The country of Calormen, located to the southeast of Narnia, appears twice in the seven Chronicles of Narnia books, but not once in the movies. It’s the stage for some of the most exciting parts of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories—and also some of the most controversial.
Throughout the only book where characters actually set foot in Calormen, The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis can’t seem to decide how to treat it. He describes it as “one of the wonders of the world” with “orange trees and lemon trees, roof-gardens, balconies, deep archways, pillared colonnades, spires, battlements, minarets, pinnacles…” And yet, the Calormene people “were not the fair-haired men of Narnia: they were dark, bearded men from Calormen, that great and cruel country” who smelled “of garlic and onions, their white eyes flashing dreadfully in their brown faces.”
Finally—and perhaps most ominously for a book series that is transparently a Christian allegory—“they have a god called Tash. They say he has four arms and the head of a vulture.”
I first read The Horse and His Boy when I am eight years old, and it quickly becomes my favorite of the Narnia books. I love Calormen. I love that the food there is like the food my family makes; that the men of Calormen wear turbans, like the central figures of my religion; that the main character is a brown-skinned girl—and both a warrior and storyteller, at that; and that her name, Aravis, with its short and simple spelling but decidedly non-Western sound, feels so much more like mine than Susan or Lucy ever did.
At eight years old, I’m too young to grasp that the food is implied to be unsavory, that the turbans belong to salacious, violent men, and that the warrior princess has to leave Calormen forever to become worthy—to become whitewashed.
“Oh the sweet air of Narnia!” Lewis has a character exclaim in The Horse and His Boy. “An hour’s life there is better than a thousand years in Calormen.”
Growing up, I make excuses for Lewis and the Calormenes’ smell and dubious morality, and I re-read The Horse and His Boy more times than I can count. I ignore the fact that on the internet, you will sometimes find the etymology of Calormen defined as /colored men/. To me, sometimes, Calormen feels more real than Narnia.
But Disney skips over the book when adapting the Narnia books, making three films focusing only on the four British Pevensie children.
(“I say,” Shasta exclaims in Chapter IV. “This is a wonderful place!”
“I daresay,” said Bree. “But I wish we were safely through it and out at the other side.”)
Instead, Disney makes The Prince of Persia (released in 2010, the same year as the third Narnia film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), which features a mostly all-white cast heavily coated in brown makeup. It stars a heavily stylized Jake Gyllenhaal, a presumably more palatable version of my ancestors, with Gemma Arterton as the sexualized “brown” princess with Persian magic.
A live-action Aladdin rumor starts making rounds, and online discourse begins—a slow, turbulent bubbling of concern. We all remember “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home,” and, now an adult working as a movie reviewer, I write about this issue at length. Suddenly, the underlying contradiction of Calormen becomes impossible for me to ignore. What is Calormen if not just a more vicious Agrabah?
How do you love a book that hates you?
I read page after page about Lewis, trying to get a glimpse of what he really thought; who he really was. I read through Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters almost obsessively, as if they can explain Tash as anything other than a demon, or the Calormenes as anything other than villains—as if Lewis’ universe could ever reconcile Aslan and Tash, his culture and my culture, his vision and mine. As if there is a page somewhere where he explains why he wrote things this way—where he tells me he really loved Calormen all along.
I find Philip Pullman’s opinion of the series, of course, in articles such as “The Dark Side of Narnia” (“There is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.”) but also a surprisingly insightful line in the Calormen wiki—now gone from the page: “…the female protagonist is a Calormene noblewoman who comes to marry 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.”
In his book on The Last Battle, Andrew Howe writes: “Furthermore, nothing of any real significance regarding a strong dislike, or even suspicion, of Islam appears in either volume of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, which cover 44 years of his life.”
“In our post-9/11 world, [Lewis] would, I am sure, want to reconsider this insensitivity,” Paul F. Ford writes in his Guide to the Magical World of C.S. Lewis, perhaps hopefully.
All weak defenses, but I admit I cling to them.
Unable to find a home in film or in existing fiction, the fictionalized East finds a home on fanfiction sites like Archive of Our Own, in the anonymity of screen names.
It spills out—both the love and the frustration.
A user by the name of Transposable_element explores Aravis’ culture shock in the face of Narnian beauty standards. “In Calormen there were many terms describing black hair,” they write, and describe a different sort of beauty in words Lewis never would have thought to use. “Jet (if shiny), coal (if soft), smoky (if brownish). Black with red highlights was called crimson. Black with blue highlights was called indigo, and greatly admired.”
A writer called Flourish goes beyond the oil on bread I once clung to, describing “a proper Calormene supper—chicken baked with onions, sumac, allspice, saffron and pine nuts, over soft flat bread, and kanafeh for afters.”
Elsewhere, sovay writes the name of the Calormene god, Tash, with diacritics— Taš. She says she likes it better that way. In her writing, she takes the vulture-headed god and embraces him, four arms and all.
She writes of “fair-skinned traders or adventurers in the markets…wearing her country’s clothing, always looking around them as though the stalls of dyed cotton and vegetables and copper vessels were some fabulous panoply unrolled for their pleasure, like a play.
She should feel sorry for them, born to a land unknown to Taš. Without his four arms to shield from danger in all directions, she could imagine a people turning instead to the very powers of chaos that beset them, making a cult of their wildness and unpredictability.”
I write 100,000 words and make Aravis an empress who never had to leave her land to be deemed worthy. Who has never felt that desperate urge to classify either Tash or Aslan as false and then worship the other.
Together, we reframe Calormen. We reinvent her.
In the story “Not A Tame Lion,” sovay tells of an encounter between a Calormene woman and a Narnian:
“Once… she had watched a brown-haired man in barbarian tunic and hose fold a beggar child’s hand over the glint of a silver crescent with a grave wink, like a street magician pulling a flower from behind her ear, and felt oddly reassured, as if a ghoul had smiled and shown ordinary human teeth.
Then she had watched him rise to his feet and, hearing the prayer-call from the temple at the gong of noon, pull as wry a face as if he had drunk vinegar, sling an arm around the shoulders of his sunburnt countryman, and hurry them both away laughing.”
C.S. Lewis, now dead, cannot defend himself. Cannot comfort me and say that he did not mean it. Cannot write an eighth book where he asserts that Calormenes smell like rosewater.
I think of the Narnian man sovay describes—of the way Susan and Edmund Pevensie might have experienced Calormen, and therefore how Lewis himself might have experienced it. I ask myself how he could have seen so little in a country where I saw so much.
These days, I like to think of Lewis as a kindly, old traveler who jotted down some well-intentioned notes, but like most Western tourists, missed too much of what makes the East beautiful.
Don’t worry, Mr. Lewis. We are filling in the blanks for you.
Nasim Mansuri is a writer, editor, and engineer living in the Boston area. Born to a Middle Eastern and Latin American family, she grew up in Paraguay and has lived in many different countries throughout her early twenties. In her spare time, Nasim writes fanfiction and adores a chubby calico cat. You can find her on Twitter and practically every other platform as @nasimwrites.