Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 2 - Orientalism
Log 2 - Orientalism

Killing an Arab
Naomi Rousseau and Tessa Laird


Naomi Rousseau and Tessa Laird talk about the way C.S.Lewis portrayed the Middle East under the guise of Calormen in The Chronicles of Narnia.

TESSA: Although C.S.Lewis doesn't get mentioned once in Edward Said's Orientalism, and although Said deals mostly with literature from the 1800s and earlier, and C.S.Lewis was writing about Narnia in the 1950s, it's remakable that Lewis was still labouring under those same old dichotomous East/West stereotypes in his portrayals of other worlds, and more remarkable still perhaps that the more I heard about Islam as I was growing up the more I remembered Lewis' Calormen! His portrayal, more than any other, affected the way I thought of, or rather, responded emotively to, the Middle East.

NAOMI: You're not the only one, perhaps you will be interested in these extracts from an email message by 11 year old Jenny that I found on a CS Lewis website - "I feel like Aslan is my friend and Narnia is a place I visit. I always have strong feelings about the people and places that I read about. For instance, I always have a big sense of hate for the bad people. Like the Tisroc (may he live for NEVER)."

TESSA: Reading The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle in conjunction with Said's Orientalism is enough to make you weep, because Lewis comes off as being even less enlightened than a lot of last century's Orientalists. I wonder how Noddy and Black Sambo managed to cause such and outcry when books like The Chronicles of Narnia go on being preceived as extremely wholesome.The Horse and His Boy introduces lands outside of Narnia that aren't at all like Narnia itself. But unlike the way in which Narnia presents something new, of mythical proportions to the reader, Calormen is just based on an "other" which already exists, here on earth. And without ever naming it as such, it presents the Middle East in an extremely two-dimensional and unproductive way. The names are all mock Arabic, Aravis Tarkeena, Kidrash Tarkaan, Rishti Tarkaan, Ardeeb, Tisroc, Tash. There are crowded street scenes, domes and pinnacles, orange trees and lemon trees, arranged marriages with children... Calormenes are famous for their poetry and baths, fathers beat sons (this happens in Narnia and Archenland too, only there it's seen as some kind of "tough love"), men wear shoes with turned-up toes, they bargain, they are slave traders, they have scimitars rather than "straight" or "true" Narnian swords, and they live on the edge of the desert, they wear turbans and beards. In The Horse and His Boy, Lewis makes quite a deal about Bree's Tarkaan masters posessing a crimson-tinted beard. Of course, it gets portrayed as sickening vanity, and not godliness, Meanwhile Narnia is reminiscent of the British Isles, with lots of heather, moss, and forests. This kind of symbolism is embarrassing when it's re-read.

NAOMI: The Tisroc (may he live for ever!) fits into that tradition outlined in Orientalism of seeing the inhabitants of "Eastern" countries as the inevitable victims of despotic rulers. Incidentally, it is interesting that you found Orientalism a bit boring, (you said something along those lines a while ago), because I remember finding it quite repetitive at one point and wondering why he was making the same points again and again, then I realised it was because the Western ideas about the orient are constantly repeating and reproducing themselves. You just have to read the newspaper to notice that.


TESSA: In terms of despotism, it's amazing how Lewis represents bowing down to the Tisroc as vile servility, while falling at Aslan's feet is pure humility.

NAOMI: And it's not as if the Narnians are any less fedual. In The Silver Chair Rilian, newly awakened from his enchantment, objects to the witch's plan of conquering an overland country as he would be displacing "their natural lords" ie rulers are fine as long as they are "natural." When he returns to Narnia his subjects recognise him by "something in his face and air" as there is a look "in the face of all true kings of Narnia who rule by the will of Aslan." This is different to the Tisroc of course, because the Narnian Kings follow the true God, which means they are always going to be right in the end.

