Narnia: Reformed Characters

[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Ableism]

Narnia Recap: Rabadash has been turned into a donkey by Aslan and we're getting a quick wrap-up ending. Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.

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

We started The Horse and His Boy in 2015, which feels like a lifetime ago. I was trying to work out this morning whether my slower pace at blogging represents a drain in enthusiasm and realized that the spirit is as willing as it ever has been but the flesh is just so very weak. (It's been an introspective weekend over here; my pain meds aren't working and one of my cats is ill.)

But today at very long last we finish this book and I find myself with melancholy feels. It has been a sort of anchor over the last 2.5 years. There are still more Narnia books to read and indeed plenty of problems to deconstruct but this was the one I had fixed as a goal when I began Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe. "If I can get through Horse and His Boy, I will have done something special," I told myself. Now we're here. Let's do this?

   And presently, as was certain to happen sooner or later, King Lune said it was time for young people to be in bed. “And tomorrow, Cor,” he added, “shalt come over all the castle with me and see the estres and mark all its strength and weakness: for it will be thine to guard when I’m gone.”

We've mentioned this before, but everyone seems remarkably complacent that this total stranger will be good and loyal to their kingdom and not sell them out the first chance he gets. On the one hand, this is a standard happy ending, if a bit rushed: the lost child comes home and is given a secure future after a lifetime of not knowing where they fit in. On the other hand, this sits alongside all the racism we've endured thus far to get here.

Cor was raised in Calormen country by a Calorman 'parent'. He could easily, in the hands of another author, be Calormene in habit and dress and demeanor. Instead, he is not; he is visibly white and Archenlandian in thought, deed, and habit. Archenlandian habits he hasn't encountered before--like bacon as food--he quickly snaps up and takes to like a duck brought back to the water. He is white, not just in skin tone but in culture and habit, and he is trustworthy, and it is hard not to escape the suggestion that these two are related: he is trustworthy because he is white.

We know that Cor is not trustworthy in the sense of loyalty to country. By rushing to warn Archenland of Rabadash's invasion, he betrayed what he thought was the country of his birth. We never really saw why he did so, which I belabored mightily at the time; I presume we are not meant to read his actions as motivated out of a desire for reward and a nice little farm for himself, but had those been his motivations that would now be relevant as Lune proposes to show Cor all the weaknesses of the kingdom.

But of course we're not meant to see Cor's actions as a betrayal of Calormen because (a) Rabadash's actions were wrong and (b) Cor doesn't really belong to Calormen either by birth or affection. These are not minor points when we discuss whether or not Cor's actions constitute "betrayal". And yet, they were not points in Edmund's favor when considering whether he was a traitor to... someone. (Narnia? Aslan? His family?) We seem to come back to the underlying premise that Cor's actions were fine because he is white and was helping white people. All other considerations fade.

Anyway, Cor protests that he doesn't wish to be king:

   “But Corin will be the King then, Father,” said Cor.
   “Nay, lad,” said King Lune, “thou art my heir. The crown comes to thee.”
   “But I don’t want it,” said Cor. “I’d far rather—”
   “‘Tis no question what thou wantest, Cor, nor I either.’ Tis in the course of law.”
   “But if we’re twins we must be the same age.”
   “Nay,” said the King with a laugh. “One must come first. Art Corin’s elder by full twenty minutes. And his better too, let’s hope, though that’s no great mastery.” And he looked at Corin with a twinkle in his eyes.
   “But, Father, couldn’t you make whichever you like to be the next King?”
   “No. The king’s under the law, for it’s the law makes him a king. Hast no more power to start away from thy crown than any sentry from his post.”

This is a curiously ahistorical view of kingship; almost every monarchy I know of has provisions for renouncing the crown (a thing that Lewis would have been aware of in English history) and for an existing king or parliamentary body or religious authority or someone to alter the succession when someone is deemed unsuitable to rule. The fact that everyone is hiding these options from Cor just provides more grist for the fanfiction mill that everyone knows Corin will make a terrible king and they'd rather literally anyone else do the job.

   “Oh dear,” said Cor. “I don’t want to at all. And Corin—I am most dreadfully sorry. I never dreamed my turning up was going to chisel you out of your kingdom.”
   “Hurrah! Hurrah!” said Corin. “I shan’t have to be King. I shan’t have to be King. I’ll always be a prince. It’s princes have all the fun.”

Well, isn't that tidy.

   “And that’s truer than thy brother knows, Cor,” said King Lune. “For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”

I checked the battle at Anvard and can confirm that Lune and Edmund are at the front lines of their respective armies. I'm so used to Lewis' contradictions and errors that I was startled to see actual consistency. Based on this much alone, I'm willing to wager that this passage is an important one to him, and I often see it approvingly quoted alongside the Puddleglum one from Silver Chair.

