Are The Chronicles of Narnia Sexist and Racist?
By Devin G. Brown*
Part I: Introduction & Accusations
The headline in the June 3, 2002 issue of The Guardian boldly announced, “Narnia books attacked as racist and sexist.” In the article we find several scathing pronouncements about the Narnia series from author Philip Pullman. “It is monumentally disparaging of girls and women,” Pullman claims. “It is blatantly racist. One girl was sent to hell because she was getting interested in clothes and boys.”
Pullman’s tirade is typical of the attacks on Lewis’s position on race and gender in The Chronicles of Narnia, attacks which began around twenty years ago and continue to pop up every now and then. Pullman’s outburst is typical in that 1) it is a hit-and-run assault rather than a fair investigation, 2) it fails to cite any actual writing by Lewis, 3) it ignores any material which would contradict it, and 4) its summary of what actually happens in the stories is inaccurate.
Lewis’s supporters have often done little more than provide knee-jerk reactions to these attacks. What is needed is a comprehensive look at these issues. In keeping with the theme of the 12th Annual C. S. Lewis and the Inklings Society Conference, Inklings: Dinosaurs or Contemporaries, I could have titled my talk, “A Dark Queen, Mixed-Race Kings, and Girls Whose Heads Have Something in Them: Lewis’s Contemporary Stance on Race and Gender in The Chronicles of Narnia.”
I will first provide a few representative accusations, then consider the relevant passages from the books themselves, and finally offer a brief explanation for why these attacks are so vehement. Since this topic has been addressed in part by others in many different places, for some of you, much of the ground I cover will be familiar. Still I hope to provide some new ways of thinking about this topic.
I am going to start out with some representative accusations because if you aren’t aware of them, you may question why we need for a paper defending Lewis. After all, his female protagonists are just as bright, capable, adventurous, and interesting as their male counterparts. You would think they would be exactly the kind of heroine that Lewis’s accusers would applaud. The same could be said for the diverse, multi-racial population that sets Narnia apart from other imaginary lands. My thesis is that rather than being monumentally disparaging of girls and women and blatantly racist, the Narnia stories are quite progressive in both these areas.
In A. N. Wilson’s 1991 biography of Lewis, we find one of the first allegations that Lewis committed an unpardonable crime against one of his female protagonists. Wilson asserts, “Only one of the children from the original quartet is excluded from heaven. This is Susan. She has committed the unforgivable sin of growing up” (228).
In The Fiction of C.S. Lewis: Mask and Mirror, published in 1993, Kath Filmer includes a chapter titled, “Masking the Misogynist in Narnia and Glome,” in which she writes: “What is disturbing in the Narnian Chronicles, as well as in the whole range of Lewis’s literary corpus is the way in which ultimate good is depicted as ultimate masculinity, while evil, the corruption of good, is depicted as femininity” (110).
In The Natural History of Make-Believe, released by Oxford University Press in 1996, John Goldthwaite claims, “Lewis had no difficulty mating beavers happily, but whenever we find him placing a man in proximity to a woman, or in situations that might suggest a muse relationship it is to expose the pairing as unnatural and wicked… Lewis feared women and disliked them categorically… The actual provocation for executing these seven novels sprang from his need to put a woman in her place—or two women, perhaps, or all of them” (230-2).
The Lewis Centennial in 1998 was the occasion for more of the same. In his article titled “The Darkside of Narnia,” which appeared in The Guardian on October 1, 1998, Philip Pullman claims that in Narnia, “Boys are better than girls; light-colored people are better than dark-colored people and so on…” Pullman continues, “Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up.”
On December 4, 1998, Philip Hensher had a piece for The Independent under the headline, “Don’t Let Your Children Go to Narnia.” There Hensher asks, “What on earth is The Last Battle going on about… with the poor girl who gets sent to hell for wearing nylons and lipstick?”
The release of the first Narnia film in 2005 prompted another round of similar claims. In her essay “Gender in Narnia,” published in The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy, Karin Fry declares, “While many of the heroic characters have flaws, Susan is the only one who is not forgiven or given the opportunity to work out her problems” (164).
In an interview from the July 17, 2005 issue of Time, J. K. Rowling tells Lev Grossman, “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.”
