So Why Is She the White Witch?

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Philip Pullman, whose book I can't finish, has been turning thumbs down on Narnia author C.S. Lewis for some time. With the Disney movie of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe scheduled to beat the adaptations of Pullman's His Dark Materials books into theaters, Pullman is turning up the heat, calling the Narnia series "a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice" notable for their "absence of Christian virtue." (This last bit from the anti-religious author is clearly meant to be ironic.) Writes Hit & Run reader Paul Wilbert, who hips us to the news:

I haven't read Narnia since I was a kid, so don't remember enough about it to comment on Pullman's views one way or the other…

I must say that "reactionary" is one of my favorite words. Like the abuse of "liberal" by the American right, you can tell a lot about somebody by those words he choses to describe someone with whom he disagrees.

I don't know if reactionary is the right term, but ostentatiously traditional seems like an apt description. A good question is why so many luminaries of the Anglo-Catholic revival were pretty straightforward bigots—by which I mean more than just that they tweak politically correct sensibilities. Lewis saw the battle for Heaven as a battle with the dark-skinned east. G.K. Chesterton believed Jews were running the world. The works of J.R.R. Tolkien are where I learned the worst thing you can call a guy is "swarthy." (Tolkien may have been somewhat more sympathetic toward Jews, especially short Jews.) In Evelyn Waugh's world, there's nothing more hilarious than a cannibalistic African chieftain wearing a tophat and trying to pass himself off as a gentleman.

There's no natural connection between these guys' Christian traditionalism and their distaste for people of other races. Nor is any of this a knock against their writing. I'd like to see some acknowledgment that racism is a big part of what makes some writers good. T.S. Eliot is an interesting poet because of his anti-Semitism, not in spite of it. Chesterton's novel The Flying Inn takes swipes at the absurdities of Islam and thus creates a weirdly prescient vision of a multicultural UK where progressives and reactionaries unite to form a pleasure-hating superstate. Instead of hiccuping apologies, actors playing Shylock and Fagin could get more mileage from engaging the full hatred their creators wanted to express. (I understand Ben Kingsley does something like this in the new Roman Polanski joint, which I haven't seen.) Giving free play to racism allows writers to engage their own horrors in ways that would never pass in the classroom.

Easy for you to say, Cavanaugh! you say. You're not on the receiving end of that bigotry. True, with some exceptions: If it weren't for Eliot I wouldn't understand that my "apeneck" is really the result of my lousy genes. (Unlike, say, the superior genetic makeup of a sexless anglophile pansy obsessed with masking his roots in the Show Me State.) "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" just would not be an interesting poem if it weren't infused with Eliot's pity and horror of a stupid Irish slob.

I don't expect studies of the aesthetic value of bigotry will take off anytime soon, but consider the sort of mealymouthed talk you get when you don't engage this argument: In one of the comments on the BBC's story on Philip Pullman, one reader takes the author to task for "falling into the trap that so often catches the unaware. That of judging past authors using the values of today." This is ridiculous. The Narnia books were written in the 1950s, when the American Civil Rights movement was in full swing and the tide of anti-colonialism was sweeping the earth. What timeline are we using, where a person living in the fifties would not be aware of racism and imperialism as topics worth having an opinion on? (On the issue of imperialism, by the way, G.K. Chesterton, the godfather of twentieth-century Anglo Catholicism, was on the side of the angels.)

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  1. I like multiple choice a lot more than these weird essay tests Professor Cavanaugh gives…

  2. I have to give some credit to Lewis for turning me from a good Catholic boy into a raving atheist – Aslan was just so damn smarmy. I couldn’t stand that bloody cat…

  3. I was a huge Tolkien fan in HS, and I always noted his ‘racism’ due to the ‘swarthy’ comments and that anything black was usually evil. Maybe he was a Mormon? (kidding) I never thought about the Jewish thing and dwarves, though, although I totally see it.

    I mean, c’mon, Tolkien was born in South Africa and was an educated English white man. Not to make an excuse for him, but I sure culturally, it made it fairly easy.

    Lewis? I don’t know much about him, but weren’t he and Tolkien good friends, or at least correspond with each other frequently?

    I hope the movies are good, because even though I don’t see many of them, I enjoy a good movie.

  4. Imperialism? I confess I’m unaware of any such in the Narnia books. Both Narnia and Archenland were presented as small countries and so far as I could see never actually invaded anyone in the stories.

    And why would Lewis be all that aware of the American civil rights movement? I mean, I know they had the telly over there and all, but still…

  5. I do have to say that the racism in the Narnia books is quite blatant. I read them when I was eight and I was actually offended. If an eight year-old realizes that a book is racist without anyone mentioning it or prompting him, you have to agree it’s pretty obvious.

  6. I listened to Pullman’s books on tape (actually, on MP3). Pretty good, very well performed.

    Read the Narnia books as a kid. Insensitive bastard that I was even then, I don’t recall any racism. Mostly, I wanted my own talking lion.

  7. In Evelyn Waugh’s world, there’s nothing more hilarious than a cannibalistic African chieftain wearing a tophat and trying to pass himself off as a gentleman.

    in waugh’s defense, that needn’t be a racist commentary so much as one on the absurdities of westernization/globalization.

  8. Yeah, I read the books as a kid, and I don’t remember any racism, but then I wouldn’t have known it if I had seen it.

  9. “the superior genetic makeup of a sexless anglophile pansy obsessed with masking his roots in the Show Me State”

    Uh…what?

