Narnia: All Her Troubles

[Narnia Content Note: Violence, Rape, Ableist words in-text, 8-Bit Theater Spoilers]

Narnia Recap: The party of four were attacked by a lion before stumbling into a Hermit's territory. The Hermit took in Aravis to heal her and the two horses to rest, then told Shasta to run and find King Lune. Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.

The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 10: The Hermit of the Southern March

I am struggling to finish out this book because everything from here on out feels so boring. I can't help but feel that this should not be the case! Shasta is trying to out-run an army in order to reach a king with a message of warning so as to avert a war! This should be thrilling stuff! And yet, for me, it isn't.

I think part of the problem is Aslan's arrival. The race across the desert worked, at least a little bit, because I was able to buy into the conceit that Narnia is in danger and only these children can save it. But then Lewis reminded us that Aslan exists and that kind of broke the tension? Because why isn't the resident deity doing anything to help his people? He clearly can directly interfere because he was able to run the horses to exhaustion and claw Aravis. So he's just choosing not to interfere in an effective way? Which, okay fine, he's Not A Tame Lion, but dude, if God himself isn't taking the situation seriously, why should I?

Then you have the problem that the manner in which Aslan interfered seems designed to slow them down! Aravis is put entirely out of action for the rest of the novel because why should an icky girl share the hero-spotlight, I guess, and hooboy can we talk about Aslan's priorities that he chose this moment of all possible moments to maul Aravis? Meanwhile the horses have been ridden to exhaustion, guaranteeing that Shasta will have to carry the plot-critical message on foot. Does Lewis know how much slower tired human boys are on foot than horses? SPOILER: They're a lot slower! The fact that Shasta reaches King Lune in time at all kind of undercuts how close Rabadash supposedly was to arrival because he pretty clearly isn't that close at all.

I still think you could make all this work if Lewis was writing a character-driven novel, but Lewis doesn't believe in characterization so we're shit out of luck there. So back to Aravis in the hut:

   “I say!” said Aravis. “I have had luck.”
   “Daughter,” said the Hermit, “I have now lived a hundred and nine winters in this world and have never yet met any such thing as Luck. There is something about all this that I do not understand: but if ever we need to know it, you may be sure that we shall.”

Let's talk characterization for a moment. The only life Shasta has ever known is that of a slave. His experience with, say, old men living on their own is that they are abusive and violent. His owner-slash-adoptive-father Arsheesh was an old man living on his own and he regularly beat Shasta. Arsheesh then cheerfully offered to sell Shasta to the first Tarkaan who rode up on a horse. This experience taught Shasta that adults--and old men living on their own in particular--can't be trusted to treat young people with respect and dignity. This lesson is why we came this roundabout way through the desert, because Shasta didn't speak up to tell the Narnians who he was. He was too afraid of them.

With all this in mind, let us consider that Shasta left his gravely-wounded friend in the possession of an old man living on his own while some two hundred Tarkaans are riding this way. Led by the Tarkaaniest Tarkaan of them all, the crown prince. Does this make any kind of sense? Oh, well, but he doesn't have a choice, does he? Shasta has to trust that the Hermit won't beat Aravis to death or sell her to the approaching men, because if he doesn't take that leap of trust Narnia will be lost. Except... when did Narnia become more important to Shasta than his only human friend in the entire world? (We may argue whether Shasta and Aravis are friends, but we're clearly meant to view them as close since they will marry soonish and she was one of the two people for whom he bull-rushed a lion to save.)

I mean, it's entirely possible that Narnia became more important to Shasta than the one human on earth who has ever been kind to him knowing who he is (as opposed to the Narnians, who thought he was Prince Corin), but that would have been a good thing to show--or at least tell--rather than expecting the reader to infer. I understand why Narnia is more important to Lewis than Aravis is, but Shasta is not supposed to be his author.

Speaking of characterization, it is rather fascinating that Aravis and the Horses immediately trust the Hermit. The Horses chatter up a storm in from of him, despite the fact that he's living on the far edge of Calormen and--again--an army of Calormene riders is heading directly this way. Do the Horses just trust him because he's a white Archenlander? Is that really what the story has come to? They spent a lifetime in extreme secret silence out of a desperate need to escape to freedom, but the first white man that walks up and it's a flood of words because no white man would ever sell them back into slavery!

Then we have Aravis, whose most lasting impressions of older men--courtesy of her father, her king, and her betrothed--is that they have a tendency to dominate, own, and rape her. But she doesn't seem to think twice about the fact that this particular old man has her alone in his hut, on her stomach, with her shirt off. And possibly other pieces of her clothing? She would have been bloody and filthy and dirty, but while Lewis has lots of words for how English heather is the best bedding material in the world, he doesn't think to tell us how Aravis is dressed.