Finally, in The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventure in Narnia , which appeared in 2008, Laura Miller writes: “C. S. Lewis’s most devoted Christian readers regard his writings as, if not quite sacred, then at least sacralized. For them, the temptation to deny that he held a lot of objectionable opinions is very strong. Nevertheless, he did indeed hold those opinions, and they can’t be rationalized away with talk of ‘ready-made’ sources. The racism, sexism, and snobbery (of various types) lies pretty close to the surface in some parts of the Chronicles… When I returned at last to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and then to the rest of the Chronicles after my long estrangement from Lewis and his work, I could see, oh so clearly, all of the flaws… I winced at the depictions of the Calormenes and understood for the first time that the White Witch is a dominatrix” (171-2).
Part II: Susan—No Longer a Friend of Narnia
Since the depiction of Susan in The Last Battle seems not merely to offend, but to deeply offend the majority of Lewis’s detractors, it is a good starting point for a review of the relevant passages from the Chronicles. In chapter twelve, the seven kings and queens of Narnia have joined Tirian on the other side of the stable door. When Tirian asks where Queen Susan is, readers find the following passage.
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“On Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.” (154-5)
Several points can be made about this exchange. While Philip Hensher claims that Susan is sent to Hell for wearing nylons and lipstick and J. K. Rowling maintains that Susan is lost for merely being interested in these things, this is not what the text says. Jill reports not that Susan is interested in nylons and lipstick and invitations, but that she is interested in nothing except these superficial means and markers of being more popular than someone else. Lady Polly, who is older and wiser than Jill, points out that rather than being a sign of being grown up, Susan’s inordinate interests are an indication of being just the opposite. Point One is that Susan’s transgression isn’t growing up, nor is it being interested in boys; Susan’s transgression here is vanity. A careful reading of the Chronicles shows that simply talking about or being interested in clothes or parties is not enough to classify someone as vain—what has happened here is that Susan has made what should be a second thing into a first thing.
In chapter five of The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” the narrator tells us, “Lucy thought she was the most fortunate girl in the world, as she woke each morning to see the reflection of the sunlit water dancing on the ceiling of her cabin and looked round on all the nice new things she had got in the Lone Islands—seaboots and buskins and cloaks and jerkins and scarves” (67). In The Silver Chair, after returning to England, Jill does not get rid of her fine Narnian clothes, but instead we learn that she “smuggled hers home and wore them at a fancy-dress ball next holidays” (243). At the end of The Horse and His Boy, readers are told that Lucy and Aravis go off together “to talk about Aravis’s bedroom and Aravis’s boudoir and about getting clothes for her, and all the sort of things girls do talk about on such an occasion” (213).
To review: Point One is that Susan’s transgression is vanity and a careful reading of the Chronicles shows that simply talking about or being interested in clothes or parties is not enough to classify someone as vain.
Point Two is that Lewis makes it clear that vanity can afflict males as easily and as completely as it does females. In The Magician's Nephew, Uncle Andrew is described as being “as vain as a peacock” (83). In chapter six after Jadis arrives from Charn, we find this description:
He put on a very high, shiny, stiff collar of the sort that made you hold your chin up all the time. He put on a white waistcoat with a pattern on it and arranged his gold watch chain across the front. He put on his best frock-coat… He got out his best tall hat and polished it up. There was a case of flowers… on his dressing table; he took one and put it in his button-hole. He took a clean handkerchief (a lovely one such as you couldn’t buy today) out of the little left-hand drawer and put a few drops of scent on it. He took his eye-glass, with the thick black ribbon, and screwed it into his eye; then he looked at himself in the mirror.
… “Andrew, my boy,” he said to himself as he looked in the glass, “you’re a devilish well preserved fellow for your age. A distinguished-looking man, sir.” (82-3)
Vanity is also a besetting problem for Bree in The Horse and His Boy, a problem which in the end almost keeps him from entering Narnia. When Hwin asks why after all the hardships they have faced, he is reluctant leave the Hermit’s, Bree replies in words reminiscent of Uncle Andrew’s: “Well, don’t you see Ma’am—it’s an important occasion—returning to one’s own country—entering society—the best society—it is so essential to make a good impression—not perhaps looking quite ourselves yet, eh?” (198).
