Saturday, December 17, 2005

Narnia Controversies

Two of the most common criticisms of the Narnia series are presented here:
[Philip] Pullman is an atheist and, not coincidentally, one of Lewis's fiercest critics. He has said of the Narnia cycle that 'it is one of the most ugly and poisonous things I've ever read' and has called Lewis a bigot and his fans 'unhinged.' The books do have their faults, certainly. They're not nearly as well written as either the 'Potter' or the 'Dark Materials' books. And by the standards of political correctness, they commit a host of sins. They're preachy, they're sometimes gratuitously violent and they patronize girls. The villains, moreover - the Calormenes, who dwell in the south - are oily cartoon Muslims who wear turbans and pointy-toed slippers and talk funny.

Then there's the unfortunate business with Susan, the second-oldest of the Pevensies, who near the end of the last volume is denied salvation merely because of her fondness for nylons and lipstick - because she has reached puberty, in other words, and has become sexualized.
Pullman and the NY Times author have an obvious ax to grind; otherwise, there's no explanation for such misinterpretations of the Narnia series.

First, it is not true that "THE villains" are the Calormenes. In the first book, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the villain is the White Witch and her followers (including a dwarf and a wolf), and Edmund is portrayed in a pretty bad light. In Prince Caspian, the major villain is King Miraz, the uncle of the book's hero, Prince Caspian. Neither is a Calormene. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there isn't any overriding villain; among the bad characters are Eustace (the cousin of the Pevensies), and the corrupt ruler of a Narnian island. In The Silver Chair, the major villain is another sort of White Witch character -- the Queen of the Underworld; other villains include a city of giants who like to eat humans. In The Magician's Nephew, the chief villains are the White Witch again (although she went by the name "Jadis" at that time) and an Englishman who was the uncle of the book's hero Digory.

The Calormenes make an appearance in only two books: The Horse and His Boy, and The Last Battle. Even there, it is false to say that they are all villains. In The Horse and His Boy, the main heroine is a Calormene girl. And in The Last Battle, one of the most striking scenes is where a Calormene man is allowed to enter Aslan's country on the grounds that his previous worship of a false god was all in good faith.

But what about the rest of the Calormenes depicted in those two books? Well, for one thing, the NY Times author is flat wrong to claim that they are "Muslims." Islam is a monotheistic religion that worships God; the fictional Calormenes worship many gods, including the god Tash, a demonic sort of creature with four arms and a vulture's head. If the author thinks that Tash-worship resembles Islam, he ought to check his own prejudices.

As for the other characteristics of Calormenes, Wikipedia has a fairly accurate description here:
Calormene culture is strongly derived from Turkish, Persian, and Indian culture and civilization, presented somewhat in the tradition of the medieval literature the Arabian Nights. Flowing robes, turbans and wooden shoes with an upturned point at the toe are common items of clothing, and the preferred weapon is the scimitar. The people of Calormen are concerned with maintaining honour and precedence, often speaking in maxims and quoting ancient poets. Their style of speech is akin to that of the people in the ancient epic Shahnama by the poet Ferdowsi. They are described as having dark skin, and the men commonly wear beards; the nobles oiled beards. The Narnians view Calormen with distaste because of their support of institutionalised slavery and the cruelty of Calormene nobles to their people and animals. The Calormenes in turn view Narnia and Archenland as barbarous lands inhabited by "demons" (one of which they know as Aslan).
So to sum up: Calormenes are not all "villains" and one of them is the heroine of an entire book; they are not "Muslims"; they simply happen to be a stylized composite of several different cultures. I really don't see the problem here, any more than it is a problem that Lewis made the Dwarfs mostly villains in The Last Battle (anti-dwarf prejudice, perhaps?) or that the worst villain of the entire series is the White Witch.

* * *
As for Susan, Andrew Rilstone has a long and thorough explanation of why it's so wrongheaded to suppose that Susan is "denied salvation merely because of her fondness for nylons and lipstick - because she has reached puberty, in other words, and has become sexualized." Nothing about that sentence is correct. Susan is not "denied salvation" in any sense whatsoever. The Last Battle depicts the end of Narnia and the entrance of the Narnians into heaven; the rest of the humans are present in heaven only because they died on Earth.

But Susan didn't die. Back on Earth, she's still alive and kicking. That's why Lewis wrote the following letter in 1957:
The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end — in her own way.”
So the New York Times author is dead wrong on the "denied salvation" bit. But that's not all. Is Lewis really frowning on Susan merely because "she has reached puberty"? No. Here is the relevant passage, in its entirety:
Sir," said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. "If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?"

"My sister Susan," answered Peter shortly and gravely, "Is no longer a friend of Narnia."

"Yes," said Eustace, "and whenever you've tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says 'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.' "

"Oh Susan!" said Jill. "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grow-up."

"Grown-up, indeed," said the Lady Polly. "I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she'll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can."

"Well, don't let's talk about that now," said Peter.
That passage has nothing to do with Susan's having hit puberty -- which Lucy herself would have long since experienced by this point in the books. The whole point is that Susan stopped believing in Narnia, and that she derides it all as a "funny game" that they had played as children. It's not that Susan is interested in nylons and lipstick; it's that she is interested in nothing else. She has become a fundamentally silly person whose only interest is popularity and who thinks of Narnia as a childhood fantasy.

All of this could as easily have been a male character: Imagine that Lewis had switched the roles of Susan and Edmund, with Susan being the bad character in the first book (of course, non-readers would have accused Lewis of sexism on that ground) and Edmund the person left out of Narnia in the last book. Lewis might then have had another character say, "Edmund is no longer a friend of Narnia. Whenever you try to get him to talk about Narnia, he says, 'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.' He's interested in nothing nowadays except football and racecars and alcohol. His whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of his life as quick as he can and then stop there as long as he can."

That would have been an equivalent passage. Would anyone raise the argument that Lewis's writing was anti-male, whether by portraying football and racecars as morally suspect, or by portraying a male character as stereotypically interested in those issue? I think not. The obvious point of such a passage would have been that Edmund had chosen 1) to center his life around frivolous things, and 2) to ridicule childhood beliefs that he, of all people, should have known to be true.


Blogger Unknown said...

It's not so much the growing up part that gets me. It's that Susan gets to be TRAUMATIZED FOR LIFE.
That seems kind of harsh, her losing much of her family like that. That bugs me more than the lipstick sort of thing, but I don't see anything wrong with being interested ONLY in lipstick even though I'm not fond of the stuff and would probably look ridiculous in it.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I like to imagine Susan having a redemption quest by accidentally entering the Wood Between Worlds via the rings that miraculously survived the train wreck and got found and mailed to her (since most would think that since she's the last they belong to her), brought her new family with her (she lost her old one later on), and came across another world that also has a Messiah.

He recognizes her and talks to her in private. Of course, she's crying and ridiculing herself for not fully remembering him even though he feels familiar, but then he gentily stirs her memory by asking questions about her past in "another place". After she musters the courage to fully recognize Aslan in another universe, he comforts her by saying that there's still a chance for her to reconcile and gives her the task of saving the multiverse from a greedy villain.

10:47 AM  

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