than parlaying with this ruling power, the other children have thrown their lot in with a family of beavers who spout racist remarks and conspiracy theories about the queen maybe turning people to stone, and claim that a lion no one has seen for a hundred years is going to magically turn up and make everything better if only they all get out in the snow and walk several miles to some table in the middle of nowhere, just as soon as they finish the marmalade roll.

   And then he had listened until Mr. Beaver told them about Aslan and until he had heard the whole arrangement for meeting Aslan at the Stone Table. It was then that he began very quietly to edge himself under the curtain which hung over the door. For the mention of Aslan gave him a mysterious and horrible feeling just as it gave the others a mysterious and lovely feeling.

Also, the lion's name makes Edmund feel profoundly uncomfortable for mysterious (i.e., not because he totally knows he's totally doing something totally wrong?) reasons. So I have to think that at least some of Edmund's actions here are somewhat internally consistent and understandable from his point of view. And now we come to a part I actually like:

   You mustn't think that even now Edmund was quite so bad that he actually wanted his brother and sisters to be turned into stone. He did want Turkish Delight and to be a Prince (and later a King) and to pay Peter out for calling him a beast.

This seems like a very reasonable and sympathetic description of Edmund. He's not a bad boy, he's a boy who is frustrated and annoyed with his siblings, and he'd very much like some candy and to be fussed over a little by the Queen who has promised to make him her heir, and plus it would be nice to not be the "little" brother anymore. And quite probably he needs a nap, too -- I can sympathize. This isn't Edmund the Villain; this is Edmund the Tricked, Edmund the Bamboozled, Edmund the Slightly-More-Selfish-Than-One-Might-Hope-But-He's-Had-A-Rough-Year-What-With-The-War-And-All. I can get behind that. But then --

  As for what the Witch would do with the others, he didn't want her to be particularly nice to them -- certainly not to put them on the same level as himself; but he managed to believe, or to pretend he believed, that she wouldn't do anything very bad to them, "Because," he said to himself, "all these people who say nasty things about her are her enemies and probably half of it isn't true. She was jolly nice to me, anyway, much nicer than they are. I expect she is the rightful Queen really. Anyway, she'll be better than that awful Aslan!" At least, that was the excuse he made in his own mind for what he was doing. It wasn't a very good excuse, however, for deep down inside him he really knew that the White Witch was bad and cruel.

-- we're told that, no, Edmund isn't sympathetic at all because deep down inside he knows the Witch is cruel, and he's bad for going to her, and anything he says to the contrary is self-delusional. No, not even that, because he's only pretending to believe the Queen will be kind to his siblings. He's 100% committed to evil, he's just not honest about it. Great.

The problem is, this doesn't work. If Edmund really knows that the White Witch is evil and is going to turn his siblings to stone (or worse), he has to realize that he isn't going to fare much better. And if he knows that, then the only reason for him to walk out into the cold winter night and walk determinedly to her house is if he has a death wish or is so stubborn and unwilling to make up with his siblings that he's willing to die over his stubbornness. And if this is the case, then Edmund really does seem to be the Strawman Sinner: the one who knows that God exists and Christianity is right and he's going to hell for eternity if he doesn't submit, but by god he's too stubborn to submit himself to Jesus.

Does Lewis mean for us to make this connection? I honestly don't know -- and I honestly don't care. I don't mean that I "don't care" in a flippant way; I mean that I'm not here to judge C.S. Lewis as a person or determine what his private thoughts or theology was. I'm here to criticize the writing, not the writer, whether C.S. Lewis wrote LWW, or if it was written by Weird Al Yankovic as part of a complicated literary scheme involving time travel. So I hope it's clear that I'm not trying to say anything about Lewis as a person or his personal theology when I say that that this reads to me like a very particular way of thinking: the thinking that there are no genuinely mistaken people, only villains who deserve whatever bad happens to them.

