Repost: The Emperor's Hangwoman

[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: Death, Torture, Execution]

Narnia Recap: Peter, Susan, Lucy, and the Beavers have caught up with Aslan at the Stone Table.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 13: Deep Magic From The Dawn Of Time

   NOW WE MUST GET BACK TO EDMUND. When he had been made to walk far further than he had ever known that anybody could walk, the Witch at last halted in a dark valley all overshadowed with fir trees and yew trees. [...]
"No," said the dwarf, "it is no use now, O Queen. They must have reached the Stone Table by now."

As you'll recall, the three here -- Edmund, the Witch, and the Dwarf -- are arriving late to the Stone Table, much later than the party composed of Peter, Susan, Lucy, and the Beavers. This is odd because the Witch initially had the advantage of speed (with the sleigh) and a direct route (as opposed to the stealthy route that had to be taken by the other party). Certainly, the loss of the sleigh diminished the Witch's speed, but she carried on a forced march with the aid of a whip, while the Beaver-led party carried on a leisurely stroll, confident that they weren't in any hurry. So while the dwarf is right that the other children have reached the Stone Tablet, I find it interesting that he knows it.

   "Four thrones in Cair Paravel," said the Witch. "How if only three were filled? That would not fulfill the prophecy."

I also find it interesting that the Witch is really only now floating the idea that the prophecy could be thwarted by killing her human captive. It would seem like she would have thought about this long before now considering that the wording of the prophecy pretty clearly threatens her life and her reign:

   When Adam’s flesh and Adam’s bone
   Sits at Cair Paravel in throne,
   The evil time will be over and done."
   [...] "...down at Cair Paravel there are four thrones and it's a saying in Narnia time out of mind that when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit in those four thrones, then it will be the end not only of the White Witch's reign but of her life, and that is why we had to be so cautious as we came along, for if she knew about you four, your lives wouldn’t be worth a shake of my whiskers!"

So, really, when the dwarf is saying "what difference would it make [to thwart the prophecy] now that [Aslan] is here", he really should be reminded that the prophecy doesn't necessarily refer to the Witch's reign; it apparently refers to her life. So I would imagine it could make quite a bit of difference to Jadis, indeed, whether or not the prophecy-of-four is fulfilled. Aslan may not have let her rule since the dawn of time, but he's been more than happy to let her live since then. That's a pretty good incentive to kill Edmund right now, just to be safe. Or, really, to turn him into stone and shatter him, just so that the "flesh and bone" part of the prophecy can't be fulfilled to the letter.

   "I would like to have done it on the Stone Table itself," said the Witch. "That is the proper place. That is where it has always been done before."
   "It will be a long time now before the Stone Table can again be put to its proper use," said the dwarf.

So I would like to point out that this passage seems to me to indicate that Edmund isn't the first person to be slated for death on the Stone Table, and I would further conjecture that at least some of those people killed on the Stone Table were killed as part of its "proper use" as traitors condemned to death.

   "No," said the Witch. "There need be no flying. Go quickly. Summon all our people to meet me here as speedily as they can. Call out the giants and the werewolves and the spirits of those trees who are on our side. Call the Ghouls, and the Boggles, the Ogres, and the Minotaurs. Call the Cruels, the Hags, the Specters, and the people of the Toadstools. We will fight. What? Have I not still my wand? Will not their ranks turn into stone even as they come on? Be off quickly, I have a little thing to finish here while you are away."

Things I find of interest here:

  • 'Boggle' is apparently the Scottish variant of a Bogart, which is a household fairy that causes milk to go bad. Considering that Jadis names them fifth in the litany of the Gondor Calls for Aid, before even the Ogres, I have to wonder if Narnian Boggles are just that much more awesome or if she's going in geographical order or what. 
  • I'm also now wondering who provides the household milk in an economy for giant, sentient mammals -- does the butter on Mr. and Mrs. Beaver's table come from Cows or cows or what? 
  • Minotaurs are bull-headed men, so clearly are on the side of evil. As opposed, of course, to the man-headed bulls who we see both in this chapter and the last one and who are on the side of good, in addition to being incredibly creepy looking.
  • 'People of the Toadstools' sound even less useful than boggles in a fight. I mean, really? I thought I was kidding last week when I pointed out that the Narnian Toy Poodles and Chihuahuas wouldn't be much use in battle. However, we will at least give Lewis the benefit of the doubt and assume that his not-described People of the Toadstools do not look like this.

