[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence, Forced Marriage, Misogyny]
Narnia Recap: Shasta spent a night among the tombs and now we get to see what Aravis has been doing with herself.
Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.
The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 7: Aravis in Tashbaan
Hey-o, everyone! I have been simultaneously looking forward to this chapter (because Aravis! and Lasaraleen!) while also dreading it. Because, and I want to make this very clear, I have white privilege--as do a lot of our readers, I think. So I want to move forward carefully here and it might be a good time for everyone to think about re-visiting the Obligatory Note about racism linked above. Right, let's jump in.
WHAT HAD REALLY HAPPENED WAS THIS. When Aravis saw Shasta hurried away by the Narnians and found herself alone with two horses who (very wisely) wouldn’t say a word, she never lost her head even for a moment. She grabbed Bree’s halter and stood still, holding both the horses; and though her heart was beating as hard as a hammer, she did nothing to show it. As soon as the Narnian lords had passed she tried to move on again.
Okay, that's a fairly practical solution. It doesn't really address all the points that have already been brought up about how the horses shouldn't be nearly so easy to disguise as all this, but we have two horses and a girl and they're doing their best here.
But before she could take a step, another crier (“Bother all these people,” thought Aravis) was heard shouting out, “Way, way, way! Way for the Tarkheena Lasaraleen!” and immediately, following the crier, came four armed slaves and then four bearers carrying a litter which was all a-flutter with silken curtains and all a-jingle with silver bells and which scented the whole street with perfumes and flowers. After the litter, female slaves in beautiful clothes, and then a few grooms, runners, pages, and the like. And now Aravis made her first mistake.
I... I'm all about weird coincidences in novels, but we may have crossed a line at this point. Not only did Shasta end up in the right city on the right day at the right moment in the exact right spot to be mistaken for his long-lost twin brother, but now directly behind the Narnians is one of the few people Aravis knows well enough to be able to spot her out of a crowd. I would have put Lasaraleen a few more feet down the road and a paragraph or two later, but what do I know about dramatic pacing.
She knew Lasaraleen quite well—almost as if they had been at school together—because they had often stayed in the same houses and been to the same parties. And Aravis couldn’t help looking up to see what Lasaraleen looked like now that she was married and a very great person indeed.
It was fatal. The eyes of the two girls met. And immediately Lasaraleen sat up in the litter and burst out at the top of her voice.
“Aravis! What on earth are you doing here? Your father—”
There was not a moment to lose. Without a second’s delay Aravis let go the Horses, caught the edge of the litter, swung herself up beside Lasaraleen and whispered furiously in her ear.
“Shut up! Do you hear! Shut up. You must hide me. Tell your people—”
“But darling—” began Lasaraleen in the same loud voice. (She didn’t in the least mind making people stare; in fact she rather liked it.)
“Do what I tell you or I’ll never speak to you again,” hissed Aravis. “Please, please be quick, Las. It’s frightfully important. Tell your people to bring those two horses along. Pull all the curtains of the litter and get away somewhere where I can’t be found. And do hurry.”
“All right, darling,” said Lasaraleen in her lazy voice. “Here. Two of you take the Tarkheena’s horses.” (This was to the slaves.) “And now home. I say, darling, do you think we really want the curtains drawn on a day like this? I mean to say—”
But Aravis had already drawn the curtains, enclosing Lasaraleen and herself in a rich and scented, but rather stuffy, kind of tent.
“I mustn’t be seen,” she said. “My father doesn’t know I’m here. I’m running away.”
Okay. Let's get the obvious out of the way first: We are all deeply in love (platonic or otherwise) with Lasaraleen. How can we not be? She's feminine and funny and injects some much needed spark--and dialogue--into the novel thus far. She's colorful, in a book that has been dominated by a lot of rather dry narration about who is being clever and who is being smart and who is being brave. She is flawed, but her flaws happen to line up in ways that take the air out of the protagonist, and that's rarely a bad thing.
But I think it's important to remember that we're not really supposed to like Lasaraleen. There's a disconnect between the reality we live over here and the mentality Lewis was writing from, where femininity meant being unserious about things: a perpetual lazy child. Some of us will remember his short story linked in the comments a while back about how women (or, at least, An Everywoman) wouldn't pay attention to the world for all the attention she was paying to her appearance and purchases and luxuries.
