C.S. Lewis had strong political opinions and in many ways they undergird his work, though he’s slow to make them overt, unless he’s talking about the way schools are run. His earliest works (the world of Boxen that he invented with his brother) is filled with stuffy politics, mostly because he thought that’s what the adult world was: people endlessly talking about things he himself found boring. But as we saw in Prince Caspian, Lewis’ political thoughts often came down to a question of order versus disorder: Is the right person in charge and are they rightly responding to those in authority above and below them in the organizational chart?
In The Horse and His Boy we get an interesting and rather detailed look at Lewis’ ideas of the dangerous political leader, and what the most effective responses are in the midst of the disordered world that comes as a result of bullies and peacocks in power (Lewis, of course, says “pajock” rather than peacock). Nowhere is this clearer than in the poor young man named Rabadash.
It’s not that no one likes him. He’s fun enough at parties, and he’s a gifted warrior—the sort of guy you cheer for when you’re in the stands and he’s out jousting. He looks magnificent on his horse, and he can be charming and attentive for a while. Susan says he was “meek and courteous” for the seven days he was in Narnia. Laslareen practically glows as she talks about the wonderful parties he throws and even says, “I positively adore Prince Rabadash.”
Yet, if he doesn’t get his way he becomes “angry and dangerous” and threatening, though, as Edmund notes, those threats are “veiled under a show of courtesy.” Faced with this reality, Edmund and Susan (with the counsel of their Narnian crew) decide the best thing to do is to slip away quietly. To avoid Rabadash, and with a small amount of deceit come out from under his power. Which works, for a time, though Rabadash doesn’t allow this insult to stand, and he makes his own crafty plan to capture Narnia for himself and the Tisroc.
His father the Tisroc isn’t thrilled with Rabadash’s plan. He sees his son as “dangerous, disobedient” and violent. He’s concerned that his son’s lust for power and consistent centering of himself in all political events is going to lead them eventually to war. How will he deal with the boy? Well, he considers killing him at one point, or at least gives a warning that the idea isn’t off the table. When Rabadash is properly chastened, the Tisroc allows him to follow his foolish plan, with the understanding that the Tisroc will disavow him if he fails. He knows that his son would kill him given the chance, so that he can become Tisroc, so if Rabadash fails then it is to the Tisroc’s benefit. If he succeeds, well, that’s to his benefit, too. So the Tisroc’s approach to this dangerous and unpredictable leader is to use him. He knows Rabadash is dangerous, but he can be used to advance the Tisroc’s own political goals, for now.
Rabadash does, of course, ultimately fail. Though he’s a gifted warrior, his surprise attack is spoiled by the heroes of our story, and Rabadash finds himself in battle against one of his opposites—King Edmund, who sits beneath the High King but has no eye for the throne above him, who is no traitor any longer, and is a person of honor. When Rabadash finds himself caught on the wall and the object of some derision, Edmund plans to treat him as an honorable opponent, though he clearly is not. It is King Lune of Archenland who intervenes and points out that Rabadash is not a person of honor and that he should be locked away for his crimes, not engaged in battle as if he were somehow a peer of Edmund’s.
Edmund feels some sympathy for Rabadash, mostly because he was a traitor once himself, and he feels that perhaps Rabadash can be reformed. But it is Lune who feels real compassion for the “traitor and sorry creature.” Could Rabadash have turned into anyone better than this, given his youth and childhood “devoid of gentilesse and courtesy”? Lune has made a plan to release the prince, with certain conditions, but Rabadash is sullen and abusive. Prince Corin begins to make fun of him, but Lune rightly reminds him not to tease someone weaker than himself… “Never taunt a man save when he is stronger than you: then, as you please.”
It is, of course, dear Lucy who sees Rabadash most clearly in the end. When Rabadash refuses King Lune’s offer of clemency, she says, “Oh you foolish Rabadash.” He is dangerous and violent and angry and traitorous, but at the core of it all, the wellspring of Rabadash’s character defects is that he is a fool.
