Almost every night for about a month now — ever since we watched the movie — I’ve been reading the Chronicles of Narnia to Jinhee before we go to bed. I’m a huge fan of C. S. Lewis, and have read these books before. But Jinhee hadn’t, so I wanted to share with her some of its magic. We’re on book 3: The Horse and His Boy (if you dare to count chronologically within Narnia’s timeline instead of by publishing date — there’s a huge debate on this).
We really do love these books, but allow me some color commentary — literally.
The book’s main character, Shasta, is a slave who lived among Calormenes, but now is running away to Narnia and the North. The Narnians are carefree, happy, friendly and honorable. In contrast, the Calormenes are depicted as political, materialistic, pretentious and conniving, willing to step on their social inferiors to make themselves feel important. Narnians are handsome or beautiful, and even more fashionable in the eyes of both cultures. Calormenes, however, are overweight or humpbacked and usually ostentatious in their choice of clothes. And ultimately, Lewis reminds you over and over again that Narnians are fair-skinned people modeled after the Anglo-Saxon culture of the Middle Ages, while the Calormenes are darker, styled after older Middle Eastern cultures complete with turbans and scimitars. Yet does it really have to be this way? Isn’t it always this way?
I know that Lewis (along with friend Tolkien) was trying to create British-centered folklore, but both seemed to make their enemies darker, and both pitted Middle Eastern-type cultures and other uglier, darker enemies against the good, fair-skinned people of the north. These depictions, given our current world context of Americans occupying Iraqi lands, seem even more insensitive and out of line. It’s sad that even our most revered Christian writers fall into the trap of stereotypes, making it tougher to see the truth of “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Being one ain’t easy.
I’m still reading these books to Jinhee, and we’re still enjoying them. And I feel terrible giving even this small critique, which may cause some to question my faith for finding fault with C. S. Lewis. These books still do have great treasure to offer, but this book in particular seems slightly tarnished.