On how to read Narnia -- or not

One of the more troubling aspects of so much academic "literary criticism" is the tendency for the critics to bring their own preconceptions, biases, and dislikes to literary texts, to the extent they even bother to consider a text at all.

That's probably one reason that I gravitated towards Straussian political theorists -- or at least those who were familiar with the textual-analytical techniques of Leo Strauss even if they did not fully embrace them -- for my own graduate studies. Strauss, of course, stressed careful textual analysis in understanding important writing, and emphasized coming to know the authors of such works as they knew themselves.

The Chronicle's Features/*/Star/Life editor Kyrie O'Connor took a stab at literary criticism last weekend. The target of her criticism? The Horse and his Boy, one of the C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia children's novels. Her judgment?

While the book's storytelling virtues are enormous, you don't have to be a bluestocking of political correctness to find some of this fantasy anti-Arab, or anti-Eastern, or anti-Ottoman. With all its stereotypes, mostly played for belly laughs, there are moments you'd like to stuff this story back into its closet.

Me? No, that's more than a little presumptuous for O'Connor to suggest, actually.

Still, it's clear that O'Connor isn't going to bring a Straussian reading to the text. And the evidence of Lewis's alleged racism and xenophobia that she finds?

But the land of Calormen is not simply a bad place to be from. Worse, the people are bad — or most of them, anyway — and they're bad in pretty predictable ways. Calormen is ruled by a despotic Tisroc and a band of swarthy lords with pointy beards, turbaned heads, long robes and nasty dispositions. Calormen is dirty, hot, dull, superstitious. In truth, it's more Ali Baba than Osama, but it's still pretty unsettling.

Here's Lewis' description of ordinary Calormenes: "men with long, dirty robes, and wooden shoes turned up at the toe, and turbans on their heads, and beards, and talking to one another very slowly about things that sounded dull."

And here's the city: "What you would chiefly have noticed if you had been there were the smells, which came from unwashed people, unwashed dogs, scent, garlic, onions, and the piles of refuse which lay everywhere."

The North, on the other hand, is where the "fair and white" people live. Shasta (no surprise) resembles those jaunty freedom-loving, Aslan-fearing Narnians. This is his first impression of some Narnians walking through the marketplace. "[T]hey were all as fair-skinned as himself, and most of them had fair hair. Their tunics were of fine, bright, hardy colors. Instead of turbans they wore steel or silver caps, some of them set with jewels, and the swords at their sides were long and straight ... [T]hey walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling."

The examples pile up throughout the text like bacon at a hearty English breakfast — the virtues of which are also lengthily extolled. Hmmmm. Swarthy, freedom-hating Calormenes versus light-skinned, freedom-loving Narnians — which would you like better?

In pure literary terms, hasn't O'Connor just admitted that Lewis' imagery was/is effective?

To go one step further, it's likely to be particularly effective for its intended audience -- young readers.

Are those young readers likely to bring O'Connor's preconceptions and political correctness to the text, and read it as racist and xenophobic? My own childhood reading of those great books of good/evil and dark/light and heros and such suggests otherwise. Children, after all, have to focus on matters like the author's intent and the text and the plot and such. They haven't yet been taught to deconstruct the text in the manner of academic literary critics and newspaper editors who would dare lecture parents on how to share the racist Chronicles with their children.

Anne Fadiman drives the point home in her discussion of the Chronicles:

I’d read two biographies of Lewis and knew that his relations with women, colored by the death of his mother when he was nine, were pretty peculiar. I’d read “The Shoddy Lands,” a creepy misogynist fantasy in which the (male) narrator encounters a giantess whose nude body makes him gag. However, I remembered The Horse and His Boy only as a rollicking equestrian adventure, sort of like Misty of Chincoteague but with swordfights instead of Pony Penning Day. My jaw dropped when I realized that Aravis, its heroine, is acceptable to Lewis because she acts like a boy—she’s interested in “bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming”—and even dresses like one, whereas the book’s only girly girl, a devotee of “clothes and parties and gossip,” is an object of contempt. Even more appalling was Lewis’s treatment of the Calormenes, a brown-skinned people who wear turbans and carry scimitars. (Forty years ago, the crude near-homonym had slipped by me. This time around, I wondered briefly if Lewis was thinking only about climate—calor is Latin for “heat”—but decided that was unlikely. It’s as if he’d named a Chinese character Mr. Yellow: it had to be on purpose.) The book’s hero, Shasta, is the ward of a venial Calormene fisherman, but, as a visitor observes, “this boy is manifestly no son of yours, for your cheek is as dark as mine but the boy is fair and white.” That’s how we know he belongs to a noble northern race instead of an uncouth southern one. Of the Calormene capital—the seat of a fat, obnoxious, vulgarly bejeweled potentate called the Tisroc—Lewis remarks that “what you would chiefly have noticed if you had been there was the smells, which came from unwashed people, unwashed dogs, scent, garlic, onions, and the piles of refuse which lay everywhere.”

