Repost: The Arthurian Court

[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: Battlefield Medicine, Survivor Guilt, Secrets, Body Mismatch]

Narnia Recap: Aslan has joined the battle against the White Witch.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Chapter 17: The Hunting of the White Stag

   THE BATTLE WAS ALL OVER A FEW MINUTES after their arrival. [...]
   "It was all Edmund's doing, Aslan," Peter was saying. "We'd have been beaten if it hadn't been for him. The Witch was turning our troops into stone right and left. But nothing would stop him. He fought his way through three ogres to where she was just turning one of your leopards into a statue. And when he reached her he had sense to bring his sword smashing down on her wand instead of trying to go for her directly and simply getting made a statue himself for his pains. That was the mistake all the rest were making. Once her wand was broken we began to have some chance -- if we hadn't lost so many already. He was terribly wounded. We must go and see him."

As a quick note, Peter is still referring to the army as Aslan's with this "your leopards" statement. I'm guessing it's meant as a sign of respect to Aslan (Peter may be High King, but Aslan is his superior), but it instead can give the impression that -- of all the four children -- Peter has adopted Narnia into his heart the least.

Moving on, this is the moment Team Edmund has been waiting for: Edmund is the hero of this battle. He fought his way valiantly to the Witch and kept his attention entirely on destroying her wand, even knowing that would leave him open to be stabbed by her stone knife. He choose to sacrifice himself because he saw no other way for his side to win the battle, and he choose it bravely and freely instead of turning tail and running for the lamppost. Edmund is a citizen of Narnia, just as much as Susan and Lucy are, but he has bought it at a high price.

A part of me greatly appreciates this. I have, after all, been a surprisingly (to myself, anyway) staunch Edmund supporter from the start of this deconstruction. And yet... another part of me finds this scene so frustrating. We don't get to hear from Edmund, he is just as robbed of a voice in this scene as he was in the chapters since his rescue from the Witch. First he will be too wounded to speak, and then we'll get a quick description of how much better he looks, which comes packaged as a back-handed compliment! It's so frustrating to me.

We've talked before about this story really being Aslan's story, and not the Pevensie children's story. And from a writing standpoint, that's fair, it's the story the author wanted to tell. But from a reading standpoint, it frustrates me so very much. There's this whole story here of a young boy caught in the middle of a world war, torn apart from his mother and father, and utterly unsure of his future. And then he finds himself in a magical world, caught in the clutches of someone who seemed powerful enough to protect him and yet now represents a terrible danger to him. And after being saved from her, he opposed her in a direct and brave way, taking control of his future -- even if that future was only death. How powerful that story would be for me.

And yet... we're instead given this death-and-resurrection story about a distant deity-like figure who oscillates between unaccountably angry and unapproachably silly, almost like a Bacchus figure. It's still a story that could be powerful, but it just doesn't resonate with me in the same way. Maybe because Edmund's story seems touchingly human, but Aslan's story seems distantly inhuman to me.

   They found Edmund in charge of Mrs. Beaver a little way back from the fighting line. He was covered with blood, his mouth was open, and his face a nasty green color.
   "Quick, Lucy," said Aslan.
   And then, almost for the first time, Lucy remembered the precious cordial that had been given her for a Christmas present. Her hands trembled so much that she could hardly undo the stopper, but she managed it in the end and poured a few drops into her brother's mouth.
   "There are other people wounded," said Aslan while she was still looking eagerly into Edmund's pale face and wondering if the cordial would have any result.
   "Yes, I know," said Lucy crossly. "Wait a minute."
   "Daughter of Eve," said Aslan in a graver voice, "others also are at the point of death. Must more people die for Edmund?"

And this is kind of a perfect example of what I mean when I say Aslan is distant and unapproachable.

