By Alexis Record
“What’s a litter?”
“It’s like a bench that people carry you around on.”
“Can I have one?”
“Please please please pleeeeeeeeease!”
“And you and daddy could carry me around on it!”
“Maybe for my birthday?”
Tashbaan is the most beautiful city. It’s pure grandeur, and described is such detail you’d think it was real. Shasta can’t stop looking at it. Before the reader can fall in love too deeply we enter its gates and are met with the strong smell of bodily odor and piles of dung everywhere. Calormen can’t have nice things, not even this.
Aravis has been told she must act like someone who has been “kicked and cuffed and called names all your life” instead of the princess (technically Tarkeena) she really is as they walk through the city. As they go, Shasta gets a carrot thrown at him by the soldiers (stolen from a passerby’s basket) and when he doesn’t speak the right way back to them he gets randomly punched in the face, too. In case we were enchanted with the beauty of the city, the people inside it show that the heart of the place is really violent and ugly. (Maybe this was Lewis’s way of saying that even though the East has beautiful wonders, it’s really ugly without Christ.)
Along the main street are huge statues of the gods and heroes of Calormen, which Lewis describes as “mostly impressive rather than agreeable to look at.” If it were only the gods this statement referred to, and this was an isolated negative statement on Calormene looks, we could blame the comment on the gods’ possible inhuman characteristics. But it was also about the people, and not just any people, but the best of Calormen. This is a repeat lesson to young readers that dark-skinned people are not pleasing to look at.
In the city streets, crowds had to part whenever an important person went by, carried on a litter by slaves usually. A crier would yell “Way, way, way!” and everyone else knew to press up against the sides of the street. Well, this happened for a group of important White people from Narnia. (It is literally pointed out that they are White by the crier.) Then we get descriptions of their fair skin and fair hair and how much better they are than the Calormene officials we’ve been making way for. Unlike the Tarkaans, these lords had a swing in their step, and they were talking, laughing, and one was even whistling. It’s clear that they are not only much better, but much friendlier than the locals. They were also decked out in fancy clothes and jewels, but somehow for this group it was fine. (Jewels and fancy clothes are always implied to be the height of arrogant vanity when a Calormene does it. Hmm, I wonder what the difference is.)
Shasta “had never seen anything so lovely in his life.” White people are just the prettiest, Lewis. We get it. Calm down.
All of the sudden one of these pretty lords, the king in fact, grabs Shasta by the shoulder and hits him! Seriously! Shasta is just a punching bag today. But wait! Narnians don’t just hit people like evil soldiers do! So to make it clear that this kind of hitting is done by good guys (so it’s good) and the other kind of hitting was done by the bad guys (so it’s bad) Lewis adds, “a smack—not a cruel one to make you cry but a sharp one to let you know you are in disgrace.” See? All better then. Grabbing someone out of a crowd by their shoulder and smacking them sharply is perfectly fine now. Moving on…
The king and another lord held Shasta “very tightly by both hands” and forced him to go back with them to their rooms. This king berates Shasta the whole time they walk. He drills him with questions and when Shasta won’t say anything the king says his behavior is like a Calormene slave. (Are slaves bad guys too now? Or just acting like one is bad?) Shasta feels this whole experience is “very unpleasant” but only because, get this, he wished he could make a better impression on the king because he could tell that this king was really “the nicest kind of grown-up.” What?! Okay the only impression he has is that this guy grabs, hits, yanks, and berates. But he’s the nicest?! How?! In what world? (A world where the view is that children deserve to be hit and have no bodily autonomy. That’s what world.)
Turns out the king is King Edmund (yes that Edmund, from the first Narnia book), and Shasta looks exactly like Prince Corin of Archenland who Edmund is supposed to be watching and who ran away last night to get into mischief. Queen Susan (yep, that Susan) has been crying all night over his disappearance. Which, backing up a bit, is in direct contrast to how the king and lords were acting in their introduction mere moments ago. Remember they swung their arms and “chatted and laughed”? The entire scene was meant as a negative comparison to how the important Calormenes would go through town (“grave and mysterious”) and we are meant to think the Narnians are better people. But knowing what we know now, that a prince had run away, means these guys walked around happily (“One was whistling”) and didn’t give a fig for their missing child. Susan was meanwhile completely distraught and bawling. (I guess emotional work is just for women.)
Back in the rooms everyone is grilling Shasta (who they think is Corin) to figure out where he had been. It’s only when Tumnus (yes that Tumnus) points out that Shasta looks sunburnt and is probably dazed from dehydration that they stop questioning him and have him lie down and eat some sherbet to cool off. Here he listens in on the conversation between Edmund and Susan (after, of course, mentally noting how the White people in the room “had nicer faces and voices than most Calormenes” because we hadn’t had enough racism yet).
