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Pop culture, fantasy, and Islam?

21 December, 2006

Pop culture, fantasy, and Islam?

Last weekend, on my marking breaks, I took advantage of the all-day broadcasts of The Lord of the Rings (I got to see the uncanonical/non-canonical elves arriving at Helm’s Deep scene twice, and wept accordingly). I’ve also been listening to The Chronicles of Narnia on BBC 7. With Narnia, I was struck once again by Lewis’ own particular form of misogyny. I don’t entirely agree with Gaiman on that, by the way. I always understood Susan’s banishment as a result of her rejecting Narnia/rejecting Christianity, salvation through Jesus, etc. However, it seems to me that Lewis had some serious problems with women, if he can tie lipstick and stockings, i.e., growing up into an adult woman to the rejection of salvation. Funnily enough, in The Lion, etc. Aslan is quite clear in his feelings about women in battle, and in The Horse and his Boy, it’s Susan who has grown up to feel about the battle the way Aslan said she should — and Lucy who fights. Of course, it’s also Susan who caused all the trouble by encouraging Rabadash’s suit — again, by doing an adult gender-normative thing.

I’m sure this has all been said before, somewhere, but y’all know I’m slow and don’t really read criticism. And, of course, I’m informed by the times in which I live. So, where in the 40s and 50s, Lewis’ views might have seemed completely innocent (even in the 60s and 70s, for that matter), I’m not sure that we can see them that way through the filter of the last 25 or so years. Now, there’s something kind of icky in female characters who are ‘good’ only before they become ‘truly female’, if you will. By that, I don’t necessarily mean in terms of gender norms, just in terms of growing up and becoming the powerful adult women they logically should become, with agency of their own (and again, Lucy’s adult character is problematic — except that perhaps she’s a virgin warrior, so it’s ok?). But hey — I’m a history person, so I can generally put myself in a Lewis-era mindset and also suspend disbelief. Mostly.

But enough of misogyny. It’s Islam I want to talk about now. Again, nothing really profound; rather, it’s just something that struck me. In the Narnia books, especially The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle, the Calormenes are swarthy and wear the kind of clothing and armour one associates with the Muslims of Roland (especially the Sayers translation) and of the Crusades. In fact, their religion is very like the misconceptions the Roland poet/singer/whatever had of Islam — polytheistic, but with one supreme god, Tash, who loves things that are cruel and wicked. We know comparatively less about the Southrons who come to fight with Sauron’s forces, but I seem to remember that Jackson’s interpretation was pretty much correct — in terms of appearance, they looked like the Muslims (whether Turkish or Arab) of the Crusades. And I know — Roland is about Rencesvalles and is Carolingian — but you all know it’s also not. And now you are asking, “ADM, what’s your point?”

My point may not be a good one. It’s probably not even original, so I’m sorry if I’m boring you. Really, it’s more of a question, anyway. But both Tolkein and Lewis were (and are) hugely influential, to their readers and to their myriad imitators. Even though the swarthy Arab-like desert peoples who are always on the wrong side are not Muslims in the books, within the context of Lewis’ and Tolkein’s professional backgrounds, what else could they be?* Please note that I’m not blaming Lewis, Tolkein, or anyone else for the post-September 11 atmosphere. I do wonder, however, if the huge influence of their works on popular culture — whether or not people have read them directly — has in some ways reinforced a distrust of Islam and helped to underpin the belief that many people have that we are somehow engaged in a new round of Crusades. One thing that makes me think it might is that I have talked to otherwise intelligent people whose ideas of the Crusades seem very much influenced, whether or not they realise it, by Roland/Calormenes creeping through the mountain passes/invading Southrons — despite the fact that none of those images actually come from the Crusades. If that’s the case, then there’s just one more knot we medievalist types have to untangle. Because some people really do forget that Middle-Earth and Narnia aren’t actually part of our history.

*I’m sure there is stuff written on this, but did it ever strike you as odd that there are no scary Germanic types (are there?) in Tolkein or Lewis? Clearly, they had no sympathy for the Romans. The closest we get is in Prince Caspian, where I’m pretty sure that the other humans who take over Narnia (and Arkenland?) are meant to be like the Normans.

