Racism in The Chronicles of Narnia? Let’s Talk… | Talking Beasts

Posted March 13, 2018 8:00 am by Glumpuddle

Picking up our commentary on The Horse and His Boy right where we left off! Shasta, Bree, Aravis, and Hwin are nearing the city of Tashbaan… and this is probably the best place to address accusations of racism in C.S. Lewis’s description of Calormen culture. (If you really want to dive into this issue, read Dr. Devin Brown’s excellent article)

Regardless of the C.S. Lewis’s actual intentions, is this a valid reaction to the text? And how should the Calormens be handled in a future movie adaptation?

We get into that around the 23-minute mark of this episode. But first, we read a few of your comments and discuss the themes of family and separation. Listen and enjoy.

– Glumpuddle

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26 Comments For This Story

  • narnia fan 7 says:

    Great episode! Though it’s weird to hear my own voice in it. Lol

    I agree with everything you guys said on the racism is issue and I think you bring up any excellent point about the Calormens are critiqued on their values and not on the color of their skin, thats something that often gets overlooked. Racism is a terrible thing and a serious thing, but I think that term gets used to loosely in todays society, I can understand why some people see the portrayal of the Calormens as racist or insensitive, but if you really examen the books I don’t think those criticisms don’t hold water.

    While I do like the Arabian ascetic of the Calormen culture, I don’t think I would have a problem with it being changed in a film adaptation.

    • JFG says:

      This is not directed at you, but at the rascism topic discussion:
      Racism in the States is constantly overlooked. Not the other way around. Call it the corruption of an evil culture etc. Call it whatever you like. You only have to look at Native American communities to see that US culture actively ignores their wellbeing.
      Whatever skin tone the Calormens have is a destraction from the fact that they are a majority in the Narnia stories, not a minority, and bestow few acts of kindness to surrounding countries. I like to think I’m a patriot, but I’m ashamed at what goes on with my own. I hope Americans see themselves in the Calormens.

      • Anfinwen says:

        I know you were writing about real life social issues, but I appreciate something you pointed out relating to the Calormenes. They were a much bigger more powerful nation than Narnia. If this is shown very clearly in the movie (presuming there will be one) perhaps that would help prevent accusations of racism. In modern society racism is more often tied to minorities. Of course smaller groups can be racist against larger groups, but the type of people the filmmakers would have to appease don’t seem to focus on that as much.

      • Mimi says:

        I am so tired of making everything about racism. Kind of like straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. Can’t read into this what someone thinks Lewis was saying. Pretty sad.

    • narnia fan 7 says:

      I just noticed I made a typo, what I meant was

      "but if you really examen the books I don’t think those criticisms hold water"

  • twinimage says:

    Great episode. Love the comment on John Williams being the "Meryl Streep" of movie scores. That made me laugh. As for "racist" Calormen stuff, I’m not sure what could be done about their look. There is no way you can please everyone. If you make them darker skinned, they’ll say it’s racist. If you don’t, they’ll say it’s "white-washing" and you’re putting a bunch of middle-eastern actors out of work. I really like the Arabian setting of HHB and would rather they change Shasta’s ethnicity and the ethnicity of Archenland. We spend most of the book in Calormen and I’d rather the vivid aesthetic from the book be maintained and let Archenland be the kingdom that is played around with by the movie studio. If these Narnia kingdoms were characters, Archenland is a minor supporting character to me, so I feel it more fitting to change it’s aesthetic design than Calormen. That way, it’s not a "white is good, dark is bad" argument. You literally would have to look at their culture’s values and ways of living to tell what kind of people they are.

    • JFG says:

      There would be less accusations from ‘’them’’ about whitewashing dark characters from the books than of racism, because I dought ‘’they’’ have ever read the Narnia books, much less remembered or respected them. I agree, though. You can’t please everyone.

  • JFG says:

    If there is ever a movie adaptation made of ‘Horse and His Boy’ I am open to elements of the Calormen culture being modernized or changed, AS LONG AS THE FILMMAKERS DON’T PLAY IT SAFE. The attitude Lewis has to Calormen culture is slightly negative and mocking, partly due to their values, partly because Lewis did not grow up in a supposed post-racist society. Not vilifying Real other cultures is important, but so is calling out cultures of evil. Regardless of color/gender/class.
    His feelings for Calormen are not safe PC emotions but are still importent to the Story of Shasta.
    I would be open to Shasta being darker in skin tone than in the book (the Calormens consider him fair and white, Lewis never explicitly states this himself) though that might take away from the Celtic background of Archenland/Narnia. A mixed-heritage ancestory for Shasta In the movie adaptation would be creative and interesting: He looks Both like Aravis/Rabadash/Laseraleen and like the High Kings and Queens of Narnia. Might make the Archenlanders more intersesting as a country.
    Then again, Narnia is not the story to reinvent the wheel, polically. It’s old fashioned to the tenth. Sticking to the virtuous elements from the books are the most important descisions

