[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence, Forced Marriage, Misogyny]
Narnia Recap: Aravis and Lasaraleen are alone now that the Tisroc has left the room where they were hiding. Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.
The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 9: Across the Desert
I want to say that I've been really enjoying the comments on how this book was a favorite in the series for many of you since it showed cultures and people within Narnia that weren't Default British Child #58. I really think this illustrates how thirsty many readers are for viewpoints that aren't the mainstream white-cis-straight-western normative we were fed as children.
I don't know if many of you are on Twitter, but the #ownvoices hashtag includes fantasy stories written by people of color and queer folk, and might be right up your alley. I also can't strongly enough recommend "indie" literature (i.e., stuff published outside the mainstream) because the mainstream has a habit of squeezing and changing and filtering things through that white-cis-straight-western viewpoint in an attempt to make everything homogenous for the privileged.
Anyway, there's my soapbox for the day but the short version is that books are great. <3
We come now to Chapter 9, which is a bit of a mess. It feels like a chapter that really doesn't want to be here and yet sorta has to be: In Which They Slog Through a Desert and Nothing Much Happens. (Not to be confused with the bit in Prince Caspian where they slog through a forest and nothing much happens.) Chapters like these are hard to write because there's stuff in them that needs doing, but it's not interesting stuff. (Depending on the reader, ymmv, standard disclaimers apply.)
One thing an author can do to make the filler chapters not be so boring is to include character development. And I think Lewis kind of tried? There's even some bits here that show some minor self-awareness? But it's like watching him wrestle with a really large fish; every time he thinks he has a handhold on the "bad" kinds of sexism, his grip slips and we're slapped in the face by a stinky slimy bundle of nope.
But, hey, let's dig in!
“HOW DREADFUL! HOW PERFECTLY dreadful!” whimpered Lasaraleen. “Oh darling, I am so frightened. I’m shaking all over. Feel me.”
“Come on,” said Aravis, who was trembling herself. “They’ve gone back to the new palace. Once we’re out of this room we’re safe enough. But it’s wasted a terrible time. Get me down to that water-gate as quick as you can.”
“Darling, how can you?” squeaked Lasaraleen. “I can’t do anything—not now. My poor nerves! No: we must just lie still a bit and then go back.”
“Why back?” asked Aravis.
“Oh, you don’t understand. You’re so unsympathetic,” said Lasaraleen, beginning to cry. Aravis decided it was no occasion for mercy.
“Look here!” she said, catching Lasaraleen and giving her a good shake. “If you say another word about going back, and if you don’t start taking me to that water-gate at once—do you know what I’ll do? I’ll rush out into that passage and scream. Then we’ll both be caught.”
“But we shall both be k-k-killed!” said Lasaraleen. “Didn’t you hear what the Tisroc (may he live forever) said?”
“Yes, and I’d sooner be killed than married to Ahoshta. So come on.”
“Oh you are unkind,” said Lasaraleen. “And I in such a state!”
I don't like to criticize Aravis because, well, first of all she is a beautiful badass warrior goddess who deserves only my worship. But less facetiously, I am aware how our culture of racism, misogyny, and misogynoir leads to unfair and over-amplified criticism of women of color. I am also aware that Aravis is a woman of color written by a white man. I want my criticism to fall squarely on the shoulders of the privileged white man responsible for writing her, as opposed to falling on the marginalized brown woman who had no agency in the way she was written. So I want to frame criticism of this passage in particular and of her character in general in very careful ways.
Aravis, as written here, is not very sympathetic. She is cruel and unkind to the friend who has been taking care of her without asking even a kind word in return and while risking a very great deal in the process. Lewis doesn't go into the details--possibly because he doesn't care--but Lasaraleen could be executed by the Tisroc for helping Aravis escape, or her husband could be rendered destitute and exiled. Even if the Tisroc never learns of all this, it's very possible that Lasaraleen's husband might and that could put her in danger of being beaten or otherwise punished. We've seen nothing to indicate that this society treats women as anything other than property, and Rabadash's threats on how he plans to deal with Susan indicates spousal violence may be normalized in their culture.
Now, it may be that Aravis' unsympathetic actions here are a deliberate character choice. Not all characters have to be angelic representations of perfection. Indeed, it would be in keeping with Lewis' themes for this book if, say, Aravis had some kind of sinful character flaw in need of forgiveness. He edges around Aravis' pride and self-centeredness here in the same way that he'll edge around Bree's pride and haughtiness later in the chapter. Character development! Maybe!
