[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence, Forced Marriage, Misogyny]
Narnia Recap: Aravis and Lasaraleen catch each other up on what has been happening. Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.
The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 7: Aravis in Tashbaan
I feel like I keep starting these off with apologies for why it's been so long since the last post. On the one hand, I'm fully aware that you don't need self-flagellation on my part. On the other hand, I don't know how many of you catch my open thread comments and I'd hate for you to think I just don't care about Narnia anymore (I do!).
So, in brief: I've been sick for about a month now. I started off with an upper respiratory virus that took the better part of three weeks to settle down and then, just as I was getting over that, my spouse brought a cold home with him. I do not blame him for this--he gets enough blame from the cats who are in a permanent state of freaked-out by all the coughing--but it's been an uphill struggle. This is the first time in about a month that I've been able to sit upright at my desktop where I write the posts.
*cracks knuckles* All that to say, let's do this!
When we last left our heroine, Aravis was explaining in vague terms that she didn't want to marry her betrothed for very strong reasons that Lewis wasn't entirely sure of or convinced by. This is understandable, because I'm not sure there is a good enough reason for a girl to defy her god and father to run from her intended that would apply to Aravis but couldn't apply therefore to a woman faced with the same commands from, say, God and Merlin. So I can see why Lewis was ambivalent on this point, which causes Aravis to come off like someone with a very firmly set opinion that she can't or won't explain to her only friend.
“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?”
I am fully aware that "queer" in Lewis' day didn't mean what it does now (I was raised on a steady diet of older literature and have distant memories of describing a girl at church as "queer" and seeing all the adults recoil in alarm. At the time, I had no idea why they reacted so strongly. I also used "ejaculate" in normal conversation, courtesy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which tells you all you need to know about me, really.) but I enjoy the Les Ya in this passage on at least two different levels: one, where Lasaraleen includes "you'd see such a lot of me" in her list of excellent reasons to marry Aravis' betrothed, and two, where Aravis is accused of being too queer to marry a man at all.
I am very invested in fanfic where Queen Aravis of Archenland meets often with Lasaraleen and her husband, the Grand High Ambassador to the Barbarian Kingdoms, who finds his wife's sexual escapades with the barbarian queen to be both adorable and highly beneficial to his political career and as such would never dream of interfering with their fun. The Grand High Ambassador is many things, but he is not a fool.
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 and then on to the Tombs. No one would stop or question a groom in fine clothes leading a war horse and a lady’s saddle horse down to the river, and Lasaraleen had plenty of grooms to send. It wasn’t so easy to decide what to do about Aravis herself. She suggested that she could be carried out in the litter with the curtains drawn. But Lasaraleen told her that litters were only used in the city and the sight of one going out through the gate would be certain to lead to questions.
This has already been pointed out in the comments, but this makes no sense.
Doylistically, Aravis can't leave yet because (a) she needs to overhear the Prince's plans to kidnap Queen Susan, and (b) she needs to kill some time so that Shasta can have his night among the tombs with Aslan saving him every few minutes. But as a means of making these two things happen, Lewis has given us a situation that is a confused mess: Why is it totally easy to get the horses out via groom yet Aravis becomes this insurmountable problem?
There's so many problems with this that I'm struggling with an attack angle. For one, I really question Lewis' choice to make it totally easy for the horses to be led out. This is a perfect opportunity for rising tension and instead the problem is immediately dispatched with, creating the impression that he doesn't care about the horses or that they aren't relevant to the plot at this time. (I would argue the latter is self-evidently true and the former is likely.)
If any other author were writing this, I would expect the situation to be swapped: Aravis is the easy one to send out (slaves being abundant and low value in Tashbaan) and the horses are the tricky problem (as this is a society that values good horseflesh). Going the route Lewis does makes everyone involved seem simultaneously foolish to not wonder why a Tarkeena is sending out her husband's war horse and her own best lady's mare with a single groom, and yet impossibly clever because the gate-guards would pierce Aravis' disguise if she were to dress up as a groom, despite the fact that her disguises worked perfectly well before.
