Pookie is an avid reader. And by that I mean she enjoys both listening to as well as reading stories. While this made the lockdown easier for me than to the mother of an outdoorsy child, it also means I have had to read to her from ebooks a lot. Closed libraries, closed bookshops – till recently – closed used booksellers on our favourite Flora Fountain haunt – you get the drift.
And since parenthood is just another fine form of regression, I introduced her to C. S. Lewis. I’d not read the Narnia series while growing up, so this was a great chance for me to catch up. We’d already watched the movies and they were quite good, we felt. It was time to dive into the books.
But reading them proved to be problematic. As the series progressed, I began to spot the usual suspects that crop up in books written in a different era. A long, hard look at the villains exposes the innate prejudices in the books.
Two of the most evil villains in the books are women: Jadis the White Witch and the Green Lady. Both are master manipulators, a quality often attributed to women – because Machiavelli and Chanakya, were both secretly women, see? Female protagonists in the books are usually vanilla, whether it’s Lucy and Susan, or in the later books Jill and Polly. Other female characters range from the silly (Lasaraleen) to the meek (Hwin) to the plain one-dimensional (Ramandu’s daughter – she is literally called that, she doesn’t even get her own name!) The only female character with any spirit to speak of is Aravis – but she’s okay because she doesn’t have typically feminine interests. All the female leads often hear the equivalent of ‘Don’t be such a girl’, because obviously, that’s a terrible thing to be and if biology has cursed you with it, the least you could do is at least try not to be one.
A shining example of this is when in the last book the reader is told that Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia. Why? Because she seems to be more interested in fashion and possibly the opposite sex, than a magical world she is barred from because she hit puberty. And at the end of the book – spoiler alert – when you discover that everyone has died and gone to Heaven aka New Narnia, Susan isn’t among them. The message is clear, ladies. Stop worrying about your appearance – which patriarchy has conditioned you to deem important – because that’s Vanity and you’ll go to Hell. Along with Witches who want power, because what’s more demonic than ambition in a woman?
But enough about the girls. Let’s look at the other villains, shall we? Have quite a lot in common, don’t they? Whether it’s Miraz and the Telmarines or the Tisroc and the Calormenes, these are both races that are decidedly not white. The Telmarines are described as ‘swarthy’ and not to be trusted. The Calormenes are ‘dark-skinned’ and seem to have been modelled on Islamic or Arabic culture. Their names, their style of dress, the flowery courtesy of their language in speech and poetry, it all points Eastwards to be frank. Which is fine, but then Lewis makes them ALL villains. No, literally, almost every single Calormene is either stupid, venal, cowardly, unreasonable, barbaric or an asshole. Again and again, Lewis compares them unfavourably to the ‘noble, fair-skinned Narnians’ even describing the Narnian group as having ‘nicer faces than most Calormenes’. So they’re ugly as well? Oh good.
The only exceptions to this gross racism are Aravis – who runs away from Calormene and its terrible ways and eventually marries a good, white Narnian king; and Emeth, a soldier who discovers after his death that the God he had been worshipping all his life, was Aslan aka Jesus Christ, all along.
Which brings us to religion. The Chronicles of Narnia is quite clearly an allegory. Aslan is Christ, the Emperor Beyond the Sea is the Christian God, Aslan’s sacrifice and return are the crucifixion and rising of Christ – it’s all very pat. But then, Lewis goes a step further. He gives the Calormenes a God of their own called Tash. Tash is a monstrous creature with four arms and the head of a vulture and an air of malice all around. The Calormenes offer him human sacrifice and he is not shy of devouring his followers. By the end of The Last Battle, Aslan has established that he himself is the only true, benign deity. Tash is his opposite. Which would make him the Devil. Which is what Lewis reduces two entire pantheons to, two religions where gods have multiple hands and the heads of other animals – the Egyptians and the Hindus.
And the terrible thing here is that a 6-year-old doesn’t read all that into the books. It’s you, the parent, who notices and is horrified by it. So what does one do? Ignore it and hope she forgets about it? Yeah, that approach hasn’t really worked for women these past centuries. So I stop and ask her what she thinks of Eustace saying sexist things to Jill. I ask her if it’s possible that ALL people of a particular country are bad. I ask her if she knows any gods, who like Tash have many arms or animalistic heads. I let her think about it. And then I tell her exactly what I think about it.
Perhaps you’ll think it’s too much for a child to process. Perhaps you feel I’d be better off just treating them as stories. It’s just fantasy, after all. The thing is, stories aren’t just stories. Stories, especially fantasy, are reactions to our society, our world and everything in it. And sooner or later, children have to process all that.
I’m just giving my kid a head-start.