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Was C. S. Lewis sexist/racist? Join our discussion!

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Was C. S. Lewis sexist/racist? Join our discussion!

Postby fantasia_kitty » 15 May 2009, 13:42

Hey everybody, it's been quite a while since I've posted here though I'm a regular lurker. :smile: But I did want to jump on this morning and invite everyone over to a NarniaWeb reading group that we're really excited about. Dr. Devin Brown (author of Inside Narnia) has kindly offered us an original essay called "Are The Chronicles of Narnia Sexist and Racist? A Discussion in Eight Parts" and each week we'll be posting a new section and discussing it. We're hoping to get as many fans of the books as possible to join, and maybe even some Narnia haters. :lipssealed:
You can check it out here and see if you're interested. Hope to see a lot of you there!
http://www.narniaweb.com/forum/forum_topics.asp?FID=39&SID=64z6z86dc61368444ec2a7144e26b4c1
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Re: Was C. S. Lewis sexist/racist? Join our discussion!

Postby peterlloyd » 18 May 2009, 01:39

are you kidding me?
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Re: Was C. S. Lewis sexist/racist? Join our discussion!

Postby Leslie » 18 May 2009, 13:59

By the current standards, yes, Lewis was sexist. But his views were fairly typical for someone of his era and education. Reading the works of many of his contemporaries will reveal similar views.

As for racism, again by our standards, there are scattered phrases in his writing that could be interpreted as racist. But it is only really since the end of the Second World War and the flourishing of the civil rights movement that racism has been seen as an evil. Legislation and social morality entrenched racism in Western European and North American culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It could be argued Lewis was perhaps remarkably tolerant for his time.
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Postby rusmeister » 20 May 2009, 19:45

I'd say that by Lewis's standards the current (fashionable) standards are the ones that are deeply wrong, most especially in understanding what "sexist" means and in thinking they have a superior understanding of the basis for his views.
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Postby john » 20 May 2009, 19:50

I think I should know better, Rus, but you almost sound like you believe that wanting equality for genders and races is a trend to be avoided. Would you like to clarify?
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Postby rumzy » 21 May 2009, 02:19

Let me first start off by saying that I love the Chronicles of Narnia and C.S. Lewis. I think he was a deeply devoted Christian, a profound thinker, and, perhaps, the best storyteller I have had the pleasure to encounter (besides my grandpa). I don't think he was ever intentionally racist or bigoted. However, as someone of Arab descent, I did recognize the old familiar references to "Oriental backwardness" in The Horse and His Boy. It is obvious that Tashbaan is modeled after a big middle eastern city, probably Cairo or Instanbul or Damascus (smell of garlic, scimitars instead of swords, and other descriptions of the city, domes etc...). The name Tashbaan while not meaning anything in Arabic has the double "A" used in transliteration to designate a long vowel sound not found in English. The dark skinned Calormene men wear robes and turbans. So what's the big deal? Well, the men are rude and given to violence. The prince I think tries to force Susan to marry him. Shasta's "father" agrees to sell him. Etc... At the end, the prince is turned into a donkey, a profound insult to an Arab. Throughout the series, Narnia (which is very obviously European) is shown to be cleaner, stronger militarily, and more fair than the rude, crude, and backward Calormen. The point here is that Lewis did have a bit of racial bigotry (though I think we all do somewhere inside) that he probably was not even aware of. This in no way discounts his writings. The Space Trilogy I think is an example of the ideal which Lewis wanted to live up to. The inhabitants of Malacandra live in absolute peace and cooperation without prejudice. Weston is the perfect picture of how silly Lewis considered racial bigotry to be. So, was he racist? I don't think so. Did he have some subconscious prejudices? Yes, but so do you and I. Lucky for us, the whole world isn't scrutinizing our lives.
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Postby rusmeister » 21 May 2009, 16:36

john wrote:I think I should know better, Rus, but you almost sound like you believe that wanting equality for genders and races is a trend to be avoided. Would you like to clarify?


