[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence, Misogyny, Sexual Violence]
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
I missed something in Chapter 7 that I want to go back to for a moment.
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.
Several of the commenters pointed out that this makes no sense--one doesn't think the Tisroc looks odd in his clothes any more than Catholics think that about the Pope (thank you Anton Mates)--but I skimmed over the bit where Aravis finds the Tisroc's clothes distinctly feminine. This is of course a well known racist trope about eastern cultures and fits with the sinful decadence tropes that Lewis is already rolling around in. The Tisroc looks silly not just because he is fat and opulent, but because he is opulent in a feminine way. So once again we have a feminized villain, just in the form of a man of color.
With that said, let's look at Chapter 8.
“OH-MY-FATHER-AND-OH-THE-DELIGHT-of-my-eyes,” began the young man, muttering the words very quickly and sulkily and not at all as if the Tisroc were the delight of his eyes. “May you live forever, but you have utterly destroyed me. If you had given me the swiftest of the galleys at sunrise when I first saw that the ship of the accursed barbarians was gone from her place I would perhaps have overtaken them. But you persuaded me to send first and see if they had not merely moved round the point into better anchorage. And now the whole day has been wasted. And they are gone—gone—out of my reach! The false jade, the—” and here he added a great many descriptions of Queen Susan which would not look at all nice in print. For of course this young man was Prince Rabadash and of course the false jade was Susan of Narnia.
Oh, hey, timeline details! Never have I been so grateful for these. So let's break down the order of events.
Morning. Aravis and Shasta enter the city.
Mid-Morning. Shasta is taken by the Narnians and Aravis is spotted by Lasaraleen.
Afternoon. Shasta spends time with the Narnians and Aravis is bathed by Lasaraleen.
Evening. Shasta escapes the city and Lasaraleen attends her party.
Night. Shasta sleeps among the tombs and Aravis sleeps in Lasaraleen's rooms. Narnians flee.
Morning. Rabadash sees the Narnian's ship is gone.
Afternoon. Aravis is dressed by Lasaraleen for this escape plan. The Horses are sent on. (I think?)
Evening. Aravis overhears Rabadash and the Tisroc.
So this would seem to establish that the Narnian flight had not occurred before or during Lasaraleen's party, and that she should not have known they had fled, since Rabadash himself didn't know until the morning after and wasn't sure until this afternoon. Which means she presumably doesn't know a war is imminent. This is curious, because while the timeline was never clear to me, I had talked myself around into believing that Lasaraleen did learn about their flight at the party because it made for more drama and explained her sudden animosity to Narnia afterwards.
So how then do we explain that? I suppose her coming back from the party with tales about how awful the country of Narnia is was just local gossip? The Narnians presumably weren't present at the party (because barge preparations) but they ought to have been the topic of discussion since they had created the impression of being ready to move forward with Rabadash's marriage proposal. Negative gossip at that stage would normally indicate the local nobility isn't 100% on board with their heir marrying Queen Susan.
I'm sure Lewis, if he thought about it at all, meant for the negative attitude of Lasaraleen and the Calormen nobles towards Narnia to be proof of their gossipy femininity and underlying badness. Good people instinctively like Narnia in this world, so it's not a stretch to assume that not liking Narnia indicates a bad and sinful personality. And I've no doubt that Lewis does see Lasaraleen as a bad girl in his worldview.
Yet it's interesting to me that he's once again contradicted his own canon: Lasaraleen is supposed to be foolishly enamored of Rabadash, which would normally cause someone of her supposed unserious personality to fawn over all things Narnia while he's courting their Queen. Until this afternoon, Narnia was in vogue with the crown prince, so it really ought to have been equally adored (though, of course, not necessarily respected or treated with dignity) by the crown prince's hanger-ons.
Lewis can't seem to write a consistent Sinner (in Lasaraleen's case, a flighty sycophant) because he can't resist throwing all the sins at her, even when they don't fit. And of course we've seen some of this with Aravis, as her sins come and go with total disregard for her actual personality. It's frustrating because it muddles any kind of meaningful moral lesson; there's not a consistent sin to avoid here, just "don't be someone Lewis hates".
Anyway, if we head-canon that the local nobility aren't thrilled about this plan to marry Rabadash to Queen Susan (which would normally be the case with this much anti-Narnia gossip going around at parties where the Narnians, and presumably Rabadash, aren't present), then that makes the Tisroc's slowness to act interesting. Did he delay Rabadash deliberately in order to give the Narnians more time to get away? Either way, it's more fodder for my fanfic where Rabadash has latched onto the Pevensies as a better family model than his abusive father.