There are probably cases where an author could make this work, but you would need to have established some facts that just don't work here: Aravis would have to be so famous that the guards would recognize her in any disguise (yet she isn't, by virtue of having gotten through the front gates without trouble), or Aravis would have to be unable or unwilling to dress up as a convincing boy (yet she already has and did well as one until she ran into Shasta), or the gate guards would have to be established as extremely thorough at their jobs (but this would conflict with their earlier characterization, not to mention should hinder Bree and Hwin getting out).
Aravis' apparent failure to even suggest dressing up as a boy is very jarring to me here. She already dressed up as a boy in her earlier escape and she had no problems doing so. If there is some factor that would be obvious to Lewis and his readers (like, say, Calormene grooms are older than the young boy Aravis would appear to be?), then this rule should have been in play earlier when Aravis and Shasta were stomping all over Tashbaan with horses in tow. Instead, it reads as though a nice bath and a soft couch has made Aravis forget that disguises are a thing, which doesn't fit with her character thus far nor with a scene that repeatedly describes her as both desperate to escape and anxious that her friend isn't taking this seriously.
This is also especially odd in the context of the story because Aravis came to Tashbaan deliberately yet apparently had no plan for getting out. I had thought the plan was "dress up as a slave, lead the horses through the front and out the back" but now this is deemed impossible without any sort of reason. Nothing has changed except the loss of Shasta to the party, and I don't see why his presence or lack thereof would make a difference. And even if for some reason it would, surely Lasaraleen has a spare servant boy she could send out with Aravis. He could come back by whatever route the groom intends to take, after all.
When they had talked for a long time—and it was all the longer because Aravis found it hard to keep her friend to the point—at last Lasaraleen clapped her hands and said, “Oh, I have an idea. There is one way of getting out of the city without using the gates. The Tisroc’s garden (may he live forever!) runs right down to the water and there is a little water-door. Only for the palace people of course—but then you know, dear” (here she tittered a little) “we almost are palace people. I say, it is lucky for you that you came to me. The dear Tisroc (may he live forever!) is so kind. We’re asked to the palace almost every day and it is like a second home. I love all the dear princes and princesses and I positively adore Prince Rabadash. I might run in and see any of the palace ladies at any hour of the day or night. Why shouldn’t I slip in with you, after dark, and let you out by the water-door? There are always a few punts and things tied up outside it. And even if we were caught—”
“All would be lost,” said Aravis.
“Oh darling, don’t get so excited,” said Lasaraleen. “I was going to say, even if we were caught everyone would only say it was one of my mad jokes. I’m getting quite well known for them. Only the other day—do listen, dear, this is frightfully funny—”
“I meant, all would be lost for me,” said Aravis a little sharply.
“Oh—ah—yes—I do see what you mean, darling. Well, can you think of any better plan?”
Aravis couldn’t, and answered, “No. We’ll have to risk it. When can we start?”
This is one of those scenes which is an interesting juxtaposition of what Lewis intended to convey versus what is actually conveyed in the text. I believe he intends Lasaraleen to read as childish and selfish here, since her worst-case scenario is that she won't get in trouble even as Aravis is dragged off into a forced marriage. That is undoubtedly an unbalanced view of "worst case", if she's so concerned about a loss of social standing that she's unwilling to consider what will happen to her friend.
Yet it must be noted that we will later learn the Tisroc is a brutal and bloodthirsty man, which changes this scene. Now in Lasaraleen's worst case scenario, no one gets so badly in trouble that executions are handed out. Aravis is still dragged off to a forced marriage and that's still bad, but she lives. Yet Aravis is so focused on that potential outcome to herself that she doesn't even consider whether she's putting Lasaraleen in danger by accepting her help. That has the effect of making Aravis seem like the selfish one, not Lasaraleen.