TESSA: I read something great about the Christian view of Islam. It was in one of some little booklets written by a New Zealander God knows when. They were archived at the library and I stumbled across them while I was re-barcoding. I stupidly never took down the author's name but I wrote down some of what he said. He did a booklet each on Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam (actually, I took the Islam booklet with me to a Bailter Space gig which was a great relief as I got so bored I went to read it in the loos). He said, "Islam means "submission," amd expresses a view of God in which inscrutable will takes presedence over love. He is not so much a father, in the Christian sense, as a great despot like an Oriental tyrant, a sort of "Sultan in the skies," who predestines some to heaven and some to Hell, without regard to their freewill.There cannot be atonement because God does not need anything. Morality is relatively unimportant, the Muslim heaven being quite sensual, "black eyes and lemonade," ie women and fleshly satisfactions." !!! And although it's not neccessarily relevant to this argument, I just have to include what he wrote about Hinduism, "And what shall we say of the identification of God with evil, as when the fakir being bayonetted had to say to his enemy, "Thou art also He." On such a view sin does not exist, and guilt and forgiveness have NO MEANING, for if "I and Brahman are one," there is no one to be offended. On the Hindu view there can be no cross, no expiation, no reconciliation, no personal fellowship with God." I read a biography about C.S.Lewis in the hopes of finding out about his distaste for Islam. Well, it never got mentioned. But it was interesting because there was all this basic stuff about the man which I never knew. Like that he was an Ulster Protestant, brought up to entirely hate Catholicism. And I thought maybe that would illustrate his distaste for florid, eastern versions of Christianity (which you could almost argue is where Islam began).

NAOMI: Could you? I wouldn't try doing so infront of any Muslims. Isn't this itself an example of Westerners seeing nothing in the East by a distorted reflection of themselves?

TESSA: Some of this distaste becomes pretty ironic considering Islam has less tolerance for graven images than any Christian Church...and in the end C.S.Lewis unleashes, through Narnia, a great liking for pomp.

NAOMI: Graven images seem quite acceptable to Narnians. Jill, Eustace and Rilian kiss an image of a Lion that miraculously appears on Rilian's sheild. The carved lion on Caspian's cabin comes alive and speaks to him, and Lucy is scared out of reading the spell she shouldn't read in the magaician's book by a picture of Aslan. I hate to discard the idea of a vengeful Ulster Protestant, but from what I read it is not that simple. He was an atheist for some time before reconverting, and was, I think, only C of E, rather than Free Presbyterian, or something exciting like that, so he wouldn't have had much of an inconoclastic streak. Also, he was horribly tolerant about other religions. He believed that all religions were partially right, to varying degrees (which can be dangerous of course; in The Last Battle Tirian points out that "By mixing a little truth with it [Rishda and Ginger] had made their lie far stronger"), Christianity is just the only religion that is entirely right. This made me think of Emeth, the Calormene that the children meet in the heaven equivalent (incidentally, it is a very Jehovah's Witness heaven-on-this-earth kind of place is it not, especially with the ubiquitous friendly animals. Perhaps I just notice this because I read a copy of their magazine recently). Emeth is described as "Even rather beautiful in the dark, haughty Calormene way," and Jewel 'compliments' him by saying "By the Lion's Mane, I almost love this young warrior, Calormene though he be. He is worthy of a better God than Tash." Emeth is very confused to find himself in the Narnian heaven with Aslan when he has hated Aslan and worshipped Tash all his life. Aslan explains that "All the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. For he and I are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him." This seems to spell out what C.S.Lewis believes will happen to those who follow imperfect religions, very magnanimous he seems (compared to Jack T. Chick, say), if a little patronising, until you reflect on the fact that there is only one Calormene in heaven. But of course this isn't the only thing wrong with this picture. The Narnians control even the afterlife, so for a Calormene, going to heaven means finding out they have been wrong all their life, and their enemies right, whereas for the Narnians it means the fulfillment of all their desires. I was also surprised to note that Tashbaan exists in the Narnian heavens, presumably free of nasty Calormenes, now just another part of the good Narnians' eternal playground.

TESSA: I thought it must be for the few good Calormenes (say three or four per millenium) to feel at home in.

