What does it mean to be noble? What is false nobility? And what does it mean to fail in nobility? These are all questions that will be answered if you read the Narnia stories they way they really ought to be read. Like Shasta in The Horse and His Boy, we too often have a distorted view of nobility. “He had, you see, no idea of how noble and free-born people behave” (p. 75).
Probably the best picture of what true nobility is like is found in The Horse and His Boy. Shasta, who was brought up as a Calormene peasant, has quite a shock when he sees the nobility of the Narnian lords and ladies for the first time.
“Most of them had legs bare to the knee. Their tunics were of fine, bright, hardy colors—woodland green, or gay yellow, or fresh blue” (p. 58).
“A few were bareheaded. The swords at their sides were long and straight, not curved like Calormene scimitars” (p. 58).
And here is the important question—what did Shasta think of them?
“And instead of being grave and mysterious like most most Calormenes, they walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling. You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly and didn’t give a fig for anyone who wasn’t. Shasta thought he’d never seen anything so lovely in his life” (p. 58).
But just a few pages before, we had learned what Calormene heroes and gods were like.
“Great statues of the gods and heroes—who are mostly impressive rather than agreeable to look at—rose on shining pedestals” (p. 56).
One of the central characteristics of true nobility in Narnia is that it is merry. For example, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, what is Lord Bern’s family like? “Bern and his gracious wife and merry daughters made them good cheer” (p. 49-50).
In The Horse and His Boy, what was the royal celebration of Archenland like?
“And the wine flowed and tales were told and jokes were cracked, and then silence was made and the King’s poet with two fiddlers stepped out into the middle of the circle. Arvaris and Cor prepared themselves to be bored, for the poetry they knew was the Calormene kind, and you know now what that was like” (p. 221).
Nobility shows in the face. Nobility affects the way the characters look. In The Silver Chair, what did the snow dancers then see? “For now they saw the Prince” (p. 224). And what did he bear on his face?
“That look is in the face of all true Kings of Narnia, who rule by the will of Aslan and sit at Cair Paravel on the throne of Peter the High King” (p. 225).
And this works the other way too. We see that Edmund’s treachery—disloyalty is one of the most basic ways to reject nobility—was written on his face.
“‘I didn’t like to mention it before (he being your brother and all) but the moment I set eyes on that brother of yours I said to myself, ‘Treacherous.’ He had the look of one who has been with the Witch and eaten her food’” (p. 85).
The fact is that nobility or treachery can be seen at a glance in Narnia. The same is often true here as well, but when it happens the people who see it have to be careful to keep it to themselves. They might find themselves in a lawsuit, accusing them of the discriminatory practice of “lookism.”
Nobility is honest and keeps its word. In Prince Caspian, how does Nikabrik deal with his oath? “‘Court manners, court manners,’ sneered Nikabrik” (p. 165). This shows that he was an ignoble character. A vow taken is obligatory, and cannot be dismissed as mere ceremony.
Nobility is sacrificial. In Narnia, nobility has obligations and involves things completely different than parading around with your nose in the air. We see this in how Rilian speaks the code of sacrifice for a lady. “‘Then, Madam,’ said the Prince, ‘you shall see us die fighting around you’ (p. 197). Nobility is not putting on airs. Nobility is the assumption of responsibility.
The same kind of thing happens in The Horse and His Boy. The Narnians were a chivalrous people.
“‘As to that,’ said the King, ‘I do not doubt that every one of us would sell our lives dearly in the gate and they would not come at the Queen but over our dead bodies’” (p. 70).
So nobility is closely related to this idea of sacrifice. In The Last Battle, what last message does King Tirian receive from Roonwit the centaur?
“‘I was with him in his last hour and he gave me this message to your Majesty: to remember that all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy’” (p. 103).
Where does nobility come from? In Prince Caspian, Edmund goes to issue the challenge of combat to King Miraz. He had been transformed from a small English schoolboy, and a kingly air had returned to him. What was Edmund like now? “Aslan had breathed on him at their meeting and a kind of greatness hung about him” (p. 179). This greatness is what the Bible describes as majesty (1 Chron. 29:25). How does this strike the Telmarines? Edmund was “‘a kinglier man than ever Miraz was’” (p. 179). This means that nobility—in this case a kingly majesty—is a gift of Aslan. In our world, of course, this means that it is a grace from God.
Nobility is the opposite of arrogance and pride. The older expression—noblesse oblige—captures this nicely. Rank is more a matter of responsibility than privilege. When Eustace, Lucy and Edmund come to the Dawn Treader, it is important to note that King Caspian gives up his cabin for the lady. Drinian objects to this.”‘I beseech your Majesty—’ said Drinian” (p. 25).
In contrast, the ignoble character of Eustace is revealed clearly. “‘They call him a King. I said I was a Republican but he had to ask me what that meant! He doesn’t seem to know anything at all’” (p. 31). We also see this in Eustace’s attitude toward women, where he wants men and women to be “equal” so that he doesn’t have to give anything up.