I want to reiterate that I don't think selfishness is a bad thing. I am actually in favor of both Aravis and Lasaraleen looking out for their safety in this dangerous situation. But I dislike the authorial decision to paint one girl as frivolous and callous for being concerned about her safety while the other girl is depicted as long-suffering and understandably angry--despite being guilty of the same "selfish" behavior!
Which is rather ironic, since later Lewis will condemn Aravis for only considering her safety regardless of the consequences of others, yet that condemnation will not mention Aravis' cavalier treatment of Lasaraleen's well-being. Once again we have the problem that bad writing and bad attitudes intertwine; had Lewis seen Lasaraleen as a person instead of as everything wrong with femininity, he could have tailored his later Aslan message better.
“Oh, not tonight,” said Lasaraleen. “Of course not tonight. There’s a great feast on tonight (I must start getting my hair done for it in a few minutes) and the whole place will be a blaze of lights. And such a crowd too! It would have to be tomorrow night.”
This was bad news for Aravis, but she had to make the best of it. The afternoon passed very slowly and it was a relief when Lasaraleen went out to the banquet, for Aravis was very tired of her giggling and her talk about dresses and parties, weddings and engagements and scandals. She went to bed early and that part she did enjoy: it was so nice to have pillows and sheets again.
Case in point: Lewis just cannot stop hating on Lasaraleen and femininity, and his preoccupation with how all girls are dirty and nasty and ugly ohmyaslan means he misses a few details the astute reader will not.
Aravis trusts Lasaraleen to attend a party that will include her betrothed, her father, and every person of note in Tashbaan, and while there to not divulge her secret. And Lasaraleen does! She goes to the party and doesn't say a word about Aravis sleeping back in her apartments: not a deliberate word, not an accidental word, not even an I-have-a-secret-but-I-can't-tell-you-teehee word. Lasaraleen performs her part perfectly to the hilt and Aravis is so certain she will do so that she doesn't even stay up late to fret. She goes to bed early and sleeps without fear.
I can't imagine Lewis meant for this to be deliberate characterization of Lasaraleen, of course. He has a plot to get to and his characters don't exist off the page. He doesn't consider what the party will be like or who will be there or what they will talk about. He doesn't think about the fact that Aravis' recent disappearance will be the talk of the town, and that Lasaraleen will have to keep a perfect poker face on and lie like a rug to get through the night. He doesn't think about these things because he's a bad writer, yes, but also one who doesn't care about a woman's life. Why should he think about Lasaraleen's evening?
Yet, the fact that he doesn't means that we are left with a reality he didn't intend which stands defiantly against the characterization he failed to sell to the reader: Lasaraleen is flighty and selfish and childish on the page but is an unparalleled mistress of social maneuvering off the page when he isn't looking. Without her skills, his story wouldn't exist in the format he wanted. And so he takes her for granted, much as I imagine he would if she were real.
But the next day passed very slowly. Lasaraleen wanted to go back on the whole arrangement and kept on telling Aravis that Narnia was a country of perpetual snow and ice inhabited by demons and sorcerers, and she was mad to think of going there. “And with a peasant boy, too!” said Lasaraleen. “Darling, think of it! It’s not Nice.” Aravis had thought of it a good deal, but she was so tired of Lasaraleen’s silliness by now that, for the first time, she began to think that traveling with Shasta was really rather more fun than fashionable life in Tashbaan. So she only replied, “You forget that I’ll be nobody, just like him, when we get to Narnia. And anyway, I promised.”
“And to think,” said Lasaraleen, almost crying, “that if only you had sense you could be the wife of a Grand Vizier!” Aravis went away to have a private word with the horses.
I'm not sure how old Lasaraleen is, nor how long the White Witch has been dead, but within the life of her parents and her grandparents at least, Narnia was a country of perpetual snow and ice inhabited by demons and sorcerers. And while the whole "peasant boy" smacks of classism (though it's hard to imagine Lewis wouldn't have agreed, given his somersaults to make Shasta a prince!), it's easy for me to hear the undercurrent of real concern: Aravis is going to be alone with a strange boy who will have no reason beyond his personal morality not to harm her. She'll be in real danger, and I can't blame Lasaraleen for being worried.
