Repost: Good Kings, Bad Laws

[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.



[Content Note: Physical Abuse, Slavery]

Narnia Recap: Peter, Susan, Lucy, and the Beavers are traveling to the place where they expect to find Aslan. Along the way they have seen proof that the Witch's spell is weakening, in the form of Father Christmas who supplied them with food and presents.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 11: Aslan Is Nearer

Edmund fans will be disappointed to note that this is the last chapter in the book where Child!Edmund will be allowed a voice. Say your fond farewells now.*

   EDMUND MEANWHILE HAD BEEN HAVING a most disappointing time. When the dwarf had gone to get the sledge ready he expected that the Witch would start being nice to him, as she had been at their last meeting. But she said nothing at all. And when at last Edmund plucked up his courage to say, "Please, your Majesty, could I have some Turkish Delight? You -- you -- said -- " she answered, "Silence, fool!" Then she appeared to change her mind and said, as if to herself, "And yet it will not do to have the brat fainting on the way," and once more clapped her hands. Another dwarf appeared.
   "Bring the human creature food and drink," she said.

With Chapter 11, we'll be looking a little bit at how the White Which treats her minions, and the implications of such. By way of preview, I will note that she is cold and cruel to her minions, openly refers to them as slaves, and threatens them with death. It's possible she's under a lot of stress and isn't normally like this, but it seems pretty heavily implied to me in the text that her behavior isn't terribly atypical for a normal day in the Witch's household.

This sort of thing isn't unusual in literature, though it's admittedly a pet peeve of mine. There's an unfortunate implication that being "evil" means being evil all the time, to everyone, and frequently for no reason. The problem with being Stupid Evil, however, is that it's very hard to understand why the Stupid Evil dictator has any supporters whatsoever. (The other problem, of course, is the accidental implication that if a dictator is nice to some people sometimes, zie can't be that bad, right?)

Now, there are some ways around this. Maybe the dictator is so powerful that no one dares cross them, despite their always Stupid Evil policies. The problem here, though, is that this view tends to infantalize the minions to the point where, say, stabbing the evil dictator in their sleep or similar assassination methods just never occurs to them. Another way around this is to have the Always Chaotic Minions equally stupidly evil, to the point where they don't really mind being beaten at a moment's notice on a daily basis because they are ideologically devoted to the concept of Evil to the point where their own self-preservation instincts are over-ridden.

I was going to suggest that Lewis was going for the latter here, and was in the middle of typing "Wow, it's lucky that the Witch has all these Always Chaotic Evil races willing to mobilize for war on her behalf, because it's sure not her personality!" when I had a moment of doubt. Why does the Stupid Evil queen have all these people willing to lay down their lives on the battlefield against Aslan? I suppose if we go with the obvious Christian allegory, the answer would be that the Ghouls and Ogres and Werewolves all just hate Aslan so much that they're willing to join together against their own self-interest in order to battle the forces of good. And I'd reckon that's a valid interpretation of the book.

And yet, I've always had a sympathy towards the bad guys in the X-Men comics. The point has been made that the "bad guys" in X-Men tend to be the ones least able to blend in to human society. The only good guy in the main X-Men cast that doesn't look 100% normal is Cyclops with his visor, and the pretty sunglasses in the movie fixed that right up. You have to latch on to Beast in order to find someone who simply can't pass, and he's fortunate enough to have quite a lot of privilege attached to his government job (depending on which X-Men continuity is being followed). On the other side, quite a few of the bad guys in the X-Men 'verse are mutants who simply cannot pass and have zero privilege to protect themselves from discrimination. So while a lot of them say they hate humans, it's never completely clear if they'd feel the same way in a world where the humans would be willing to live in peace with them.

All of which is a VERY long way to say: Are the Witch's forces willing to fight on her side because they hate Aslan, or is it because the Ghouls and Ogres and Werewolves wouldn't have a safe place under an Aslanian regime? Is the Witch's abusive behavior to her minions suffered because her minions can't figure out how to safely turn on her, or is her bad behavior somehow better than what they might otherwise endure? (More likely the author didn't really think too hard about it. But by gum, if I want to read too much into the motivation behind Random Evil Minion #871, then I will.)

Anyway. A dwarf brings Edmund some dry bread and cold water.

