Narnia: I Need a Hero

[Narnia Content Note: Violence Towards Infants, Violence, Slavery, Rape, Ransacking]

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

I mentioned this last time, but a real problem with analyzing Chapter 11 is that is just doesn't make any sense. Let's recap: The children and the Horses were on a sort of geological ridge that let them look down into the desert between Tashbaan and the border of Archenland. Down in the desert, they saw Rabadash and his troops racing apparently at full speed. This doesn't make a lot of sense; the "racing" part should indicate that they are within sight of their goal, but apparently they are not. So they were presumably racing because Rabadash is hot-headed and impatient, and doesn't care about wearing his troops out unnecessarily.

That is characterization (albeit racist, as already discussed), but it undermines any urgency from the scene if the Calormene troops aren't close to their goal. But the narrative decides to ignore this and everyone agrees to pretend the urgency is here: the Horses run as fast as they can, and then Aslan shows up to make them run even faster. Then the Horses tire out and Shasta is forced to run on foot. He stumbles onto the King of Archenland, blurts out his message, and they... amble back to the gates they need to close. The narrative pretends that the ultimate goal here was "get the message to the king" rather than "get the gates closed".

This could be worked around with little trouble; the King could have a messenger bird (or Bird!) to send ahead, or one of the riders could be dispatched to ride ahead. Perhaps the King can't ride at full speed because he has bad health or an old injury. We could work with that. And, yes, it's very strange for Shasta to slip into a calm fugue state where everything is a lovely adventure and he doesn't spare a thought for his separated companions (and wounded) (and apparently in danger of random desert lions) (like, seriously, the Hermit's house isn't magical protection from a hungry lion, for gods' sake) because he's sleep-deprived and not in a clear mental head-space. We would work with that, too.

But then we run into the fact that no one--not the king, not his companions, no one--thinks it might be important to keep tabs on the young boy who brought them this important warning and looks exactly like the crown prince in every point. We're never clear on how much the Archenland populace know about the Lost Twin Prince; I contend that his birth would be impossible to remove from memory, but the king could have put about that he died when the boy was kidnapped. Given the circumstances, that would probably be the politically prudent thing to do (to prevent imposters) but as a parent Lune might have struggled with making that choice.

So we don't know if anyone thinks it is plausible that Shasta is the real lost prince, but they must be aware that (a) a lost prince happened (even if they think he died), and (b) this kid could be propped up as one in a heartbeat. Shasta shouldn't be riding alone on his horse; there ought to be someone on that horse with him, keeping him from riding off. And he definitely shouldn't be riding at the back of the pack, lost in his dreamy sleep-deprived haze, slowly separated from the group because his horse is stubborn and senses the presence of an inexperienced rider. Literally none of that makes any sense and it feels like a weird chance for Lewis to... compare and contrast horses with Horses? But here we are.

   They had come to a rough kind of road by now and were making very good speed. But Shasta’s horse was still the last of the lot. Once or twice when the road made a bend (there was now continuous forest on each side of it) he lost sight of the others for a second or two.
   Then they plunged into the fog, or else the fog rolled over them. The world became gray. Shasta had not realized how cold and wet the inside of a cloud would be; nor how dark. The gray turned to black with alarming speed.
   Someone at the head of the column winded the horn every now and then, and each time the sound came from a little farther off. He couldn’t see any of the others now, but of course he’d be able to as soon as he got round the next bend. But when he rounded it he still couldn’t see them. In fact he could see nothing at all. His horse was walking now. “Get on, Horse, get on,” said Shasta. Then came the horn, very faint. Bree had always told him that he must keep his heels well turned out, and Shasta had got the idea that something very terrible would happen if he dug his heels into a horse’s sides. This seemed to him an occasion for trying it. “Look here, Horse,” he said, “if you don’t buck up, do you know what I’ll do? I’ll dig my heels into you. I really will.” The horse, however, took no notice of this threat. So Shasta settled himself firmly in the saddle, gripped with his knees, clenched his teeth, and punched both the horse’s sides with his heels as hard as he could.
   The only result was that the horse broke into a kind of pretense of a trot for five or six paces and then subsided into a walk again. And now it was quite dark and they seemed to have given up blowing that horn. The only sound was a steady drip-drip from the branches of the trees.

