Narnia: Fierce Women and Cruel Lions

[Narnia Content Note: Misogyny]

Narnia Recap: Polly and Digory have agreed to explore a new world at random.

The Magician's Nephew, Chapter 4: The Bell and The Hammer

When we last left Polly and Digory, they were exploring a castle in which nothing lives (no plants, no ants, nothing) and which never provides a convenient window or parapet for looking out onto the "country [which] lay around the enormous palace" because (I presume) then Lewis would have to make up a description of the landscape of an alien world and he didn't want to.

Instead, we get a monstrous stone fountain with wide-spread wings. I don't know if Lewis intended this, but that would definitely read to my Christian upbringing culture as quasi-demonic and a sign that whoever had lived here had not been "right with Jesus". Good people don't decorate with winged monsters: that much was drilled into me as a child.

   It was all so dreary and all so much the same that even Digory was thinking they had better put on their yellow rings and get back to the warm, green, living forest of the In-between place, when they came to two huge doors of some metal that might possibly be gold. One stood a little ajar. So of course they went to look in. Both started back and drew a long breath: for here at last was something worth seeing.
    For a second they thought the room was full of people—hundreds of people, all seated, and all perfectly still. Polly and Digory, as you may guess, stood perfectly still themselves for a good long time, looking in. But presently they decided that what they were looking at could not be real people. There was not a movement nor the sound of a breath among them all. They were like the most wonderful waxworks you ever saw.
   This time Polly took the lead. There was something in this room which interested her more than it interested Digory: all the figures were wearing magnificent clothes. If you were interested in clothes at all, you could hardly help going in to see them closer. And the blaze of their colors made this room look, not exactly cheerful, but at any rate rich and majestic after all the dust and emptiness of the others. It had more windows, too, and was a good deal lighter.
   I can hardly describe the clothes. The figures were all robed and had crowns on their heads. Their robes were of crimson and silvery gray and deep purple and vivid green: and there were patterns, and pictures of flowers and strange beasts, in needlework all over them. Precious stones of astonishing size and brightness stared from their crowns and hung in chains round their necks and peeped out from all the places where anything was fastened.

There's a... lot there to unpack and it's difficult to be sure where to start. Polly takes the lead! I like that. Polly takes the lead because... she's interested in fashion. I... don't know how I feel about that. In any other book with any other author, I'd love it; fashion is a valid artform to be interested in and it absolutely would be fascinating to see the best and brightest of an alien culture's fashion choices. I know fashion-enthusiasts on twitter who would kill to be in Polly's place right now. Polly is making good life choices!

But--and you knew there was a 'but' coming--I can't imagine that Lewis would consider this pursuit of hers to be valid. It feels like we're supposed to be nodding our heads in shared scorn like, yes, obviously the girl would be interested in fashion instead of the solemn important things. The narrator has been wittering on about architecture for pages, but fashion is something he can "hardly describe" and then we get a vague description that could fit the Tudor court or the Heian court. They're just wearing generically colorful cloths and jewels. Polly and Digory could be at a Ren Faire, who knows.

   “Why haven’t these clothes all rotted away long ago?” asked Polly.
   “Magic,” whispered Digory. “Can’t you feel it? I bet this whole room is just stiff with enchantments. I could feel it the moment we came in.”
   “Any one of these dresses would cost hundreds of pounds,” said Polly.
   But Digory was more interested in the faces, and indeed these were well worth looking at. The people sat in their stone chairs on each side of the room and the floor was left free down the middle. You could walk down and look at the faces in turn.

(Author's Note: I have a nagging expectation that the "hundreds of pounds" is meant to be a deliberate fail here, showing Polly to be a poor ignorant girl again. I don't know how strong the pound was in post-WWII Britain, but I'll bet 300£ wasn't enough to encrust every surface of your expensive cloths with precious stones.)

Then here we have this, where Digory is the one attuned to the magic of the place while Polly is the one who is distracted by thoughts of the mundane (fashion) and practical (entropy). With any other author this again wouldn't be noticeable, but when we know about Lewis' published backlog (and his short story about the vapid woman who only noticed clothing and fashion and the things for sale in shop windows) then it becomes uncomfortable to read--a dog whistle which may or may not be there but the hairs on your back are up regardless.

