The Uncomfortable Racism of C.S. Lewis

"Abstract multi-coloured illustration head of the lion" | Art by Adobe Stock/AlenaLazareva. Used with permission.
Since childhood, I’ve had a strong attachment to C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. My aunt gave me a set of the books, which currently sit in a place of honour in my office. I’ve read and reread the series throughout my life with a sense of wonder and delight. As my critical reading skills developed, and as I began to understand systemic power dynamics, my naïve love of Narnia gave way to a more complicated and nuanced relationship with the stories. I realized they could be almost heavy-handedly allegorical at times. The characters, particularly in the final novels, are overly broad, almost parodic. And don’t get me started on Lewis’s class assumptions or Susan and Lucy’s exclusion from battle. But the most troubling aspect of the series came to light a few years ago when I was first teaching a class on Lewis and Tolkien.

Most of the students, like me, had been introduced to Lewis’s novels as children. A few had passed the series on to their own children, even grandchildren. One student, however, had taken the class to fill an elective and had no prior knowledge of Narnia or Middle-earth. In our conversation about The Horse and His Boy, this student commented, “Well, I found this one a little bit racist.” The other students jumped to Lewis’s defense with well-meaning but well-worn excuses—“He lived in a different era with different attitudes about race and other cultures.”

Too often we’re afraid to question ourselves, afraid that if we acknowledge something troubling we open the door to undermining our whole belief system.

I, too, a lifelong fan, found myself parroting this same line of thinking: “We need to read this in its historical context.” After class, however, I went back to the text, paying close attention to representations of race, and I saw what the student saw. In his representation of the Calormene, the inhabitants of the land to the south, Lewis uses stereotypes of Middle-Eastern culture. Their clothing, customs and culture confirm them as different, “other” from the noble and civilized Narnians.

This is a classic example of “Orientalism” as outlined by cultural theorist Edward Said. As the Calormene are other, we understand them to be the villains of the story. They are perceived as bad because they are different. Indeed, the Calormene slave Shasta, the hero of The Horse and His Boy, is revealed to be Prince Cor from Archenland (Narnia’s equally civilized neighbor) who was stolen away as a child. He’s not from Calormen at all.

Lewis’s bias seems clear. The character we most closely identify with couldn’t possibly be from that weird, savage land; he must be from somewhere like Narnia. The whole story is structured so that Shasta abandons the “bad” influences of Calormen by embracing his true identity as a noble Archenlander. Just think of the implications of that. The only real redeemable Calormene isn’t actually a Calormene at all! He can’t be. The fact that we identify with him at all means he cannot be other.

I was confronted with the reality that a beloved text, something I like and value, portrayed race in a way I disagree with. What do we do when something we love has elements that challenge us? Does being a fan mean turning off our objective minds and critical skills?

While some people have chosen the route of vehement defense and consider asking questions an affront to their beliefs, I have come to see that you can be a fan of something and challenge its problematic elements. Much of my thinking has been shaped by one student who, lacking my personal connection to the world of Narnia, was able to see something my fandom blinded me too. Opening myself up to the possibility that my perspective wasn’t the final word allowed me to consider another’s view and be more sensitive to my own blind spots.

The character we most closely identify with couldn’t possibly be from that weird, savage land; he must be from somewhere like Narnia.

My immediate response to someone questioning my perspective is to defend my beliefs and the things I love. Letting myself ask questions means considering the possibility that I might be wrong. If I’m not open to that possibility, I will shut the conversation down when others are curious. Too often we’re afraid to question ourselves, afraid that if we acknowledge something troubling we open the door to undermining our whole belief system. But if I’m genuinely pursuing truth, I might find opportunities to dialogue with others that I wouldn’t otherwise, opportunities that not only keep me humble, but can strengthen my convictions rather than tear them down. To ignore the racism or sexism of something because it’s not my perspective is arrogance.

I still love the Narnia books. I don’t read them every year these days, but that’s more about demands on my time than anything else. When I teach that Lewis and Tolkien course, I set aside time to discussing these troubling aspects of the stories—race, class, and patriarchy. I often get pushback from students who aren’t prepared for the idea that something they love so much can include such troubling elements.

To bury our heads in the sand and pretend everything’s fine, to defend something because doing otherwise might mean admitting we’re wrong, does not leave room for growth and the pursuit of truth. And acknowledging something troubling does not mean we must abandon the things we love. Rather, we can accept them with humility, acknowledging that the author, just like us, might not have everything right either.

Michael Boyce

Michael Boyce

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Michael W. Boyce is afflicted with severe boredom because he has a brain the size of a planet and he seldom gets the chance to use it at its full capacity. He boasts of a Ravenclaw education and we consider him to be our Yoda.

Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.
Michael Boyce