Aravis' non-answer here is another in a string of non-answers. "And anyway, I promised" does not strike me as a valid reason to move to a country of perpetual snow and ice inhabited by demons and sorcerers. Indeed, she seems not to care about this point, I presume because Lewis knows it's not true and therefore has little time for characters who don't. He knows winter isn't coming back, but why should Lasaraleen? Shouldn't Aravis be just a little worried about this possibility? She's fleeing rape from a man who is hateful to her, yet doesn't seem in the least concerned that the same fate might await her in a distant land of demonic strangers.
This frustrates me, not least because it fits with the problem where Lewis simply can't articulate what Aravis wants. He doesn't want to grant a woman total freedom to stay single and not submit to a husband she finds distasteful to her, because of course he doesn't think that should be a woman's right if the man is white and god-chosen. And I feel this dovetails with Aravis' strange and unprompted trust in Narnia as a good place: it is fundamentally a white place, so the threats of demons and sorcerers simply aren't real, and even if they were they would be good demons like Aslan and river-gods and good sorcerers like Coriakin and Ramandu.
Narnia is a world where women are still expected to submit to their lords and fathers and husbands and to give sex and babies on demand, but it's okay because these are white men, not brown Calormen. And of course Aravis can't explain that to Lasaraleen because it's a philosophy that only makes sense in racist double-speak. So instead she goes to talk to the horses.
Additionally, can we have a moment of pause to appreciate that it is "Lasaraleen's silliness" that makes Aravis like traveling with Shasta more than her lost fashionable life in Tashbaan? That sentence says worlds about Lewis' view of female relationships, of which there are a dearth in this series and the ones we do have are poison-barbed. (See: Lucy's "friendship" with the girl who bad-mouths her behind her back due to peer pressure, thus ruining their friendship forever for inadequately explained reasons.)
“You must go with a groom a little before sunset down to the Tombs,” she said. “No more of those packs. You’ll be saddled and bridled again. But there’ll have to be food in Hwin’s saddle-bags and a full water-skin behind yours, Bree. The man has orders to let you both have a good long drink at the far side of the bridge.”
“And then, Narnia and the North!” whispered Bree. “But what if Shasta is not at the Tombs.”
“Wait for him of course,” said Aravis. “I hope you’ve been quite comfortable.”
“Never better stabled in my life,” said Bree. “But if the husband of that tittering Tarkheena friend of yours is paying his head groom to get the best oats, then I think the head groom is cheating him.”
I suppose Lasaraleen is rich and money is nothing, but I note in passing that she's spending a good bit of coin on this adventure in addition to risking her life and social standing, so it might be nice if everyone manged to stop insulting her for a moment or three.
Aravis and Lasaraleen had supper in the pillared room. About two hours later they were ready to start. Aravis was dressed to look like a superior slave-girl in a great house and wore a veil over her face. They had agreed that if any questions were asked Lasaraleen would pretend that Aravis was a slave she was taking as a present to one of the princesses.
Be right back, writing a totally different version of this story where Aravis does fold herself invisibly into the ranks of superior servants and lives very well as a maid of a minor princess rather than crossing a desert into a snow-cursed land of ill-mannered barbarians and their violent gods.
The two girls went out on foot. A very few minutes brought them to the palace gates. Here there were of course soldiers on guard but the officer knew Lasaraleen quite well and called his men to attention and saluted. They passed at once into the Hall of Black Marble. A fair number of courtiers, slaves and others were still moving about here but this only made the two girls less conspicuous. They passed on into the Hall of Pillars and then into the Hall of Statues and down the colonnade, passing the great beaten-copper doors of the throne room. It was all magnificent beyond description; what they could see of it in the dim light of the lamps.