  10. What don’t you understand?

  11. truthfully, i wonder about the entire argument you’re forwarding re: bigotry, mr cavanaugh. how is someone like waugh supposed to comment on the incivility of some parts of the world without obviously talking about their peoples? is that racist — i don’t see that these authors make the claim that such people are *incapable* of civilization so much as that they are not now civilized.

    so too with your link to the fifth book of lewis’ narnia — i don’t think anyone disputes that the people in the mideast are not only capable of civility but that their forefathers taught civility to ours (or rather, mine). but neither can he comment on the degeneracy of what was once the most enlightened civilization on the planet — and, in so doing, perhaps foreshadow the fate of our own civility — without commenting on the barbarism (for that is what it is) which now plagues the dissolution of what was once a glorious islamic civilization.

    there is a powerful leitmotif in the west, a drive toward universalization, the blotting out of our differences in favor of a sort of stylized industrial congruity of people. but we are different, even if our capacities for fulfillment under god as human souls are identical — and that isn’t something we need shrink from, is it, for fear of being called a bigot?

  12. When I was 8, I had no concept of race. It didn’t occur to me until I started hearing racial slurs, when I was around 11.

    As far as dwarves, I always assumed they were Scottish… shows what I know. Barbarians, I assumed to be English. I never quite got the elves…

  13. I don’t know much about Lewis apart from his work. …if the only evidence of his racism is that contained in “The Calormenes Hate Our Freedom” thread, I remain unimpressed by the argument. I’m not saying he wasn’t racist–I’ll remain persuadable pending further evidence. …but the clock’s ticking.

    I’d like to see some acknowledgment that racism is a big part of what makes some writers good.

    I’m almost speechless. Am I supposed to say, “Imagine “Ulysses” without the Wandering Jew!”?

  14. there is a powerful leitmotif in the west

    Would that be a leitmotif, or just a regular old motif?

  15. gaius marius,

    Its hard to figure out who you are without being able to compare yourself to some “other.”

    This is how I defined that term in graduate school (with the help of some “friends”):

    Marginalized constituencies created by certain ?instruments of power? (e.g., writing, science, physical coercion, etc.). The most prominent of these instruments is that of ??knowledge,? insofar as the subjects of power are first indentified as such,? whatever the ?subject? or ?other? is, and consequently made available for (re)forming. (Bart Moore-Gilbert, Post-Colonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics, p. 36). In particular, Foucault develops a powerful argument linking all forms of what he calls ?the will to knowledge? and all modes of cultural depiction of ?the Other,? to the exercise of power. (The History of Sexuality, p. 10).

  16. Well, given the silly complaints from Florida that encouraging kids to read the Chronicles of Narnia is the state being involved in promoting religion, and given that I couldn’t stand the “Did I make the part where I hate religion too subtle?” His Dark Materials series, I tend to view attacks by Pullman on Narnia as being a little self-motivated. His entire series is about people overthrowing religion, and God himself, and so the thought of a 7 book analogy of Christianity probably makes him pee himself in fear.
    I have a clarification question on the “judging authors by the morals of today” thing: Are we judging the author or his works? I don’t know enough about Lewis’ personal life, but many of the foreign characters in his books are bad people–like slavers and tyrants. Was Lewis supposed to make them sympathetic?
    I really tire of the “this bad guy characters happens to be a minority, so the author is racist” concept. It’s self-fulfilling and brooks no discussion. Since the accuser “knows” s/he is right, you can’t convince them otherwise.

  17. I’ve always thought of myself as un-racist, and yet when I read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was young they made an impression on me (positive, I might add) that has never truly left. I was naive I suppose but I didn’t read any bigotry into it at all. It was all about “spiritual possibility” and all of that stuff. I love the Pullman series as well– and I think those books would probably make a better movie.

    The cynical, grown-up Eric’s favorite thing C.S. Lewis wrote about? I love it when he talks about a guy joining the church in order to combat the urge to masturbate in “Mere Christianity.”

  18. it’s up to you, mr cavanaugh, but i prefer the postmodern wagernian inference of lietmotif when talking of western decadence. 🙂

  19. i.e. Lewis’s own version of “His Dark Materials.”

  20. oop — pardon me, “leitmotif”

  21. “What don’t you understand?”
    Who are you refering to? Yourself? Pullman? Gore Vidal?

  22. gaius marius,

    I guess, more to the point, the West has for a long time (and often unwittengly)compared itself to the “East.” For example, t first known example of a “Saracen” presence in medieval literature can be found in the Song of Roland. Dozens of other medieval romances, typically termed the chansons de geste, also illustrated and described the “Saracens” and their culture. In these works, the “Saracens” are generally drawn as a relief background that could be used to as a comparative device to weigh and consider the virtues of Christian knights and their ladies.

    For further explication of these matters see: Norman Daniel, Heroes and Saracens: An Interpretation of the Chansons de Geste

  23. I was referring to T.S. Eliot, as the context, and any familiarity with 101-level English lit, made clear. Are all Torontonians as smart as you?

  24. gaius marius,

    Of course this discourse was initiated long before the heyday of the chansons de geste; indeed it came about after the initial rise of Islam, when Muslims and Europeans (e.g., Byzantines, Goths, Italians, etc.) first came into contact. It was rich in context and meaning to medieval Europeans, who viewed the “Saracens” as their primary cultural and military adversaries. This also meant that the ideological and physical frontiers of these two faiths became blurred.

