Orientalism in Narnia?

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Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby Inkling » Oct 24, 2014 4:42 am

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientalism was (and sometimes still is) a big problem in Western literature, often dehumanizing Middle Eastern (in European lit) and East Asian (in American lit) peoples. You see some traces of Orientalism in The Horse and His Boy and in The Last Battle, partly because C.S. Lewis lived in a time where an obsession with the Orient was still widespread and partly because he’s emulating older European works, which happen to have Orientalism.

Yes, Aravis is just amazing, but some of the Calormene characters in The Horse and His Boy are reminiscent of established Western caricatures of Middle Eastern customs. Is it too much, or does Lewis find a middle ground?

I’m particularly interested in hearing from Middle Eastern and North African Narnia fans, or from people who’ve had similar conversations with friends from those countries. I’d like to read about your experience reading these books and if Orientalism becomes a problem.
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby PhelanVelvel » Nov 01, 2014 10:29 pm

I do believe Lewis draws upon those same tropes, but it's hard to differentiate between stereotype and legitimate folk influence. I don't think he meant any malice by it at all, in fact I think he was trying to modernise it by having a character like Aravis.

Look at the Arabian Nights. I've read a good chunk of them and find that Calormene culture strongly reminds me of those stories. Why? Because they are also an amalgamation of cultures. I'd say they have the same spirit or vibe running through them. According to Wikipedia:

"The tales themselves trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folklore and literature. In particular, many tales were originally folk stories from the Caliphate era, while others, especially the frame story, are most probably drawn from the Pahlavi Persian work Hazār Afsān (Persian: هزار افسان‎, lit. A Thousand Tales) which in turn relied partly on Indian elements."

So here we have a collection of tales from various empires/nations in both Africa and Asia, and that's before we even get into the editing, appending, and translating done by Westerners. It's a mess. If you took your inspiration entirely from the Arabian Nights, you would seem like someone who thought that all the aforementioned cultures (Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian) were somehow one, with random aspects of each mashed together. It's not so much a matter of stereotyping as many cultural influences meeting in one fantastic narrative.

Even if the "orientalism" of the 19th century was "wrong" because it jumbled cultures together and made assumptions based on stereotypes, I think many artists were captivated by the differences in culture and were legitimately inspired, even if their facts were wrong. Honestly, take a look at some of those paintings from the 19th century; the people are animated with a great deal of beauty and character.

I do have some issues with Calormen, however. They are enemies, and when they're not enemies they're an exception to the rule. They keep the slave trade alive in the Lone Islands, they threaten to invade Archenland, and they bring Narnia to its end in The Last Battle. Tirian, Jill, and Eustace must blacken their faces to blend in (oh dear, that's not going to make it into the film, lol). Something about the way the fair skin and fair hair is talked about in The Horse and His Boy also puts me off.

The main problem, I think, is the division of skin colour. In the Arabian Nights (as well as I can remember right now) skin colour doesn't come up much because they are usually about people living in one city or country. Both good and bad people, then, are assumed to have the same skin colour. The first impression you get of the Calormenes in the Chronicles (if read in publication order, which you obviously should) is as follows: "The Calormen have dark faces and long beards. They wear flowing robes and orange-coloured turbans, and they are a wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient people." It is a very polarising statement. The very first thing you learn about them is their dark faces. That is your first impression. You're going to remember that they are the dark-skinned people, different from the light-skinned protagonists. Lewis attempts to amend this later, obviously, but I don't think it was the best way they could have been introduced.

I don't necessarily have an issue with the orientalism in Narnia, as I do feel like Lewis drew inspiration from the Arabian Nights, a literary classic that has legitimate roots in "Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folklore and literature". The problem I have is that he chose to put that Arabian Nights world alongside a white European renaissance world and the former happen to be the bad guys. Ultimately, I do not think he meant any harm by it, I don't think he was racist, etc. It's just that with our 2014 lenses on, it doesn't look as sensitive and culturally aware as we're expected to be.
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby Anhun » Nov 05, 2014 5:58 am

The main reason why Lewis wrote the Narnia series was to introduce modern children to traditional imaginative story telling. He drew inspiration from a variety of sources: Greek myth, Norse legend, medieval romance, and, as PhelanVelvel pointed out, A Thousand Tales. I don't feel his "orientalism" is any more objectionable than his "Greekism," if you will.

He does imply that Middle Eastern medieval culture is cruel and barbaric. Well it was. Only a multi-generation Middle-Eastern immigrant, unfamiliar with his or her own ethnic history, would argue otherwise. Many parts of the modern middle east still have cultural elements depicted in the Horse and His Boy. Traffic in modern Kuwait City operates much the same way as traffic in Tashbaan. I myself was only 12 the first time someone approached my father with a bride price, younger than I imagine Aravis to be.

My objection to the depiction of the Calormenes is not in any element of their characterization. Medieval middle eastern culture was brutal. The problem is the implication that medieval European was less so. If anything, it was worse.

This is why, if they ever do a film version of HHB, I hope they emphasize the Archenlanders nymph origins over their European origins. So they aren't interpreted as a phony contrast between the "noble" pseudo-Europeans and the barbaric pseudo-Middle Easterners.
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby PhelanVelvel » Nov 06, 2014 7:29 pm

Anhun wrote:My objection to the depiction of the Calormenes is not in any element of their characterization. Medieval middle eastern culture was brutal. The problem is the implication that medieval European was less so. If anything, it was worse.


