Narnia: Beginning to Enjoy Himself

[Narnia Content Note: Violence, Slavery, Child Kidnapping]

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 11: The Unwelcome Fellow Traveler

Wow, it's been longer than I thought before we had a Narnia update. Sorry! Between holiday-planning over here and finishing up my latest book (BTW I WROTE A BOOK) the days slipped by me.

On a personal note, I am coming to realize that I have some weird emotions wrapped up in this deconstruction. I started these Narnia posts in 2011 and we're coming into 2017 soon. So many of you have been with me every step of the way, through my ups and downs, and I am truly humbled and grateful. I find myself not wanting this to end, which is a silly feeling; for one, there are still two more books in the Chronicles and for two, there is a world of books left to deconstruct. But you have all made this one special and I treasure our time together. Thank you. You have made me a better, happier person, and given me an invaluable gift of your time and thoughts and friendship.

So where were we?

When we left off in Chapter 10, several of you expressed puzzlement that there's any book left, let alone five whole chapters. Believe me, I am right there with you on the "what is left to even do??" train, sipping coffee in the next car down. And having flipped through today's chapter to remind myself of the details... well, it's not looking good for Chapter 11. Strap in, folks!

   WHEN SHASTA WENT THROUGH THE gate he found a slope of grass and a little heather running up before him to some trees. He had nothing to think about now and no plans to make: he had only to run, and that was quite enough. His limbs were shaking, a terrible stitch was beginning in his side, and the sweat that kept dropping into his eyes blinded them and made them smart. He was unsteady on his feet too, and more than once he nearly turned his ankle on a loose stone.
   The trees were thicker now than they had yet been and in the more open spaces there was bracken. The sun had gone in without making it any cooler. It had become one of those hot, gray days when there seem to be twice as many flies as usual. Shasta’s face was covered with them; he didn’t even try to shake them off—he had too much else to do.

I am trying to be fair to Lewis, but I honestly cannot follow his logic nor Aslan's logic for why we are where we are at the moment. If you will recall, Shasta and his group were riding to Anvard to warn them about Rabadash. Aslan appeared and ran behind them, urging the horses on faster. The narrative straight-up said that this caused the horses to run at their actual limit rather than at the pace they thought was their limit. That would make sense--a dramatic dash! realizing your limits aren't what you think they are!--if the finish line was Anvard itself. But Lewis stuck them at a Hermit's hut for the finish line, which didn't help anyone. Now Shasta is on foot, which is significantly slower than a horse and (as noted in the narrative) he's in danger of twisting his foot or hurting himself.

I like to think of these deconstructions as a sort of book autopsy where we spread all the pieces out on the table and work out what they are doing here. If I had to hazard a guess, I would think Lewis had the wild dash in mind first and then decided not to have the finish line be Anvard because he wanted to have Shasta get lost in the fog in this chapter and then Exciting Things Happen To Him. That would be impossible at Anvard, so here we are. But in setting up Shasta to bumble about in the mist, Lewis rendered everything with the Dramatic Final Dash meaningless because it would have been better to pace the Horses properly rather than wring a faster pace from them so that Shasta can then carry on on foot.

   Suddenly he heard a horn—not a great throbbing horn like the horns of Tashbaan but a merry call, Ti-ro-to-to-ho! Next moment he came out into a wide glade and found himself in a crowd of people.
   At least, it looked a crowd to him. In reality there were about fifteen or twenty of them, all gentlemen in green hunting-dress, with their horses; some in the saddle and some standing by their horses’ heads. In the center someone was holding the stirrup for a man to mount. And the man he was holding it for was the jolliest, fat, apple-cheeked, twinkling-eyed King you could imagine.

So, couple of things here.

