Repost: Playful Animals, Platonic Allies

[Ana's Note: By popular demand, this is a re-post of an old deconstruction, partly to have content while I struggle with my ongoing disability challenges and partly so that newcomers can comment on old conversations.

The original post is here. I have not edited the content.



[Content Note: Classist Language, War, Deformation, Disabilities]

Narnia Recap: Aslan has been resurrected and has carried Susan and Lucy to the Witch's house. 

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 16: What Happened With The Statues

   "WHAT AN EXTRAORDINARY PLACE!" cried Lucy. "All those stone animals -- and people too! It's -- it's like a museum."
   "Hush," said Susan, "Aslan's doing something."

This is a very cozy chapter, possibly the coziest thus far. The reader is still in the post-resurrection relief that Aslan is alright and that everything is going to end nicely, and despite the fact that there is actually a war going on a short ways away, we are going to have a play day with silliness and the battle itself will be limited to three paragraphs at the end. Considering that this book was written for a young audience, it was probably a wise choice; not everything needs to be dark and gritty.

What does puzzle me, though, is Lucy's opening statement. "Extraordinary" probably does describe the Witch's statue garden, but though it can be applied to negative things, it very rarely seems to be. Lucy's peculiar word-choice, as well as her animals! people! museum! narrative strikes me as very odd, almost as though Lucy doesn't know that these statues are living things.

Can that even be possible at this point? Mr. and Mrs. Beaver told them at dinner that the Witch is widely rumored to turn her enemies to stone and they speculated that was the fate of Mr. Tumnus. Edmund, with whom they have spent a day's travel when Aslan's forces moved out from the Stone Table, has actually seen the statue garden, as well as a faun that he thought might be Lucy's friend. I don't really understand how that isn't the first thing Lucy thinks: These are the statues! Mr. Tumnus must be here!

I almost feel like Lucy has forgotten her friend. Which, considering that he was their big reason for not leaving Narnia -- they were on a rescue mission! they had to find Aslan in order to set Mr. Tumnus free! -- this seems a little odd. It almost feels like the author and the narrative had moved on to bigger, more important things and Lucy's mind had been dragged along in the new direction. 

   He was indeed. He had bounded up to the stone lion and breathed on him. Then without waiting a moment he whisked round -- almost as if he had been a cat chasing its tail -- and breathed also on the stone dwarf, which (as you remember) was standing a few feet from the lion with his back to it. [...]
   For a second after Aslan had breathed upon him the stone lion looked just the same. Then a tiny streak of gold began to run along his white marble back -- then it spread -- then the color seemed to lick all over him as the flame licks all over a bit of paper -- then, while his hindquarters were still obviously stone, the lion shook his mane and all the heavy, stone folds rippled into living hair. Then he opened a great red mouth, warm and living, and gave a prodigious yawn. And now his hind legs had come to life. He lifted one of them and scratched himself. Then, having caught sight of Aslan, he went bounding after him and frisking round him whimpering with delight and jumping up to lick his face.

Everyone, say hello to the Comic Relief Lion. And while you're at it, say hello to the Comic Relief Giant:

   "Oh!" said Susan in a different tone. "Look! I wonder -- I mean, is it safe?"
   Lucy looked and saw that Aslan had just breathed on the feet of the stone giant.
   "It's all right!" shouted Aslan joyously. "Once the feet are put right, all the rest of him will follow."

More on them later.

   "Now for the inside of this house!" said Aslan. "Look alive, everyone. Up stairs and down stairs and in my lady's chamber! Leave no corner un-searched. You never know where some poor prisoner may be concealed."

This statement is precisely the sort of thing likely to confuse a child who is not familiar with a certain old nursery rhyme. And while I'm not going to say that C.S. Lewis may be directly responsible for planting the idea for the controversial Neil Gaiman slash-fic pairing Aslan and Jadis, I will say that this framing strikes me as very odd.

I feel as though this chapter marks a major tonal shift in the book -- and the second-to-last chapter of a book may not be the best place to introduce a major tonal shift. Aslan has gone from being stern and solemn and untamed and wildly beautiful to silly and whimsical and kittenish and quoting English fairy tales that seem not, strictly-speaking, to fit in this world. Outside of the Witch's house -- which presumably does have an upstairs, downstairs, and lady's chamber -- how many homes in the Animal world of Narnia are going to fit this layout? The rhyme can't possibly be a Narnian one, it must be from England, and I find it incredibly jarring.