NAOMI: This is a good example of the later liberal kinds of Orientalism which study and objectify the East, as opposed to the crusading orientalism which died off when the fear of the Ottoman Empire subsided. There are two parallel strands to this assimilationism, assimilating the idea of the East into an all-embracing Western conceptual system, and assimilating populations into Western civilisation (in which they have the invisible inferiority of the copy), making them Christian, Westernised, and just as good as white people only not quite. Multicultural tolerance is perhaps the worst form as it insists that 'equality' is already present, completely ignoring historical violence. For this reason I don't know if your idea of getting rid of the "dichotomous East/West stereotypes" is one that many British Muslims, for example, would want anything to do with. Of course C.S.Lewis mixes all these forms of Orientalism together in the books,just as he mixes different religions, centuries etc. It's interesting what you said about Tolkein hating his mixing of mythologies, as he does the same with non-Christian religions and "cultures". Calormen seems partly Turkish, partly Arabic, with a bit of Indian thrown in (like a `great big melting pot' including everyone except `yourself') and the religion is a bit Islamic, a bit Hindu etc. This `mixing' reminded me very much of parts of Orientalism, to do with the Orient being used as a mirror by the West. Things only exist to illustrate the difference between themselves and what they are not, e.g. Islam is not a tradition distinct from Christianity it is an evil counterfeit of it. Mohammed is not a prophet, he is the false messiah.

TESSA: Tash has the body of a man with a bird's head and four arms. Obviously the four arms bit has to be a Hinduism rip-off, and the bird part could be traced to Garuda (or even further back to Ancient Egypt... I presume that the "Tombs of the Kings" that contemporary Calormenes are afraid of are meant to stand in for the way the Pyramids are regarded by contemporary Muslims in Egypt?). But I remember having an art history class once in which there was some figurative Islamic art, which, as you know, is totally rare. I was struck by the way the artist had portrayed the angels... and I thought immediately of Tash. These angels had asiatic features, and bright, pointy wings. The strangest thing of all is that since this encounter, I remembered them as actually having birds' heads, like Tash himself. But on looking through books on Islamic art again, I realise that this must have been some bizzare projection. A sure fire example of C.S.Lewis tampering with my suggestible brain!

NAOMI: That is interesting, I never imagined Tash's appearance as being like anything in Islam. Like you I saw him as more Hindu influenced. Early Islamic art was often figurative apparently, there was a specific dynasty (can't remember names or dates of course) who banned it, and most of it was destroyed either by them or by Christians. Just now this reminds me of medieval bestiaries, in which animals are described in order to remind the reader of some aspect ot Christ, the pelican-in-her-piety being the most obvious example. The world exists only for us to see the signs of God's presence and to act as mnemonics for us. Incidentally, this idea would be abhorrent to a Muslim. Not only can God not be portrayed in art, it is blasphemous to see God in his creation because of course he is a lot better than it.

TESSA: In Hinduism it wouldn't be abhorent, but Hinduism goes one step further. Animals are not signs of God, they ARE God, as are we.

NAOMI: I wish seeing god in "nature" was abhorent to Christians, it's a particulary irritating form of moralising if you ask me.... Anyway, to get back to the point, the `bad' religion in the Narnia books really is (by virtue of being the invention of a Christian author) what Christianity (Christendom? it's a nice word anyway) has always tried to make Islam be. The pieces finally fit. Although the religion of the Calormenes doesn't feature much in The Horse and His Boy and when it does it is made to seem fairly innocuous, Lewis more than makes up for this in The Last Battle. It is proved to be not really a separate religion, but the worship of the devil. It also involves human sacrifice, which like cannibalism, is a common thing for a religion or race to be accused ot my another. Similarly, the size and power of the eastern and western nations (if we can refer to Calormen as Eastern even though on the maps it is in the South, The East being Aslan's country (damn!)) is altered in the Narnia books so that the `Evil Empire' to coin a phrase, really is bigger and more powerful that `good,' `free' little Narnia and Archenland. This means that the Western nations no longer have to exaggerate the East's potential threat to them in order to justify their attacks on it. Calormen really could conquer Narnia, it is only revolting concepts like bravery and honour that save Narnia. The economics of the East/West relationship is also removed, Prince Rabadash's freedom is limited by Aslan because it is best for everyone, not because Narnia wants to exploit Calormen's oil as such things don't exist in this simple world of very bad and very good.Transfering real life East/West conflicts into an imaginary world and removing the West's motivations of greed make it look as if the equivalent of the West is really acting in the interests of the poor subjects of the Tisroc, as well as themselves.

