Narnia: The Humilation of Rabadash

[Narnia Content Note: War, Violence, Chivalry]

Narnia Recap: Rabadash's army has fled, his commanders have been killed, and he has been captured. Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.

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

Today we're going to see the humiliation of Rabadash, for which I wanted to dedicate a full post.

This passage didn't leave much of an impression on me as a child, or at least certainly not as much as the scourging of Aravis (which was quite upsetting to me, even at a very young age). I think that's partly because it occurs at the end of a long sequence (which began when the party "split" at the Hermit's house and which dragged on as we waited for the war to resolve and the heroes to reunite) and partly it happens to an unambiguously "bad" character (Rabadash) as opposed to the ostensible heroine (Aravis). But this passage is part of the reason why I chose to deconstruct these novels in the order they were written rather than in the order they occur in canon.

We already know that Lewis likes humiliation, shaming, and power/pain scenes. We saw an elderly man beaten in Dawn Treader for failing to be properly submissive to authority, and we saw what Eustace was put through in order to redeem him from his sins. We were here for the end of Silver Chair when Lewis put a sword in Eustace's hands and a riding crop in Jill's and they beat and whipped school bullies in revenge. We saw the racist subjugation of the Dufflepuds in Dawn Treader and the treatment of the earth people in Silver Chair. And we've been here for the scourging of Aravis in this book, when a brown girl was savaged with claws in imitation of whip-marks to teach her a "lesson" no male character in these books ever has to learn, despite most of them being guilty of far worse.

Here enters Rabadash. He is a fictional bugbear for Lewis, coded with so many of the things Lewis finds hateful and threatening. Rabadash is a powerful, strong, virile brown man. He's strongly coded as Arabic and Muslim. He threatens the white supremacy of Narnia in a political and warfare sense (see: this invasion and the continued threat of the Calormen empire to the south) and threatens the white patriarchy in a powerfully sexual sense: first by wooing a white woman into loving him, then by threatening to capture her and hold her in sexual captivity when she rejects him at the urging of her brother (who literally threatens to withhold his love for her if she marries this man).

As a child, it made sense to me that Rabadash needed to be bested, certainly. But Lewis needs to go further than that. Rabadash cannot merely be bested. He must be destroyed, broken, emasculated and (quite literally) dehumanized. For Lewis, there can be no happy ending if the brown man is left virile and powerful; he must be broken in order to ensure a happily ever after for the protagonists. So we begin with this incredibly and uncharacteristically lavish description of how Rabadash was captured.

   The unfortunate Rabadash appeared to be suspended from the castle walls. His feet, which were about two feet from the ground, were kicking wildly. His chain-shirt was somehow hitched up so that it was horribly tight under the arms and came halfway over his face. In fact he looked just as a man looks if you catch him in the very act of getting into a stiff shirt that is a little too small for him. As far as could be made out afterward (and you may be sure the story was well talked over for many a day) what had happened was something like this. Early in the battle one of the Giants had made an unsuccessful stamp at Rabadash with his spiked boot: unsuccessful because it didn’t crush Rabadash, which was what the Giant had intended, but not quite useless because one of the spikes tore the chain mail, just as you or I might tear an ordinary shirt. So Rabadash, by the time he encountered Edmund at the gate, had a hole in the back of his hauberk. And when Edmund pressed him back nearer and nearer to the wall, he jumped up on a mounting block and stood there raining down blows on Edmund from above. But then, finding that this position, by raising him above the heads of everyone else, made him a mark for every arrow from the Narnian bows, he decided to jump down again. And he meant to look and sound—no doubt for a moment he did look and sound—very grand and very dreadful as he jumped, crying, “The bolt of Tash falls from above.” But he had to jump sideways because the crowd in front of him left him no landing place in that direction. And then, in the neatest way you could wish, the tear in the back of his hauberk caught on a hook in the wall. (Ages ago this hook had had a ring in it for tying horses to.) And there he found himself, like a piece of washing hung up to dry, with everyone laughing at him.

Lewis piles unlikely coincidence onto unlikely detail because it is critical to him that this defeat be one of total hubris and humiliation. Rabadash cannot be beaten simply because one man (say, Edmund) is slightly better than he in combat; that is an error he could come back from with practice, training, or experience. No, he must be beaten because he is lesser than all the other (white) men present for this scene in a way which he is unlikely to overcome with age because the underlying character flaw will persist. He has to cause his own downfall in order to emasculate himself for all time.