Edmund: “Have you yet settled in your mind whether you will marry this dark-faced lover of yours, this Prince Rabadash, or no?” (The Calormen prince literally has the word “bad” in his freaking name! Also, we are clearly pointing out his skin color and it’s dark so that’s clear foreshadowing that he’s bad news.)
Susan: “No, brother. Not for all the jewels in Tashbaan.”
Edmund: “I should have loved you the less if you had taken him… it was a wonder to me that ever you could find it in your heart to show him so much favour.” (Nice conditional love there, pal.)
Susan: “That was my folly, Edmund, of which I cry you mercy.” (Why are you apologizing to him for?!!)
Turns out Susan (who is repeatedly portrayed as the most foolish of the kings and queens) had fallen for Baddy (the nickname Little Bit and I gave Rabadash) when he had won some war games in Narnia. (They sure love their war.) And everyone agreed he was perfectly nice and kind at the time. (This means Edmund’s clear revulsion for the prince he had from the beginning had nothing to do with the prince’s actual, not-yet-revealed character. Hmm, I WONDER WHAT IT WAS THEN.) But now that they were on Baddy’s home turf, the prince showed his true colors: “a most proud, bloody, luxurious, cruel, and self-pleasing tyrant.” (So… regular Calormene then?)
(It’s all very Black Peril.)
Edmund’s question for Susan was actually a test, especially considering he asked if she was marrying the guy knowing full well the guy was evil. Apparently it was just to see if he would have to love her less. He even knew the prince was going to imprison them all and rape Susan if she said no, but didn’t think to tell Susan this until after she’d told him her heart. (Over and over again in these books it’s assumed that girls’ pretty little heads will just explode with worry if told too much.)
Like, maybe the whole “Baddy will take you by force if you say no” thing was some pertinent information Susan should have known in order to make an informed decision! But noooooo. No one in her present company seems to think she needed to know this stuff. Because it was not just Edmund; they all knew. They all knew. Freaking Tumnus even got wind of this from the Grand Vizier. Ugh. And Edmund had a pretty bad encounter with Baddy when Edmund had made some sexist jokes with the prince (“some light common jests about women’s fancies”) which made the prince realize that Susan might say no so he became “angry and dangerous” and “threatening.” BUT THEY STILL DIDN’T TELL SUSAN THIS. Ugh.
(And even though Susan is freaking older than Edmund, she defers to him in everything because he’s male. Like, she was a mom to him as kids, and they’re only just young adults now. This is just a plain ugly view of women as dependent and subordinate.)
They obviously have to flee Calormen now… which is what every good guy in this entire book is trying to do! They hatch a plan to pretend to invite the prince to their ship for a grand meal. They’ll go all out and buy food and hire dancing girls (do boys not dance?) and everything. Susan will even pretend she’s going to accept Baddy’s proposal. But really they are just stocking their ship so they can sail away in the middle of the night before the prince arrives.
They also mention the fastest way through the desert when thinking of plans—information that will come in handy for Shasta later. (Yay for eavesdropping! Even though this book repeatedly implies it’s a sin!)
Shasta has to keep his mouth shut for fear they’ll kill him now that he knows what they’re up to. (Because the “nicest kind of grown-up” is still probably all murder-y.) After being served white wine (“though it is really yellow”) by Tumnus, and being told about how he’ll get a war-horse and begin war training on his next birthday (small children love their alcohol and killing), Shasta settles in and falls asleep.
A few hours later the real Prince Corin crashes into the room through the window. Corin had been street brawling with other boys and came back with a black eye, bruises, missing tooth, and bloody face. He did it for Susan’s honor so it’s completely excused, even considered the right thing to do. Ugh. He beat up the kid who said something about Queen Susan. (Fists for words.) Then he beat up that kid’s brother. (Fists for just being related.) Then he got caught by some guards who beat him up. Then he got the guards drunk in order to get away. Then on his way back he saw the first boy who said the original thing and beat him up a second time. (Fists for the heck of it.)
Sweet kid, this Prince Corin. (But he’s the good guy. I mean, he doesn’t even have the word “bad” in his name.)
Shasta and Prince Corin look exactly alike (spoiler: they’re twins). Corin helps Shasta get out the window he just came in. Shasta informs Corin that he was brought up in Calormen but must really be from the north and was escaping to Narnia with a Talking Horse. Corin didn’t for a minute think of ever getting an adult or trying to save a horse that was clearly Narnian by way of the ship everyone was leaving on. Oh no, that would be a boring, short story. Aslan wouldn’t get the chance to torture anyone in the desert yet. Can’t have that.
Reading with Little Bit: A Critical Look at The Chronicles of Narnia
February 2, 2018