A problem with that is: I'm not sure if Lewis realizes Aravis is wrong here, partly because he has all kinds of issues with Lasaraleen as he's written her. So we get a belated apology from Aravis later (I’m sorry if I’ve been a pig, which is a very English statement and sounds very off to me coming from a culture ripped from a predominantly Muslim setting), but it's unclear if she doesn't mean it because she thinks she was fundamentally in the right to treat Lasaraleen the way she did, or if she doesn't mean it because Lewis thinks she was fundamentally in the right. It is very hard to have a proper redemption narrative when the victim is painted by the author as a silly bint who kinda deserved it. Even when the reader disagrees (as I do), the problem ripples out to infect the narrative.
For example, later Aslan will punish Aravis for leaving her maid in the lurch in a way that Aravis might reasonably expect would lead to her being harmed. Setting aside my extreme reservations about a god who punishes women for the actions of abusive men, if Lewis really wanted to lay out a case for Aravis needing a personality change (as opposed to a one-time necessary evil she was forced into doing), he has a situation here where she... leaves her friend in the lurch in a way that Aravis might reasonably expect would lead to Lasaraleen being harmed.
She doesn't even try to find another way; she just bullies and threatens Lasaraleen into following the original plan and then scarpers and never thinks twice about her friend again. I am not saying she doesn't have good reason, nor do I want to hold her to an impossible (and double) standard of perfect feminine politeness, but I am saying that we at least have a consistently arguably flawed character and that would be a good draw card to have for the conversion scene. Except... it sits there on the mantle, never fired. And I have to wonder if the reason this subject is never touched again is because Lewis really doesn't care about Lasaraleen. She probably goes back to her silk sheets and rolls around on pearls and has a delectably sinful life like those women do, etc. Why worry about her?
This, of course, rather muddles the message that Aravis is the one who needs to change, when she's being held up as a better example for womankind than Lasaraleen. And it undermines the moral of the story when the Lost Maid comes up later in the book, because it seems telling that Lewis would rather have a nameless faceless victim than the one we actually got to know and sympathize with. Almost as if the only women who can live up to his standards are ones he doesn't have to think about too closely.
I'm getting ahead of myself, however.
But in the end she had to give in to Aravis. She led the way down the steps they had already descended, and along another corridor and so finally out into the open air. They were now in the palace garden which sloped down in terraces to the city wall. The moon shone brightly. One of the drawbacks about adventures is that when you come to the most beautiful places you are often too anxious and hurried to appreciate them; so that Aravis (though she remembered them years later) had only a vague impression of gray lawns, quietly bubbling fountains, and the long black shadows of cypress trees.
When they reached the very bottom and the wall rose frowning above them, Lasaraleen was shaking so that she could not unbolt the gate. Aravis did it. There, at last, was the river, full of reflected moonlight, and a little landing stage and a few pleasure boats.
“Good-bye,” said Aravis, “and thank you. I’m sorry if I’ve been a pig. But think what I’m flying from!”
The only mention I can find in the text of Lasaraleen's husband is that he's "away". I may well be missing something (it's been awhile since I posted on the previous chapters), but I don't think we ever get a sense of what Lasaraleen's husband looks like, what kind of character he has, or whether she enjoys being married to him. Lasaraleen gives the appearance of enjoying being married, but that could be an act, or it could be appreciation for her higher status as a married woman (as opposed to a mere daughter), or it might be indicative of a worse home life that she's fled. We don't know. Aravis doesn't ask and Lewis doesn't care.
So stuff like this--"think what I'm flying from"--tends to jar me from the narrative because I have to wonder what does Lasaraleen think about all this? And at least some of her perspective would depend on her current circumstances, about which we know very little. Is her husband kind? Is he young or old? (Both of which have their own advantages and drawbacks.) Is he faithful to her? (Again, pluses and minuses here.) What, if anything, are his expectations for her as his wife? Is she there to be decoration to show off to guests? A capable hostess to further his political career? A bearer of his first and most important heirs? A pretty little toy given that he already has heirs from a previous marriage? We don't know any of these things, which makes it hard to comprehend Lasaraleen's motivations and thought processes.
I don't demand that every character come with a wikipedia entry on their hopes, dreams, and living situation at home. But we've spent three chapters with this character (and at least two whole conversations about marriage and married life!) and we still know nothing about her. Except that she's empty-headed and flighty and childish and shallow and Aravis doesn't actually like her as much as she remembers. Which is (a) not a good feather in Lewis' cap of no-really-I-totally-respect-women-honest and (b) makes for a poor narrative because every conversation with Lasaraleen is laced with a minefield of Characterization Questions That Shall Not Be Addressed.
Case in point:
“Oh Aravis darling,” said Lasaraleen. “Won’t you change your mind? Now that you’ve seen what a very great man Ahoshta is!”
“Great man!” said Aravis. “A hideous groveling slave who flatters when he’s kicked but treasures it all up and hopes to get his own back by egging on that horrible Tisroc to plot his son’s death. Faugh! I’d sooner marry my father’s scullion than a creature like that.”