Well said. I have no problem with him romanticising things, but it does seem rather unfair to make the medieval European culture seem so fair and noble and then have the medieval Middle Eastern culture seem barbaric. As we know, both cultures have had their fair share of inhumanity. The Calormenes being "evil" unfortunately lines things up as too black vs. white, even if Lewis didn't mean it that way.
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby waggawerewolf27 » Nov 16, 2014 6:28 pm

Anhun wrote:My objection to the depiction of the Calormenes is not in any element of their characterization. Medieval middle eastern culture was brutal. The problem is the implication that medieval European was less so. If anything, it was worse.


You are right of course, but I don't necessarily think that Narnian culture was Medieval. It all depends on how you define Medieval periods of history. I'd see Narnian culture as distinctly Classical (Greco-Roman) in tone, dating from Constantine the Great's choice to adopt Christianity as the state religion of Ancient Rome. This choice showed at least one Roman Emperor had the commonsense to break with the idea that Emperors were or could become Gods, so memorably painted by HHB's Tisroc. However, it would not be at least until the 1700's AD, the beginning of Modern History, before that basic Christian tenet of keeping religion separate from the state would become more typical of Western Society.

Unfortunately, as the Narnian chronicles are imbued with C.S.Lewis' Christian point of view, the ideal society of Narnia has overwhelmingly been painted as a European culture, including the later Telmarines who invaded Narnia and marginalised the Old Narnians. Even though in the Middle East there are still Christian enclaves, though many have fled since C.S.Lewis' death, most people worldwide would still consider Christianity and Christian ideals as a distinctly European religion, even in places such as Philippines, Ethiopia or Egypt where Christianity either is the dominant religion or has a well-known native Christian minority.

Part of the brutality of Medieval Middle Eastern Culture was inflicted on the Middle East by Christian Crusaders under Richard I and his Frankish counterparts, I'd agree. And I'd also agree that Frankish Christians did a great job of sacking Constantinople, a Christian city until 1453 AD, when it finally fell to the Ottoman Turks, a date which officially brings the Medieval period to a close. But this is not a good example of Christianity at its finest, but rather the sort of dumb shooting themselves in the foot, where full-of-themselves Medieval Christian leaders confused religion with politics and their own rivalries for power.

I'd also agree that the Muslims, who swept over the Middle East and Northern Africa, overwhelming much of Spain, had a golden age from about 900 AD to 1200 AD. Much of that success was due to thinkers such as Avicenna and Averroes. But it was also due to their access to Classic authors such as Aristotle, and to the Christians and Jews, like Maimonides, who worked for the Sultans. However, repeatedly, the most dominant players in the Middle East also confused politics with religion, and still do. Even though the Middle East nations have had Hindus, Parsees, Bahai, Jews, Christians and many other religious minorities, not only from Ancient times when the region was under the Byzantine Empire, but also after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918 AD, there is also an unfortunate perception that the whole area is Arabic speaking and monolithically Islamic by religion.
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby King_Erlian » Nov 18, 2014 6:40 am

waggawerewolf27 wrote:You are right of course, but I don't necessarily think that Narnian culture was Medieval. It all depends on how you define Medieval periods of history. I'd see Narnian culture as distinctly Classical (Greco-Roman) in tone, dating from Constantine the Great's choice to adopt Christianity as the state religion of Ancient Rome.

That's a good point. I think our views of Narnia looking like Mediaeval England come largely from Pauline Baynes' illustrations (though I imagine Lewis himself approved of them). If you go by just the text he wrote, the description of King Edmund's appearance when he's walking through Tashbaan in "The Horse And His Boy", for instance, could just as well describe someone from Roman times. The Romans used chain mail more than the popular modern image of the Roman soldier in segmented plate armour.
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby waggawerewolf27 » Nov 19, 2014 5:32 pm

King_Erlian, it isn't only the clothing which convinces me Narnia isn't strictly Medieval, it is the use of River Gods, fauns, satyrs, Bacchus, Silenus, maenads, dryads, minotaurs, etc. But Pauline Baynes' illustrations do tend to make the Narnians somewhere between Roman and Medieval. In Silver Chair, in particular, the characters could be either late Middle Ages or Elizabethan. Rilian looks almost how one would depict Hamlet. Or am I being too influenced by the BBC movie of this tale?

Her depictions of the Calormenes are also rather jumbled. Yes, that sort of clothing did tend to be worn throughout the Middle East and South Asia, more commonly a century ago. Baggy ballooning "harem pants", worn by slaves, were more often worn in Turkey where the Sultans of Ottoman Turkey really did keep a harem in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, once called Constantinople. But the most magnificent turbans are not necessarily worn in Turkey. They are more a feature of Sikh or Hindu dress over in India, in South Asia. The herald preceding the Narnians in a frontispiece illustration of HHB's first edition wore a getup I've never seen anywhere else. Whilst the sedan chairs or litters could have been used anywhere at any time from either Medieval Europe or Asia right down to the time of the American Revolution.

Inkling wrote:You see some traces of Orientalism in The Horse and His Boy and in The Last Battle, partly because C.S. Lewis lived in a time where an obsession with the Orient was still widespread and partly because he’s emulating older European works, which happen to have Orientalism.

Yes, Aravis is just amazing, but some of the Calormene characters in The Horse and His Boy are reminiscent of established Western caricatures of Middle Eastern customs. Is it too much, or does Lewis find a middle ground?