  25. Racist my ass. Yes, the Calormenes are the enemies of Narnia, and are darker skinned than the Narnians, but one of the heroes of The Last Battle is Emeth, a Calormene. Lewis clearly doesn’t think there’s anything in the melanin levels of their skin or elsewhere in their genetic makeup that keeps them from being good guys.

    Next I suppose I’ll hear that Star Trek was racist because of the Klingons. (No, don’t tell me; I’ll bet there are two dozen web sites that claim exactly that.)

  26. I guess, more to the point, the West has for a long time (and often unwittengly)compared itself to the “East.”

    truly, gg, beyond obvious materialist concerns (ie, oil), i wonder just how much of what we in the west have wrought in the east over the last century is the product of a deeply-rooted insecurity endemic to a vulgarizing western civilization that is struggling, as it recedes from cultural maturity into adolescence in senescence, to define itself despite a flight from its own history, traditions and institutions.

  27. Oh, yes, and Lewis found Eliot’s elitism repugnant, and I gather from a few lines in That Hideous Strength that he didn’t think much of the kind of anti-Semitism that Eliot displayed, either. So let’s stop employing guilt by association to condemn Lewis.

    (Besides which, not only did Lewis not particularly care for Eliot, he never considered himself an Anglo-Catholic, so the guilt by association is doubly misplaced.)

  28. Seamus,

    Well, racist or not, Cold War politics are fairly heavily at play in ST:TOS.

  29. Seamus,

    And of course the concept of the “loyal native” (keep in mind I’ve never read the Narnia series) and the like doesn’t take away from the charge of racism (if that is what Emeth is).

  30. gaius marius,

    Heh. You always draw very strange conclusions from my statements.

  31. gaius marius,

    BTW, as a culture I’d say we have pretty good reasons for questioning the merits of everyone thing we believe, think, etc. Its not hard to read first had reports from Verdun or Auschwitz or the Soviet Gulag and not do that.

  32. …everything…

  33. Hakluyt–before we talk about whether a “loyal native” takes away the charge of racism, can we talk about what proof we have that there should even be a charge? What is the reason, in his writings or otherwise, that he’s a racist?
    I dislike when these arguments get going from a “Convince me he’s NOT a jerk!” starting point. 🙂

  34. Daniel Montiel,

    Well, as I wrote, I’ve not read them (and likely never will), so you are asking the wrong person. I was merely (as I thought I made clear) making a conjecture.

  35. “Are all Torontonians as smart as you?”
    No cause they all are pretty dumb!

  36. It’s really amusing to read the comments on the Pullman piece. It seems that the left tail of the bell curve of fantasy readers is determined to simply Get Stuff Wrong. First, there was all the insistence, despite ample documentary evidence, that LOTR was a WWII allegory. Now, in regards to Narnia, we get:

    Not only this, but [Aslan’s sacrifice] also draws huge parallels to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

    Really? No kidding?

    What religion and Christianity have to do with what is a work of fantasy and fiction seems to be utterly beyond him. The answer is simple… nothing.

    Yeah, religion and Christianity have nothing at all to do with the Chronicles of Narnia.

    CS Lewis was a strong Christian believer and The Lion is depicted as a virtuous and spiritual entity but the author does not plug Christianity per se, evangelical or otherwise.

    Oh, brother. To spell it out for the stupid: Aslan = Jesus. Not an allegory for Jesus, not a symbol for Jesus. Aslan is the form that the Savior took when he was made flesh to the beings of Narnia. Yeesh.

    Of course, this was good, too:“We believe that God will speak the gospel of Jesus Christ through this film,” Lon Allison, director of Illinois’ Billy Graham Centre, told the newspaper.

    Hahahaha. You’re confusing Disney with Mel Gibson, but rotsa ruck anyway.

  37. (Besides which, not only did Lewis not particularly care for Eliot, he never considered himself an Anglo-Catholic, so the guilt by association is doubly misplaced.)

    The idea that Lewis was not an Anglo-Catholic is like the old saw that one of the Village People was actually straight. He found Jesus thanks to Tolkien (RCC) and HV Dyson (High-church Anglican), at Oxford in the twenties, the place and time where the Anglo-Catholic movement was at its zenith. He believed in purgatory, confession, and infant baptism, most of the “Inklings” were either crypto- or public Catholics, and he identified Anglican. Evangelicals love Lewis, so they ignore all that stuff. But if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

  38. Evangelicals love Lewis

    which i barely understand — but then, a lot of things the postmodern evangelicals think rots of insufficient consideration.

  39. You always draw very strange conclusions from my statements.

    i try very hard to think differently from most, gg. 🙂

  40. Hakluyt,
    Sorry, the post was put to your comments, but I didn’t mean the challenge for you. It was more for the thread and to make a point. Allegations like this quickly become “guilty until proven innocent,” and I wanted to throw that out there.

  41. Why can’t these authors just all get along?

  42. I think Tim is dead-on: racism can be a big part of what makes a writer interesting. The example that comes to my mind is a little less high-falutin’ than TS Eliot, though: HP Lovecraft.

    He wasn’t big on dialogue, and he *may* have overused words like “gibbous” and “cyclopean”, but I love his work anyway. And it’s been very influential. Yet the bulk of Lovecraft’s writing is virulently and unabashedly racist. I don’t mean just his treatment of real-world peoples, although that was bad enough: nauseating caricatures of animal-like black people; degenerate, barely-human savages in the backwoods; and hideously mongrelised immigrants.