So when we see things like "she rather liked [making people stare]", it's possible to hold in one hand that this is an adorable character trait while holding in the other hand that Lewis meant this to read as shallow and thoughtless and wanton and Jezebelly and awful.
“My dear, how perfectly thrilling,” said Lasaraleen. “I’m dying to hear all about it. Darling, you’re sitting on my dress. Do you mind? That’s better. It is a new one. Do you like it? I got it at—”
Which leads us to passages like this where I would love-love-love to read this in the most flatly affected drawl in the world ("how perfectly thrilling") while nattering on about something "meaningless" in order to make any number of points, but I am also very aware that this is meant to be read as shallow and childish.
I point all this out to hopefully prevent misunderstandings in the comments: It's absolutely 100% totally valid to adore Lasaraleen (and I do). Any criticisms of her here are not criticisms of her so much as criticisms directed at how (I believe) Lewis intended the reader to interpret her. Not because intent is magic or the only way to canon a book, but because intent leads to textual dog-whistles which undermine femininity's value at a system level (as opposed to an individual-reader level).
“Oh, Las, do be serious,” said Aravis. “Where is my father?”
“Didn’t you know?” said Lasaraleen. “He’s here, of course. He came to town yesterday and is asking about you everywhere. And to think of you and me being here together and his not knowing anything about it! It’s the funniest thing I ever heard.” And she went off into giggles. She always had been a terrible giggler, as Aravis now remembered.
Case in point, when trying to celebrate femininity, I would not use "terrible giggler" as a descriptor here even though it can technically be a neutralish description.
In the hands of a more nuanced author, there's a lot of potential here. Lasaraleen knows that Aravis is missing and that her father is frantic to know her whereabouts. She presumably must see that Aravis is in disguise and looking more than a little worse for the wear, and Aravis has been very clear about wanting to be hidden and not have attention called to her. Yet Lasaraleen doesn't seem particularly concerned by these details or the picture they paint regarding Aravis' situation.
I'm pretty sure Lewis intends Lasaraleen to read as empty-headed, but let's set that aside and talk about meta-Lasaraleen: what does she think about all this? She acts entirely unfazed, which might indicate that all this feels very in-character to her as something Aravis would do, or might have broader world-building implications. I adore Ymfon's suggestion that frequent staged kidnappings of brides might be an established Calormene tradition as part of an elaborate politeness-culture where families might feel pressured not to tell a prospective bridegroom "no".
There are other possibilities, of course. Perhaps Lasaraleen doesn't care very much about this situation for whatever reason. Or she could be feigning apparent disinterest for any number of motives. Really, there are infinite possibilities beyond the lazy writing of femininity being unserious, and I would love to see those possibilities explored in other books. Femme is not bad.
Anyway, back to the narrative.
“It isn’t funny at all,” [Aravis] said. “It’s dreadfully serious. Where can you hide me?”
“No difficulty at all, my dear girl,” said Lasaraleen. “I’ll take you home. My husband’s away and no one will see you. Phew! It’s not much fun with the curtains drawn. I want to see people. There’s no point in having a new dress on if one’s to go about shut up like this.”
“I hope no one heard you when you shouted out to me like that,” said Aravis.
“No, no, of course, darling,” said Lasaraleen absentmindedly. “But you haven’t even told me yet what you think of the dress.”
“Another thing,” said Aravis. “You must tell your people to treat those two horses very respectfully. That’s part of the secret. They’re really Talking Horses from Narnia.”
Aravis, hon, what are you doing?
I have zero idea what Lewis is doing here either, and honestly this is one of the few passages where I'd like to ask him. Is this disclosure performed to keep everything neat and tidy so he doesn't have to keep separate Things Aravis Knows from Things Lasaraleen Knows? It feels like a combination of that--plus an attempt to seamlessly drop the Visiting Narnians plot into Aravis' lap in preparation for overhearing Rabadash's plans later in the next chapter. Case in point:
“Fancy!” said Lasaraleen. “How exciting! And oh, darling, have you seen the barbarian queen from Narnia? She’s staying in Tashbaan at present. They say Prince Rabadash is madly in love with her. There have been the most wonderful parties and hunts and things all this last fortnight. I can’t see that she’s so very pretty myself. But some of the Narnian men are lovely. I was taken out on a river party the day before yesterday, and I was wearing my—”
“How shall we prevent your people telling everyone that you’ve got a visitor—dressed like a beggar’s brat—in your house? It might so easily get round to my father.”
