Search This Blog

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

BEDA 4: Racism, Cultural Context, and the Chronicles of Narnia

     Sunday evening I found myself discussing (among other things, I swear) children's lit and favorite kid's books, over dinner with some friends. Toward the end of the evening, someone mentioned that she used to love The Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, but now can't stand to read them. When I asked her why, she responded that she finds the books full of racist and sexist undertones. I'd heard criticisms of Lewis' supposed negative portrayal of female sexuality before, but these accusations of racism were new to me. Graham, who was with us, feels about the Narnia books the way I feel about Harry Potter, and rushed to defend his beloved author. We ended up avoiding any serious debate about whether or not Lewis laced his novels with racist or sexist sentiments (a good thing, as by his own admission, Graham tends to get more than a little defensive of the series) but I couldn't stop thinking about it the whole subway ride home.
     Good little English major that I am, I've spent a lot of time considering "the other" in literature and whether and how much an author's social context informs their characterizations of racial, religious, or cultural minorities. I think, generally, post-colonial literary theory can be a helpful in understanding and dissecting the relationships between groups of people, but I'm not to crazy about the way in which this kind of post-colonial thinking makes it almost impossible to depict and discuss battles between good and evil.
     Further research revealed that Phillip Pullman--the same author who criticized Narnia's overtly Christian messages--is the most vocal force behind these accusations of racism and sexism. Pullman and others suggest that the Calormenes, who (if I remember correctly without the book in front of me) Lewis describes as "moorish" and Turban-wearing, are projections of racist, Anti-Arab, anti-Muslim stereotypes. I never found any interviews in which Pullman or his supporters cited specific examples from the text to support their argument. I really wish I hadn't left my copy of The Last Battle at my parents' house, because I'd like to reread it and see for myself.
      Still, can we fault Lewis for choosing Middle Eastern figures to represent the villains in his books? Lewis was not only writing for a Western and largely Christian audience, but during a time of great upheaval in that region of the world and many Englishmen were killed. (The English have certainly done their fair share of killing over the years, don't get me wrong.) It would have been natural for Lewis to choose to depict his villains as a group of people his readers already recognized as dangerous. A few years earlier, he might as easily have depicted them as German. Would Pullman still be crying "racism"? Also, if an author believes a set of ideas or beliefs to be wrong, immoral, or even evil, can he separate those ideas from the people who subscribe to them? What if Lewis was anti-Muslim and wanted to communicate his belief in the superiority of Christianity? Does that make him a bigot? I believe not. Bigotry is malicious prejudice. Believing that something morally or intellectually wrong is not.
    I also couldn't help but think about how several of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales feature Muslim characters and nations as villains. Again, given the post-Crusades landscape in which Chaucer wrote, this is hardly surprising. Some critics shake a finger at Chaucer for this, but few suggest his Tales should no longer be read because it contains some anti-Islam and anti-semitic sentiments. The literary merits outweigh any lingering prejudices in the text. The Chronicles of Narnia follows in the English tradition established by Chaucer and it should be remembered for its contributions to children's fantasy literature. No matter which way you slice it, Narnia is not about white supremacy or race relations. It is about the triumph of good over evil. If we are unable to discuss the battle of good versus evil without someone crying "racism!", I fear real bigotry will never be defeated, and real battles never won.

   These are just my highly disorganized, preliminary, rambling thoughts. I'm still thinking a lot about bigotry and cultural prejudices in literature, and I don't think I've really arrived at a conclusion,. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Also, I hope I don't seem like I'm giving racism a pass, or am insensitive to the dehumanization of the other. Far from it. Ugh, I'm so afraid to post this for some reason, but it's almost midnight and I'm too tired to revise anything. :-)


  1. Why do you think you would get in trouble? Honestly, you put it quite clearly and I think I understand both sides of the argument.