   "Turkish Delight for the little Prince. Ha! Ha! Ha!"
   "Take it away," said Edmund sulkily. "I don't want dry bread." But the Witch suddenly turned on him with such a terrible expression on her face that he apologized and began to nibble at the bread, though it was so stale he could hardly get it down.
   "You may be glad enough of it before you taste bread again," said the Witch.

I couldn't work it into my huge ramble above, so this is as good a place as any to offer the theory that in addition (or possibly in contrast) to being Stupid Evil, it's entirely possible that the Witch and her minions are just doing it For The Evulz.

   And oh, how miserable he was! It didn’t look now as if the Witch intended to make him a King. All the things he had said to make himself believe that she was good and kind and that her side was really the right side sounded to him silly now. He would have given anything to meet the others at this moment -- even Peter! The only way to comfort himself now was to try to believe that the whole thing was a dream and that he might wake up at any moment. And as they went on, hour after hour, it did come to seem like a dream.

It's interesting that the Witch didn't want Edmund "fainting along the way", given that the text states that she fully intends to ride the entire way to the Stone Table (at which point she appears to intend to either kill Edmund or use him as a bargaining chip against the remaining three children). It seems like a fainting child would be just the thing here, considering that the faint won't kill him and it will keep him quiet and docile.

Of course, it wouldn't do for Edmund to faint because eventually the snow will thaw to the point where the sleigh can go no further and then everyone has to get out and walk -- but the Witch doesn't have a way to know this in advance and seems to be genuinely surprised and outraged when it happens. So I'm not sure where this fits on the Narnia clairvoyance scale, to be honest. I will say, however, that if you want to keep a child from fainting, you might want to supply a coat in addition to the crust of bread before you take him out in a several-hours-long sleigh ride in below-freezing weather.

   How Edmund hoped she was going to say something about breakfast! But she had stopped for quite a different reason. A little way off at the foot of a tree sat a merry party, a squirrel and his wife with their children and two satyrs and a dwarf and an old dog-fox, all on stools round a table. Edmund couldn't quite see what they were eating, but it smelled lovely and there seemed to be decorations of holly and he wasn't at all sure that he didn't see something like a plum pudding. [...]
   "F-F-F-Father Christmas," stammered the Fox. [...]
   Edmund saw the Witch bite her lips so that a drop of blood appeared on her white cheek. Then she raised her wand. "Oh, don't, don't, please don't," shouted Edmund, but even while he was shouting she had waved her wand and instantly where the merry party had been there were only statues of creatures (one with its stone fork fixed forever halfway to its stone mouth) seated round a stone table on which there were stone plates and a stone plum pudding.

And... unless I miss my count, those will be the last words said by Child!Edmund in this book.*

The narrator makes a point of saying outright that this is the first time in the story that Edmund has felt sorry for anyone other than himself. However, the narrator earlier didn't know how long Edmund stood staring at the stone lion in the Witch's courtyard, so if zie can't even keep track of measurable things like time, I'm not about to give zie a pass on knowing Edmund's innermost thoughts and feelings. Especially not when earlier in Chapter 9, Edmund passed a faun statue with a sad expression, and Edmund wondered if the statue had been Lucy's friend. Maybe he was wondering purely for information's sake, but the tenor of the passage sounded more like sympathy to me.

   Now they were steadily racing on again. And soon Edmund noticed that the snow which splashed against them as they rushed through it was much wetter than it had been all last night. At the same time he noticed that he was feeling much less cold. It was also becoming foggy. In fact every minute it grew foggier and warmer. And the sledge was not running nearly as well as it had been running up till now. [...]
   "It's no good, your Majesty," said the dwarf. "We can't sledge in this thaw."
   "Then we must walk," said the Witch.
   "We shall never overtake them walking," growled the dwarf. "Not with the start they've got."
   "Are you my councillor or my slave?" said the Witch. "Do as you're told. Tie the hands of the human creature behind it and keep hold of the end of the rope. And take your whip. And cut the harness of the reindeer; they'll find their own way home."

So. Edmund has been bound, placed on a forced march, and threatened with a whip. And just in case the gravity of the situation is lost on you, the narrative has a helpful little picture attached.


What strikes me about this passage and the context around it is how thoroughly it obscures Edmund, despite him being ostensibly the point of view character for the chapter. There are approximately three pages left in this chapter and two full pictures, and all the words and images remaining in the chapter will deal with flowers and spring and the Witch's reaction to them.

