Did C.S. Lewis Create The Calormenes Characters To Demonize Muslims?
Stereotyping all things “other” has been something of a given in the history of humanity since the first concepts of tribal, religious, and territorial distinctions emerged. The East and West divide between Christians and Muslims, hammered home by centuries of wars and rumors of wars, is certainly no exception, spurred on by the instinct to simplify the complexity of anything perceived to be a threat, creating cardboard cut-out images defined by certain aspects or attributes, usually overblown, taken out of context, and spun to the eternal negative.
Of course, this tendency is exacerbated in time of open conflict, when both sides seek to validate their cause by demonizing their opponent in favor of bedtime stories and campfire tales. For example, during the Crusades, while European mothers frightened their children into behaving with stories of bronze-featured, thickly-bearded men with turbans and curved swords, Middle Eastern mothers reared their children on blood-curdling tales of clean-shaven, pale-featured, armor-clad giants with battle axes and broad swords. Neither party seemed particularly eager to focus on the effect the sun had in distinguishing human features in various parts of the globe, and preferred to spin their sagas about them.
Indeed, one anecdote tells how, at war’s end, a Frankish nobleman came to negotiation with the sultan Saladin, and was ushered into his private quarters by a skeleton crew servant staff. He happened to stumble into the sultan’s youngest son, age seven, who completely freaked out and leapt behind his bewildered father for protection, believing a monster or madman had entered their home turf, given that his blue eyes were seen as a sign of possession and his shaven state as a sign of insanity, for what normal man could possibly want to emasculate himself?
Centuries later, in the world of children’s fantasy literature, C.S. Lewis would carry on the not-so-noble pursuit of stereotyping huge swaths of “others” in his Chronicles of Narnia, where he created the Calormenes, fantastical Muslim boogie men, with turbans, curved swords, spicy food, crescent-marked coins, slavery, abusive would-be husbands, a code of stiff courtesy (which is being used for devious purposes, of course), a sophisticated mercantile system (also intent solely on infiltration), and exotic poetry (which, according to Lewis, is fairly pointless because the girly romance jazz is down to a drip). Oh, yeah, and there’s also this multi-headed vulture god thingy they worship and sacrifice peeps to ever and anon, for flavor. And their locale is hot, like really hot… denoted by the name “calor”, which means heat in Latin!
It’s safe to say that Lewis was a world culture nut, and was combining elements of multiple different Imperial regimes throughout history, most especially that of the Ottoman Turks and undeniably brutal imperial conquests. But, in the true style of an Edwardian Brit, also enmeshed in a society somewhat familiar with brutal imperial conquests, he enjoyed the cultural alphabet soup slurping on his own terms. While there was likely no malice intended, it was this shallow type depiction of the Arab world, bereft of contextual nuance or putting oneself in another’s shoes, that continued to feed into a phobic attitude that had been cultivated since the time of the Crusades and continues to the present day.
Lewis seems to have ripped off whatever exotic little morsels suited his purposes and then just made up the rest to enhance the villainous effect, like the vulture god, Tash. While it might be argued he was picking up on some pre-Islamic pagan Arabic deities, it seems more likely he was trying to wedge an imaginary super-gap between the Christian and Islamic understandings of God. In fact, the plot-line of the last book in the series involves the misguided attempt to conflate Aslan with Tash as being “the same”, reminiscent of the ongoing discussions about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Incidentally, this conflation also ushers in the apocalypse for the Narnians, which fits rather well with the modern Evangelical interpretations of the Book of Revelation. If Lewis had really wanted to do an analysis of the Christian and Muslim theological gap, he should have had both groups worship “The Emperor Across the Sea”, and then have differing views on Aslan, whether he is worthy of worship as divine, or simply worthy of respect as a messenger.
But Lewis wasn’t in it for accuracy, as much as to spin a colorful yarn that stoked the imaginations of mostly Western, Christian children. And if the spine-tingling savagery and exotic delights of far-flung locales could add flavor, more power to them. What he may not have predicted was the extent of Islamic immigration that would come to the UK in the aftermath of the British Empire’s collapse, and how a whole generation of young Muslims would fall in love with and then become disillusioned by his fantasy works.