Gonna put a pin in the clothing-preserved-by-magic and try to come back to it later because I don't recall if there's ever a satisfactory explanation for why the magic would do this. I understand why Lewis would do it because it would surely upset him to have these brave and noble kings be tarnished by tattered clothing, not to mention the nudity taboo. And I guess if you already have magic preserving their bodies then clothing isn't that much of an extra stretch. Interestingly, though, I wonder if the clothes even need a magical reason to be intact; if they're sheltered from the weather (there are windows but no indication of how close the people are to those windows) and if there is literally no life left on earth (no moths, no bacteria, no mold, nothing) then I think decomposition radically changes from how we know it, because most decomposition involves living things.

   “They were nice people, I think,” said Digory.
   Polly nodded. All the faces they could see were certainly nice. Both the men and women looked kind and wise, and they seemed to come of a handsome race. 

I get so very tired of Lewis' insistence that you can tell if someone is good just by looking at them. It's not just with Aslan and it's not even just with his protagonists. Random background people in the ruins of Charn can have their characters ascertained by whether their faces are nice. Not one of them has a deformity or a scar or a twisted lip or something that might make the children hesitate, no; all the good people are handsome and pretty and definitely not deformed or disabled. (And from a "handsome race" which I think he's using in a generalized sense here and not a white supremacy sense here but also c'mon, Lewis, pick a better way to say this.)

   But after the children had gone a few steps down the room they came to faces that looked a little different. These were very solemn faces. You felt you would have to mind your P’s and Q’s, if you ever met living people who looked like that. When they had gone a little further, they found themselves among faces they didn’t like: this was about the middle of the room. The faces here looked very strong and proud and happy, but they looked cruel. A little further on they looked crueller. Further on again, they were still cruel but they no longer looked happy. They were even despairing faces: as if the people they belonged to had done dreadful things and also suffered dreadful things. 

This may or may not be a metaphor for the Fall of Man from innocence into sin (though if the early "Kind Ones" are this world's Adam and Eve, then they either had a breakneck fall that has to set some kind of speed record or they kept impeccable historical records and this is a really long hall of Previous Monarchs and those "few steps" are more than they sound) but it's interesting to note we've stumbled into another of Lewis' weird internal contradictions. This progression is supposed to be bad, but all these stages could easily be applied to the people Lewis admires in his novels!

Take Aslan, if you will. He's supposed to be "kind and wise" like the first group, but the appearance of the second group fits him much better: a "solemn face" and a sense that "you would have to mind your P's and Q's" around him. He's not a tame lion after all! He makes unhappy sounds when Susan asks if they can go against the Deep Magic!

cru·el Dictionary result for cruel /ˈkro͞o(ə)l/ adjective adjective: cruel; comparative adjective: crueller; superlative adjective: cruellest; comparative adjective: crueler; superlative adjective: cruelest      willfully causing pain or suffering to others, or feeling no concern about it.     "people who are cruel to animals"     synonyms: brutal, savage, inhuman, barbaric, barbarous, brutish, bloodthirsty, murderous, homicidal, cutthroat, vicious, ferocious, fierce; More     wicked, evil, fiendish, devilish, diabolical, heinous, abominable, monstrous, atrocious, vile, hideous, ghastly, nasty, spiteful, mean;     callous, sadistic, ruthless, merciless, unmerciful, pitiless, unsparing, unrelenting, remorseless, uncaring, unsympathetic, uncharitable, heartless, stony-hearted, hard-hearted, cold-hearted, cold-blooded, bloodless, unfeeling, unemotional, unkind, inhumane, severe, harsh, stern, inclement, flinty, draconian;     informalbeastly;     archaicdastardly, sanguinary     "the prisoner was a hard, cruel man"     antonyms: compassionate, merciful         causing pain or suffering.         "the winters are long, hard, and cruel"         synonyms: harsh, severe, grim, grievous, hard, tough, bitter, harrowing, heartbreaking, heart-rending, distressing, upsetting, traumatic, painful, agonizing, excruciating; raredistressful         "his mother's death was a cruel blow"