Hi John,
I would start by saying that modern thought judges not only Lewis, but all past thought, without understanding the world view that gave birth to the aforementioned attitudes. If we look at the world through the eyes of that worldview, one that places value on different things than most (westerners) do today, all of a sudden, the focus changes. Instead of seeing bigotry and racism, which are predicated on ideas of equality and fairness in this world as being first, or most important principles, we see that they are not most important after all, and if they are not, then it is imperative to discover what IS to this worldview. My extremely simplified answer would be that salvation, not equality, is/was the goal of these people. They are not after 'their rights'; if I may reference Lewis's 'The Great Divorce', where it is emphasized that our 'rights' and 'just deserts' would actually condemn us, it might be easier to see that.
Thus, it is not a power struggle at all - as it is presented today - it is the goal of each person to attain salvation, and the Christian therefore discovers that the true aim is meekness and humility - exactly the opposite of the power struggle.

IOW, making equality a critical principle in a sense can actually be harmful for a Christian. "I want my fair share!" is the opposite of the Christian ideal - for all, both men and women. In that worldview, God created two sexes for a purpose, something that modern ideology seeks to eliminate altogether, from scientific efforts to enable men to be pregnant (or whatever) to sociological efforts to force girls into rough physical contact sports at school (something I personally witnessed - do you know what Title 9 funding is?), to all calls for "gender" equality, so that "Vive la difference" becomes "Tuer la difference".

I don't know of any Nicean Christian faith that is more traditional and opposed to modern attitudes than Orthodoxy (or that gets blasted with more charges of 'patriarchalism', yet, when you talk to Orthodox women you generally find that they don't feel the least bit oppressed, and in fact, feel more free to be who they are (as do the men) than they ever did elsewhere. I recommend Frederica Mathewes-Green for a POV that thoroughly understands the modern one (she was a radical feminist) and thoroughly rejects it, and explains why.
http://www.frederica.com/writings/category/gender

(FWIW, I no longer use the word 'gender' to refer to sex - even though Mrs. M-G does, and no longer use 'sex' to refer to the marital act, and have tried to clean up my language to more correctly reflect the Orthodox view.)

As far as wanting - I believe the Kingdom of God will not be brought about by human effort, and cannot be - but that it will be. In that sense, I want it very much - insofar as it coincides with God's ultimate plan for us. Only I think that when we get there, we will be very thankful that we are not all equal. I want the Bleeding Mercy.
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Postby Mark » 26 May 2009, 18:30

Regards all,
I think that one of the main themes throughout the Chronicles (and indeed other Lewis works as well) is that of choice. All of his characters no matter their race or sex make moral choices that reveal who they are. In regards to sexism, is it not Diggory who first brings evil into Narnia, and is it not Edmund who betrays the Pevensie children? In regards to racism, are there not slavers in the Lone Islands, is Uncle Andrew not a Englishman? Emeth is a noble Calorman, and Aravis is a noble woman and Calorman. Any of Lewis's characters has the potential for nobility or evil. At the end of The Last Battle, Tashbaan still stands, so there must have been some nobility there worth saving. It is their choices, not their race or sex that makes the characters of the Chronicles who they are. Cheers.
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Postby Mornche Geddick » 31 May 2009, 15:52

Calormen, far from being rude and crude, is a highly civilised society, capable of high art (architecture, landscape gardening, sculpture, poetry and storytelling, and probably several others). Its vices are the characteristic vices of an over-civilised, highly stratified society in which there is a huge divide between the rich and poor and in which public opinion is powerless to control the excesses of those at the top....now where have I seen a society like that before?

Rusmeister, when you attack Title IX, let me point out to you that sociologists cannot "force" people to do anything - it was the girls themselves who wanted to play soccer, basketball and ice hockey. And there is a good deal of evidence that doing sport often enough to learn it well is extremely good for girls, not only physically but mentally as well.
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Postby rusmeister » 31 May 2009, 18:49

Mornche Geddick wrote:Calormen, far from being rude and crude, is a highly civilised society, capable of high art (architecture, landscape gardening, sculpture, poetry and storytelling, and probably several others). Its vices are the characteristic vices of an over-civilised, highly stratified society in which there is a huge divide between the rich and poor and in which public opinion is powerless to control the excesses of those at the top....now where have I seen a society like that before?

Rusmeister, when you attack Title IX, let me point out to you that sociologists cannot "force" people to do anything - it was the girls themselves who wanted to play soccer, basketball and ice hockey. And there is a good deal of evidence that doing sport often enough to learn it well is extremely good for girls, not only physically but mentally as well.


