Reading with Little Bit: A Critical Look at The Chronicles of Narnia
Written by Alexis Record
“Wait, are they going to Hogwarts?!”
“Not all boarding schools in England are Hogwarts, honey.”
Our story opens on a scene of four children–Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy–waiting to board trains for their different (divided by gender) boarding schools. Apparently they never told anyone about their adventures in Narnia the year before, except for one “very wise grown-up.” That guy being, of course, the illogical, disingenuous professor who distrusts school and tells children to keep secrets from their parents. Wise indeed.
Magic pulls the children out of the station and into Narnia suddenly and without warning. They end up on a deserted island. In the midst of the island is an ancient ruin that turns out to be their own castle back when they were kings and queens of Narnia (in the first book). Untold hundreds of years have passed since they have last been here. The first thing they remembered was their old treasure chamber, so they broke into it to find all their old stuff. They found all of their original gifts from Father Christmas, except for Susan’s horn which will be important later.
Susan, in true motherly fashion, reminds them how imprudent it was to break into the chamber without knowing what was inside and without preparing for how dark it was getting. She immediately gets scolded by Lucy and ignored by the boys. I cannot help think that the author meant young readers to identify with the other three children, and be repulsed by faux parenting in their ranks. The effect works more often, however, to cast traditionally feminine roles and responsibilities as inferior or ridiculous. I often get “women are dumb” or “women’s work is worthless” vibes while reading certain remarks throughout the series. And the silly thing is that Susan’s downright sensible nature keeps these children from being shoeless this entire adventure as they were in such a state of excitement they almost left their shoes behind.
Wow, I really am a boring grown up.
Anyway, the chamber was filled with riches they had horded through the years, covered in dust. Didn’t Jesus (who Aslan is supposed to be) famously say, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal”? Good thing Narnia didn’t go through upheaval and conquest since the children were there last and those talking animals didn’t need any of that treasure as they went into hiding. Oh wait. They totally did. Wealth hording for the win!
The next morning the children go down to the beach and see a small boat with two men holding a Dwarf prisoner. It’s clear that they are about to drown the Dwarf so Susan acts without asking permission and shoots an arrow at one soldier’s helmet, knocking him out of the boat! (Thank you, Lewis! You owe us more of that.) The other soldier gets spooked because of the rumors that there are ghosts on the island and he dives overboard.
The book explains that Dwarfs are never fools (I read this as suspicious and manipulative), and many are bad. This Dwarf prisoner turns out to be thankful and capable (as the author notes in a horrible parenthetical remark), so he’s an exception. (A whole race of bad people with one or two exceptions will be repeated in later books when we get to Calormen which is Narnia’s version of the Middle East.)
The Dwarf explains he’s a messenger from King Caspian and then we launch into Caspian’s tale. Caspian the Tenth, a human child, is raised in a castle where his uncle, Miraz, rules over Narnia. He loves stories of “Old Narnia”—back when it was inhabited by talking animals. Then a tutor, Doctor Cornelius, is hired to teach Caspian. One night Cornelius takes Caspian to a tower in the middle of the night to show him two stars named Tarva, the Lord of Victory, and Alambil, the Lady of Peace. The stars mean some war will be won. Of course peace can only be accomplished through victory (read: bloodshed). This young man has some killing to get started! (This whole plot feels very biblically inspired.)
Caspian is told that his ancestor, Caspian the First, murdered the inhabitants of Narnia and moved in to rule the land. This heinous act of conquering and killing should mean that the current Caspian has no right to a stolen throne, but instead the book reinforces Caspian’s claim, justifying another bloodbath to win the throne for him.
When Cornelius eventually reveals that he is only half human, Caspian’s very first thought, I kid you not, is, “He’s not a real man, not a man at all, he’s a Dwarf, and he’s brought me up here to kill me.” Of course the doctor is good, but Caspian’s reaction is hardly out of place as we learned from Mr. Beaver in the last book that you should mistrust anything that appears to be human. Why? Because such creatures are evil. What was Mr. Beaver’s full sentiments? Oh yes, “Keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.”
Later Caspian’s aunt, the queen, has a son and it’s clear that Caspian will be killed by his uncle so that his cousin will be king. Cornelius kneels before him at this point and declares him the “true King of Narnia.” He says this despite what we know about Caspian’s ancestors violently murdering their way into power. We literally just read that a few pages ago. Is a “true” ruler simply the jerk who completes the hostile take-over?
Cornelius even gives Caspian a bit of gold before he flees his uncle, but laments, “All the treasure in this castle should be your own by rights.” Again, by rights? Really? Are the children of bank robbers the rightful inheritors of plunder? “It should belong to the animals!” cries Little Bit.
It’s not looking good when Little Bit and I are not on board with the premise of the book from the get-go.
Caspian flees in the night and meets up with “Old Narnia” creatures. Immediately the black one wants to murder him while the other non-black ones are kind. The author goes out of his way to describe Nikabrik, the “Black Dwarf,” with dark features like dark hair that’s coarse as a horse’s. So the reader is forced to open up a can of Diet Racism and swallow these sentences. It’s hard on the stomach. These descriptions of black people are meant to sum up his character. He’s clearly meant to be the bad guy.
Many things have been written about the racism of C. S. Lewis, but none of it was explained to me when I was handed these near-as-holy books as a child and told they were inspired by the Bible so were okay. And, again, we have not even gotten to the people of Calormen who are dark-skinned (described as “Darkies” by one group in the last book) and declared enemies of Aslan.
But back to Nikabrik, there is no description of him that is flattering to his character. He alone does not join the dance of the fauns, he tries to murder Caspian upon meeting him, he doesn’t immediately buy into Caspian’s claim to the throne, he is sympathetic to the White Witch who was nice to his ancestors, he’s of dark appearance, and, most loathsome of all to the incessantly smoking Lewis, Nikabrik doesn’t smoke. Of all the untrustworthy things!
I hope Nikabrik doesn’t do something utterly evil like think some species can have good people in them. Being prejudiced against whole groups of creatures is actually the right way to think, as we will see in the next chapter.