A major problem with LWW, is that it is essential to the Narnia allegory that Edmund be a villain. Edmund needs to be a villain, because otherwise Aslan's sacrifice will be meaningless. If Edmund is genuinely mistaken, but is sentenced to death anyway by the Old Magic of The Emperor, then Aslan's sacrifice isn't one of the innocent dying for the guilty, but rather that of the innocent dying for another innocent. In which case, if our story has a villain, it's the unseen Emperor who created a law that would catch up in its wide nets a genuinely mistaken nine-year-old boy. If Lewis started LWW with the crucifixion in mind, then he started with the requirement that Edmund must be tried as an adult and sentenced to death for treason. In which case, he simply can't characterize Edmund as anything less than a villain, because otherwise God comes off looking bad. He can let Edmund be a little sympathetic -- even nice children can be sinners -- but at the end of the day, Edmund has to know what he's doing is wrong, or else there's no justice here.

Does the fact that Edmund is fated by the narrative to be a villain mean he's less of a villain? Not necessarily, of course. But for Edmund to be a villain worthy of death -- a Voldemort, or a Bellatrix, or a Sauron -- he needs to meet a bar that he's not quite meeting yet. TV Tropes calls this the Moral Event Horizon... and I think the author recognizes that, because we're about to get one.

But there's another interesting factor going on here that I can't quite explain. For the rest of the book, excepting a brief interlude at the end when the children are shown as adults, Edmund will suffer almost without pause. Edmund will suffer intense cold on the way to the Witch's house, he'll suffer magical hunger when he gets there, he'll suffer emotionally and physically on the subsequent ride to the Stone Table, he'll be nearly murdered by the Witch before being saved by Aslan, and he'll very nearly die in the final battle with the Witch, only saved from the brink of death at the last moment by a powerful healing elixir.

For all the sins Edmund is apparently committing in allying himself with the Witch, he won't have even a single moment of enjoyment from it: the only "good" thing he receives in the book will be the magicked food and drink he's already consumed. What shall we call this phenomena? (I'm tempted to call it The Passion of Edmund Pevensie, but that has so many problematic connotations.) I realize there's supposed to be a parallel here -- that the wages of sin are death, so to speak -- but it seems a shame to present the "evil" way as the difficult way. Isn't the road to hell supposed to be a primrose path more often than not?

   He kept slipping into deep drifts of snow, and skidding on frozen puddles, and tripping over fallen tree-trunks, and sliding down steep banks, and barking his shins against rocks, till he was wet and cold and bruised all over. The silence and the loneliness were dreadful. In fact I really think he might have given up the whole plan and gone back and owned up and made friends with the others, if he hadn't happened to say to himself, "When I'm King of Narnia the first thing I shall do will be to make some decent roads." And of course that set him off thinking about being a King and all the other things he would do and this cheered him up a good deal.

I'd like to interrupt my ramblings to say that despite the children being assured by the Beavers that they are the destined rulers of Narnia, it's interesting that Edmund seems to be the first and only one to take the prospect seriously.

This is, perhaps, meant to be a sign of his greed and ambition, but all I can think as an adult is that some decent roads might improve Narnia greatly. Not tar roads, of course, but some nice dirt or stone roads to encourage communication and trade throughout the country would probably be very useful for the next batch of rulers and additionally might stop Narnia from being taken over by hostile forces every couple of centuries. It just seems a very strange viewpoint that the best way to run a country is to keep it in a provincial state where everyone has to navigate by the sun and vague landmarks.

Then again, maybe having races of intelligent birds flying around the country makes it easier to send messages and roads are therefore unnecessary, I don't know.

