Narnia: Horses and Horses

[Narnia Content Note: War, Threat of Rape, Centaur Sex (sorry) ]

Narnia Recap: Shasta has united with the Narnian army and Corin has strong-armed him into being his "bodyguard" for the upcoming battle. Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.

The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 13: The Fight at Anvard

The Narnians are marching to war and all I can think is how non-fantastical their army is. We have humans, dwarves (who are apparently the same size as humans, since a fourteen year old boy can wear their armor), giants (who are nonspecifically large humans), and Horses on which the humanoids all ride--so far a pretty normal medieval army. Lewis then waves vaguely in the direction of Talking Animals by including Dogs, Bears, and a few Big Cats, but that honestly doesn't seem very impressive to me?

Lewis set this book in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe time period (you know, the one where humans were so rare they were thought by some to be mythological) even though he was clearly aching to set it in Prince Caspian's time. But both those books had more diversity in their military ranks! Where are the mice, the demigods, the nymphs, the marching trees?

(Interesting aside: It is noteworthy to me that as we march towards the Problem of Tash and the Last Battle and the books become more aggressively about Christianity being the Real True Religion, that all those Greek gods have been stashed in a closet. They were really only set-dressing before, but they can be so inconvenient from a "wait but did all those good pagans go to hell for not being Christian?" point of view.)

Where, in short, are the creatures who poured out of the woodwork to defend their country and against Jadis (and then, later, Miraz)? They can't all be up in the north with Peter! Was there really no mice willing to ride out to defend the honor and glory of Gentle Queen Susan from the invading Rabadash? We can't say that the war is an Archenland problem that the Animals wouldn't care about; everyone in the text knows full well Rabadash's ultimate goal is to invade Narnia and rape her queen. And this meager offering is the sum total of Narnians who care? A few Bears and Dogs and Cats who seem to be here not to defend their beloved sovereign but because, eh, a job's a job. Just another day in the ol' Narnian reserve army.

I'm disappointed. I'm almost on the verge of angry. Bed enough that Lewis wrote a Helen of Troy story where he stuffs Helen in a closet halfway through the novel and she's never seen again; now we have an army marching out not so much to defend her but just because....the fight is there? Their allies need them? Nobody here seems to have a cause or a purpose, they're just cannon fodder for the cannons. This is crying out for a rewrite. More Animals of every type, not just "humans and I guess some bears or whatever and oh cats, I forgot them earlier". Show me their bright eyes, their defiant swords and teeth and claws, their songs as they march out, their cheers for Queen Susan the Gentle. Show me Narnians who care about their Helen of Troy and are marching because they love her.

Lewis doesn't, I think in part because he doesn't really care about the Animals or demigods or trees any longer. They were a fun gimmick when he started the series, but now they're over. (This is also why I have always maintained I can only deconstruct the books in publishing order, not canonical order.) And since he doesn't love Susan, and certainly not this adult Susan, it's hard for him to imagine his subjects could love her. They fight for duty or honor or pleasure (in Corin's case) but not because they left their homes and their families this morning determined to protect Susan or die trying.

We return to Shasta and Corin who are riding at the back of the company.

   Shasta told Corin most of his adventures and explained that he had learned all his riding from a horse and didn’t really know how to use the reins. Corin instructed him in this, besides telling him all about their secret sailing from Tashbaan.

Sure, that seems normal. Lewis cares a lot about kings and riding. We saw the Pevensies riding horses when they were stag-hunting at the end of LWW (and it just occurred to me that we never heard what happened to those horses when the children rode out of the wardrobe, but I assume they stayed behind in Narnia) and the Archenlanders were impressed with Shasta's kingly riding seat and so forth. Of course they're going to be riding horses to battle.

Alongside the people riding Horses to battle. From the last chapter.

   [Chapter 12] After that came the main body of the army: men on ordinary horses, men on Talking Horses (who didn’t mind being ridden on proper occasions, as when Narnia went to war), centaurs, stern, hard-bitten bears, great Talking Dogs, and last of all six giants. For there are good giants in Narnia. But though he knew they were on the right side Shasta at first could hardly bear to look at them; there are some things that take a lot of getting used to.

Wait, now it doesn't make sense anymore. I'm trying to grapple with how much it doesn't make sense but it's like a bar of soap in the shower.

First of all, why aren't the royal people on the Talking Horses? Wouldn't that be a combination honor-slash-clever thing to do? By "honor", I mean I should think if you're going to have a human butt sitting on you, you'd rather have a king's butt than some random low-level nobody courtier, right? And just in terms of clever tactics and safety and security, wouldn't you rather the important people be riding mounts who will carry them to safety if they take an arrow to an inconvenient organ? A horse isn't going to take you to a medic, but a Horse might.

