Reading with Little Bit: A Critical Look at The Chronicles of Narnia
Guest Post by Alexis Record
“This is sooooooooooooo boring. Why is sailing so boring? You’d think it’d be fun!”
“This was my complaint as a kid, but if we suffer through then there are dragons later.”
“There’d better be. When do we get to the dragons?”
“Um,” flips ahead, “Shoot, not until chapter six.”
Lucy is named after Lewis’ beloved goddaughter and the first book is dedicated to her, so she has a special place in Lewis’ heart and does not fall prey to the same witless nonsense as any of the other female characters (Susan, Mrs. Beaver). It does seem that Lucy’s good qualities are often the most pronounced when she is doing something a boy would, or at least avoiding the high fem qualities of, say, Susan (straight up described as pretty and dumb in the first chapter). She goes shoeless (a boyish quality back then I’m told), joins in on adventures, and shows bravery up to the point her gender demands a different course of action (like bunking alone in a room with a shut door or when meeting her requires the gallant captain of the ship to kiss her hand). Lucy is taken to get dry clothes once she’s rescued by Caspian from the sea, and of course they are boy’s clothes. Whereas Susan wouldn’t be caught dead in them, Lucy is up for anything.
Lucy is also described here as loving every single aspect of this ship—a sentiment not shared by Little Bit or myself.
Three years had passed in Narnia (one year in London) since the last book, and Caspian had been busy beating up giants (“they pay us tribute now”), almost marrying a girl but didn’t for, er, gallant reasons (“[she] squints, and has freckles”), ran into pirates who got away (“we ought to have given her chase, and boarded her and hanged every mother’s son of them”), and now, with Aslan’s approval, has set off on a ship to find the seven men his uncle had sent to their watery deaths years before. Reepicheep joined the trip in order to visit Aslan’s country, known to be in the eastern end of the world. So with Aslan’s name evoked, this has every marker of a holy quest.
Little Bit had trouble with every ship being given female pronouns or called “lady” for having perfect lines and being beautiful (as if that’s all women are good for). Little Bit would hear a “she” or “her” and get excited for a second female character, only to be disappointed that an object was being described. She made a small groan each and every single time this happened, and so we were forced to notice each and every single time this happened. (She also has a habit of repeating the word “presently” after I read it because it is over-used and foreign to her vocabulary as to stand out. Also there is a little giggling every time the ship’s poop is mentioned as well.)
At one point the ship reaches a couple of islands with masculine-sounding names: Felimath and Doorn. They got the pronoun “it.” Little Bit actually asked me, “Is that because only women are objects and not men?” Aww, my little girl already knows the rules for objectification of humans.
Lewis goes on to describe the differences between this ship and other Narnian ships, or even steam ships of London, and we suffered through these long pages. Ship navigation is only agreeable for so many paragraphs before we were tired of it.
Eustace starts keeping a diary because he liked getting good marks in school so he decided to keep a diary like a book report on his adventure. (We’re supposed to roll our eyes at the very thought of finding writing reports enjoyable.) It says he always kept a notebook with him (which is not soaked, how?) as if that was the most ridiculous or priggish thing ever. I couldn’t help see the same distain for education here as I did when it was more obvious in the last book (and will get worse in the one after this). Eustace only stops journaling when he becomes a better person later on.
During these diary entries we see a bit more of Eustace’s horrible parents. His father has warned him not to shut his eyes to facts, and that is mocked as bad advice because Eustace is a liar by nature. When Eustace writes about how unfair it is that Lucy gets the cabin and Caspian says it’s “because she’s a girl” Eustace recalls his mother’s warning that benevolent sexism “is really lowering girls.” Since no one in Narnia agrees, this is taken to be wrongheaded. Never mind that studies have shown that countries with benevolent sexism also tend to have hostile sexism as the two are directly linked. And those countries are more likely to keep women out of government and business. There are reasons besides gender for Lucy getting a cabin, like, for example, her royal status, young age, or safety concerns because the ship is 100% violent men. But we are to understand that she is properly first a precious thing and that is reason enough for the lodging. This “othering” of women limits their actions and excludes those who do not match the stereotype. Of course we’re supposed to see the boys and men (and rodent) as honoring Lucy with these things, as that is the intention. But when, for example, Reepicheep interrupts dinner and says, “I ask your pardons all, and especially her Majesty’s,” it works not only to show how polite or correct that is, but also how different Lucy is. She’s not included in the group, but considered above it, so much above it that she’ll never be fit to truly join it or lead it.
