Narnia: Aslan's Moral Event Horizon

[Narnia Content Note: Religion, Conversion, Violence, Self-Harm]

Narnia Recap: The fight against Rabadash has been won and we're doing narrative clean-up now. Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.

The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 14: How Bree Became a Wiser Horse

I tend to ramble a lot in my blog posts and then I feel guilty for rambling and then I remember I named this website Ramblings because that's literally what I do and what (I hope) you're here for. So if you like ramblings then today is your lucky day, gentle reader!

I haven't updated in a while (sorry!) because I've been trying to finish a book, or rather the first draft of one. I have now done this! And so of course I have a lot of thoughts on writing and editing and story structure running around in my head, and I'm coming to Chapter 14 with said thoughts freshly thunked, and here is my first thought I want to talk about: Half the job of writing is figuring out which order to put the words in.

This ordering of words isn't easy in a first draft! It's arguably not even conducive to the first drafting process. First drafts are for getting words on the paper, and yes, I like to have the words in the bestest order possible for a first draft, but the final form of the story comes together in the editing stage. So much of editing for me is going "okay, I like THESE words and I like THOSE words and I like THEM words here, BUT what if all the sentences were in slightly different order?"

The thing is, narrative structure is often a straight line, but humans don't think in straight lines. Humans think in spirographs, swirling around and around an idea until a beautiful picture is created. Great for day-to-day living, but easy to lose people in writing--such as when you trickle out hints to an upcoming climax too much before the actual climax, thus robbing it of narrative impact.

Spirograph "Rose"

(This "spirograph thinking" is why my blogging is so rambly, and why it's hard for me to brain-shift between formal writing and blog writing when I have a big project going, because they both require very different brain patterns for me to traverse. Blog writing can be relaxing, free-flowing, and reactive; whereas my formal writing is an attempt at being more rigorous, and actively guiding the reader through a path I want to show them.)

Anyway, all this is on my mind for Chapter 14 because this is the chapter in which we get the climactic reveal that Shasta is actually the twin brother of the Archenland prince we keep running into! And the reveal is actually not very good! I'd like to talk about why that is and how we can do better with our enlightened future space-age writing techniques!

Let's start with what I think Lewis was going for. I believe he wanted a white Narnian protagonist for many reasons: (1) an insert for the presumed white audience, (2) a 'coming home' tale to parallel Bree's escape from captivity, (3) a narrative reversal of fortune (from slave to king), (4) a means to get the reader into the room during the scene with Queen Susan and King Edmund, and (5) undeniably royal and not a case of mixed-up identities (thus, an identical face to Corin). Those are the more charitable reasons. I spent a lot of time typing up and then deleting a few other possibilities that I suspect were on Lewis' mind and which I find problematic, but which would probably be futile to argue over. (Intent being non-discernible in any event.) However, I will note there exist subtle points in the narrative which suggest Lewis felt a brown Shasta simply would not work, such as when Bree seems to trust him and break his silence for a white slave when he never has before with a brown one.

So if you've set your heart on a Narnian (er, Archenlander) protagonist for this adventure, I agree it makes a certain kind of sense to go whole hog and make him royalty. As much as fantasy is filled to the brim with too many of the higher social class, I admit that the story of coming home to find you're a king is a bit more climactic than coming home to find your parents were potato farmers before they died in last year's plague and the farm was gifted to a member of the up and coming middle class. I suspect this is how Lewis started with the idea of a white royal protagonist rather than ending there with the realization that Shasta "needed" to be white and royal for the story to work.

Once you've decided to pull off a Royal Twin twist, the next question is what impact you want the reveal to have. Do you want it to be a key plot moment, where the fact that the protagonist is a twin is used to save the day? In that case, you'll want to set up a scenario where the two boys are needed to do something (*waves author hands vaguely*) during the battle with Rabadash such that his confusion at there being two "Prince Corin"s leads to his downfall. Or Shasta could be a decoy to lure him into a trap, for example! Alternately, instead of being used to save the day, the Royal Twin could be used to ramp up the stakes and make things worse: Shasta could be captured by Rabadash and lead to Archenland being imperiled because they opened the gates to save their prince. Really, there's all kinds of plot-hay you can make out of a royal twin.