Lucy is eight-years-old. She should be given the time to stay by her brother's side and watch him heal. There are critical patients waiting outside? Great, send a centaur or a dryad or a river-god or Mrs. Beaver around with the cordial. There's this assumption that because Lucy was given the rare healing potion, she has to be the person to dispense it, and I just can't get on-board with that. She's a child! She shouldn't be the head battle-field nurse. She can't possibly be expected to go out and make the hard decisions of who is seriously wounded and needs the cordial right away and who is 'merely' in agonizing pain. The very fact that Aslan puts this burden on her infuriates me.

Now, maybe some quirk of Father Christmas' magic is that the healing potion has to be dispensed by Lucy in order for it to work. Well, in that case, I'm angry at Father Christmas because, again, eight-year-old. Here's a thought, Father Christmas: how about next time you give the sword to Susan so that she can defend herself against the Wolf, give the bow to Lucy so that she can back up Susan against said Wolf, and give the horn and cordial to Peter so that Peter can call Aslan there directly instead of having them waste time being "scented" out, plus he can heal himself and his army as needed.

   "I'm sorry, Aslan," said Lucy, getting up and going with him. And for the next half-hour they were busy -- she attending to the wounded while he restored those who had been turned into stone. When at last she was free to come back to Edmund she found him standing on his feet and not only healed of his wounds but looking better than she had seen him look -- oh, for ages; in fact ever since his first term at that horrid school which was where he had begun to go wrong. He had become his real old self again and could look you in the face. And there on the field of battle Aslan made him a knight.

And that is what I mean by "back-handed compliment".

I don't need to be told that Edmund looks redeemed. As far as I'm concerned, Edmund has been redeemed since his rescue, when he apologized to his siblings and shook hands and went back to talking about normal things. As far as I'm concerned, Edmund has been a hero since he decided to stay and fight instead of run for home. As far as I'm concerned, Edmund has been The Hero of this battle since he sacrificed himself to destroy the Witch's primary weapon.

Telling me, after all this, that he doesn't look like a jerk anymore just strikes me as mean-spirited. I want to retort that, yeah, I kind of figured. Thanks for ruining a beautiful moment.

   "Does he know," whispered Lucy to Susan, "what Aslan did for him? Does he know what the arrangement with the Witch really was?"
   "Hush! No. Of course not," said Susan.
   "Oughtn't he to be told?" said Lucy.
   "Oh, surely not," said Susan. "It would be too awful for him. Think how you'd feel if you were he."
   "All the same I think he ought to know," said Lucy. But at that moment they were interrupted.

Aslan has actually had some alone time with Edmund earlier, so I'm not so sure I'd jump to the assumption that Edmund has no idea what happened. But at the same time, I wholeheartedly agree with Susan: Edmund should not be told.

The thing is, when people tell children -- as I was told as a child -- that Jesus would still have died on their behalf even if no one else needed his sacrifice, the child usually has the safety net of understanding that the statement is a hypothetical. I mean, sure, Jesus would have died for you and only you, but he didn't so no worries about that. If a child is taught substitution theory, they're almost always taught it with a serving of shared community guilt -- Jesus, they are told, died for all of us.

But Edmund doesn't have this buffer. Aslan didn't die for the treachery of all Narnians. Aslan died for the treachery of Edmund. Sure, he came out on the other end all better, but that wouldn't even begin to make it better for me. This isn't the sort of story that would leave me feeling grateful and relieved and happy and thankful on the other end; hearing something like that in Edmund's position would leave me with a nasty case of survivor guilt and lifelong nightmares.

And this is really one more reason why I feel like Lucy and Susan shouldn't have been included in as witnesses. They've been put into a position where they have to either burden their brother with a terrible realization, or they have to keep an awful secret from him for the rest of their lives. What will they say when Peter and Edmund ask where Aslan and the girls went? When the boys ask why Aslan didn't just tell everyone he was going for reinforcements? What can the girls say? What should they say? And this is one more example of my feeling that Aslan refuses to anticipate problems and take steps to solve them.

