Friday, July 21, 2017

Narnian Women, Part 2: "Prince Caspian"

In the second published volume of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis calls the four Pevensie children back to Narnia to aid Prince Caspian, the rightful heir to the throne, in his war against the usurper, his uncle, Miraz. It is the most martial volume in the series and its stakes - not merely the kingdom, but the life, spiritual and literal, of Narnia and its non-human creatures - are immensely high. From a gender standpoint, the split between the roles of men and women is even more pronounced than in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. While Peter, Edmund, and Caspian concern themselves with battle, political strategy, and succession, Lucy and Susan remain with Aslan, to act as his handmaidens as he reawakens and revives the ancient supernatural beings that human beings have all but destroyed. This is an ancient dichotomy, hardly confined to the western world: men are warriors and women midwives, men bring death and women life.

As in the first volume, Lucy is the true protagonist and her faith in Aslan is unshakeable. When she and her siblings are lost in the forest, on their way to succor Caspian, it is she alone who can perceive the signs Aslan leaves for them to follow, but no one will believe her. Only gradually do they realize that Lucy, as ever, can be trusted. Her faith is perfect and pure and her fundamental truthfulness and trustworthiness establish her as the character whose moral goodness is beyond reproach. Lucy's imperfection are venial, forgivable, and what mark her as human. 

Susan, on the other hand, is showing clear signs that her faith has begun to weaken. While Peter doubts Lucy, and Edmund, though unsure, chooses to follow her because it was she who led them right when they first came to Narnia, Susan doesn't only doubt. She condescends to her sister, treating her with contempt and dismissing her visions of Aslan as mere fantasy. Susan, already, requires much more than belief to sustain her. She is falling prey to the adult sin of skepticism, mistaking cynicism and suspicion for sophistication and superiority. Still, Susan is ultimately able to see Aslan when he reveals himself, and unlike the followers of Miraz, her love and faith are reawakened by the revelation. This reawakening in Susan mirrors the reawakening of Narnia; from the devious stratagems of political and social chicanery they are both delivered, but by this, it is also proved that both are susceptible to corruption.

It's worth noting, however, that it is Susan's horn that calls the children back to Narnia and thus, indirectly, her power that rescues Caspian. In this way, Susan's benevolence, her easily provoked pity, and her protective instinct, expressed through the horn, continue to nurture something of her spirit in Narnia, as she was in the purity of her faith.

The most flamboyant character in the novel, who at least reads as female, is the Hag. She and a Werewolf present themselves to Caspian as allies, hoping to convince him to use dark magic to summon the White Witch from the dead. Though the Hag is little more than a personification of supernatural evil, it is highly significant that she does not appear alone. This evil, this more ancient and mysterious evil, not so easily defeated as Miraz, his scheming courtiers, and their irreligious soldiers, has two defendants in the Hag and the Werewolf. They represent their respective species, but they also emphasize that evil has its male and female, just as good has. Thus, the Hag attains great importance, as we try to understand Lewis's construction of Narnian gender. Both evil and good, though they might be expressed differently, may take dominion of women, just as they may of men.

The delightfully named Queen Prunaprismia is King Miraz's consort. When she successfully delivers a baby son, Caspian, tolerated as a royal heir before, becomes Miraz's mortal enemy. She shares her husband's ambition and has been a cold and contemptuous aunt to Caspian. Caspian's mother, on the other hand, the true queen, has already died before the prince can retain any memory of her. His tutor, Cornelius, assures him that she was a kind and gracious queen and implies that his loyalty to Caspian is partly due to his embrace of the old Narnian beliefs and customs, but also in gratitude to the late queen. This pair of queens again demonstrates Lewis's firm understanding of women as active agents in Narnia. Their beliefs and their loyalties define their characters.

Caspian's nurse, the female counterpart to his tutor Cornelius, like him fosters the prince's spirituality by recounting to him from a young age the history of the Golden Age of Narnia. These tales arouse a keen longing for those halcyon days in Caspian and set him firmly on the path towards Aslan and the fertile, riotous, and highly diverse country that has been all but conquered by the invasion of men. Just as the Hag and the Werewolf denote the female and male halves of supernatural evil, the nurse and the tutor, acting as guides and surrogate parents, denote the female and male halves of faith.

There are two more female characters worth mentioning in Prince Caspian. Gwendolen is a dreamy and discontented schoolgirl, who, like Caspian, longs for the old Narnia and rebels against the boring and false pseudo-history that her teacher, Miss Prizzle, expounds. Gwendolen, by approaching Aslan with love, is embraced as a true Narnian and one of the humans who will remain, a representative of merely one sort of creature among equals, while Miss Prizzle, who is both thoroughly indoctrinated and a vocal exponent of false doctrines, is terrified and runs from Aslan. Innocence, an openness to wonder, and a capacity to laugh all mark Gwendolen as a true Narnian, but it is also notable that her status as someone who is oppressed for her (correct) beliefs, even if they are at first merely instinctual, renders her especially sweet in Aslan's eyes. Lewis, like so many British boys of his generation, suffered cruelly at the brutal public school he attended and his harsh condemnation of schools, and the teachers and bullies who thrive there, is a recurrent thread in his writing. It is thus unsurprising that Aslan frees this child believer from a school, rather than a prison or a workhouse.

The proliferation of pairs that contrast gender roles, but also emphasize a certain degree of spiritual parity, makes manifest a signal truth in The Chronicles of Narnia: while men and women usually have different roles to play, they are equally responsible as far as their faith and their moral responsibility are concerned. Men are political actors, governors, fighters, judges; women are healers, comforters, supports, mothers. However, both men and women can be teachers, for the truth of what they teach rests on their beliefs and beliefs are not gendered.

Read "Narnian Women, Part 1: 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe'" here.

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