It also seems odd to me that the Local Despot doesn't really seem to have a standing army in the sense that Jadis can just say "go home and get the army". Instead we get this extremely convoluted "now Dasher, now Dancer, now Donner and Vixen!" call that names out each of the Witch's allies by group. This is probably for the benefit of the readers, but it's not really necessary; later, at the execution of Aslan, we'll get all these descriptions again, so it's not like this was needed, and it instead creates the very bizarre impression that the Witch has been running Narnia entirely by herself from her castle with just a small security force of wolves and a couple of dwarf-servants.

Even accounting for the whole wand issue, I'm just baffled that she's stayed in power this long. What is it with evil villains who don't have a staff? Susan and Edmund will have a whole contingent of Narnians on hand when they visit a foreign country in "The Horse and His Boy", which would seem to indicate that Narnia has some concept of delegation, but Jadis seems to be following some kind of Evil Overlord puritan philosophy where if you can't take over, run, and maintain a country entirely on your own bootstrapping merits, you don't deserve to be the local despot. How odd.

   Edmund found himself being roughly forced to his feet. Then the dwarf set him with his back against a tree and bound him fast. He saw the Witch take off her outer mantle. Her arms were bare underneath it and terribly white. Because they were so very white he could see them, but he could not see much else, it was so dark in this valley under the dark trees.
   "Prepare the victim," said the Witch. And the dwarf undid Edmund's collar and folded back his shirt at the neck. Then he took Edmund's hair and pulled his head back so that he had to raise his chin. After that Edmund heard a strange noise -- whizz -- whizz -- whizz. For a moment he couldn't think what it was. Then he realized. It was the sound of a knife being sharpened.

Alright, get the Edward Cullen vampire jokes out of your system.

There's something very odd about this scene, but I can't place my finger on what it is, precisely. The Witch is very intent on having this whole ritualistic ceremony, with the disrobing of her "outer mantle" and the ohh-la-la shock of the bare white arms that are so brightly white they're suddenly the only thing Edmund can see all of the sudden. Edmund is bound and very partially undressed, and then forced to watch (or, at least, listen) as a knife is produced and sharpened.

The ceremony drags things out for a reason, of course -- Edmund has to have time to be rescued. This wouldn't be possible, from a narrative standpoint, if the Witch had just shivved him five seconds into the chapter. I get that. And yet, it strikes me that Jadis seems really intent on doing this whole thing... right, for lack of a better word. Why?

Jadis really is the Emperor's hang-woman. Mr. Beaver mocks her for it, but Aslan seems to confirm it to be true, and we'll get to that in a moment. So she really does have a right to Edmund, and it would appear that she has the right to execute him under the circumstances she deems best for the situation. So knowing that time is of the essence, and that rescue is a possibility to be feared, she takes a tremendous amount of time to adhere to her usual ritual, despite the apparent fact that the ritual is entirely imposed on herself by herself. Neither Aslan nor the Emperor apparently specified these rules.

Which begs the question: why bother right now? Does this ceremony do something for her? Does it give her some kind of satisfaction that she can't bear to give up, even considering the dire need for haste at the moment? Does it provide her with some sort of power that she needs for the battle to come? Is she just extremely devoted to her routine?

And does it make sense for the Emperor to hand over the job of executioner to someone who gets power or pleasure from it? I know, I know: Because... Deep Magic. Or Jasper.

   At that very moment he heard loud shouts from every direction -- a drumming of hoofs and a beating of wings -- a scream from the Witch -- confusion all round him. And then he found he was being untied. Strong arms were round him and he heard big, kind voices saying things like --
   "Let him lie down -- give him some wine -- drink this -- steady now -- you'll be all right in a minute."
   Then he heard the voices of people who were not talking to him but to one another. And they were saying things like "Who's got the Witch?" "I thought you had her." "I didn't see her after I knocked the knife out of her hand -- I was after the dwarf -- do you mean to say she's escaped?" " -- A chap can't mind everything at once -- what's that? Oh, sorry, it's only an old stump!" But just at this point Edmund went off in a dead faint. [...]
   When the other children woke up next morning (they had been sleeping on piles of cushions in the pavilion) the first thing they heard -- from Mrs. Beaver -- was that their brother had been rescued and brought into camp late last night; and was at that moment with Aslan. As soon as they had breakfasted they all went out, and there they saw Aslan and Edmund walking together in the dewy grass, apart from the rest of the court. There is no need to tell you (and no one ever heard) what Aslan was saying, but it was a conversation which Edmund never forgot. As the others drew nearer Aslan turned to meet them, bringing Edmund with him.

