Pop culture, fantasy, and Islam?
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 …