Yes, it may seem a bit much, but in all fairness to C.S.Lewis, he grew up in a country which had been repeatedly raided by pirates, not necessarily from the Orient, to gather slaves for use in Arabia, Turkey and North Africa. Just as we see in VDT. Nor was Ireland's UK neighbours much more innocent in that regard. Not only did wealthy nobility and factory owners clear the Scottish highlands of crofters, and fail to help people affected by the Irish potato famine, they also did employ slaves, themselves, and made virtual slaves of their workers during the Industrial Revolution, with minimal wage rates and poor living conditions. Even though William Wilberforce's successful anti-slavery campaigning preceded the American Civil War.

Western Literature, of the era preceding C.S.Lewis, including Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley, made much reference to these matters and the evils of slavery, even if they targeted their own society whilst others Inkling mentions caricatured the East. At that time until WW1 the Orient virtually meant the Turkish Ottoman Empire of Asia Minor which also included swathes of Europe, itself. And slavery in the Orient was slow to depart, even after World War I toppled the Ottoman Empire of Asia Minor, rearranging nations in both Europe and the Middle East. It would be 1965 before wealthy Saudi Arabia would ratify UN agreements to abolish slavery, and in some places in West Africa slavery is still practised. Even today, in Western Society, it would be a sore point to refer to slavery in the USA, whilst those Australians with convict ancestry could own up to it freely only as late as 1988, the Bicentenary of Australia's founding.

So since escaping from slavery or a horrible captivity, is such a theme in the entire Narnia series, an almost Oriental setting for the country of Calormen in VDT, HHB and LB, at any rate, might seem inevitable from the author's point of view, especially as it has been said that he disliked the Arabian Nights. And possibly, any vague mention of "Oriental"-like faults may seem insensitive to people in 2014, given current events, though these books were written more than 50 years ago.

But is Calormen necessarily Oriental in setting? Eustace's encounter with Calormene merchants did not deter him from seeing Calormen as "the least phony" country in the Narnian world. Couldn't some of the caricatures have also applied just as equally to Western Society? Though he couldn't antagonise readers by actually saying so, and upsetting some of their sensitivities?

Up until World War II, both Thailand and Japan were proud Far Eastern societies who had been slow to engage with the rest of the world and remained free of Western colonization. Both socieities have exotic, sometimes polytheistic religious beliefs, such as Buddhism, maybe Hinduism, Taoism, Shintoism etc. Thailand, once called Siam, is famous for Anna Leonowen's depiction of that exotic society under its king, Mongkut, made into a Broadway musical, The King and I. They still have kings in Thailand, though the latest king, Bhumiphol, never had a harem, unlike Mongkut.

Japan, likewise, had long abandoned harems when their Emperor Hirohito, at the close of World War II, renounced the Japanese belief that the Japanese Emperor was of divine descent, somewhat similar to C.S.Lewis' depiction of the Tisroc, and the Ancient Roman practice of deifying at least some of their Emperors. If you ever saw a performance of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical Mikado it is based upon 19th century Japanese society and government, on the surface. But as with other G & S musicals, the play was more a satire of UK, itself, including characters like the High Chief Executioner, Pooh Ba, Nanky Poo, and Yum Yum. Not to mention the Mikado, himself, singing about his mission to make the Punishment fit the Crime. With all this concern for Oriental sensibilities, isn't it odd that nobody sees a replay of Mikado as insensitive to Japanese feelings? Especially as Japan, itself, seems to have distanced itself from anything to do with Islam yet is just as Oriental as any of its Middle Eastern Asian neighbours?

So why is the depiction of Calormen seen as insensitive at all? Getting back to when Shift the Ape in LB invited into Narnia, disguised Calormene merchants, wasn't he really inviting in Western Society with all its trappings of industrialization, roads and services, much as Mikado was used as a cover for UK government?
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby Anhun » Nov 20, 2014 11:27 am

waggawerewolf27 wrote:King_Erlian, it isn't only the clothing which convinces me Narnia isn't strictly Medieval, it is the use of River Gods, fauns, satyrs, Bacchus, Silenus, maenads, dryads, minotaurs, etc.


I was referring to human Narnian culture. Narnian creatures don't belong to any time period. They don't wear clothes, and they use technology that ranges from ancient greek to 19th century English. But, if we are going to use Greco-Roman imagery as an indicator of time period, those themes inspired art work to a certain degree in the Middle Ages, and became hugely popular during the Renaissance.

waggawerewolf27 wrote:King_Erlianin particular, the characters could be either late Middle Ages or Elizabethan. Rilian looks almost how one would depict Hamlet. Or am I being too influenced by the BBC movie of this tale?


You are not. In the text itself, Jill thinks that Rillian is dressed "like Hamlet." This would suggest that Narnio-human culture immediately preceding, and probably during, Rillian's reign was most analogous to England's Elizabethan period.
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby waggawerewolf27 » Nov 20, 2014 2:29 pm

Anhun wrote:I was referring to human Narnian culture. Narnian creatures don't belong to any time period. They don't wear clothes, and they use technology that ranges from ancient greek to 19th century English. But, if we are going to use Greco-Roman imagery as an indicator of time period, those themes inspired art work to a certain degree in the Middle Ages, and became hugely popular during the Renaissance.