That opinion is EXTREMELY subjective (sayign what 'the girls want'). I am only speaking from the perspective of a teacher being told to push girls into boxing and tackle football - and not by 'the girls', but by the administration from the district, which is from the state.

I agree that sport is good for all, and never meant anything to the contrary. There are some things where I do see differences, however...
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Postby nomad » 01 Jun 2009, 01:39

Beautiful post rumzy. I'm glad to hear your opinion, and I think you are spot on in this case. I would only add that I don't think the Calormenes were based on any real city or the real arab people, but rather (and quite consciously) on the mythology and imagery, both Arab and European, that filtered back to Europe through [i]Arabian Nights[i], the crusades, and painters such as Delacroix. I have to wonder if, in writing CON, Lewis ever thought about the real culture associated with that mythology and imaginary world. There is certainly a fair dose of the stereotypes, but Lewis did not have the insight of Edward Said, as we do. And there is somewhere in his non-fiction where he writes that he hopes we never discover life on another planet, because we will surely oppress it as England had done with so much of it's empire. It's a passage which reveals him as surprisingly anti-British Empire (and remember it still existed through much of his life).
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Postby rusmeister » 01 Jun 2009, 04:58

nomad wrote:Beautiful post rumzy. I'm glad to hear your opinion, and I think you are spot on in this case. I would only add that I don't think the Calormenes were based on any real city or the real arab people, but rather (and quite consciously) on the mythology and imagery, both Arab and European, that filtered back to Europe through [i]Arabian Nights[i], the crusades, and painters such as Delacroix. I have to wonder if, in writing CON, Lewis ever thought about the real culture associated with that mythology and imaginary world. There is certainly a fair dose of the stereotypes, but Lewis did not have the insight of Edward Said, as we do. And there is somewhere in his non-fiction where he writes that he hopes we never discover life on another planet, because we will surely oppress it as England had done with so much of it's empire. It's a passage which reveals him as surprisingly anti-British Empire (and remember it still existed through much of his life).


In all fairness to Lewis I think it can be equally said that Edward Said did not have the insight of Lewis. I think Lewis DID think about those cultures. And I think that very often what we call 'stereotypes' actually depict real cultural behaviors of a majority, generally because of aspects of the philosophy/religion really do result in those behaviors, which stuck out "like sore thumbs" when Islamic and Christian cultures came into conflict. Lewis believed, as Chesterton did, and I do, that Christianity as an applied world view, dominating a culture is actually superior to others, including Islam. Thus, simply labeling something "a stereotype" and thereby thinking one has dealt with the matter and may now wash his hands is simply a form of modern ignorance of history (not that that was consciously intended). This is one of my big theses in life now - how language is taught and used to manipulate our thinking, so that we think we are thinking when in fact we are not. Many rhetorical buzzwords, such as "stereotype", "discrimination", "diversity", "tolerance", and others have assigned "pre-programmed values", if you will, that cut off further thought, and the test is whether we automatically think "good" or "bad" when we hear these words. Thus, "tolerance" - "good". We think no further to the idea that there could be such a thing as bad tolerance. "Stereotype" - bad. We think no further to the idea that the 'stereotype' could represent something really true about a culture (and its philosophy).

I think if you read Chesterton, you'll see why an anti-Empire stand actually makes sense. The idea of empire is about expansion and control of neighbors, and is in some ways quite un-Christian - the opposite of Christianity. At any rate, after my study of both Lewis and Chesterton, I no longer find it surprising.
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Postby Sven » 11 Jun 2009, 19:28

I split off the digression regarding rights and the UN. It has been moved to the Current Affairs forum.
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Postby postodave » 12 Jun 2009, 17:17

Thanks Sven - it makes sense really
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Postby Larry W. » 21 Dec 2009, 13:04

It might have been better with some more good Calormenes besides Emeth. People from other races weren't always so polite either-- consider Eustace at the beginning. However, it is hard not to get a negative portrayal of Calormene culture when they are shown as being rude and unfriendly for the most part with a few exceptions such as Lasalareen, who was friendly and likable but somewhat silly. All this doesn't make The Horse and His Boy a bad book, although it might have been better with more positive characterizations of the people who loved south of Narnia and Archenland. Lewis' saying that the Narnians were for "Narnia and the North" wasn't intended to be negative, but maybe he should have more for the southerners as well. :snow-smile:

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