Hwin sees through Bree’s excuses and with a laugh observes, “It’s your tail, Bree! I see it all now. You want to wait till your tail’s grown again… Really, Bree, you’re as vain as that Tarkheena in Tashbaan!” The Tarkheena Hwin referred to here is Lasaraleen who, like Susan, is also excessively preoccupied with the trappings of popularity—“dresses and parties, weddings and engagements and scandals” (103).
To review: Point Two is that Lewis makes it clear that vanity can afflict males as easily and as completely as it does females.
Point Three is that while most of the protagonists in Lewis’s stories for young people are, quite understandably, young people, The Chronicles of Narnia do not have a bias against growing up and getting married. The list of great married couples in Narnia includes Frank and Helen, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Caspian and the Daughter of Ramandu, and Shasta and Aravis. Bree and Hwin also get married though not to each other. In The Magician's Nephewwhen Aslan asks Frank if he would like to stay in Narnia permanently, it is significant that Lewis has the former cabbie reply, “Well, you see sir, I’m a married man. If my wife was here neither of us would ever want to go back to London” (149).
Point Four is that Susan’s excessive interest in nothing except nylons, lipstick, and invitations has not barred her from the great reunion in Aslan’s country: she has barred herself. In the passage from The Last Battle mentioned earlier, Eustace makes it clear that Susan has been invited by the others “to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia,” but she has always refused. She has put Aslan and Narnia behind her to pursue her interest in making herself appear more desirable through clothes, cosmetics, and invitations. Because of this, Susan is not present at the gathering which the Professor and Polly have convened. Because Susan is not present, she is not part of the company on the train and thus not in the railway accident which leads to the arrival of the seven friends as well as Mr. and Mrs. Pevensie in Aslan’s country.
Point Five is that just because Susan does not travel to Aslan’s country in The Last Battle does not mean she will never get there. Lewis makes this point himself in a letter written on January 22, 1957 where he states, “The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end—in her own way” (C. S. Lewis Letters to Children 67).
While time has ended in Narnia, it continues in our world. There are other characters left alive in England, and presumably any of them desiring to go to Aslan’s country after experiencing death on Earth will be allowed to do so. This list includes not only Susan but also Marjorie Preston, Mrs. Macready, the Telmarines who returned to Earth, the former bullies from Experiment House, and even Harold and Alberta Scrubb.
At the end of The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”, when Lucy asks Aslan, “Will you tell us how to get into your country from our world?” he promises, “I shall be telling you all the time” (247). From this we may conclude that after the last chapter of The Last Battle, Aslan will continue to tell Susan and the other characters still in England the way they can reach his country.
Part III: Sexist Remarks from Imperfect Characters
The protagonists in The Chronicles of Narnia are not perfect. Like us, they all have their flaws but are on the way to something better. In addition to a list of faults which includes betrayal, impatience, laziness, cowardice, greed, selfishness, and anger, Lewis occasionally adds sexism—or if not real sexism, at least sexist comments. Point Six is that the sexist remarks made by less-than-perfect male and female characters in Narnia should not be taken as Lewis’s endorsement of sexism, but as quite the opposite.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mrs. Beaver complains to her husband and Peter who are admiring Peter’s new sword, “Don’t stand talking there talking till the tea’s got cold. Just like men” (109-10). In Prince Caspian when Edmund says to Peter and Trumpkin, “That’s the worst of girls. They never carry a map in their heads,” Lucy snaps right back, “That’s because our heads have something inside them” (119). In The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”, Lucy complains, “That’s the worst of doing anything with boys. You’re all such swaggering, bullying idiots” (128). In The Silver Chair Eustace tells Jill, “It’s an extraordinary thing about girls that they never know the points of the compass” (10). In The Horse and His Boy, Corin thinks he is making a compliment when he tells Shasta that Lucy is “as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy” (182). In The Magician's Nephew when Digory tells Polly, “Girls never want to know anything but gossip and rot about people getting engaged,” she responds back, “How exactly like a man!” (55).