I am not a horse expert. I have taken horse-riding lessons and I have indeed ridden on a stubborn horse, so this part has a familiarity to it; it is easy to imagine that Lewis too once rode a horse like this and was impressed by how smart they can be and how much they know they can get away with when an amateur is riding them. (Story time: The ranch where we rode horses had a horse--who I rode several times--who liked to amuse herself by pressing up against trees in an attempt to crush the rider's leg.)

However, I was kind of under the impression that horses bred and selected to serve royalty were better trained than this. Like, we had naughty horses like this at the ranch where I took classes, but these horses were not the creme de la creme selected for kings and queens to ride upon. Lewis seems to have this strange idea that royalty means being trained to be an exquisite rider, but the horses themselves are just any old nag they grabbed at random from a passing horse-trader.

I really don't think that's accurate; no matter how good a rider you are (because Royalty), you still don't want a naughty horse who is likely to, for example, throw the Crown Prince to his death. That is generally considered something worth trying to avoid. So I'm terribly confused--and, again, this isn't my lane so maybe the horse people in the audience are shaking their head at how wrong I am--as to why Shasta was placed on a difficult stubborn horse and indeed why it is here at all.

This chapter hurts my head.

Moving on, this is one of those chapters where I just have no idea how old Shasta is because he sounds so very young here. Why is he talking to the horse like this? I really hope the answer isn't something like "because he's gotten accustomed to talking to Bree" because that feels profoundly insulting to Bree. A Horse is as different from a horse as a man is from a monkey; I don't talk to a monkey expecting the same interaction I would from a man.

I do talk to animals, of course; I don't want to suggest that I don't. I talk to my cats and, because they live with me and I live with them, they tend to have a very strong understanding of what I say (and, for the most part, I of them). And I talk to random squirrels outside because it pleases me. But the context here just feels very off; Shasta is afraid of being left behind from the group, getting lost, and/or being discovered by the Calormene troops. It just seems very odd to be having this "I say, old chap!" conversation at the horse when he ought by all rights to be much more concerned than he seems to be.

Lewis is bad with tension. Perhaps deliberately bad, considering the youth of his audience, but still bad.

   “Well, I suppose even a walk will get us somewhere sometime,” said Shasta to himself. “I only hope I shan’t run into Rabadash and his people.”

*sips tea* Ah, yes, my good chap. I, too, hope you shan't run into a violent man with an army. Who is riding here at a breakneck pace to take over the kingdom you happen to be in. The kingdom, I add, who has a crown prince who he has met and who looks exactly like you. What a wee spot of bother you'd be in then, eh?

Random note: Shasta has completely assimilated to Narnia and Archenland. Rabadash isn't "Prince Rabadash" and the army is "his" people, not Shasta's or even just a neutral descriptor.

   He went on for what seemed like a long time, always at a walking pace. He began to hate that horse, and he was also beginning to feel very hungry.

Here's another thing about naughty horses: does it not want to go home? Food and bed is there, as is "getting this stupid human off my back". Shasta hates the horse (geez, Shasta, you could be walking again, you know) but I have to feel that the horse probably isn't too thrilled with all this either.

   Presently he came to a place where the road divided into two. He was just wondering which led to Anvard when he was startled by a noise from behind him. It was the noise of trotting horses. “Rabadash!” thought Shasta. He had no way of guessing which road Rabadash would take. “But if I take one,” said Shasta to himself, “he may take the other: and if I stay at the crossroads I’m sure to be caught.” He dismounted and led his horse as quickly as he could along the right-hand road.

I don't know how to cope with this, ya'll. I caaaaaaaaaaaaan't. This is like something out of a French comedy; I keep expecting someone to hide in a closet while talking about bosoms and happily cheating wives.

To be very clear, an army of two hundred horses and at least that many men sneaked up behind Shasta such that he didn't hear them until they were a few feet behind him. Is this an army of anime ninjas? Are their horses' hooves covered in little pillow booties? The last time we saw this army they were galloping at full speed across the desert, and they have every reason not to slow down--this isn't a "sneak" attack in the sneaky quiet sense, this is a sneak attack in the "strike fast without any warning" sense. But Shasta hears nothing of this noisy mass of men and horses and metal until they're right behind him.