She defaults to calling this man "father" in response to his "daughter", which is a familial term and (in Calormene culture) a military term he hasn't earned. I can understand choosing to respect the guy who has you alone and wounded in his hut, but Aravis apparently feels no fear or apprehension, even given that this entire trip has been about avoiding the rape that many would-be "fathers" (both her own and her king) would inflict on her.

It is aggravating in the extreme that in a book which is explicitly about the threat of rape--both Aravis' and Susan's--that same threat vanishes in the presence of white men. Aravis never worries that Shasta or the Hermit might try to hurt her, even as she knows what the dark-faced flashing-white-toothed Prince Rabadash is capable of. My feeling on this is: If you're going to write a novel about rape, that threat / fear / concern shouldn't disappear the moment a white man walks into the room because everyone knows white men are decent chaps who would never.

   “And what about Rabadash and his two hundred horse?” asked Aravis.
   “They will not pass this way, I think,” said the Hermit. “They must have found a ford by now well to the east of us. From there they will try to ride straight to Anvard.”

Well, lucky-fucking-us that the Calormen army would rather ford a river than ride straight through on solid ground, I guess. I've given up trying to do geography here. 

   “Poor Shasta!” said Aravis. “Has he far to go? Will he get there first?”
   “There is good hope of it,” said the old man.
   Aravis lay down again (on her side this time) and said, “Have I been asleep for a long time? It seems to be getting dark.”

Okay, I presume that Aravis is wearing something around her front (bandages? a loose tunic?) rather than flashing her boobs at the Hermit. Again, I would have some questions about how I went from dressed in my armor to dressed in bandages. And the "have I been asleep for a long time" wouldn't be a matter of idle passing curiosity.

Not every women is hyper-cognizant of rape threats, and I don't mean to imply that they are or should be. But Aravis is fleeing rape. That is literally her character and motivation. I expect her to be slightly more sensitive to the threat than a character who isn't. Hell, even her "what about Rabadash and his two hundred horses" question seems to be more curiosity about how Archenland is doing rather than genuine fear she might be captured and taken back if they come this way.

Somehow when we weren't looking, Shasta and Aravis both came around to feeling that Saving Narnia is the Most Important Concern. No, it's a step further than that: saving Narnia is now their only concern. Aravis isn't afraid that she might be captured or raped or maimed. The Horses are briefly worried that Aravis might die, but there's no concern that their secret might have been divulged to the wrong person or that the coming army might conscript them. They no longer worry about--or are motivated by--anything but the saving of Archenland.

Characters don't work that way! They don't discard all their motivations and concerns just because the author has different priorities! And if they do, that needs to be shown to us!

   The Hermit was looking out of the only window, which faced north. “This is not the darkness of night,” he said presently. “The clouds are falling down from Stormness Head. Our foul weather always comes from there in these parts. There will be thick fog tonight.”

How totally convenient.

   Next day, except for her sore back, Aravis felt so well that after breakfast (which was porridge and cream) the Hermit said she could get up. And of course she at once went out to speak to the Horses. The weather had changed and the whole of that green enclosure was filled, like a great green cup, with sunlight. It was a very peaceful place, lonely and quiet.
   Hwin at once trotted across to Aravis and gave her a horse-kiss.
   “But where’s Bree?” said Aravis when each had asked after the others health and sleep.


Okay, it's official: the characters are just channeling the author at this point. He has no particular reason for them to leave the magic viewing pool area so they're just gonna hang out here and jam. There's no question of going after Shasta, of carrying the message themselves--yes, they'd be late, but what if Shasta didn't make it to King Lune? Maybe it's too late for Aravis and Hwin to warn Archenland, but they could still ride for Cair Paravel and warn the people in charge there! Or ride for the docks where Susan's boat will land and tell them to set back out to sea! These things are doable, but even more than doable, they're tryable. Heroes try.

But these people don't try, not because they don't care (they clearly do! it's their only priority at this point!) but because Lewis knows that effort isn't necessary and they know what Lewis knows. God, this is such bad writing and I marvel that I ever once thought Lewis was a good author. My worst, most self-indulgent fanfic has put more consideration into "what do these characters know and what do they not know" than this entire book.

Hell, they don't even discuss not staying here because for all that the Hermit hasn't hurt them yet they really don't know this guy and maybe it would be better to keep on the move what with all the Calormen soldiers in the area who may or may not have scouts so let's go a little further into the country we believe to be our source of safety. Lewis can't let the trio disappear into Narnia because then Shasta wouldn't have anything to marry afterwards.

    “Good morning, Bree,” said Aravis. “How are you this morning?”
   Bree muttered something that no one could hear.
   “The Hermit says that Shasta probably got to King Lune in time,” continued Aravis, “so it looks as if all our troubles are over. Narnia, at last, Bree!”