If there is sexism here, rather than merely unthinking comments, it is Mrs. Beaver’s, Edmund’s, Lucy’s, Eustace’s, Corin’s, Digory’s, and Polly’s sexism rather than Lewis’s. It is also accurate characterization since these are the exact kind of comments which these imperfect characters might realistically be expected to say from time to time.
Whether readers see mutual gender bashing or just ordinary bickering in these scenes, Lewis makes it quite clear that uncharitable comments like these are wrong and should be avoided by everyone. Lewis no more endorses or promotes this kind of behavior than he does his protagonists’ other offenses. When Jill and Eustace are reunited with Aslan in the final chapter of The Silver Chair, Jill immediately recalls “all the snappings and quarrellings” and wants to apologize (236). The point is that the sexist remarks we find in the Chronicles are part of Lewis’s realistic depictions of immature characters and are not part of their later development.
Part IV: What Father Christmas Says
Father Christmas’s comments about women and warfare stand out as not seeming to fit into the model of flawed remarks from flawed characters. Father Christmas, like Aslan, seems to be the kind of character who could be thought to be speaking for Lewis himself. Although he gives Susan a bow and arrows and Lucy a dagger in chapter ten of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas tells them that he does not intend for either of the girls to fight in the battle, a position which some critics see as sexist.
What these critics never object to is the fact that Peter does not receive a bow or a healing cordial. Is Lewis saying that males cannot be archers or that boys cannot be healers? Not at all. What Lewis is illustrating, here in this scene and elsewhere, is Point Seven—that in Narnia all are called upon to put their unique abilities and inclinations to use. If Peter is better suited to use a sword and shield in the service of Narnia, Lucy is better suited to serve as a healer and, as we see in Prince Caspian, Susan is better suited to serve as an archer.
In The Horse and His Boy, Lewis will return to this same point when he has Shasta explain that in times of war, “Everyone must do what he can do best” (209). Readers find a similar incident in The Last Battle when Tirian, Eustace, and Jill must travel through dense thickets which make it hard to get a bearing. Jill is clearly “the best pathfinder” (69), and Tirian puts her in front to lead.
Lucy wants to know why Father Christmas does not want her in the battle, and her response shows both humility and self-awareness. She tells him, “I think—I don’t know—but I think I could be brave enough” (109). Father Christmas does not question Lucy’s bravery, and readers also believe Lucy to be as courageous as either of her brothers. In chapter seventeen Lewis will show explicitly that Lucy is “brave enough” by having her be known as “Lucy the Valiant” (184).
Father Christmas offers as his reasoning the claim that “Battles are ugly when women fight” (109), a claim which could be said to tell only half the truth. Truth be told, battles are ugly when men fight also—a fact which Lewis, a veteran of the trenches of World War I, knew very well. Point Eight is that Lewis, or at least Father Christmas who may be speaking for him here, is guilty more of romanticizing men’s role in warfare than of being sexist.
If Father Christmas overly romanticizes men’s role in warfare, this is later remedied. In chapter twelve Lewis will realistically describe the climax of Peter’s first battle as “a horrible, confused moment like something in a nightmare” (131). The final battle of the last King of Narnia found in chapters eleven and twelve of The Last Battle is as ugly as anything we find in the Chronicles. The personal revulsion that Lewis had for war can be clearly seen in a letter he wrote near the start of World War II to his friend Dom Bede Griffiths in which he states, “My memories of the last war haunted my dreams for years… I think death would be much better than to live through another war” (C. S. Lewis Letters to Children 320).
Point Nine is that over the course of the Chronicles, Lewis’s exact position on the role of young girls, women, or children in battle is not clear. Lewis returns to the issue of having young people in battle in The Horse and His Boy. Near the end of the novel King Edmund gives orders that Corin, a young prince at the time, is not to take part in the upcoming conflict. Corin’s guardian, the Dwarf Thornbut, admonishes him, “You will be allowed to see it, and that’s treat enough for your Highness’s little years” (179). Corin goes to battle anyway, taking his untrained twin Shasta with him. As the Hermit gazes into his magic pool which allows him to see Shasta trying to fight, he expands on Father Christmas’s point by claiming, “It’s mere murder sending a child into battle” (190).
