Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The problem with The Horse and His Boy

So I’ve come to the end of The Horse and His Boy, and it was a decent enough adventure story. There was, however, a situation near the end that I found troubling.

The girl Aravis is attacked by a lion at one point, who cuts open her back with his claws. Later, we learn that this lion was Aslan. Later still, Aslan explains why he did this. When Aravis was running away from home, she drugged the slave woman that was meant to be on the watch so that she could escape. The slave woman was whipped as punishment for allowing Aravis to escape. Aslan says that the scars he gave her are exactly equal to the scars the slave woman received after being whipped.

I was bothered by the idea of Aslan attacking a young girl when it was first revealed that he was the lion that attacked her. The later explanation for the attack didn’t give me much relief. First, he’s holding a girl accountable for the damage she’s caused in the way an adult would be held accountable.

Second, the girl is punished in the same manner that the slave woman is punished. I’ve not read any mention of slaves being kept in Narnia yet – in fact, much is made of how creatures of Narnia are “free” creatures. The punishment given from master to slave is by it’s nature cruel and unfair under any circumstances, and in this situation the slave woman was punished for a situation that she could not control. While Aravis is responsible for the slave’s punishment, this cruelty is part of the very way of life that Aravis is escaping. It is indicated at various parts of the story that slavery is one of the many unsettling practices of Aravis’s people, and yet Aslan believes that the punishment given from slave master to slave is appropriate punishment for a girl, although she is at all other times commended for escaping her land.

Finally, Aravis is escaping her land because she is arranged to marry a 60 year old man. I’m sure that C.S. Lewis intended for readers to find her arranged marriage repulsive, and it serves well as justification for her escape. Aravis is seldom unwatched in her family’s house, and so she had few options regarding her method of escape – in fact, it seems that no matter what, a slave was bound to be punished for her escape. And so Aslan’s punishment indicates that although her situation is desperate, although she is a child, and although her culture is cruel, she should still be held accountable for a situation that may have been unavoidable. Add to this that so far, she has received the most severe punishment of any of the protagonists; Edmund only got a good talking-to for being a traitor. I also can’t shake the concern that she is the only protagonist so far that is of a dark-skinned race, and it leaves me with an unsettling feeling that Aslan thinks a more severe punishment is appropriate for her race.

It’s a troubling choice that C.S. Lewis makes here. Aslan is the unquestioned authority in Narnia – all people and creatures treat his judgment as absolute and always correct. He is the high ruler of the land, he is above kings and queens. And of course, at this point it is unavoidable to mention that C.S. Lewis uses Aslan as an analog for Jesus. Lewis appears to believe that judgment from God should match the crime, which is a very Old Testament way of seeing things.

Which is something I find unpleasant about his writing. At some points in the other novels in which he describes England from some time before the current day, he talks about the past as a time when things were much better than they are now. Between that and his stern view of discipline, I find myself perceiving the author’s voice as that of a grumpy old white man, who doesn’t like this modern world with all of its changes and social evolution.

I’m still moving forward with these stories, and next up is Prince Caspian. The series is still a classic of children’s literature and of the fantasy genre, and I will not give up the list just because of one troubling element. But I must note at this point, the problem discussed here clearly goes against my post from March 24th, in which I noted that the deeper meanings don’t matter that much to me. There are deeper implications when a young girl of a non-caucasian race is clawed by a lion, and then told that she deserved that punishment by an authority figure that no one questions. I think these things would have bothered me as a child, even if I didn’t recognize the allegorical nature of the story.

I had considered reading the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman next, because irony is the birthright of my generation. I’m now beginning to think that after Narnia, it might be nice to read a single novel instead of going immediately into another series.

Friday, April 3, 2009

My favorite line from Chronicles of Narnia, so far

Aravis is a girl who is being forced to marry a sixty-year-old man. And so she decides to leave behind the land she is from and head out for Narnia. A friend of hers does not understand why she won't stay, considering that her husband-to-be is wealthy and important. Her friend begs her to stay.

"Goodbye," said Aravis, "and I thought your dresses were lovely. And I think your house is lovely too. I'm sure you'll have a lovely life - thought it wouldn't suit me."

As far as I'm concerned, that is what fantasy writing is all about.