After Lucy speaks those words, Aslan arrives. Truth has been spoken, and now the King above the High King has come to make his pronouncements. Aslan encourages Rabadash to lay aside his anger and his pride. He assures Rabadash that he need not face his own doom in this moment.
But Rabadash instead tries to frighten them all, making faces and threats. This had been effective back home but now, stripped of his power, it is rather pathetic and maybe even a bit funny. As Lewis writes, “But what Rabadash hadn’t realised is that it is very easy to frighten people who know you can have them boiled alive the moment you give the word. The grimaces didn’t look at all alarming in Archenland; indeed Lucy only thought Rabadash was going to be sick.” There is no reason to fear a fool. We should fear instead what a fool will do if given access to power.
And so, Aslan brings the “doom” to Rabadash… one that is traditional in various types of literature. Rabadash’s true nature is revealed. He’s not a terrifying warrior or a frightening prince: He’s just an ass. There’s an echo, of course, from antiquity with Lucius in The Golden Ass, or more recently Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and even to the Biblical story of King Nebuchadnezzar, who was punished by God and became “like a beast” and ate grass for seven years. The important point being that the best punishment for a Rabadash is purely to acknowledge who he truly is…to remove him from power so that people can see his true character.
Then, to his “supreme horror,” Rabadash realizes that the people around him are not afraid, are not amazed by his prowess or his accomplishments because they had “begun to laugh.” To be laughed at is the worst fate, though he doesn’t love becoming a donkey, either, and his last words in the text are a plea to at least be made into a horse.
It is dear King Lune who gives us the pattern for how we should respond when our own political fools are revealed. He is the opposite of the Tisroc…he also has a son who can’t be controlled, who causes trouble, and is a bit of a fool. But he keeps loving and correcting that son, and it’s interesting that at the end of the day Rabadash and Corin are not so very different. Both have tempers, both are disobedient and strong-willed. Corin, though, has been treated with love and kindness his whole life, while Rabadash has not.
So it is that King Lune, “the kindest-hearted of men,” sees poor Rabadash devoid of power and revealed for his truest self, and his response is not one of relief or ridicule, but one of compassion. “He forgot all his anger” Lewis tells us, and he immediately sets out to make Rabadash’s punishment the least terrible thing possible: he will make sure the donkey is transported home and well cared for with fresh hay and carrots and thistles.
Rabadash goes on to become a reasonably good Tisroc in time, when he becomes a man again, because he’s constantly afraid of Aslan’s promise that if he ventures more than ten miles from home he’ll become a donkey again, and this time forever. He avoids war so that his soldiers won’t attain glory without him, and so he became well-known as a peaceable ruler, though no one ever forgot his true nature, either.
Lewis wasn’t predicting the future here, of course, and wasn’t—so far as I know—making reference to any specific leader in his contemporary political world. He was speaking of the leaders who always come in time…whatever age you are, no doubt you’ve seen a Rabadash or two in the public square.
At this particular time in our world, there seems to be no shortage of “strongmen” and fools with power. We’ve gone past the rise of a “second Rabadash” to a place where we may be able to point out five or six or more of them on any given continent. The day this article posts we in the United States have just voted in an election where the people have very strong but divergent opinions about who the best candidate to lead us might be. No matter who is elected, some of us will be elated, and some of us crushed. No matter who is elected, some of us will be celebrating, and other in mourning.
In the midst of all that, here’s my hope for myself and all of us:
May we, like Susan, have the wisdom to recognize if we’ve been deceived by a leader who appears wonderful in one context but has “another face” when he gains power.
May we, like Edmund, remember our own failings and be generous with our enemies, and hopeful that true change is still a possibility even for a traitorous fool.
May we, like Lucy, see clearly into the hearts of our leaders.
May we, like King Lune, be kind-hearted and compassionate with our enemies.
May we, like the people of Calormen and Archenland and Narnia, find peace in the years to come.
In the meantime, friends, let us each be faithful in the things we are called to, despite what our leaders may do. Vote, speak up, and do what’s right. Aslan’s on the move—let’s keep our eyes open for him. Take care of yourselves and your neighbors, and I’ll see you back here in two weeks!