In The Horse and His Boy, Lucy, who has by then become “a fair-haired lady,” is shown riding off to battle wearing “a helmet and a mail shirt” with “a bow across her shoulder and a quiver full of arrows at her side” (176), and readers are told that she is going to be with the archers. When Corin complains that, like Lucy, he should be allowed to join the battle, Thornbut points out, “The Queen’s grace will do as she pleases” (179), a comment which indicates that Lucy has decided she is now old enough to make her own decision about the instructions Father Christmas gave to her when she was younger.
Before the final conflict in The Last Battle, Tirian tells Jill, “Try to shoot all you may before they reach us” (134). Jill makes the first kills, taking down a Calormene soldier and a satyr—accomplishments which cause Tirian to call out “Oh, well done, daughter” (136). Point Nine is that over the course of the Chronicles, Lewis’s exact position on the role of young girls, women, or children in battle is not clear.
Part V: If Not Sexist, What Make The Chronicles of Narnia Progressive About Gender?
In chapter three of Prince Caspian, the four Pevensies come to the channel which now separates Cair Paravel from the mainland. Suddenly a boat rounds the point with two soldiers in battle gear. One of them stands up to throw overboard a mysterious buddle he has been holding. Just as Peter realizes the bundle is a Dwarf the soldiers plan to drown, an arrow strikes the soldier’s helmet, and Peter turns to find Susan already fitting a second shaft to her bow.
In the following book, The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”, Lucy declares “All right, then, I’ll do it” (142). Here in order to save the Narnian boarding party from imminent death, Lucy volunteers go upstairs alone in the Magician’s house, to find his book, and to say the spell that will make the invisible people visible again. Reepicheep announces, “The service they ask of her is in no way contrary to her Majesty’s honor, but a noble and heroical act” (143).
On their mission to Stable Hill to rescue Jewel, a scene already alluded to from The Last Battle, Tirian, Jill, and Eustace lose their bearings in the dense thicket. Lewis points out, “It was Jill who set them right again” (68). Later during the daring raid, without waiting for orders or permission, Jill seizes the opportunity and without help from anyone else rescues Puzzle the Donkey.
Lewis does not simply turn his girls into tomboys who reject everything stereotypically feminine and embrace everything stereotypically masculine, for that would itself be sexist. Lewis’s heroines are simply given the freedom to be who they want to be and not what society or anyone else tells them they should be. It is characteristic of this freedom that at the end of The Magician's Nephewwe are told that during her visits with Digory’s family Polly learns “to ride and swim and milk and bake and climb” (200).
Point Ten is that compassionate, confident, and capable heroines like these, females who make their own choices and can lead as well as follow, are a distinguishing element of the Narnia stories. Lewis allows these female protagonists to carve out their own futures. Some like Helen, Aravis, and the Daughter of Ramandu will choose to marry and have little Narnians. Others will not. When we meet the Lady Polly in The Last Battle, she has not married, and Lewis never suggests that we should somehow feel sorry for her, that if only she had married someone she might have found happiness.
Point Eleven is that Lewis portrays sexism as wrong by making it a character trait of some of his worst villains. In Prince Caspian Miraz ridicules Glozelle for believing “old wives’ fables” (181). A page later he further mocks Glozelle for talking “like an old woman” (182). Finally he derides his senior advisors for their “womanish” counsels (183). With comments like these and Miraz’s overriding drive to dominate all those around him, male or female, it is not hard to imagine what Miraz’s relationship with Queen Prunaprismia must have been like.
In The Magician's Nephew Uncle Andrew tells Digory, “You must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys—and servants—and women—and even people in general, can’t possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules” (21). Several pages later when Digory claims that his uncle is sure to be punished one day, he replies, “Well, well, I suppose that is a natural thing for a child to think—brought up among women, as you have been” (28).
In The Silver Chair, Rilian makes belittling, derogatory remarks to Jill, such as calling her “our little maid” (158), only when he is under the chair’s evil spell. In fact, Lewis uses Rilian’s sexism as one indicator of his evil enchantment. The moment Rilian is freed from the wicked spell, his disparaging comments about Jill vanish.