“Compose yourself, O my son,” said the Tisroc. “For the departure of guests makes a wound that is easily healed in the heart of a judicious host.”
“But I want her,” cried the Prince. “I must have her. I shall die if I do not get her—false, proud, black-hearted daughter of a dog that she is! I cannot sleep and my food has no savor and my eyes are darkened because of her beauty. I must have the barbarian queen.”
First: A passionate dark-skinned man who intensely desires a beautiful white-skinned lady to the point of violence (both to himself and others) is a racist trope. That needs to be said first and foremost. It was racist when Lewis was writing and it's racist today. I don't believe this trope is one that can be "reclaimed" because the specter of dangerous lusty black men coming to rape our white women has been used for too long to justify horrific violence against men of color.
Second: It is noteworthy that again Lewis clings to his belief that white people are objectively prettier than non-white people. Rabadash isn't going after Susan because his pride was wounded or because her lands are valuable; even when he's spitting angry, she's praised for her beauty and one of the best "insults" he can come up with for her is that she's proud--technically a sin in the Christian canon, but not nearly on the same level (at least to Lewis) as the more feminine vanity.
Third: I know I've mentioned this before, but if you have any familiarity with the Thousand and One Nights the speech patterns here are ripped right out of those pages. The "o my [noun]" and the proverbs and poets that will be thrown around here are almost verbatim from those stories to the point where I find it impossible to believe that Lewis wasn't consciously mimicking that source material.
This is noteworthy because a lot of apologists like to insist that the Calormen don't really map to real world people of color and/or religions. Yet Lewis was directly and unapologetically ripping language, setting, clothing, food, and aesthetics directly from a piece of literature written by people of color with undeniable Muslim heritage, so that dodge is frankly bullshit in my considered opinion.
“How well it was said by a gifted poet,” observed the Vizier, raising his face (in a somewhat dusty condition) from the carpet, “that deep drafts from the fountain of reason are desirable in order to extinguish the fire of youthful love.”
This seemed to exasperate the Prince. “Dog,” he shouted, directing a series of well-aimed kicks at the hindquarters of the Vizier, “do not dare to quote the poets to me. I have had maxims and verses flung at me all day and I can endure them no more.” I am afraid Aravis did not feel at all sorry for the Vizier.
Sixty percent of the Thousand and One Nights is viziers quoting poets at people, especially the first few chapters when the frame story is being established. It doesn't matter one jot whether Lewis claimed to like the source material or not; he was still very clearly pillaging it for his own fiction. You don't get to take someone else's work wholesale and then frown and say "no, I don't see the similarities" when called on your racism and Islamophobia.
The Tisroc was apparently sunk in thought, but when, after a long pause, he noticed what was happening, he said tranquilly:
“My son, by all means desist from kicking the venerable and enlightened Vizier: for as a costly jewel retains its value even if hidden in a dung-hill, so old age and discretion are to be respected even in the vile persons of our subjects. Desist therefore, and tell us what you desire and propose.”
The vizier is Ahoshta, the man who is betrothed to Aravis, and once again we must ponder why he is vizier. Based on his physical description alone, he is a ninety-year-old Quasimodo with a hunched back and a hideous face. He's also low-born and detested by the other nobles. He is apparently rich, which fits with the idea of the "nobles of the robe", but without understanding why nobles of the robe existed. Low born nobles bought their title because the monarchy needed the money, but there's no indication that the Tisroc is strapped for cash. And they weren't put in major advisory positions like vizier unless they were liked or useful. Ahoshta is a bumbling sycophant which rules out him being useful, and the Tisroc clearly doesn't like or respect him so how is he in this scene.
It's the same problem as Lasaraleen having all the sins again rather than just one; Lewis can't write a believable Bad Vizier because he instills all the possible bad traits against him at once until we're left wondering how he even exists. He could be low-born but useful to the Tisroc, or noble but ugly and sycophantic, or rich in a country very much in need of his financing and willing to overlook all his other many terrible character traits. Or he could be an old friend of the Tisroc or devilishly handsome or otherwise beloved in some way that makes him overlook his incompetence. But he can't be ugly and useless and low-born and detested by literally everyone, because why then does the Tisroc have him here and why would Aravis be sold to him as a bride?
