Repost: Endangering Girls For Fun And Profit!

[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: Violence, Deadly Natural Disasters, Small Animals]

Narnia Recap: Peter, Susan, Lucy, and the Beavers are traveling to the place where they expect to find Aslan. Edmund has been taken captive by the White Witch, who is attempting to intercept the other children.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 12: Peter's First Battle

   WHILE THE DWARF AND THE WHITE Witch were saying this, miles away the Beavers and the children were walking on hour after hour into what seemed a delicious dream. Long ago they had left the coats behind them. And by now they had even stopped saying to one another, "Look! there's a kingfisher," or "I say, bluebells!" or "What was that lovely smell?" or "Just listen to that thrush!" [...]
   And after the thaw had been going on for some time they all realized that the Witch would no longer be able to use her sledge. After that they didn't hurry so much and they allowed themselves more rests and longer ones.

We've talked before, and I credit Kit Whitfield for making me notice this, about how intensely sweet and cozy and tidy a lot of the passages are in these books. This is one of those passages that would have seemed perfectly natural to me when I was a child and had no thought to question the preordained nature of the narrative and yet seems perfectly odd to me now that I am older. The party is moving at a leisurely pace, and sight-seeing along the way, because they know that the Witch can't use her sledge now that the snow has melted. Well, that makes perfect sense, why not stop and smell the roses? We'll get there when we get there and there's no sense in rushing.

Except, wait, what? Not but a few chapters before, Mr. Beaver was shushing them because there were spies everywhere and even some of the trees were on the Witch's side, and you certainly can't trust the birds, at least not the ones that aren't robins. Indeed, when the Witch first heard about the children and their plan to travel to the Stone Table, she sent her wolf police on ahead, and while the text justifies that the children aren't directly trackable between the falling snow and the melting snow, there's still the little fact that the wolves know their starting point and their intended destination, so it really shouldn't be that hard to locate their trail.

It seems to me like the party should be hurrying over the land, ducking behind rocks and keeping low to avoid the eyes of the bird spies that fly overhead, desperately frustrated to learn that the melting snow has radically altered the route they planned to take, and hoping against hope that they can get to Aslan in time before the wolves overtake and kill them. Instead, they're yelling to each other about the pretty flowers.

You'd think they'd at least want to hurry because every moment they dawdle, their brother's life is increasingly threatened, but no. Our future kings and queens of Narnia, folks.

It occurs to me here, too, that we never get any real sense that the Witch is powerful or even really has a large following. Later in the book, we'll see her field an entire army, and of course she has stone-turning and food-summoning and winter-making powers, but she apparently can't cast a single sending spell to put her followers on alert for the children, nor can she travel great distances. Heck, she can't even do anything to magic her sleigh-reindeer into feasible mounts for herself and her entourage of one driver and one prisoner. Satan may be the prince of the powers of the air, but Jadis -- like Nicolae -- seems to be largely ineffectual at the whole Evil Overlord Powers & Delegation thing.

   Susan had a slight blister on one heel.

This is as good a hook as any to talk about something I've been thinking lately as a reader and a writer, which is how authorial approaches can vastly vary when it comes to writing bad things happening to good characters.

In books, bad things happen. These bad things happen for lots of reasons: to propel the plot, to provide character growth, to give backstory and/or motivation, or simply as flavor text to describe a situation. Bad things in books are really ultimately inevitable. Some authors absolutely delight in hurting their favorite characters, not in a sadistic way so much as in an "I hurt them because I love them" way. Negative attention in books is important attention, and favored characters are seen to well deserve that all-important drama.

Other authors, however, become so attached to their favored characters that they can't have bad things happen to them, not really. If something bad needs to happen because the plot demands it or because the text wouldn't be complete otherwise, the author will reach for a less well-loved character and will heap all the abuse on them. The less favored character becomes the Butt Monkey for all the abuse that the series needs to dish out, and in doing so shields the other characters from harm.