   "Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen. Bear it well, Sons of Adam! Bear it well, Daughters of Eve!" said Aslan.
   So the children sat on their thrones and scepters were put into their hands and they gave rewards and honors to all their friends, to Tumnus the Faun, and to the Beavers, and Giant Rumblebuffin, to the leopards, and the good centaurs, and the good dwarfs, and to the lion. [...]
   But amid all these rejoicings Aslan himself quietly slipped away. And when the Kings and Queens noticed that he wasn't there they said nothing about it. For Mr. Beaver had warned them, "He'll be coming and going," he had said. "One day you'll see him and another you won't. He doesn't like being tied down -- and of course he has other countries to attend to. It's quite all right. He'll often drop in. Only you mustn't press him. He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion."

The only ruler Narnia has had in 100 years was the White Witch who apparently believed that the best government was one that governed simply. She kept no court, maintained no diplomatic relations, had no advisers, and ruled entirely by threat of force.

There is no friendly-and-experienced party that the children can turn to for on-the-job training. No foreign royalty they can lean on, no professional adviser they can trust. Knowing this, I'd be interested to know what "rewards and honors" they give to "all their friends". Are they handing out titles? Lands? Responsibilities? Placement in the new Narnia government? I'm seriously curious; how a court rewards its people can have wide-reaching effects on a country.

And then there's the curious wording that they reward not those who were instrumental in the battle or extra specially loyal to Narnia through the hard times. They reward "their friends". They reward Mr. Tumnus. For what? The only thing he's done in this book is not kidnap a small child and turn her over to be murdered. Are the other Narnians, the Aslan Loyalists, going to be annoyed that a former employee of the Witch is given a reward? I wonder.

   And now, as you see, this story is nearly (but not quite) at an end. These two Kings and two Queens governed Narnia well, and long and happy was their reign. At first much of their time was spent in seeking out the remnants of the White Witch's army and destroying them, and indeed for a long time there would be news of evil things lurking in the wilder parts of the forest -- a haunting here and a killing there, a glimpse of a werewolf one month and a rumor of a hag the next. But in the end all that foul brood was stamped out. And they made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being unnecessarily cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live. And they drove back the fierce giants (quite a different sort from Giant Rumblebuffin) on the north of Narnia when these ventured across the frontier. And they entered into friendship and alliance with countries beyond the sea and paid them visits of state and received visits of state from them. And they themselves grew and changed as the years passed over them. And Peter became a tall and deep-chested man and a great warrior, and he was called King Peter the Magnificent. And Susan grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet and the kings of the countries beyond the sea began to send ambassadors asking for her hand in marriage. And she was called Susan the Gentle. Edmund was a graver and quieter man than Peter, and great in council and judgment. He was called King Edmund the Just. But as for Lucy, she was always gay and golden-haired, and all princes in those parts desired her to be their Queen, and her own people called her Queen Lucy the Valiant.

Oh my gosh. So much to unpack in that one paragraph. Where do we start?

The first part of their reign involves hunting down and killing all the Witch's old supporters. But... it's okay because the supporters were all evil and horrible people and need killing. Except... they need killing because they kill in order to... eat. These don't seem to be people who refuse to be nice farmers and instead become murderous bandits. They're Hags and Werewolves. Do werewolves in this mythos even have control over their killing? If they don't, should they be systematically murdered just like that?

They "saved good trees from being unnecessarily cut down". What does that mean? Does that mean the "bad" trees still get cut down? How do you tell the difference between a good tree and a bad tree? (Which one of you posited the hilarious image of a murderous tree being helplessly climbed on by happy children and shading picnicking lovers? I can't get that image from my head now.) Does it mean that the good trees are still cut down if it's deemed "necessary"? How does that work? You can't just relocate a grown tree without causing a massive amount of trauma to the system and risking killing it. If it's "necessary" to have a cleared forest somewhere, are the good trees just out of luck?