Lewis is frequently compared to Tolkien for various reasons, and it strikes me that Tolkien has a similar scene in his books where complex protagonists are captured by evil creatures and then bound and forced to journey towards their doom. The difference, to me, is striking: when Merry and Pippin are within the custody of the orcs, we feel sorry for them. We feel scared for them. We want them to be alright. I read that scene as a child with tears swimming in my eyes, barely able to slow down enough to read the page because if I could just keep flipping pages fast enough maybe everything would be alright.

You can feel sorry for Edmund here, but you're kind of doing so on your own dime. You're not being fed any descriptions of how Edmund feels, you don't get a sense of his fear, or his loneliness in captivity, or how very much he misses his mommy and wishes he could just go home. Sure, we had a quick throw-away line earlier about how he even missed Peter, but this framing only seemed to serve as a reminder that Peter was right and Edmund was wrong and now Edmund is righteously suffering for his sins. If the narrative drives home a point that Edmund is to be pitied and that no one deserves the treatment he is receiving, I don't see it. If the narrative makes the case that Edmund is a vulnerable 9-year-old boy who is suffering mightily in this strange, confusing, and violent world, I can't find it.

It's odd to me that Tolkien was able to evoke more pity from me regarding two adults adventuring in their own universe than Lewis has tried to work from me regarding a small child who has stumbled unwillingly into an unfamiliar wonderland. This passage should be a sad one that copes with Edmund's loss and fear and grief, not a treatise on flowers.

Maybe that would be too over-the-top when Lewis had a more subtle point to be made, I don't know. But I do know that in a very few chapters, Aslan will acknowledge that the Witch has a right to Edmund's life, has a literally God-Given Right to kill this boy.

Now, Aslan is going to do everything in his power to save Edmund. Aslan is going to offer himself willingly in exchange. But -- and this is a crucial point to me -- the Witch doesn't have to take the exchange. This isn't "The Hunger Games" where Katniss' sacrifice is automatically accepted because there are rules for that sort of thing. Jadis owns Edmund's life. Aslan confirms this is fact. She can choose to accept a substitute, but she can just as easily say, "No, I think I want to keep what was behind Door Number 1." She can choose to keep and kill Edmund, and Aslan will not do anything to stop her.

Flash back to Tolkien. What if Aragorn caught up with the orcs who held Merry and Pippin in custody and it turns out that the orcs had an old treaty saying that any hobbits who maliciously trespassed in their lands were theirs to kill? What if Aragorn's own ancestor had ratified the treaty, and Aragorn was ostensibly bound by that decision? Would readers accept an Aragorn who said well, crap, I guess that's that then, unless you'd rather take me instead?

No. They couldn't. They wouldn't. Or, to be more accurate, I couldn't and wouldn't. I loved Merry and Pippin and while they were quite clearly at war with the orcs with their whole "mission to destroy the ring" thing, they were on the side of good and the orcs were evil, and giving them up for death would have been wrong. An Aragorn that gave up characters whom I loved in favor of the legality of a centuries-old treaty in spite of the utter wrongness of that treaty and the devastating effect it would wreak on their lives and the quest at large would have been an Aragorn I wanted nothing to do with. A good king doesn't let evil win because of legalities. A good king doesn't let the innocent suffer because of an unjust law. A good king doesn't play roulette with the lives of the people he loves. A good king may be Lawful Good, but he is not Lawful Stupid and he doesn't uphold unjust laws that kill the people he cares about.

But Aslan does that. And in order for Aslan to be good, and in order for the Witch's claim on Edmund to be anything other than a complete wall-banger moment for the reader, it is vitally important that Edmund be characterized as little as possible. His internal sufferings with his bound hands and the whip at his back aren't obscured to protect the children; they're obscured to protect Aslan and the Emperor because the more you feel sorry for Edmund, the less thrilled you're going to be at his death sentence.

   "This is no thaw," said the dwarf, suddenly stopping. "This is Spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan's doing."
   "If either of you mentions that name again," said the Witch, "he shall instantly be killed."

* Edited to add: I was wrong; Child!Edmund has one line in Chapter 13 in which he says "I'm sorry" in the middle of a paragraph describing his reunion with his siblings.

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