Narnia: Be Swift, Secret, and Fortunate

[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence, Forced Marriage, Misogyny]

Narnia Recap: Aravis and Lasaraleen end up hiding in a room with the Tisroc. Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.

The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 8: In The House Of The Tisroc

If you'll recall, Aravis and Lasaraleen are hidden in a room and overhearing a conversation between the Tisroc, his son the crown prince Rabadash (and Susan's suitor), and the vizier Ahoshta (who is Aravis' suitor).

Spelling all that out has made me realize we have a lot of suitors in the room. Too many, in my opinion, especially if they aren't going to dovetail at all. It's almost a Chekov's gun that goes un-fired: Susan is fleeing from an unwanted marriage and Aravis is fleeing from an unwanted marriage. Both Rabadash and Ahosta have very recently and very publicly been jilted and humiliated.

How is there never a comparison or commiseration drawn between these two nearly-identical situations? Aravis and Susan never meet in this book, not even from a distance; it's Shasta who overhears the Narnians, and when Aravis arrives in Archenland it will be Lucy who takes her in hand to become friends and talk about dresses. Susan disappears from the pages, no longer needed once she's served her purpose as Helen of Troy and no longer wanted by the author who seems always to have held her in poor esteem.

Even if the girls can't get together, it's weird that the subject isn't brought up here. Ahosta might not feel safe offering up his situation in commiseration to the violent prince, but... then again, he is giving him pointless platitudes and being beaten for his trouble, so it's strange that he doesn't frame those platitudes as personal experience. He doesn't seem to notice or realize he's been jilted at all--which shouldn't be possible when Aravis' disappearance is widely known to the court and her father is openly searching for her. The court gossip would 100% be that she fled because of her impending marriage. There's no way any other conclusion would be drawn, so Ahosta must know.

But even if somehow, impossibly, Ahosta doesn't know he's been jilted, Aravis knows. Aravis knows and she's right here and she's arguably the point-of-view character for this chapter! She doesn't once think it's interesting or odd or noteworthy to hear that another woman is fleeing a similar match as she? She doesn't feel validated to hear that her choice to run to Narnia is being echoed by another girl--a girl who is fleeing an even better match than Aravis? Ahosta is old and base and merely a vizier, while Rabadash is young and royal and will someday be Tisroc! If a girl can flee that, then how much more is Aravis right in her decision?

Later in the next chapter, Lasaraleen will ask Aravis if she won't stay now that she's seen what a great man Ahosta is. Aravis replies that he's a "groveling slave" and she'd rather marry a scullion. Which is a little odd after they've just seen Rabadash threaten to legally hurt his intended wife, with the implication that this is something husbands can do in this society. (Or, at least, that it is not shocking if the crown prince does so.) Yet Aravis doesn't appeal to her freedom or her safety by drawing a comparison between Rabadash and Ahosta, despite the fact that the comparison is practically begging to be drawn.

It's bad writing that Lewis wrote two women and two men going through the same situation but with none of them noticing the similarities or drawing any attention to it whatsoever. But it very likely stems from bad thinking on his part that he did so. Ahosta is unacceptable because he is slave-like. Rabadash is unacceptable because he's dark and lusty and violent. They are objectively unacceptable husbands in his worldview. How their wives might feel about losing their safety and independence is irrelevant, because wives should lose their safety and independence upon marriage. They should just marry the "right" men so that if, say, any flogging happens without consent, we can be sure it was administered lovingly and for the right reasons. The above is Lewis' opinion on gods, of course, but it extrapolates to husbands.

I don't expect good writing from Lewis anymore (and marvel somewhat that I ever did), but I still find it monstrously vexing that we have two extremely unusual and perfectly parallel situations sitting in the room like an elephant and literally no one notices.


  “It is very grievous,” said the Tisroc in his deep, quiet voice. “Every morning the sun is darkened in my eyes, and every night my sleep is the less refreshing, because I remember that Narnia is still free.”

Welp, there it is. The Muslim expy characters drawn directly from The Thousand and One Nights hate us for our freedom.