The Hermit says Shasta probably got to King Lune in time. And if there is anything we know about Aravis, it is that she takes these things on faith and just floats her way through life without a care because why should she worry or take matters in her own hands? Just like when her father--and later, Lasaraleen--told her she'd probably be happy with her betrothed, Aravis accepted that reassurance as absolute. Right?

Even if Shasta got to King Lune in time, why don't our heroes want to go help? There will be a battle and wounded and messages to carry and things to do! Sitting here eating creamy porridge is not a heroic action! If Aravis now cares about Narnia more than she cares about her own person, then she ought to have more motivation than "deliver that one message"!

We don't even have a case where a character wanted freedom and then came around to wanting more than that--peace and security for their new country they haven't yet seen but feel immensely loyal to for Reasons. We have a case where Aravis' only goal in life became "deliver message to King Lune". But she isn't so devoted to the goal that a "probably" isn't good enough for her, and she's not devoted to any underlying reason for delivering the MacGuffin. The MacGuffin is delivered and she's on standby now, utterly lacking any motivation whatsoever.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in this "all our troubles are over" statement that is just so uncharacteristic coming from Aravis. How are are her troubles over? Since when? According to whom?

Her "troubles" are that she's a stranger in a strange land where her skin color immediately marks her out to anyone who meets her as one of the hated Calormen who just tried to invade, seize, and rape the beloved local queen. She needs safety and security and a place to hide. She needs protection from someone who can guarantee that she won't be revenged upon by the locals. She's also going to have to choose whether to cozy up to the nobles or try to disappear into obscurity. Both options have risks; the nobles could turn her over to her father at any time as a bargaining chip with Calormen, but joining the ranks of the working class would be difficult for the untrained Tarkheena. Anything she gets here in terms of protection, security, etc. will have to be paid for--either with work she may not know how to do or through her body (including, but not limited to, marrying someone powerful).

None of this is solved! The only "trouble" that has been fixed is that Shasta "probably" got a message to the local king about the incoming raid and now hopefully--assuming Archenland can fight off the invaders, which is not a given!!--Narnia won't be ravaged by war this year. (Nothing says it won't be ravaged by war next year, though!) And not to minimize a serious situation, but Narnia wasn't even going to be burned to the ground had they failed! Rabadash's plan all along was to minimize bloodshed and damage, kidnap the queen, and then force Peter into an uneasy peace to keep Susan (now a hostage and a bride) safe from repercussions.

All that is a good thing for Susan and Narnia to avoid, and a decent thing for Aravis to have as a goal, but just because it "probably" got taken care of in no way means that all her troubles are over! The Horses, yes. Shasta, yes. The brown-skinned girl in a country of white-skinned people? NO.

   “I shall go back to Calormen,” [Bree] said.
   “What?” said Aravis. “Back to slavery!”
   “Yes,” said Bree. “Slavery is all I’m fit for. How can I ever show my face among the free Horses of Narnia?—I who left a mare and a girl and a boy to be eaten by lions while I galloped all I could to save my own wretched skin!”

Anyway. Sigh. Theologies, amiright?

Bree is supposed to be losing, as the Hermit will put it, his "self-conceit". I disagree, because Bree is mourning in the most conceited way possible. Rather than trying to become a better person, or devoting his life to those less fortunate than he, instead he wants to wallow in a misery that helps no one. I can't tell if this is Lewis being clever (see, even in his humility he's full of hubris!) or Lewis missing the point since, I mean, he's said multiple times--from Hwin, from King Edmund, and from the narrative voice itself--that being a slave in the lowest state a person can be, not because slavery is awful but because slaves stop having any motivation or cleverness or whatever.

I am just saying that we can't really mock Bree for being hubristic when the narrative itself has been ripping on slaves all this time.

   “We all ran as hard as we could,” said Hwin.
   “Shasta didn’t!” snorted Bree. “At least he ran in the right direction: ran back. And that is what shames me most of all. I, who called myself a war horse and boasted of a hundred fights, to be beaten by a little human boy—a child, a mere foal, who had never held a sword nor had any good nurture or example in his life!”
   “I know,” said Aravis. “I felt just the same. Shasta was marvelous. I’m just as bad as you, Bree. I’ve been snubbing him and looking down on him ever since you met us and now he turns out to be the best of us all. But I think it would be better to stay and say we’re sorry than to go back to Calormen.”

Aravis is going to hop on the Shasta bandwagon and I am not here for it. Shasta is not the "best of us all" just because he ran back to help Aravis! Hwin, for one, was doing her damndest to protect her friend; she didn't throw her rider so the lion would be distracted by the girl and Hwin could get away safely. And we have no reason to believe Aravis wouldn't have run at a lion for Shasta--the narrative told us she was brave and true as steel, so this is just so much telling (rather than showing) that Shasta is the best and everyone else isn't.