    Lovecraft also expresses his racism in his whole mythos: the alien intelligences, other-worldly creatures and strange worlds and discoveries of his stories are almost always regarded with fear and revulsion. I’m not suggesting that Great Cthulhu and his kin are simply stand-ins for Jews or whatnot. Rather, Lovecraft’s whole treatment of the new, unknown or alien emerges from deep within the psychology of racism and xenophobia.

    This is part of why Lovecraft is so much fun for many people: the assault or corruption of purity or normalcy by monstrous outsiders arouses strong reactions. It’s also why Lovecraft is so interesting, for his work offers intimate insight into what it’s like to see the world (and other ones!) as a racist sees it; and maybe into how xenophobia can mellow or fade. In “At the Mountains of Madness”, one of Lovecraft’s last, longest and best works, we see considerable sympathy with and respect for the alien Old Ones (not to be confused with the Great Old Ones, the Elder Ones, or the Elder Gods: Lovecraftiana is not for the easily-baffled!) who are accidentally revived by an unwitting Antarctic research team. Everyone except the narrator still ends up either dead or driven mad with horror, of course; but Lovecraft had clearly made a crucial leap of empathy.

    Anyway! Go, Tim. CS Lewis and Philip Pullman: both tendentious, agenda-driven jerks who nonetheless wrote very enjoyable books.

  43. “a sexless anglophile pansy obsessed with masking his roots in the Show Me State”

    Smart Torontonian,
    I thought he was talking about Senator Dick Gephardt.

  44. By the way, I still have ‘them’ on my list.

  45. Lovecraft also expresses his racism in his whole mythos: the alien intelligences, other-worldly creatures and strange worlds and discoveries of his stories are almost always regarded with fear and revulsion.

    A natural human tendency, Tennant Reed. One does not have to be a racist to recoil at the sight of Lord Cthulhu. Also remember the genre that Lovecraft was writing in; how well do you think a story about fluffy loveable aliens would have gone over with his audience?

  46. Hate, contempt, pity, and on and on can all be viewed as part of racism but they are also states of mind that give an incredible energy force to a writer’s pen…which might explain why so many passionate writers have some association or other with extreme ideologies (commies, nazies etc.)

  47. Why is the fact that,

    Lewis saw the battle for Heaven as a battle with the dark-skinned east.

    de facto racism? Dark-skinned hordes from the East must never, ever, evereverevereverever, be used as an analogy for Evil?

    Otherwise, one is racist? Why exactly?

    The link provided is equally as non-sequitur-esque.

    (http://goatdog.com/blog/archives/000166.html)

    The blogger creates a modern analogy to a fictional setting in of one Lewis’ books – and then says Lewis is racist.

    Why?

    If I understand correctly, should I ever write my version of a dualistic morality play — I need to eschew using blacknes/darkness in regards to whomever I choose to be the antangonists.

    Got it.

  48. Tolkien and Lewis don’t really belong in the same category as Chesterton, Eliot, or Waugh (or the unmentioned Belloc) in this regard. Tolkien was horrified when a German translator of THE HOBBIT asked him to make a declaration of his pure Aryan blood and refused to do so. Lewis’s wife was ethnically Jewish. When Tolkien’s son was stationed in South Africa during the war, the elder Tolkien’s letters to his son were critical of white South Africans’ treatment of blacks. (Tolkien was born in South Africa, but he left when still a child.) Yes, there is a tendency toward swarthy villains in LOTR, but it is said in passing that many of the Hobbits are themselves “nut-brown” in color. And in the Chronicles of Narnia, the Calormenes are supposed to be some sort of imitation Arabs, but there are plenty of white villains also (and it is clear that there are good Calormenes, like the aforementioned Emeth). As far as I know, none of Tolkien’s or Lewis’s private correspondence contains racist, and certainly not anti-Semitic, language.

  49. Regarding Tolkien, I found this.

    I don’t perceive Tolkien as a racist. He never advocated the superiority of one ethnic group over another in his real life (unless it were that his admiration of the Jews meant he thought they were incredibly gifted beyond the abilities of his own German and English ancestors). And his stories are constantly showing how the “upper races” are getting their comeuppance. The Numenoreans decide they should be the kings of men, and they end up drowning in the sea because of their arrogance.

    The Dunedain of Gondor think their kings should have only “pure blood”, and they fight a civil war in which “much of the best blood” is spilled (and lost), and the end result is that their kings mingle their family line. And people go on about the half-Orcs. Oh, what a terrible evil they are. Hey, Tolkien was being rather egalitarian on the issue of racial mingling. If the “good guys” could do it, then why couldn’t the “bad guys”?

    But the worst accusations are those in which people say Tolkien pitted white-skinned “good” people against dark-skinned “bad” people. Key villains like Saruman the White always seem to escape their list of offensive bad guys (“But he was a Maia!” — yes, a WHITE-SKINNED Maia). Grima Wormtongue, Lotho Sackville-Baggins, and even Ted Sandyman are all “white-skinned bad guys”. They also happen to betray their own people.

    Then you have the dark-skinned good guys, but somehow they never get mentioned. While Denethor sits brooding in his tower, going slowly insane and doing everything he can to screw up the war against Sauron, dark-skinned men from Gondor’s hinterlands show up to defend his ancient city against the white-skinned Lord of the Nazgul (“But he’s a GHOST!” — yes, well, he started out a Numenorean) and his motley army of multi-ethnic soldiers.

