The Bigotry of C.S. Lewis

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.

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11 Responses to The Bigotry of C.S. Lewis

  1. Good essay. Also, given that the Calormenes’ religion is contrasted with the Narnians’, and that Tash demands human sacrifice, I think it’s probably supposed to recall the Canaanite paganism of the Old Testament.

  2. Ilíon says:

    Leftists, including the squishy-leftists we call “liberals” — and (most) women — have a curious mode of “reasoning”: by denying that there *is* truth, or that even if there is, denying that it is unknowable, the mere assertions they wish to believe become truer that truth.

    • Ilíon says:

      … 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.

      You see, the way leftists (and most women) look at it, it’s all right to judge — so long as you deny that you are judging. It’s all right to say that So-and-So, or even entire nations, are wrong about someting, so long as you deny that there is a right and wrong, or the means to distinguish one from the other, and deny that you are judging something to be right or wrong. It’s all right to assert that your view is the only correct view, so long as you assert that there are no correct views (and that anyoine who believes otherwise has an incorrect view).

  3. Ilíon says:

    oops, “denying that it is []knowable”

  4. Pingback: In Honor of My First Year of Blogging | Malcolm the Cynic

  5. It is so irritating to me when people call Lewis racist. I like to bring in Aravis and the young Calormene from “The Last Battle” when they do. Of course, they then say that those are only two examples and we don’t know that there were more, to which I reply that we don’t know that there weren’t. If they are courageous enough to take the argument further, I then say that by the same token Redwall must be racist, because though there have been good vermin, the majority of them are bad. Obviously, that makes them racist against vermin. And “Castaways of the Flying Dutchman” is racist because it tries to be historically accurate. Gah. So many labels.

  6. Yanang says:

    He was racist but not because he was a mean spirited human being. He was racist because that’s what people were in his time in Western Europe. People always refer to Narnia series. I have read a lot of his essays and he talks about savages as thought they were not even human. He doesn’t dislike them for being savage. It’s just what they are: not as fully human in a cultural sense.
    Now, we miss the point when we dismiss him for this. This was not social commentary about race relations and stereotypes. This was about good and evil. About courage and love. Resilience in danger. Doing your best with what you have. Sacrifice. Humility. That’s what he talked about. and the saving power of Jesus’ grace.
    I am black and thoroughly African. The Narnia books are my favourite books in the world. Been reading them since I was 6 and am now in my 20s. I cringe at the overt racism in may of his essays and interviews. But I remember that he was a man. And an imperfect one at that. A fact he kept stressing but people just placed him on a higher pedestal for it. I enjoy his work for its intended purpose and don’t criticize it for failing to do what it never set out to do. We live in a world where we seek to discredit everything and everyone one way or the other. We feel better when we point a flaw in someone’s work or character and blow it up until that defines them. But how many of us would survive this? Let’s be the best humans we can be and encourage people around us to do the best.
    I am not perfect by any measure or standard. I hold wrong assumptions all the time. Some of which I may go on holding till I die without any awareness of their falsity. I do not do this because I hate anyone. I do this because I am a flawed human in a world entirely populated by other differently flawed humans.

    • That’s a mature view I can respect. Where can you find overt racism? From what I’ve read I see much criticism of cultures and philosophies and religions he finds inferior, but not people in and of themselves.

    • Ilíon says:

      … not as fully human in a cultural sense.

      My great-grandfather was a half-savage. Being, or being called, a ‘savage’ isn’t about being thought not “fully human in a cultural sense”, it’s about being thought “fully [civilized] in a cultural sense”. Huge difference.

    • Victor Polk says:

      I don’t think he was not ever intended to be racist at all. I think people where just taking this too seriously.

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