Plot doesn't have to be shooty-chasey-explodey things, of course. You can also use the Royal Twin for emotional impact. Aravis, Bree, and Hwin could interact with Corin and come to realize what they like about Shasta--a boy that Aravis and Bree have ostensibly scorned up until now (in much the same way that women and lower classes are wont to scorn their betters for being better than th-- wait, I said I would try to be charitable today). King Lune could interact with Shasta and express relief that his temperament is better than Corin's, and talk to him about what he considers to be good and kingly qualities. Lewis wants to do that--the conversation about Good Kings is coming--but instead of contrasting his Royal Twins, the speech is a bunch of platitudes that amount to "be like your brother but older and more mature-like".

But the point I'm spirographing around is that if you're going to have a Royal Twin in your story, the fact that they are a twin should do something to change or advance the plot. Of the reasons listed above, #1-3 don't require twinliness and #5 could be easily massaged away with an acknowledgement from Aslan regarding pedigree or a Harry Potteresque "you have your mother's eyes" marker. Only #4 needed Shasta to look like Corin so that the Narnians might mistake him, but a brief mix-up for information they arguably didn't need in the first place is a very small thing to use a Royal Twin for! That kind of narrative overkill is like sandblasting a saltine cracker.

What you don't do, at least if you want to give the reader a satisfying twist ending, is: (a) trickle out blatant hints that make the other characters look stupid for not noticing, (b) while obscuring the parts of Shasta's backstory that would actually be interesting to the reader because you're saving those for a huge text dump (c) that occurs after the action is already over and Shasta's status no longer has any real bearing on major events. Like, he'll either be royalty or a decently well-off peasant with an unusual resemblance to the local prince, but either way we know he's going to be fine. There's no tension here, no stakes, no human interest. It's not a bad first draft--words on paper, after all--but an editing stage was needed to say "okay, now how can we make this interesting to the reader?"

The other pre-ramble I have on my mind today concerns conversion narratives because Chapter 14 is when everybody gets saved and they all work on their flaws. This is a staple of Christian literature and perhaps with good reason: I think saved people should work on their flaws. Christians may be "not perfect, just forgiven", but they're called to try their best. But since flaws are often what make a character interesting, fixing them up and/or calling them out as bad and silly and punishment-worthy is a good way to leave the reader feeling unhappy. The ideal life may indeed be for everyone to try to emulate Jesus, but a book full of nothing but Jesus would not be an interesting read.

And here's the thing: it can be narratively very interesting to see characters grapple with flaws and move forward on fixing them. But there needs to be build-up and pay-off for the reader, not just a brief "and then he got saved and did better on those areas". That's almost the opposite of a satisfying ending: we're told the characters changed in ways that made them different (albeit arguably better) people, but we don't get to see any of that. It puts me in mind of a romance novel that spends the entire plot building towards a relationship and then instead of us seeing any of that, a third character wanders on-stage at the end and assures us they totally got together.

...which is about to happen literally with Shasta and Aravis marrying, so I suppose I should get into the actual text. 

   WE MUST NOW RETURN TO ARAVIS AND the Horses. The Hermit, watching his pool, was able to tell them that Shasta was not killed or even seriously wounded, for he saw him get up and saw how affectionately he was greeted by King Lune. But as he could only see, not hear, he did not know what anyone was saying and, once the fighting had stopped and the talking had begun, it was not worthwhile looking in the pool any longer.