Why did the dwarfs and satyrs need to be liberated from going to school? (Yes, I know this was just a cozy detail added. I refuse to let it slide.) Was the White Witch pro-education? Was the education sinister in some way or inappropriate for dwarfs and satyrs? But "liberated" seems to indicate that some force was still propelling the youths into school, so who was it and why and why would it be appropriate for the Pevensies to muscle in and tell whoever it was -- the elder dwarfs? the elder satyrs? -- how to educate their children?

And finally, though no ages are given for the grown-up Pevensie children, I always got the feeling that the children grew to be in their late-twenties, possibly early thirties. I'd be interested in hearing other people's interpretations of that.

   So they lived in great joy and if ever they remembered their life in this world it was only as one remembers a dream. And one year it fell out that Tumnus (who was a middle-aged Faun by now and beginning to be stout) came down river and brought them news that the White Stag had once more appeared in his parts -- the White Stag who would give you wishes if you caught him. So these two Kings and two Queens with the principal members of their court, rode a-hunting with horns and hounds in the Western Woods to follow the White Stag. [...] And they saw the stag enter into a thicket where their horses could not follow. Then said King Peter (for they talked in quite a different style now, having been Kings and Queens for so long), "Fair Consorts, let us now alight from our horses and follow this beast into the thicket; for in all my days I never hunted a nobler quarry."

At some point, I got this scene and one from The Last Battle swapped in my head, and I thought he Pevensie were looking for Aslan -- that they thought he'd been sighted and they were hoping to see him again. But, no, they're hunting an innocent animal because if you catch it, it gives you wishes. So basically the Pevensies are greedy exploiters of nature, and I will now reflect in the irony that they supposedly reign by a motto of "live and let live". You keep using that word, C.S. Lewis, and I do not think you know what it means.

   "Fair friends, here is a great marvel for I seem to see a tree of iron."
   "Madam," said King Edmund, "if you look well upon it you shall see it is a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof." [...] "I know not how it is, but this lamp on the post worketh upon me strangely. It runs in my mind that I have seen the like before; as it were in a dream, or in the dream of a dream."   "Sir," answered they all, "it is even so with us also."
   "And more," said Queen Lucy, "for it will not go out of my mind that if we pass this post and lantern either we shall find strange adventures or else some great change of our fortunes."
   "Madam," said King Edmund, "the like foreboding stirreth in my heart also."
   "And in mine, fair brother," said King Peter.

This is Narnia, land of a thousand forebodings. Hearing the name of Aslan makes good people feel lovely and warm and tingly all over because he is good. Seeing the runes on the Stone Table makes people feel strange and solemn and uncomfortable because it's a piece of old magic and was a designated execution place for traitors. In short, when you have a feeling in Narnia, you listen to it.

The Pevensie rulers have just had a feeling that passing the lamppost will result in a "great change of [their] fortunes." They feel this way because that is precisely true.

   "And in mine too," said Queen Susan. "Wherefore by my counsel we shall lightly return to our horses and follow this White Stag no further."
   "Madam," said King Peter, "therein I pray thee to have me excused. For never since we four were Kings and Queens in Narnia have we set our hands to any high matter, as battles, quests, feats of arms, acts of justice, and the like, and then given over; but always what we have taken in hand, the same we have achieved."
   "Sister," said Queen Lucy, "my royal brother speaks rightly. And it seems to me we should be shamed if for any fearing or foreboding we turned back from following so noble a beast as now we have in chase."
   "And so say I," said King Edmund. "And I have such desire to find the signification of this thing that I would not by my good will turn back for the richest jewel in all Narnia and all the islands."
   "Then in the name of Aslan," said Queen Susan, "if ye will all have it so, let us go on and take the adventure that shall fall to us."

This. This. This!

This passage makes me so caps-lock rage-y. The Pevensies are terrible rulers. I don't care that this is supposed to be an Arthurian court and an allusion to courtly legends. This is an inexcusable way to run a country. Bad enough that you are hunting one of your own subjects so that you can terrorize it into enriching you. Bad enough that you let your court fall behind because everyone was pooped so now you are endangering your country by having the entire ruling family riding alone and unguarded through a thick wood. Now you are pushing past a feeling of foreboding because of a foolish belief that "brave" equals "foolhardy".