It was difficult to read this kind of thing to Henry without comment: the words, after all, were coming to him in my voice. I held my tongue for the first hundred pages or so, but finally I blurted out, “Have you noticed that The Horse and His Boy isn’t really fair to girls? And that all the bad guys have dark skin?”

Henry considered this seriously for a moment. “That’s not true,” he said. “The Tisroc is a bad guy, and C. S. Lewis doesn’t say he has dark skin.”

“Well, he’s a Calormene, and all the Calormenes are dark. Of course”—I could hear myself start to fumble—“fifty years ago, when this book was written, lots of people had ideas that weren’t true, about whether boys were better than girls, or whites were better than blacks, or—”

Henry shot me the sort of look he might have used had I dumped a pint of vinegar into a bowl of chocolate ice cream. And who could blame him? He didn’t want to analyze, criticize, evaluate, or explicate the book. He didn’t want to size it up or slow it down. He wanted exactly what I had wanted at eight: to find out if Shasta and Aravis would get to Archenland in time to warn King Lune that his castle was about to be attacked by evil Prince Rabadash and two hundred Calormene horsemen. “Mommy,” he said fiercely, “can you just read?”

And there lay the essential differences between reading and rereading, acts that Henry and I were performing simultaneously.

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, fellow political scientist Michael Nelson treated the Narnia-as-Racism charge as follows:

The humans in Narnia are light-skinned; the humans in Narnia's enemy, Calormen, are dark-skinned. Ergo, [novelist Philip] Pullman charges, Lewis thinks "light-colored people are better than dark-colored people."

But does he? The worst character in The Chronicles, after all, is not the Black Witch (there is no such character) but the White Witch, and two of the books' young heroes — Aravis in The Horse and His Boy, and Emeth, in The Last Battle — are dark-skinned Calormenes. That's a narrow defense of Lewis, but not a trivial one.

A broader defense, and one that's truer to a work of imagination, is to think of all the rational beings in The Chronicles as, in a sense, races, and to see how Lewis treats them. Tolkien chastised Lewis severely for including characters from different mythological traditions in the same story: fauns, naiads, centaurs, satyrs, and the wine god Bacchus from the Greek and Roman myths; giants and dwarfs from Norse mythology; and even Father Christmas from Christian folklore. But for Lewis one of the chief delights of writing The Chronicles was to imagine a happily inclusive world in which rational beings of widely varying kinds could live together, work together, and, when necessary, fight side by side for the good.

That's a more systematic approach than the one deployed by O'Connor, to be sure.

Adult readers are surely going to make connections upon (re)reading the Chronicles, especially if they haven't read them since childhood; that's part of the joy of re-reading a multilayered text. Good readers, however, will be careful not to substitute those connections -- or, for that matter, their own presuppositions and biases -- for those of the author. As friend and prolific book reviewer Orrin Judd wrote about the Chronicles,

I'm certain that most of the metaphorical and allegorical nuances of these books completely escaped most of us at these early readings. But these books ... served one vital function, they demonstrated with incontrovertible certitude that there were such things as good and evil and that it was better to be good. Such books are often termed escapist fantasy and, for me at least, that was precisely their attraction; the opportunity that they offered, to escape from the disturbing moral relativism of the 60's and 70's, and enter worlds where the truths, that I sensed to be eternal and absolute, actually obtained. As much as parents or religion, it was books like these that formed the template from which our inchoate sense of morality was forged.


[T]he secret charm of the Narnia books is that when you return to them as an older reader you begin to perceive a whole new layer of meaning in the texts. For Lewis, one of the great Christian apologists of the Century, essentially rendered Christian myth in the guise of children's fantasy. With a more mature eye, we realize what it means that the children enter a world where it is "always Winter, but Christmas never comes", that the great lion Aslan is Christ, the White Witch is Satan, her defeat of Aslan is a reenactment of the Crucifixion and, of course, when Aslan rises again to lead the humans and defeat the Witch, it symbolizes the risen Christ leading us in battle against evil. If not exactly subtle, these lessons are at least not heavy handed and should not deter anyone from reading the books.

Those are the lessons C.S. Lewis wanted us to gain from his books. His intent is worth considering.

On her blog, O'Connor laments that it's been stressful that readers have labeled her a "secular liberal apologist" because of her essay.

I'm rather more inclined to label her a poor reader, one who's much more interested in reading to confirm her own views and perspectives than in understanding C.S. Lewis as he understood himself.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 12/04/05 11:19 PM | Print |

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