A big problem, however, is that it doesn't mean much. "A good king is first in attack and last in retreat" doesn't denote anything except an able-bodied ability to fight or ride, which I must say chafes me as a disabled person who would make a better king than Lune does. The rest of the passage--laughing loudly over thin meals--is about stiff upper English lips. Not a bad thing to have, but hardly the first thing I would put on a list of necessary qualities for a king.

Notably missing from this list: Mercy. Wisdom. Justice. Humility--not the kind which is fine with wearing dowdy clothes and having doggy-smelly hands like Lune, but the kind willing to question whether you know as much as you think you do, whether you're as right as you imagine yourself to be. Kindness. Thoughtfulness. Nurturing. The ability to listen to people who know more than you do and sometimes take their advice.

All of that is missing and what we receive for a takeaway quote of kingliness is that kingship means being able-bodied and generally cheery of disposition. Color me unimpressed. (I feel like this depressed disabled person wouldn't have lost my long-lost child in a misty forest, Lune.) Oh, hey, speaking of kingly qualities and how being "able-bodied" doesn't make you "compassionate" or whatever, let's talk about our prince:

   When the two boys were going upstairs to bed Cor again asked Corin if nothing could be done about it. And Corin said:
   “If you say another word about it, I’ll—I’ll knock you down.”
   It would be nice to end the story by saying that after that the two brothers never disagreed about anything again, but I am afraid it would not be true. In reality they quarreled and fought just about as often as any other two boys would, and all their fights ended (if they didn’t begin) with Cor getting knocked down. For though, when they had both grown up and become swordsmen, Cor was the more dangerous man in battle, neither he nor anyone else in the North Countries could ever equal Corin as a boxer. That was how he got his name of Corin Thunder-Fist; and how he performed his great exploit against the Lapsed Bear of Stormness, which was really a Talking Bear but had gone back to Wild Bear habits. Corin climbed up to its lair on the Narnian side of Stormness one winter day when the snow was on the hills and boxed it without a time-keeper for thirty-three rounds. And at the end it couldn’t see out of its eyes and became a reformed character.

If I understand this correctly*, Corin boxed a Bear so hard that the Bear went blind from brain damage but this is okay because the Bear's character also changed in the process (possibly also from brain damage). I don't even know how to deconstruct this weird and ugly throwaway point in the second-to-last paragraph of the book? This feels like an ableist wave at the Kindhearted Simpleton trope? Fucking hell?

[*Edited to add: Commenter Scott P. and others have noted below that the "couldn't see out of its eyes" could be temporary swelling from the boxing match that later went down. Still horrifying! But, if that was intended, less so than permanent disability inflicted on a character by the Prince.]

This would be problematic on its own, but when you pair it with this series' approach to redemption and evil, it's just awful. Bad enough that the legions of evil were previously all physical disabled and deformed in ways which marked them as ugly and no-good; now we're seeing that if redemption is possible for them, they have to be beaten into brain damage and permanent blindness?

THIS WAS UNNECESSARY. Can I stress that? Lewis chose to write this incident and he chose to do it this way as opposed to any other way. One possible other way: Corin boxed a Bear and the Bear was so dang impressed that the Bear sat down on their heavy bear-butt and laughed and laughed and and Corin joined in laughing and they both had a good laugh together and then Corin talked to the Bear about redeeming his ways and the Bear ended up agreeing and they became friends and comrades and this was noteworthy because most humans can't box a Bear.

Lewis could've done that! That arc isn't some social justicey huggy-wuvvy stuff I came up with just now; there are hecking Arthurian stories that take that arc--ones that Lewis would've known about! He didn't need to make the Bear blinded, disabled, humiliated, and humbled to reform him and elevate Corin as badass. This is the same dang problem we had with Rabadash's humiliation, only it's even worse here because we've never even heard of this Bear or whether they deserved any of this.

   Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I’m afraid, even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarreling and making up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently. And after King Lune’s death they made a good King and Queen of Archenland and Ram the Great, the most famous of all the kings of Archenland, was their son. Bree and Hwin lived happily to a great age in Narnia and both got married but not to one another. And there weren’t many months in which one or both of them didn’t come trotting over the pass to visit their friends at Anvard.

Least convincing romance ever: Aravis and Shasta.

Apparently Lewis didn't know that "constant fighting" doesn't make two people good romance partners. Good romance partners can fight, sure, but there does need to be more there than just fighting. If I'm wrong and Lewis is right, I'm profoundly missing out by not marrying trolls on Twitter.

On that abrupt and whiplashy note, the book ends. That's all of it.


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