First thought: okay cultural differences and such, but I honestly laughed at the detail that even the Calormen hunting horns are bad and solemn and mean compared to the merry, good, honest, pleasing Narnian Archenland horns. This is just aching for some kind of parody to describe how everything Shasta and Aravis sees from here on out is just flat-out morally better. The cups, the rugs, the blankets, the toilet paper, all of it is just so damn merry compared to their dour Calormen counterparts.

It's hilariously awful and racist as fuck, and it's especially annoying because Lewis can't even be consistent with his world-building. Calormen is supposed to be cultured, artistic, and capable of production of artisan goods. Narnia, in contrast, has four humans plus anyone they imported from Archenland. They're blatantly anti-industry, anti-education, and anti-commerce. (Roads and bridges are right out.) But somehow they have the best stuff every time we get down to details because Lewis just can't bear for his Englishmen to be anything less than the best at everything. This is, to say the least, ahistorical within the context of his Arthurian and Thousand Nights sources.

Second thought: Why is this a "crowd to him"? This Shasta isn't the same boy who grew up alone by the sea and never saw anyone but his adoptive father. He's spent the last several months going into villages to trade for food while on the run with Bree, and would have surely seen groups of 15-20 men in those villages. He's also most recently been to Tashbaan, where the throbbing city center had hundreds or thousands of people in a river of humanity that parted for excessive processions of slaves and litters and servants and horses and such to parade through. The language cues here--"At least, it looked a crowd to him. In reality there were"--are meant to make him seem sheltered, but this Shasta isn't sheltered. He may well still consider 15-20 people in a forest a "crowd", but the modifying language implying he doesn't know any better just doesn't work in the context of his adventures.

Third thought: is King Lune wearing a crown while hunting? Because that seems hilariously pretentious and so very, very Lewis. Kings who are the salt of the earth and in touch with the common people and consider the throne a burden because they are the servants of their people but there better be solid gold on my head at all times, dammit. I mean, maybe he's not wearing a crown, but Shasta identifies him as a King despite never having seen one before his brief interactions with King Edmund, so I refuse to believe he's picking up subtle cues from the courtiers, especially given how exhausted he is from running. Which means that Lune is ostentatiously wearing something to identify him as King, and I find that hilariously telling of him and his author's ideals of kingship.

I note--having flipped ahead to Chapter 14 to check something--that pretty much the first thing they do once they identify Shasta as the lost prince is fit him with a circlet for his head. So, yeah, these kings are definitely the salt of the earth and not obsessed with the trappings and glitter of power. *eyeroll* 

   As soon as Shasta came in sight this King forgot all about mounting his horse. He spread out his arms to Shasta, his face lit up, and he cried out in a great, deep voice that seemed to come from the bottom of his chest:
   “Corin! My son! And on foot, and in rags! What—”
   “No,” panted Shasta, shaking his head. “Not Prince Corin. I—I—know I’m like him … saw his Highness in Tashbaan … sent his greetings.”
   The King was staring at Shasta with an extraordinary expression on his face.

I'm just going to spoil this now: Shasta is Lune's long-lost son and Prince Corin's twin brother.

Here are the facts as we know them:
  1. A seer prophesied that Shasta would save Archenland from great danger. 
  2. Shasta was kidnapped by the Narnian version of an Evil Vizier. 
  3. His body was never found.

I don't want to minimize parental grief in the face of a kidnapping, because that would truly be a hellish nightmare scenario that no parent should ever be forced to endure. But when you live in a magical world and you have a prophecy like that, I feel like it's not too strange to hold onto hope that your child is still alive and you'll see them again. So one would expect that Lune--on seeing a boy who looks exactly like his son and who has a message of Great Importance--would put two and two together pretty fast, no? Well, hold on to that for a moment.

A very big problem with this chapter is that Lune doesn't act like a normal person would. Let's start with that first introduction: he sees what appears to be his son running towards him in an exhausted, wounded, disheveled state. Does he react with alarm? No, his face lights up and he motions for a hug. That... makes no sense? First thought should be that something very bad has happened and that Corin is fleeing something terrible. Second thought should be that maybe, if we're all lucky, this is just one of his pranks gone out of hand but he still needs medical attention and care and basic concern. Not a bright smile and open arms!