One thing that really frustrates me about Lewis' writing style is that he has a habit of providing details that he knows are unimportant and then completely side-stepping the stuff that is really crucial. We will pretty much never come to an agreement on quite a lot of things in the Narnia mythos because so much of it is open-ended, but we are at least told that the children slept on cushions and were informed of Edmund's rescue by Mrs. Beaver. Thank god for that, because if we'd missed those details, it would have just ruined my immersion.

   Edmund shook hands with each of the others and said to each of them in turn, "I'm sorry," and everyone said, "That's all right." And then everyone wanted very hard to say something which would make it quite clear that they were all friends with him again -- something ordinary and natural -- and of course no one could think of anything in the world to say.

And those are the last official words spoken by child!Edmund for the book. Good-bye, Edmund! Enjoy your off-screen character development as a reformed sinner! We look forward to seeing you heroically-but-mortally wounded later!

   The leopard went away and soon returned leading the Witch's dwarf. [...]
   "The Queen of Narnia and Empress of the Lone Islands desires a safe conduct to come and speak with you," said the dwarf, "on a matter which is as much to your advantage as to hers."
   "Queen of Narnia, indeed!" said Mr. Beaver. "Of all the cheek -- "

I'm increasingly liking the opinion that some of you have offered that Mr. Beaver is not an author avatar set to dispense bizarre lore-breaking Platonic philosophies, and is instead the rather embarrassing racist grandfather or uncle who makes extended family gatherings intensely uncomfortable.

This would certainly go a long way towards explaining his completely forgetting the silent awe of being in his Lord's presence in order to instead interject snarky grumblings into the solemn proceedings. I mean, I'm pretty sure that the pavilion has something like two or three dozen entities in it at this point and I'm pretty sure that none of them asked Mr. Beaver's opinion at this time.

But, then, it's worth noting that unless we go with the "slowed time" theory of eternal winter where everyone alive now was also alive 100+ years ago when the Witch first took up residence -- and, for the record, I'm not -- no one in Narnia really knows how to behave under a monarchy any more than they know how to live under a weather system of four changing seasons. So maybe Mr. Beaver just doesn't realize that his behavior is kind of inappropriate for a solemn meeting of opposing powers.

Apparently, the Witch has been doing the whole despot thing on a strictly patrol basis, with her and a few spies scouring the countryside for disloyal people and turning them into stone. She's apparently had no court, no army, no navy, and no civil service. I assume she's had no taxes because the populace can't be producing much during the eternal winter. The Pevensies are going to have a long row to hoe when they become monarchs... and they'll be doing it without the help of Aslan (he disappears), without the help of the Animals around them (they lack experience), and with nothing more than a primary school education under their belts. Thank god they have the "monarch genes", I guess.

   "Peace, Beaver," said Aslan. "All names will soon be restored to their proper owners. In the meantime we will not dispute about them. Tell your mistress, Son of Earth, that I grant her safe conduct on condition that she leaves her wand behind her at that great oak."

Why does she need to leave the wand behind? She can't turn Aslan into stone, he can restore anyone she does turn into stone, and he's obviously not worried about the peace of mind of his people or he wouldn't have sent them out to her in the first place. Indeed, it would be a very good thing if she broke the terms of the peace right here and now, because then Aslan could kill her without any mark on his conscience, and no one would have to die in the coming sacrifice and subsequent battle.

Also, this seems like an absolutely astonishing leap of faith for Peter to take given that both he and his sister have been placed in mortal danger by this Lion in the last few hours. I suppose it might make sense if Peter has decided Aslan has powers of precognition, but I see no reason for him to assume that.

   A few minutes later the Witch herself walked out on to the top of the hill and came straight across and stood before Aslan. [...] It was the oddest thing to see those two faces -- the golden face and the dead-white face -- so close together. Not that the Witch looked Aslan exactly in his eyes; Mrs. Beaver particularly noticed this.

I quote this section only to ask someone to explain why Mrs. Beaver noticed anything particularly. She won't appear in the book again except as a quick-mention near the end: she's the head battle nurse in the upcoming battle.