For that matter, wouldn't Horses be better guards for Corin than some random dwarf he can run away from or knock down? You can't urge your mount into the thick of battle when the mount is capable of telling you where to stick your royal scepter. Hell, put Corin on the back of a centaur. Then you're not losing a warrior to take care of the prince! The centaur can shoot all the arrows they want at the enemy while guarding the prince who has been instructed to watch from a safe distance. And if the prince tries to dismount, the centaur has arms to grab him. Or arrows to stab him in the leg, whatever. Plus the centaur will always be faster than him. Why in the name of all seven hells is Corin not on a centaur?

Here's another thing I want to know: How do the Horses interact with the horses? They're riding in the same army together; what is it like to look to your left and your right and see something that looks basically the same as you (we know they look the same because Bree and Hwin were taken as horses by a society of horse-loving horse-experts, so they can't look much different from the lowercase-h horses) and yet has none of your sapience?

Will they all be housed and stalled and fed in the same stable later while they recover in Anvard after the battle? Do Horses like to be stalled? Bree and Hwin didn't mind earlier, but they're not good examples of what Narnian Horses like because they've been trained to acclimate to Calormen treatment. And it's not like stables and stalls are the natural habitat of horses; humans made those for our convenience. Are the lowercase-h horses stalled while the capital-H Horses sit at the dining table in the royal hall and converse with the other lords and ladies? Are there Horse activists who care about the treatment of horses or are they so like another species to them that it's like humans and monkeys in the 1940s when Lewis was writing these? (Which is arguably not the same as humans and monkeys in 2017 when I'm writing this.)

I can understand why Lewis didn't want to tackle these questions. I'm not sure I would want to either; the idea of Horses and horses walking side by side kind of squicks me out a little. It reminds me of the old Saturday Night Live Centaur Job Interview sketch in which Christopher Walken grills a centaur with increasingly uncomfortable questions about being a centaur. [Transcript.]

Boss: The rest of the interview will be Centaur questions. Do you have sex with horses, or with human women?

Centaur: Uh.. neither. I'm really only attracted to other Centaurs.

Boss: Okay. What if were a horse with a mask of a woman on it?

Centaur: No. I mean, would you have sex with a monkey if it had a mask on?

Boss: This interview is not about me. What if you saw a horse, but it was standing so that its head was in a barn, or something. Would you, maybe, be attracted to that horse's rear end?

Centaur: Uh... I don't... where is the head, exactly?

Boss: It's in the barn... or behind a door, or a vase, or something... so you can't see it.

Centaur: Uh... I might be attracted to it - briefly.

Boss: Okay. So, let's say, hypothetically, that you could have sex with the back end... and it's guaranteed to be the greatest sex you ever had... but you'd never know if it was as horse or as Centaur?

Centaur: Hmm... you know, that's pretty intriguing... uh... if I'd really never know, I guess I would.

Boss: It was a horse.

Centaur: Oh, come on!

Boss: It was a horse. Deal with it.

The sound you hear is the last shreds of my credibility as a Serious Blogger disappearing down the toilet.

My point is that I wouldn't want to tackle Horse/horse relations. The very thought of it makes my head spin, especially when you consider that there's no reason why Talking Horses wouldn't have the same body language that horses use to communicate. Animals largely communicate by body language, after all, and Talking Horses wouldn't necessarily lose all the ear-movements and tail-swishes and foot-stomps that horses use to communicate with each other. So can Horses "talk" to horses on a more immediate level than humans can talk to them with words? Are horses fundamentally different to Horses or are they simply lacking sapience? Is there a human-analogue to this situation that isn't fraught with ableist landmines I'm trying to step around?

But the thing here is that while I wouldn't want to write this stuff out, and Lewis quite clearly didn't either, he's the one who brought us here. He's the one who put non-talking horses in Narnia for Edmund and Lucy to ride around on. He's the one who did this in a book about a Talking Horse seeking freedom for himself. The book is titled The Horse and His Boy and if you're gonna do that then you need to either not fetishize riding as the Arthurian fantasy dream for your kings and queens, or you have to put them on Horses and justify how this relationship is respectful and symbiotic rather than exploitative, or you put non-talking horses in and grapple with how the Horse--your titular character--deals with them.

Because let's be honest that Bree is the titular character. The book isn't The Horse and The Boy, it's The Horse and His Boy. The difference between those two titles is vast and important. Yet you will note that Bree has been largely abandoned as a character by this point and we're following the Shasta and Corin show. Back on that channel:

   “And where is the Queen Susan?”
   “At Cair Paravel,” said Corin. “She’s not like Lucy, you know, who’s as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy. Queen Susan is more like an ordinary grown-up lady. She doesn’t ride to the wars, though she is an excellent archer.”

We don't even get a reason why Helen was stuffed in the closet like "she's too upset to meet Rabadash on the battlefield" or "she'd be in danger if we brought her" or "we need her close to home or the kingdom will fall apart without her" or "of the three available monarchs, she'd be the one best suited to bargain peace terms with the Calormen if we fail" (grim, but also probably true). Nope, it's just that she's "not as good as a man" and doesn't ride to war.