Other strange aspects of the text: Shasta doesn't seem to understand why he needs to avoid Rabadash, just that he should because he's generally bad. We know he hasn't put together the whole lost prince thing or attached any importance to his resemblance of Prince Corin, so he can't think he's a worthy hostage. Aravis would have real reason to fear capture, of course, because her coloring marks her as Calormene and Rabadash would probably fairly quickly suss out that she's a traitor, but what does Shasta think Rabadash would do with him? He knows the man is trying to spill as little blood as possible so if Shasta thinks he looks like a random normal citizen (which he doesn't, but he seems not to understand the importance of that), what does he think Rabadash would do?

I mean, I'm okay with him avoiding Rabadash because he's an evil guy with an army; I would too. I'd just love to know what Shasta thinks the danger here is because that would give insight into what he thinks Rabadash would see in him. If he was afraid of being taken as hostage, that would indicate his awareness of his uncanny resemblance to the prince; if he were afraid of being known as a traitor, that might indicate a lingering tie to Calormen that he feels his words or actions would betray. Instead he's just sort of vaguely scared of Rabadash without a stated reason, and so he remains more cypher than character.

   The sound of the cavalry grew rapidly nearer and in a minute or two Shasta realized that they were at the crossroads. He held his breath, waiting to see which way they would take.
   There came a low word of command “Halt!” then a moment of horsey noises—nostrils blowing, hoofs pawing, bits being champed, necks being patted. Then a voice spoke.

More random thoughts from an enby who doesn't grok horses: Wouldn't Shasta's horse make noises at the other horses? It's wet and tired and hungry and fed-up with this stupid human on its back, and it knows that the presence of other horses is where the food and the warmth and the rest is. Maybe it would not, because it would smell strangeness on the other horses? I do not know, but it is things I think about.

   “Attend, all of you,” it said. “We are now within a furlong of the castle. Remember your orders. Once we are in Narnia, as we should be by sunrise, you are to kill as little as possible. On this venture you are to regard every drop of Narnian blood as more precious than a gallon of your own. On this venture, I say. The gods will send us a happier hour and then you must leave nothing alive between Cair Paravel and the Western Waste. But we are not yet in Narnia. Here in Archenland it is another thing. In the assault on this castle of King Lune’s, nothing matters but speed. Show your mettle. It must be mine within an hour. And if it is, I give it all to you. I reserve no booty for myself. Kill me every barbarian male within its walls, down to the child that was born yesterday, and everything else is yours to divide as you please—the women, the gold, the jewels, the weapons, and the wine. The man that I see hanging back when we come to the gates shall be burned alive. In the name of Tash the irresistible, the inexorable—forward!”
   With a great cloppitty-clop the column began to move, and Shasta breathed again. They had taken the other road.

Wait, what.

God, I don't... where do you even start?

*deep breath* Okay, so they're within a furlong which Google tells me is an eight of a mile. They'll be at the Archenland castle "within an hour" and then in Narnia "by sunrise". I'm pretty sure it's not night right now; everything has been described as day so far and Shasta was able to look at the clouds earlier. But, okay, sometime between now and sunrise Rabadash hopes to be done sacking Anvard. I feel like that's going to be a really quick sacking--not a lot of time to stuff jewels, weapons, wine, gold, and women in the saddlebags--but okay. I guess. Maybe the sacking is reserved for the men he leaves behind to secure the exit for their escape with Susan.

But issues of timeline aside, this is the first time we've heard that while Rabadash plans to spill as little Narnian blood as possible (as previously established), he still plans to slaughter every human male in Anvard. That is, uh, kind of a big deal and I feel like it should have been established earlier. If Rabadash is going rogue from his father's orders, then why didn't he stay in the room with Aravis so she could hear his orders? (The only thing "extra" we got from the Tisroc staying in the room after Rabadash left was the awareness that he was enough of a jerk to not mourn his jerk-son if he gets himself killed. Characterization, sure, but for a character we never see again and which we could have guessed. Plot takes precedence!)

How is Rabadash planning to spin this brutal assault? I know Lewis is calling back to Numbers ("Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.") and doing that thing some Christian writers do where they think that what is Biblical was therefore common and normal in all of human history everywhere, but in doing so he is ignoring that this is a super huge big deal between countries with standing armies, as opposed to small-scale tribal warfare.

Archenland appears to be a long thin country providing a barrier between the larger countries of Calormen and Narnia. I think of it as about the size and shape of Portugal to Narnia's rounder Spain. Rabadash is proposing to ride in and slaughter every man and boy, then hand over the women to be raped and presumably either killed or taken back to Calormen as slaves. And he's doing this on an expedition that is supposed to have a Just Cause (Susan leaving without warning; though as others have pointed out, this isn't a Just Cause against Archenland) and a low body count to keep King Peter from protesting too much over the loss of his sister.