This why Rabadash is beaten with his own jump, rather than stomped on by a giant or bested by Edmund. We get such unlikelihoods as a "hook with a ring in it for tying horses to" located 6' off the ground (if we figure Rabadash's height from the hole in his back to be 4' with an added 2' for kicking empty air). We get a mounting block which is (a) outside the castle (as opposed to inside, where one would usually keep and mount horses) and unusually high for a mounting block (given how high Rabadash would have to jump to hook himself and a quick glance at average vertical jumping abilities). We get an implausible story of a downwards stomp attack from a giant giving Rabadah a tiny hole in his hauberk but otherwise not damaging Rabadash or causing enough structural damage to tear open the hauberk altogether once Rabadash's full weight is hanging against it on the wall.

None of this is plausible. None of it is possible.

Lewis additionally wanted Rabadash to be caught yelling a religious attack--"the bolt of Tash falls from above"--because the other part of his humiliation and breaking needs to involve the humiliation of Rabadash's god and Muslim coded ways. This scene is therefore meant to point out the total inferiority of both the brown man and his brown god. The impossible coincidences above become "features" of this plan, since their impossibility can hint at a divine battle between Aslan and Tash. Just as Rabadash's failings are because he is a failure as a man, Tash's failures to protect him are due to his failure as a god. Aslan wins the day as the stronger better god, and Tash's disciple is left hanging in the wind.

This isn't quite the doctrine of Turbo Jesus as we see in the Left Behind novels, but you see the roots here in this earlier work. The commonalities are all here: an appeal of power besting power (rather than love subverting power); the gloating 'neener neener' attitude; the lack of any reconciliation to Christ in favor of breakage. Rabadash--and the bullies whipped at the end of Silver Chair--isn't won over with peace and love and compassion. He isn't brought around to recognizing his perversion of his religion is displeasing to Tash by, say, Tash showing up with Aslan to scold him. There is no reconciliation in the text between Aslan and Tash as equals. Aslan's enemies are efficiently ground into dust so the heroes can dance on the ashes. Power wins, and Aslan has the power.

Now that Rabadash has been immobilized, it's time to moralize at him.

   “Let me down, Edmund,” howled Rabadash. “Let me down and fight me like a king and a man; or if you are too great a coward to do that, kill me at once.”
   “Certainly,” began King Edmund, but King Lune interrupted.
   “By your Majesty’s good leave,” said King Lune to Edmund. “Not so.” Then turning to Rabadash he said, “Your royal Highness, if you had given that challenge a week ago, I’ll answer for it there was no one in King Edmund’s dominion, from the High King down to the smallest Talking Mouse, who would have refused it. But by attacking our castle of Anvard in time of peace without defiance sent, you have proved yourself no knight, but a traitor, and one rather to be whipped by the hangman than to be suffered to cross swords with any person of honor. Take him down, bind him, and carry him within till our pleasure is further known.”

This is a fascinating bit of hand-wavery and I think it's wise that Lewis had Edmund remain silent for most of it.

Let us be clear: Rabadash is a villain. We know he is a villain because Lewis has been very careful to show us this. Aravis overheard his temper tantrum with the Tisroc, which included a bloodthirstiness for all the people of Narnia plus a distressing desire to kidnap Susan and keep her in sexual slavery. We also overheard him on the road when Shasta implausibly crossed paths with the invaders during the night, at which time he expressed a desire to wipe out the people of Archenland. He is not a good person.

More than "not a good person", Rabadash is not what Lewis and Lune think of as a "knight". Lune calls him a "traitor", which is a curious choice of words. He appears to mean Rabadash is a traitor to the concept of chivalry itself, to the Exalted Knighthood of Noble Men. We have never actually seen Rabadash profess to be a member of these particular northern notions such that he can be accurately labeled a traitor now, but that doesn't matter to Lune or Lewis because chivalry is a universal moral constant to them.

Yet if chivalry is a universal moral system, Lune could stand to gather Narnian and Archenland planks from various eyes before he offers to remove specks from Rabadash's eyes. Corin has been running away from his chaperones and beating anyone who upsets him, from random commoner boys to the dwarf assigned to guard his life in battle. Nor can Corin claim to have treated the Queen ladies with the respect due to their station; he ran away from Susan and left her distraught and anxious in Tashbaan, then gossiped about Lucy to Shasta with his whole not-quite-a-man-but-as-good-as-a-boy discourse earlier. None of that is appropriate to the chivalric notions Lune pretends to uphold.