  “O my father,” said Rabadash. “How if I show you a way by which you can stretch out your arm to take Narnia and yet draw it back unharmed if the attempt prove unfortunate?”
  “If you can show me that, O Rabadash,” said the Tisroc, “you will be the best of sons.”
  “Hear then, O father. This very night and in this hour I will take but two hundred horse and ride across the desert. And it shall seem to all men that you know nothing of my going. On the second morning I shall be at the gates of King Lune’s castle of Anvard in Archenland. They are at peace with us and unprepared and I shall take Anvard before they have bestirred themselves. Then I will ride through the pass above Anvard and down through Narnia to Cair Paravel. The High King will not be there; when I left them he was already preparing a raid against the giants on his northern border. I shall find Cair Paravel, most likely with open gates, and ride in. I shall exercise prudence and courtesy and spill as little Narnian blood as I can. And what then remains but to sit there till the Splendor Hyaline puts in, with Queen Susan on board, catch my strayed bird as she sets foot ashore, swing her into the saddle, and then ride, ride, ride back to Anvard?”

I don't really understand this plan to "take" Narnia by sweeping in and sitting on the throne for a few minutes and then sweeping back out. I understand how this gets Rabadash possession of Susan, but this is an act of war that in no way weakens or undermines Peter's power. If Peter is a witch or if he's supported by a demonic lion or if he has an army of demonic animals--in short if all the things the Tisroc fears are true--this plan does nothing to counter any of that. It just pisses him and everyone else off.

(Side note: Are there no Pevensies in the capitol? Edmund and Susan went to Calormen to make love, Peter when to the north to make war, and Lucy is in Archenland to... play? English kings tended to have multiple castles and cycle through them, so leaving the capitol isn't necessarily unusual, but if it's not unusual for them to leave, then Rabadash's brief occupation shouldn't have significant social or religious impact on the population in, say, a demoralizing sense. So, again, this plan doesn't really emasculate Peter in a tactically useful way.)

This chapter is a weird one because the Tisroc is supposed to be dangerously intelligent. He's characterized as cautious, but in a Machiavellian way: he's not fearful or hesitant, but rather he's trying to arrange the best deal for himself and his country. Later it will be revealed that he's just fine with giving Rabadash enough leeway to get himself killed because, hey, he's got more sons waiting in the wings and having a young, brash, rebellious son bucking your authority isn't a recipe for a long life.

I respect all that; it's decent villainous characterization. But it only works if the plan being approved is win/win all around for him. In this case, the Tisroc "wins" if Rabadash dies because he's eliminated a threat to his throne. But how does he "win" if this plan succeeds? His son will have kidnapped a foreign queen (and almost certainly raped her, which I doubt the Tisroc cares about from a morality perspective but it matters a great deal if she's a vengeful witch with magic powers and oh yeah now living in his palace) and angered a foreign power and... he gets what now?

The plan is being sold by Rabadash as giving the Tisroc power over Narnia. The problem is that it doesn't and the Tisroc ought to realize that and care. Not because it might fail, but because it might "succeed" exactly the way Rabadash is describing and then what?

  “But is it not probable, O my son,” said the Tisroc, “that at the taking of the woman either King Edmund or you will lose his life?”
  “They will be a small company,” said Rabadash, “and I will order ten of my men to disarm and bind him: restraining my vehement desire for his blood so that there shall be no deadly cause of war between you and the High King.”
  “And how if the Splendor Hyaline is at Cair Paravel before you?”
  “I do not look for that with these winds, O my father.”
  “And lastly, O my resourceful son,” said the Tisroc, “you have made clear how all this might give you the barbarian woman, but not how it helps me to the overthrowing of Narnia.”

Oh, okay! Yes, thank you. Ask the question, good! 

  “O my father, can it have escaped you that though I and my horsemen will come and go through Narnia like an arrow from a bow, yet we shall have Anvard for ever? And when you hold Anvard you sit in the very gate of Narnia, and your garrison in Anvard can be increased by little and little till it is a great host.”
  “It is spoken with understanding and foresight. 

 ...wait, no. That's not an answer!

The absolute best case scenario being offered here is that after riding into a kingdom and desecrating its capitol and kidnapping its monarch, then they'll have a tiny sliver of land to garrison at and "little by little" they can build up their forces there and then go to war?

They're already at war! There is no "little by little"! They overthrew a sovereign nation (Archenland) and invaded another (Narnia) and then think everyone is going to sit back and do nothing while they plan a second invasion? And what about the witches and demons and lions that were supposedly the reason they've never done this before?

Hell, if this mundane plan seems so great to them, why haven't they done it before since the Tisroc's eyes are so darkened by Narnia's freedom? This isn't a clever or new or interesting invasion plan! The only thing Rabadash is really adding into the invasion pot is his supposed Just Cause for invading, which basically boils down to him not getting the wife he wanted. Which isn't really a Just Cause anyway.

This section is just really flimsy and the Tisroc should be smarter than this.