This makes no sense. If Rabadash is going rogue from his father's orders of restraint and prudence, why remain restrained with Narnian causalities? He says, and seems to mean it, that "you are to regard every drop of Narnian blood as more precious than a gallon of your own" but then orders a brutal genocide on all of Archenland. The only way this makes any sense is if either Rabadash or Lewis have no understanding of how: (a) humans work, (b) compassion works, (c) fear works, (d) treaties work, or (e) all of the above.

Because someone--and I'm not sure who--believes that Narnia will either have no objections to the wholesale slaughter of their nearest neighbor and ally, or they think that Calormen will have a Just Cause trump card that Narnia will have to respect because reasons. Which is pretty much not how this sort of thing works.

Anyway, let's put another mark in the racism column that literally no one in this army of two hundred horses has any objections whatsoever to the violent razing of Archenland. This is why it's not "just" Rabadash who is the problem when we talk about race in this book. No one even attempts to rein him in or try to get him to back down from the "kill all the babies" plan here. Sure, maybe Lewis wanted to show they were all terrified of him, but that's an authorial choice he didn't have to make. And, indeed, for the ending to work at all--wherein Rabadash is defanged through a combination of mockery, disrespect, and a need to keep an eye out for treacherous generals--the people in this culture can't be too afraid to oppose him in small, meaningful ways. You can't sell me a cowed army as a shield for Totally Not Racist and then have the ending solution be the constant threat of a military coup keeping him at home rather than abroad.

   Shasta thought they took a long time going past, for though he had been talking and thinking about “two hundred horse” all day, he had not realized how many they really were. But at last the sound died away and once more he was alone amid the drip-drip from the trees.
   He now knew the way to Anvard but of course he could not now go there: that would only mean running into the arms of Rabadash’s troopers. “What on earth am I to do?” said Shasta to himself. But he remounted his horse and continued along the road he had chosen, in the faint hope of finding some cottage where he might ask for shelter and a meal. He had thought, of course, of going back to Aravis and Bree and Hwin at the hermitage, but he couldn’t because by now he had not the least idea of the direction.
   “After all,” said Shasta, “this road is bound to get somewhere.”

Here we finally belatedly remember that Aravis exists but quickly discard the whole notion because Lewis isn't interested in her. The idea that Shasta has "no idea of the direction" is so many layers of weaksauce; for one, this child has been navigating around the Calormene countryside for actual weeks, so he should have a decent sense of direction now. (They found Tashbaan without trouble!) For two, turn left until you hit sand, then follow the sand to the Hermit's house. I think that is a better plan than "wander randomly and hope someone feeds me rather than selling me into slavery like my adopted father tried to do".

But, no, what is really disheartening about this passage isn't the dismissal of Aravis as uninteresting and no longer part of the story. No, the cardinal failing here is how thoroughly it reveals that Shasta is not a hero; he's a plot device. Lewis just keeps him moving down the road in search of food because he wants his plot device to meet Jesus and have a moral lesson. But this was a moment for actual heroism and when the chips were down, Shasta (and Lewis) folded and walked away.

Shasta is in a territory beset by enemies and he just overheard them discussing their evil, brutal plans. Does he follow behind them in hopes of committing sabotage and slowing them down? Does he shake off his weariness and ride up and down the countryside, rallying the good Archenland people against the invaders? Does he play Paul Revere and rouse the very trees from their slumber (as in Prince Caspian) and march on Rabadash's frightened and confused army at the head of a hundred furious trees?

He doesn't have to be a fighty hero, of course; there are a million ways he could show heroism here. But does he in short do anything that shows he cares about stopping this carnage? Do his actions indicate he feels deeply for the people of Archenland (the people he will soon be picked to rule over and I remind you that a Good King thinks of his people first, so sayeth the platitudinous Lune) and wishes to save them because while he may be hurt or killed in the process, it's The Right Thing To Do?

No. He hears about the planned slaughter of infants, shrugs his shoulder, and figures someone else has all that covered. As for him? He's hungry. He'll just wander down the road until someone takes pity on him and feeds him. Someone like a Hero.

Next time: Shasta meets Aslan.

In the meantime, I leave you with this song.


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