To grab your attention:
I recently gave a presentation to my Myth and Culture class where I related C.S. Lewis’s “The Last Battle” directly to the Christian end times, specifically focusing on the character of Shift as the antichrist and the New Narnia as Lewis’s conception of Heaven and Hell (with Hell, as seen in the characters of the dwarfs specifically).
The teacher and I disagreed with a lot, and I’m most assuredly going to post more from that interesting discussion, but one thing she said near the end struck me. I had earlier said that Lewis, along with other notable J.R.R. Tolkien, was part of a relatively new school of Christian thought that did not try and emphasize Christianity’s differences from other religious myths but would rather embrace the similarities, and so he actually had great respect for other cultures and belief systems.
My teacher agreed with me on that, more or less. But she said that she was always a little bit hesitant when reading Lewis because the Calormenes (for those not in the know, a bordering country that invades and takes over Narnia in “The Last Battle”) are most clearly associated with the Arabs, and there was this idea of white Christendom coming in to save the unenlightened pagans over the desert. She still liked him, but for that reason was not as gung-ho as I was.
First off, I actually would identify the Calormenes more readily with the Indians than the Arabs (anthropomorphized bird-gods don’t sound like something I’d identify with the Muslim god but might fit some Hindu god concepts). But of course, the fact that you could make a case for either one really tells us that it’s fictional and we probably shouldn’t read anything more into it except that it’s meant to be a foreign culture to Narnia.
But what’s really interesting is that she could give no REAL justification for why she thought Lewis was, apparently, a bit racist. She certainly could find no evidence from Lewis’s writings. I have read a great deal of Lewis (so far “The Chronicles”, “The Screwtape Letters”, “Mere Christianity”, “The Great Divorce”, “Till We Have Faces”, and assorted essays), and at least as of yet absolutely nothing I have read has smacked remotely of racism. Nothing at all. He never makes any distinctions of superiority or inferiority based on race or the culture you are born in. He also does not judge people based on their religions – rather, he judges the religion itself. In “The Chronicles of Narnia” we see a noble Calormene make it into the new Narnia in “The Last Battle”, and we see a Narnian (well, Archenlander, but it’s the same difference) protagonist marry a Calormene noblewoman in “The Horse and His Boy”.
So where can this sense of unease come from? I actually think the answer is simple: Lewis thinks that Christianity is true. He thinks that it is the only religion that has gotten everything completely right. And in the Chronicles he believes that the Narnians are living the right way, and the Calormenes are not. The Narnians value the correct things, the Calormenes don’t. Aslan is God, Tash is the devil. St. Peter’s is glorious, Mecca is false. Jesus is God, Muhammed was a false prophet.
And so when he writes of the Calormenes, he is intentionally writing about a people whom he unequivocally thinks are living an inferior way of life to the noble, virtuous Narnians. Their culture values incorrect things and they worship a false god. And so, to my teacher, this must mean that Lewis thinks that CHRISTIANS are superior and that white people are better than darker skinned people. But Lewis is far from saying either of these things. Indeed, he makes a specific point to let a worshiper of Tash into the new Narnia; clearly he thought virtuous people could exist in any religion, and be of any race.
What really bothers her is that Lewis is making such a binary statement. Yes, Christianity is BETTER than paganism. Christianity is totally, unequivocally, TRUE. The Calormenes are, in many ways, flat out WRONG. Why, this is judging! How dare he claim that his religion is correct while still being careful to show that virtuous people of all faiths can find a way to God! This is uncomfortable because Lewis is actually telling people point-blank that they’re wrong. He’s not leaving his views up for interpretation.
And Lewis is racist because the Narnians are white and the Calormenes happen to be darker-skinned. If the enemy were the also white Archenlanders I doubt people would accuse Lewis of being racist, and yet the point he is making would be absolutely no different. He just decided to make his fictional people darker skinned, and to base them off of a culture, or cultures, more obviously foreign to make it easier to distinguish the Calormene way of life from the Narnian way of life. He is certainly very careful to show that not all Calormenes are evil, not all who follow false religions are necessarily damned, and not all Narnians are even good – look at Susan, left out of the new Narnia despite being one of the series’ main protagonists.
But he’s white, and the antagonists of the book are not. So, racist.
Plus, nobody likes being told they’re just wrong.