    • HPOFNARNIA says:

      Hmm, that would be interesting if they would make his skin darker and not look like a Narnian, if HHB ever does get made into a movie. I would actually like them to cast actual Arabian actors and Id b open to Peter making an appearance in it, it’ll be great if they have a scene of him in Cair Paravel,
      I actually agree with Dot, I don’t want him in Tashban, because that’s Edmund and Susan’s moment but if he leads the charge down to Anvard, that could work.

  • JFG says:

    Also, I agree with Glumpuddle: ‘The Shape of Water’ was a disapointing Best Picture Winner.
    ‘Get Out’ or ‘Dunkirk’ should have won instead.

  • Col. Klink says:

    I think it’s likely that the portrayal of Calormen reflects racism or prejudice on his part but I don’t necessarily consider the book itself racist. If a black person feels insulted by it and can’t enjoy it, I respect that but it doesn’t make me feel like I shouldn’t read it. (I don’t know if the books have every been published in the Middle East so I’m not too worried by them offending people who will never read them.)

    My guess is the book would influence children to be racist if they were in a household that was already inclined that way. If they were growing up in a household that wasn’t racist (like myself), I don’t think it would influence them that way.

  • Anfinwen says:

    Calormen is corrupt because of its corrupt government and greedy, power-hungry Tisrocs. Corrupt government is not limited to one culture. Racism has nothing to do with villainy unless one believes that the color of one’s skin is the determining factor. That is certainly not the case in HHB.
    Another thing I believed was discussed somewhere in the forum was whether or not Lewis indulged in orientalism. Rillian nailed it when he said that Narnia and Calormen are both a mish-mash of cultures. The accusation of orientalism is not valid, because it’s a fantasy world. That’s what fantasy cultures are, fake cultures made of bits and pieces of real ones. Narnia is a more medieval European mashup, and Calormen is a vaguely eastern mashup and no more racist or disrespectful than Narnia.
    As to how to handle Calormen in a movie, it may be just as dangerous to try to change it as to leave it. If you change it people will complain that you’ve white-washed it, or purposely tried to leave out (insert culture of choice here). If they really want to avoid the Middle East/India, one option would be to base is more on medieval Spain or Asia. There’s a lot less tension around those areas at the moment, but they are still similar to the book and would work well visually (think of the Alhambra palace). I really think that Lewis’ main inspiration was India, and in my opinion there would be no problems depicting it as such.

    • Anfinwen says:

      I know the Alhambra is more Arab than Spanish, but I do like the look of Spanish architecture.

    • Col. Klink says:

      I’m probably going to get flamed for saying this, and doubtless I’ll deserve it, but I kind of like that Calormen culture is a vague Eastern mishmash. In modern fantasy books and movies, if there is a villainous group, the group is made to look Western. The reason for this is usually that the work’s creators themselves are white, and don’t wish to insult other cultures or ethnicities. This is very commendable of them but eventually it gets boring if all the villains are the same.

      When I read about the Calormens, I’m not thinking, "These villains resemble stereotypes of Middle Eastern and Indian people. Man, I hate those guys! This is going to be good." What I’m thinking is, "Oh good! A different and interesting villainous group. What a refreshing change from all the stereotypical pseudo European villains like the Telmarines."

      I definitely understand why moviemakers wouldn’t want to encourage White Supremacists though.

  • The Rose-Tree Dryad says:

    While I think that Calormen is definitely a mishmash of cultures, I tend to think most of the paganism of the ancient Middle East. The Calormene religion is polytheistic and they sacrifice men on Tash’s altar. Compare Tash, for instance, to a god like Moloch of the ancient Canaanites.

    Long-dead Middle Eastern religions don’t exactly have a strong hold on the public imagination, though. If the filmmakers wanted to drive home the ritual human sacrifice angle—and they probably should, if they want to avoid being compared to religions in today’s world—then they might consider blending some Aztec flavor into the Calormene culture since it’s well-known that human sacrifice was a major aspect of the Aztec religion.

    But yeah, I’d be open to a creative re-imagining of the aesthetic in Calormene. Pauline Baynes doesn’t need to have the last word.