WHAT. Sometimes I really do want to shake Lewis by the shoulders and demand to understand his priorities. How is it "not worthwhile" to continue looking? I don't care if you can't understand what's being said, you can see what people are doing. What's being done with Rabadash? What's being done about all the Calormen soldiers who fled the battlefield and are now armed and desperate in a strange land? Is anyone coming for Aravis and the Horses? Should they flee while they have the chance? We know that Lune is a softie who will condone her marriage to Shasta, but she has no reason to assume that a Calormen girl will be treated well in this land after what's just happened. She wasn't fleeing to Archenland anyway; she and the Horses wanted to get to Narnia. Speaking of:

   Next morning, while the Hermit was indoors, the three of them discussed what they should do next.
   “I’ve had enough of this,” said Hwin. “The Hermit has been very good to us and I’m very much obliged to him I’m sure. But I’m getting as fat as a pet pony, eating all day and getting no exercise. Let’s go on to Narnia.”
   “Oh not today, Ma’am,” said Bree. “I wouldn’t hurry things. Some other day, don’t you think?”
   “We must see Shasta first and say good-bye to him—and—and apologize,” said Aravis.
   “Exactly!” said Bree with great enthusiasm. “Just what I was going to say.”
   “Oh, of course,” said Hwin. “I expect he is in Anvard. Naturally we’d look in on him and say good-bye. But that’s on our way. And why shouldn’t we start at once? After all, I thought it was Narnia we all wanted to get to?”
   “I suppose so,” said Aravis. She was beginning to wonder what exactly she would do when she got there and was feeling a little lonely.

I genuinely don't know how to feel about this.

On the one hand, we have some characterization for Aravis and that's a nice state of affairs. She probably should be lonely. She's left behind all her family, every friend, and all of her culture, and she'll never see any of it again. They're reaching the end of their journey, which means that the 'friends' she's made on this trip will likely go their own way and at last she'll be alone in a strange land.

On the other hand, I'm fully aware that this is a rush to lay the groundwork for her marriage to Shasta, and I'm still angry that the last time we saw Aravis with someone she genuinely cared about Lewis trod all over her characterization in order to force her to hate on Lasaraleen. Speaking of:

   “Of course, of course,” said Bree hastily. “But there’s no need to rush things, if you know what I mean.”
   “No, I don’t know what you mean,” said Hwin. “Why don’t you want to go?”
   “M-m-m, broo-hoo,” muttered Bree. “Well, don’t you see, Ma’am—it’s an important occasion—returning to one’s own country—entering society—the best society—it is so essential to make a good impression—not perhaps looking quite ourselves, yet, eh?”
   Hwin broke out into a horse-laugh. “It’s your tail, Bree! I see it all now. You want to wait till your tail’s grown again! And we don’t even know if tails are worn long in Narnia. Really, Bree, you’re as vain as that Tarkheena in Tashbaan!”

I continue to be furious that these people do not understand that Lasaraleen was wielding social power with her 'vanity' and also oh-by-the-way that she saved their ungrateful lives. You people do not deserve Lasaraleen. And note that it's the older, wiser, ostensibly kinder woman who issues the condemnation of the young vain woman: a framing we will repeat later when it's time to criticize Susan in The Last Battle.

I'm not the biggest Bree fan in the world, and I do think his tail concerns are a bit overblown, but honestly they have no way of knowing whether or not he's right. The Hermit presumably wasn't describing how the Horses wear their hair in fashion right now and they couldn't see into the pool, so they don't know. Bree is presented here as fearing for his pride, but it makes perfect sense to fear for one's social standing. He's been a slave dreaming of freedom, but now he's a free Horse and dreaming of what's to come. Will they be outcasts for the marks of slavery on them? Will they be able to fit into society? These are valid questions that have bearing on basic survival!

   “Bree,” said Aravis, who was not very interested in the cut of his tail, “I’ve been wanting to ask you something for a long time. Why do you keep swearing By the Lion and By the Lion’s Mane? I thought you hated lions.”
   “So I do,” answered Bree. “But when I speak of the Lion of course I mean Aslan, the great deliverer of Narnia who drove away the Witch and the Winter. All Narnians swear by him.”
   “But is he a lion?”
   “No, no, of course not,” said Bree in a rather shocked voice.
   “All the stories about him in Tashbaan say he is,” replied Aravis. “And if he isn’t a lion why do you call him a lion?”
   “Well, you’d hardly understand that at your age,” said Bree. “And I was only a little foal when I left so I don’t quite fully understand it myself.”
   (Bree was standing with his back to the green wall while he said this, and the other two were facing him. He was talking in rather a superior tone with his eyes half shut; that was why he didn’t see the changed expression in the faces of Hwin and Aravis. They had good reason to have open mouths and staring eyes; because while Bree spoke they saw an enormous lion leap up from outside and balance itself on top of the green wall; only it was a brighter yellow and it was bigger and more beautiful and more alarming than any lion they had ever seen. And at once it jumped down inside the wall and began approaching Bree from behind. It made no noise at all. And Hwin and Aravis couldn’t make any noise themselves, no more than if they were frozen.)