  “It is spoken with understanding and foresight. But how do I draw back my arm if all this miscarries?”
  “You shall say that I did it without your knowledge and against your will, and without your blessing, being constrained by the violence of my love and the impetuosity of youth.”

Again, the problem with this plan isn't that it might fail. The problem is that the "success" Rabadash outlines will embroil them in a huge war against a country they are supposedly frightened of on account of it having witches and demons and an evil patron god.

  “And how if the High King then demands that we send back the barbarian woman, his sister?”
  “O my father, be assured that he will not. For though the fancy of a woman has rejected this marriage, the High King Peter is a man of prudence and understanding who will in no way wish to lose the high honor and advantage of being allied to our House and seeing his nephew and grand nephew on the throne of Calormen.”
  “He will not see that if I live forever as is no doubt your wish,” said the Tisroc in an even drier voice than usual.
  “And also, O my father and O the delight of my eyes,” said the Prince, after a moment of awkward silence, “we shall write letters as if from the Queen to say that she loves me and has no desire to return to Narnia. For it is well known that women are as changeable as weathercocks. And even if they do not wholly believe the letters, they will not dare to come to Tashbaan in arms to fetch her.”

I'm pretty sure we're supposed to sneer at this part of the plan because of course Peter would never abandon his sister to this fate. And sneer we do! But I find it interesting that Rabadash's misogyny isn't really that far flung from Lewis' misogyny. He does think women--or at least Susan--are as changeable as weathercocks.

I do think what Anton pointed out last time is fascinating in that Rabadash correctly guesses that Susan instigated the flight. She had been encouraging him and leading him on (per Edmund's advice) and was spirited away right before she was about to make a public announcement of betrothal. It is just as possible (as far as Rabadash should know) that Edmund disapproved of the match and took her away against her will. Indeed, it may well be arguably more plausible that this is what happened, since Edmund would hardly have made much of a secret of his distaste for Rabadash, as Polite Lying is one of the worst things a Manly Man can do in Lewis' world!

Yet Rabadash almost has to correctly guess Susan's motives in order for the plot to unfold the way Lewis wants it to. Because, for one, if the flight was something the Kings instigated against Queen Susan's will, then merely bringing her back and forging a letter saying she totally consents to this wouldn't fix things. The Kings would still disapprove of the marriage for whatever reasons they disapproved of before. This isn't something a good writer couldn't get around, however; there's always the "possession is 9/10ths of the law" option for a hopeful lover.

Which brings us to the real reason Rabadash assumes correctly; as Anton noted: Rabadash is more evil this way. If he were misinformed and genuinely believed he was rescuing Susan, he'd be doing something decent and understanding. He would be a Romeo riding in to rescue his Juliet. Even if he were wrong in his assumptions, his intent would be pure and that intent wouldn't be nothing in terms of his characterization and the punishment Lewis wants to inflict on him later. For the ending he wanted, Lewis needed a villain and so we have a violent dark-skinned Muslim-expy would-be rapist.

This is a shame for many, many reasons--the most egregious and obvious ones being the racism and Islamophobia--but also means that we don't grapple with the pros and cons of "leaving a note behind" or "having your Raven deliver a clear No after you've left" and other moral quandaries. Hell, if Lewis really wanted to challenge us, he could have cut out the Susan conversation that Shasta witnessed entirely and left us wondering why she'd fled. Was she sick? Was there an emergency? An Aslan sighting? An invasion? Ensorcelled? That would be an interesting book. I would read that book.

  “O enlightened Vizier,” said the Tisroc, “be-stow your wisdom upon us concerning this strange proposal.”
  “O eternal Tisroc,” answered Ahoshta, “the strength of paternal affection is not unknown to me and I have often heard that sons are in the eyes of their fathers more precious than carbuncles. How then shall I dare freely to unfold to you my mind in a matter which may imperil the life of this exalted Prince?”

Wait, he's only heard that sons are--

Does Ahosta not have any sons? Living or dead, like, no sons at all ever?

I messed up in a previous post by labeling him ninety; he is "at least sixty years old". But at that age and given what we know about him, he ought to have had at least one son in this society! This is a patriarchal world clearly patterned on primogeniture! He's a rich man with lands and wealth! Everything we've seen would point to a society where he needs a son to carry on his legacy. And while he might not have any surviving sons (accidents happen and so forth), he ought to at least have had one son at one point in his life. Long enough to know sons are carbuncles in their father's eyes rather than something he heard about once from a poet.

