Narnia: Calormene Poetry

[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

As we wind our way down to the end of this chapter and book, I want to thank you all for your amazing comments. This deconstruction would not be the same without you: the fix-fic that brings tears to my eyes, the folks pointing out plot-holes and world-building fails that I miss and which make the entire book seem utterly impossible on the face of everything else, even the "ARGH WHAT IS THIS" keyboard smash comments are precious to me.

Two comments in particular have stuck with me in the last couple of posts. One, from QG notes the sheer weird disconnection between Archenland and Calormen, and indeed between Lune and Rabadash who ought to know each other better than this scene provides. The second, from Anton Mates regarding how Aslan's "judgment" will only serve to entrench religious hostilities between the Aslan and Tash factions in this world.

From QG: The strange part, to me, is the utter disconnection. Archenland is between Narnia and Calormen. It's undoubtedly where Calormen gets its flavored ice for those ices Lasaraleena and Aravis were eating. (Huge shipments cased in sawdust, rushed daily from further north... Or, when Narnia was encased in forever winter, just across the border.)

So why aren't there already stops between them for trade routes? Why doesn't Rabadash recognise Lune personally? Where is the merchant faction who'd be rushing to tidy away their wayward prince while distracting Lune with honeyed figs and dancers? Why aren't there diplomats here?

From Anton: The other thing he’s drawing from is the late Roman Metamorphoses of Apuleius, popularly called “The Golden Ass.” The protagonist gets magically turned into a donkey, goes through various adventures, and eventually visits the temple of Isis where he regains his human form by participating in a religious festival.

Of course, the message there is that Isis is a benevolent goddess and you should worship her because she rescues you from the state of a dumb beast. Whereas here, Aslan donkeyfies Rabadash and then he’s changed back…at the temple of Tash? In front of thousands of Calormene spectators? Thus proving to them that Aslan is an evil demon and Tash is the true god who can overcome him, all hail Tash? Who are you really working for, Aslan?

Both of those comments have reduced me to a sort of Keanu Reeves whoa state because...whoa.

These aren't minor details that no author could reasonably be expected to include in their world. Part of any scene setting is to remember, okay, just because I made up all these characters and they're new to me and my readers doesn't mean they're new to each other. How do these folks all know each other? How will the world around them react to the major whammy I'm about to throw at them? 

I don't remember it being explicitly stated that Rabadash and Lune are meeting for the first time, but their conduct contains no familiarity whatsoever. And the lack of delegates, advocates, and diplomats is jarring in the extreme. How is no one here to defend Rabadash? How can he be so thoroughly isolated and alone?

Lewis seems to like his victims isolated--it's part of the humiliation, I think--but it undercuts the moral message. Aslan looks like a bully, hitting a man who is literally chained and unable to do anything but rant and rail. Lune looks like a despot for allowing the situation; what tyrant doesn't allow prisoners at trial the right of counsel or witness? The Pevensies look powerless for sitting by and doing little more than tutting quietly to themselves. And Tash, as Anton noted, will soon look like the one good guy in all this, since he's (ostensibly) the one being (sorta) credited with Rabadash's healing.

   “You have appealed to Tash,” said Aslan. “And in the temple of Tash you shall be healed. You must stand before the altar of Tash in Tashbaan at the great Autumn Feast this year and there, in the sight of all Tashbaan, your ass’s shape will fall from you and all men will know you for Prince Rabadash. But as long as you live, if ever you go more than ten miles away from the great temple in Tashbaan you shall instantly become again as you now are. And from that second change there will be no return.”
   There was a short silence and then they all stirred and looked at one another as if they were waking from sleep. Aslan was gone. But there was a brightness in the air and on the grass, and a joy in their hearts, which assured them that he had been no dream: and anyway, there was the donkey in front of them.

A man has just been body-morphed against his will into the most terrifying thing the Narnians can imagine: a Talking Animal stripped of the power of speech. Why is the air/grass bright and their hearts joyous? Even if someone agrees with this punishment, this is a solemn moment not unlike witnessing a state execution. 

   King Lune was the kindest-hearted of men and on seeing his enemy in this regrettable condition he forgot all his anger.
   “Your royal Highness,” he said, “I am most truly sorry that things have come to this extremity. Your Highness will bear witness that it was none of our doing. And of course we shall be delighted to provide your Highness with shipping back to Tashbaan for the—er—treatment which Aslan has prescribed. You shall have every comfort which your Highness’s situation allows: the best of the cattle-boats—the freshest carrots and thistles—”
   But a deafening bray from the Donkey and a well-aimed kick at one of the guards made it clear that these kindly offers were ungratefully received.

Is Rabadash supposed to be grateful that, instead of asking how he would like to be fed and housed, Lune is prescribing things donkeys eat and are transported in? He's still a prince, so I think he's entitled to expect a nicer boat than a "cattle" boat, and I'm not even going to touch on the food. 