“‘C. says that’s because she’s a girl. I tried to make him see what Alberta says, that all that sort of thing is really lowering girls, but he was too dense’” (p. 31).
Like all good things in a sinful world, nobility has its counterfeits. For example, grandeur is not nobility, but it might fool you. What kind of place was Charn, according to the former Queen of it?
“‘That is the door to the dungeons,’ she would say, or ‘That passage leads to the principal torture chambers,’ or ‘This was the old banqueting hall where my great-grandfather bade seven hundred nobles to a feast and killed them all before they had drunk their fill. They had had rebellious thoughts’” (p. 61).
What kind of city had Charn been?
“‘It is silent now. But I have stood here when the whole air was full of the noises of Charn; the trampling of feet, the creaking of wheels, the cracking of the whips and the groaning of slaves, the thunder of chariots, and the sacrificial drums beating in the temples’” (p. 65).
And what was the difference between Jadis in Charn and Jadis in London?
“In Charn, she had been alarming enough. In London, she was terrifying” (pp. 74-75).
But this grandeur is more impressive than it is truly noble.
“But even her height was nothing compared with her beauty, her fierceness, and her wildness. She looked ten times more alive than most of the people one meets in London” (p. 75.)
Doing something on a grand scale is not the same thing as nobility. It is what might be called the “special effects” view of nobility, but it is mere spectacle. If the explosions are big enough, we think it is a good movie. If the stadium is large enough, we think the athletes are great. If there are enough lasers and dry ice, we think the band knows how to play. But nobility is a qualitative thing, not a quantitative thing at all.
One of the strange things about the Christian faith is that we learn that we have duties to our enemies, even if they are enemies we are trying to kill. As Emeth put it, “‘Has not one of the poets said that a noble friend is the best gift and a noble enemy the next best?’” (p. 184). For example, in Prince Caspian, what did Peter let Miraz do? When Miraz fell during their duel, he stepped back to let him rise. “‘Need he be as gentlemanly as that? I suppose he must’” (p. 194). And after the victory, how were the Telmarine prisoners handled? “. . . firmly but without taunts or blows . . .” (p. 210).
In The Last Battle, what evil thing do the Dwarfs do? Well, they start shooting the horses, and this causes Eustace to lose it. And how does Tirian instruct Eustace? It is a great lesson in nobility.
“It was the Dwarfs who were shooting and—for a moment Jill could hardly believe her eyes—they were shooting the Horses . . . ‘Little Swine,’ shrieked Eustace, dancing in his rage. ‘Dirty, filthy, treacherous little brutes.’ . . . ‘And peace, Eustace. Do not scold, like a kitchen-girl. No warrior scolds. Courteous words or else hard knocks are his only language’” (pp. 138-139).
How you fight is very important. What happens when the king finds out that Talking Horses were enslaved? “Next moment both the Calormenes lay dead, the one beheaded by Tirian’s sword and the other gored through the heart by Jewel’s horn” (p. 27).
But then, how does Tirian’s conscience strike him? “‘But to leap on them unawares—without defying them—while they were unarmed—faugh! We are two murderers, Jewel. I am dishonored forever’” (p. 30).
The importance of this lesson is one of the reasons Emeth hated the mission into Narnia.
“‘. . . and to work by lies and trickery, then my joy departed from me. And most of all when I found we must wait upon a Monkey, and when it began to be said that Tash and Aslan were one, then the world became dark in my eyes’” (p. 185).
Nobility is fundamentally a question of character, or substance. But it necessarily works its way out into our manners, the way we behave toward one another in the “little things.” In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, why does Reepicheep not fight Eustace? “‘To the convenience of a lady,’ said Reepicheep, ‘even a question of honor must give way – at least for the moment’” (p. 17). And how are Eustace, Edmund and Lucy and Reepicheep honored when they depart for the edge of the world? “The Dawn Treader flew all her flags and hung out her shields to honor their departure” (p. 241). In The Horse and His Boy, how does Aravis meet Cor? “‘The Prince bowed, and a very clumsy bow for a Prince it was. Aravis curtsied in the Calormene style (which is not like ours) and did it very well because, of course, she had been taught how” (p. 203). In Narnia, manners are a way of showing honor to others. In Calormene, manners (at least some of them) were a means of requiring people to dishonor themselves for your sake. “And of course it is only before royalties that people walk backward” (p. 105).
In short, this means that true nobility is a way of showing love; it is a demeanor that loves to give. False nobility is self-seeking. Because false nobility has been so rampant in our world, many people (even good people) have reacted against the very idea of nobility. We still need it, but in the modern world we are unable to find it anywhere. And so, I would suggest that one of the better places to look for it is in Narnia. And when you have found it, you may certainly bring it back—like Digory did with the apple that Aslan gave him.