Narnia: It Was I

[Narnia Content Note: Slavery, Abuse, War, Violence, Religion, Racism]

Narnia Recap: Shasta ran into the forest to find King Lune and warn him of Rabadash's approach. He was then separated from King Lune's party in the fog, and briefly overheard Rabadash's army pass by. Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.

The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 11: The Unwelcome Fellow Traveler

Okay! Now we get (I think) to the actual Unwelcome Fellow Traveler promised by the chapter title: Aslan.

I said this last time, but I honestly think that the original order of events that Lewis probably intended for this chapter was: Shasta warns King Lune, a magic fog descends and separates them, and then Aslan shows up. I have a lot of theories as to why Shasta got to overhear Rabadash's army scurry by in the mist, but setting those aside for now I will just say that it feels like a late addition. So here we are with the reason for this chapter: the unsaved prince will meet god and become properly inducted into the Church of Aslan. For Lewis, this is kind of a big deal. Let's go!

   “After all,” said Shasta, “this road is bound to get somewhere.”
   But that all depends on what you mean by somewhere. The road kept on getting to somewhere in the sense that it got to more and more trees, all dark and dripping, and to colder and colder air. And strange, icy winds kept blowing the mist past him though they never blew it away. If he had been used to mountain country he would have realized that this meant he was now very high up—perhaps right at the top of the pass. But Shasta knew nothing about mountains.

Here is perhaps the first time in the novel I feel a wee bit sorry for Shasta. I mean, yes, he has an awful backstory of being kept as a slave by his adoptive abusive father, and I don't want to minimize that; I just mean that since his adventures started, he's been living a remarkably charmed life under Lewis' fingers. Yes, the initial "learning to ride" part sounded pretty crummy, but Lewis didn't seem to think it was that bad so all the "falling off" stuff came off (to me) more as over-the-top pratfalls.

After that, though, things were unusually smooth for a Narnia novel! Shasta wasn't challenged by the guards at Tashbaan until he forgot he wasn't supposed to jeer at them. He was separated to go with the Narnians, but they treated him well and fed him and Corin was nice so it all worked out. The ride across the desert was not fun, but over quickly without too much incident for him (Aravis and Hwin were the ones wounded by the lion, and Bree was terrified by it) and then he met King Lune and really things have been smoother sailing than anything Eustace or Edmund went through. (Of course, Eustace and Edmund are more accurately compared to Aravis, the Designated Sinner for the novel)

But! Shasta is finally meeting a real hardship here? He's alone for the first time in weeks, he's lost, and he's hungry and cold. He's up in the mountains, which means his ears are probably popping and he doesn't know why. And apparently visibility is so terrible that he can't even tell he's at the top of a pass. That's upsetting and scary and he probably feels isolated and sad. I sympathize.

   “I do think,” said Shasta, “that I must be the most unfortunate boy that ever lived in the whole world. Everything goes right for everyone except me. Those Narnian lords and ladies got safe away from Tashbaan; I was left behind. Aravis and Bree and Hwin are all as snug as anything with that old Hermit: of course I was the one who was sent on. King Lune and his people must have got safely into the castle and shut the gates long before Rabadash arrived, but I get left out.”

Annnnnnnnnnnnnd whoops all my sympathy just drained away. Well, it was nice while it lasted!

I started this Narnia deconstruction in 2011. It is a source of great frustration to me that I began this series praising "Lewis' undeniable talent as a writer". I was trying to be nice, sure, but I didn't completely disbelieve it. Now, six years later, I sit here staring at the passage above and I wonder how Lewis never noticed that his characters shouldn't have a direct line to him at all times.

Here is what Shasta has directly experienced:

   Shasta did not for a moment suppose [the lion] had gone for good. He turned and raced for the gate in the green wall which, now for the first time, he remembered seeing. Hwin, stumbling and nearly fainting, was just entering the gate: Aravis still kept her seat but her back was covered with blood.
   “Come in, my daughter, come in,” the robed and bearded man was saying, and then, “Come in, my son,” as Shasta panted up to him. He heard the gate closed behind him; and the bearded stranger was already helping Aravis off her horse. [...]
   “Are—are—are you,” panted Shasta. “Are you King Lune of Archenland?”
   The old man shook his head. “No,” he replied in a quiet voice, “I am the Hermit of the Southern March. And now, my son, waste no time on questions, but obey. This damsel is wounded. Your horses are spent. Rabadash is at this moment finding a ford over the Winding Arrow. If you run now, without a moment’s rest, you will still be in time to warn King Lune.”
   Shasta’s heart fainted at these words for he felt he had no strength left. And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one. But all he said out loud was:
   “Where is the King?”
   The Hermit turned and pointed with his staff. “Look,” he said. “There is another gate, right opposite to the one you entered by. Open it and go straight ahead: always straight ahead, over level or steep, over smooth or rough, over dry or wet. I know by my art that you will find King Lune straight ahead. But run, run: always run.”
   Shasta nodded his head, ran to the northern gate and disappeared beyond it.

