By Taylor Marvin
[Spoilers for The Chronicles of Narnia throughout]
C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are classics of children’s literature, but more than a half century after their publication are frequently criticized. Critics have disparaged the value Lewis places on childhood innocence, and the series’ simplistic morality. Others have noted The Chronicles of Narnia’s ugly racial undertones, an othering of characters of color through a rejection of non-European cultures and an emphasis on their alienness. This criticism is, unfortunately, correct.
Narnia and neighboring Archenland* is a land that reads as European. Its human inhabitants are white, dress in European gowns and tunics, and fight with straight swords and triangular shields. Narnia is opposed by Calormen, a desert empire to the south. Just as Narnia reflect England’s past, the Calormen are reminiscent of Arab, Persian, or Turkish cultures: Calormenes are desert people, maintain a vast expansionist empire, build cities with domes and slim spires, grow oranges and lemons, and arm themselves with curved scimitars and round shields. Calormenes are also described as darker skinned than white Narnians, and unlike their northern neighbors who honor Aslan, a great lion who is the series’ stand-in for Jesus, Calormenes worship the cruel god Tash. A Calmormene unit of currency is the crescent, an apparent allusion to the star and crescent’s importance as an Islamic symbol.
Lewis is a Westerner writing for a Western audience, and Calormen and its inhabitants clearly read as the Chronicles’ other. This isn’t only due to the fact that Arab-influenced Calormen is more distant from Lewis and his readers’ cultural experience than Narnia. Calormen is also one of the series’ main antagonists, is ruled by a oppressive emperor while Narnia is governed by a fantasy-trope “good king” (ignoring classic fantasy’s tendency to wave away the inherent violent coercion of absolute monarchy, especially when the king is white), and is frequently described as “cruel.”
There’s nothing wrong with fantasy authors mining cultures for inspiration, and modern English-language fantasy would be enriched by authors widening their imaginative scope beyond the no-firearms trope fantasy of late medieval Western Europe. (Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of al-Rassan is an entertaining example of a white fantasy author respectfully drawing on Moorish culture.) It’s not even wrong for authors to write racial prejudice into their characters — if Calormen is a rival of Narnia, it would be natural for the Narnian and our-world characters Lewis tells his story through to see Calormenes as duplicitous and cruel. But Lewis doesn’t just write these views; he echoes and, worse, endorses them. “That is better. I feel like a true man again,” says a Narnian king after discarding a Calormene disguise of scimitar, turban, and dark-stained skin. Again, it is understandable for King Tirian to see his Calormene enemies as “not real men.” But Lewis gives the reader no reason to question Tirian’s prejudice.
Beyond the occasional racism of the Narnian characters, Lewis also others the Calormene enemy by leveraging the narratives that Western culture uses to depict Muslim cultures as alien.** Calormene men are written as untrustworthy, prone to flattery, and violent, while women are depicted as decadent and frivolous. This depiction cannot be divorced from the early modern view of Arab or Turkish societies as simultaneously dangerously violent and decadently seductive. Lewis’ depiction of the women’s quarters of Calormene palaces seems to certainly draw from European painting’s ‘harem’ genre, minus the sexuality.
Another way the Calormenes are rendered as the alien is through their speech. While Lewis’ Narnians speak slightly more formally than his contemporary characters, their speech is still readily comprehensible to modern audiences. In contrast, Calormenes’ speech is full of English archaisms and formalities. “I desire and propose, O my father, that you immediately call out your invincible armies and invade the thrice-accursed land of Narnia,” says one Calormen lord. While this — to modern English-speaking ears — archaic mode of speech is more apparent in court speech than Calormen women characters, readers are clearly intended to read Calormenes’ speech as formal, hierarchical, and decadent, all traits associated with the imagined Orient in Western culture. Strengthening this linguistic allusion is Calormenes’ habit of following the name of their king, the Tisroc, with the phrase “may he live forever,” an apparent nod to Islam’s “peace be upon him” honorific of the Prophet Muhammad.
