Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Was C.S Lewis racist?- Exploring 'The Horse and His Boy'

In recent years some people seem to have made much of certain content in some of the books of C.S Lewis 'Chronicles of Narnia' series. Specifically 'the Horse and His Boy' which was the 3rd book chronologically, and 'The Last Battle' which was the 7th and final book.

Both these novels feature characters who hail from the land of Calormen (see map below right) a hot and arid country to the South of Narnia, known as the Calormene. These people are dark-skinned, and many wear turbans or headdresses and carry scimitars, in contrast to the generally fair-skinned Narnians.


These Calormenes have been the cause of much controversy as people have concluded that they are obviously based upon Arabs or other Middle Eastern people, and their religion seems to resemble Islam in some ways.

C.S Lewis, best known today as the author of the 'Chronicles of Narnia' has been subjected posthumously to much criticism for his inclusion of dark-skinned Asian like people in the Narnia books. The depiction  of the Calormenes as slave-traders or owners with often aggressive  expansionist tendencies , and followers of a malevolent god called Tash had been the source of much anger from contemporary readers and has led to Lewis's work, or the author himself being branding as 'racist' and 'Islamophobic' or worse.

Of particular focus by Lewis detractors seems to be the novel 'The Horse and His Boy', which as already mentioned is the third novel in the series, and is set during the time that Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy ruled over Narnia. It is also the only one of the only one of the novels to focus specifically on the other countries to the South and East of Narnia as well as their cultures and people.

In this novel a young boy called Shasta lives with a fisherman named Arsheesh whom he believes to be his father, until a Taarkan, or nobleman of Calormen comes to their home, and points out that Shasta, with his fair hair and pale skin more closely resembles one of the 'barbarians' from the North.
At this point Arsheesh admits that he in fact found Shasta in a boat as a young child, and agrees to sell him to the Calormen Taarkan. Shasta does not stay with his new master for long however, as he escaped shortly afterwards by stealing the man's horse, which he soon discovers is a talking horse from Narnia, and they both decide to journey north to find that country.

On the way they run into much adventure, encounter many perils, and have several narrow escapes. En route Shasta meets with another Taarkan (with another talking horse) whom he thinks to be a boy, but turns out to be a girl named Aravis. She is of noble birth, but is fleeing her homeland to escape an arranged marriage.
That the character of Aravis is the heroine of 'The Horse and His boy' who proves to be a great friend to Shasta, and also happens to be a Calormene is, I believe, evidence that C.S Lewis did not cast all the people of this race as baddies or evil, and seems to reveal a rather more balanced and objective viewpoint on his part.Yet the people who claim this story is racist do not mention Aravis.

What with the selling and exchange of slaves, the arranged marriage of unwilling princesses, the nasty princes and the general willingness to invade other countries with only the flimsiest of causes the Calormenes certainly do not look good, but is the depiction of them truly racist?

 In a strictly historical sense, no. It is a historical fact that the peoples of North Africa, and parts of the near East around the Mediterranean sea and, and the Middle East did trade in slaves from across Europe and other places throughout the Medieval period.
In the early Middle Ages the Vikings are known to have sold kidnapped Europeans as slaves in these regions , but, as time passed it was the people of the slave trading lands themselves who did the kidnapping themselves. amongst these were the infamous 'Barbary pirates' and some of the most well-known of the slaves were the Mamluks, or 'slave soldiers' including the great Muslim commander Baybars, who was not an Arab, but was from the Russian Steppes.

As to expansionism, it is known that many Middle Eastern dynasties and powers ruled over vast empires in the Medieval Period, that were far larger, wealthier and more powerful than any which existed in contemporary Europe. Both before and after the crusades the Turks and others invaded and conquered areas of Europe, getting as far West as Vienna in Austria, and as far North as the borders with Southern France.
As to arranged marriage, this was the norm for aristocrats and Nobles in both the East and the West, and for both sexes.

So perhaps, far from being racist, Lewis depiction of some of the Calmorenes was simply a reflection of events and facts from real Medieval History, which the author may have known about. As a student of Medieval history myself, I understand how Lewis' possible historical knowledge may have influenced his writing.

The figures and events that he based the Calmorene's the their behaviours may be politically incorrect, and somewhat out of touch with modern sentiments, but facts are still facts, and the past cannot be changed by ignoring it or calling it 'racist'.

References

Map from http://narnia.wikia.com/wiki/Calormen#People_of_Calormen

Much of the information on the Calormene people comes from the same page, and the specific background of Shasta/Cor is from another page on the same site:http://narnia.wikia.com/wiki/Cor

The historical information is gleaned from my own knowledge and research conducted over the years from a wide variety of sources including books and documentaries. Anyone curious can research this subject matter for themselves. The sources are out there.

2 comments:

  1. Well presented. And, it might be worth noting that there are still Calormene peoples today, where slavery is still practiced in dire numbers (e.g. Sudan).

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  2. Thankyou for your comment.

    Yes indeed things like this do still exist today. It is truly tragic.
    Though there seems to be something of a myth that only Non-European/white people have been the victims of slave traders in the past.

    It irks me that a great writer like Lewis has his name dragged through the mud simply because he might have occasionally been critical in his depiction of groups of people.

    Nobody is perfect, and no group is beyond reproach, nor are they above criticism. Or at least they should not be.

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