One young Pakistani boy, struggling to get through the British school system amidst relentless prejudice, wrote that he initially found some comfort and escapism in the world of Narnia. He even became emotionally invested to the point of getting crushes on some of the girls in the stories and crying when anyone special to him, especially Aslan, died. But then, some books down the road in the series, the Calormenes showed up in all their stereotypical, eye-sore-inducing glory, and they brought along with them an identity crisis for the young reader who found various Islamic norms splattered everywhere in the most unflattering of fashions.
This was most striking the case when “May he live forever!” was inserted as the magic catch phrase for Tash that sounded quite a bit like “Peace be upon him!” as used by Muslims at the mention of Muhammad. If this wasn’t incriminating enough, given they were fast becoming the arch-baddies in the series, his fellow classmates, also reading the series, began to pick on the school’s lone Muslim student as a Calormene. Eventually, one of his teachers revealed to him in a rather haughty fashion that the whole series was really an allegory for Christianity vs. “the forces of darkness,” something that he had ironically not realized the whole time.
This sort of story is not an isolated incident, and spawned a small movement of “concerned Muslim Mothers of the UK” to discuss whether or not Narnia was suitable reading material for their children, or was simply going to send them over the edge into a state of theological confusion, self-loathing, and possibly hunger strikes over spicy food… which Lewis had subliminally convinced them was an omen of evil. In essence, it proves reminiscent of the “Concerned Christian Mothers” movement over the Harry Potter series.
As a fascinating side-note, some Muslims who encountered Narnia found parallels between Aslan and a famous figure from Islam, Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, the cousin of Muhammad who went on to marry Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, called the Queen of the Women of Paradise. Famed both for his skills as an incomparable warrior and as a wise sage, symbolism associated with him includes Arabic calligraphy in the shape of a lion underscored by his trade-mark double-pointed scimitar. His poetic and ethical writings set the standard for much Islamic literature to come, and he was considered by many within his society, and even some admirers beyond it, to be the ideal of manhood, able to balance both military prowess and the finer arts.
After serving as Caliph, and well-regarded for his justice and generosity, he was killed while at prayer in the mosque by an assassin’s poisoned sword, thus making many come to view him as a martyr. This is yet another reason why he might be seen as a “type” of Aslan for readers approaching the story from an Islamic perspective. “People are of two types,” he famously said. “They are either your brothers in faith, or your equals in humanity.”
In recent years, when ISIS was wreaking havoc in Mosul, Iraq and pressing all inhabitants of the area to convert to their fanatic interpretation of Islam or be killed, the Shiite Muslim shrine where Ali is buried took his quotation to heart and offered shelter to fleeing refugees, whatever their background or belief, including the beleaguered Christian community. Muslim families also opened their homes to displaced Christians while recounting the historical story of a band of Muslims that were led by the brother of Imam Ali, Jaffar, finding safe refuge in Christian controlled Abyssinia. To this day, some Orthodox Christians join in the annual pilgrimage walks in remembrance of the death of Ali and his sons Hussan and Hussain as a sign of solidarity and gratitude for the help in their utmost hour of need. So perhaps this association of Ali with Aslan has merit after all.
I do find it interesting that the first Narnia book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which I believe to be the most clearly Christian of the series, seems to have been universally accepted and beloved. It was almost always the later books in the series that became increasingly overbearing and affronting for non-Christian, and particularly Muslim, readers. Perhaps this is because the first book was, by its very nature, an allegory about the struggle between a universal good and a universal evil, personified through Aslan and the White Witch, whereas later installments focused on allegories for real-world international power struggles and culture slashes, slanted towards the bias of the author himself.
This, I feel, undermined Lewis’ intent to teach his readers about the Christian understanding of life and spirituality in a creative and captivating way, which he achieved so well the first time, but tumbled down the tubes in successive installments that he shot out to his publishers over his summer holiday breaks. With LWW, you didn’t need to be Christian in order to find some common thread in it that could apply to all readers of goodwill, nor even to appreciate the Christian worldview for what it is. The trouble came, not in retelling the Christian story, but in distorting the Muslim one. Even worse, perhaps, is the patronizing tone he chose to take in examining another world which he could not hope to properly understand.