Is this supposed to be a good model for ruling a country? "Peter, you know, I feel a foreboding that if we go to war against this country, the cost in lives may be far too great to justify the ideological cause." "I've no doubt that you're right, sis, but we've never backed down from a fight before! Yeee-haaw!"

And it's not even Cowboy Rulership here. Peter is saying that they have literally never done something halfway. They've never gotten halfway through a war or a building project or a quest or anything and reconsidered things or discovered new information that made them change their mind. They are the most dangerous of zealots: ones who will never, ever consider doing things another way. If they had to ride off a sheer cliff to get the White Stag, they would because better that than not get what they wanted. Oh. My. Gosh.

And -- fun fact -- Susan is the one who urged against continuing on, and the others shamed her into continuing. I can't imagine why she might grow up in England to be a little chilly to her siblings when they invite her over for Narnia Night. OH WAIT, YES I CAN. "Hey, sis, you want to bring dessert for Narnia Potluck Night?" "Well, gee, Peter, I would but I WOULD RATHER YOU HAD LISTENED TO ME WHEN I SAID IT WAS A BAD IDEA TO KEEP GOING PAST THE LAMPPOST. Cake or pie?"

   So these Kings and Queens entered the thicket, and before they had gone a score of paces they all remembered that the thing they had seen was called a lamp-post, and before they had gone twenty more they noticed that they were making their way not through branches but through coats. And next moment they all came tumbling out of a wardrobe door into the empty room, and they were no longer Kings and Queens in their hunting array but just Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in their old clothes. [...]
   And that would have been the very end of the story if it hadn't been that they felt they really must explain to the Professor why four of the coats out of his wardrobe were missing. And the Professor, who was a very remarkable man, didn't tell them not to be silly or not to tell lies, but believed the whole story. "No," he said, "I don't think it will be any good trying to go back through the wardrobe door to get the coats. You won't get into Narnia again by that route. Nor would the coats be much use by now if you did! Eh? What's that? Yes, of course you'll get back to Narnia again someday. Once a King in Narnia, always a King in Narnia. But don't go trying to use the same route twice. Indeed, don't try to get there at all. It'll happen when you're not looking for it. And don't talk too much about it even among yourselves. And don't mention it to anyone else unless you find that they've had adventures of the same sort themselves. What's that? How will you know? Oh, you'll know all right. Odd things they say -- even their looks -- will let the secret out. Keep your eyes open. Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?"

We've already talked a bit -- and we'll talk some more in the future I hope -- about the many reasons why I find this an incredibly traumatizing passage. I feel like there would be this huge issue of body... mismatch, for lack of a better word. The 'children' are now adults in a body that presents as a child. I feel like there would be issues of grief and loss -- every friend, loved one, surrogate parent, and acquaintance they knew in Narnia is lost to them forever, without any chance to say goodbye. I feel like there would be issues of guilt: they left behind no clear successor in Narnia and now what will happen to the country? Will it be invaded? Consumed by civil war? Beyond anything else, they have no one to talk to, no one who can believe them.

Except the Professor. Who is, by the Power of Retcon, a terrible lying jerk here. He lies once by assuring them that they'll totally get back into Narnia a second time. I mean, they will, but he doesn't know that -- the Professor visited Narnia once and only once. He lies a second time by assuring the children that they'll be able to tell at a look who has been in Narnia before -- the Professor has been in Narnia before and the children don't recognize that. They talked to him about Narnia not because they could tell he'd been there, but because they wanted to explain about the coats. And he's additionally a jerk with his whole WHY YOU SO IGNORANT speech when he of all people should recognize how traumatized the Pevensie "children" are. Stay classy, Professor.

And that's the end of "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe". Let's talk about this chapter today and then do a bit of an open thread retrospective / moving-forward next time. Thank you, all!


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