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. :-)