Anyway, that’s my procrastination done …

15 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 December, 2006 8:12 pm

    And where your procrastination ends, mine begins.What I wonder — having waded through that scaffolding of humility topoi!!! — is to what extent the Inkling have affected our notions of Islam. Even though, as you say, they don’t even talk about Islam.

  2. 21 December, 2006 8:28 pm

    Hey — I have to cover my ass, since I’m not a lit person. But that was basically my question. I don’t know about Chesterton. Williams (he was an Inkling, wasn’t he) I think has few, if any representations of Muslims or pseudo-Muslims, although there is the book with the Gypsies/Rom fortunetellers/mages.

  3. 22 December, 2006 7:35 am

    There are Men — using the capitalized form for the Anglo=Saxons he intends it to mean — in Tolkien who are turncoats or cowards or brutes, but mostly they are “tragic flaw” types instead of “innate evil” sorts. The tropes you note are precisely why Ursula LeGuin wrote her Earthsea books the way she did….

  4. 23 December, 2006 4:56 pm

    Such an interesting post! I had many of these thoughts — both about gender and Islam — last summer when I was rereading the Narnia books for the first time since childhood, except that I didn’t have all of the Roland/Crusades/etc. context for my thoughts.I’m interested in your assertion that Even though the swarthy Arab-like desert peoples who are always on the wrong side are not Muslims in the books, within the context of Lewis’ and Tolkein’s professional backgrounds, what else could they be? I read the Calormenes as quite clearly Muslim — or rather, whatever the version of Muslim is in a story world in which Christianity is represented by a lion — so I’m wondering about your bolded not here. Do you just mean that they are never explicitly defined as such because in this fictional world there’s no such thing as Muslims? The Calormenes use crescents as money, which I thought was a fairly explicit gesture, and it might be interesting to read through the novel again looking for more such gestures, especially in discussions of the Tisroc.What I found so interesting in rereading The Horse and His Boy last summer was Lewis’s racism that could not conceive of any culture that would not value whiteness. One of my favorite moments — and one that D. and I kept paraphrasing to one another in the weeks afterward (which is why we’re really on the verge of not socially acceptable!) was the Taarkan’s saying at the beginning (when he’s negotiating for Shasta), “This boy is manifestly no son of yours, for your cheek is as dark as mine but the boy is fair and white like the accursed but beautiful barbarians who inhabit the remote North” (6). Oh man.And I’m totally with you on the gender stuff. I like your notion of Lucy as the virgin warrior who thus isn’t yet tainted with woman-ness.I led a discussion in my parish of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe last December, right before the movie came out, and I mentioned some of this in passing. People were furious with me! How dare I criticize anything about Lewis?! He’s practically worshiped in some sectors of the Anglican Church, and apparently he can Do No Wrong for those folks.

  5. 24 December, 2006 5:17 am

    Yeah, I know people can be that way — and yet, there are fundies who see Lewis as teh evol because of the witch …wrt the not Muslim thing, here’s more of what I meant. First, not Muslims because they clearly aren’t there in Tolkein, and are not as explicitly there in Lewis. In terms of Tolkein, I’ve been having some interesting conversations elsewhere about Tolkein’s and Lewis’ backgrounds growing up before the Great War. For him, and for others of his generation and educational background, there are a lot of good arguments for the Southrons as Indians (see also: war elephants/oliphaunts) — or possibly even Carthaginians. I can see that, but also think that, as a medievalist, there might be residual Crusades imagery. But, it has also been poited out to me that medievalists of his generation really could get away with much narrower specialties, and that Tolkein was not a historian. He also argued strenuously against anyone who wanted to see his works as allegory.But — Lewis was clearly writing allegory. Despite arguments to the contrary, which also refer to the “Indian, not Arab or Turk” rationale for Tolkein’s swarthy southerners, I feel much more comfortable in seeing a Muslim allegory in the Narnia books. Whether the Calormenes are the Turks (and later other Muslims) of the Crusades, or the Arabs/Berbers of the Spanish conquest and the Roland account of Rencesvalles — or an amalgam of the two groups. Despite that, I don’t think Lewis is slamming Islam. I think that it is more modern interpretations of Lewis that don’t necessarily see the niceties of difference.

