I felt that before I began my re-read of this book of the Chronicles of Narnia, I had to make a post addressing issues of race, in relation to the story.
Points of view and opinions about the work of C. S. Lewis tend to divide quite sharply between devoted lovers of his work and staunch detractors. This can make it difficult to find objective opinions about certain aspects of the Chronicles.
People who love Lewis’ writing are often heavily invested in the writer himself. This particularly applies for certain groups of people, who see him as a mentor in terms of their religious faith. Because of his skill at making his reader feel like they know him, that they have common ground, that they have a relationship with him, they can become very defensive about him. And because his religious writing has given many people comfort and inspiration, there is sometimes a tendency for him to be presented as someone ‘saintly’. This attachment to these readers’ idea of Lewis can lead people to be very sensitive to any criticism of him.
On the other side of the argument, those who are (very definitely) not fans of Lewis can be quite vitriolic in their dismissal of the man and his works. They see his writing as a series of defences of the indefensible: racism, sexism, inequality, bigotry and ‘the system’. Because of this, they see the Chronicles as unsuitable for children, due to it being full of cruel, out-dated and hateful messages.
I hope that I fall into neither camp, but can see the points of view of both. So I’m trying to look objectively at The Horse and His Boy. (Hopefully without offending anyone myself.)
The reason this subject is relevant to this story is the prominence of Calormen and Calormenes, mentioned only briefly in earlier books in the series. The country of Calormen, its people, and how they are described, is where the problems lie. Some of the accusations levelled at Lewis are, I believe, justified, some are inaccurate, and others can be explained but perhaps not excused.
Accusations I believe are justified.
Mention is made of the ‘dark’ skin colour of the Calormenes, which is contrasted with the ‘fair’ Narnians. Throughout the book the reader is left in no doubt as to which nation is the ‘better’ one. This is a generalisation, as the race of characters doesn’t determine their qualities, but is noticeable nevertheless. The ‘best’ Calormene, Aravis, has to abandon her people and way of life and move to the North in order to be happy.
The Calormene culture and civilisation is generally viewed critically and sometimes played for laughs. It is clearly based on (Lewis’ idea of) a Middle Eastern style culture, his main influence probably being what Lewis knew of the Ottoman Empire and his reading of tales such as the Arabian Nights. We are presented with plentiful examples of stereotypical imagery: bearded men in turbans and pointed shoes; ornate, opulent palaces; slaves carrying aristocrats on litters; perfumed pleasure gardens and so on. Calormene society is depicted as being stilted, overly formal and restrictive. Cities are dusty and smelly, speech is flowery, faces are serious and haughty, girls are forced to marry, servants are grovelling and obsequious, and masters are arrogant and cruel. This is contrasted with the northern lands, where people are merry, free, informal and generally attractive. Even the food reflects this bias – we are told about a wholesome, hearty Narnian fry-up versus ‘a complicated dish’ of chicken livers and raisins served in Calormen. This is not how (one would hope) people would write today.
Accusations I believe are not correct.
It has been suggested that Lewis used the Calormenes as a Narnian equivalent to Muslims. I really don’t believe this is the case. The Calormene religion is not monothestic: Tash is the god mentioned most often, but Azaroth and Zardeenah are also worshipped. Sacrifices are made to these gods in secret rituals. This is most unlike Islamic worship, either in the Mosque or during daily prayers. I personally see no link between Islam and the Calormene religion. I imagine it to be more of a ‘mish-mash’ of ideas Lewis picked up from multiple sources. (Similarly, the habit of saying ‘may he live forever’ after the Tisroc is mentioned is inspired by E Nesbit’s ‘The Story of the Amulet’.)
Explanation and exploration (not justification) of some points.
Lewis was a product of a particular place and time: the British Isles of the early Twentieth Century. He only left Britain/Ireland twice (once to go to war). He lived a ‘stuffy’ life, working in the closed world of academia, surrounded by other men, and immersed in texts from much earlier times. This was not an ideal breeding ground for ‘modern’ or progressive thinking on such issues as race and gender. Lewis doubtless had, and expressed, prejudices and opinions which we would find wrong today. In fairness, this was the case for the majority of men of this time. Naturally, we wish that the opinions of authors whose work we enjoy mirrored our own, more enlightened ways of thinking, but it is difficult to apply our standards to the world Lewis grew up in. (He was thirty before women gained full voting equality, for example.) This doesn’t necessarily excuse some of the things included in his work, but does help to explain them.
Lewis did, however, revel in his ‘fogeyish’ ways. He liked large helpings of plain food (without the garlic which Calormenes enjoyed). He drank ale, was boisterous in pubs and smoked heavily. He was self-consciously nostalgic and pined for an idealised pre-industrial world which had never truly existed. He sought out the company of other middle-aged men to smoke, drink and be boisterous with. Lewis, who thought so long and so deeply about so many things, didn’t seem prepared to spend too long thinking about how he was portraying the Calormenes to his readers: were they to be judged partly on their skin? Was their ‘darkness’ bound up with the aspects of their culture which are shown to be wrong, such as tyranny and slavery?
Having loved the Chronicles in my childhood, I feel sad that this issue is contained within them. Narnia was always the place I would escape to when our world seemed unjust and unfair. (I didn’t notice anything about race in them as a child, to be honest – it sailed right over my head, along with many of the religious allusions. Plus, even thirty years ago our awareness of such matters was much less widespread.) I think what bothers me most is the thought of a child reading the stories and feeling that Narnia is for other people, people whose skin is fairer than theirs. That wardrobe doors are selective about who they let in. I don’t know if people do feel this when reading this book, but the thought isn’t a pleasant one. I wish I could wholeheartedly endorse the Chronicles to everyone, without any hesitation or reservations at all, but am not entirely sure I can. There are always going to be provisos.
On the positive side, when I read the story I see hopeful points as well as the ones mentioned above. Aravis is a real heroine: brave, resourceful and interesting. Nobody in the Narnian world thinks anything of interracial marriage; Susan considers marrying Rabadash, and Aravis marries Cor. Characters of both cultures are shown to have weaknesses and strengths, to be good or otherwise. And in a world where Aslan knows and sees what is inside people – their thoughts, their fears, their hopes – he doesn’t judge them by their appearance but by their actions.
On reflection, I would say that I would still read the story with children, but also have a discussion about it with them to ensure that they were clear on certain points as and when they arose. As a child I was fascinated by descriptions of the Calormene world, without absorbing any of the prejudices held therein. Hopefully this could be the case for others.
(A helpful, detailed discussion of this subject can be found in Laura Miller’s ‘The Magician’s Book’.)