And perhaps I shouldn't complain that Aslan is less off-putting and more accessible now. Haven't I been asking for that all this time? But... I don't actually feel like he's more accessible. Sillier, yes, but he misunderstands Susan's concerns (either deliberately or intentionally) and fails to address them. Not in the same way as he failed to address her concerns about the Deep Magic last time she dared question him, because he didn't growl at her, granted. Yet I see little practical difference between gently mocking someone's question and aggressively reprimanding someone's question -- they both end in the same result that Aslan refuses to answer. It's just... he's a lot sillier about it now.

I'd like to say that some of this deliberate silliness is meant as a distraction that there is a Very Serious Battle going on not too far from this scene. And possibly there's an attempt to minimize the very real distress that would surely result from waking up and realizing that you've been frozen in stone for... how long? The Witch has been reigning for 100 years. Some of these statues may well have been here that long. That Comic Relief Lion? His family may be dead from old age at this point. So maybe the nursery rhymes are meant as an emotional buffer, but it's something of an odd one for me, almost as though we've gone overboard into a comic sketch.

   And into the interior they all rushed and for several minutes the whole of that dark, horrible, fusty old castle echoed with the opening of windows and with everyone's voices crying out at once, "Don't forget the dungeons -- Give us a hand with this door! -- Here's another little winding stair -- Oh! I say. Here's a poor kangaroo. Call Aslan -- Phew! How it smells in here -- Look out for trap-doors -- Up here! There are a whole lot more on the landing!" But the best of all was when Lucy came rushing upstairs shouting out, "Aslan! Aslan! I've found Mr. Tumnus. Oh, do come quick."
   A moment later Lucy and the little Faun were holding each other by both hands and dancing round and round for joy. The little chap was none the worse for having been a statue and was of course very interested in all she had to tell him.

"And then we walked with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver to the Stone Table so that we could ask Aslan to rescue you, and Aslan nearly let Susan get killed but it turned out alright, and then the Witch showed up with Edmund, and Aslan fixed that." I'm going to put that in my Bucket O' Reasons why I think Aslan is the real protagonist of the book and the Pevensies are just decoys.

   And it was then that someone (Tumnus, I think) first said, "But how are we going to get out?" for Aslan had got in by a jump and the gates were still locked.
   "That'll be all right," said Aslan; and then, rising on his hind-legs, he bawled up at the Giant. "Hi! You up there," he roared. "What's your name?"
   "Giant Rumblebuffin, if it please your honor," said the Giant, once more touching his cap.
   "Well then, Giant Rumblebuffin," said Aslan, "just let us out of this, will you?"

And this... just... I don't even know how to deconstruct this. "How are we going to get out?" Seriously? Because the gates are locked, you're worried how to get out? I mean, you only have a giant stomping around the courtyard, and a messiah figure with magic breath that can turn stone to life. I'm sure you'll think of something.

Although this does feed into my theory that Aslan either can't or won't anticipate perfectly sensible questions and answer them before they are asked. Meaning that he is, in my own experience in the business world, a terrible leader. So maybe it's a good thing that he doesn't stick around to rub off on the Pevensie children.

But conveniently, there is a giant in the courtyard and after a lot of ceremony, he manages to break the gates open. And then he asks for a handkerchief, and Lucy offers him one of hers, and a good time is had by all when the giant thinks Lucy is the handkerchief because her relative size to him is... apparently the same as the relative size between me and a small hand-napkin? And the relative size difference between the giant and the actual handkerchief is "only about the same size to him that a saccharine tablet would be to you". I encourage the mathematically inclined among us to work out how tall the giant must be based on this piece of information. And I encourage the economically inclined to then work out how the Narnian economy can sustain whole families of giants.

   "What a nice giant he is!" said Lucy to Mr. Tumnus.
   "Oh yes," replied the Faun. "All the Buffins always were. One of the most respected of all the giant families in Narnia. Not very clever, perhaps (I never knew a giant that was), but an old family. With traditions, you know. If he'd been the other sort she'd never have turned him into stone."

And this just irks me. I've already clamored loud and long about the racism in this book, but as long as it was coming from the mouth of Mr. Beaver, we could kind of chalk it up to ignorance on his part and not a major piece of the world at large. But now we get to learn that our good giant isn't a good giant because he decided to defect from his Always Chaotic Evil race and oppose the Witch. No, he's a good giant because he comes from an old, established, respected, good family of giants. With traditions, you know. Not like those nasty upstart giant families. Nouveau riche and Euro-trash, all of them. Argh.