Presently they came out into the garden-court which sloped downhill in a number of terraces. On the far side of that they came to the Old Palace. It had already grown almost quite dark and they now found themselves in a maze of corridors lit only by occasional torches fixed in brackets to the walls. Lasaraleen halted at a place where you had to go either left or right.
“Go on, do go on,” whispered Aravis, whose heart was beating terribly and who still felt that her father might run into them at any corner.
“I’m just wondering …” said Lasaraleen. “I’m not absolutely sure which way we go from here. I think it’s the left. Yes, I’m almost sure it’s the left. What fun this is!”
I don't really have much more to say about the on-going hate for Lasaraleen because honestly it is weary-making. I am particularly frustrated with the fact that "what fun this is!" would not seem at all out of place in the mouth of Prince Corin, yet is girlish childish selfish badness in the mouth of a lady Tarkeena.
And I think that's the thing that cuts me most deeply with the portrayal of Lasaraleen: she can't win. Everything she does is wrong, not because her actions are wrong but because they're hers. When she is fearless, she is wrong because this isn't fun for Aravis so how dare she make the best of it. When she is fearful, she is wrong because only a fool wouldn't realize that Aslan made the eternal winter end. She is wrong when she is joyous and she is wrong when she is sorrowful. There is nothing she can do right because her actions cannot be divorced from her fundamentally wrong nature.
It hurts. And it's tiresome.
They took the left hand way and found themselves in a passage that was hardly lighted at all and which soon began going down steps.
“It’s all right,” said Lasaraleen. “I’m sure we’re right now. I remember these steps.” But at that moment a moving light appeared ahead. A second later there appeared from round a distant corner, the dark shapes of two men walking backward and carrying tall candles. And of course it is only before royalties that people walk backward. Aravis felt Lasaraleen grip her arm—that sort of sudden grip which is almost a pinch and which means that the person who is gripping you is very frightened indeed. Aravis thought it odd that Lasaraleen should be so afraid of the Tisroc if he were really such a friend of hers, but there was no time to go on thinking. Lasaraleen was hurrying her back to the top of the steps, on tiptoes, and groping wildly along the wall.
Here we have a little dig from Lewis, where Aravis finds it odd that Lasaraleen should be so afraid if the Tisroc were really such a friend of hers. The implication, of course, is that Lasaraleen has been name-dropping someone who barely knows and hardly cares about her, building up her status as more than it actually is.
This doesn't work, of course, if you know anything about the Tisroc (which Aravis ought to). It doesn't work if you know anything about royalty (which Lewis ought to). Lewis' own history is liberally littered with the bones of people put to death in spite of warm, personal relationships with the rulers who sentenced them.
This also doesn't work if you are worried about your well-being and imminent discovery (as Aravis is) and reasonably expect your friend to be so as well (as Lasaraleen has been urged to do). I cannot believe that Aravis would think "oh that's odd, I thought she was friends with royalty" as opposed to a more natural "oh no we're about to be discovered and she's as terrified for me as I am".
But of course, Lewis needs you to know that Lasaraleen isn't just a social climbing girly girl, but is in fact something worse: a socially grasping girly girl who isn't nearly as important to others as she likes to pretend to be. (And how could she be? She is a girly girl and who could ever value one of those?) And this was such an important piece of characterization that it needed to be inserted into a tense moment in an intrusive manner that doesn't fit Aravis or her state of mind at all.
“Here’s a door,” she whispered. “Quick.”
They went in, drew the door softly behind them, and found themselves in pitch darkness. Aravis could hear by Lasaraleen’s breathing that she was terrified.
“Tash preserve us!” whispered Lasaraleen. “What shall we do if he comes in here. Can we hide?”
There was a soft carpet under their feet. They groped forward into the room and blundered onto a sofa.
“Let’s lie down behind it,” whimpered Lasaraleen. “Oh, I do wish we hadn’t come.”
It is worth noting that for all that Lasaraleen has not been afraid in this chapter, she is now scared out of her wits. She has good reason to be: the Tisroc is the kind of man who would murder his own son if he persists in being disrespectful.
