Christine Folch

Troubling Foundations: Orientalism in C.S. Lewis & Narnia

Calormen, the southern country on the edge of the Great Desert, stands in contrast to Narnia in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. We first venture to Calormen in The Horse and His Boy (1954)[i] in the story of Shasta (the boy) as he pairs up with a talking horse (Bree) and then the duo of Aravis (a girl) and another talking horse, Hwin, as they all seek to escape Calormen and flee to free Narnia. In the course of their adventures, we discover that Shasta is the long-lost son of the king of Archenland (Narnia’s neighbor and close ally); Shasta encounters, is rescued by, and is transformed by Aslan (the Lion, true ruler of the North, and a Christ-figure in Lewis’ work); Calormen plots to invade the North are frustrated; all four successfully escape to Narnia where the boy and the girl grow up to wed and live happily ever after.

Narnia and C.S. Lewis are perennial topics of study among Christian audiences in the English-speaking world. There are college classes taught on these texts, many, many college classes. Several colleges have centers dedicated to C.S. Lewis, like Asbury University’s C.S. Lewis Study Center and Wheaton College’s Wade Center. And both Wheaton and Westmont have a friendly rivalry about who possesses the wardrobe that inspired The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lewis and Narnia serve as popular paradigms for spiritually-inflected intellectual engagement and imagination. And in the interest of full disclosure: I first read the books when I was 11 and they inspired me to dream that one day I, too, could be a professor. (I never tried pushing through the back of a closet to see if it opened to another world, but that first Narnia book was my Borges-style aleph.)

But, despite the sweetness and innocence of the heroic story, there is something deeply unsettling about the way Lewis crafts Calormen. In his classic Orientalism, literary scholar Edward Said (1978) argues that through the creation of “the Orient,” the West itself was created, and that the characteristics applied to that Orient were instrumental in legitimating the dominance of the West over the Orient, serving as a justification for European imperialism in the Middle East, Far East, and beyond. That is, Western literature, art, travel narratives, political speeches represent the East in ways that are not neutral by regularly depicting the East as exotic, not-modern, hyper-religious, sexually deviant, violent, barbaric, emotional, dangerous and simultaneously desirable. Lewis orientalizes Calormen, in it creating a foil for the free and noble (and Christian) Narnia. Don’t believe me? Calormenes are “dark;”[ii] the men wear “long, dirty robes, and wooden shoes turned up at the toe, and turbans on their heads;”[iii] the women wear silken dresses and veils. Still not convinced? The slave-owning[iv] society is rigidly hierarchical, administered by “viziers,”[v] and ruled by the despotic Tisroc,[vi] a male monarch who claims descent from Tash, the Calormen deity. The blessing “may he live forever” is conjoined to the name “Tisroc” in a manner suspiciously reminiscent of the appellation “peace be upon him” added to the name of the Prophet Mohammed in Islam.

The knowledge and speech of the Calormen is ponderous as Calormenes repeatedly quote (or perhaps fabricate) poets one to another. Early in the book, Shasta’s adopted father chastises him by saying: “O my son, do not allow your mind to be distracted by idle questions. For one of the poets has said, ‘Application to business is the root of prosperity, but those who ask questions that do not concern them are steering the ship of folly toward the rock of indifference’”(Lewis 1954:2). The religion is idolatrous. Tash is not a “true” god and does not ever appear personally in the text, Aslan is shown as “real” in this book as he repeatedly appears in person throughout the text; in the last book in the series, there is a clear clash between the two and Aslan is definitively triumphant.

Narnians, on the other hand, are “fair-skinned,”[vii] dressed in “bright, hardy colors.” More importantly, they are repeatedly referred to as “free.” When Shasta is surprised that Bree does not add “may he live forever” when referring to the Tisroc, the horse replies, “I’m a free Narnian. And why should I talk slaves’ and fools’ talk? I don’t want him to live forever, and I know that he’s not going to live forever whether I want him to or not. And I can see that you’re from the free North too. No more of this Southern jargon between you and me!” (Lewis 1954:13, emphasis mine).

Unlike the Calormenes, male Narnians treat female Narnians (and Calormenes) with honor and respect. The horses (male and female) speak as equals and, whereas the Tisroc is male, Narnia has female monarchs (Susan and Lucy both appear in this text). Edward Said contends that hypersexualizing the Orient was a core part of the entire Orientalizing project, with men who were imperious and lascivious over subjugated women who were framed as objects of pleasure in need of rescue and intervention. This is reminiscent of Lila Abu-Lughod’s provocative article “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” with the subtitle “The Western crusade to rescue Muslim women has reduced them to a simplistic stereotype.” Aravis, the only sympathetic Calormene, is a young adolescent fleeing to Narnia to avoid a forced marriage to a man five times her age. To entice her, Hwin says, “in Narnia you would be happy, for in that land no maiden is forced to marry against her will” (Lewis 1954:40).

While Lewis’ moral in Chronicles is not an imperialistic project in Calormen, part of the way the superiority of Narnia is established is by the inferiority of Calormen. I wonder what the effects this has on the protestant Christian readership of the Chronicles, who, in them, find a metaphor for a heroic Christian life and affirmation for a set of emulable values. Moreover, Lewis is often treated as a “great thinker” of 20th century Christianity, an apologist much esteemed. Are there ways that Lewis’ deeply embedded understanding of the good and the free as intrinsically connected with a European ethos (especially British) and of its antithesis as “southern,” “dark,” and vaguely Turkish may have impacted the way some admirers also see Christianity as essentially European and even Anglo-Saxon?

Works Cited

Lewis, Clive Staples

1954    The Horse and His Boy. New York: Harper Collins.

Said, Edward W.

1978    Orientalism. New York: Vintage.

[i] Book 5, original publication order.

[ii] 1954:3

[iii] 1954:2

[iv] 1954:102

[v] 1954:116

[vi] 1954:37

[vii] 1954:60


One comment on “Troubling Foundations: Orientalism in C.S. Lewis & Narnia

  1. mehmet murat
    January 18, 2019

    thanks for sharing. while reading horse and its boy to my daughter, i thought there is an overt orientalism working through lewis’ imaginary east vs west. as a turkish muslim man, it is very annoying. it is all familiar to me that tashbaan (reminiscent of tashkent, uzbekistan) is a oriental city with its walls and gardens,dark skinned men and veiled women. there are also tarkaans and tarkheenas (tarkhan is an ancient central asian title used by various turkic peoples for noblemen). his depiction of calormen replays the classical orientalistic game of good westerner vs bad orientals, and his popularity in the west maybe stems from their c-overt obsession with the despotic orient with a subtext of freeing oriental women from their rude men of color. much to talk about. thanks for sharing your ideas. best wishes from sakarya, turkiye.


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This entry was posted on December 7, 2017 by in Fantasy, Science Fiction and tagged , .
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