Editor's Note: Find a better segue than "I've been wanting to ask". Feels clobbered into position for the reveal. Consider spreading out the conversation with more remarks on Aravis' side--possibly with reminders that they've just been terrorized by a lion? The event is highly topical to Aravis and would make the conversation seem less pointed for the immediate convenient reveal. Remove parentheses around the block of action; the paragraph is not an "aside" to the reader, but rather an essential part of the scene unfolding.

   “No doubt,” continued Bree, “when they speak of him as a Lion they only mean he’s as strong as a lion or (to our enemies, of course) as fierce as a lion. Or something of that kind. Even a little girl like you, Aravis, must see that it would be quite absurd to suppose he is a real lion. Indeed it would be disrespectful. If he was a lion he’d have to be a Beast just like the rest of us. Why!” (and here Bree began to laugh) “If he was a lion he’d have four paws, and a tail, and Whiskers! … Aie, ooh, hoo-hoo! Help!”
   For just as he said the word Whiskers, one of Aslan’s had actually tickled his ear. Bree shot away like an arrow to the other side of the enclosure and there turned; the wall was too high for him to jump and he could fly no farther. Aravis and Hwin both started back. There was about a second of intense silence.
   Then Hwin, though shaking all over, gave a strange little neigh and trotted across to the Lion.
   “Please,” she said, “you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”
   “Dearest daughter,” said Aslan, planting a lion’s kiss on her twitching, velvet nose, “I knew you would not be long in coming to me. Joy shall be yours.”

Hwin is one of Lewis' few perfect women, and she does so largely by being mostly silent at all times and deeply respectful to men and authority when she does speak. She's spent the bulk of the novel being largely subservient to Bree, which is only now reversed in this chapter because he's to be humbled.

Now she comes forward to the Jesus-Lion in a statement of faith which is meant to be touching but which troubled me even as a child: she's offering him her suicide, saying death at his hands would be preferable to life. Kinda creepy? I understand that this is supposed to be a depth of devotion moment, but 'hi yes please murder me' is not quite the glowing statement of love and affection and worship to me that Aslan seems to find it.

This is doubly creepy because they were just mauled by a lion yesterday--or was it two days ago? I've lost count. They know lions hang about these parts and they've been attacked by one. Hwin apparently has no trauma related to the experience, no lingering PTSD that might be triggered by the site of a creature that recently drove her to a frothing terror and (she thought) nearly leaped on her to drag her down and kill her. Given that Lewis was in battle himself, it's troubling to me that it hasn't even seemed to occur to him that Hwin might still be shaken from that violent encounter.

   Then he lifted his head and spoke in a louder voice.
   “Now, Bree,” he said, “you poor, proud, frightened Horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast.”
   “Aslan,” said Bree in a shaken voice, “I’m afraid I must be rather a fool.”
   “Happy the Horse who knows that while he is still young. Or the Human either. Draw near, Aravis my daughter. See! My paws are velveted. You will not be torn this time.”
   “This time, sir?” said Aravis.
   “It was I who wounded you,” said Aslan. “I am the only lion you met in all your journeyings. Do you know why I tore you?”
   “No, sir.”
   “The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her.
   You needed to know what it felt like.”
   “Yes, sir. Please—”
   “Ask on, my dear,” said Aslan.
   “Will any more harm come to her by what I did?”
   “Child,” said the Lion, “I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.” Then he shook his head and spoke in a lighter voice.
   “Be merry, little ones,” he said. “We shall meet soon again. But before that you will have another visitor.” Then in one bound he reached the top of the wall and vanished from their sight.

