“No one is allowed to change my body. I would tell them no way.”
“What if it made you stronger or more functional?”
“Then I would think about it, but they would have to ask me first!”
I think the power of the above conversation, and the conversation to follow, needs a bit of context that I have until now hesitated to share. But to fully understand why Little Bit would be horrified by the magical modifications done to unwilling creatures in the follow chapters, I think it’s important to know that Bitzy was born with a severe physical disability that affects her whole body. As someone who has had several major surgical corrections to her body that fundamentally changed the way it works, Little Bit’s value of bodily autonomy should make anyone pause and consider a story where bodies are changed at the whim of another person. For those of us who can only imagine what it would be like to have our bodies completely rearranged, limbs cut and rotated even (osteotomies), Bits knows. And trust her, consent is vital.
The next island Dawn Treader comes to contains a town of invisible people called the Duffers. These invisible people surround our party and demand, “We want something that little girl can do for us.” Since Lucy is literally the only female character (surrounded by boys and men) it’s obvious who they are referring to. Reepicheep threatens to kill the invisible people if their request is against Lucy’s honor, but he will be cool with whatever it is if it’s just against her own safety as we’ll see.
The Duffers explain that the island is ruled by a magician who they are enslaved to. This magician put them to work every day, and one day asked them to do something against their will. When they refused, the magician went into “a great rage” and warped every Duffer’s body.
This may seem like a pretty clear-cut situation where the helpless townsfolk need relief from an evil master who is violating their bodies. It may even seem familiar since the first book had creatures who had been ruled over by a White Witch who changed their bodies into stone. Well, let me ruin that comparison right now by revealing the magician will turn out to be an Aslan-appointed good guy. (Only women are evil for changing bodies and ordering people around, remember.) Also, no one is supposed to care one lick about the Duffers.
But, wait! Why would Aslan give a guy slaves? Isn’t slavery wrong?
Slavery is wrong, but the Bible has said it’s fine. (Spoiler, the Bible is also wrong.) Since Lewis is a follower of a biblical religion, the Bible has some sway for him here with an otherwise open and shut moral case.
Lewis opined, “Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” This doesn’t really condemn slavery, but rather makes a point that people are human garbage (what the church would call sinners).
Even if Lewis implied that slavery isn’t best, he believed that God and his ways were best, so when God ordains slavery in several biblical cases we can assume it is excused in those cases. If Aslan gives a magician with a temper a bunch of slaves against their will, this would also be fine by the same reasoning.
In the Bible, God blesses his favorites (specifically Abraham) by increasing their slaves (Gen. 24:355), and orders his favorites (specifically Joshua, David, and Solomon) to take lots of slaves (Joshua 9:23, 1 Kings 8:2-6 and 9:20-21). The Ten Commandments mentions slavery twice, but neither time as a sin! (The Ten Commandments also describes women as possessions. Let’s put it in every school and courtroom!)
In Numbers 31, the god character orders Moses to take 16,000 female virgins as slaves to rape. Yes, to rape. No, rape isn’t wrong in the Bible, at least not as a violation against a woman. Women, even non-slaves, are chattel (property) so that is why the penalty for raping them can be as little as a fine… paid to the woman’s father (once again, because the girls are their fathers’ property). When these slaves in Numbers 31 are gifted to the men of Israel it is “just as the Lord had commanded.” During the kidnap and enslavement of the 16,000 virgin girls, the Lord himself received 32 of them as tribute since that’s the way the tithing system worked. The chief priest, Eleazar, accepted (I’m just going to guess raped) those girls on God’s behalf.
God even confirms it is perfectly okay to buy slaves, and even dictates where one can buy them from: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” (Leviticus 25:44)
Maybe you’re thinking, “But slavery was different and less brutal back then, right?” If the rape verses above didn’t put that idea right out, how about a biblical directive on how badly to beat your slaves for any reason? Here’s one:
“Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.” (Exodus 21:20-21) Want to murder your slave slowly and torturously? Go right ahead! It’s in the “good” book!