Yes, Greco-Roman imagery is a possible indicator of time period and was valid for a later Medieval European setting, since referral to Greco-Roman classics of the entire Roman period brought about the Renaissance. But since many or all the creatures of Narnia are also drawn from that classical period of Greco-Roman thoughts, beliefs, myths and legends, still relevant at the time of Constantine the Great and afterwards, surely that would be in synch with my argument that Narnia was, at least at first, classical rather than purely medieval. Especially Silenus and Bacchus.

Some people refer to the Dark Ages which muddles things up a bit. But really how Dark was the Dark ages, after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, until the death of Mohammed in the 7th century AD? Or from the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD to the Battle of Hastings 1066 AD? It is one of the least known periods of European and Middle Eastern history, and yet it has given rise to a whole heap of myths, legends, and traditions, more so than any other period of the history of the regions involved. Of all periods of history this is the one that has inspired most fantasy fiction such as Tolkien or C.S.Lewis, and through them, other works from comic book writers to Mad Max.
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby Firecycle » Mar 23, 2015 11:40 am

Also, the Calormenes didn't have the advantage of their first king being a sensible modern englishman with (presumably) sensible english morals. As far as ethics is concerned, the Narnians would naturally be centuries ahead of civilizations without that advantage.

In other words, the Narnians would have abhorred slavery because King Frank would have abhorred slavery.

The Telmarines and the Calormenes also didn't have the advantage of being established by Aslan.
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby waggawerewolf27 » Jul 01, 2015 4:05 am

I've participated in this thread before but whatever I wrote then needs to be seen in another light. In fact the averred orientalism in Narnia also needs to be seen differently. So does any thought of any form of racism in Narnia that anyone would have had previous to last April.

You see, I went to the Anzac Centenary on 25th April, with a side trip to Istanbul among other places along the Greek and Turkish coasts, such as Ephesus, Lemnos, Mytilene (the chief town of Lesbos), Pergamum and Cannakale, near Homer's Troy. Not to mention Athens, itself. We were on a ship which participated in the flotilla in the Dardanelles and on it we could see by satellite broadcast the two Anzac Day services at Anzac Cove and at Lone Pine as well as holding our own dawn service onboard. That is what we were there for.

Istanbul was an eye-opener. In the morning we were confronted not only by peddlars and taxi drivers but also a myriad army of cats and some dogs which seem to patrol every public park, archaeological site and tourist destination. In its Grand Bazaar you do have to haggle just as Arsheesh haggled with Anradin. There, whole shops of Turkish Delight confronted Aslan's jewellery store. The daughter of one of our fellow tourists came back to the bus dressed just like Pauline Baynes' depiction of Aravis in HHB. And on our way back to our ship, the Celestyal Cristal, two blokes got so frustrated with traffic far worse than I have ever seen even in much bigger Paris or London, that they hoed into each other with baseball bats right in front of our bus. On board our cheerful master of ceremonies had informed us en route that to get around in that part of the world you not only have to say excuse me but use your elbows as well, in a kind of dance.

The skyline of Istanbul as you sail into the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn is something to see. As well as the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, there is the Topkapi palace, not unlike C.S.Lewis' depiction of the Tisroc's palace in Tashbaan. And yes, inside of the many pavilions or rooms, they do use sofas or divans, rather than chairs or thrones as we understand them. And relics of the Ottoman Empire and the sultans in their splendour, do indeed include jewelled clothing, furniture, even babies' cots, and more. Remember the Tisroc? I can't help thinking that C.S.Lewis would have known a good deal about Istanbul, when he had that very Calormene personage mention those "19 other sons". You see, Selim the Grim, one of the Ottoman sultans of Istanbul, ensured his sucession to the Ottoman Sultanate by murdering his 19 brothers, that being the way of determining the next person to rule in Istanbul.

Why Istanbul? C.S.Lewis made a great deal about "in between places" and yes, Istanbul and even the whole of Turkey does fit that description quite nicely. From time immemorable, Asia Minor has seen the rise and fall of many peoples on its lands. Hittites lived in that area, as did the Trojans, speakers of an Illyrian language related to that spoken by Albanians on the Adriatic coast. Christian Armenians, who can be detected by the way surnames end in "ian", spilled over into Asia Minor from their current country abutting Turkey. Tales of wealth, gold and empire let us know about Midas and Croesus, the latter a Lydian king whose kingdom fell to the Persians. By the way, a mysterious people called Medes had done much to tip the balance of power in Ancient Asia, as allies to the Babylonians and then to the Persians. These Zoaroastrian believing ancestors to today's Kurds, still live in Easternmost Cappadocia as they do in Persia, Iran and Syria. As well, Bithynians, Pisidians and Cicillians might have been Greeks or some other people who dwelt there.

Many of these people flourishing in Greek colonies spread right through the Aegean sea, overtaking the native inhabitants with their own Hellenistic culture. There was a Grecian Queen of Halicarnassus, the widow of the bloke with the Mausoleum, which became one of the 7 wonders of the world, whose ships fought at the battle of Salamis, on the side of Persian Xerxes AKA Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther.

But that's not all, folks. The Greeks also established a colony at Byzantium in what was called Thrace in those days. And in 248 BC a strange new horde swept their way through Europe, terrorising Rome, Athens and many other places. Three tribes of these people, Gaelic speaking kinfolk to many of your ancestors, settled in central Asia Minor in a place called Galatia. Remember how St Paul wrote a letter to the Galatians? As well as others to the Corinthians, the Thessalonians, the Philippians, not to mention the Ephesians?