I strongly dislike the Butt Monkey trope because it generally comes across as so artificial and unrealistic. Unless you're working in a D&D type system where a character can have a dreadful Luck stat and criminally low health, and thus killing the bard really isn't that impressive, it's unrealistic for the same character to be so hated by the universe that everything is out to get them and only them. The Butt Monkey becomes the whipping stand-in for the other characters, such that if someone has to have something bad happen to them -- whether it be as simple as a foot blister or as theologically complex as not making it into Heaven on the same day as everyone else -- the reader can immediately predict in advance who is going to have the awful bad thing fall on their head.

How can you, the author, avoid Butt Monkeys and the lack of suspense that generally accompanies their existence? I recommend rolling a die to determine who gets the foot blisters.

   They had been just as surprised as Edmund when they saw the winter vanishing and the whole wood passing in a few hours or so from January to May. They hadn't even known for certain (as the Witch did) that this was what would happen when Aslan came to Narnia.

I mention this in passing because there's been an ongoing debate as to whether Aslan was barred from Narnia until the children's coming weakened the winter, or whether the winter is weakened by Aslan's coming to Narnia. Let the debate continue unabated in the comments!

   They had left the course of the big river some time ago; for one had to turn a little to the right (that meant a little to the south) to reach the place of the Stone Table. Even if this had not been their way they couldn't have kept to the river valley once the thaw began, for with all that melting snow the river was soon in flood -- a wonderful, roaring, thundering yellow flood -- and their path would have been under water.

And I mention this in passing because Narnia has been safely frozen over for 100 years. I cannot imagine that at least a few families haven't built homes in frozen and dried riverbeds. Dry riverbeds are, I would guess, great wind shelters -- which would be an important consideration during an eternal winter. So it's really impossible for me to read this without imagining a lot of flooded homes and drowning baby Animals.

I swear I don't try to be morbid; this is just the stuff I think of when I'm reading.

   In the very middle of this open hilltop was the Stone Table. It was a great grim slab of gray stone supported on four upright stones. It looked very old; and it was cut all over with strange lines and figures that might be the letters of an unknown language. They gave you a curious feeling when you looked at them.

Is anyone keeping count of how many curious "feelings" have been going on in this book? At first I thought this was potentially a dig at atheists who 'know' that gods and demons exist and just refuse to admit it because they're supposedly so stubborn, but now I don't know what to think. Either it's somewhat lazy writing -- here is Aslan, feel happy; here is Stone Table, feel uncomfortable -- to quickly and easily highlight the Important Stuff in the book, or it's wishful thinking. I'm sure life would be easier if we all had the same emotional response to everything we see but in my experience we don't.

   The next thing they saw was a pavilion pitched on one side of the open place. A wonderful pavilion it was -- and especially now when the light of the setting sun fell upon it -- with sides of what looked like yellow silk and cords of crimson and tent-pegs of ivory; and high above it on a pole a banner which bore a red rampant lion fluttering in the breeze which was blowing in their faces from the far-off sea.

And this is another of those "sure, why not?" moments from my childhood that now seems intensely odd.

What is this pavilion doing here? Who pitched it? Where did the materials come from? Who are all the people and Animals that will soon be described as swarming quietly around Aslan -- are they from the Orthodox Church of Aslan and just sort of recruited to staff the pavilion on the spot, or did Aslan bring them with him on his journey to Narnia? Where did the "tent-pegs of ivory" come from, and was it harvested from animals or Animals and how do the Animals feel about that?

And -- again -- where are the hordes and hordes of giants and ghouls and werewolves that the Witch will field in battle in just a few hours? Is Narnia so peaceful that pavilions like this can go up without worry because the stone-turning of celebration participants is really only something that the Witch does? Or does Aslan extend some kind of special protection over the whole gala affair?

And not to be pedantic, but couldn't he be helping folks instead of lounging around in front of a silk tent waiting for the humans to stroll lazily up to him? It's not like there aren't flood victims all over the countryside in need of dire assistance.