Here is an incomplete list of things Shasta does not know: (1) Whether the Narnian lords and ladies got safely away. I mean, yes, they got away from Tashbaan but they're still sailing on an open sea. Shasta may have never been in the mountains before but he did grow up by the sea and he ought to know that the sea is never a sure bet of safety. (2) Whether Aravis and the Horses are safe and alive at all, let alone "snug as anything" with the old man who took charge of them. The last time Shasta saw Aravis, she was coated in blood and all the Hermit said was that she was "wounded". He didn't say she'd be fine! (3) Whether King Lune and his people got to the castle in time to shut the gates, and whether the shutting of said gates will protect them from Rabadash's men. We know that Rabadash wants the gates to be open for speed, but there's nothing in the text so far indicating that "being slowed down" in this case means "being completely stymied and everyone is safe forever".

Indeed, it is terribly odd the more we dig into this book how everyone just assumes that if Rabadash meets even the slightest amount of resistance, then everything will be fine forever. The local equivalent of the Ottoman Empire has just declared war on Archenland, so it's very concerning that everyone is treating this like a one-time raid to be repulsed. We know that the Tisroc is ambivalent about committing his troops to a long-term thing, but what if he changes his mind? He hasn't exactly been characterized as a steady unchanging rock; the one time we saw him, he was waffling on whether or not to kill his eldest son and heir, and then revoked a pardon for a cook he'd previously sentenced-and-then-pardoned. None of that speaks to constancy!

I think we're supposed to disagree with Shasta's self-pitying here and this is meant to characterize him as tired and cranky and (possibly?) a sinner. But it's hard to be sure of that when the narrative has bent over backwards to reassure us that he's right: Susan and Aravis and Lune are safe, because of authorial reasons. I also feel like this (possible) characterization of Shasta as a big whiny-pants is let down by again not knowing how old this child is supposed to be. An eight-year-old making these complaints is a very different kettle of fish from, say, a fifteen-year-old. Lewis doesn't want to commit to an age, but that means we get these passages where it's really hard to tell whether Shasta is a small child in need of a nap or a Nice Guy in need of a lecture.

But I still feel like even a very small child would be worried about Aravis after seeing her covered in blood.

   And being very tired and having nothing inside him, he felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks.
   What put a stop to all this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could see nothing. And the Thing (or Person) was going so quietly that he could hardly hear any footfalls. What he could hear was breathing. His invisible companion seemed to breathe on a very large scale, and Shasta got the impression that it was a very large creature. And he had come to notice this breathing so gradually that he had really no idea how long it had been there. It was a horrible shock.

Okay, so it's now officially night, if it's pitch dark? I kind of missed when that happened, so I guess it's good to have that confirmed. But there's no stars or moon? No light anywhere? I've been spending evenings outside more lately as a stress relief thing and I've been surprised to realize just how much light there is outside at night, at least when the moon and stars are cooperating.

I know this is an allegory of Jesus walking beside us in the darkness and not something I'm supposed to take literally, but... while I know it can get very dark indeed outside, I just want to be clear that Shasta (and the horse?) can't see the enormous lion walking right next to them? (And the horse can't smell the enormous lion?) I feel like maybe if it's that dark outside, Shasta needs to not be riding anymore. He was riding down this road in the hopes of finding food and shelter for the night, but if he does pass a farm or something he won't be able to see it.

Does he think roads lead right up to a house at the far end?

   It darted into his mind that he had heard long ago that there were giants in these Northern countries. He bit his lip in terror. But now that he really had something to cry about, he stopped crying.
   The Thing (unless it was a Person) went on beside him so very quietly that Shasta began to hope he had only imagined it. But just as he was becoming quite sure of it, there suddenly came a deep, rich sigh out of the darkness beside him. That couldn’t be imagination! Anyway, he had felt the hot breath of that sigh on his chilly left hand.
   If the horse had been any good—or if he had known how to get any good out of the horse—he would have risked everything on a breakaway and a wild gallop. But he knew he couldn’t make that horse gallop. So he went on at a walking pace and the unseen companion walked and breathed beside him. At last he could bear it no longer.