    Of course, the army of Morgul is where people really try to drive their blunt points home. “Look at all the black people in Sauron’s army!” Black people? In Sauron’s army. Tolkien descried one group of black-skinned warriors, and he at first described them as “from out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues”. Last time I checked, black people didn’t have white eyes, and all peoples’ tongues are pink. But the rationalizations rise up quickly:

    1) “But black people are portrayed with white eyes!” (Ever see an old western where the dark-skinned Indians refer to the white-skinned cavalry as “white eyes”?) Hey, let’s not cloud the issue with facts. Everyone’s eyes are part white. But Tolkien didn’t say these guys had partly dark eyes. Nor did he say they had kinky hair, or describe any other features of black African peoples. He does, later on, call these guys “troll-men”. Now, why would he suggest a connection to trolls, creatures of fantasy which are huge, massive, and extremely powerful? I’ve been told that black Africans are portrayed that way. I’m sorry, but I’ve never seen them portrayed that way (in fact, no one has ever been able to cite a reference for me, but I suppose given the immense amount of literature our society produces, there is something out there — but did Tolkien ever see it?)

    2) “But these guys come from the south!” Yes, they come from the south. And people who live in warm regions tend to be dark-skinned. Funny, that. Should Tolkien have portrayed all the southern peoples of Middle-earth as albinos or something?

    Well, there are certainly other Men who serve Sauron, whose skin is less dark than the “troll-men”. Sam sees one up close, and as he looks upon the dead Southron warrior he wonders if the man really is evil, or if he wasn’t perhaps led or sent to war against his will. Well, the passage where Sam questions the motivations of a dead Southron doesn’t really convince many people that their deductions could possibly be in error. They point to the yellow-skinned Easterlings as further proof of Tolkien’s clash of the ethnic stereotypes.

    Only there are no yellow-skinned Easterlings in Tolkien. There are some sallow-skinned half-orcs, but that’s as far as you get with respect to Asian-like features (in fact, Tolkien once described Orcs as a debased form of Mongoloid in appearance, but he wasn’t implying that Asians were Orcs).

    “But they must have been yellow-skinned — they came from the east!”

    Well, there’s logic for you. Anyone who comes from the east must look like an Asian. I guess that means all Europeans look like Asians, because they surely live to the east of me! Tolkien did describe one group of Easterlings. “Not tall, but broad and grim,” these men are said to be. “Bearded like dwarves, wielding great axes. Out of some savage land in the wide East they come, we deem.” These men (part of the army which takes Cair Andros and blocks the road against the Rohirrim) have sometimes been called half-dwarves, though Tolkien never uses the term of them. The perception is not of an Asiatic people, but of another fantasy race, similar to the half-trolls who appear later on in “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”.

    Where are all the Asians? Tolkien doesn’t seem to dwell on skin color much, or eye shapes, or hair textures, or any of the other usual stereotypes about ethnic groups. Some of the Southrons appear to be like Arabic peoples (mounted on horseback, dressed in scarlet, sort of like an old “desert Arab” movie from the 1940s and 1950s) and some appear to be like Indians (from India — mounted on Oliphaunts, etc.) And many people have wondered if the Variags of Khand were a renegade group of Northmen (the term “Variag” was used of Vikings who served in the Byzantine armies).

    Well, Indians are Asians, but they’re not Mongols, or Turks, or Huns, or any of those other Asian stereotypes we see come charging out of the steppes in the movies and history books (not that the movies have really been faithful to history, mind you). And if people are associating the Variags of Khand with Vikings, you have to pretty much say these are perceived as white guys serving the Enemy.

  50. First, there was all the insistence, despite ample documentary evidence, that LOTR was a WWII allegory.

    The only insistance that I ever heard was that it was a WWI allegory. And, although it probably wasn’t entirely, there’s plenty of evidence that suggests that Tolkien used his experiences as a soldier in the great war and his opinions about it to inform his writing. The Dead Marshes sound like WWI trenches to me, and that’s hardly where it stops.

    Jim N-And don’t forget about the mother of all “white” villans in LotR; the Elves who forged the first three rings and started the whole mess in the first place. Digging life in Middle Earth, they decided to use the rings as a sort of social planning to extend their stay. But, Sauron thought it was such a good idea that he made the rings that brought about the wars. It was Elfish arrogance and irresponsibility that caused all the problems, just as it was European arrogance and irresponsibility that brought about the world wars.

  51. The Dead Marshes sound like WWI trenches to me, and that’s hardly where it stops.

    I saw a documentary on Tolkien once. It suggested that he lifted parts of the Dead Marshes bit straight from his WWI journals.

    …As I recall, the Dead Marshes were what was left on the battlefield after the original great battle from oh so long ago. When we cross the Dead Marshes, it’s in the midst of the second conflict just before the second great battle.

    It’s easy to read parallels into Tolkien’s work, but they’re hard to defend. Tolkien wrote things from his own experience into the work, but I don’t think Sauron was Hitler or that Frodo was Jesus or that Gandalf was anyone really. …Gandalf gives the only seemingly Christian line in the book, but I don’t know where he fits in a Christian context otherwise.

    …I suspect the King of Rohan is like Chamberlain and that the Battle of Helm s Deep is like the Battle of Britain, but, like I said, that’s tough to defend, I think. It’s not clear to me that he meant any thing in Middle Earth to represent any thing in the real world.

    Except the idea that those who want to have power over us are evil and that those who don’t are good… …That seems to work well in both Middle Earth and the real world.

  52. (Let’s see if I’m allowed to post this time.)

    I loathed His Dark Materials. It made me very angry. Not because it is anti-Catholic, anti-religion, anti-God, but because it’s pompous and self-consciously “significant”.

    And I especially loathed it because 12-year-old Lyra speaks and thinks like a mildly retarded 50-year-old schoolmaster with a huge chip on his shoulder.