   Aslan stood in the center of a crowd of creatures who had grouped themselves round him in the shape of a half-moon. There were Tree-Women there and Well-Women (Dryads and Naiads as they used to be called in our world) who had stringed instruments; it was they who had made the music. [...]
   There was also a unicorn, and a bull with the head of a man, and a pelican, and an eagle, and a great Dog. And next to Aslan stood two leopards of whom one carried his crown and the other his standard.

Wikipedia assures me that naiads are affiliated with wells, though I've always associated them with rivers and moving water. And I'm not really sure what to make of dryads in a 'verse where the trees are sentient and apparently capable of communication with the other living beings -- maybe dryads are how the trees communicate with the Animals and humans? I don't know.

I will take ten points from Gryffindor for bad world building here: I don't know about the pelican and the eagle, but the leopards will later be shown talking so by all rights they should be Leopards like the aforementioned Dog. I'm not sure what to think of that, actually -- maybe something was lost in translation at the editors' offices.

Question: How is the Leopard carrying Aslan's crown? In his mouth? That seems uncomfortable and additionally rather slobbery. For that matter, why does Aslan need a crown? It's telling that in the movies, Aslan is always dressed down very simply as nothing more than a lion -- his regal bearing is wrapped up in his simplicity in some ways. He's King of Kings and Lord of Lords (at least as some people interpret him) and he doesn't need a shiny crown to accentuate that.

   But as for Aslan himself, the Beavers and the children didn't know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan's face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn't look at him and went all trembly.
   "Go on," whispered Mr. Beaver. [...]
   "Susan," whispered Peter, "what about you? Ladies first."
   "No, you're the eldest," whispered Susan. And of course the longer they went on doing this the more awkward they felt. [...]
   "Welcome, Peter, Son of Adam," said Aslan. "Welcome, Susan and Lucy, Daughters of Eve. Welcome He-Beaver and She-Beaver." [...] "But where is the fourth?" asked Aslan.
   "He has tried to betray them and joined the White Witch, O Aslan," said Mr. Beaver.

Mr. Beaver is a real jerk.

No, really. I don't know how I didn't notice this as a kid, but he is. He shushes the children in the woods and goes on about spies and trees and the like when there's clearly zero danger -- the White Witch hasn't been able to field a single spy and her entire entourage seems to consist of a single dwarf and two wolves. Then he goes into his racism tirade about "never trust a dwarf!" and how things that aren't human but seem human are the worst things ever, despite there being human-naiads and human-dryads and human-stars all over Narnia. And then when Edmund disappears, he claims to have known all along that Edmund had eaten the Witch's food and was bewitched. And now he just can't wait to throw Edmund under the bus, and with fake Ye Olde Butcherede English to boot, just so he can kiss up to Aslan.

Don't ever change, Mr. Beaver; stay classy.

   "Please -- Aslan," said Lucy, "can anything be done to save Edmund?"
   "All shall be done," said Aslan. "But it may be harder than you think." And then he was silent again for some time. Up to that moment Lucy had been thinking how royal and strong and peaceful his face looked; now it suddenly came into her head that he looked sad as well. But next minute that expression was quite gone.

And now I have to be frustrated with Aslan, because he's not sad-looking until the very moment it occurs to him that he's going to have to be tortured to death in Edmund's place.

No, honestly, there's several seconds of talking and awkward silence between Mr. Beaver's accusation and Lucy's question -- I just cut it all because I'm trying not to quote the entire book at ya'll. And in all that time of Peter kind-of-sort-of defending Edmund and everyone staring silently at Peter, Aslan doesn't look sad at all -- he looks utterly content until the thought finally crosses his mind that he's going to have to do something about this whole Edmund situation.

Aslan knows -- better than anyone else here -- what the Witch can and will do to Edmund given the chance. But knowing that a 9-year-old boy (who Aslan may or may not love, depending on the Jesus allegory) may be legally tortured and killed by the local Big Bad isn't enough to make Aslan feel sad. No, what breaks his poker face is the prospect of his own self being tortured and killed.

