Narnia re-read. Beginning The Last Battle: issues of race.

 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. I did this with HHB, but The Last Battle is the Narnian story I have the most problematic relationship with.

 

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 Last Battle. (Hopefully without offending anyone myself.)

The reason this subject is relevant to this story (as it was with HHB) is the prominence of Calormen and Calormenes. 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.

Something which never occurred to me as a child reader, but which struck me as an adult, is the part of the story where Tirian, Eustace and Jill use ‘juice from a stone bottle’. They rub it over their skin, and it makes them ‘as brown as Calormenes’. This is basically ‘blacking up’. It’s not something I’m comfortable with and made me feel uneasy when I read this passage.

The worst part of the story, for me, is when a dwarf uses the term ‘darkies’. I know there are plenty of people in our world who use such poisonous terms, but Narnia was always supposed to by my (and presumably many other peoples’) refuge from such ugliness. I wish I had an excuse or explanation for this but I don’t.

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’ rather than copying PBUH)

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. 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. Emeth is the most obvious example of this.

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.

 

Narnia re-read. Beginning The Horse and His Boy: issues of race.

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’.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Silver Chair Chapter thirteen. Underland without the Queen.

Synopsis: Rilian, Puddleglum and the children realise that the death of the witch has ended her spells. The Earthmen are acting strangely and setting off fireworks. A crack appears in the ground which leads down into the depths of the earth. Puddeglum catches a gnome to find out what is happening.

Poor Puddleglum – I really don’t rubbing butter and oil on his burns wouldn’t be particularly helpful; in fact, it could worsen the problem.

I just never realised, as a child reader, how large Underland was. It clearly states that the exit is miles away. Maybe young me wasn’t very strong on visualising spaces on this sort of scale, but in my memories it was quite a limited space.

“Hast hit it, friend wiggle.” What a piece of dialogue.

The two horses Rilian owns are called Coalblack and Snowflake. Michael Ward suggests in Planet Narnia that this is a reference to the two horses, one black, one white, which in some legends pulled the moon across the sky. This fits with his theory that the entire book relates in a number of ways (See my earlier posts for more details) to the medieval imagery and symbolism of the Moon.

Kissing the image of Aslan which has appeared on Rilian’s shield feels like an overtly religious action. As the Narniad has gone on, the religious messages within it become clearer to see, especially to an adult reader. Of course, it is also a medieval image, doing homage to an emblem on a shield. Unlike his father, Rilian’s speech and action is in the style of a medieval knight. Maybe this is due to the ‘quest’ nature of the book.

For the first time, Jill and Eustace use Christian names to refer to each other. They show affection for each other (albeit in a very stiff-upper-lip way) in the face of great danger.

I think it’s a bit harsh to describe Jill’s behaviour earlier on as ‘cowardly’. Her fears were pretty justifiable, and she worked past them to make it through the tunnels.

The way in which Lewis describes the stables, and Jill’s interaction with the horses, makes me think he likes them, but I have no idea whether he actually did any riding himself. It has been suggested that elsewhere in his work, horses – and their relationships with their riders – have been used to demonstrate the way in which our physical and mental or spiritual selves can work together harmoniously.

The reference to Prince Corin (The Horse and His Boy) is a fun ‘shout-out’ to another book in the series.

Re-reading this chapter, it struck me that it felt like the strangest, spookiest section of the Chronicles so far. It feels dark and oppressive (intentionally). The contrast with the ‘sunny’ ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ feels increasingly stark.

Lewis makes wonderful use of lists throughout the Chronicles. (My own favourite is probably the listing of food eaten at the feast in Prince Caspian.) Here the list is of the sounds the Earthmen are making, and their varied facial features. Again, the physical appearance of the gnomes sounds wildly varied.

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Silver Chair Chapter one. Behind the Gym.

Synopsis: Jill Pole is crying behind the gym. Eustace tries to cheer her up. He tells her about Narnia and they try to get there. The school bullies chase them, so they go through an unlocked door in a wall. They find themselves in a strange world. Eustace falls off a cliff when trying to stop Jill from falling.

This book begins in a miserable place – a boarding school dominated by terrifying bullies. In his autobiography, ‘Surprised by Joy’,  Lewis discusses his own school memories at length. Miserable they certainly were. Shortly after losing his mother, Lewis found himself being sent to a different country (England) to start school. He absolutely hated boarding school: the loneliness, the bullying, the atmosphere, the focus on sports and athleticism. His loathing for his school days is made very clear, and must have been in his mind as he created Experiment house.

Surely most children can empathise with Jill Pole – even those readers who enjoyed their schooldays. (I’ve looked into Jill’s name and I can’t see any particular reason why Lewis might have chosen it, although it has been suggested that she was named after Jill Flewett, who lived at the Kilns for a while and who Lewis was very fond of.) Feeling lonely in the comfort and safety of your own home is not nearly so horrible an experience as feeling lonely and scared when surrounded by people you fear and dislike. We aren’t given specifics about the bullies and what they do. This allows the reader to fill in the blanks with their own fears.

Lewis gives us a number of his opinions via his narrator’s disapproval of Experiment House. ‘Modern’ styles of ‘discipline’, co-educational schooling and the like come in for criticism, and  when Lewis tells us that Experiment House didn’t encourage Bibles, we know what he is trying to tell us.

The Eustace we meet at the start of this book is very different from the Eustace who first appeared in VDT. We are reminded of how unfortunate his name is, but now he is ‘not a bad sort’.

Trust and friendship are important ideas throughout this story, and this begins here. Why does Eustace trust Jill enough to tell her such a huge secret? As far as we know, none of the ‘friends of Narnia’ discuss Narnia with anyone but each other. Jill and Eustace aren’t close friends. Eustace says he trusts Jill because of their share hatred of Experiment House, but other children must have hated it too. Why Jill?

As Eustace and Jill speak in whispers of Narnia, while surrounded by their utterly prosaic surroundings, it’s like an echo of the thousands of people who have escaped their own ‘dull Autumn day’ by reading the Chronicles.

Eustace knows that Aslan is magic, but he also knows it isn’t ‘right’ to try to summon him through spells and so on.

Eustace’s complaint that girls can’t orient themselves reminds me of Edmund’s comment about girls ‘keeping a map in their heads’ in Prince Caspian. (Both are immediately rebutted by the nearest girl.)

The rumour of the door having been open once is exactly the kind of rumour that entertains school children and gives them a focus for their daydreams. Such ideas can sustain you through the dullest, longest lesson. Many doorways in walls make me think of this doorway. When I spot one I try to photograph it and add it to the instagram account linked to this site.

Eustace insists they hold hands and avoid being separated – which of course is exactly what will happen by the end of the chapter.

One of the things I like about the children’s entry into the Narnian world in each story is that they always arrive in a different place. This place is not somewhere readers of the previous books would recognise. It isn’t even in the country of Narnia.

Jill really shouldn’t have messed around on the cliff edge. We know that. The use of the word ‘despised’ to describe what she thinks of Eustace is very strong.We haven’t known her long at all. And yet all this doesn’t seem to put me off her as a character. Having read the books dozens of times, however, I don’t know if this is because I ‘know’ her already. Would I feel the same on a first reading?