“The calling and conversion of a heathen.”
So many questions we have about The Horse and His Boy are answered in this short phrase. Why are the Calormene people presented as they are? If they are meant to be roughly Middle-Eastern, why are they polytheist instead of monotheist?
More questions may be answered by remembering Lewis’s audience: young, white, British children. We’ll talk in a moment about ethnocentrism, and the “center” in this case is clear and undeniable: it’s the Pevensie kids. They are both the stars and the target audience.
The Horse and His Boy is this fascinating litmus test of Narnia. There are many who read it as children and didn’t notice a thing that was upsetting or strange…it was just a wonderful adventure that had horses, a male and a female lead, just a touch of fun magic, and some funny bits where the horse can talk. For others, it’s the go-to book to say, “Hey, you want to prove C.S. Lewis was racist? Look no further than Calormen.”
Calormen, of course, being the exotic nation to the far south of Narnia, across the great desert. The people are, we’ve been told already in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, “wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient.”
We’d have some advantages in this conversation if we could also include what we learn in The Last Battle, but let’s stick to the books we’ve already read so far. It’s hard to avoid the thought that Lewis is more or less talking about people who are from the Middle East in his presentation of Calormen. They are desert-dwelling people who seem to have a culture that has been pulled from some funhouse mirror version of medieval travelogues and the One Thousand and One Nights. There are turbans and minarets and “tombs” outside the city. There are grand viziers and stories to be told, and strange marriages between young women and old men. And, of course, a pale young boy on the run from slavery, headed North for freedom.
Let’s talk for a moment about ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is using one’s own culture to judge other cultures, instead of using the culture’s own framework to gain understanding. A common issue with ethnocentrism can be the subtle shift from merely comparing a culture against one’s own to believing in the superiority of one’s own culture. Ethnocentricity can absolutely be linked to racism, xenophobia, colorism, and a variety of other social ills, but it needn’t necessarily become that…it can be a normal, even healthy tool for discovering differences between “my” culture and someone else’s and widening one’s worldview.
So, for instance, when Lewis describes the mysterious stranger who arrives at Shasta’s fishing hut, Lewis writes, “His face was dark, but this did not surprise Shasta because all the people of Calormen are like that.” That’s an ethnocentric description. Lewis is describing the man to his audience—white British kids—and using their own ethnic and cultural world as “center.” So the man’s face is “dark” in comparison to whom? To the white, British kids reading. He goes on to tell them that Shasta was not surprised, because in his culture everyone’s face is “dark.” In fact, the shade of this man’s skin is literally unremarkable for Shasta…he’s far more interested in the man’s crimson, oiled beard and notable wealth.
Now in this case (so far) the ethnocentrism is more or less the same as saying “Lewis is speaking to his target audience.” It moves toward becoming something biased as the Calormenes are compared to the Narnians. The rich trader points out that Shasta is “fair and white like the accursed but beautiful barbarians who inhabit the remote north.” Now we have a value judgment, which seems to be that fair or white skin is more beautiful than dark skin.
Now, maybe it was just that one character’s opinion…but no, it’s not a one-time thing. Later, Shasta meets the Narnian humans who are “fair as himself” and he notices —according to Lewis—that “all of them, both men and women, had nicer faces and voices than most Calormenes.”
Is this racist?
Well, listen, depending on your definition, yes. Absolutely. “White skin is better than dark skin.” Yes. At the very least it’s colorist (prejudice based on skin color).
Lewis, of course, would not have seen it that way. In fact, I’m reasonably convinced that Lewis didn’t believe in “race” as a concept. He didn’t love modernism or colonialism, two of the driving forces in the invention of race. He’d point out that the great villain of Narnia’s history had skin as white as snow and that beauty and evil and fair skin are not mutually exclusive of one another. No doubt he’d mention that Aravis must certainly have dark skin (though that’s never mentioned) and that she is likely beautiful (or at least Aravis says she is beautiful in the forged letter she sends to her father). Of course, on the other hand, Susan is “the most beautiful lady” Shasta has ever seen.