In doing so, we have reduced an ugly, violent, racist attack on the only woman of color protagonist in this series into a supposed crowning moment of awesome for the white man who will marry her and whose culture and religion she will assimilate into. I remind us that Aravis is the shield people drag out against criticisms of racism lobbed at Narnia, and this is how she's treated.

   “It’s all very well for you,” said Bree. “You haven’t disgraced yourself. But I’ve lost everything.”
   “My good Horse,” said the Hermit, who had approached them unnoticed because his bare feet made so little noise on that sweet, dewy grass. “My good Horse, you’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit. No, no, cousin. Don’t put back your ears and shake your mane at me. If you are really so humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses. Of course you were braver and cleverer than them. You could hardly help being that. It doesn’t follow that you’ll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you’re nobody very special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse, on the whole, and taking one thing with another. And now, if you and my other four-footed cousin will come round to the kitchen door we’ll see about the other half of that mash.”

I am struggling to rouse myself to care about this part because I'm still very angry about Aravis being scourged and then drained of any characterization whatsoever, but I signed up for this and I'll do my best here: WHAT.

Look, Bree's sin is Pride. I'm down with that part. But the pride he's lamenting is that he isn't the sort of person he thought he was. He thought he was a brave war-horse (which... he kinda is? he wasn't a hunting-horse who day-dreamed in his stall about wars and told Shasta a tall tale; he has, in fact, been in wars--we'll hear about them later in this book) and he thought that made him the sort of person who would face his greatest fears and rush a lion to help his friends, and he's just learned that when the chips were down, he turned tail and fled.

Which, okay, I'm having a hard time leaping onto that line of logic. If Bree had raced at the lion, Hwin and Aravis might have gotten away but Bree and Shasta may well have been killed. (And, in that scenario, Narnia and Archenland might have been lost. Would King Lune listen to a Calormene girl the way he listens to the white boy who resembles in every point his long-lost son?) If Bree hadn't raced at the lion and Hwin had been fast enough to get away, then everyone would have lived. Look, this needs one of those charts. Here is a Box Plot:

Assuming a hypothetical Bree-rush at the lion is suicidal--which is the worst case scenario and it's valid to use worst case scenarios in risk assessment--the only scenario in which everyone lives is if Bree keeps running and trusts Hwin to do the same. Now, that option is still a toss-up because she may not be faster than the lion, but there's nowhere in the attack where Hwin calls for help. Bree would have had to assume--or, at best, correctly guess--that she isn't as fast as he is. Which would be an odd assumption to make at this stage in the journey; they've been traveling together (including all-out running) for weeks, and Hwin has had no trouble matching pace with Bree.

None of this is to say that it might not have been braver or more noble for him to sacrifice himself to help Hwin, but I'm having a hard time reconciling "based on everything I knew, I judged a woman to be my equal and I trusted her to keep up with me so that we could secure the best-case scenario for everyone (including the child on my back), therefore I am a sinner". And, look, I'm not down with the Lewisian implication that of course a girl-mare wouldn't be as fast or as capable as a male war-horse. It is not a sin to assume that a woman doesn't need your help, dammit. ("I know how to run without you holding my hand!")

But, okay, even presuming Bree's failure is a real one and not after-the-fact 20/20 hindsight with a lot of guilt-wallowing, his sin on-paper is that he wasn't brave and true to his friends. He didn't overcome his fear of lions and, in doing so, he abandoned his friends to be eaten. So what is all this dross from the Hermit about? "You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses. Of course you were braver and cleverer than them. You could hardly help being that. It doesn’t follow that you’ll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you’re nobody very special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse, on the whole, and taking one thing with another."

None of that telling has anything to do with the sin we were shown! This is Lewis' idea of what Bree's sin is--and it's not entirely wrong, given what we know about his characterization--but it has literally nothing to do with "I didn't overcome my fear; I abandoned my friends." Lewis and the Hermit seems to think the sin there was "I wasn't excellent; I was common." And that the solution to this sin is to accept that Bree is common--among Horses, anyway; he's still better than horses--and to stop giving himself airs.

That... just... no. Bree probably should stop giving himself airs. But that has nothing to do with what he should or should not do the next time a lion rushes one of his loved ones. How would that even follow? "Oh, no! A lion is attacking my friend! I need to accept that I am nobody special here in Narnia and be a decent sort of Horse over here, away from the mauling." These things are not connected, and so the moral lesson is just a mess. But what did I expect when the other moral lesson on offer was "don't drug your step-mother's spy to escape imminent rape because your father will whip her and that's on you"?

Incidentally, if you're wondering what Hwin did to deserve any of this, the answer is nothing whatsoever. She's just a casualty in Aslan's war on Aravis and Bree.

copyright 2009 Brian Clevinger

That's the end of Chapter 10! We have five more to go! SEND HELP.


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