   “Are you K-King Lune?” gasped Shasta. And then, without waiting for an answer, “Lord King—fly—Anvard—shut the gates—enemies upon you—Rabadash and two hundred horse.”
   “Have you assurance of this, boy?” asked one of the other gentlemen.
   “My own eyes,” said Shasta. “I’ve seen them. Raced them all the way from Tashbaan.”
   “On foot?” said the gentleman, raising his eyebrows a little.
   “Horses—with the Hermit,” said Shasta.
   “Question him no more, Darrin,” said King Lune. “I see truth in his face. We must ride for it, gentlemen. A spare horse there, for the boy. You can ride fast, friend?”

This conversation is setup to flatter Lune--he tells the other adults to stop questioning Shasta and believes him for his truthful face--but in what world does this conversation make sense? A child has popped out of the trees who is either (a) prince Corin in a confused state of mind or playing one of his famous pranks, (b) the long-lost prince that people know exist because Lune couldn't possibly have covered up Shasta's birth and kidnapping, or (c) a dangerous imposter doppelganger who could destabilize your entire country and royal succession by claiming to be the lost prince. And no one... cares? No one asks where he's from, who his parents are, where he came from?

Instead they question him about his news, despite the fact that it's honestly not that surprising? I mean, we already know that Calormen is an aggressive militaristic country who likes to go to war with its neighbors. Shasta is just telling them to go back home and close the gates, which is hardly an onerous or risky thing to do; at worst, if he's lying or mistaken, they lose a day of hunting. Like, this "you have assurance of this?" question makes no sense. You live next door to a Hermit with a distance-seeing pool--and people know about him! he's not a secret!--and you have other prophets and seers in your country, including but not limited to the one who foretold that Prince Cor/Shasta would save everyone someday.

I know these are nitpicks, but this entire book has people saying and doing things that make no sense because Lewis wanted them to say and do those things. What even is characterization??

   For answer Shasta put his foot in the stirrup of the horse which had been led toward him and a moment later he was in the saddle. He had done it a hundred times with Bree in the last few weeks, and his mounting was very different now from what it had been on that first night when Bree had said that he climbed up a horse as if he were climbing a haystack.

Speaking of characterization, why is Shasta leaving with them?

I mean, I can 100% imagine why Lune would want to keep this kid close; I'm not questioning Lune's motivations. I'm asking why Shasta just accepts that he's going to ride to Anvard. He just left a severely wounded friend with a total stranger who might be right now handing her over to Rabadash. One might argue that Shasta might not think of that, except that is 1-for-1 his experience with elderly male hermity types: they hand over innocent kids to Tarkaans when they ride through.

Let's be clear about characterization here: Shasta thinks 15 people is a "crowd" despite having been to Tashbaan and seeing seas of thousands. But he doesn't think to mistrust the Hermit despite the fact that Shasta has only experienced old men as abusive. His father beat him regularly and considered him a slave, even going so far as to offer him for sale to the first passing stranger. But Shasta doesn't remember that now with regards to his wounded friend, because a lifetime of beatings didn't leave an impression. That is what I mean about characterization in this book being a mess.

   He was pleased to hear the Lord Darrin say to the King, “The boy has a true horseman’s seat, Sire. I’ll warrant there’s noble blood in him.”
   “His blood, aye, there’s the point,” said the King. And he stared hard at Shasta again with that curious expression, almost a hungry expression, in his steady gray eyes.

There are only two ways I can interpret this: Either Darrin is subtly trying to say "er, does anyone else think this kid might be our lost prince?" or Darrin is supposed to be stupid (or somehow, impossibly, ignorant of Shasta's existence) and Lune is the only one who has put together two and two here. Given that we're dealing with Lewis, I have to think he means us to assume the latter, because Kings are supposed to be wiser than everyone else which means making everyone else quite foolish.