And, of course, the Calormenes are not presented as uniformly evil or even uniformly worse than the Narnians. Aravis is wonderful and is presented both sympathetically and as a hero. Shasta—though he is later revealed to be from Archenland—is culturally Calormene and likewise heroic and kind. Even Lasaraleen is, at heart, a kind person trying to do the right thing, and presented with affection and sympathy. Now, there aren’t any evil Narnians…but Corin is certainly a bit of a buffoon. Rabadash is certainly one of the worst people in the book, but he’s not presented as a “normal” Calormene…even his own father dislikes him and thinks poorly of him.
The ethnocentric reading of Calormen does find places where the Calormene culture is superior to “ours”…for instance, in storytelling: “For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.” There are also plenty of moments where the glories of Calormen are pointed out. When Shasta and Bree enter the city, for instance, there’s a lengthy description of how beautiful it is, and the lovely smell from the flowers and fruit trees. On the other hand, once they get among the people it’s all “unwashed people, unwashed dogs, scent, garlic, onions, and the piles of refuse which lay everywhere” despite how famous Calormene baths are in the world.
When we start to dig into Lewis’s opinions about Islam and how that might have shaped the people of Calormen, we hit some strange and interesting things. First of all, Lewis considered Islam a heresy rather than a religion with a separate origin from Christianity. Which is to say, Lewis saw Islam as an offshoot of Christianity that wandered out of the orthodox faith. In his commentary on Charles Williams’s poetry about King Arthur (published in the short book Arthurian Torso) Lewis called Islam, “strong, noble, venerable; yet radically mistaken.” (Note the similarity to how the Calormenes are described). In that same book he says that Islam is a heresy because it denies the incarnation of God in Christ (which is, of course, definitional to Christianity. When we say “heretic” we mean that someone believes something that causes them to no longer be Christian, by definition.)
Now, if Lewis was wanting to stick with his understanding of Islam as he wrote the Calormenes, he would have created something like this: Both the Narnians and the Calormenes serve the Emperor Across the Sea. But the Calormenes do not agree that Aslan is his son…they deny his royalty, though they respect him as an important messenger of the Emperor.
Instead he created a polytheistic religion (three gods are mentioned: Tash, Azaroth, and Zardeenah) and a Calormene culture that consistently opposes Aslan, calling him a demon (at least at the northern border closest to Archenland and Narnia…Shasta has heard little or nothing of Aslan in the deep South). The worship of Tash includes not only a temple but many statues of the gods, something that Islam would not allow.
Why is this?
I suspect it’s because of the word “heathen” rather than “heretic” in Lewis’s stated purpose in writing the book. He wanted to show the calling and conversion of a heathen, not a heretic. A heretic is someone who has come close, at some point, to the “true faith.” Maybe they used to believe it and were drawn away.
A heathen, on the other hand, is typically defined as someone who doesn’t believe in a “majority” faith…in fact, many definitions specifically will say either “polytheistic” or “not Jewish, Christian, or Muslim.” So Lewis wants his medieval Arabian culture, but he also wants it pre-Islamic. He doesn’t want someone who is merely “radically mistaken”—he wants someone in opposition to the religion of Narnia.
So it couldn’t be Allah; it had to be Tash. And not just Tash, but also Azaroth and Zardeenah. So in the world of Narnia, it’s clear that the people who appear to be inspired by the people of the Middle East are not intended to be stand-ins for Muslims (or, as Lewis would have said, “Mohammedan”).
Is it worse or better that Lewis threw out Islam when he created his Islamic-ish culture? I don’t honestly know. I do know that in Mere Christianity he said, “it is simple religions that are the made-up ones” (i.e. the ones that are not True). In another essay, Religion Without Dogma, he wrote that Islam was a “simplification of Jewish and Christian traditions.”