   And here, to get him out of the way, I’d better finish off the story of Rabadash. He (or it)--


   And here, to get him out of the way, I’d better finish off the story of Rabadash. He (or it) was duly sent back by boat to Tashbaan and brought into the temple of Tash at the great Autumn Festival, and then he became a man again. But of course four or five thousand people had seen the transformation and the affair could not possibly be hushed up. And after the old Tisroc’s death when Rabadash became Tisroc in his place he turned out the most peaceable Tisroc Calormen had ever known. This was because, not daring to go more than ten miles from Tashbaan, he could never go on a war himself: and he didn’t want his Tarkaans to win fame in the wars at his expense, for that is the way Tisrocs get overthrown. But though his reasons were selfish, it made things much more comfortable for all the smaller countries round Calormen. His own people never forgot that he had been a donkey. During his reign, and to his face, he was called Rabadash the Peacemaker, but after his death and behind his back he was called Rabadash the Ridiculous, and if you look him up in a good History of Calormen (try the local library) you will find him under that name. And to this day in Calormene schools, if you do anything unusually stupid, you are very likely to be called “a second Rabadash.”

Okay, this is just. I don't even know where to start.

One, how does any of this make Rabadash look ridiculous? Lewis is just asserting that the Calormen people agree with what Aslan did and why, when it is far more likely that the Calormen people will be horrified by this further 'proof' of how demonic and barbaric the northern countries are (and 'proof' that Tash is powerful and good, for keeping Rabadash safe from the curse whilst he is within range).

Two, hell, why would it be "hushed up"? Again, Lewis is asserting that the Calormen people would agree that Rabadash's curse would be shameful or a mark on his honor and I'm just not buying that! Wouldn't it be a mark on the honor of the northerners? They came here under false pretense of marriage, cast some sort of lust spell on the heir to lure him away from the safety of Tash's embrace, and then cursed him with a form that was hardly his fault for the shape he took!

Three, I am having a really hard time swallowing that Rabadash was unable to make war because he didn't want his Tarkaans to win fame at his expense. I did not get the impression that the Tisroc--who is worshiped by the Calormen people as a literal god--was maintaining his power by squeezing himself into armor and getting saddle blisters.

I can imagine that the Calormen people might be relieved at having a period of peace for a bit, maybe. Assuming the peace didn't mean bandit raids on the borders which Rabadash felt forced to ignore rather than confront, I suppose. (That would be bad. Would Aslan care? Seems unlikely; he doesn't do anything to protect his own people from bandits.)

But I find it hard to believe that, just based on this incident alone, Rabadash would be held as a fool by his own people. We can see he has been foolish, certainly, but from an outsider's perspective he has been no more so than Rilian was. Rilian? You remember him: he was Caspian's son in The Silver Chair. He fell in love with a lovely woman (like Susan) who seemed gentle and good (like Susan) but was rumored to be a witch (like Susan) and when she fled from his kingdom he followed her (like Rabadash) and was enchanted for his troubles (like Rabadash) with every intention to send him back to be king (like Rabadash) so his bewitcher could rule through him.

Which brings me to: four, why are the Calormen in general and the Tisroc in particular keeping Rabadash on as an heir? The Tisroc was practically salivating at the notion that he might get to replace Rabadash with a younger brother. Why are they crowning a prince that no one particularly liked much (or, at least, the Tisroc and his head advisor did not, and it's hard to imagine that anyone who knew Rabadash really well was a big fan of giving him more power) and who now has to his name (a) a major military defeat, (b) two enraged trade partners, and (c) an actual magical curse on him which might compromise his judgment. That seems really, um, unlikely?

   Meanwhile at Anvard everyone was very glad that he had been disposed of before the real fun began, 


   Meanwhile at Anvard everyone was very glad that he had been disposed of before the real fun began, which was a grand feast held that evening on the lawn before the castle, with dozens of lanterns to help the moonlight. And the wine flowed and tales were told and jokes were cracked, and then silence was made and the King’s poet with two fiddlers stepped out into the middle of the circle. Aravis and Cor prepared themselves to be bored, for the only poetry they knew was the Calormene kind, and you know now what that was like. 


Calormene stories and poems are beautiful, there was a whole thing earlier about how Aravis was an accomplished storyteller as part of the standard Calormene noble upbringing, and how it was the most beautiful thing ever and way better than the shitty books they give you in school, and this was somehow supposed to offset all the racism (forgetting that exotifying another culture is still racism) and now Lewis has just forgotten all that because god forbid Narnia, er, Archenland, er, Engleland, not be The Best At Everything Ever?

But at the very first scrape of the fiddles a rocket seemed to go up inside their heads, and the poet sang the great old lay of Fair Olvin and how he fought the Giant Pire and turned him into stone (and that is the origin of Mount Pire—it was a two-headed Giant) and won the Lady Liln for his bride; and when it was over they wished it was going to begin again. And though Bree couldn’t sing he told the story of the fight of Zalindreh. And Lucy told again (they had all, except Aravis and Cor, heard it many times but they all wanted it again) the tale of the Wardrobe and how she and King Edmund and Queen Susan and Peter the High King had first come into Narnia.

Fuck all this shit. Fuck it all. I am going to find that goddamn quote, hang on. 

Aravis immediately began, sitting quite still and using a rather different tone and style from her usual one. For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.


“Hush, Ma am, hush,” said Bree, who was thoroughly enjoying the story. “She’s telling it in the grand Calormene manner and no story-teller in a Tisroc’s court could do it better. Pray go on, Tarkheena.”

And there.

“Be quiet, youngster,” said Bree. “You’re spoiling the story. She’ll tell us all about the letter in the right place. Go on, Tarkheena.”

And there.

There's more of the chapter, but I'm too annoyed to continue so it'll have to wait.


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