And why was Reepicheep interrupting? Because Eustace had, without cause, decided to grab his tail and swing him around. Such an evil thing had to be punished. Reepicheep stabbed his hand (which was called for), and beat him repeatedly with the side of his rapier (not so called for). Eustace claimed he was a pacifist (oh Eustace, what are those crazy parents of yours teaching you?) even though he was clearly not from his actions (as we’re to suppose pacifists secretly act), and here it is explained that Eustace’s school was so deficient as to not have this sort of punishment for his bad behavior.
So Lewis is saying that children who are not shown the whip will turn out immoral (“spare the rod, spoil the child” as the Bible says), but it doesn’t follow our understanding of how child development works. My daughter knows a world of words, not rods, and she’s the most wonderful and empathetic person I know. (In contrast her brother, adopted out of a somewhat abusive situation by all accounts, is often violent and needs a lot of support to regulate his emotions.) But please tell me how beating either one would benefit them. Cite your scientific studies. (I’ll wait.)
We finally reach Felimath (the island) where the children and Reepicheep take a walk while the ship sails around. There they run into a group of men, led by a “black-haired fellow” so we know they are evil. Turns out they are slavers, and kidnap the whole party. On their way to their ship a man named Lord Bern buys Caspian, but not the others. Lord Bern seems to not care about buying slaves, but only thinks selling them is what’s immoral. (Similar to the thinking that pimps and prostitutes are bad but johns are fine.) “I have moved his Sufficiency the Governor a hundred times to crush this vile traffic in man’s flesh.” Bern says so we’ll just ignore that fact HE JUST BOUGHT A SLAVE thus, based on the basic economic principle of supply and demand, JUST MADE SLAVERY WORSE. It’s not like he was planning on releasing Caspian either, but merely promises to treat Caspian well, and explains the purchase was impulsive, “I bought you for your face.” (Creepiest sentence ever.) Caspian risks telling him that he’s actually the king and Bern invites him to dinner where Bern’s (nameless prop piece) wife and merry (nameless prop piece) daughters greet him.
The next day they execute a plan to save the others. They made a great procession to the governor. As they did Lewis describes each gendered group of the city responding in stereotypical ways. All the boys cheered to add to the disturbance (boys will be boys), and all the young women cheered because they had a vested interest in the governance of their city. Nah, just joking. It was because “Caspian and Drinian and the rest were so handsome.”
The handsome men take over the castle, overthrow the governor, and march down on the slave markets. Who is buying up all these slaves? Who are these horrible slave masters? The Calormen. “The Calormen have dark faces and long beards” and also they have “orange-coloured turbans.” Yes, the Black people from the Middle East are the slave masters! This so obviously came from Lewis’ head.
Philip Pullman wrote a piece for a 2002 issue of The Guardian that calls Lewis “blatantly racist.” He goes on to say that in Narnia, “light-colored people are better than dark-colored people.” To this I would add my observation that light-haired people are better than dark-haired people, too. In The Companion to Narnia, theologian Paul F. Ford says that Lewis was “unsympathetic to things and people Middle Eastern” and so often applied “exaggerated stereotyping in contrasting things Narnian and thing Calormene.” So of course we read in chapter four that the men of Calormen (no women in this book) wear turbans and are “wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient.”
Lord (now Duke) Bern closes the chapter by noting, “This closing the salve market might make a new world; war with Calormen is what I foresee.”
Yes, they are that evil.