“Now don’t keep fussing, there’s a dear,” said Lasaraleen. “We’ll get you some proper clothes in a moment. And here we are!”
So probably the drop from Aravis that the horses are from Narnia is meant to be a hook for Lasaraleen to briefly establish the Narnian visitors before the subject is dropped for the moment. But the thing is, this revelation doesn't just drag the plot along; it also establishes character. Why is Aravis sharing this information with Lasaraleen? Okay, I know the reason why: Lewis doesn't think about character impact. But setting that aside, we have some options which are not exhaustive nor exclusive:
• Aravis is telling the Horses' secret without their consent because she's still in that privileged "aristocrat" mindset where she keeps forgetting that they are people and not possessions.
• Aravis is telling Lasaraleen all this because she's lonely and being around a friendly familiar face has caused her to lower her guard and spill everything.
• Aravis is sharing important secrets because Lasaraleen's attempts at seeming vapid and silly have paid off and, as planned, people are underestimating her and oversharing.
Again, the possibilities are endless! But this is a good example of how plot-driven decisions will also drive characterization, whether intentional or not. In this scene, Aravis is being reckless--which doesn't really jive well with what we know of her careful preparations to escape earlier. Is this carelessness based in not respecting the Horses' feelings about their secret? in her elation at seeing her friend? in her fluster at hearing her father is nearby? in her fear over Shasta's absence?
The point isn't to answer these questions for me, to be clear. The point is that the questions are there to be answered and (in my opinion) Lewis dropped the ball by not recognizing this.
The bearers had stopped and the litter was being lowered. When the curtains had been drawn Aravis found that she was in a courtyard-garden very like the one that Shasta had been taken into a few minutes earlier in another part of the city. Lasaraleen would have gone indoors at once but Aravis reminded her in a frantic whisper to say something to the slaves about not telling anyone of their mistress’s strange visitor.
“Sorry, darling, it had gone right out of my head,” said Lasaraleen. “Here. All of you. And you, doorkeeper. No one is to be let out of the house today. And anyone I catch talking about this young lady will be first beaten to death and then burned alive and after that be kept on bread and water for six weeks. There.”
Sigh, and then we have this. I know we're gonna have folks saying "actually, I quite liked this, because--" and that's fine, really! I like Lasaraleen, too. But there's no question in my mind that this is meant to make her seem silly and foolish. Any value we find in it is us basically thumbing our nose at Lewis and saying "fuck you, you're not the boss here" and deciding to go with any number of superior head-canons.
Beyond the misogyny here (because anti-femme and anti-femininity are subsets of misogyny), I'm struck by how lazy this passage is. Like, really, the courtyard-garden is "very like the one" we've already seen, so we have no need for more description? Is Lasaraleen really staying in an area that is fundamentally identical to the area that was roped off for use by a visiting foreign King and Queen, one of whom the crown Prince is attempting to woo? Either Lasaraleen's husband is more important than the narrative indicates, or maybe the Tisroc has strong feelings about all his courtyard-gardens being identical. (In which case, I find that rather endearing of him.)
Of course, the real answer is that Lewis has mentally checked out at this stage; he's already given you description in the chapter he cared about (with the white boy), so why should he repeat it? But this means we are bereft of any kind of indication of how Aravis feels about her surroundings. With Shasta, we got a glimpse of "zomg luxury" (albeit mixed with a rather weird Western gaze that Shasta shouldn't have but Lewis can't quite seem to help himself--or he thinks decorating styles are carried in racial DNA, I dunno), but we get nothing of Aravis' reaction to the scenery because Aravis isn't a consideration to Lewis. The scenery was already established for the reader, so he's done with that.
How does Aravis feel? Lewis doesn't care; he's more interested in establishing Lasaraleen (and even then in an anti-femininity way). Is she relieved for this one last glimpse of civilization? Is she having second thoughts about trudging into a desert where none of these comforts will be on offer? How does she feel knowing her father is a few rooms down? Is she frightened, is she angry, is she tempted to hug him, to see him again? How does Aravis feel??? She's ostensibly one of the protagonists in this novel, yet because of Lewis' disinterest she might as well be a blank slate.