Lewis chose to settle for an Arabesque fantasia meant to prop up the notion that European civilization has always been inherently more human and humane than anything that the East could produce, ignoring the reality that even the Crusades themselves took many aspects of Eastern culture to help skyrocket their own to new heights, both technologically and artistically. Both universes certainly had their fair share of historical atrocities and intolerance of the “other”, but also their fair share of triumphs and moments where coexistence actually was reached. The real trouble came in when neither side wanted to give each other credit where credit was due.
Practically the only thing Lewis could manage to say vaguely “nice” about the Calormenes is that they were good storytellers, but even then there’s a stinger, in that the poetry of the Narnians is portrayed as being more exciting and humanistic that the moralizing maxims and ubiquitous language of the Calormenes. In essence, the former is painted as being more honest, straight-forward, and hearty (“Roast Beef of Old England” and all that) and the latter is painted as being magicians, tricksters, and conjurers (Salaam, snake in the basket).
This is a nice pat on the back from one Englishman to all others, but falls pretty short of the mark. During the time of the Crusades, the actual art of poetry was largely an Eastern specialty, and the development of the tradition in Europe had much to do with Western contact with the East. The different peoples of Europe obviously had their own Pagano-Christian storytelling and mystical traditions to draw from (see “Dream of the Rood” and the works of St. Hildegard of Bingen), but the artform as it flourished in the Frankish courts was greatly influenced by the Sufi tradition that spawned the likes of Rumi, Hafiz, and Ibn Arabi.
The main difference was that the flowing, almost liquid sensuality used to describe encounters with the Divine was changed to describe earthly, courtly love. Basically, what started as a soul-rending ode to the love of and longing for Allah, the Source of all Reality, ended as a half-baked attempt to woo some curvaceous chick named Suzette down at the baguette store…
Granted, I’m glad both Eastern and Western literary traditions flourished in their own right as they did, but it’s almost as if Lewis is pulling his own teeth trying to give his “others” a compliment on something, anything! Even in his introduction of Arabs as storytellers, their sole purpose becomes one of keeping a Western audience mused or entertained, while at the same time having little or no personal story themselves. They are the exterior reality, while the Anglo characters are the interior reality. In essence, it’s all about using people as eye-candy.
But these “Turkish Delights” have now faded out of favor with modern readership sensibilities, and readers are taking a more critical look at Lewis and his depictions. Some more extreme variants have even called for Narnia to be removed from reading lists due to racist content. My personal opinion on this is that it would be as much of an overkill as the depiction of the Calormenes themselves. Lewis was undeniably imperfect, and his perspectives could be archaic and offensive, but that is the case with almost all classic authors. Purging them in total would just be a disservice, and also a form of whitewashing the past instead of learning from it.
Hence, my recommendation would be to add a nice little disclaimer page to the beginning of each of the questionable Calormene-centric volumes to let the “Concerned Muslim Mothers” (and any parents for that matter concerned about racist connotations infecting their children’s perception of others) know what’s ahead. Having said this, if I were actually planning some sort of school curriculum, I’d keep it to LWW as mandatory classic reading and then abandon ship (or should I say Treader?).
On a concluding note, there is something else lasting that came from the Calormene inclusion in Narnia, and that has to do with the character of Emeth, who appears in the final book in the series, The Last Battle. Through him, we find Lewis indicate his own hope in the universal possibility of salvation, based upon good deed and sincere intent, even including those for whom he is not very sympathetic. For Lewis was a high Church Anglican, and therefore more closely aligned with positions held by Catholicism than Evangelicalism, even though the latter have tended to embrace him as their own. Indeed, there has been no small amount of controversy over Lewis’ assertion that God, personified as Aslan, will accept all good services, and reject all bad services, regardless of the name used or even doctrines held.
Aslan is depicted as beautifully telling Emeth, in words worthy of Rumi: “Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
Emeth replies in kind: “My Happiness is so great that it even weakens me like a wound. And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me Beloved…”
Perhaps, in spite of all the twists in the road, C.S. Lewis and the Calormenes have left us with some small seed of unity after all.
March 22, 2021
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