There's been a lot of wrangling over this passage as not really misogynistic. The text doesn't say Susan isn't as good as a man, of course; it says that Lucy is as good as a man, with the understanding that Susan is not like Lucy. And the sentiment is coming from Corin who is justifiably disliked by most readers, but it is worth pointing out that the narrative doesn't (in my opinion) support the idea that we're not supposed to agree with him. He is a boisterous example of toxic masculinity, yes, but at most we seem to be led to believe he's almost too masculine to be a good king, not that his masculinity is bad. He's that asshole whose cry in the wild is ever "I'm just being honest".

I'm reminded of Fred Clark's point about how chivalry works in Left Behind. "[Buck's] unprecedented siding with Hattie here reflects the authors’ notion of chivalry, not some kind of feminism. If the little ladies want to be called “flight attendants,” then we should humor them." Corin is the sort of man who isn't meant to be read as grossly wrong for being misogynistic, but rather he is mildly wrong for saying the misogynistic things the men all know to be good and right and true. The difference between Corin and Shasta being drawn in these pages isn't that Corin is wrong and Shasta is right, but that Corin is too honest to be a good king and Shasta knows how to be circumspect so as to not upset the ladies and their delicate sensibilities.

It is just shy of possible that Susan did stay home for better reasons than "ew, wars" and that Corin was not in on those decisions. But Lewis needs to show his work if he's going to stuff his Helen of Troy in a closet. The Narnians surrounding him on all sides--the bears, the dogs, the centaurs--must include people who served at court. It would be extremely easy for one of them to pipe in here. Someone could even correct Corin and tell his young majesty why the queen stayed home and how wrong he is. You know, if Lewis wanted us to see Corin as flawed and incorrect rather than just a wee bit too masculine and honest for his own good.

   The hillside path which they were following became narrower all the time and the drop on their right hand became steeper. At last they were going in single file along the edge of the precipice and Shasta shuddered to think that he had done the same last night without knowing it. “But of course,” he thought, “I was quite safe. That is why the Lion kept on my left. He was between me and the edge all the time.”

Here we return to the mountain pass and a point about Aslan's protection which really ought to have been made earlier, back when the sun was coming up and Shasta was looking back on the pass he'd traversed in the night with the lion on his side. This book was so clearly not edited that it hurts my little writer heart.

How does this work in terms of size and scale? The pass is described as being able to just barely hold a horse and a lion, but the giants are apparently having no trouble whatsoever. We still don't know if "giant" means 7 feet tall or 12 or 20, and this is not helped by the fact that Lewis treats them as enormous, with his bits where they engage in over-the-top shouting up to those faraway ears (LWW) and baths the size of lakes (Silver Chair), but they can obviously keep up with horses and centaurs while walking which seems like a huge stride. If the pass is big enough for these giant Giants to walk, then I have issues with the entire army needing to go single file. Surely all the Leopards who pop into existence in a few paragraphs can double or triple up.

   Then the path went left and south away from the cliff and there were thick woods on both sides of it and they went steeply up and up into the pass. There would have been a splendid view from the top if it were open ground but among all those trees you could see nothing—only, every now and then, some huge pinnacle of rock above the tree-tops, and an eagle or two wheeling high up in the blue air.
   “They smell battle,” said Corin, pointing at the birds. “They know we’re preparing a feed for them.”
   Shasta didn’t like this at all.

I don't like this either, but my dislike comes from the fact that these are eagles and not Eagles. We know there are talking birds--there was a Raven in Calormen with the Pevensies and Silver Chair has Owls--so why aren't there talking birds in the advance guard? Why aren't they spying on the Calormen attackers and sending signals to the Narnians via flight patterns? Why aren't they dropping messages and care packages on Anvard?

   When they had crossed the neck of the pass and come a good deal lower they reached more open ground and from here Shasta could see all Archenland, blue and hazy, spread out below him and even (he thought) a hint of the desert beyond it. But the sun, which had perhaps two hours or so to go before it set, was in his eyes and he couldn’t make things out distinctly.

I'm struggling with the timeline again. The Pevensies arrived at the dwarf home just after breakfast, though of course "breakfast" can be anywhere from noonish for a Tudor family and before dawn for farmers. But Shasta crossed the pass from Archenland to Narnia in a night. Not even the whole night, mind you; it'd been dark for ages and that's how he avoided running into Rabadash on the road. Surely a smallish army in a hurry to get somewhere isn't going to travel significantly slower than a boy going at a snail's pace because he's hungry and on a lazy, disobedient horse?

   Here the army halted and spread out in a line, and there was a great deal of rearranging. A whole detachment of very dangerous-looking Talking Beasts whom Shasta had not noticed before--

I swear to god, Lewis, did you write this on a typewriter on a dare that the first draft would be the only draft??!? Could you be any more obvious of "oh shit yeah I guess they had, like, more than bears or whatever" with this?

Let's stop here for the day.


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