Why also does Lasaraleen speak so glowingly about him earlier? Doylistically, she needs to be wrong about Ahoshta because she's wrong about everything else; from a Watsonian perspective, she admires his money and possessions. But the Tisroc and Rabadash clearly despise the man! Would Lasaraleen (and the rest of the court) really fail to pick up on that, given the many obvious and evident reasons to despise Ahoshta? Lasaraleen is supposed to be a social climber, but unironic effusive praise for the vizier everyone hates would be socially disastrous! Possibly this is meant to be evidence of her ineptitude, except... Aravis' father apparently also thinks the sun shines from Ahoshta's butt.
So we are left baffled: Is the man obviously vile or not? Is this a division between Narnian standards (right and good) and Calormen ones (wrong and decadent)? But if the later, why is the Tisroc immune enough to hate Ahoshta but not so immune as to not employ him in his most trusted and most physically-close-to-him office?
While I'm demanding coherent characterization, what is Ahoshta getting out of this? He's beaten and kicked by the crown prince in this scene with the suggestion that this is a regular occurrence. Many men have put up with such things for the sake of power, but what power does he hold? There's no suggestion that the Tisroc values his advice, so he can hardly be assumed to be the power behind the throne. He may have smaller administrative power, but that is usually only valuable for lining one's pockets in the grift sense and Ahoshta is already rich. He doesn't need to be here and he doesn't seem to be getting anything in return.
Anyway, sorry to bang on. I'm just frustrated at how bad Lewis is at writing people.
“I desire and propose, O my father,” said Rabadash, “that you immediately call out your invincible armies and invade the thrice-accursed land of Narnia and waste it with fire and sword and add it to your illimitable empire, killing their High King and all of his blood except the queen Susan. For I must have her as my wife, though she shall learn a sharp lesson first.”
“Understand, O my son,” said the Tisroc, “that no words you can speak will move me to open war against Narnia.”
“If you were not my father, O ever-living Tisroc,” said the Prince, grinding his teeth, “I should say that was the word of a coward.”
“And if you were not my son, O most inflammable Rabadash,” replied his father, “your life would be short and your death slow when you had said it.” (The cool, placid voice in which he spoke these words made Aravis’s blood run cold.)
More fodder for the re-write in my head in which the Tisroc is an abusive parent and Rabadash needs serious counseling!
Setting that aside, the interesting part of this passage to me is that Rabadash has been to Narnia. He's met the people he's proposing to kill: Peter, Edmund, Lucy, and all the Animals of their court. And I guess humans from Archenland because Lewis balked at really wrestling with what an Animal-based country and court would look like and defaulted to Telmarines, er, Archenlanders like he has in all the other books and also Archenland was totally there all along and definitely a thing.
So when Rabadash says he wants to kill everyone because Susan had the temerity to run away from him, he's openly and honestly saying he wants to murder Queen Lucy simply because she's there. This makes him a dreadful person beyond any possible measure of the word, but in a weird way also kind of endeared him to me as a kid. I think it's because his anger is so over the top as to be utterly childish, he's like a very young kid who has been denied a thing he wants and has decided he will refuse to eat and hold his breath until he turns blue and also he wants everyone to die.
It's not cute in an adult man with an army at his disposal, but it somehow made him seem less threatening to me as a child. Possibly I thought he would grow out of it or didn't really mean it because it was simply so infantile. Maybe I wanted him to get counseling and far away from his father even then. Hard to say, really.
“But why, O my father,” said the Prince—this time in a much more respectful voice, “why should we think twice about punishing Narnia any more than about hanging an idle slave or sending a worn-out horse to be made into dog’s-meat? It is not the fourth size of one of your least provinces. A thousand spears could conquer it in five weeks. It is an unseemly blot on the skirts of your empire.”
“Most undoubtedly,” said the Tisroc. “These little barbarian countries that call themselves free (which is as much as to say, idle, disordered, and unprofitable) are hateful to the gods and to all persons of discernment.”
“Then why have we suffered such a land as Narnia to remain thus long unsubdued?”
“Know, O enlightened Prince,” said the Grand Vizier, “that until the year in which your exalted father began his salutary and unending reign, the land of Narnia was covered with ice and snow and was moreover ruled by a most powerful enchantress.”
“This I know very well, O loquacious Vizier,” answered the Prince. “But I know also that the enchantress is dead. And the ice and snow have vanished, so that Narnia is now wholesome, fruitful, and delicious.”
This is probably the most interesting part of the chapter and shows that Lewis can have a good idea once in awhile and can occasionally consider things from a character's limited point of view: What do the Calormen think about the Eternal Winter?