The Calormenes who live to the south are portrayed as antagonists to the Narnians, and are arguably the most sexist. In Calormen, women are seen as the property of their fathers and husbands and are forced to marry against their will. Their proper role is to be passive, obedient, and pretty. As Hwin points out to Aravis, “If you were in Narnia you would be happy, for in that land no maiden is forced to marry against her will” (39). Even when grown, Calormene women are treated as children and are not to have opinions or take action on their own.
Point Eleven is that Lewis portrays sexism as wrong by making it a character trait of some of his worst villains.
Point Twelve is that Lewis makes it clear that males and females are equally capable of good and equally capable of evil. Critics who argue that Lewis is sexist because the White Witch and the Green Lady are both female overlook Lewis’s numerous male malefactors. These include the early versions of Edmund and Eustace, Miraz, Sopespian and Glozelle, Pug, Governor Gumpas, Rabadash, Ginger, and Shift. Lewis gives Digory a wicked uncle, not an evil aunt.
Part VI: Does the Depiction of the Calormenes Make the Narnia Stories Racist?
In his well-known and well-respected commentary Companion to Narnia, Paul Ford, typically a strong supporter of Lewis, includes a short entry titled, “Racism and Ethnocentrism,” where he claims, “C. S. Lewis was a man of his time and socioeconomic class. Like many English men of this era, Lewis was unconsciously but regrettably unsympathetic to things and people Middle Eastern. Thus he sometimes engages in exaggerated stereotyping in contrasting things Narnian and thing Calormene. He intends this in a broadly comic way, almost vaudevillian. But in our post-September 11, 2001, world, he would, I am sure, want to reconsider this insensitivity” (363).
In his less well-known and less well-respected book The Magical Worlds of Narnia, David Colbert goes further, claiming that Lewis’s writing is “spiced with bigotry that is anything but unconscious” (166).
In “In Defense of C. S. Lewis,” which appeared in The Atlantic in October 2001 and which in the end is supportive, Gregg Easterbrook writes, “The principal bad guys, the Calormenes, are unmistakable Muslim stand-ins… I have three children, aged six to twelve, and a few months ago I finished reading the Chronicles to them. Even as a fan I must admit that certain passages made me wince. For example, the wicked Dwarfs ridicule the Calormenes as ‘darkies’; I skirted the word, because I don’t want it in my kids’ heads.”
Point Thirteen is that there are too many fundamental dissimilarities to claim that the Calormenes are Lewis’s representations of Muslims. The Calormenes worship many gods, among them are the three mentioned in The Horse and His Boy in Aravis’s declaration to Hwin, “In the name of Tash and Azaroth and Zardeenah, Lady of the Night, I have a great wish to be in that country of Narnia” (39). By contrast, Islam is highly monotheistic. Its foundational belief is there is no God but God. To claim a cultural antecedent in our world for the Calormenes, we would need to find, among other things, a culture with a polytheistic religion which offers human sacrifice to one of its gods and an elaborate set of maiden rituals to another.
In chapter ten of The Last Battle, the Dwarfs refer to Rishda Tarkaan twice using the racial epithet “Darkie” (119, 126). These are not the first racists Lewis includes in the Chronicles, nor is “Darkie” the first racial slur. In chapter five of Prince Caspian, Nikabrik states his prejudice towards Narnia’s mixed-race Dwarfs, declaring, “I hate ‘em. I hate ‘em worse than the Humans” (69). When the mixed-race Doctor Cornelius arrives at the war council two chapters later, Nikabrik labels him “a half-and-halfer” (88).
Point Fourteen is that these racial slurs are evil comments made by evil characters and are exactly the kind of thing these characters would say. By making only evil characters racist, Lewis indicates that racial prejudice is evil. If Gregg Easterbrook chooses to skip over the part where the bad Dwarfs use the word “Darkie,” what does he do when his children might learn of other more wicked actions, such as when these same evil Dwarfs ruthlessly murder the talking horses of Narnia who have come to help in the fight? Wicked characters do wicked things. The racism of the White Witch is seen in the fact that during her reign she stamped out the Beavers. Miraz’s racism is been more widespread. His defining domestic strategy is a policy of genocide, as he has sought to eliminate the Dwarfs, the Talking Trees, and, in fact, any creature not a Telmarine. Because Lewis shows their behavior to be vile and despicable, children do not want to be like Narnia’s evil racist characters.