Perhaps that is why Allah, who is called “the beneficent, the merciful” is not truly reflected in the simplistic Tash, who is called “the irresistible, the inexorable.” Tash is, as we will see over time, a god of simple evil. Allah is, according to Lewis, a misunderstanding of the person of God.
Keep in mind, as well, that Lewis isn’t talking about Islam or Middle Eastern people in 1950. As always, his interest lies in the medieval period. He’s more interested in “Saracens” than in modern people. Saracens is what Christians would have called Muslims during the Crusades. (Notice, by the way, that the Calormenes are in a state of near constant war but not with Narnia... though Rabadash and his father would like an excuse to change that. Again, if Lewis had been trying to make more parallels with Christianity and Islam this would not be the case.) In Medieval Christian literature, Saracens are consistently referred to as “dark skinned” (ethnocentrism again, right?). There is still plenty of evidence of this in Western cultures today… look no further than the dish “Moros y Cristianos” (a reference to Muslim Moors and Christians), in which the white rice is the Christians, and the black beans are the Moors. If you wanted a simple way to describe the Calormenes you could absolutely say, “Non-Muslim Saracens.”
As a 21st century American adult, there are things about The Horse and His Boy that make me cringe. For instance, if I read it through my own ethnocentricity, it’s really distracting that the dark-skinned Calormenes are the guardians and beneficiaries of slavery…especially when it resonates so strongly with my own nation’s history (freedom for slaves is to be found toward “the North”). Was that Lewis’s intention? I suspect that didn’t even occur to Lewis…nuances of conversations about race are different between the UK and the US, and the North/South divide is deeply ingrained in the US conversation about racial justice. He wanted to show that slavery is bad (no doubt in a spiritual sense…he wants his hero to find freedom in Aslan) and didn’t think about the problematic racial side of the decision to make a pre-Islamic Arabia with slavery and a medieval Europe without it (and, as near as we can tell, without any sort of serfdom to replace it). Do note, of course, that Prince Caspian had abolished the last of slavery in Narnia when he came across it in Dawn Treader.
So, in conclusion I would say this: ethnocentrism in literature is largely invisible when it’s your own ethnos being centered. The big complaint from my kids in reading Narnia was “Why are all the kids British? Don’t Americans get into Narnia?” As Narnia has spread into audiences Lewis never imagined—other ethnicities, nationalities, a new century, people from other religious traditions than Lewis’s own—it’s only natural that Lewis’s ethnocentricities become increasingly problematic or upsetting. I’ve written before about dealing with the problematic aspects of literature we love. For me, it’s even worse with literature for kids. Sometimes because when I was a kid I didn’t notice those things and as an adult I do. And sometimes because as an adult, I want to make sure that what my kids read doesn’t shape them in a direction I think will be harmful to them or others.
One of the wonderful things about the current state of science fiction and fantasy is that we don’t have to settle for one ethnocentric view. There are amazing new works being put out from a variety of different worldviews, religious belief systems, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Two weeks ago I read Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger…an astonishingly wonderful YA book with an ace Native American protagonist. The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart was just released last week, and it features newly invented cultures that sidestep the pitfalls of the ethnocentric fantasy (it’s super fun…if you enjoy fantasy you will love it). And there are, of course, many excellent authors who are writing compelling fantastic worlds that are based in Middle Eastern-ish worlds, like Saladin Ahmed, G. Willow Wilson, Sabaa Tahir, Nafiza Azad, and many others (feel free to share additional suggestions in the comments!).
I hope that if C.S. Lewis were writing the Narnia books today—70 years later—that the shift in his own culture would produce a more nuanced and less ethnocentric presentation of Calormen. And there are still a lot of wonderful things about Calormen…the storytelling, the architecture, the dinner of “whipped cream and jelly and fruit and ice,” the famous baths, the wisdom poems, and the loyal and brave people like Aravis. And (I know I said I wouldn’t do this) in The Last Battle we see that Calormen continues to exist in the remade world after the judgment. In this book as well as in The Last Battle, we see that Aslan cares about the Calormene people.