...The courtyard was familiar to Aravis, of course, having stayed in the Tisroc's palace many times before, but as she alighted from the litter she felt a pang of sorrow. Never again would she see these halls, never again would she run her hands along the cool marble pillars while seeking relief from the midday heat. When she parted from Lasaraleen, as she surely must, she would never again see the faces of her friends. Her father, too, was under the same roof as she, yet she did not dare visit him for a final farewell. Her resolve was as steady as it had ever been, but she had not dreamed how much her heart would hurt.
...The courtyard was familiar to Aravis, having stayed in the Tisroc's palace many times as a child. Now she saw it with the eyes of an adult: too much open space, too little shelter. It was imperative to get supplies from Lasaraleen as quickly as possible and then to leave forever. The news that her father was under the same roof as she only sped the frantic pounding of her heart; if he were to lay even a finger on her, all would be lost. Even if she survived the beating at his hands, the ones her new husband would inflict on her would be even worse.
...The courtyard was familiar to Aravis and for just a moment she hesitated as she stepped from the litter. She had expected never again to see such splendor, had resigned herself to a life without these luxuries. In her time with Shasta, she'd taken refuge in her capacity for fortitude; unlike her step-mother, she could do without silken curtains and embroidered pillows. Aravis had always been proud on hunts with her father, not realizing there'd been luxuries even then--little comforts which were invisible to her until a life on the run showed her otherwise. What would he think of his littlest soldier, if he could see her now? She shrugged away the thought the moment it reared; right now she could only afford to look forward. There would be time for remembrance and regret later on the road.
There are so many possible Aravises here. It is infuriating to me that Lewis gives us no real glimpse of any of them. Part of this is bad writing, sure, but a huge part of it is that he just doesn't care. At the very least with Edmund in LWW, we got a lot of narrative dump about what he thought and what he knew, but Aravis is an empty vessel. And the fact that she is a brown girl whereas Shasta and Edmund and Corin and Caspian and everyone else who gets character development are white boys is a Problem.
Although Lasaraleen had said she was dying to hear Aravis’s story, she showed no sign of really wanting to hear it at all. She was, in fact, much better at talking than at listening. She insisted on Aravis having a long and luxurious bath (Calormene baths are famous) and then dressing her up in the finest clothes before she would let her explain anything. The fuss she made about choosing the dresses nearly drove Aravis mad. She remembered now that Lasaraleen had always been like that, interested in clothes and parties and gossip. Aravis had always been more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming. You will guess that each thought the other silly. But when at last they were both seated after a meal (it was chiefly of the whipped cream and jelly and fruit and ice sort) in a beautiful pillared room (which Aravis would have liked better if Lasaraleen’s spoiled pet monkey hadn’t been climbing about it all the time) Lasaraleen at last asked her why she was running away from home.
When Aravis had finished telling her story, Lasaraleen said,
This is what I mean when I say Lewis cares more about establishing Lasaraleen than Aravis. (And despite the fact that we all rightly love Lasaraleen, the "care" he is taking is not to his credit.)
First, we have more denigration of the feminine. Lasaraleen is feminine in contrast to Aravis, just as Calormene culture is feminine in contrast to Narnian culture. Calormene people have famously luxurious baths, while Narnian people have bows and arrows and swimming--the hobbies that the Pevensies were previously established as having and being right good English children-slash-rulers.
As part of this denigration of feminine women and the culture of people of color, we see dismissal of "clothes and parties and gossip", without any real understanding of the fact that power can and often is wielded through such things. And I do think it's interesting--and not in a good way--that the Narnian plot to escape hinges on their Calormen hosts valuing clothes and parties. The Narnians use the setting of a party as cover for non-party activities; an act that only succeeds because their captors hold feminine activity at a high value.
Second, we have a setup where the tomboy girl and the femme girl dislike each other because of different interests. I see this soooooo often in books and hate it every time. (See also: The fat girl and the thin girl. The ugly girl and the pretty girl. The one girl and the other girl.) It's a misogynistic framing predicated on the fact that the author doesn't like girls so he can't imagine that girls could like each other. Not all girls are friends, of course, but this trope has been done to death. Retire it.