We never could decide whether the lifespans of the Animals were artificially lengthened during winter. I tend to think they were not. Doylistically, I believe Lewis meant for the Winter to be a symbol of life before Jesus' crucifixion, during which people certainly aged and died. Watsonianly, I feel it would be pretty godawful to have Aslan show up and suddenly people who have been alive for 100+ years start aging and dying again without warning.
On the flip side, if the Animals were not held in aging stasis, then most of them had never known spring when Aslan showed up. Great for an allegory of God's grace perhaps, but horrifying global warming if you spent your life knowing nothing but winter and now have to deal with floods as the ice melts, and heat waves as summer grinds in to invade your life. Aslan didn't stick around to explain any of this to the Animals, so I imagine round about mid-August there were probably panicked riots fueled by the assumption that the heat was just going to continue to infinitely rise.
But whether the Animals aged or not during the 100+ years of Eternal Winter, the Calormen people most definitely were not in stasis. They observed the turmoil in Narnia from afar. It is a little awkwardly phrased for Ahoshta to state that Narnia was under ice and snow when the Tisroc "began his reign" as while that is technically true, it was also under ice and snow Ahoshta's entire life. Even if he's in his nineties, the 100+ year winter is older than he is. But, okay, maybe if Tisrocs are really long-lived in this 'verse, this Tisroc's father reigned prior to Jadis' ascension. That seems unlikely--the math feels like it would be more probably his grandfather or great-grandfather--but we'll roll with it.
The thing is, Lewis is blatantly pillaging Arabic culture to fill in the country of Calormen, which means they should have scientists and mathematicians and philosophers and doctors. They would be looking at this little country which somehow defies all known laws of physics as they understand it and at least a few of them would try to work out why Narnia has no spring (and how everyone in it manages to not die). They might not actually travel there, but if they knew of the place it would be incorporated into their overall understanding of the larger world.
And while they apparently knew that the cause of the winter was an enchantress (how? did Jadis introduce herself to them at any point? was there trade between the kingdoms? did they only find out about her after she was defeated?), scholars and philosophers and mathematicians don't just stop there! A Wizard Did It is a starting point for scholars, not an end of discussion! How does she do that? Are there others? Could they come here? How does their power work? Can they be stopped? This isn't just a matter of navel-gazing; a sufficiently motivated winter-enchantress could wreck the ecosystem of a country. And has already demonstrably done that to Narnia!
So knowing all this, what do the finest minds of Calormen think about the rise of the Pevensies and the climate change accompanying their reign? What measures are they taking to protect themselves during a time of unprecedented upheaval in one of the apparently only other countries in the world? Was the courting of Susan by Rabadash motivated by a desire to understand this world better?
“And this change, O most learned Prince, has doubtless been brought to pass by the powerful incantations of those wicked persons who now call themselves kings and queens of Narnia.”
“I am rather of the opinion,” said Rabadash, “that it has come about by the alteration of the stars and the operation of natural causes.”
“All this,” said the Tisroc, “is a question for the disputations of learned men. I will never believe that so great an alteration, and the killing of the old enchantress, were effected without the aid of strong magic. And such things are to be expected in that land, which is chiefly inhabited by demons in the shape of beasts that talk like men, and monsters that are half man and half beast. It is commonly reported that the High King of Narnia (whom may the gods utterly reject) is supported by a demon of hideous aspect and irresistible maleficence who appears in the shape of a Lion. Therefore the attacking of Narnia is a dark and doubtful enterprise, and I am determined not to put my hand out farther than I can draw it back.”
Oh. Well, they don't actually seem very interested in the subject after all. Ahoshta thinks the Pevensies are witches like Jadis, yet doesn't seem particularly alarmed that those same witches nearly married into the Tisroc royal family and started potentially birthing heirs to the throne. Rabadash is looking to astrology as a natural cause in what may be the most bored sentence ever written. And the Tisroc believes that they have God, er, the Devil on their side.
This is kind of fascinating because we have two problems here. One is that the Tisroc doesn't seem to have met a Talking Animal. I mean, he knows they exist and I guess it's possible that one has come in with a delegation from time to time, but I also feel like sustained contact with a Talking Animal diplomat would undermine the certainty he has here that they're "demons in the shape of beasts". I can see this prejudice surviving a very brief encounter with a Talking Animal, but any sort of sustained conversation would, in my opinion, result in a very different spiel than what we have here. It reads like the Tisroc hasn't met many Animals, at least in my opinion.