  6. 24 December, 2006 5:19 am

    Oh — don’t forget, though, that Rabadash was attractive enough for Susan (before she realized he was a total prick) and Aravis for Cor.

  7. 26 December, 2006 5:33 pm

    Lost a large comment by me. Here’s a test.

  8. 26 December, 2006 5:37 pm

    If fundies think Lewis is the enemy, they’ve got a point. Reading his fiction rather than his Christian apologetic, wouldn’t you say he was more of a Neoplatonist? One of those devious guys who looked so subversive to “real Christians” in say the 6th century?

  9. 26 December, 2006 5:40 pm

    The image of the Dark Orient/Dark Other goes so deep that if it weren’t Tolkien and Lewis it would be someone else. Indeed, how about Robert E. Howard?

  10. 27 December, 2006 2:22 pm

    I think of him as being more neoplatonic. He’s certainly more inclusive in his Christianity, and seems to say that good works are by their nature Christian.

  11. 27 December, 2006 2:32 pm

    On Howard — possibly? I’m not familiar enough to know if he has Arab/Turkic bad guys, although I seem to remember Mongol-types. I’m also not sure of the influence of his stuff on a wider audience in the way that Tolkein’s and Lewis’s work has been. (Must have tea before trying to write English). Or … since this is about how audiences of the generations after Lewis’s and Tolkein’s own — especially those born after WWII, perceive (and conceive) the Calormenes, etc — would there be a difference in how audiences perceive (and conceive) Howard’s charaters? Do people still read Howard?

  12. 28 December, 2006 8:36 pm

    People now in their 40s and 50s certainly read Howard, and did it when it counted, when they were young.And lots read Gor books! Scary!

  13. 29 December, 2006 7:01 pm

    ADM, I’d forgotten about the Calormene-Narnian romances; that does complicate matters some. So now we’ve got the “exotic East” thing going on as well.

  14. 31 December, 2006 4:56 am

    As to influence–I can’t be the only perverse reader who found the Calormenes vastly more attractive than the prissy Narnians. Bathing in asses’ milk! Sitting around eating sweetmeats and gossiping with your friends! What wasn’t to like?

  15. 10 January, 2007 2:31 pm

    Been reading this blog for a little while now at a few weeks behind, and this seems like a good place to open up with a comment :-)I think that you have the Middle-Eastern badmen thing fair and square; although as has been pointed out there are things like bathing in asses’ milk and so on which properly belong to the Orient of The Thousand and One Nights, I think it’s clear that there is a more direct political echo. Remember that as Lewis wrote the Ottoman Empire was only recently dead. The headgear of the Calormenes on the covers of my old Lewis paperbacks look decidedly Ottoman to me, the turban-like wraps with spikes in, and even if Lewis didn’t control that, it shows what the artist took from the stories. I suspect indeed that all the Thousand and One Nights stuff was more of an influence than the Chanson de Roland, though I’d love it to be otherwise.One thing about which I do wonder is your characterization of Lewis’s misognyny in your first couple of paragraphs. Perhaps it’s just our own modern gendertypes conflicting, but to me it seems that Lewis is not condemning Susan for doing gender-normative things, or rather that he feels that the things she does, i. e. wearing makeup, playing with suitors’ affections, are deplorable even if normal. I quite agree that he was, if not misogynist at least chauvinist, because I think he poses Lucy as an ideal female type by contrast, brave (or at least `plucky’) but ultimately healer and comforter and emotion as against the male warrior, justiciar and stiff upper lip. But I think that the reader is supposed to dislike Susan for her concern with appearances and lack of it with consequences when messing with young Calormenes’ hearts…But as I say this may be our gender modes clashing. I know some women who think make-up is a waste of time, and some who won’t leave the house without some on. By and large the academics I know are in the former category, but that’s probably England as much as anything…The other thing that comes to mind is the `noble savage’ aspect; I seem to remember a Calormene whom Aslan acknowledges as good and pious and therefore lets into Heaven, effectively. Here you might choose to see Lewis acknowledging a shared godhead–in fact doesn’t Aslan say that worshipping Tash is to worship him?–and suggesting that Calormene religion has become corrupted, rather than being damnable in and of itself?

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