  53. Also remember the genre that Lovecraft was writing in; how well do you think a story about fluffy loveable aliens would have gone over with his audience?

    Poul Anderson and H. Beam Piper seem to have done pretty well with them. 🙂

  54. I just want to comment on the brief Dickens mention nobody else picked up on. While Jews do frequently appear as bad guys in Dickens’ work, I’m not sure it’s correct to say it was hatred that he was trying to express. There are plenty of Christian bad guys too. I have also heard that he claimed never to have thought about this too deeply until someone pointed out to him that all the Jews in his books were evil, after which he wrote a good Jewish character into his next book. Don’t have a source for that, though.

  55. “one reader takes the author to task for “falling into the trap that so often catches the unaware. That of judging past authors using the values of today.” This is ridiculous. The Narnia books were written in the 1950s, when the American Civil Rights movement was in full swing and the tide of anti-colonialism was sweeping the earth. What timeline are we using, where a person living in the fifties would not be aware of racism and imperialism as topics worth having an opinion on?”

    I’ll try to counter-argue. While America was combatting it’s racist ways, England was steadfastly ignorant of racism. In the 1950’s Agatha Christie’s book was released in America with the title “Ten Little Indians” but in England they unashamedly sold it under the original title, “Ten Little Niggers.” (Although today, that could be a Kanye West title too). In that climate, Lewis could be prejudiced towards his dark-skinned brothers and not be aware of any contradictions with the Christian Brotherhood of Man.

    Furthermore, in “Mere Christianity” (Original title had the n-word) Lewis explained that just because a Christian is a bastard doesn’t make him a hypocrite. Just imagine how much worse a bastard that Christian would be if weren’t trying to get right with Christ.

  56. plenty of evidence that suggests that Tolkien used his experiences as a soldier in the great war and his opinions about it to inform his writing.

    i think tolkien’s masterwork is a mythologism of the great war from start to finish. relating particular episides in the book to actual battles, places, persons and whatnot is entertaining — but probably not as revealing as saying that the entire work is a manifestation of the british outlook on the battle to save western civilization from collapse. (and this is less applying my views to tolkien than acknowledging my philosophical and cultural debt to tolkien.)

    in this way his epic can be seen, perhaps, to be of a kind with (though certainly far inferior to and less sophisticated than) vergil’s aeneid — which can be read as a broad allegory of the spiritual conflict within rome’s soul (humanitas) as the price of its rise to the full flower of civic virtue (civitas) in augustan empire.

  57. We are sufficiently, perhaps unavoidably, products of our own milieu so that the traditional tropes of darkness and light lead us now immediately to see or suspect hidden racial implications in earlier literature. Ho hum.

    That is not to say that Lewis, Tolkien, Waugh, etc. were not paradigms of an early 20th century, Oxbridge educated middle-class culture to which Eliot aspired and tried to assimilate. Of course they were. Their background attitudes were at least subconsciously sympathetic to the prevailing English worldview that “the wogs begin at Calais.”

    So what? Tolkien was primarily a medievalist and it is that worldview that shapes the Ring trilogy. Waugh was an equal-opportunity misanthrope and Eliot’s anti-Semitism is probably as much a product of his Harvard years as his later (ironically colonial) obsession with out-Englishing the English.

    But Lewis as an author was first and foremost an unapologetic Christian apologist. If anything, the Narnia books veritably drip with Christian allegory to the point where, even as a Christian, I couldn’t bring myself to read the damned things for pleasure because he was so heavy-handed in his symbolism.

    So why is she the White Witch (cursing Narnia with perpetual snowy winter)? For the same reason Dante’s ninth circle of hell was a lake of ice.

  58. I thought he was talking about Senator Dick Gephardt.

    Not to nitpick, but Gephardt was never a senator. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Show-Me-State doesn’t have a sexless anglophile pansy for a senator.

  59. Count me among the 8-year-olds who didn’t really get any racism out of Narnia.

    As for Tolkien, the WWI motif is true. In addition, I really think that the different races in the trilogy are symbolic of different groups in England, sort of metaphors for the different cultures and personalities that make up the U.K. Dwarves are the tough highland Scots and Welsh miners, elves are the Druids, hobbits are the rural folk, and the good and bad men represent, well, good and bad men!

    I’ve been told that Tolkien wrote the whole thing as a vehicle for the Elven language, anyway. He was a linguist, after all 🙂

  60. Evangelicals love Lewis

    which i barely understand — but then, a lot of things the postmodern evangelicals think rots of insufficient consideration.

    After the initial spiritual high of being born-again you start looking around for a better articulation of Christian philosophy than self-help books paraphrasing Bible verses back at you (thus the appeal of Lewis the philosopher) and literature better than the Left Behind books and tales of the brave settlers of Ye Old Christian American Republic (thus the appeal of Lewis’ fiction).

  61. By weird coincidence, this morning I was going through some old posters/artwork as part of my campaign to cleanse the Hugginkiss Subcellars, and I found the map of Narnia and surrounding regions which hung on my wall as a kid.

    I think Cavanaugh and Pullman are unconsciously admitting that the Narnia series are “literature” in that they’re looking into its waters and seeing it reflect what they want it to. The racism thing is a stretch; after all, what is Narnia (like most fantasy, D&D-type worlds) but an exaggerated, idealized medieval England, minus the serfdom, disease, etc? It’s romanticized chivalry — Mallory rehashed. So, while writing A Horse and His Boy, author Lewis is casting about for an anti-Narnia (I’d say a Dark Narnia, but that brings up the same unfortunate connotations), and so looking for yet another historical parallel, he happens upon that other version of chivalry which butted heads with Europe during the Middle Ages: Islam.