TESSA: It's not only bravery and honour that saves Narnia but the fact that they have all the weird mythological creatures (albeit all from Western Graeco-Celtic-Saxon mythologies) and this scares the shit out of the Calormenes. The Tisroc admits it's not just logistics that's keeping him away but he's under the spell of some kind of fear and superstition of otherworldly magic, which of course to the reader seems cowardly and unjustified. Lewis uses all these figures from Western mythology in a very lazyily melting-pot way, (which apparently Tolkein abhored). So you get Bacchus and Father Christmas in the same world and time frame. It becomes a bit like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. One of the things that has struck me the most on re-reading these books is that C.S.Lewis himself comes off as a kind of God, creating his own world and predestining some of the characters to heaven and some to hell. Which I guess is just what writers do, but the metaphor seems to be much more active in this example. But I wonder if he is being lazy, or clever when he lays the bait for the general distate of things Eastern in the first couple of books, long before Calormen becomes a named entity. For example, in The Magician's Nephew, Digory is very upset, because his mother is dying and his father is in India, but the way that it's phrased it sounds like "being in India" is just as much an affliction as having a terminal disease. And it struck me in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, that of course the most screamingly obvious clue to Lewis's bias against Islam is the fact that Edmund betrays his brothers and sisters by eating Turkish Delight! The very stuff comes to conote all that is evil. To the Beavers Edmund appears "Treacherous" and better yet, the way to spot a follower of the wicked, Eastern-ish Witch is that there is "something about their eyes."

NAOMI: The Calormenes' eyes are mentioned in The Last Battle - "Their white eyes flashing dreadfully in their brown faces," and later Eustace has "Never seen anything that made his blood run so cold as that line of dark-faced, bright-eyed men." Just having brown skin makes them monstrous. Tirian, Jill and Eustace find it distasteful when they have to darken their skin to disguise themselves as Calormenes, and when he removes the colouring Tirian says, "That is better. I feel like a true man again." Back to The Magician's Nephew, when Polly and Digory are in the room full of waxworks they think the first ones seem "nice", they "looked kind and wise and seemed to come from a handsome race". The later ones are proud and cruel, perhaps from a not-so-handsome race which has a tendency to produce despotic rulers like Jadis and the Tisroc. The 'niceness' or otherwise of rulers is explicitly connected with their race here. The whole of Charn is very Oriental, it has temples, complete with sacrificial drums; pyramids; desert; slaves etc. When Jadis arrives in London most Londoners think she is a drunk circus performer, quite appropriate as circus performers often adopted pseudo-Eastern clothes and names. She is also looked on as possibly guilty of sexual impropriety. Aunt Letty disapproves of her bare arms, and Uncle Andrew fancies his chances with her when he's drunk; the usual Western fantasies of the East as sexually permissive. I wondered in re-reading Prince Caspian if the Telmarines would be Oriental too, but believe it or not they turn out to be half Polynesian. Those who don't want to stay in Narnia when it is restored to its former glory are sent back to the island they came from in the South Seas, which is now uninhabited, another colonial myth made real, in this case the desert island. Not much to do with what we are talking about unless you think of "A land without a people for a people without a land" - it is inconvenient for the pseudo-European Narnians to have so many Telmarines in Narnia, so they give them a chance to go back to the land they supposedly came from, albeit a very very long time ago, on the understanding that no one lives there now.

TESSA: Do you mean this could be some kind of parable for Zionism? As for Telmarines being Oriental, Poynesians were originally migrant Asians, so there you go.

NAOMI: In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Caspian goes to the Lone Islands and finds slave traders. Their main customers are Calormenes. The Calormene crescent (there, you couldn't get a more glaringly obvious reference to Islam than that) is the main currency in the Lone Islands. Later when some coins are found next to the clothes of one of the missing lords they are described as "Not Calormen crescents but genuine Narnian 'Lions' and 'Trees'", as if Calormen money is not only dirty but somehow counterfeit. The fact that slaves from the Lone Islands are sold to Calormen explains why it was not thought of (by Calormenes) as completely anomalous that Shasta should be a slave in Calormen when he is obviously one of the "accursed but beautiful" Northern races. In this book Calormen is a convenient place to set anything "bad". The description of the Calormenes is a classic example of Orientalist racism, they have "dark faces and long beards; wear flowing robes and orange coloured turbans and are a wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient people". After that I wouldn't have been surprised if Caspian had discovered a land of black people who had natural rhythm.

Other C.S.Lewis online resources:

Into The Wardrobe

Bruce L Edwards "Lewis Redux: A Postmodern Dialogue"

C.S.Lewis on Myth

Ashley Eckler "Lewis, Lucifer, and Luminous Beings"


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