   Edmund crept up to the arch and looked inside into the courtyard, and there he saw a sight that nearly made his heart stop beating. Just inside the gate, with the moonlight shining on it, stood an enormous lion crouched as if it was ready to spring. [...] He stood there so long that his teeth would have been chattering with cold even if they had not been chattering with fear. How long this really lasted I don't know, but it seemed to Edmund to last for hours. [...]   And now at last Edmund remembered what the others had said about the White Witch turning people into stone. Perhaps this was only a stone lion. [...]
   The relief which Edmund felt was so great that in spite of the cold he suddenly got warm all over right down to his toes, and at the same time there came into his head what seemed a perfectly lovely idea. "Probably," he thought, "this is the great Lion Aslan that they were all talking about. She's caught him already and turned him into stone. So that's the end of all their fine ideas about him! Pooh! Who's afraid of Aslan?"
   And he stood there gloating over the stone lion, and presently he did something very silly and childish. He took a stump of lead pencil out of his pocket and scribbled a moustache on the lion's upper lip and then a pair of spectacles on its eyes. Then he said, "Yah! Silly old Aslan! How do you like being a stone? You thought yourself mighty fine, didn't you?" But in spite of the scribbles on it the face of the great stone beast still looked so terrible, and sad, and noble, staring up in the moonlight, that Edmund didn't really get any fun out of jeering at it.

And there's your Moral Event Horizon.

As Moral Event Horizons go, it's a surprisingly effective one. Edmund hasn't killed anyone or even really kicked any puppies -- in fact, his action here causes no harm to anyone whatsoever. And yet the whole scene is viscerally awful, to the point where I'll wager that the "drawing on the lion" scene is what people remember most about Edmund, after the Turkish Delight. It struck a chord especially with me as a child; there's something about the sadness of the stone statues and the utter helplessness of the lion that makes Edmund's actions seem particularly mean-spirited. Edmund knows that these stone statues are people that the Witch has turned into stone, and yet instead of feeling pity, he only feels mockery and unease.

I'm not going to excuse Edmund for this, because I can't. But I do think it's interesting that Edmund's acting out against the stone statues is limited to this one Aslan-like lion. Is this intended simply to link the narrative together, or is there a deeper reason why Edmund didn't face down and draw on a wolf or a boar or in fact anything else? Edmund seems to regard the other statues with solemnity, and even outright pity, based on the narrative tone: 

   He found himself in a long gloomy hall with many pillars, full, as the courtyard had been, of statues. The one nearest the door was a little faun with a very sad expression on its face, and Edmund couldn't help wondering if this might be Lucy's friend.

I don't sense any jeering or mockery in Edmund's behavior at this point, but perhaps it's just because the moral has been made and it's time to move on with the story now. Has the solemnity of the situation imposed itself finally on Edmund? Is he worried about his future safety?

   "If you please, sir," said Edmund, trembling so that he could hardly speak, "my name is Edmund, and I'm the Son of Adam that Her Majesty met in the wood the other day and I've come to bring her the news that my brother and sisters are now in Narnia -- quite close, in the Beavers' house. She -- she wanted to see them." [...]
   Edmund stood and waited, his fingers aching with cold and his heart pounding in his chest, and presently the gray wolf, Maugrim, the Chief of the Witch's Secret Police, came bounding back and said, "Come in! Come in! Fortunate favorite of the Queen -- or else not so fortunate." [...]
   "I'm come, your Majesty," said Edmund, rushing eagerly forward.
   "How dare you come alone?" said the Witch in a terrible voice. "Did I not tell you to bring the others with you?"
   "Please, your Majesty," said Edmund, "I've done the best I can. I've brought them quite close. They're in the little house on top of the dam just up the river -- with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver." [...] "No, your Majesty," said Edmund, and proceeded to tell her all he had heard before leaving the Beavers' house.
   "What! Aslan?" cried the Queen, "Aslan! Is this true? If I find you have lied to me --"
   "Please, I'm only repeating what they said," stammered Edmund.

And thus ends Chapter 9. If anyone wants to dig up what, if anything, "Maugrim" alludes to and when and why it was changed to "Fenris Ulf" for some issues of the novel, I'd love to hear the story behind our chief of police here.


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