Point Fifteen is that Lewis makes it clear that characters with white skin and those with dark skin are equally capable of good and equally capable of evil. The roster of light-skinned evildoers is a long one and includes the White Witch, the early Edmund, Miraz, the Lords Glozelle and Sopespian and many of their Telmarine countrymen, the early Eustace, the bullies at Experiment House, Governor Gumpas, Lord Bar, the Queen of the Underworld, and Uncle Andrew.
The Calormene characters we get to know best—Aravis and Emeth—are very positive characters and are portrayed no less sympathetically than their fair-skinned counterparts, making it clear that skin color is no predictor or preventer of good or bad actions.
Point Sixteen is that Lewis’s characters—human, animal, Dwarf, plant, or otherwise—are never portrayed negatively or positively simply because of their race. Thus we find both good and bad Dwarfs, good and bad trees, good and bad Calormenes, good and bad Wolves, good and bad humans from England, and so on. It is consistent with Lewis’s non-racist stance that when Lucy looks off into the distance at the end of The Last Battle, she sees that Tashbaan too has a place in eternity. Some Narnians have been turned away from Aslan’s country; some have been admitted. We can assume that the same will be true for the Calormenes and true for all races.
The royal visit to Tashbaan in The Horse and His Boy reveals much about Lewis’s stance on race in the Chronicles. In Shasta’s first view of the Narnians he is struck by their openness to others as they walk through a city where everyone is dark-skinned except them. The narrator reports, “You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly” (58).
Later after he joins the Narnians who mistake him for Corin, Shasta overhears Edmund criticize Rabadash, the Calormene who has become Susan’s suitor. Edmund tells his older sister, “It was a wonder to me that ever you could find it in your heart to show him so much favor” (64-5).
Brothers have cast disparaging eyes at their sisters’ boyfriends since the beginning of time, but Edmund makes it clear that his concerns are very serious. He tells Susan, “Truly, sister. I should have loved you the less if you had taken him” (64). What is significant here is the criteria Edmund uses for his censure. Does Edmund bring up the fact that Rabadash is dark-skinned and thus not really their kind of person, not the type of suitor Susan should be considering? Does he point out that the Calormenes have a very different set of customs and eat very different kinds of foods and that this may cause conflicts, particularly during the holidays? Is Edmund worried that Rabadash belongs to a different faith and that this will create problems raising the children?
In arguing why he thinks Rabadash is such a poor choice, King Edmund mentions none of these things. In a single sentence he explains what is the problem is: “We have now seen him for what he is: that is, a most proud, bloody, luxurious, cruel, and self-pleasing tyrant” (65). Point Seventeen is that unlike Nikabrik and the wicked Dwarfs mentioned earlier, the good characters in Narnia judge others by the content of their character and only by the content of their character, never by the color of their skin.
Part VII: If Not Racist, What Makes The Chronicles of Narnia Progressive About Race?
Anyone attempting to argue that the Chronicles are racist would need to address the strong and unmistakable anti-racist attitudes which run through the entire series. One of the most essential aspects of Narnia, one which the children discover immediately after entering through the wardrobe, is that it is profoundly multi-racial, composed of a diversity of creatures hard to match anywhere—beavers and Naiads, giants and mice, unicorns and robins, dwarfs and dogs. Narnia would not be Narnia if its only inhabitants were badgers.
As noted earlier, in Prince Caspian Lewis introduces another strong anti-racist element: the mixed-race Doctor Cornelius. Lewis, a keen observer of human vice, knew that one thing a racist often hates even worse than someone from a different race is someone from a mixed-race background, someone whose very existence suggests harmony and co-existence.
Doctor Cornelius is aware of this prejudice and tells his pupil, “If any of my kindred, the true Dwarfs, are still alive anywhere in the world, doubtless they would despise me and call me a traitor” (52-3). Nevertheless Caspian’s tutor urges him, if he should ever become king, to “be kind to the poor remnants of the Dwarf people” (53). Lewis casts the racial prejudice Doctor Cornelius encounters from both men and Dwarfs in a strongly negative light. The acceptance Cornelius extends to those who differ from him—whether human, Dwarf, or mouse—is portrayed positively. One of the best illustrations of this occurs in chapter seven when Nikabrik attempts to convince the others that Cornelius should be killed simply because of his racial background. Caspian immediately declares, “This is my greatest friend and the savior of my life. And anyone who doesn’t like his company may leave my army: at once” (88).
