Narnia: Foolish Rabadash

[Narnia Content Note: Racism]

Narnia Recap: Shasta has reunited with Aravis, Bree, and Hwin and now they are returning to King Lune and Narnia. Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.

The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 15: Rabadash the Ridiculous

Many, many, many days ago, I said: I'm going to pause here because (a) it's late over here in my time zone and (b) I want to give Rabadash's "trial" its own post. Then I got flu, bronchitis, book edits, and a Laura Ingalls Wilder biography, and time passed as it is wont to do! But let us roll up our sleeves and continue on with this book.

When we last left our royals, they had decided to put Rabadash on trial. I'm frankly not sure how this is supposed to work? Lune cannot possibly be an impartial judge, given that he was just invaded, and he doesn't have any authority over Rabadash.

I'm not even sure what Lewis is going for here, because I can't think of a medieval equivalent to what is about to occur. Kings cared very deeply about being divinely appointed to rule and dispense justice--they were, in essence, the givers and guardians of the law. Part of dispensing justice means that it needs to have at least the appearance of following appropriate procedures: Lune should have authority over whomever he judges. He cannot just assert authority over another ruler (or their heir) for the same reason that he wouldn't want the Tisroc to assert authority over Corin during his visit and, say, execute him for brawling with his guards. Lune's decision to simply claim that he has the necessary authority to judge Rabadash would backfire on him, were he not in a book that is ending in a few paragraphs.

To what end, really, does this mock trial accomplish anything? Lune's moral judgment of Rabadash's actions isn't relevant to the realpolitik question of what to do with Rabadash. Even if Lune had the legal standing (he doesn't) and the necessary impartiality (he doesn't) to rule Rabadash is a bag of weasel dicks, that ruling has no bearing on "what, practically speaking, must we do to avoid a war with Calormen?" (Not to worry, Aslan will soon show up to handwave at that.)

   “It shall be tried,” said the King: and then to one of the attendants, “Send for the prisoner, friend.”
   Rabadash was brought before them in chains. To look at him anyone would have supposed that he had passed the night in a noisome dungeon without food or water; but in reality he had been shut up in quite a comfortable room and provided with an excellent supper. But as he was sulking far too furiously to touch the supper and had spent the whole night stamping and roaring and cursing, he naturally did not now look his best.

Lewis does not like Rabadash so this is meant to make us dislike him. Yet we have just come from The Silver Chair where our protagonists were considered to have committed The Deepest Sin after eating what their hosts put before them because that food did not come from a source their religious practice approved of. We know Rabadash comes from a society that is coded heavily Muslim and we previously saw strong indication that they do not eat pork. Why should Rabadash have any trust in the Archenlanders to provide him the Calormene equivalent of halal food?

Then, too, we saw in The Silver Chair that relaxing and being calm in the presence of one's host is the best way to be ensorcelled into betraying one's company and principles. Lewis wants us to view Rabadash with disdain for being a stampy, roary, cursey guest but those behaviors served Puddleglum well when he was stomping his foot into the Green Lady's fire. (And I'm reasonably certain the Prince offered an oath or two.)

Lewis doesn't remember these moments, which is understandable to a point, but the problem is that he doesn't remember them because he doesn't consider this situation from Rabadash's point of view. Rabadash can be evil and spoiled--he is Lewis' character to fill out as he pleases--but in order to show he is evil and spoiled, we need to understand how he feels. He wouldn't eat the food because... why? Because he thinks it might be poisoned? Reasonable! Because it wasn't prepared to his religious needs? Reasonable! Because he disdained to eat anything not covered in gold leaf? Now we're getting closer to the Spoiled Asshole side of the fence. His reasons matter and can't just be glossed over, because the behavior is not in itself objectionable or even particularly foolish.

   “Your royal Highness needs not to be told,” said King Lune, “that by the law of nations as well as by all reasons of prudent policy, we have as good right to your head as ever one mortal man had against another. Nevertheless, in consideration of your youth and the ill nurture, devoid of all gentilesse and courtesy, which you have doubtless had in the land of slaves and tyrants, we are disposed to set you free, unharmed, on these conditions: first, that—”

Wait, that's not... Every word of that paragraph is wrong.

Lune does not have a 'right' to Rabadash's head. He hasn't even been convicted of anything, let alone by anyone with authority and impartiality--things which, yes, the medieval societies Lewis wants to crib from did indeed care about. (Kings who bypassed their way around the legal system in order to execute their enemies without the appearance of Just Cause almost invariably alienated their nobles and their people, and then bad things happened.) No one has even asked Rabadash any questions! The only things they know about his motivations come from Aravis, who is a stranger and may have misheard or misunderstood.

It is inexcusable that Lewis wanted to write a trial scene but then wanted to rush through it without silly little things like "ask the accused whether he is guilty or if he has an explanation for his actions". Which is a shame because Rabadash does have a grievance: the Narnians tricked him, stole food and supplies from him, and then left him in a manner designed to shame and slander him. That may not be enough to justify invading Archenland (though Cor-and-Corin's presence and complicity makes that complicated), but it is cause for political grievance, especially under the rules of chivalry which Lewis loves to bandy about.