    Of course, what Pullman, et al, forget is that there were other Lewisian lands full of bad guys that weren’t filled with pseudo-Arabs, like Harfang, which, courtesy of my map, I can tell you is the Narnian Great White North full of bad-tempered giants. These, as I recall, are of the Caucasian variety — and worse! — they eat talking animals and are suggested as liking human flesh as well (just like our own northern neighbors). So to Mr. Cavanaugh and others of the Lewis-is-a-racist party, I ask: was Lewis making a prejudiced statement about acromegaly in The Silver Chair? Should Richard Kiel be offended?

  62. i once told a catholic friend that loaning a nonbeliever “mere christianity” is like loaning a theist one of ayn rand’s tracts on religion. it’s just plain insulting. it’s not quite giving them an eyehategod or deicide cd, but it’s damn close.

  63. Seen elsewhere:

    Philip Pullman has been attacking C. S. Lewis once more, turning a few speckled grains of truth (a girl with fat legs, a mix of good and bad among those with dark skin) into the pomp of a major mole mountain. How many dead writers get this kind of sustained pummeling, I wonder? The last notable spectacle of this kind is probably Griswold’s repeated kicking of the corpse of Poe. I don’t think Pullman can make his arguments of racism work without exaggerating some evidence and ignoring other evidence, but Tim Cavanaugh has thrown his feathered hat into the ring by arguing that racism is a source of power and interest in many British writers. I like the first two volumes of His Dark Materials but always find it curious that the author is so very shrill about Lewis when his own loathing of religion (not just religion as it is ‘organized’ into human institutions, but the concepts of a living, borderless kingdom of believers, God, and a world beyond this one) wounded the final book of the trilogy.

    ETC.

    from http://thepalaceat2.blogspot.com/

  64. I’m a former altar boy, now ex-Catholic, boderline agonstic theist. I have no love whatsoever for the RC church. I read the Dark Materials trilogy and found the first book to be rather entertaining and mildly charming, but I was surprised and increasingly annoyed as I read through the 2nd and 3rd books. The cheap shots and smear tactics Pullman used against The Church (Roman Catholic, Anglican, whatever) ruined the series. It was hate masquerading as a kid’s book. What a disappointment.

  65. Tim wrote
    “I’d like to see some acknowledgment that racism is a big part of what makes some writers good.”

    It’s great to see someone else make this point. I would hasten to add that racism and mere cultural attitudes from the past that saw general, sweeping differences between ethnic groups make culture interesting.

    Think about how many of our cultural icons were developed decades ago when “PC” wasn’t an issue. We still celebrate many of them, no matter how ridiculous their original connotations were, despite our modern aversion to hurting people’s feelings. Examples: Chief Wahoo of the Indians. Uncle Ben’s rice.

  66. There is nothing so offensive as the easily offended.

  67. …vergil’s aeneid — which can be read as a broad allegory of the spiritual conflict within rome’s soul (humanitas) as the price of its rise to the full flower of civic virtue (civitas) in augustan empire

    Remember that Aeneas went through the ivory gate. That was Virgil’s wink. He was letting us know that the glory of Rome was illusion, and he knew it.

  68. “Unlike, say, the superior genetic makeup of a sexless anglophile pansy obsessed with masking his roots in the Show Me State.”

    That Cavanaugh can really talk some trash.

  69. Gaius Marius,
    in waugh’s defense, that needn’t be a racist commentary so much as one on the absurdities of westernization/globalization.

    I think if just about anyone else said it, your statement would be true. Coming from Waugh, it’s almost certainly a contemptuous comment on the absurdity of an African “aping his betters”. Waugh being one of those Englishmen (Kinglsley Amis is another) who looked down on all who weren’t one of them.

  70. Uh, what’s a “torontonian”?

  71. A citizen of Toronto, the zircon in the crown of Canada.

  72. Shem:

    I was reprising Banky Edwards’ (Jason Lee) smartass, piss-taking line from the movie “Chasing Amy.” After enduring a particularly tiresome political rant by another character, in which the word “nubian” features prominently, Edwards asks “what’s a nubian.”

    Gotcha.

    Tonio

  73. Actually, I just wanted an excuse to call something the “zircon in the crown of Canada.”

    Totally missed the refrence though. Don’t I look culturally illiterate.

  74. Too bad it’s not available online like some of the other chaptes are, but libertarian (anarchist) David D. Friedman includes an essay on G.K. Chesterton as an appendix in his book The Machinery of Freedom. It’s kind of an odd inclusion, because it doesn’t have much to do with the content of the rest of the book (how an anarcho-capitalist society could work).

    Anyway, as I recall, Friedman concludes that Chesterton was an anti-Semite, at least in part. He also says there may be some understandable (if nonrational) reasons for this — for example, Chesterton’s brother was “persecuted” by some Jewish lawyers for something or other. However, Friedman says that even if GKC was anti-Semitic, that’s not all he was, and he’s still worth reading.

    Friedman also notes that GKC seems to have some compassion for the Jews as eternal outsiders. Apparently GKC said something like, “The Jew is an alien no matter in what country he may reside.” Friedman says he has heard European Jews, in particular, saying much the same thing.

