Narnia: Rabadash the Ass

[Narnia Content Note: Racism]

Narnia Recap: King Lune is judging Rabadash. Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.

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

When we last left this scene, King Lune was judging Rabadash in a trial which was utterly devoid of authority, impartiality, or even good judgment. I said before that even if Lune were in the appropriate position to judge Rabadash is a bag of rabid weasels, that wouldn't change the real politick of the situation: in other words, now that they've won the battle, how do they prevent a war?

   Next moment Cor wondered why everyone at the table had risen and was standing perfectly still. Of course he did the same himself. And then he saw the reason. Aslan was among them though no one had seen him coming. Rabadash started as the immense shape of the Lion paced softly in between him and his accusers.

God moves in mysterious ways, yada yada, but it is perhaps worth noting again that if Aslan is going to pop in whenever he feels like it and does not consider himself restrained by any non-interference deity clauses, then that raises a big question mark over what we're even doing here. Why did Shasta and Bree and Hwin have to live in painful, brutal, lonely captivity for over a dozen years if Aslan could've just shown up to save them? Why did Aravis even need to drug her step-mother's servant in order to escape? Why isn't Aslan ferrying people over the desert to the better life they're seeking?

The answer, of course, is that Aslan is here to help the author, not the characters, but it's jarring. This deus ex machina particularly angers me because Aslan--Jesus--shows up here not to speak with Rabadash and use his godly compassion to help him, but is instead here to bully Rabadash until his spirit is broken. So we zipped past any chance that Aravis might understand him (as her countryman), that Shasta might understand him (as a fellow child of abuse), that Edmund might understand him (as a former sinner), or that Lucy might understand him (as a fellow devout believer).

Now we have Jesus himself not caring to take the time to connect with Rabadash on a personal level. I'm not even a Christian anymore and I'm angry about this sacrilege. The shepherd cares about all his lost sheep, not just the snowy white ones.

   “Rabadash,” said Aslan. “Take heed. Your doom is very near, but you may still avoid it. Forget your pride (what have you to be proud of?) and your anger (who has done you wrong?) and accept the mercy of these good kings.”

Look! I am willing to be against Rabadash here! It's not like this is me in my Sephiroth phase where he's my uwu perfect cinnamon bun baby. Rabadash invaded another country with the expressed intent to kidnap and rape Susan; we're not friends. But this is blatantly incorrect! Like, just outright bullshit that Aslan is spewing here! I take issue with the total lack of accuracy!

First, can we admit that only white people are allowed to have pride in this world? Because every white person in these novels--Peter, Edmund, Caspian, Rilian, Lune, Corin, I could go on all day!--has plenty of pride with nothing to be proud of, or at least no more reason than Rabadash. Lewis has forgotten that he made Rabadash behave wondrously well at the Narnia RenFaire, to the point where Peter gave him all the prizes and, idk, gold-plated gold. Rabadash has also won a bunch of campaigns and shit and seems to be a decent fighter. "But, Ana, martial prowess is not a thing to automatically take pride in," and yes, I agree it says nothing about a man's character but that wasn't relevant when it was white people's martial prowess under discussion.

Second, "who has done [Rabadash] wrong?" Would you like a list? I mean, we could start with Susan lying to him and saying in plausible-deniability speak that she wanted to marry him. (Yes, it was understandable self-protection, but I think he's still allowed to feel feelings about it.) Then her brother spirited her away in the dead of night after stealing supplies from him, acting in a manner guaranteed to make him a humiliated laughingstock and potentially harming his value on the marriage market if enough people believe Edmund must have been justified to do what he did. While we're on the topic, Corin didn't really behave admirably as a guest in Rabadash's palace; Rabadash has almost certainly been a victim of his father's abuse for years on end; and Lune has put him in chains (treating him like a dangerous prisoner rather than a royal captive) and insulted him, his parentage, and his home country.

Narnian heroes have beaten up old men for far less provocation than all that.

Third, what "mercy" is Rabadash supposed to accept? Lune hasn't even put forth any terms--presumably because Lewis couldn't be bothered to make up something which wouldn't be used--but the overall tone of the conversation so far has been Lune saying "we have you captive, so you'll do as I say, you ignorant icky foreigner." That's not mercy. That's not even the bare minimum of civil.

   Then Rabadash rolled his eyes and spread out his mouth into a horrible, long mirthless grin like a shark, and wagged his ears up and down (anyone can learn how to do this if they take the trouble). He had always found this very effective in Calormen. The bravest had trembled when he made these faces, and ordinary people had fallen to the floor, and sensitive people had often fainted. But what Rabadash hadn’t realized is that it is very easy to frighten people who know you can have them boiled alive the moment you give the word. The grimaces didn’t look at all alarming in Archenland; indeed Lucy only thought Rabadash was going to be sick.