  2. I almost completely agree with this post. I think a lot of people use racism or sexism as an excuse not to like something or think about it deeper, or as an easy argument against something against which they're biased. Clearly this is the case with Pullman, who basically discredits the idea that Narnia's racist and sexist simply by throwing in his support, because so much of his career has been an attempt to initiate a slap fight with Lewis.
    I don't mean to say that Narnia's completely free of sexism or racism but that it has no more than can be expected given its time. In fact, I'd say it's rather enlightened, considering the men and women are given equal roles, not just in the court that they rule together but in small ways too; Susan's as skilled a fighter as Peter, just in different ways. Their gifts reflect that, and through the series, they're each proven to be strong and incredible people and leaders, regardless of gender. I'm using the Pevensies as my examples, but there are a million others, too.
    The thing I do have a bit of an issue with is when you say "bigotry is malicious prejudice. Believing that something morally or intellectually wrong is not."
    I...hmm. That's a very thin line to walk, and taking that approach can be used to excuse some really horrible thoughts and actions. I know that's not how you meant it, but it's a little too lenient. I'm all for freedom of thought, and I'll never say someone's a bigot for not sharing my opinion or my beliefs, but...there's a difference between not agreeing with someone and thinking that they're Wrong. Y'know? One's a state of mind, and the other is a judgment. And judging, at least in most circumstances, is only a step away from, if not right on top of, bigotry.
    Anyway. That was a VERY long comment, and I'm shutting up now. Never be afraid to post something, especially something like this; we love you for all of you, and even if we disagree, it's still important, and it's still fun to talk about, and I like Sarahthoughts. Especially about Narnia. =]

  3. Work, Sarah. I completely agree. People are too sensitive and too quick to cry "racism!" you are so right. And Narnia is amazing. The end.

  4. Marlena, I agree it is a thin line, but I also think it's rather distinct. It's bigotry to say "Martians look different from me and are therefore evil." I don't think, however, that I would be a bigot if I said, "Martians kill puppies for entertainment. I believe it is immoral to kill puppies for entertainment. I think Martians should not be allowed to kill puppies for entertainment." That's a bad example and I probably just offended a lot of Martians. Another way of thinking about it is that, like, I oppose murder, but that doesn't make me bigoted against murderers. Y'know? I probably shouldn't talk about this stuff at 1am.

  5. I completely agree! I've heard people make complaints about books like this before but, really, it's no different than saying that Harry Potter is evil because it contains the word witchcraft. Are there sometimes references in Lewis's works that could, potentially, be seen as "culturally insensitive" today, yes. But, that's true of most authors including Mark Twaine, JRR Tolkein, Shakespeare and (as you mentioned) Chaucer. What you have to remember is that these writers are not writing from modern America and they are not writing FOR modern America. Their literary styles provide very useful insight into a past culture which we would otherwise be unable to experience. To refuse to admire or even read these books because of (usually) insignificant adjectives and descriptive words which do not coincide with our cultural idea is EXTREMELY closed minded. (And, oddly, the people who most often accuse Lewis and Tolkein of racism/sexism are those who pride themselves on their "open minded attitudes).

  6. I agree with the major theme of this post. Maybe Lewis did write racist or stereotypical comments in his writing but to not read his writing because of that does not get us anywhere. By reading his books, a person will get a deeper sense of the time he was writing those books in and the social context those words came from. If people ignored certain types of media because they offend certain groups of people then there would be very little forms of media left. Disney movies like Aladdin and Pocahontas have stereotypes in them but I don't see many people boycotting Disney. Parents should teach their children right from wrong so that when they see these forms of media, the children will be able to develop their critical thinking skills and say, "I agree with Lewis here" or "I disagree with Lewis here".
    I'm not sure if I made my thoughts clear or if they were even relevant.

  7. Great post Sarah! And I like the new format :-) Easier to read!

    One of my huge pet peeves is when people accuse Lewis of anti-feminism because Susan wasn't a Friend of Narnia by the time the Last Battle rolled around. The reason? She was too interested in makeup and flirting and nice clothes to be conscious of the magic of Narnia anymore. I've had people tell me this means that because Susan grew up and discovered her sexuality (makeup and flirting, apparently) she was no longer welcome in Narnia. How ridiculous! If you read the text closely, it's clear that Susan's superficial, materialistic attitude was the problem, not her flirting or makeup wearing. Lewis's female characters are great; Lucy and Susan are strong, as are Aravis and Polly. Lewis's women are not fluttering damsels.

    As for the racism thing; yes, if you ripped things out of context one could argue that the Last Battle in particular is anti-Arab, but as you said, considering the cultural/historical context in which it was written that's not unbelievable. And as always in fantasy literature, the author is world-building and creating cultures that have vestiges of real life events/peoples, but are ultimately the product of his/her imagination.

    And Marlena makes a very good point; ie, because Pullman's career is so wrapped up in his identity as the "atheists' Lewis," it's of course in his best interests to bash Lewis. I don't get all bent out of shape about His Dark Materials like a lot of Christians do; I think they're well-written and an interesting story, but Pullman is probably trying to make wave just for the sake of making waves.