In this scene and in a later one, Lewis seems to attempt to tie Aslan to Jesus by evoking the "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me" moment where Jesus is shown to grapple with his fears and pain at his upcoming suffering. It seems clear to me that Lewis was careful to use cherry-picked examples of the Biblical account of Jesus in order to characterize his own allegorical figure. And that's fine, but a problem arises when an author grabs a few characteristics from an existing character in the audience's minds and then expects all the characteristics to follow.

There's nothing in this scene -- or, really, in the rest of the book -- that really emphasizes that Aslan cares about Edmund and is dying on his behalf out of love for him. Sure, Aslan does die for Edmund, but it's just as reasonable within the framework of the text to assume that Aslan is doing so because otherwise the four-children-four-thrones prophecy wouldn't be able to come true. We really only "get" that Aslan loves Edmund and dies for him out of the goodness of his heart because we know that's what Jesus is supposed to have done, and we know that we're supposed to associate Aslan with Jesus. That's really not good characterization.

It's not that I don't think that Aslan isn't "supposed" to love Edmund; but I do think that Lewis kind of forgot to actually establish that fact. In rushing to establish his Jesus-figure who isn't looking forward to his own death, he forgot to characterize his Jesus-figure as also being intensely saddened by the loss of one small lamb. This is, incidentally, why it's not usually considered a smash idea to co-opt important and nuanced religious figures for your novel -- it's very easy to accidentally screw up and end up making the beloved figure seem like a genuinely dreadful person.

   "Meanwhile, let the feast be prepared. Ladies, take these Daughters of Eve to the pavilion and minister to them."

This is a nice two-fer scene: the girls go off to do girly things like brush their hair and be "minstered to" so that (a) Peter can be told important information because he's The Oldest and therefore much more important and (b) the girls can be endangered so that Peter -- the only one allowed to use his Christmas weapons -- can have his Big Damn Hero moment.

Let's walk through it, shall we?

   "That, O Man," said Aslan, "is Cair Paravel of the four thrones, in one of which you must sit as King. I show it to you because you are the firstborn and you will be High King over all the rest."
   And once more Peter said nothing, for at that moment a strange noise woke the silence suddenly. It was like a bugle, but richer.
   "It is your sister's horn," said Aslan to Peter in a low voice; so low as to be almost a purr, if it is not disrespectful to think of a Lion purring.

It's not disrespectful to think of a Lion purring, though as a matter of interest I will take the moment to note that lions can only purr while exhaling and not in the continuous manner that smaller cats can sustain. (Isn't that interesting? I think so!) It may, however, be very disrespectful -- depending on who you ask -- to co-opt a beloved religious figure for your novel in order to then depict them as amused, content, and/or utterly blase at the notion that a major character might be in danger for her life and is almost certainly scared out of her wits.

   For a moment Peter did not understand. Then, when he saw all the other creatures start forward and heard Aslan say with a wave of his paw, "Back! Let the Prince win his spurs," he did understand, and set off running as hard as he could to the pavilion. And there he saw a dreadful sight.

Just to be clear, Aslan the wise and honorable prince of the Narnia 'verse is ordering the other Narnians to leave a very young girl in danger so that a very young boy can rush into danger and kill or be killed in a violent, frightening, and almost certainly traumatic incident.

It's worth remembering that authors don't chronicle events in the same way that historians do. The events authors record in fiction are fictional, the products of their own imagination. There was no mandate to set this scene so that Aslan ordered his followers to leave a young girl in dire danger; the author chose to do so. The author chose to do so despite there being a dozen other ways to have Peter save the day and his sister. This isn't the Aslan that history forces us to accept; this is the Aslan that Lewis wanted to portray.

And he apparently didn't think it was a strange decision to have Aslan literally order people to not help a little girl.

   The Naiads and Dryads were scattering in every direction. Lucy was running toward him as fast as her short legs would carry her and her face was as white as paper.