I genuinely laughed at that "if the horse had been any good" line, like, dude, you're not going to blame this on your horse. That is a royal horse. Nobles ride on that horse and they put a lost prince on it. You're the one riding it around in the pitch black darkness risking a broken leg or worse. The fact that the horse hasn't thrown you off by now means it has the patience of a saint in my book, kiddo.

   “Who are you?” he said, scarcely above a whisper.
   “One who has waited long for you to speak,” said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.
   “Are you—are you a giant?” asked Shasta.
   “You might call me a giant,” said the Large Voice. “But I am not like the creatures you call giants.”

For the record, yes, this is all an allegory about Jesus walking patiently beside us until we speak to him. You will note that it doesn't carry over well into a literal application of "walking silently beside us" because it means Aslan is a jerk for having scared the shit out of this poor kid by doing that street harassment thing where guys walk right next to you in an attempt to intimidate and forced teaming. This is a jerky thing to do and it scares people for a reason, so -100 points from Gryffindor on this one.

   “I can’t see you at all,” said Shasta, after staring very hard. Then (for an even more terrible idea had come into his head) he said, almost in a scream, “You’re not—not something dead, are you? Oh please—please do go away. What harm have I ever done you? Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world!”
   Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. “There,” it said, “that is not the breath of a ghost. Tell me your sorrows.”

This fear of the undead Shasta slept among the tombs, despite rumors of the undead, and seemed largely unconcerned? I mean, he was a little unsettled by the place, but not nearly so much as I would expect if undead things were a major screamy fear of his.

Again, this is an ~allegory~ thing about how Jesus isn't dead (despite having died) (this is one of those things that Christian denominations argue about intensely, yet which seem like bizarre hair-splits to outsiders) but there's again just this sense of laziness Lewis has about his craft. He wants to clarify that lion-Jesus isn't undead, so Shasta evidences a fear that hasn't manifested before despite being relevant to a previous scene.

   Shasta was a little reassured by the breath: so he told how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fisherman. And then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of all their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert. And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis. And also, how very long it was since he had had anything to eat.
   “I do not call you unfortunate,” said the Large Voice.
   “Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta.
   “There was only one lion,” said the Voice.
   “What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two the first night, and—”
   “There was only one: but he was swift of foot.”

I'm trying to imagine an actual human being having this conversation and I just can't. The answer to "I do not call you unfortunate" after all that is not, cannot be, a blase "yeah, okay, but did you hear the part about the two times I ran into lions?" The lions are largely incidental to the bit where Shasta was raised without his mom and dad by an abusive slaver who tried to sell him to a man whose service meant a life worse than death. Hell, even Aravis' wounds are incidental to the number of lions! The number of lions is not important here at all, but Shasta zooms in on that because the author has an endpoint in mind and we're going to slog there, by gum.

   “How do you know?”
   “I was the lion.” And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”
   “Then it was you who wounded Aravis?”
   “It was I.”
   “But what for?”
   “Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

That is literally all we get of that. Shasta isn't angry or mistrustful; he doesn't rail against the creature who wounded his only human friend in the world who he is destined to fall in love with and marry. He doesn't say a peep beyond a mild "why" and then clamping up when Aslan tells him to mind his own business.

We've talked about this a lot in the past, but a big gaping problem with this series is that it's a morality play about Good Guys and Bad Guys but the Good Guys aren't differentiated by what they do. They aren't really differentiated from the Bad Guys at all except in who their boss is: Aslan vs. the villain of the book, whether that be the White Witch, Miraz, the Green Witch, the Tisroc, or Tash.

So we have the problem where Aslan doesn't behave differently from the Bad Guys in this novel. Aravis' unnamed Father whips a slave girl, so Aslan whips Aravis. Rabadash kicks Ahoshta, and Aslan terrifies Hwin and Bree to within an inch of their life. One lord plots to harm a Queen for her arrogance, another lord wounds a future-Queen for hers. The side of Bad and Good are identical if we just look at what they do; the only thing that makes Good "good" in these novels is Lewis' reassurance that Jesus is on their side and everything is for a good reason beyond our ken.