I will mention again that this is partly why I would love a Horse and His Boy rewrite where Prince Rabadash wasn't "faking nice" when he visited Narnia but was rather so relieved to be away from his violent and abusive father that he was able to slip into the role of someone he's always wanted to be: a polite, chivalrous, true prince courting the loveliest queen in the world. Only when he returned home did his old habits establish themselves and he became furtive and aggressive and angry in the dangerous domain of his father.
In my version, Rabadash would catch up with Susan and in an ensuing very short battle would be wounded by Edmund. In the downtime after that battle--when everyone is having their wounds tended and people are trying to work out how to diplomatically un-clusterfuck the situation before it escalates into a full-on war--Susan would have a private conversation with Rabadash and point out to him that he doesn't have to go back to Tashbaan. He could renounce the throne and live a comfortable life in Narnia away from his violent father. A lightbulb comes on and Rabadash becomes a capable advisor to King Peter and, many years later, the husband of Queen Susan.
None of which is relevant here except to say that I have a lot of feels about everyone living under the violent and cruel auspices of the Tisroc. (I have many more feels about the leader of Calormen being violent and cruel, when the same descriptions could well apply to a later King Caspian and yet for some reason never are.)
There was just room between the sofa and the curtained wall and the two girls got down. Lasaraleen managed to get the better position and was completely covered. The upper part of Aravis’s face stuck out behind the sofa, so that if anyone came into that room with a light and happened to look in exactly the right place they would see her. But of course, because she was wearing a veil, what they saw would not at once look like a forehead and a pair of eyes. Aravis shoved desperately to try and make Lasaraleen give her a little more room. But Lasaraleen, now quite selfish in her panic, fought back and pinched her feet. They gave it up and lay still, panting a little. Their own breath seemed dreadfully noisy, but there was no other noise.
“Is it safe?” said Aravis at last in the tiniest possible whisper.
“I—I—think so,” began Lasaraleen. “But my poor nerves—” and then came the most terrible noise they could have heard at that moment: the noise of the door opening. And then came light. And because Aravis couldn’t get her head any further in behind the sofa, she saw everything.
Let us here note that this is silly.
First came the two slaves (deaf and dumb, as Aravis rightly guessed, and therefore used at the most secret councils) walking backward and carrying the candles. They took up their stand one at each end of the sofa. This was a good thing, for of course it was now harder for anyone to see Aravis once a slave was in front of her and she was looking between his heels. Then came an old man, very fat, wearing a curious pointed cap by which she immediately knew that he was the Tisroc. The least of the jewels with which he was covered was worth more than all the clothes and weapons of the Narnian lords put together: but he was so fat and such a mass of frills and pleats and bobbles and buttons and tassels and talismans that Aravis couldn’t help thinking the Narnian fashions (at any rate for men) looked nicer. After him came a tall young man with a feathered and jeweled turban on his head and an ivory-sheathed scimitar at his side. He seemed very excited and his eyes and teeth flashed fiercely in the candlelight. Last of all came a little hump-backed, wizened old man in whom she recognized with a shudder the new Grand Vizier and her own betrothed husband, Ahoshta Tarkaan himself.
As soon as all three had entered the room and the door was shut, the Tisroc seated himself on the divan with a sigh of contentment, the young man took his place, standing before him, and the Grand Vizier got down on his knees and elbows and laid his face flat on the carpet.
That right there is the end of the chapter, and it's so bizarre to cut it here. It really ought to have cut off at "the noise of a door opening." Or, if one really must continue to the end of that paragraph, "she saw everything." To cut here is just anti-climactic and weird.
But, hey, we get to hear that Narnian fashions are so much prettier than Calormene fashions because real men wouldn't wear frills and tassels and pleats and buttons. And we also get a good dose of fat hatred and body-shaming of people with humped backs because Lewis is nothing if not willing to alienate me in every possible manner.
But at least we're through Chapter 7!