Then Lune leans into the political catastrophe by calling Calormen a land of "slaves and tyrants" and outright stating that anyone raised there is obviously going to have a fucked up moral compass. Which, I mean, Aravis and Shasta are right there so way to insult the people who just saved you while undermining their eventual authority as rulers of your own kingdom. Furthermore, absolutely no Narnian in this book would take an insult like this to their king and country sitting down. Do you think Reepicheep would've responded mildly to an insult like this? I sure don't.

   “Curse you for a barbarian dog!” spluttered Rabadash. “Do you think I will even hear your conditions? Faugh! You talk very largely of nurture and I know not what. It’s easy, to a man in chains, ha! Take off these vile bonds, give me a sword, and let any of you who dares then debate with me.”
   Nearly all the lords sprang to their feet, and Corin shouted:
   “Father! Can I box him? Please.”
   “Peace! Your Majesties! My Lords!” said King Lune. “Have we no more gravity among us than to be so chafed by the taunt of a pajock? Sit down, Corin, or shalt leave the table. I ask your Highness again, to hear our conditions.”

The "can I box him" thing was cute to me as a kid when I thought Corin was, like, nine. Much less so now that we've figured up that he's essentially an adult by medieval standards--and doubly concerning when it's not clear whether or not he means to free Rabadash first or box him while he's chained and helpless to resist.

I believe Lewis wants us to like Lune in this novel, and I have seen people unironically quote his Rules of Good Kinging as valuable advice. It is interesting to me that in this read he comes off as the sleaziest of manipulators. He hauls Rabadash out in chains, which is an absolutely unacceptable insult given the circumstances; the chains are a humiliation and the act implies that Rabadash is not an honorable and equal brother in chivalry. Chivalric knights only chained two types of people: "low" persons who didn't deserve the honor of going unchained, and "dishonorable" people who couldn't be trusted not to attack if they were unchained.

Lune then adds to the insult by verbally insulting Rabadash's country, people, parent, liege, and upbringing, then has the gall to act as though he merely "asked" Rabadash to "hear our conditions". "I ask your Highness again to hear our conditions" is rank gaslighting: Lune never asked once (he told), he pointedly isn't treating Rabadash as highborn (he's chained), and his 'conditions' are served with insults no knight would or could honorably bear.

If we were meant to see Lune as a savvy sort of antihero to all this chivalric bullshit, provoking Rabadash in subtle ways before leaning back to say "what? I'm not touching you!" with a sly grin while Rabadash rails at him, that would be one thing. But Lewis characterizes him this way while then wanting him to be the Voice of Honor later in this chapter and it doesn't work that way.

   “I hear no conditions from barbarians and sorcerers,” said Rabadash. “Not one of you dare touch a hair of my head. Every insult you have heaped on me shall be paid with oceans of Narnian and Archenlandish blood. Terrible shall the vengeance of the Tisroc be: even now. But kill me, and the burnings and torturings in these northern lands shall become a tale to frighten the world a thousand years hence. Beware! Beware! Beware! The bolt of Tash falls from above!”

Again, this is pretty awful on Rabadash's part but I'm struck by how this would not sound out of place in the mouth of Peter, Caspian, Rilian, or Reepicheep. When Caspian and Reepicheep and Lucy were captured by the Dufflepuds, Reepicheep boasted "you will wonder to see how many we can kill before we die."

Hell, this was Rilian's plan in the last book and it's never really clear whether it was wrong because it is wrong or because he was doing it at the behest of the Green Lady: "with her to guide me and a thousand Earthmen at my back, I shall ride forth in arms, fall suddenly on our enemies, slay their chief man, cast down their strong places, and doubtless be their crowned king within four and twenty hours."

Anyway, we're now going to mock Rabadash's piety because Tash is silly but being devoted to Aslan is appropriate and good.

   “Does it ever get caught on a hook halfway?” asked Corin.
   “Shame, Corin,” said the King. “Never taunt a man save when he is stronger than you: then, as you please.”
   “Oh you foolish Rabadash,” sighed Lucy.

I feel so deeply disappointed here, I really do. Lewis has gone to a tremendous amount of trouble setting up a society which is clearly intended to be analogous to Muslim societies a la the Thousand and One Nights he was cribbing from. He had to know that his Tash would analogize to Allah, and he had to know that this passage would be--for many of his Christian child readers--their first real introduction to the idea that other people have different gods they worship.

So he gave us a bombastic villain whose 'piety' is deeply suspect--we really only see him invoke his god as a weapon--and who is mocked for his religion. Lune's only objection is a backhanded insult: to only ever mock men who are stronger than Corin. (Since he scolds Corin for the mockery, the implication is that Rabadash is not his superior in strength.) Lucy, the religious voice of the series who adores Aslan even when others forget him, does not sympathize or see herself in Rabadash; instead, she calls his faith "foolish".

Aslan will show up in the next paragraph and it only really gets worse from here.


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