   "Our day's work is not yet over," he said, "and if the Witch is to be finally defeated before bedtime we must find the battle at once. [...] Those who can't keep up -- that is, children, dwarfs, and small animals -- must ride on the backs of those who can -- that is, lions, centaurs, unicorns, horses, giants and eagles. Those who are good with their noses must come in the front with us lions to smell out where the battle is. Look lively and sort yourselves."

I am not a battle general, and you could fit what I know about war strategy in a matchbox without first taking the matches out, but how does Aslan not know where the battle is? I thought the whole point of his discussions with Peter were to tell him where it would be most advantageous to make his stand. The Witch's army isn't an invading force that must be stopped on the battlefield chosen by fate -- the Witch is coming to kill the human children. The one advantage that Peter and Aslan had was to choose where the stand would be made. After that, it should have been a matter of fortifying their location defensively and sitting tight until the enemy came to them. Right?

Moving past that, while I appreciate that Aslan is pointing out that the Horses can get over themselves and be useful because it's wartime and if the Son of the Emperor can be deigned to be ridden in a time of emergency, then the Horses can too, I have a few concerns about this passage namely: why are the little children and small animals going into battle?

Well, I mean the obvious answer is that the moment Aslan shows up the battle will be over. But that's sort of a bad explanation because then someone might reasonably ask why Aslan didn't go take care of the battle first and then come sort out all the statues. If this whole statue-getting expedition isn't a case of getting reinforcements, then it's very poorly timed. And yet, if it is a matter of getting reinforcements, then yes, the children and small animals and babies jolly well should lag behind a bit. There's a big difference between sending an unarmed Lion into battle and an unarmed House Cat into battle, and there's a reason why the Talking Mice in Prince Caspian walk on their hind legs and fight with swords.

   And with a great deal of bustle and cheering they did. The most pleased of the lot was the other lion who kept running about everywhere pretending to be very busy but really in order to say to everyone he met, "Did you hear what he said? Us Lions. That means him and me. Us Lions. That's what I like about Aslan. No side, no stand-offishness. Us Lions. That meant him and me." At least he went on saying this till Aslan had loaded him up with three dwarfs, one dryad, two rabbits, and a hedgehog. That steadied him a bit.

And I... don't know what to do with this. We already had a lion in the courtyard, we had to in order for Edmund to think it was Aslan and have his moral event horizon moment of drawing on the lion's face with a pencil. But now the Lion is un-stoned and I feel like he was made unhelpfully silly in order to differentiate him from Aslan who is obvious way more regal than that, except for when he's bouncing around ignoring Susan's questions and referring to Jadis as "my lady" because he picked it up from an English nursery rhyme.

Maybe lions are just all really silly and I never realized.

But I still do not understand how the Lion is going to be any use in the upcoming battle if he wades into the thick of things with two rabbits, a hedgehog, and a handful of (presumably) unarmed dwarfs and dryad. I guess either they'll get off and get clear quickly or their bodies will be cannon fodder. I seriously do not see how else this will work.

   When all were ready (it was a big sheepdog who actually helped Aslan most in getting them sorted into their proper order) they set out through the gap in the castle wall. At first the lions and dogs went nosing about in all directions. But then suddenly one great hound picked up the scent and gave a bay. There was no time lost after that. [...]
   Then they came out of the narrow valley and at once she saw the reason. There stood Peter and Edmund and all the rest of Aslan's army fighting desperately against the crowd of horrible creatures whom she had seen last night; only now, in the daylight, they looked even stranger and more evil and more deformed. There also seemed to be far more of them. Peter's army -- which had their backs to her -- looked terribly few. And there were statues dotted all over the battlefield, so apparently the Witch had been using her wand. But she did not seem to be using it now. She was fighting with her stone knife. It was Peter she was fighting -- both of them going at it so hard that Lucy could hardly make out what was happening; she only saw the stone knife and Peter's sword flashing so quickly that they looked like three knives and three swords.

Here is a list of things that I object to in this passage.