But lets get back to Istanbul, where you can stay in a hotel which might have served Poirot in Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express and where the genial waiter who serves your table is called Aslan. On my voyage we visited a place called Ephesus, where St John of Patmos had his church, a ruin at the present day Efes, where the air is fragrant with a most wonderful scent, so different from the resinous Eucalypt or Pine smells which make bushwalking so marvellous. And yes, just as in Ephesus there are reminders of Istanbul's Christian past.

The polytheistic Graeco-Roman culture was big in Ephesus, as it was in Croesus' city, Sardis, Philadelphia, Pergamon, Laodicea, and the others of the seven cities of the Apocalypse. Including now vanished Smyrna, subsumed in the modern port of Izmir. The Romans didn't really care what god anyone worshipped, but expected everyone as their civic duty to worship their emperors as gods, a practice which led to conflict, not only with Druids and Jews but also the Christians. Constantine the Great put an end to this practice when he adopted the sign of Christianity and on his deathbed converted to that faith. He was the one who also built a new capital for his empire at Constantinople, adjacent to the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium. He also presided over some councils, notably at Nicaea, later called Edirne.

A successor to Constantine was the one who made this city's official religion Christianity. Theodosius the Great also split the Roman Empire into two. Most of you will have learned what happened to the Western half, centred on Rome, and how it eventually fell in about 470 AD. How many know that the Eastern half remained, wealthy and cultured, for nearly a thousand years until 1453 AD when it fell to the Ottoman Turks? Becoming the Islamic Ottoman capital of Istanbul for just under 500 years? Whose Sultan was also expected to be a religious leader.

So far, however, the story of Constantinople was mainly a European one, definitely Greek, whether pagan or not. The Byzantine Empire, so wealthy and notable before 1204 AD, fell to Frankish crusaders like Villehardouin and Joinville, who in the 4th crusade had been incited by Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice, to invade Constantinople instead, so he could steal their treasures. Although the Latins were expelled eventually it seriously weakened the Byzantine Empire, especially when Romanus Diogenes lost a battle to invading Turks, and especially given the turnover of Emperors to rule the place. Something like the Telmarines perhaps. By 1453, much of the territory the Byzantines had once commanded had gone, and only European based Istanbul and the Greek Peloponnesus was left. And by that time even many mainland Asian Christians had already given up on the Byzantine Empire, much as the Dwarves gave up on Tirian.

And what about those Narnian dark faces people make so much of? The Ottomans and their Seljuk predecessors who had invaded Asia Minor were Turkic-speaking nomads from Central Asia who spilled into Asia Minor. Turkic languages include European languages like Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Turkish and other Central Asian languages. This group of languages also includes Mongolian, Manchurian, Korean and Japanese. Everyone today in Turkey is expected to speak Turkish, of course, but you can have a whole range of minorities, complexions and dark or fair faces for any number of reasons. Depending of course on your locality.

Did someone mention slavery? The Ottomans were up to it up to their necks. Just like their Greek predessors the Sultans expected to have slaves aplenty. In fact they also took particular pleasure in seizing forcibly Christian boys from Europe whom they shanghaied into a body of soldiers called Janissaries, who were made to convert to Islam and who were shock troops for the Sultan. This practice was regarded with particular horror by European Christians who felt their children were being turned against them.

There is a lot more to my contention that there is something really Narnian or at least Calormene about Istanbul, a city which is neither Asian or European and yet both at the same time. A city that has seen idolatry, the purest monotheism, iconoclasm, betrayals and much else. But I have already written what is tantamount to a longish essay. Please just think about it, and say what you think as well.
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby PhelanVelvel » Sep 16, 2016 8:37 pm

That was a highly fascinating account, Wagga. It's great hearing you talk about history, even better when it's mixed with firsthand experience! I get what you're saying. Much of what Lewis wrote about Calormen was inspired by real life. I certainly don't doubt that. I just think Calormen is hard for people to swallow because the Narnian protagonists are fair-skinned. Narnia itself, where the "white" characters live, is portrayed as a gentle, idyllic place, while Calormen, where the "non-whites" live, is portrayed as intimidating and unforgiving. People pick out that disparity and chalk it up to racism. Calormen may have gone over a bit better if Narnia had had more shortcomings and evils associated with it. But that, of course, wouldn't fit the story.
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby The Rose-Tree Dryad » Sep 17, 2016 12:58 pm

That is such an interesting essay about your travels, wagga! Thank you for sharing it; it offers some really interesting insight. It sounds like you went on quite an adventure. :D

Phelan, it's great to see you back on NarniaWeb! :-h I was wondering if you'd been abducted by aliens or something. ;))

PhelanVelvel wrote:I just think Calormen is hard for people to swallow because the Narnian protagonists are fair-skinned. Narnia itself, where the "white" characters live, is portrayed as a gentle, idyllic place, while Calormen, where the "non-whites" live, is portrayed as intimidating and unforgiving. People pick out that disparity and chalk it up to racism. Calormen may have gone over a bit better if Narnia had had more shortcomings and evils associated with it. But that, of course, wouldn't fit the story.


I agree; I fully understand why many people with modern sensibilities read HHB and LB and feel like there's some racism there. I just think that the lens they're looking through is a deeply misleading paradigm. You know the phrase "people see what they want to see"? Well, they see what they expect to see. (I'm reminded of a 1949 study done with playing cards that helped expose this.)