And we already sort of knew that this problem exists because Bree and Hwin are certain that they can't speak up and say "oh hi I'm from Narnia, could you just let me go please?" without being put in a fair for people to gawk at. So we have the continued case where Calormen people have little-to-no contact with Narnian people.
But... how is that possible? Rabadash went to Narnia. In person! He jousted and won awards! He would have met Talking Animals and been waited on by Talking Animals and competed against Talking Animals and honestly should have been surrounded by them on all sides. Even if the Pevensies brought in twenty or thirty humans from Archenland to keep them company (and/or have sex with in the adult reboot of this novel), courts are made up of hundreds of people. Eighty percent or more of those people that Rabadash would have had to meet must have been Talking Animals.
Furthermore, Rabadash didn't go to Narnia alone. That is unthinkable. He would have had a retinue that would itself be fifty people or more. He came as a prince from a world power who believes itself to be superior to Narnia in every way; they would have wanted to make an impression. You know that song, Prince Ali, from the Disney movie Aladdin? That would have been Rabadash's retinue for gods' sake. And every single one of those people would also have met and interacted with Talking Animals. Even if not a single Talking Animal ever comes to Calormen to trade or for diplomacy, those people would have carried back stories. It is not possible that all of them believed they were conversing with demons. Words mean things and demons are demonic in personality if not in form.
Yet even the premise above is impossible, specifically the idea that no Talking Animals go to the country of Calormen to conduct trade or diplomacy. That is impossible because Narnia has diplomatic and trade relations with Calormen, and Narnians are Talking Animals. Okay, sure, there's some humanoid gods and dryads and merpeople, but it is flatly impossible that they are the only ones conducting the trade and diplomacy. For the country of Narnia to be engaged with the country of Calormen as the text insists, the people of Narnia would likewise have to interact with the people of Calormen.
Lewis just... can't write a country that isn't full of humans. This situation might work in a Telmarine world with this story being about Caspian or Rillian re-establishing trade relations after a long period of hostility, but it cannot work in a Pevensie time period. There were Animals in Narnia then, more than any human, and imports from Archenland just cannot fix this problem. (Even if they could, that would make the situation worse as it would suggest the human rulers instituted a human ruling class to subjugate the native Animals.)
The second big problem here is Aslan. Lewis wanted to have the Muslim, er, Tashian Tisroc hate Jesus with all the fiery intensity of a genuinely bad person (according to his theology of shivery feelings). So the Tisroc goes on a frothing rant about Aslan and what is "commonly reported" about him, as though this is all coming secondhand through spies and rumors.
Rabadash, the eldest son of the Tisroc and the heir to the throne, was about to be married to Queen Susan. He has spent a tremendous amount of time (relatively speaking) in the company of her brothers King Peter and King Edmund. The Pevensies are supposed to be over-the-moon in love with Aslan. They rule by his divine will. Their backstory of how they became kings is inextricably intertwined with the gospel of Aslan. Later, when they are human and in England, they will have weekly Aslan potluck dinners in order to get together and gush about Aslan.
Yet in all this time, not once has Aslan come up in a straightforward non-rumory way to the Tisroc and/or Rabadash? That's... that makes no sense. Doylistically, it would make Susan and Edmund terrible Christians (by Lewis' accounting) since they're not spreading the gospel of good news to the Calormen. Watsonianly, it makes even less sense. Not once did anyone ask the Pevensies how they came to be kings and queens of their own realm? Not once did Susan tell her suitor about her deep abiding love and close personal relationship with the god she cherishes and longs to see again? Not once did Edmund think to do the "Aslan test" to see if Rabadash shivered in the right way?
I'm going to close here because I've been writing this post for eight hours now and I need a typing break. But none of this makes sense. There's a good story underneath here that wants to come out into the sun and open its blossoms, but Lewis just pours sand over the whole thing. Going through this book actually hurts at times because you can see stories--many good stories--trying to peek out but they're never allowed to thrive. Instead we get this inconsistent undercooked mess to try to make sense of.
“Know, O enlightened Prince,” said the Grand Vizier, “that until the year in which your exalted father began his salutary and unending reign, the land of Narnia was covered with ice and snow and was moreover ruled by a most powerful enchantress.”
EDIT: I have just realized that in my weary state I totally misread this. If he's saying that Narnia was under an eternal winter until the Tisroc was crowned, then the timeline is that Jadis was defeated, Peter was crowned in Narnia, and the Tisroc was crowned in Calormen around the same time. Which means... the Tisroc has reigned for as long as Peter has? How old is Susan in relation to Rabadash??
I have no commentary on this development except that it makes everything seem even more weird to me.