Then we have Edmund and his "person of honor", and why it was so very wise for Lewis to not write any dialogue for him in this scene. As far as Rabadash can tell, Edmund visited his country under false pretenses, not truly intending to marry his sister to him. Then, instead of notifying his host that they had decided to decline the marriage offer and return home, they lied to him. They made Rabadash believe Susan would accept his offer, asked permission to prepare a banquet on their ship for him, then left under the cover of darkness. This is a diplomatic disaster, and not one Rabadash or the Tisroc could easily cover up. Their honor has been insulted, with the Narnians loudly indicating that they believed the Tisroc's and Rabadash's offers of safe passage and return were lies.

Lune may not know about all this. He hasn't had a chance to talk to Edmund yet, and was strangely incurious about events in the brief window during which he had a chance to interrogate Shasta over such things as "where is my son" and "why is he coming home early". But by the same token, he really shouldn't know for certain that this is a "time of peace" and Rabadash's attack was unprovoked. All he knows about the situation is secondhand and incomplete from Shasta. Lune does know that his son was in Tashbaan, and he knows that a prince of Corin's age would be expected to represent his country in everything he does. I'm not inclined to blame Corin for Susan's honorless flight in the night, laughing at their Calormen hosts and waving merrily as they pull away from port, but the chivalric code Lune wants to invoke here would implicate the boy in these actions.

In short: We can agree Rabadash is a villain, but we have the advantage of knowing what he planned to do in the future. In terms of what people have done in the past within the pages of this book, no one has come out shining with honor. Aravis and Shasta and Bree and Hwin lied and stole and sneaked their way to freedom. Susan and Edmund and Corin lied and stole and sneaked their way to freedom. Rabadash's response to their lying and stealing and sneaking was violent, disproportionate, and wrong, but "attacking people who lied to, stole from, or disrespected authority" is at the ethical heart of Narnia. His actions so far aren't less honorable than those of everyone else on page, but he does those acts in service to Tash rather than to Aslan.

   Strong hands wrenched Rabadash’s sword from him and he was carried away into the castle, shouting, threatening, cursing, and even crying. For though he could have faced torture he couldn’t bear being made ridiculous. In Tashbaan everyone had always taken him seriously.

Worth noting, again, is that this flaw of hubris isn't unique to Rabadash and yet it is treated as his special sin. Lewis couldn't bear being made ridiculous, and arguably his greatest hatred towards women in his books is saved for the women who laugh at him. His white male heroes are no better and demand equal respect. I cannot think of a scene where Peter or Caspian or Rilian endured ridicule by letting it roll off their back, yet I can think of several scenes where their masculinity was challenged and it was treated as vitally important for them to prove their serious worth at all costs.

We'll come more to the breaking of Rabadash in a later chapter, but hold onto this post for now.

   At that moment Corin ran up to Shasta, seized his hand and started dragging him toward King Lune. “Here he is, Father, here he is,” cried Corin.
   “Aye, and here thou art, at last,” said the King in a very gruff voice. “And hast been in the battle, clean contrary to your obedience. A boy to break a father’s heart! At your age a rod to your breech were fitter than a sword in your fist, ha!” But everyone, including Corin, could see that the King was very proud of him.

I keep beating this drum but it bears repeating: Corin breaks the rules of chivalry and disobeys his father and his lord in order to please his violent impulses. But his father is proud of his serious manly violent nature and doesn't really mean the threats he issues in response. Yet when Rabadash breaks the rules of chivalry to please his violent impulses, he is a traitor and no knight.

   “Chide him no more, Sire, if it please you,” said Lord Darrin. “His Highness would not be your son if he did not inherit your conditions. It would grieve your Majesty more if he had to be reproved for the opposite fault.”

Nor is this just a Lune problem! The whole court (written by Lewis) chimes in to praise Corin's disobedient tendencies and violent impulses. Indeed, it is better for him to break his knightly vows of obedience to his lord in order to pursue glory and fame on the battlefield than for him to be so naturally meek that he manages to control himself.

   “Well, well,” grumbled the King. “We’ll pass it over for this time. And now—”
   What came next surprised Shasta as much as anything that had ever happened to him in his life. He found himself suddenly embraced in a bear-like hug by King Lune and kissed on both cheeks. Then the King set him down again and said, “Stand here together, boys, and let all the court see you. Hold up your heads. Now, gentlemen, look on them both. Has any man any doubts?”
   And still Shasta could not understand why everyone stared at him and at Corin nor what all the cheering was about.

Chapter 13 ends there and it won't be until the next chapter that the twin revelation occurs. I'm not sure why Lewis drags it out so long, since it's hardly a mystery and there's no foreshadowing (since most of the details of Shasta's backstory aren't available to the reader until he text-dumps them to Aravis).


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