But, okay, set aside all that weirdness for new weirdness: how fast are they riding that Lune has the ability to stare at Shasta? You can't stare at someone while galloping through a thick forest. (Bonus question: Why did they have an extra horse with them? Shasta isn't sharing with someone else; he's alone on his horse.) This passage sounds like they're moseying back to Anvard--the next paragraph will say they're going at a "brisk canter". So, again, why was it so urgent for Aslan to run the Horses to exhaustion? Lune and Shasta both seem to feel like there's no rush now!

Final note: I know I'm old and jaded, but I would hesitate to describe an older man looking at a younger man with a "hungry expression", ye gods. (Related: Here is a link to a brief reinterpretation of Aladdin that grapples with sex work in the face of a subsistence existence.) "Longing" or "wistful" might have been a wee bit better, Lewis. Hunger is objectifying by its very nature: you consume the object of your hunger. Does Lune wish to consume Shasta? Because if so, that impacts his character somewhat. To quote Mark Twain, who I believe would appreciate the pettiness of this entire deconstruction: "Use the right word, not its second cousin."


   But by now the whole party was moving off at a brisk canter. Shasta’s seat was excellent but he was sadly puzzled what to do with his reins, for he had never touched the reins while he was on Bree’s back. But he looked very carefully out of the corners of his eyes to see what the others were doing (as some of us have done at parties when we weren’t quite sure which knife or fork we were meant to use) and tried to get his fingers right. But he didn’t dare to try really directing the horse; he trusted it would follow the rest. The horse was of course an ordinary horse, not a Talking Horse; but it had quite wits enough to realize that the strange boy on its back had no whip and no spurs and was not really master of the situation. That was why Shasta soon found himself at the tail end of the procession.

*record scratch*

Wait, what?

That was why Shasta soon found himself at the tail end of the procession.

Can I just quote a previous paragraph?

A child has popped out of the trees who is either (a) prince Corin in a confused state of mind or playing one of his famous pranks, (b) the long-lost prince that people know exist because Lune couldn't possibly have covered up Shasta's birth and kidnapping, or (c) a dangerous imposter doppelganger who could destabilize your entire country and royal succession by claiming to be the lost prince. And no one... cares?

How in god's green earth is Shasta slipping to the back of the wee crowd of fifteen people? He is either Lune's son (a possibility that Lune, at the very least, suspects!) or someone who could wreak civil war by claiming to be Lune's son. How is Darrin or someone not immediately assigned to stick to this child like glue? How is Lune staring at him with a hungry expression and then meh, can't see him anymore but he's probably still with us, whatever. Literally how is ANY OF THIS?

   Even so, he was going pretty fast. There were no flies now and the air in his face was delicious. He had got his breath back too. And his errand had succeeded. For the first time since the arrival at Tashbaan (how long ago it seemed!) he was beginning to enjoy himself.

To recap: Shasta has been separated from his only friends in the world, one of whom is so badly wounded he feared for her life. She's being cared for by a stranger who might know nothing of medicine and who fits the same demographic of the person who abused Shasta systematically from infancy. He is, meanwhile, riding in a group of people who alternately don't care about him at all (because they goddamn don't seem to notice or care that he's struggling with his horse) and occasional look at him with greedy hunger that bodes nothing good.

If you will remember, Shasta was afraid of the Narnian royals even without greedy hungry looks because he didn't expect they would be kind to him, but he has apparently forgotten that ingrained suspicion now. He's riding into a hostile situation where he will either be killed by Rabadash (assuming the Prince overcomes Anvard) or will be at the mercy of these royal strangers. Sure, they might be grateful for the warning, but has Shasta ever experienced gratitude from an adult? I don't think he has, no.

