Narnia: Welcome to Calormen

[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence]

Narnia Recap: It's time for a new adventure!

The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 1: How Shasta Set Out On His Travels

I have been approaching The Horse and His Boy with some trepidation. On the one hand, I will freely confess that this is the Narnia novel that finally broke through to me in my childhood and made me think "wait, what??" so we have that to look forward to. On the other hand, this book is astoundingly racist.

We've talked a little bit about this before on the blog. I'm concerned about going through this as a white author with a predominantly white readership. So let's get some things out in the open first: This is a racist book. That's not a rare or unusual thing. A lot of books by white authors have elements of racism in them. Probably even most books by white authors. We live in a racist society where racism is normalized and acceptable and expected.

So when I say that this is a racist book, I am not saying that it is exceptional for its racism. I am not soliciting comparison works in an attempt to top THaHB for the prize of "most racist". Nor am I judging Lewis as a bad person; I, too, have internalized racism that I must work through. Lewis and his book do not need defending here, because the statement that "this book is racist" is not an attack on it or its author.

Nor do I think we need to belabor how racism in 1940s England differs from racism in America circa 2015. It is enough to know that we live in a racist society now, that people recommend these books now, and that we are examining racist tropes in this book now. I don't want or need "[white privileged] man of his time" justifications on every post, or indeed any post, in this series.

I also do not particularly wish to parse whether Lewis "intended" the country and people of "Calormen" to map directly onto brown-skinned people of Middle Eastern descent and Muslim religion in the real world, or if he was "merely" trying to recreate the look and feel of works like The Thousand and One Nights. Taking an important Middle Eastern cultural work that is heavily intertwined with the Muslim religion and using the characters therein for your Western European book is not, to me, meaningfully different than using the places and people who created that work.

Or, to put it another way: if someone recreated the Narnia setting, food, and religion but with slightly different labels for everything, we would still recognize the white, British, Christian roots of the material being adapted. Lifting the culture and religion from The Thousand and One Nights to place in Narnia does not remove the Middle Eastern and Muslim roots of the material.

Incidentally, I do strongly recommend brushing up on The Thousand and One Nights while we go through this read-through, if only because the stories are good ones. If you're a Amazon Kindle reader like me, I recommend this one by Madrus; Barnes & Noble readers (and/or people seeking a "child-friendly" version) may prefer Al-Musawi's print adaptation.

So with that foundation, let's start.

THIS IS THE STORY OF AN ADVENTURE that happened in Narnia and Calormen and the lands between, in the Golden Age when Peter was High King in Narnia and his brother and his two sisters were King and Queens under him.

The kingdom, it must be noted, is called Calormen.

Lewis is not particularly subtle with his naming conventions. "Aslan" has Turkish origins and means "lion"; our swamp-living gloomy-guts in the last book was named "Puddle-glum"; the wolf-captain in the first novel was either "Fenris Ulf" (Wolf) or Maugrim (maw-grim), depending on the edition. Now we have the evocation of a Middle Eastern country, hot and full of shifting sands, named Calor-men.

Calor means "heat", and can also map to ardor and passion. And, of course, to English eyes, "calor" can read like "color" or "colored". Calormen is the hot place, the passionate place, the place where people have colored skin.

Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam
Where they cut off your ear
If they don't like your face
It's barbaric, but hey, it's home

When the wind's from the east and the sun's from the west
And the sand in the glass is right
Come on down stop on by
Hop a carpet and fly
To another Arabian night

Arabian nights, like Arabian days
More often than not
Are hotter than hot
In a lot of good ways

Arabian nights, 'neath Arabian moons
A fool off his guard
Could fall and fall hard
Out there on the dunes

(Yes, Aladdin also has racist elements. No, that doesn't mean you have to hate the movie. No, it doesn't mean that the movie was entirely without merit. Things can be good and bad at the same time.)

Do I think Lewis sat up late at night trying to come up with a perfectly racist name for his Middle Eastern setting? No. I suspect he named the country quickly and with very little thought. That doesn't make the name any less problematic. Associating heat with passion with colored skin is a racist trope that has existed for hundreds of years. Lewis didn't come up with that, and may not even have furthered the trope with intentional malice. But it's still an intensely problematic name, and I can't help but wince whenever I read it.

I belabor this point because I have read pages and pages of (predominantly white) fans insisting in very serious arguments that the name "Calormen" is very much not racist. That saying it the name is racist is ignorant, reactionary, unhelpful, uneducated, and other assorted bad words. These apologetics are, in my opinion, wrong and coming from a place of white privilege and internalized normalized racism.

These are words that Serious People have written, for example:

Claims of racism can be seen as countered by Lewis's positive portrayal of two Calormenes and the lack of racism shown to them by Narnian nobility. In The Horse and His Boy, the female protagonist Aravis is a Calormene noblewoman who is accepted whole-heartedly by the Archenlanders and Narnians, and comes to marry Cor, a prince of a more European ethnicity; a progressive and bold statement by Lewis in a time when mixed relationships were neither as common nor accepted as they have been in more recent years.

No. Two acceptable tokens do not counter racism. Nor is the fact that Lewis' white people are shown as open-minded and willing to accept a brown-skinned woman (who embraces their culture and religion without reservation) as the wife of their king a counter to the racism in this book. This is a very misinformed understanding of what racism is and how it operates.

Accordingly, the moral critique that Lewis provides does not rest on any qualities supposed to be inherent in the Calormene race, such as skin color, but rests on the tyrannical values of the hegemonical Calormene culture, in which freedom is scorned and the weak must give way to the strong. Depicting Lewis’ moral critique of the Calormene culture as a ‘racist’ critique would therefore require making the tacit and racist claim, and one not made by Lewis, that morality is an inherent racial rather than cultural characteristic.

NO. That is also not how racism works; that is, in fact, a strawman view of racism. "He doesn't hate their skin color, he just hates [his understanding of] their culture," does not mean that the person in question isn't being terribly racist.

This would be true in any case, but is particularly true in the case of Narnia. Look at the criticisms of Calormen culture and realize that they are all true of Narnia, yet they are only a problem when done by the "wrong" sorts of people. Narnia culture is hegemonical, Narnia culture is intensely scornful of freedom, and in Narnia the weak must give way always to the strong. This is a book series where a white king swept into the Lone Islands, beat up elderly men, declared their culture to be weak and pitiable, and deposed the governor in favor of a strong tyrant and this was considered a good thing in-text.

Yet serious people will look The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and then look at The Horse and His Boy and insist that this isn't about skin color, oh dear no. It's about all the many differences in culture between the white tyrannical religious despot and the brown tyrannical religious despot. For instance, the white despot punches people in the face in a calm, cool, logical way, while the brown despot kicks people in the face in an agitated, hot, passionate way. He's a very calor-man, that's all, and there's definitely no racism here.



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