I remember reading a review of The Secret Garden a long time ago where the reviewer was convinced that the book was racist/xenophobic because the main character was miserable living in India and became happy after moving to England. They didn't pay any attention to the fact that the climate didn't agree with her and that her parents and most of their servants completely ignored her, to such a degree that she was forgotten and left behind to die when sickness swept through the area. The reviewer was so caught up in the fact that the book was old and came from a time where racial prejudices were more common, they couldn't see the story clearly for what it was. Frances Hodgson Burnett's other most famous book, A Little Princess, also had a main character that spent her early years in India and moved to England, but I can't remember anything that could be conceived as anti-India in that story because, unlike Mary Lennox, Sara Crewe had been raised in a happy home by a loving father. But I digress.

Modern eyes look at the Narnia/Archenland/Calormen contrast and think that it must be some vestige of racism, but I don't think they're seeing clearly. This is not a case of "evil dark-skinned country versus good fair-skinned country," though it may appear to be on the surface.

In Narnia, humans are an almost nonexistent minority, regardless of what their skin color might be, and the inhabitants of the country are about as diverse as it is possible to be. The fair-skinned Pevensies are rulers there on account of being humans, not their complexions, and their manner of ruling comes directly from Aslan—a Lion—and the precepts laid out by him to King Frank, not the country that they originally came from. Archenland, on the other hand, is a tiny mountain nation that somehow managed to escape Jadis's genocide. They are only half-human (if even that much), because although they are descended from King Frank and Queen Helen, their children all married nymphs and nature gods. Their tradition of government was doubtless to have been influenced strongly by that of Narnia, since the country was established within just a few generations after the creation of Narnia.

Both countries could not be more different from the invasive, paternalistic British Empire. Calormen, with its wealth and size and interest expanding its territory and bringing those "Northern barbarians" to heel, has far, far more in common with it. When I read the scene where the Calormenes are whipping the horses to death in The Last Battle, I think of the cruelty experienced by the titular character of Black Beauty when he was forced to draw taxicabs in London in the late 1800s. (In the foreword of my childhood copy of that book, Victorian London was described as "hell for horses" and that's always stuck with me.)

I do understand that people are sensitive about these things, and some of that sensitivity is quite justified. I'm sure that these books would not be seen as being sensitive enough if they were released in this day and age, but I also think that there's too much of a tendency to say that the book was written by an old white man in the 1950s and therefore that's all you need to know. When you start reading the books from established paradigms, you can't see Lewis's world or story for what it really is. Sadly, this seems to be the natural inclination for humans, according to the aforementioned study. =/

(I may be veering off from the Orientalism topic a bit, but I just wanted to address this.)
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby PhelanVelvel » Sep 17, 2016 11:17 pm

The Rose-Tree Dryad wrote:I remember reading a review of The Secret Garden a long time ago where the reviewer was convinced that the book was racist/xenophobic because the main character was miserable living in India and became happy after moving to England. They didn't pay any attention to the fact that the climate didn't agree with her and that her parents and most of their servants completely ignored her, to such a degree that she was forgotten and left behind to die when sickness swept through the area.


Ahhh, I love The Secret Garden! One of my favourites! It had never occurred to me that it might be racist or xenophobic. Mary didn't get better because she came to England, she got better because she was no longer given her way and was forced to develop as an individual. There were definitely some clearly negative aspects to England. For one, Colin was shut up and isolated by his own family much the same way Mary was ignored by hers in India. If anything it comments more on the tendency of upper class English families at the time to relegate their child-rearing to servants, no matter what country they might live in.

The Rose-Tree Dryad wrote:In Narnia, humans are an almost nonexistent minority, regardless of what their skin color might be, and the inhabitants of the country are about as diverse as it is possible to be.


It's true. I just sat here, thinking through all the books, trying to find examples of distinctions between race. In LWW the only humans are the Pevensies. In PC the humans are the Pevensies, who are white, and the Telmarines. We learn that the Telmarines are descended from a group of pirates (could be any race or races) and Pacific Islanders. In VDT the humans are Narnians, Lone Islanders, Galmans, Terebinthians, Calormenes. The Lone Islanders are Narnians, technically, but they've been cut off from the mainland for so long they could have developed a very different culture. They are also constantly mingling with other nations because of commerce, so I'm sure it's possible for them to be an ethnically diverse group.

The thing that sticks out to readers in VDT is that the Calormene slave-traders are specifically portrayed as dark-skinned and wearing turbans, but the ethnicities of the sailors, townspeople of Narrowhaven, and slaves themselves are not commented upon. I think to a modern reader that one little bit about turbans and dark faces is so questionable that alarm bells go off and they assume "main characters are British, I guess everyone else who's not a Calormene is too".

In SC the humans are Narnians. In HHB the humans are Narnians, Archenlanders, and Calormenes. In HHB you get hit left and right with so many alienating things about Calormen it's hard to write them all down. Trafficking of talking horses, poor treatment of children, arranged marriages of young brides to old men, excessive grovelling to superiors for fear of severe punishment, extreme class divide, etc. From the beginning of the story, so much about Calormen is off-putting. Then the fair-skinned (and fair-haired) Narnians serve as your breath of fresh air in Tashbaan. As a child I remember reading that part and feeling excluded even just by the mention of fair hair. I got the impression that it was better to be like Shasta, fair-skinned and fair-haired, because that meant he looked like the merry and wonderful Narnians and less like the cruel and oppressive Calormenes. I felt like I was somehow less Narnian and less belonging to that group because of my dark hair.