Lewis makes race such a non-factor in the Chronicles that some readers may fail to notice that The Horse and His Boy ends with a mixed-race marriage. Aravis, a dark-skinned Calormene, weds Shasta, a light-skinned Narnian. After King Lune’s death, the white Archenlanders embrace the pair who become “a good King and Queen” and readers are told that their mixed-race son Ram the Great becomes “the most famous of all the kings of Archenland” (224).
Point Eighteen is that any discussion of racism in the Narnia stories which fails to point out 1) the racial diversity which is fundamental to Narnia; 2) Lewis’s scathing indictment of Nikabrik’s ethnocentrism; and 3) the marriage of Aravis and Shasta, her acceptance by the Archenlanders as their queen, and their mixed-race descendants, one of whom becomes the greatest king of all, completely misses the author’s position on this topic and the great emphasis Lewis puts on acceptance of diversity.
Part VIII: Conclusion—Why Such Vehemence?
Does Philip Pullman really believe The Chronicles of Narnia are “monumentally disparaging of girls and women” and that the series is “blatantly racist”? Perhaps. Although if these issues are so important to him, he never seems to attack other books which follow similar paths. In her classic fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin depicts the Kargs as “a savage people, white-skinned, yellow-haired, and fierce, liking the sight of blood and the smell of burning towns” (7). In The Golden Compass, Pullman’s own book, we also find one good ethnic group—the nomadic, water-faring Gyptians, and one wicked ethnic group—the warlike Tartars who dwell in the Artic and are of Asian descent.
Perhaps Pullman and his fellow Narnia-bashers understand that articles which express outrage at Lewis generate a good deal more press than anything positive they might say.
Perhaps another reason these critics see such vile elements in Narnia is because Lewis’s Christian faith is so vile to them. In his 1998 piece from The Guardian referred to earlier, Pullman confesses that he and others “detest the supernaturalism” which Lewis makes of primary importance in Narnia. In her recent book, Laura Miller calls Christianity “a black hole, sucking all the beauty and wonder out of Narnia” (101). In the 1996 column for Salon.com titled “Personal Best” where she first wrote about Narnia, Miller calls Christianity “noxious” and “twisted.”
I am sure that some critics will continue to see blatant racism and sexism in the Chronicles of Narnia while others will see quite progressive attitudes. In writing about Aravis and Lasaraleen, Lewis points out, “Each thought the other silly” (99), and the same could probably be said for these two groups of critics.
In order that people who have never read the books do not get a false idea, it is important that Lewis’s supporters continue to rebut his attackers. However, in the end I would be surprised if very many minds were changed, no matter how complete or well-reasoned the argument.
If this sounds discouraging, we should remember that Lewis and Tolkien faced a great deal of criticism during their lifetimes, negative opinions which they sometimes responded to but usually were unable to change. In the end after stating the case as clearly and as convincingly as possible, we may find wisdom in the response which Tolkien made regarding his detractors. In the Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien concludes, “Some who have read the book, or at least have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kind of writing that they evidently prefer” (xiv).
In his fine work The Taste for the Other: The Social and Ethical Thought of C. S. Lewis, Gilbert Meilaender notes that moral education “does not look much like teaching” (212), but instead consists of students seeing examples of virtuous people for whom right responses have become natural. Thus according the Meilaender, The Chronicles of Narnia “are not just good stories” but “serve to enhance moral education, to build character” (213).
To the horror of those who find the books sexist and racist, young people all over the world continue to read, to love, and to be influenced by The Chronicles of Narnia. When they read them, each new generation will be spurred to follow the positive examples set before them and avoid the negative ones, and encouraged to treat all people with respect—regardless of their race and gender.
* Devin G. Brown is Professor of English at Asbury University. This article was given as the Keynote Address at The 12th Annual Conference of The C. S. Lewis and Inklings Society, Calvin College, March 28, 2009.