Then we come to the description of the third group: "strong and proud and happy, but they looked cruel". We just read a book in which Aslan mauled a young girl because she fled from institutional rape in a manner he deemed immoral. Aslan may have felt his actions were justified, but they were inarguably cruel: brutal, savage, inhuman, barbaric, brutish, bloodthirsty, ferocious, and fierce. Indeed, his actions had to be cruel (per Lewis' internal logic): since the Calormenes had been cruel to the servant girl (whipping), Aslan was forced to be cruel to Aravis in retaliation (mauling). There is no way to say that Aslan has not done cruel things--he chose to mirror the cruelty of others as an object lesson. Whether or not he's being cruel-to-be-kind, he's still doing cruel things.

Last but not least we have "despairing faces: as if the people they belonged to had done dreadful things and also suffered dreadful things". Is this supposed to be a sign of evil? Because Aslan suffered dreadful things. Lewis had him killed in a brutal crucifixion metaphor! Is the difference that Aslan didn't let it faze him and instead kept a stiff upper lip about the whole thing rather than taking on a resting-bitch-face? Is that the determining factor between Good and Kind versus Bad and Evil?

Maybe the faces aren't meant to be moral statements about the owners, but instead a statement about the times they lived in: a timeline not of individual men and women going from Good to Evil, but instead one encompassing their periods of history and how the planet went as a whole from Innocent to Destroyed. But if that were the intent then the writing fails by assigning personalities and actions to the faces: the early faces can be happy without being inferred as kind and the later faces can be despairing without being inferred as having done monstrous things.

Then again, if this is meant to be an indictment of human history as we go from innocence to nuclear war (which is what the Naughty Word seems to be a strong metaphor for) then I suppose it at least fits with Lewis' romanticization of Arthurian times and ancient kings. If he believes that rulers in the past were inherently more kind than rulers in the present then this is the timeline you'd get: Presidents, Kings, and Emperors, and all their personalities corresponding neatly to their time periods and each one worst than the last by the simple press of time and social progress.

   The last figure of all was the most interesting—a woman even more richly dressed than the others, very tall (but every figure in that room was taller than the people of our world), with a look of such fierceness and pride that it took your breath away. Yet she was beautiful too. Years afterward when he was an old man, Digory said he had never in all his life known a woman so beautiful. It is only fair to add that Polly always said she couldn’t see anything specially beautiful about her.

"Such fierceness and pride that it took your breath away. YET she was beautiful too."

Yet is a conjunction meaning nevertheless or however. ... You can use either word in conjunctive phrases. Yet usually carries a sense of negation, so and yet means the same thing as but still. He has a good job, and yet he never seems to have any money.

Good god, Lewis did not have 'issues' with women so much as he had entire subscriptions. Fierceness and pride in a woman makes her less likely to be beautiful in his book, with a few rare exceptions like Jadis. The only way to get to that ideological viewpoint--that fiercely proud women are undesirable--is through rampant misogyny. You have to fear and hate them so much that the idea of them having self esteem upsets you. (And we know this isn't about fierce pride making people ugly regardless of gender because there's no way this standard would ever be applied to Aslan or Caspian or Peter.)

I don't know how to unpack the whole "Polly couldn't see anything beautiful about her" aside, but I did notice it as a child and found it very snide even then. Polly is interested in fashion and this woman is dressed more fashionably than the others; just by that fact alone, Polly would be primed to view Jadis as striking. The fact that she "always said" otherwise--implying she made this point vocally more than once--reads like she did see Jadis' beauty but was jealous of her. At any rate, some emotion is prompting her to speak up and say "I never saw her as beautiful" when Digory tells this story. So it's just more Lewisian fodder about women and their emotions and their noise.

   This woman, as I said, was the last: but there were plenty of empty chairs beyond her, as if the room had been intended for a much larger collection of images.

This is, of course, meant to convey how the world's history was abruptly halted when Jadis blew up the world, but I'm absolutely fascinated by this culture which was so static in its government and so certain in the unchangeability of the future that not only did they have perfect impeccable records of all their past leaders, but they also built their Hall of Leaders memorial with room to grow. They plotted out a bunch of empty seats and by golly they planned to have leaders sit in those seats.

We'll pause here and pick up what happens in the next post. 


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