‘My name is Aravis Tarkheena and I am the only daughter of Kidrash Tarkaan, the son of Rishti Tarkaan, the son of Kidrash Tarkaan, the son of Ilsombreh Tisroc, the son of Ardeeb Tisroc who was descended in a right line from the god Tash.’
Thus Aravis begins, ‘in the grand Calormene manner,’ the story of how she tries to escape from an arranged marriage with a sixty year old humpbacked, ape-faced lord, first by an abortive attempt at killing herself, then by a cunning flight. This episode in The Horse and his Boy, my favorite C.S. Lewis book, deeply impressed me when I first read it as an eight or nine year-old.
I can still recall vividly the climactic scene where Aravis decides to leave this life, but is saved by her horse Hwin:
‘… I dismounted from Hwin my mare and took out [my brother’s] dagger. Then I parted my clothes where I thought the readiest way lay to my heart and I prayed to all the gods that as soon as I was dead I might find myself with my brother. After that I shut my eyes and my teeth and prepared to drive the dagger into my heart. But before I had done so, this mare spoke with the voice of one of the daughters of men and said, “O my mistress, do not by any means destroy yourself, for if you live you may yet have good fortune but all the dead are dead alike.” (…) When I heard the language of men uttered by my mare, I said to myself, the fear of death has disordered my reason and subjected me to delusions. And I became full of shame for non of my lineage ought to fear death more than the biting of a gnat. Therefore I addressed myself a second time to the stabbing, but Hwin came near to me and put her head in between me and the dagger and discoursed to me most excellent reasons and rebuked me as a mother rebukes her daughter.’
I was strangely disappointed by Hwin’s intervention. Aravis’ heroism and determination struck a cord in me, and I felt the dagger was a brave and honourable choice, especially as she would be reunited with her deceased brother. C.S. Lewis probably wouldn’t agree with me, not in this case anyway. The Calormene (Muslim? Oriental?) tradition is presented by him as colourful, but Wrong in Essence. Although the Chronicles of Narnia abound in instances of self-sacrifice, a virgin suicide to preserve honour and autonomy isn’t considered an option in Lewis’ Anglican moral scheme. When I was eight, in my moral scheme it was.
I was reminded of Aravis’ plight while pondering on Daniel Boyarin’s Dying for God, which I chose to read for my oral exam next week. A lot of the issues that Aravis’ narrative touches upon obliquely, are in this book on ‘martyrdom and the making of Christianity and Judaism.’ For example, where Aravis struggles with patriarchal oppression, in the chapter ‘Quo Vadis’ Boyarin treats the discourse in Rabbinical and Christian martyrology on the possible reactions to imperialistic (Roman) dominance. Where Christianity answers the ‘Quo vadis’ question with a uni-vocal: ‘to the cross!’ (i.e. to confession and the martyr’s death), rabbinical Judaism keeps the option open of bypassing death by a trickster-escape. Full collaboration with the oppressor isn’t an option in either system, however.
The issue isn’t fully analogous, as Aravis’ choice isn’t between escape and martyrdom, but between escape and the (related) noble death (as explained in Jan Willem van Henten and Friedrich Avemarie’s sourcebook Van Henten and Avemarie). Still, it is striking that Lewis stereotypes noble death as an un-Christian, oriental option, for a girl at least! In the chapter ‘Thinking with virgins’ Boyarin shows how in early Christianity, virgin martyrdom (or ‘white martyrdom’ – becoming a nun) was a valorized option for female christians like the virgin of Antioch and (in a way) Perpetua, as an alternative for marriage. Christianity was norm-breaking in that respect, as opposed to Rabbinical Judaism, where virginity could never be a goal an sich – the only legitimate goal of chastity was to become a virgin bride.
So cultural options keep shifting, some norms ‘we’ take for granted (even the norm that death, especially self-inflicted death, is something to be avoided at any cost) are turned upside-down in other (sub-)cultures and times. Even in ancient Christianity, which has been formative in creating our own norms and mind-set. I’ll let early Christianity speak for itself, in the guise of another young girl, the martyr Agnes (as presented by Ambrosius in his Concerning Virginity, Book I). Both Aravis and Agnes are prepared to die rather than to be married against their will – in Agnes’ case to a Roman prefect’s son. Of course in Agnes’ case faith is at stake, she has chosen to become the bride of Christ. But maybe you will agree that ideologically she still has more in common with Aravis than with C.S. Lewis – or the motherly Hwin.
7. She is said to have suffered martyrdom when twelve years old. (…) She was fearless under the cruel hands of the executioners, she was unmoved by the heavy weight of the creaking chains, offering her whole body to the sword of the raging soldier, as yet ignorant of death, but ready for it. (…)
8. A new kind of martyrdom! Not yet of fit age for punishment but already ripe for victory, difficult to contend with but easy to be crowned, she filled the office of teaching valour while having the disadvantage of youth. She would not as a bride so hasten to the couch, as being a virgin she joyfully went to the place of punishment with hurrying step, her head not adorned with plaited hair, but with Christ. (…)
9. What threats the executioner used to make her fear him, what allurements to persuade her, how many desired that she would come to them in marriage! But she answered: “It would be an injury to my spouse to look on any one as likely to please me. He who chose me first for Himself shall receive me. Why are you delaying, executioner? Let this body perish which can be loved by eyes which I would not.” She stood, she prayed, she bent down her neck. You could see the executioner tremble, as though he himself had been condemned, and his right hand shake, his face grow pale, as he feared the peril of another, while the maiden feared not for her own. You have then in one victim a twofold martyrdom, of modesty and of religion. She both remained a virgin and she obtained martyrdom.