Third, I didn't cut there. Lasaraleen asks why she's running away from home and Lewis speeds over it with a quick "you guys already know this". Which, fuck that! We got a chapter with Aravis telling her story to Shasta and Bree, yes, but that was 90% logistics and the 10% motivation she gave to male strangers is not what I believe she gave here to her friend. Lewis doesn't care about Aravis' internal motivations, but I sure as fuck do.
Why are you running away from home, Aravis? Tell me as though I were your friend. Is it the thought of marriage that turns you away entirely? Is it the fact that you have no choice or consent in the process? Is it the specific bridegroom in question? Is it just that he's old and ugly, or are there other considerations? No woman should feel obliged to answer these questions. And no answer she could give would be "wrong". "I don't want to" is a complete sentence. But--
--many women do talk to their friends, and most women have complex motivations for why they do what they do, even if they don't wear those motivations on their sleeve. The textual Aravis has nebulous motivations because her author didn't care, but her being a private person is not a get-out-of-criticism free card. The scene with Lasaraleen is a chance to flesh Aravis out as a person by giving her a safer space to share her motivations than she had with Bree and Shasta. And instead of fleshing her out, Lewis blew past it by treating "her story" as one entirely of logistics.
When Aravis had finished telling her story, Lasaraleen said, “But, darling, why don’t you marry Ahoshta Tarkaan? Everyone’s crazy about him. My husband says he is beginning to be one of the greatest men in Calormen. He has just been made Grand Vizier now old Axartha has died. Didn’t you know?”
“I don’t care. I can’t stand the sight of him,” said Aravis.
Whyyyyyyy though? Is it because he's ugly (which is itself problematic given how often Lewis conflates ugly and evil)? Is it because he's cruel, evil, grasping, awful? It's unclear if Aravis has even had any interactions with the man, besides seeing him with her eyes.
Again: She doesn't have to have a reason. If Aravis were a real person, she could say "I don't like the color of his eyes" or any other reason or literally no reason at all, and that's still fine! I want to be clear on that, because sometimes we mix up Real People with Fictional People. Real People do not need a ~reason~ to not marry someone!
Buuuuuuuut Fictional People kinda do need reasons for what they do. Especially when we're talking about Fictional People who are often not represented as fully fleshed-out characters with inner lives and thoughts and reasons and feelings. Aravis The Fictional Person is about to risk almost-certain death to avoid marrying someone and we get no reason other than... he's ugly? I guess?
This is not, in my opinion, a good look on an author who has a well-documented problem with seeing women as people rather than as shallow creatures who care only about looks. That doesn't make Aravis wrong, it doesn't make "because ugly" a bad reason not to marry someone, it doesn't mean that I only support women not-marrying-someone if I agree with their reasons; it literally just means that there's an ongoing theme here of Lewisian women being shallow and appearance-obsessed to the point where he seems to think they aren't people with complicated inner thoughts and reasons of their own.
Also, frankly, it's very hard to be fed as a little girl the dual narrative that (a) femininity is silly and shallow and bad and lipsticks and nylons and none of that but also (b) the girls who do meet the Good Girl bar seem to have very little motivation on page except to avoid associating with ugly people. I believe Lewis so deeply considered women to be shallow creatures that even when he wrote "Good" women, they still came off as shallow because he couldn't shake the belief that shallowness was boiled into our very being.
And, of course, Aslan will show up later to scar Aravis for life as punishment for her shallow self-centeredness.
“But, darling, only think! Three palaces, and one of them that beautiful one down on the lake at Ilkeen. Positively ropes of pearls, I’m told. Baths of asses’ milk. And you’d see such a lot of me.”
“He can keep his pearls and palaces as far as I’m concerned,” said Aravis.
“You always were a queer girl, Aravis,” said Lasaraleen. “What more do you want?”
In the end, however, Aravis managed to make her friend believe that she was in earnest and even to discuss plans. There would be no difficulty now about getting the two horses out of the North gate--
Lasaraleen straight-up asks Aravis her inner motivations, thoughts, dreams, wishes. What more does she want? What drives her so fiercely that she'll face death in the desert? Is it freedom? Is it a romantic ideal of a young lover who is better than the old man picked for her? Is she seeking a goal or simply fleeing the worst? If she could have any wish in the world, what would she wish for?
Who knows, who cares, not Lewis. He just assures us that Aravis has that stuff, I guess, and she was totally able to convince her silly friend. That's what you girls do, right?