There's really only a few possibilities I can see here. One, Ahosta is a widower and his wife must have been infertile. This would also indicate that either this culture won't allow Ahosta to take another wife or a concubine or acknowledge a bastard--a thing that most primogeniture cultures absolutely allow because infertile wives exist--or that Ahosta had religious or moral reasons for not siring sons on other women. Two, Ahosta is gay or asexual, or in some way has, well, reasons for not siring sons on any women. And they'd have to be strong reasons--the loss of your name and property and legacy is a big deal in most primogeniture cultures. That's the point.

There's a third possibility that Ahosta himself is infertile and/or otherwise incapable of siring sons. But in that case, he should have an adopted son: a nephew or much younger brother or someone he's been raising as a surrogate to carry on his name and lands and houses and money and such. He would have an heir. He simply could not wait around until he was sixty, marry a teenager who may not even be of child-bearing age yet (we don't know how old Aravis is), and hope for the best. Primogeniture doesn't work that way. Even if it did and he did, he should be frantic that Aravis escaped. Like, replacing-her-immediately-with-a-new-bride frantic.

The fourth and Doylist possibility, of course, is that Lewis put zero thought into this character. This frustrates me because he ought to be a major character (as one of two men jilted by Protagonist Brides) and instead he comes off like a stereotyped caricature. His most defining feature in terms of the narrative--i.e., Being Aravis' Betrothed--feels like an afterthought. It would be entirely possible to forget in this scene that he's the entire reason Aravis is running away to Narnia!

  “Undoubtedly you will dare,” replied the Tisroc. “Because you will find that the dangers of not doing so are at least equally great.”
  “To hear is to obey,” moaned the wretched man. “Know then, O most reasonable Tisroc, in the first place, that the danger of the Prince is not altogether so great as might appear. For the gods have withheld from the barbarians the light of discretion, as that their poetry is not, like ours, full of choice apophthegms and useful maxims, but is all of love and war. Therefore nothing will appear to them more noble and admirable than such a mad enterprise as this of—ow!” For the Prince, at the word “mad,” had kicked him.

Ahosta's weird obsession with poetry is, for the record, also a racist stereotyped caricature. It's meant to Other him by highlighting something Lewis perceives as unusual and different about their culture (English men don't recite poetry and proverbs! They recite Psalms and Proverbs! Totally different.) while also feminizing and un-manning him.

  “Desist, O my son,” said the Tisroc. “And you, estimable Vizier, whether he desists or not, by no means allow the flow of your eloquence to be interrupted. For nothing is more suitable to persons of gravity and decorum than to endure minor inconveniences with constancy.”
  “To hear is to obey,” said the Vizier, wriggling himself round a little so as to get his hinder parts further away from Rabadash’s toe. “Nothing, I say, will seem as pardonable, if not estimable, in their eyes as this—er—hazardous attempt, especially because it is undertaken for the love of a woman. Therefore, if the Prince by misfortune fell into their hands, they would assuredly not kill him. Nay, it may even be, that though he failed to carry off the queen, yet the sight of his great valor and of the extremity of his passion might incline her heart to him.”

Ahosta points out that even if Rabadash were captured, the Narnians would not kill him because they would respect that he invaded their country for the love of a woman--which as we all know is very romantic. He even conjectures that, should Rabadash fail, he might still win his bride because Susan may be moved by his valor and be inclined to passion and so forth.

This follows the two interesting blind-spots of this chapter. One, they think Susan's consent--even her fake, manufactured consent--will be enough to seal the match and then Peter and Edmund will have no objections once her consent is obtained. This doesn't work given the Calormen culture we've been sold so far. Rabadash, Ahosta, and the Tisroc don't care about Susan's consent (they're planning to kidnap, rape, and imprison her so this is something of an understatement), but this is partly because they've been characterized as coming from an entire culture that doesn't care about women's consent. Women aren't allowed to choose their husbands because that's something their fathers do for them.

So while Susan's preference might sway Peter's decision in normal circumstances (as most societies which utilize arranged marriages hold an ideal of everyone involved being happy and content), it's highly unlikely that Peter is going to decide in Rabadash's favor after Rabadash just tried (and, in the given case above, failed) to invade him. And Susan can't decide in his favor because in Calormen culture women don't decide. Lewis knows that Susan has agency, but Ahosta shouldn't--and if he did know that about barbarian northern women, then much of this conversation would have gone very differently.

I think this passage is meant to further feminize Ahosta by having him think dreamy romantic thoughts about nobility and ardor and women's hearts. He's a fool for imagining Susan--a cold, logical, rational, northern, English, Christian woman--would consider a lusty kidnapping attempt to be a compliment. And we're meant to view him as a fool. But in order for him to have this fantasy, he has to have bought into the idea that women's consent matters, which in his culture it doesn't.