But maybe it’s just an Old Testament thing? Ever hear of the New Testament book of Philemon? Philemon was the name of the slave master, and Paul was writing to him about his slave, Onesimus, whom Paul was returning to him. Paul says in verse 13 that he would have liked to keep Onesimus, but that was obviously up to his owner, Philemon, not up to Paul, and certainly not up to Onesimus. While reading the summary of this biblical book online, I ran into so many religious defenses of slavery it made me physically ill.
So slavery is a-okay with the Bible, therefore it is a-okay with including as a benign aspect to this story.
The Duffers’ bodily violation is seen as no big (horrifyingly intrusive) deal. We’ve been down this road before when Aslan turned boys into pigs in the last book. We’re supposed to think it “serves them right!” when really no group of children deserves that. And we know the Duffers hated what was done to them since they got the magician’s book and turned themselves invisible to hide their shameful mutilated bodies as a result.
I want to point out that I’m not against stories that have magical elements or even stories that transmogrify people. (We got a kick out of Eustace becoming a dragon.) But, and this is an important distinction: when the good guys are the ones doing it, and the story is advocating for this being decent or acceptable behavior, that is when I have a problem with it. When the story is justifying it based on a master/slave relationship that is ordained by what we are supposed to consider the deity of goodness, Aslan himself, then I have a HUGE problem with it.
But it’s all okay because these creatures are intellectually inferior. So who cares, right? What?
A duffer, according to the dictionary, is a plodding, clumsy, incompetent person, so it makes sense that these are the kind of people for which anything done against them, including changing their bodies, is justified. We also discover that the bodies of the Duffers’ children were also warped even though the children did nothing to upset the magician. One Duffer, Clipsie, who we never meet or hear a word from (but she got a name! That’s rare!), was the little daughter of the Chief Duffer. She was asked to do the invisibility spell out of the book of magic that the magician kept upstairs because she could read. Since Clipsie did the original spell, that means only a little girl can do the reversal. The Duffers see Lucy and decide not to risk their own sisters and daughters this time, and make her do it.
(As an aside: In a group of people whose men are so obviously unintelligent they couldn’t do this task for lack of mental ability, it’s only due to a firm belief in the hierarchy of men over women–one that Lewis admitted to holding–that the most limited and ignorant of male people would still hold control over the intelligent and competent female ones. This is not to say that intelligence makes some people more valuable, or excuses their abuse, but having more intelligent leaders would lead to better decisions for the group. But no, we must base these things on gender instead of ability. For reasons. Moving on.)
The Duffers then threaten to slice all of Caspian’s party’s throats if Lucy (or Caspian I guess, since the menfolk get a say in Lucy’s decisions) declines such a task. Lucy later says the Duffers “are not treacherous” so they can be violent and threatening and still good somehow. I think this was just a way for Lucy to come across as gracious, as her gender demands.
As a female, Lucy has been protected (and often robbed of agency) when others have not been due to the perceived weakness of her gender. So it’s weird that the men around her now argue for her to perform an act of bravery. It’s clear that Lewis has a future scene in mind between Lucy and Aslan, yet can’t quite get her into that situation alone without contradictions in the personalities and beliefs of our protagonists. Even Reepicheep’s logic has been twisted into supporting this plot point so that Lucy must go alone into danger. When discussing if it’s okay for Lucy to risk her life, Reepicheep pulls out an ignoratio elenchi fallacy that it is okay as long as it doesn’t risk her honor. What does honor matter? That’s not even the question! The question was about her safety! Is it right to risk that? Also the justification that her honor will remain intact if she does this dangerous act means that her life is not more important to the group than her moral purity.
It would seem that protecting women by taking charge of them and sacrificing women as servants is two sides of the same, benevolently sexist coin.
So Lucy heads off alone into the magician’s lair.
Written by Alexis Record from the series: Reading with Little Bit: A Critical Look at The Chronicles of Narnia