    I also think that Archenland could be a mixed race culture. Truth is, they are: Archenlanders are descended from the children of King Frank and Queen Helen, and their kids married dryads, naiads, wood gods, and river gods. They are not completely human and I think emphasizing their nymph/nature god ancestry could be a good idea. Beyond that, I think it’s quite possible that Calormenes and Archenlanders could have intermarried before the time of Shasta and Aravis. Even in the Pauline Baynes illustrations, King Lune and some of the courtiers are wearing turban-like headgear. Though more like a chaperon from the Middle Ages than the Calormene style of turban, it’s still a potential way to indicate shared culture between the countries.

    • SearchlightRG says:

      Well, according to Lewis’ Narnia world timeline, the Calormens are actually descended FROM renegade Archenlanders, so seeing traces of similarity between the two cultures could be interesting.

  • HPOFNARNIA says:

    I watched a review of this book and she said she doesn’t know if it was intentional if Lewis was basing the Colorman empire on Islamic Empire, a lot of people have said he has but I’m not gonna say he did it on purpose and she said that the colormam empire is a reminder of the Ottoman Empire.
    Bree is my favorite character in this book, mostly because I just think he’s funny. But I have to say that Shasta would have to be my third favorite human character. He and His story kinda reminds me of the story of Moses. His story of him being a Hebrew slave and his mother sent him away as a baby and was adopted into the royal family, but Shasta’s is kinda the opposite, he was born as a prince but was sent away, even though he was kidnaped, and was adopted and was about to become a slave.

  • Larry W. says:

    I actually never cared much for the city of Tashbaan. It was one of my least favorite parts of the book. It’s kind of tedious when the horses and the Shasta and Aravis go through it. It seems like Lewis meant for us to dislike the city, and perhaps some people see that as a negative statement about its culture– even though that may not have been his intention. Perhaps Lewis should have made Calormen more attractive and pleasant like Narnia and Archenland. Then I might also have liked it better. 🙂

    • waggawerewolf27 says:

      Tashbaan resembles any overcrowded city you care to point a finger at, especially one where the leadership thinks more of their own position than the responsibilities of leadership to the people being led. I agree that I can think of one city in particular, as it may have been in 1914, when the last Sultan had already gone, as it was in its beginning, as Byzantium, its life of more than a thousand years as Constantinople, until 1453 AD when its last Roman Emperor fell in battle, and the sheer impact of this particular city on the entire direction of world history. One city I’ve visited has chaotic traffic even today, even though they don’t have slaves any more, litters and sedan chairs, and the place is much cleaner. However the streets are still narrow, mysterious old streets just as they have always been. And the crowds, these days dressed western-style. I hope they keep in any movie Tashbaan as it is described in the book, with the main temple/church/mosque/museum as it is now, adjoining the Royal palace, all pavilions and rooms, and easy to get lost in. And I rather like the idea of the Tisroc all draped in jewellery, bobbles, with a funny hat and plonked down on an overstuffed sofa, rather than an actual throne.

      • Larry W. says:

        The disguises worked although it was kind of humiliating for Bree. Shasta came pretty close to being caught. "It’s my master’s orders, so there." I was a bit surprised that nothing else came of that, considering that the Caloromenes seemed to believe that Bree was a war horse, which was difficult to cover up. The negative experience of children being struck or beaten (as Shasta was since he was considered nothing more than a slave) makes Tashbaan seem like an unpleasant place.

  • Ryan says:

    Let me pose this question: Did you ever read all seven of the Chronicles and come away with a sense of racism or hatred toward any people? No? I didn’t think so. These books are a gift that C.S. Lewis gave to the world. This issue of racism is threatening to undo us. Have we truly reached a point where we’re tearing down great literature in the name of racism? Yes the bad guys wear turbans and have dark skin. That doesn’t make these books or C.S. Lewis racist. I think we need to "re-learn" what the term "racist" actually means. Portraying people in a negative light is not racism. Should witches be offended for the sake of the White Witch or the Lady of the Green Kirtle? The Calormenes lived in a society of slavery and forced marriage. Should we be cool with that so we don’t come across as racists? They’re just antagonists of a book series everybody. Not every single thing is cryptic racism or an attempt to perpetuate the demonization of a certain religion. Wake the hell up. You’re better than this!

  • Eustace says:

    I really just want to see Aravis wearing Indian (bollywood style) dresses while visiting Lasaraleen.

  • Jillian says:

    If they make a film I think they’d have to make sure that they’re are more good Calormians. Another thing that would be difficult in a film is dealing with the child marriage. They’d probably have to age up Aravis and Shasta to at least 16 year-olds. For the whole giving Aravis into marriage thing to happen. Or they could change it to Aravis having to run away to escape being killed by some usurper.

  • Jillian says:

    Also love the song you threw in there

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