The interesting thing about this scene is how thoroughly artificial it feels. There are only a few principle players: Peter, hero; Susan, victim; Aslan; chess master; Wolf, attacker; Naiads and Dryads and Lucy, helpless fleeing sheep.

Where are the huge groups of folks that were previously staffing the pavilion and (according to the movies) preparing for war? Lewis told us earlier that there were "...four great centaurs. The horse part of them was like huge English farm horses, and the man part was like stern but beautiful giants," and yet none of them were swift enough to defend Susan from a single wolf before Aslan showed up to tell them to back off? In a fight between one Wolf and four sentient Giant/Clydesdale hybrids, I'd put my money on the Clydesdale team.

And where are the Great Dog and the two Leopards and the Unicorn and the Eagle? Another author would have had the sentient pit bull and the unicorn (Motto: All the hooves of a horse, plus a sword attached to the head!) and the leopards beating the crap out of the wolves while the eagles and pelicans fly the girls to safety and the centaurs gallop up the hill to alert Aslan, but apparently they've all gone on a bathroom break.

Except they'll all be there thirty seconds from now when Aslan orders them to chase after the second wolf, so apparently Aslan really didn't need to tell them not to help Susan and the rest of the girls, because they were already standing around watching and being generally useless. This is great world-building here, I really want the noble Narnians to win out against the White Witch at this point because if there's one thing I love it's a new boss, same as the old boss.*

   Then he saw Susan make a dash for a tree, and swing herself up, followed by a huge gray beast. At first Peter thought it was a bear. Then he saw that it looked like an Alsatian, though it was far too big to be a dog. Then he realized that it was a wolf -- a wolf standing on its hind legs, with its front paws against the tree-trunk, snapping and snarling. All the hair on its back stood up on end. Susan had not been able to get higher than the second big branch. One of her legs hung down so that her foot was only an inch or two above the snapping teeth. Peter wondered why she did not get higher or at least take a better grip; then he realized that she was just going to faint and that if she fainted she would fall off.

You are a centaur. Or an eagle. Or a unicorn. Or, heck, a pelican of all things. Tell me how you still love and honor a god-lion who orders you to watch this scene without interfering or trying to help. Help me understand, because I honestly cannot. This scene literally makes me want to cry for being unable to help, and it makes me want to be sick at the thought that a god-king might order me not to.

When Huckleberry Finn thought god wanted him to turn in his friend Jim, Huckleberry declared "All right, then, I'll go to hell." He was willing to forfeit salvation and burn for eternity rather than give up his friend to a life of slavery. And yet here, when Aslan orders his followers to let a young girl dangle helplessly over the jaws of a giant wolf, all we hear is "All right, then, I'll go make popcorn."

   Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no difference to what he had to do. He rushed straight up to the monster and aimed a slash of his sword at its side. [...] Then came a horrible, confused moment like something in a nightmare. He was tugging and pulling and the Wolf seemed neither alive nor dead, and its bared teeth knocked against his forehead, and everything was blood and heat and hair. A moment later he found that the monster lay dead and he had drawn his sword out of it and was straightening his back and rubbing the sweat off his face and out of his eyes. He felt tired all over. [...]
   Peter, still out of breath, turned and saw Aslan close at hand.
   "You have forgotten to clean your sword," said Aslan.
   It was true. Peter blushed when he looked at the bright blade and saw it all smeared with the Wolf's hair and blood. He stooped down and wiped it quite clean on the grass, and then wiped it quite dry on his coat.
   "Hand it to me and kneel, Son of Adam," said Aslan. And when Peter had done so he struck him with the flat of the blade and said, "Rise up, Sir Peter Wolf's-Bane. And, whatever happens, never forget to wipe your sword."

In a smug-off between Aslan and Edward, who would win? And who would do the judging?

* That was going to be a YouTube link, but I was afraid you'd all be as culturally conditioned as I am now that a song by The Who means I have to go watch an episode of CSI.

0 comments:

Post a Comment