So knowing that his friends are wounded and perhaps dying--a thing he hasn't mentioned to the king because I guess there's no reason to check to see if the Hermit is legit and/or if the king might not want to send his physicians to attend Aravis; really, the direct line to the author that Shasta has is impressive--and that he's riding into danger, Shasta is beginning to enjoy himself!

Sure. Sounds legit.

   He looked up to see how much nearer the mountain tops had come. To his disappointment he could not see them at all: only a vague grayness, rolling down toward them. He had never been in mountain country before and was surprised. “It’s a cloud,” he said to himself, “a cloud coming down. I see. Up here in the hills one is really in the sky. I shall see what the inside of a cloud is like. What fun! I’ve often wondered.” Far away on his left and a little behind him, the sun was getting ready to set.

Shasta, who grew up on a beach, has never witnessed clouds rolling in. I mean, not everywhere gets marine layers, sure but. I just.

How do you even deconstruct this book on a logical level? How old is Shasta that he's excited about clouds like this when his friend is dying from lion-inflicted wounds as far as he knows? He's hurt and tired and exhausted; he hasn't slept nearly enough in ages and riding a horse right now has to be his personal hell after riding a Horse for weeks on end, but he's all "What fun!" about clouds? Is he eight? Was Aravis being married off at eight?

Shasta isn't a character. He doesn't have a history, he doesn't have a personality, he doesn't have dreams or friends or likes or dislikes. He is a puppet who moves for the author and smiles vacantly the entire time because something something magical Narnia adventure fun.

We're gonna break here. Spoilers for next time: Shasta gets separated from the Archenlanders, overhears Rabadash giving orders for no reason except that Lewis wanted the reader to hear them, and runs into Aslan again. This forest is more crowded than the forests in Shakespeare. Enjoy this nice marine layer picture.

Addendum 1: On a re-read of this post, I see that Lune's "stare" was a brief stare and not while riding. Which just underlines the question of why he seems to have stopped looking at Shasta entirely once the riding starts up. What parent would do that? Who, on finding someone who might possibly be their long-lost child, would lose track of said child less than five minutes later? I feel like I would want that kid right by my side, goddammit.

If Lune feels conflicted between a need to keep Shasta close versus his responsibility to get to Anvard as soon as possible--a conflict that doesn't occur in text, so we're just trying to fill in the holes here--you would still assign a courtier to stay with the child. It makes no sense to just stop looking at Shasta and let him slip to the back through the magic of being an inexperienced rider!

Shasta's mom is dead because of Disney Parent Syndrome (and also because Lewis and female characters), but can you imagine King Lune having to explain to his wife that he found their long-lost son in the forest but lost track of him because it was a wee bit foggy? My god.

Addendum 2: I missed this in the record scratch, but Archenland riders use whips and spurs on their horses? Lewis likes to duck how the Animal/animal divide is supposed to work, but we're supposed to buy that serving mutton at your royal table isn't going to be a huge faux pas for the Sheep guests, I guess. But man, I feel like that would be kinda uncomfortable for the Horses and Centaurs in any group of riding humans; it's one thing to be okay with your non-talking relatives being ridden, and another thing entirely to be chill about them having sharp metal jabbed into their flanks.

Later we will learn that the children can never ride Horses again because it's not dignified to be ridden by a human, which is a world-building detail I have a lot of mixed feelings on; I expect you will all get a word-vomit from me on that topic when we get there. But I am struggling with a world where Horses are basically "fuck you, got mine" to their cousins like this. Like, it's unthinkable for a Horse to give a human a ride, but yeah, you're just obviously gonna see humans whipping and spurring horses as part of your normal day and that's all well and good?

I try not to psychoanalyze authors by their writing because (a) I'm not qualified to psychoanalyze anyone, and (b) as an author, I reject the idea that you can truly know an author through their writings. We show some things and hide others, and sometimes stories go weird places. But having disclaimed mightily here, I think it says something about Lewis that he seems 100% down with the subjugation of others as long as he gets the respect he feels he deserves.


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