   "You have a traitor there, Aslan," said the Witch. [...]
   "Well," said Aslan. "His offense was not against you."
   "Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?" asked the Witch.
   "Let us say I have forgotten it," answered Aslan gravely. "Tell us of this Deep Magic."

Aslan has to ask because this is a book, and the reader isn't going to know this stuff. And yet... this is a third-person narrated book! This isn't "if Bella doesn't see the conversation, we don't hear about it" first-person land -- we're hearing thoughts and seeing things through minor characters like Mrs. Beaver.

There's no reason why the Witch and Aslan couldn't go off and have a nice private conference to discuss all this and come to the same conclusions and the reader could have the same exposition from the narrator and -- and this is key -- Edmund wouldn't have to hear Aslan confirm that the Emperor totally signed his death warrant at the dawn of time.

Later in the book, Lucy and Susan will have a discussion about whether or not they should tell Edmund that Aslan died in his place and whether or not the knowledge would give Edmund a guilt complex. It's worth pointing out that if Aslan wanted to be really selfless, he could have thought of that in advance and arranged things so that none of the Pevensies had to see or know of his sacrifice. And yet... he doesn't.

Either Aslan doesn't look ahead as well as Peter thinks he does, or he seems to feel like his sacrifice needs witnesses -- even if they are small children who may be utterly traumatized by witnessing a brutal execution or by learning about it after the fact, along with the knowledge that that was supposed to be you.

And... to a certain extent, that doesn't seem very sacrificing to me. We already know that Aslan knows he's gaming the system -- he'll feel the pain, but he won't stay dead. So not only is he not really giving up his life, he's not really sparing the Pevensie children from trauma and pain. He could, but he doesn't.

   "Tell you?" said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. "Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the fire-stones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the scepter of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill."
   "Oh," said Mr. Beaver. "So that's how you came to imagine yourself a queen -- because you were the Emperor's hangman. I see."
   "Peace, Beaver," said Aslan, with a very low growl.

And now we have the legal fine-print.

It's strange to me that the World Building Rules were duplicated across three different places, but maybe it fits into a sort of "mystic secrecy" theme. No one ever sees the Emperor's scepter because no one goes to the Emperor's country until they die, and no one (presumably) goes to the Secret Hill to brush up on their legalese, and though we don't know everything we could about the state of literacy in Narnia, it seems very likely to me that the runes carved into the Stone Table are not a language that many of the denizens are familiar with. So while on the face of it, it would seem unfair and useless for the laws to be written in words-no-one-can-read and in places-no-one-can-go, it's okay because they're magic laws.

And it's something of a shame that we don't get to read the legalese and see the real fine print; instead we just get the Witch's possible approximation of it. Does the law really say that every traitor belongs to her and that for every treachery she has a right to kill? How is 'traitor' defined? How is 'treachery' defined? provides these non-legal definitions:

traitor. a person who betrays another, a cause, or any trust.
treachery. an act of perfidy [deliberate breach of faith or trust], faithlessness, or treason.

By this definition, Mr. Tumnus deserves death, for betraying the cause and trust of his employer, the Witch. Heck, I'd argue that by this definition Aslan deserves death, for breaching Susan's faith and trust by forcing her to dangle a few dangerous seconds longer so that Peter could 'earn his spurs' and save her instead of someone nearer to her.

What I wouldn't argue is that Edmund deserves death, because I would maintain that for "betray" to have any meaning in a legal system, it requires knowledge, deliberation, intent, and freedom from compulsion -- and we've been told, by the narrator, that Edmund did not fully realize that the Witch would hurt his brother and sisters...

   You mustn't think that even now Edmund was quite so bad that he actually wanted his brother and sisters to be turned into stone. He did want Turkish Delight and to be a Prince (and later a King) and to pay Peter out for calling him a beast. As for what the Witch would do with the others, he didn’t want her to be particularly nice to them -- certainly not to put them on the same level as himself; but he managed to believe, or to pretend he believed, that she wouldn’t do anything very bad to them

...and that he's being compelled by the power of the magic he ingested to obey the Witch's orders in a desperately hungry bid for more of the magic food. Indeed, the magic food has supposedly altered him to the point where Mr. Beaver claims he can recognize the Witch's victims on sight.