    Friedman — a secular Jew — also found a lot that was appealing in GKC’s philosophical and religious outlook. Friedman says something like, as he pondered his own philosophy on the basis of logic, he found himself driven almost against his will into a stance he calls “Catholicism without God.” The heart of this, as I recall, is Friedman’s growing conviction that some things are just objectively wrong, regardless of their cultural context. I think he gave torturing a child as an example. I wish I could remember more or provide a link, but it is an interesting essay. especially considering that it’s by one of the most hardcore of hardcore libertarians.

  75. Unrelated, but if I hate Thomas Friedman does it make me a bad person?

  76. …if I hate Thomas Friedman does it make me a bad person?

    No, but if you hate him because he’s Jewish, it might make you a good writer.

  77. I feel like I’m the only person who loved both the Narnia books and the Dark Materials books. It’s all good.

    Anyway, the idea that Lewis and Tolkien were racist is pretty ridiculous, particularly in Tolkien’s case. With Lewis you can make a convincing case that he was sexist and ethnocentric, but there’s little racism in the Narnia books — the closest they come to it is a suggestion that the Calormene consider pale skin to be more attractive than dark. The negative aspects of the Calormene are all cultural and religious. Inasmuch as they represnt Arabs, I suppose you could say Lewis was saying the British culture was superior to Arab culture. Which is ethnocentric… but also entirely true, as of the mid-20th century.

    As for Tolkien and the whole dark skin = evil myth, there’s no real support for that in the stories. Part of the problem is that people who aren’t really familiar with the stories tend to assume that the fairest people — elves — are the ultimate in Good, and the dark-skinned Orcs the ultimate in evil. This is not the case. There is, indeed, nothing especially good about the elves — they are proud, selfish, and arrogant, and indeed most of them are in Middle Earth against the Valar’s will. They only look good when you compare them to Morgoth’s servants. The truly good people of Middle Earth are the Hobbits, and to a lesser extent the Men, none of whom are particularly fair-skinned.

  78. The example that comes to my mind is a little less high-falutin’ than TS Eliot, though: HP Lovecraft.

    I was going to mention Lovecraft, but I figured Eliot was taking it far enough afield from the Oxford Anglo-Catholic school. The great thing about HPL is that he took disgust for the flesh to its ultimate extreme. A friend of mine once wrote a story called “The Last American Racist,” a Borges knockoff about a person so committed to drawing invidious distinctions among ethnic groups that he ends up parsing the divisions down to the individual level-one white anglo-saxon protestant being less white than another for some reason, and thus banished to Otherness, until somebody comes along who fits the whiteness criteria even better than the other guy, and so on until every person on the planet belongs to a different race than the narrator. Lovecraft is like that in the other direction: His disgust for the Other proceeds from disgust for all flesh, including his own. And he’s a fascinating figure because of that.

  79. If there is a tendency in fantasy for fictinal dark-skinned races to represent evil, there may be an explanation other than automatically assuming the Dark Ones are stand-ins for African-descended folks. I am reminded of an old essay by science fiction author Larry Niven, about the use of words and language in science fiction. Specifically, I am reminded of this passage:

    In the ten years since I started writing, “black” has replaced “Negro,” by popular demand. This may have been a poor idea. Human children tend to be afraid of the dark, with the result that “black” is a poetic simile for “evil” in every language I’m familiar with.

    Note that last.

    Interesting essay is available online here:

    http://www.larryniven.org/stories/words.htm

  80. “Human children tend to be afraid of the dark, with the result that “black” is a poetic simile for “evil” in every language I’m familiar with.”

    What is your flesh tone, Mr. Darky?

    Seriously, believe it or not, should we create a myth that black skin is nature’s way of giving a head fake to the dark side?

    Or should we start a rumor that black is white? That would, theoretically, be easy enough.

    Research some more, and get back to us.

  81. Stevo DarkLy’s skin tone ranges from mushroom pallor to bulletin-board reddish tan, depending on the season and whether I’m able to get outside much.

    Ruthless, to the extent I can understand what the hell you’re saying, I think you miss the point entirely. Which is: In many cultures, darkness is used to symbolize evil. So, it’s possible that authors making up creatures might consciously or unconsciously use dark colors to symbolize frightening ones, without necessarily thinking in racist terms.

    Come to think of it, the color black can also symbolize fearsome power. There is research indicating that athletes who wear are perceived as more aggressive and do tend to play more aggressively. Even in whitey sports like hockey.

  82. No, Stevo, what I’m wondering is could the “brand image” of dark skin be changed so it symbolizes good citizenship, apple pie, warm fuzzies, etc.?
    Recall Marlboro cigarettes were originally for women, for example.
    Maybe dark skin could be marketed as Godiva chocolate? The name, “Brandy,” hurts the case I’m proposing. The phrase, “Once you’ve tried black, you’ll never go back,” also hurts my case.
    Maybe those with dark skin could be the “pioneers” of global warming?

  83. Oh, I get it now. Rebranding.

    It’s not “dark skin,” it’s “premium melanin-enhanced.”

  84. I’m touched to find my silly little essay linked here. There was a deliberate non sequitur between (1) my intentionally anachronistic reading of The Horse and His Boy and (2) my statement that Lewis’s racism put me off the book. That is, (1) was not intended as evidence for (2), since I selected the evidence for (1) on the basis of how well it fit my Bush analogy, not on the basis of how well it demonstrated Lewis’s racism. But I think I may have tossed in the term “racist” a little too flippantly–I think DB’s argument that “ethnocentric” is a better term has merit. I’m not entirely convinced; I’d have to reread it to see how much of it is cultural and religious and how much can be considered race-based.

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