So this is feeding into an exceptionally racist trope, that of the brown man as a leering animal with a wide white mouth and wide white eyes that contrast with his dark skin. And for all the Lucy thinks Rabadash looks sick, she doesn't offer to help him at all. Lucy the Healer, carrier of the cordial (which is at home because regular people aren't precious enough to save, et cetera).

   “Demon! Demon! Demon!” shrieked the Prince. “I know you. You are the foul fiend of Narnia. You are the enemy of the gods. Learn who I am, horrible phantasm. I am descended from Tash, the inexorable, the irresistible. The curse of Tash is upon you. Lightning in the shape of scorpions shall be rained on you. The mountains of Narnia shall be ground into dust. The—”
   “Have a care, Rabadash,” said Aslan quietly. “The doom is nearer now: it is at the door; it has lifted the latch.”

We're supposed to be impressed by Aslan's soft quiet voice as Rabadash howls and shrieks his way to doom. The emotionless white man who is above it all and unaffected by suffering is, of course, highly prized by our society. Only now do I notice that Aslan's softly uttered warnings are gibberish. "Have a care" isn't a plan of action, and Aslan doesn't ask Rabadash to speak with him or try to calm him down in any meaningful way. This is just a means of washing his hands over what he's about to do.

We are also not supposed to consider whether Rabadash might not be genuinely afraid. I think Lewis intended us to assume he is not, but bluster and threats are not mutually exclusive to fear. Rabadash has spent his whole life hearing about the Narnian demon-Lion and how dangerous it is (or, at least, I assert that he should have spent his whole life hearing about Aslan; an earlier chapter introduces inconsistencies which we will not dwell on here). He has furthermore spent his whole life getting his way as long as his wishes didn't conflict with what his father wanted. Those seem like they could add up to quite a bit of fear here.

   “Let the skies fall,” shrieked Rabadash. “Let the earth gape! Let blood and fire obliterate the world! But be sure I will never desist till I have dragged to my palace by her hair the barbarian queen, the daughter of dogs, the—”
   “The hour has struck,” said Aslan: and Rabadash saw, to his supreme horror, that everyone had begun to laugh.
   They couldn’t help it. Rabadash had been wagging his ears all the time and as soon as Aslan said, “The hour has struck!” the ears began to change. 

Lewis, I'm not laughing. I realize you're drawing from a rich tradition of Balaam's donkey, Shakespeare's Bottom, and frankly the One Thousand and One Nights yet again, but in doing so you're turning the one man of color in this scene into an animal while the white people point and laugh.

They grew longer and more pointed and soon were covered with gray hair. And while everyone was wondering where they had seen ears like that before, Rabadash’s face began to change too. It grew longer, and thicker at the top and larger eyed, and the nose sank back into the face (or else the face swelled out and became all nose) and there was hair all over it. And his arms grew longer and came down in front of him till his hands were resting on the ground: only they weren’t hands, now, they were hoofs. And he was standing on all fours, and his clothes disappeared, and everyone laughed louder and louder (because they couldn’t help it) for now what had been Rabadash was, simply and unmistakably, a donkey. The terrible thing was that his human speech lasted just a moment longer than his human shape, so that when he realized the change that was coming over him, he screamed out:
   “Oh, not a Donkey! Mercy! If it were even a horse—e’en—a—hor—eeh—auh, eeh-auh.” And so the words died away into a donkey’s bray.

Ugh, I completely forgot that his power of speech was taken away.

   “Now hear me, Rabadash,” said Aslan. “Justice shall be mixed with mercy. You shall not always be an Ass.”
   At this of course the Donkey twitched its ears forward—and that also was so funny that everybody laughed all the more. They tried not to, but they tried in vain.


Aslan just appeared out of nowhere and transmogrified a guy into a voiceless animal! Shasta and Aravis ought to at least be terrified, given that they were recently mauled by this same god! Edmund and Lucy ought to be incredibly uncomfortable, given the contrast between this situation and the one in which Aslan died for Edmund and his sins.

Lune himself ought to be deeply concerned by this because, (a) the son of his largest enemy to the south has just been dealt with far more harshly than he could have ever done or planned, (b) there is really no reason whatsoever to think Aslan will stick around to help smooth over the tensions he's just caused, and (c) honestly, what the fuck? Lune is Corin's dad; he can't relish the idea that someday Aslan might get fed up with the boy's temper and turn him into a donkey!

Even if you hate Rabadash, even if you think he should be locked away forever or subjected to whatever rehabilitative form of justice you prefer, this is not that! He's not learning a lesson, he's just being humiliated and tormented. This is bullying, and Lewis is trying to play it off as hilarious.


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