Of course Aravis is a truly incredible character. She is one of my absolute favourites. She defies gender stereotypes and proves that there are good people in Calormen. However, she is the exception to the rule. We don't see any other good Calormenes. From the selfish Arsheesh to the haughty Anradin to the vain Lasaraleen to the cold Tisroc to the spineless Ahoshta to the proud Rabadash, they're pretty much all designed to put you off Calormen. Ultimately, the one truly likeable Calormene character ends up fleeing her country to go live among the kind and hospitable people in the north...who happen to be white.

Then in LB you get more of the same. The majority of Calormene characters are evil with one (Emeth) thrown in to make the point that there can be good individuals among an evil majority. Even though Emeth was raised a certain way, and trained a certain way, he is still good at heart. I think that's an important and powerful point to make, but it's hard to justify the fair skin = good guys/dark skin = bad guys dichotomy. I don't think that's what Lewis was TRYING to say, but it could definitely come off that way to many modern readers. The scene depicting the Narnians strolling through Tashbaan is a major reason for this, I feel. Granted, the whole point of highlighting the Narnians' hair and skin colours is to reinforce the notion that Shasta looks like them, thereby foreshadowing his reunion with family. In context, though, it's easy to see how a reader who does not resemble the Narnians would get a feeling like "I don't look like that...am I not fun and friendly like the Narnians? Am I just meant to be serious and severe like the Calormenes?"

I think Lewis could have rectified a lot of these feelings by changing the events of LB. Because the Calormenes were once again the bad guys, once again ruining everything with their greed, it was once again "dark skin = bad". Maybe there could have been a way to incorporate more good Calormenes in the story who had come to love and respect their Narnian neighbours during the years of peace, proving for an internal conflict among the Calormenes which could threaten to tear the empire apart in civil war. I don't know, that's just an idea.

All I'm saying is that I don't believe Lewis was racist--I think he wrote way more progressively by including Aravis and Emeth than could have possibly been expected of him at the time--but there IS a distinction in the books between light and dark skin, and when it comes to numbers, the majority of the people specifically described as having dark skin are bad while the majority of the people specifically described as having light skin are good. True, Jadis is white, Gumpas is white, LotGK is white, I get it. But the thing is, those were isolated villains, exceptions to the "noble Narnian" standard, while the PEOPLE of Calormen, their government, class system, and culture were flawed. The exceptions, Aravis and Emeth, were sensible and good.

How does this tie back into Orientalism? Well, this habit of characterising the light-skinned people as "mainly good with exceptions" and the dark-skinned people as "mainly bad with exceptions" fits closely with one aspect of Orientalism mentioned in the Wikipedia article: "the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior, while Oriental societies embody the opposite values." That's pretty much exactly it...Narnia and Calormen are opposites, with Narnia being the superior promised land.

Also, I don't think it's just the ultra politically correct crowd who feel uncomfortable about some of Lewis' race-related descriptions. It's easy enough to assume it's our hyper-sensitive social climate that's responsible for it, but I'm not so sure. Even as a child attending a school with an ethnically diverse population, who honestly never thought about skin colour or race it meant so little to her, felt alarmed by the contrast between dark-skinned Calormenes and light-skinned Narnians. "Why does that matter?" I thought. I was used to someone mentioning skin colour when describing a specific character's physical appearance for the sake of painting a mental picture, but not when it came to describing groups of people. I just didn't like the comments about skin colour. It felt too much like "these are the nice people who look like this, these are the scary people who look like this". This was when I was maybe nine or ten, if I had to guess. All I did was hang out with animals and read. I had no inkling or concept of any of the social issues going on nowadays and it still managed to rub me the wrong way.

These are still my favourite books, of course, and I still think Lewis was progressive on the whole, I'm just being honest about my reaction to certain parts.

The Rose-Tree Dryad wrote:Both countries could not be more different from the invasive, paternalistic British Empire. Calormen, with its wealth and size and interest expanding its territory and bringing those "Northern barbarians" to heel, has far, far more in common with it. When I read the scene where the Calormenes are whipping the horses to death in The Last Battle, I think of the cruelty experienced by the titular character of Black Beauty when he was forced to draw taxicabs in London in the late 1800s. (In the foreword of my childhood copy of that book, Victorian London was described as "hell for horses" and that's always stuck with me.)


Dude. I don't even want to imagine it. x__x The comparison between Calormen and the British Empire is extremely interesting, though. I'm not history-focused enough to think of something like that on my own, but now that you mention it, it seems obvious!
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby King_Erlian » Sep 19, 2016 6:29 am

(Hi Phelan, welcome back!)

You make some excellent points and I agree totally. Of all the children in the Narnia stories, I most closely resembled Eustace and I got quite upset at age 6 that he and his beliefs were regarded so negatively, including things like pacifism, which I've always believed and which I've always thought was very much in line with Christian values. Admittedly one of my hobbies is battle reenactment but that's only pretending to fight (and yes, it's an excuse to dress up in shiny armour). In VDT, and increasingly in SC and LB, part of Eustace's redemption appeared to be abandoning his pacifist views and learning to fight. The same thing bugged me about Back To The Future; it's only when George McFly resorts to violence and knocks out Biff that he becomes a successful person and Lorraine starts to like him. If I'd been George, Biff would have broken every bone in my body and probably would have left me with permanent brain damage (and in the process, erased Marty's existence). But I digress.