Othering through speech patterns is not restricted to Lewis in the fantasy canon. Sean T. Collins has noted that in A Song of Ice and Fire the dialogue of George R.R. Martin’s Westerosi — broadly, medieval England — characters is generally written in the same style as modern English, while “foreign” characters from the series’ southern Europe and Middle Eastern analogs are not. “They speak with accents, they speak with strange pronoun usage, they speak with alien idioms, they speak in vaguely sinister or portentous or blandishing tones,” Collins writes. ” You hear them and you think ‘Okay, this person is not like us,’ ‘us’ being real-world readers and fictional-world Westerosi, the inheritors of the shared cultural relevance of medieval Europe.” Lewis’ use of speech to distance readers from antagonists is textbook, especially because there’s no logical reason that Calormene speech should so differ from Narnian. While the two nations are separated by a large desert, there is evidence of Calormene-Narnian cross-cultural exchange, both are hereditary monarchies, and both speak that same language.
Now, Lewis’ Calormenes are not uniformly negatively depicted. In The Horse and His Boy, which provides the most complete picture of Calormen culture, Calormenes are shown as great palace architects and master storytellers. While it’s possible to argue that these are coded as “Eastern” skills in Western culture, as a storyteller himself Lewis certainly respects the art of crafting a narrative.
Several individual Calormene characters are also positively depicted. Again in The Horse and His Boy, a Calormene boy discovers he is actually Narnian, and makes a bid to escape to the north. He is joined on his journey by a Calormene girl, Aravis, fleeing an arranged marriage, because no one is forced to marry against their will in Narnia — of course, arranged marriages were a hallmark of medieval European society, but Lewis is happy to abandon the distasteful aspects of Narnia’s historical inspiration. (This is also true of later British history; in The Magician’s Nephew Aslan warns two Victorian schoolchildren that soon “great nations in your world will be ruled by tyrants” who do not care for mercy and justice, at roughly the same time the British government was administering concentration camps in the Boer War.) Aravis is a leading character of the book, but readers can’t help but notice that her positive depiction stems from her desire to shed her Calormene identity and adopt a Narnian, whiter one. Lewis’ defenders are right to note that Narnia features people of color and, through Aravis, an eventual mixed-race marriage. But it is important to see this marriage for what it is: an assimilation into Narnian whiteness. It is difficult to imagine Lewis endorsing a Narnian woman marrying a Calormene man and assimilating into Caloremene culture.
Similarly, Emeth, the Calormene officer whose loyalty to the demon-god Tash is rewarded by Aslan in The Last Battle, again earns Lewis’ sympathy by implicitly abandoning his Calormene culture. Since Aslan is good and Tash evil, good-hearted service to Tash is necessarily service to Aslan instead. The lesson here is clear. Individual Calormenes can be good, but only through implicitly (Emeth) or explicitly (Aravis) becoming Narnian. In Juan Arteaga and John Champion’s words, “the best case that can be made for Narnia is that Middle Eastern people aren’t inherently evil, they just need to be converted to Christianity.”
But despite these positive depictions of individual Calormenes, the close of the Chronicles of Narnia makes clear Lewis’ biases clear. In The Last Battle, after Calormen conquers Narnia, Aslan, and by extension God, ends the world. The moral consequences of this act of spite are somewhat lessoned by the series’ explicit depiction of the heaven that awaits the good, but the world’s end still presumably sends millions to hell or oblivion. Indeed, Lewis’ favored conclusion is so striking because it arguably should have already occurred in our world, and none of us should exist. If we accept Narnia as God’s favored land and the Calormenes as Arabs, then logically our world should have been ended in 637, with the fall of Byzantine Jerusalem.
*In this essay I refer to both nations, which share a culture, as “Narnian.”
**Much of my thinking on this theme is informed by David Najar’s UC San Diego class.