Strangely enough, such a fantasy of women's consent mattering does fit with actual historical romantic fantasies of the medieval time period Lewis loves so much. Yet surely the fantasy of women having agency isn't supposed to be part of the unrelentingly beaten drum of "oh look how silly Ahosta is". Or... is it? God, it might be. I can't tell how deep the rabbit hole goes with Lewis sometimes.

Moving on, the second problem here is that they're again planning for failure more than they're planning for success. Planning for failure is a good thing; it's a good idea to have a backup plan or two. But you do need to plan for success while you're making plans, and so far they don't have one. "Piss off Narnia and then squat at their doorstep on top of Archenland" is not a good strategy but they're ignoring that because Lewis didn't want to poke at it.

And this is weird when you think about it. I mean, Lewis isn't recording history, after all. This is fiction and he can make up anything he wants, so why not make Rabadash a real and credible threat? Why not have him go with a plan to kill Peter and establish himself there in Cair Paravel as the new king? "I'll sweep in with my armies, take over the castle, and rule by right of my royal spouse who I will control through relationship abuse" was a good enough plan for the Green Witch, so what has changed?

I can't put my finger on this one and it bothers me. Was Lewis just feeling kind of lazy and a snatch-and-grab was easier to logistic out so he made up "something something we'll own Archenland and make a garrison" and called it a day? Or did he want the threat of Rabadash's invasion to be low-level and non-credible? I understand why the idea of a small strike force appeals to the Tisroc--he's going to take advantage of the "disavow all knowledge of your actions" clause that comes with small strike forces--but the small strike force needs to actually do something that will benefit the Tisroc. The only thing this plan benefits is Rabadash's dick. I'm sorry to put it so baldly, but it's true!

It feels like a plot weakness, but I can't suss out why it is here--there are a lot of options and none of them are good.

  “The praise of my masters is the light of my eyes,” said Ahoshta. “And secondly, O Tisroc, whose reign must and shall be interminable, I think that with the aid of the gods it is very likely that Anvard will fall into the Prince’s hands. And if so, we have Narnia by the throat.”
  There was a long pause and the room became so silent that the two girls hardly dared to breathe. At last the Tisroc spoke.
  “Go, my son,” he said. “And do as you have said. But expect no help nor countenance from me. I will not avenge you if you are killed and I will not deliver you if the barbarians cast you into prison. And if, either in success or failure, you shed a drop more than you need of Narnian noble blood and open war arises from it, my favor shall never fall upon you again and your next brother shall have your place in Calormen. Now go. Be swift, secret, and fortunate. May the strength of Tash the inexorable, the irresistible be in your sword and lance.”

I like that paragraph, though. Without shame, really. If the entire chapter was that paragraph I'd have fewer complaints.

Really, the entire chapter could be that conversation. Aravis doesn't really need to know why Calormen hasn't invaded Narnia beforehand, and it just introduces needless entities that are never resolved. ("It has demons and I'm afraid of them." "Okay, what if I piss off the demons but don't kill any of them?" "Excellent plan.") Nor does Aravis need to know that the Calormen hate us for our freedoms. She just needs to hear that Rabadash is planning an invasion to kidnap Susan, done.

I try not to make the "why is this here" argument too often, because that tends to be a black hole from whence there is no escape. Arguably any portion of a book is unnecessary. Arguably any book is unnecessary. We write books (in part) for people to enjoy and that means writing lots and lots of scenes that might not be "needed" but together make a pleasing whole. But this scene here, this very long and very racist scene, adds little to the narrative and introduces a lot of stuff that just kind of hangs there, un-dealt with and unacknowledged.

Whereas, "Go my son. Take two hundred of your best fighters and retrieve the barbarian queen as you have said. But expect no help nor [etc]" would get the point across very well as is. There's a wealth of characterization in that single paragraph which shows that Lewis could write when he tried. It's a sharp and clear summary of the plan, and it's Machiavellian and comes from someone who doesn't care who knows it. Hell, it even establishes that Rabadash has a younger brother and is expendable.

The rest of the chapter just adds racism and awfulness.

  “To hear is to obey,” cried Rabadash, and after kneeling for a moment to kiss his father’s hands he rushed from the room. Greatly to the disappointment of Aravis, who was now horribly cramped, the Tisroc and the Vizier remained.

There's very little of the chapter left, but I have to go lie down so I will cut off here. More next time!


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