Why does Lasaraleen call Ahoshta a "great man"? Doylistically it's because she's wrong and silly and stupid, but I want a Watsonian reason. Is this a reference to his money? (Would Aravis be financially set as his wife if he died after marriage and without heirs?) Is it a reference to his proximity to the Tisroc? Is she just scared as fuck for Aravis and this suicidal desert crossing plan and she's saying things she doesn't believe in an attempt to keep her here? Why is she saying this thing? There are a million things she could say to keep Aravis here (our friendship! your father! the desert is deathy!) but she landed on "Ahoshta is a great man!" so there must be a reason why she uses that as a lure as opposed to any other lure in the tackle box!
“Oh Aravis, Aravis! How can you say such dreadful things; and about the Tisroc (may he live forever) too. It must be right if he’s going to do it!”
And then there's this.
I glossed over it earlier, but Aravis just committed grave treason and/or blasphemy by calling the Tisroc "horrible". She also appears to have committed an unthinkable cultural faux pas by calling him "that" Tisroc, by which I mean that if the Tisroc is eternal and lives forever then it would be very gauche for people to reference previous Tisrocs who turned out to be distressingly mortal. (Yes, the Tisroc mentioned previous ones earlier, but it is a very different thing to reference when you're the Tisroc yourself.) Indeed, as there is no reason for "that" to differentiate here between multiple Tisrocs, it would seem the word is used here purely in the derogatory belittling sense. As in "that dog of yours poo'd on the rug" or "that asshole next door burned our fence down".
I don't want to suggest that non-white cultures are a monolith and everyone fits in perfectly without a peep. There have always been atheists in any culture, there have always been doubters and naysayers, there have always been people who go against the mainstream grain. It is, of course, possible for Aravis to be utterly disdainful of the local God-King she was trained all her life to admire and worship and treat as a representative god-on-earth. It is possible for her to break out of this training enough to see his decrees as evil and unjustifiable even as others like Lasaraleen do not.
But there are some problems here nonetheless. For one, this is being written in a context where Christians (like Lewis) have insisted for centuries that people of other religions (and non-religions) aren't as devout as Christians are. In fact, many of them aren't devout at all; they're stubborn, or angry with god, or they hate us for our freedoms, or whatever but the point is that their religion (or lack thereof) is a hypocritical choice rather than an act of genuine devotion and love.
So we have Aravis who just happens to be her culture's version of an atheist and just happens to agree with the author's viewpoint (how convenient!) that the Tisroc and probably Tash are big phonies. And the Tisroc himself and his son and presumably his adviser all have the same jaded, cynical, going-through-the-motions approach to their religion which (coincidentally!) helps to paint them as terrible people rather than merely misguided ones. Why, the story would be so messy if Rabadash was a devout god-fearing son and the Tisroc was ordering him into Narnia to avenge the slight caused by Susan's deception and flight. Shasta himself is a religious non-entity, only barely muttering "may-he-live-forever" out of thoughtless habit and instantly "corrected" from the act by Bree. Which means that literally none of the Calormen people in this book are devout believers.
Except Lasaraleen. She is the one "true" believer in the cast, and her true belief could just as easily be explained as desperation, fear, being a victim of gaslighting and abuse, or any number of other things--including being the "ditzy airhead girl" for the book. Which brings us to point two: when Lewis does show a devout non-Christian, their devotion is painted as foolishness. Lasaraleen's insistence that if the Tisroc does it, it must be right is meant to be read as the Christian fantasy version of "these aren't the droids we're looking for". She's weak-willed and easily swayed by whatever convincing nonsense is thrown in front of her. She wouldn't recognize Christianity's inherent Truthiness if it bit her on the nose, and you get the impression that Lewis thinks that's a good thing because if she were let into heaven she'd stink up the neighborhood with her riff-raff girly ways.
This is why the accusations of racism and Islamophobia and Christian supremacy can't just be waved away with an airy "oh Aravis is a protagonist". Aravis is a protagonist, but she's a Christian one who hasn't met Jesus yet. She's not only not a devout believer in her culture's religion, she's actively a fierce and forceful disbeliever. She believes the major religious figure she encounters is wrong and terrible, and that his godhood is based in a lie. And, by an amazing coincidence, Lewis believes these exact same things: that Tashism is wrong and that any major human figure in the religion of Tashism is a terrible fraud. And by an absolutely astounding coincidence that just happens to be the Official Position on Islam for an awful lot of Christian leaders and apologists for an awful lot of centuries.
So, no, we can't brush that away as a whoopsie. Whether Lewis meant to include these pieces on purpose or just couldn't conceive of writing a devout non-Christian (who is genuinely devout to their religion and not just "devout" in non-specific ways that can be copy-pasted over to Christianity, by which I mean we'll cover The Last Battle when we get there) doesn't really matter to the end result that these books are insulting to non-Christians and portrays them all as liars or fools.