As regards the Narnia movies, I think that if they can muck about with Prince Caspian so much by turning Susan the Gentle into Xusan the Warrior Queen in order to satisfy modern preferences for girls who can kick ---- rather than demure maidens who let the boys have all the fun, they can change HHB and LB far less by making Calormen a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. After all, the Calormene Empire became what it is by swallowing up other weaker countries, and it wouldn't make any difference to the stories to have some Calormenes fair-skinned, some dark, and others mixed-race. Though of course that doesn't address the issue in the books.

I also hadn't made a connection between Calormen and the British Empire until now, but it makes perfect sense.
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Re: Orientalism in Narnia?

Postby The Rose-Tree Dryad » Sep 19, 2016 6:17 pm

PhelanVelvel wrote:Ahhh, I love The Secret Garden! One of my favourites!


Mine too! The rose-trees in it are actually where that part of my username comes from. :D </off-topic>

PhelanVelvel wrote:All I'm saying is that I don't believe Lewis was racist--I think he wrote way more progressively by including Aravis and Emeth than could have possibly been expected of him at the time--but there IS a distinction in the books between light and dark skin, and when it comes to numbers, the majority of the people specifically described as having dark skin are bad while the majority of the people specifically described as having light skin are good. True, Jadis is white, Gumpas is white, LotGK is white, I get it. But the thing is, those were isolated villains, exceptions to the "noble Narnian" standard, while the PEOPLE of Calormen, their government, class system, and culture were flawed. The exceptions, Aravis and Emeth, were sensible and good.


I'd say that the people are distinct from their government, and even from their culture to an extent, because their culture was very influenced by their religion and that was a bloody and oppressive state religion. It's very true that we hardly meet any good Calormenes, but I don't think we ever get a good, comprehensive snapshot of Calormen and its people in either HHB or LB.

In HHB, Shasta's running away from his adoptive father and the man who planned to purchase him as a slave, and because of this, Shasta and Bree never mix with Calormenes any more than absolutely necessary to avoid raising suspicion and having Shasta and Bree returned to their masters. I'm sure there would have been some Calormenes along the way that might have helped, but they couldn't take the chance. The only time they really spend much time around other "regular" Calormenes is in Tashbaan, and given that place is the seat of the oppressive government, it doesn't surprise me that it doesn't seem like a very happy, humane place—and that the Narnians would stand out as being very different from the cruel, wealthy Tarkaans and the downtodden lower classes. And then, in LB, the Calormenes we meet are members of a aggressive, incognito invading army; we're lucky that we end up with one among them who is noble-hearted.

So all in all, it ends up reflecting very badly on the culture as a whole, but it has more to do with the plot and structure each story that we get such a dismal view of Calormenes rather than the actual state of the entire Calormene race. I think it would have been good if Lewis had included more "normal" Calormenes if possible, but oftentimes you just don't even meet that many human characters in the Chronicles. There's often not a lot of extraneous material in these books; it wasn't Lewis's writing style.

One other thing that occurs to me is that perhaps if Lewis had spent more time talking about their religion, the reader would pay less attention to the disparity in appearance. It would seem to me that one of the main reasons why Calormen is such a miserable place is due to the violence of their belief system, where they sacrifice people on altars to please their god. It stands to reason that even the "good" Calormenes wouldn't be happy people. The Narnians, on the other hand, have a very different belief system and that is reflected in their attitudes.

PhelanVelvel wrote:Even as a child attending a school with an ethnically diverse population, who honestly never thought about skin colour or race it meant so little to her, felt alarmed by the contrast between dark-skinned Calormenes and light-skinned Narnians.


To be fair, I've never really liked those distinctions either. Logically, I know that it was included to make the reader wonder about Shasta's own origins, but it still makes me a bit uncomfortable when I read it. I do wish Lewis had worded it a bit differently because it's caused a fair amount of controversy that doesn't seem to be very warranted. And I see your point about the general vibe being one that could be interpreted as Orientalism, especially when giving the books a cursory glance.

PhelanVelvel wrote:The comparison between Calormen and the British Empire is extremely interesting, though. I'm not history-focused enough to think of something like that on my own, but now that you mention it, it seems obvious!


Ha, I think that wagga is our resident history buff around these parts, but it's something that stood out to me. I feel like Lewis was probably more inspired by the history of the Ottoman Empire, as wagga pointed out in her post, but all Empires tend to have these things in common, I'm afraid.

King_Erlian wrote:Of all the children in the Narnia stories, I most closely resembled Eustace and I got quite upset at age 6 that he and his beliefs were regarded so negatively, including things like pacifism, which I've always believed and which I've always thought was very much in line with Christian values. Admittedly one of my hobbies is battle reenactment but that's only pretending to fight (and yes, it's an excuse to dress up in shiny armour). In VDT, and increasingly in SC and LB, part of Eustace's redemption appeared to be abandoning his pacifist views and learning to fight.


I more or less considered myself a pacifist a few years ago and have since stepped away from that to some degree (I believe that there are times when the use of force is the proper response when acting in defense of yourself or others during times of imminent danger), but Eustace's claim to be a pacifist never bothered me much because a "real" pacifist wouldn't have grabbed Reepicheep by his tail and forcefully swung him around. It seemed to me that he was just using it as an excuse to get out of having to duel Reepicheep. Anyway, I suppose I'm wandering off-topic here, but I think that pacifism and Christianity could be a great discussion for CR&P!
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