These are not trivial objections. The law is rarely black-and-white and with good reason: it is almost impossible to write a just law which will deal fairly with every possible circumstance. This is one of the many reasons why we have legal systems with courts and juries and lawyers and judges -- the idea being that together, as rational beings, we can arrive as a form of justice we can be satisfied with. But there is no wiggle-room in Narnia, and the "no traitors" law doesn't have to be just.

   "And so," continued the Witch, "that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property."
   "Come and take it then," said the Bull with the man's head in a great bellowing voice.
   "Fool," said the Witch with a savage smile that was almost a snarl, "do you really think your master can rob me of my rights by mere force? He knows the Deep Magic better than that. He knows that unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water."
   "It is very true," said Aslan, "I do not deny it."

Considering the melting of 100 years' worth of snow build-up, it's pretty much all perished in water already. All that's missing is the fire, I would think.

   "Oh, Aslan!" whispered Susan in the Lion's ear, "can't we -- I mean, you won't, will you? Can't we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn't there something you can work against it?"
   "Work against the Emperor's Magic?" said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.

I find two things interesting about this here.

First, Susan whispers her suggestion to Aslan. She's not speaking up in the meeting like Mr. Beaver or Mr. Bull-With-Human-Head. She's conversing privately with Aslan. Maybe it's because she recognizes that these outbursts are embarrassing to Aslan's authority, or maybe because she's really trying to take this whole Santa-mandated-femininity to heart, but she's trying to communicate to Aslan quietly, without drawing attention to herself. And... Aslan apparently calls her out publicly, because I see no other reason why nobody would ever dare make that suggestion again if they hadn't clearly heard his response to her. So... classy.

The second thing is that what Susan calls "Deep Magic", Aslan calls "the Emperor's Magic". This indicates to me that the Emperor isn't bound by the Deep Magic in a "sure, it sucks to put 9-year-olds to death for completely nonsensical reasons, but what can you do" kind of way, but rather that he created the Deep Magic, and planned it this way: if ever a 9-year-old isn't put to death in Narnia for completely nonsensical reasons, the whole country and everything in it will be destroyed. Why? Well, that's a very good question. You see, SHUT UP THAT'S WHY.

Is there an answer for this besides well, that's just how fictional fantasy world building magic works and how does that answer then mesh with the fact that there's a 'forever' escape clause built in? Shoot, how does it mesh with the fact that it hinges on Narnia being pretty much The Whole World instead of the Small Country it later becomes, and how does it mesh with the fact that it hinges on the life of a person who was not immortal when the world was called into being (and therefore theoretically wouldn't be the Magic-Sponsored Executioner for very long)? The only way this makes sense to me is as a Christian atonement metaphor that's been wrung through a washer a few times over until it's been stretched to include "and also 9-year-olds are sentenced to death for nonsensical reasons."

   "Fall back, all of you," said Aslan, "and I will talk to the Witch alone."
   They all obeyed. It was a terrible time this -- waiting and wondering while the Lion and the Witch talked earnestly together in low voices. Lucy said, "Oh, Edmund!" and began to cry. Peter stood with his back to the others looking out at the distant sea. The Beavers stood holding each other's paws with their heads bowed. The centaurs stamped uneasily with their hoofs. But everyone became perfectly still in the end, so that you noticed even small sounds like a bumble-bee flying past, or the birds in the forest down below them, or the wind rustling the leaves. And still the talk between Aslan and the White Witch went on.

Emperor's Magic or Deep Magic or Silly String Magic, it's not something the Narnians can work against. If Aslan says that it's not possible or not advisable to work against the magic, well... I guess you have to believe it. That's how the world is.

But what saddens me is how many of the Narnians accept it. For whatever reason, whether he has control over it or not, their Emperor-God is a blood-god. He doesn't do the killing himself (he outsources that to the employees) and he picks out sacrifices that will not be missed: no virgin girls or lovely young boys for this god, just the treasonous and the treacherous (even if they happen to be children, even if they happen to be coerced). But still, he's a blood-god demanding sacrifices in exchange for their lives, for their survival.

Maybe that's the way the world works. Maybe there's no point in questioning it. But I'm not sure that's automatically a reason to accept it. Maybe they can't help but fear the Emperor, but they don't have to worship him. Maybe they can't help but obey Aslan, but they don't have to love him. And maybe they can't help but hate the Witch, but they don't have to refuse to see that she's employed by their god.


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