Point the third: the fact that Lasaraleen's belief system is treated as foolish is particularly aggravating when Lewis has the exact same belief system in these books but with a different leader. "If the Tisroc does it, it must be right" is childish to the point of condemnation in a grown woman, but "if Aslan does it, it must be right" is practically the catch-phrase for this series. In fact, I'm fairly certain Peter or Caspian or Edmund or Eustace have uttered essentially that same line. But those utterances were grave and bearded and said while frowning thoughtfully at the horizon. While Lasaraleen's protestations are cried in excess of desperate emotion and left to hang unacknowledged in the air.
“Good-bye,” said Aravis, “and I thought your dresses lovely. And I think your house is lovely too. I’m sure you’ll have a lovely life—though it wouldn’t suit me. Close the door softly behind me.”
There's a sense here of... judgment, yes, but also of a sensible and rational person giving up and humoring the silly person they can't talk sense into. Aravis isn't even creative or effusive in her "praise"; for someone who grew up being able to spin stories at the drop of a hat this triple dull repetition of "lovely... lovely... lovely" is far from convincing. And "close the door softly" is a strange thing to say to the member of their party who has thus far insisted on absolute silence and not running around screaming her head off. The tone struck here is one of an adult talking down to a child, being gentle with them while still firmly casting off.
She tore herself away from her friend’s affectionate embraces, stepped into a punt, cast off, and a moment later was out in midstream with a huge real moon overhead and a huge reflected moon down, deep down, in the river. The air was fresh and cool and as she drew near the farther bank she heard the hooting of an owl. “Ah! That’s better!” thought Aravis. She had always lived in the country and had hated every minute of her time in Tashbaan.
So we here have another way in which Aravis just happens to be English-Narnian in all but birth: she hated every minute of her time in Tashbaan. Not just this time around, but "always". Again, it's possible for a person to be different from their culture, but when the "good" protagonist hates all the "bad" elements of the non-white culture they're (literally!) fleeing from at breakneck speed, that's a problem on the racism front.
In world-building quibbles, there's just boats sitting here unattended? For anyone to take? With no guards whatsoever? What stops people from swimming the river from the other side and stealing these boats? And why aren't there any guards? This is an entrance to the Tisroc's private palace! The only thing keeping people out is a flimsy locked gate? I question this.
When she stepped ashore she found herself in darkness for the rise of the ground, and the trees, cut off the moonlight. But she managed to find the same road that Shasta had found, and came just as he had done to the end of the grass and the beginning of the sand, and looked (like him) to her left and saw the big, black Tombs. And now at last, brave girl though she was, her heart quailed. Supposing the others weren’t there! Supposing the ghouls were! But she stuck out her chin (and a little bit of her tongue too) and went straight toward them.
Maybe it's just me, but it seems a little strange that Aravis doesn't believe in Tisroc and doesn't seem particularly devoted to the worship of Tash but she does believe in ghouls. So she's not even really an atheist, she's merely a superstitious heathen who didn't fall hard for the devil-worship propaganda. I suppose in the Inferno system Dante gave us she'd be in Limbo? A (mostly) virtuous heathen who died before she got a chance to hear about Baby Jesus.
Not super thrilled about "brave girl" which feels infantilizing and almost a self-contradiction, like something you would say to a wee tot in pigtails for eating her green beans. She is brave and she is a girl, but the combination there doesn't sit well with me. Not necessarily Lewis' fault on that one, but there you go.
But before she had reached them she saw Bree and Hwin and the groom.
“You can go back to your mistress now,” said Aravis (quite forgetting that he couldn’t, until the city gates opened next morning). “Here is money for your pains.”
“To hear is to obey,” said the groom, and at once set off at a remarkable speed in the direction of the city. There was no need to tell him to make haste: he also had been thinking a good deal about ghouls.
For the next few seconds Aravis was busy kissing the noses and patting the necks of Hwin and Bree just as if they were quite ordinary horses.
“And here comes Shasta! Thanks be to the Lion!” said Bree.
Aravis looked round, and there, right enough, was Shasta who had come out of hiding the moment he saw the groom going away.
Again we end with the question of why Aravis couldn't go out as the groom since the guards clearly don't ask questions and she's successfully disguised herself as a boy in the past without trouble. Hell, Shasta got out without difficulty and he's a runaway slave who looks like a runaway slave! Aravis could surely play-act a groom without a lick of difficulty.
In a side-note, while imagining the groom having to hang sleepless by the city gates, I have to ask whether Aslan is going to strike Aravis with insomnia for a night to make up for what she put this man through. If Lasaraleen's husband finds out what happened and beats the groom, will Aslan convey that as well? Is Aravis' entire life going to be a long string of uncomfortably sexualized torments which are framed as Aslan going around behind her and tallying up her mistakes?
Tune in next time to find out, I guess!