I object to the idea that the scenting animals would start cold "nosing about in all directions" from the Witch's gates. Why? Even if Aslan doesn't know the location of the battle, he knows the general direction as a point on a compass. And considering how close the battle ends up being to the house -- they seem to be about a mile off -- there's no reason to scent the battle at all when the ears in the party should be more than up to the task.

I object to the idea that the army is "Aslan's army" at this point. Okay, he may have assembled them and they might be fighting in his name, but Edmund and Peter are leading the army this point as kings. I get that Aslan didn't warn the army that he was dying for Edmund because he didn't want to demoralize them, and I think that's a good thing, but the answer to that was not to be super-mopey all day and then disappear the night before battle. That is going to demoralize people way, way worse than any excuse you could come up with. Seriously. So if Aslan is going to abandon his army without a single word, they're not "his" army anymore. Yes, I can be picky.

I object to the conflation of "evil" and "deformed". I get that C.S. Lewis has this whole Platonic forms thing going on that we already had to listen to with Mr. Beaver's rant on how things that look like other things but aren't those things are evil -- and it made no sense even then because a dwarf doesn't look like a human, a dwarf looks like a dwarf, and that is like saying that Jaguars are evil because they look like Leopard but really aren't and seriously?? -- but I really must draw the line at this whole idea that deformity and evil are somehow linked.

I'm very much aware of the theory that deforming diseases wouldn't be with us if not for the Fall, and I understand that it comes from a good intent when people who hold that theory try to explain that no, it's not that YOU wouldn't exist were it not for the Fall, your DISABILITY wouldn't exist and wouldn't that be lovely? but what that good intentioned person is failing to understand is that it's not as simple as that. I hate my disability, yes, and I would happily get rid of it tomorrow, yes. But to get rid of it in the hypothetical "never was" sense scares the crap out of me because I am who I am today in part because of my experiences and my disability has played a huge part in that framing. So you are suggesting that in a perfect world -- or in your fantasy world -- people like me would not exist, people with my experience would not exist, and I / me / who I am this very moment would not exist because I would be someone completely different. This is not appealing to me.

Also, it doesn't apply to Narnia because the "disability came with the Fall" people are almost always also "death came with the Fall" people and Narnia certainly has death. So when you equate deformed closely with evil, you are unfairly marginalizing the good deformed people, and you're also creating a situation where Not Deformed grants a shield for pretty people like the Witch to masquerade as good because, hey, it's not like she's deformed, right?

And, really, just once it would be nice for the little girl observing the battle to cotton on that the side of Evil has succubi and incubi and vampires and rusalki in addition to orcs and ogres and toadstool people. And that the side of Good has ents and house elves and -- oh yeah -- dwarfs and giants and not Good Dwarfs and Good Giants, just plain ol' regular dwarfs and giants in addition to the dryads and river-gods and big cats.

Hmm. There were probably more things I objected to in that section, but I seem to have gotten side-tracked there a bit.

   "Off my back, children," shouted Aslan. And they both tumbled off. Then with a roar that shook all Narnia from the western lamp-post to the shores of the eastern sea the great beast flung himself upon the White Witch. Lucy saw her face lifted toward him for one second with an expression of terror and amazement. Then Lion and Witch had rolled over together but with the Witch underneath; and at the same moment all war-like creatures whom Aslan had led from the Witch's house rushed madly on the enemy lines, dwarfs with their battleaxes, dogs with teeth, the Giant with his club (and his feet also crushed dozens of the foe), unicorns with their horns, centaurs with swords and hoofs. And Peter's tired army cheered, and the newcomers roared, and the enemy squealed and gibbered till the wood re-echoed with the din of that onset.

Oh. I guess the dwarfs were armed after all. That Lion had a strong back.

So, I mean, I guess we know he's on the side of good. Good back, good person, is what I always say.

And, what? The centaurs had swords? Where were they keeping them? Did the Witch only turn armed people into stone? Is this more fodder for the fanfic that Jadis isn't really an awful person, and only turns people when she absolutely has to? Are the armed stone statues indicative of traitors who took up arms against... Jadis? She is the Emperor's Hangwoman after all, so she may well be second-in-command when the Emperor and Aslan pop out for a few centuries and there are no humans left to be rulers. How many Wild Mass Guesses can we get out of the convenient narrative point that the reinforcements didn't have to stop to pick up weapons?

Anyway, that's the war folks. Next chapter: healing, coronation, a decade-plus reign, and return to England. All in one chapter.

0 comments:

Post a Comment