Back in December, as the release date of the film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe began to get excitingly close, USA Today ran an article: ‘Is that Lion the King of Kings?’, which specifically examined the debate over whether these stories are Christian, whether non-believing audiences can enjoy them, whether even Christians should take the trouble to lead their children to see whatever Christian elements are there (Note: for an article in which I give my views on this subject, check out The Greensboro News and Record right here).
A sidebar article raised the issue of possible productions of the other Narnia books. Andrew Adamson, Wardrobe director, said that, if he were to direct a film version of The Horse and His Boy, he would change one thing, at least: the portrayal of the Calormenes (a kingdom south of Narnia) as a Muslim culture (as Lewis does in the book).
Adamson, and others interviewed, said to follow Lewis at this point would be to ‘exacerbate ethnic tensions and prejudice against Arabs’ in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists. He said he would recast the Calormenes as another race entirely, probably something not even human.
Two points are in order: first, the books themselves have never been changed, and yet, despite sales of nearly 100 million, there is no evidence they have caused ‘ethnic tensions’.
Second, I think this boils down to a failure to understand what Lewis was doing. Anyone who thinks Lewis created the land of Calormen out of some sort of racial vainglory truly does not understand Lewis at all. In the same USA Today article, Alan Jacobs, an English professor at Wheaton College (a Christian institution), and who should know better, makes a rather silly statement. ‘I think Lewis thought he could draw on the ancient tradition in Europe of fearing the Ottoman Empire,’ Jacobs said. ‘So he changed the name, but kept all the imagery of the dangerous Middle East, something everybody in his generation could recognize and respond to. But then things changed, and in the 20th Century all the threats to Europe were internal. And so that whole tradition was swept away.’
What’s wrong with this analysis? Jacobs acts as though Lewis wrote The Horse and His Boy (the first book in which the Calormenes play a significant part) before he realised that the greater threats to Europe were going to be internal (Germany, say). This is ridiculous: Lewis wrote The Horse and His Boy in 1954, nearly a decade after the end of World War II, and nearly forty years after Lewis himself fought the ‘internal threat’ of Germany in World War I.
But more to the point, I think Lewis’s Calormenes are intended to make, not a racial, but a theological point. Lewis wrote an almost-forgotten work called Williams and the Arthuriad, a commentary on his friend Charles Williams’s cycle of Arthurian poetry (Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars). In that work, Lewis comments on one of the poems, The Coming of Palomides, and on Williams’s use of Palomides, a Saracen knight. Williams used the Muslim, according to Lewis, as a symbol of ‘all religions that are afraid of matter and afraid of mystery, [of] all misplaced reverences and misplaced purities that repudiate the body and shrink back from the glowing materialism of the Grail’; in short, because ‘Islam denies the Incarnation.’
A full treatment of Lewis’s, and Williams’s, point would be beside our point. It is enough to say that neither man expressed any racial animosity towards Arabs or Muslims at all. Indeed, during his discussion of The Coming of Palomides, Lewis describes Muslims as ‘strong, noble, venerable; yet radically mistaken.’ That is, he admired the people, but disagreed with their doctrine.
This is consistent with Lewis’s own use of the Calormenes in The Horse and His Boy, and later, The Last Battle.
Indeed, the Calormenes, far from being a despised race, completely foreign to their Northern neighbours (Narnia and Archenland), are actually close cousins. In his book, A Field Guide to Narnia, Colin Duriez notes that, ‘Calormen originated in the Narnian year 204, when outlaws fled south from Archenland.’ This fact means that the Calormenes are originally blood relatives of both Archenlanders and Narnians (Archenlanders, like Narnians, were descended from Frank I, first king of Narnia (see The Magician’s Nephew). Thus, Narnians, Archenlanders, and Calormenes all descend from the same man, which is as much as to say, God ‘made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth’ (Acts 17:26).
In addition, there are two noble Calormenes depicted in the books: Aravis (in The Horse and His Boy) and Emeth (in The Last Battle). Granted, their nobility consists, in part, in their rejection of certain aspects of Calormene culture (Aravis leaves an oppressive life in Calormen for freedom in Archenland and Emeth rejects the worship of Tash, the Calormene god), but the point is that their nobility, and their acceptance by the ‘white’ Narnians, has nothing to do with their ethnicity or the colour of their skin. In fact, in The Last Battle, Jewel the unicorn says of Emeth, ‘By the Lion's Mane, I almost love this young warrior, Calormene though he be. He is worthy of a better God than Tash.’ Here again, race or skin colour are irrelevant, and only a man’s words and deeds are taken into account. Critics may still cringe at even this 'theological supremacy' but they may not with any accuracy describe it as racism.
By the way, for a rather silly discussion of Lewis’s ‘racism’, see this article. I don’t know who these people are, but though they have at least some knowledge of the content of the Narnian books, listening to their speculations on the meanings of the stories are rather like watching a drunk alone at a shooting range: nothing alive to shoot at, but the drunk sure seems to think so.