That's all we get, and I feel cheated. Bree is a "fool" but there's no talk or examination of how he might have done differently or better. Would that have hit too close to home, having to examine all the times he used his adult male status to talk over the others? Or having to consider how many times he pulled rank over the others and insisted that he knew better because he was an experienced war horse and they were women and children?

Likewise, Aravis "needed to know what it felt like" but we never understand why. Why did she need to know the cruelty her father and step-mother inflicted on a human being they immorally maintain ownership over? And where does it stop? To what lengths is Jesus-Lion willing to go in order to maintain this sudden, weird, arbitrary, never-explained and never-before-mentioned rule of eyes for eyes and a tooth for each tooth? When does forgiveness enter the picture and erase away punishment?

[Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault] Rape and sexual assault are endemic in slavery. If Aravis' father had raped the servant, would Aslan have felt compelled to rape Aravis so she'd know how that felt? This seems preposterous, of course! Jesus-Lion would never rape someone. That is because rape is Wrong, too wrong for Jesus to do, even when making a point. But... if raping a young women is too wrong for Jesus to do, why is assaulting her, whipping her, scratching her, tearing her skin open and making her bleed... any less wrong? This is what has always stuck with me in this scene and where the scales fell from my eyes as a child: Lewis believed that Jesus would flay a little girl like me. He didn't consider that a moral line Jesus would refuse to cross in the same way (I would hope) he would consider rape or sexual assault a moral line.

Here is how TV Tropes defines Moral Event Horizon:
Named for the boundary around a black hole from which there is no escape once crossed, this trope uses the black hole as a metaphor for evil; the Moral Event Horizon refers to the first evil deed to prove a particular character to be irredeemably evil.

Note the word irredeemably. It is a demonstration of permanent evil; as in, the first evil deed whose role in the story is to tell us they will always be a bad person. That moment where you know for sure that it is simply not possible for them to wash their hands to get rid of the damned spot of blood. The moment any Freudian Excuse they may have loses all meaning. And of course, many villains stay evil throughout, but we're talking "If you can find it in your soul to even consider forgiving this person, there's something freakishly wrong with you." Their existence is a blight on humanity. They. Are. Vile.

Moral Event Horizons can be subjective and argued over; the classic case, of course, would be Ender Wiggins, who was carefully constructed by his author to be Unaware Hitler. So I want to be clear that one person's MEH (my, what an unfortunate acronym) isn't some objective measure that everyone else has to agree with.

But here was where something became rotten in the state of Narnia for me: to Lewis, the physical and sexualized assault of a young brown girl fleeing rape and forced marriage was not a moral event horizon for Aslan to cross. On the contrary, because Aslan is Jesus, the act was not only not-evil, it was explicitly good and necessary. Ravaging Aravis was the right thing to do, because Jesus did it and Jesus only does what is right. And we didn't even get a goddamn explanation.

Not only did we not get an explanation for why it was right for Aslan to ravage Aravis, we never get an explanation for why it was right for Aslan to not ravage the white boys who've been running around being as careless and reckless as she supposedly has been. Caspian and his tutor did exactly the same thing she did in Prince Caspian: they drugged the guards in order to escape. Caspian then rampaged his way around the world, ruining lives and condemning good people to slavery and magical body modification. Not a bit of that ever came back on his head. But Aravis drugged her guard to escape actual, literal rape and she was ravaged for it without a bit of explanation--and without even the slightest hint of concern by Aslan for the servant now. He doesn't care about the servant, and never did; no effort will be made to save her, either on Aslan's part or Aravis'. Instead, Aslan and Lewis uses her as a whip to wield against Aravis. The servant isn't a person, just a weapon.

And that is why I had to do this series in order of publication rather than canonical order. Because everything that came before, every sin that didn't culminate in whipping a white boy, is context that can't be swiped away now when we're faced with the ravaging of a brown Muslim-coded girl.

   Strange to say, they felt no inclination to talk to one another about him after he had gone. They all moved slowly away to different parts of the quiet grass and there paced to and fro, each alone, thinking.

We'll cut here. Shasta appears in the next sequence. (Along with all the twin stuff I rambled about here, ah well.)


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