But in practice this makes a conversion narrative necessarily muddled. Shasta rode a day and night over the desert to save Susan from being harmed by Rabadash. We still don't know why he did that, and I pointed out at the time that the lack of explicitness to his motivation would be a problem, and here we are. Why did he care so much about saving Susan from being beaten, only to now meekly accept that Aravis needed to be beaten? We don't even get the weaksauce explanation of the maid here; Shasta has literally no reason to assume that this giant lion isn't just a raging asshole who beats women for fun.

   “Who are you?” asked Shasta.
   “Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself,” loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.
   Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him, nor that it was the voice of a ghost. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him. Yet he felt glad too.

Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him immediately after the Voice freely admitted that it made tatters of his best friend's hide. That is some powerful acoustics, I guess.

   The mist was turning from black to gray and from gray to white. This must have begun to happen some time ago, but while he had been talking to the Thing he had not been noticing anything else. Now, the whiteness around him became a shining whiteness; his eyes began to blink. Somewhere ahead he could hear birds singing. He knew the night was over at last. He could see the mane and ears and head of his horse quite easily now. A golden light fell on them from the left. He thought it was the sun.

I no longer can make any sense of this weather. It's dark because it's night and because of a "black mist". I... what makes mist black? God, I guess? Pollution is the only other thing I can think of and Archenland doesn't have any kind of industry because that would be ungodly and non-Arthurian. 

   He turned and saw, pacing beside him, taller than the horse, a Lion. The horse did not seem to be afraid of it or else could not see it. It was from the Lion that the light came. No one ever saw anything more terrible or beautiful.
   Luckily Shasta had lived all his life too far south in Calormen to have heard the tales that were whispered in Tashbaan about a dreadful Narnian demon that appeared in the form of a lion. And of course he knew none of the true stories about Aslan, the great Lion, the son of the Emperor-over-the-sea, the King above all High Kings in Narnia. But after one glance at the Lion’s face he slipped out of the saddle and fell at its feet. He couldn’t say anything but then he didn’t want to say anything, and he knew he needn’t say anything.
   The High King above all kings stooped toward him. Its mane, and some strange and solemn perfume that hung about the mane, was all round him. It touched his forehead with its tongue. He lifted his face and their eyes met. Then instantly the pale brightness of the mist and the fiery brightness of the Lion rolled themselves together into a swirling glory and gathered themselves up and disappeared. He was alone with the horse on a grassy hillside under a blue sky. And there were birds singing.

I can't really criticize a description of religious ecstasy because I feel like an asshole when I do; Fred Clark has correctly noted that writing a religious ecstasy scene is like writing a sexual ecstasy scene, and both require a delicate touch. I think this one is fine, just not my thing.

What I will complain about is the world-building about the Calormene people whispering stories about Aslan as a demon. This is a common thing in Christian fiction, where Good People have warm fuzzy feelings about Jesus when they hear about him, but Bad People instinctively feel disgust and fear and anger because they're defensive about their sin. (We saw some of this in LWW, when Edmund had an adverse reaction to Aslan's name.)

Lewis is knowingly characterizing the majority of Tashbaan as a city of sin and iniquity such that these sin-based rumors about Jesus are able to take hold. No one there worships Aslan and speaks out in his name; hardly anyone is even good enough to get the good-shivers at his name, otherwise the rumors wouldn't be plausible. Those who hear his name refuse to speak on him further, except in guarded derogatory whispers.

This is a deliberate characterization of a sinful city, and something we will see in other Christian novels. (Camazotz in Wrinkle in Time will have similar silence on the subject of good and wonderful things.) And it's a deliberate characterization of a city of people coded brown and Muslim in the text, which--again--adds to the deep racism in the book.

By making a god who is Good and Pure and also the One True Way and by making his name a bell that draws in other good people, Lewis has written himself into a situation where anyone who doesn't convert at their first introduction to the Good News is not just wrong, they are sinful and bad. The thing is, this isn't a writing problem; this is a theology problem. He does believe that people who don't join Christianity are sinful and bad and going to hell. Possibly not actively, possibly only in an "original sin, plus a few sins here and there they picked up along the way", but still bad.

Then he made a Muslim-coded nation with a Muslim-coded city and deemed everyone in it so bad that they not only don't convert but they actually tell lies about lion-Jesus and call him a demon. And we're supposed to believe the book isn't racist because one young person from the city converts to Aslanianity and becomes a queen.


Post a Comment