You've found Father McKenzie. But are you really looking for Eleanor Rigby?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Chapter Eight: Chiefly Concerning Rilstone, Rilian and Jahiliyah

Andrew Rilstone is mildly optimistic about the forthcoming Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe movie, but Mark Shea is less sanguine:

Shea here with today’s “Uh oh”. The director of the forthcoming The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe holds forth: "So I’ve really tried to make the story about a family which is disenfranchised and disempowered in World War II, that on entering Narnia, through their unity as a family become empowered at the end of the story. It’s really bringing the humanity of the characters into what is effectively a symbolic story."

Yeah. That’s Lewis alright: asserting the power of human potential to save ourselves though the mutual affirmation of our Us-ness. This remind me of Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, and Sean Astin explaining how the Lord of the Rings is really an anti-war film. Uh huh. My hope remains in the fact that artists often don’t really understand their own work and that the director, after saying all this dumb crap about Narnia, will still manage to make a good film that he himself does not understand. It happens. Peter Jackson, after all, declared he had no interest whatever in the Catholic theology that informed Lord of the Rings. But he still managed to make a deeply Catholic film. The Spirit blows where it will.

Apart from one minor quibble (any story whose central message is "Yes, it may be a beautiful thing made of fine gold; and maybe the idea of unifying the whole world under one leader is well-intentioned; but the fact remains that it was made by the bad guys and remains evil, so you must cast it into the fire" is not "deeply" Catholic, whatever Professor Tolkien's subjective intentions), I agree with Mark.

Shrekboy's interpretation of the message of The Cat, the Conjuress and the Cupboard is deeply fatuous. So fatuous, in fact, that -- ultimate insult here -- it reminds me of Homer Simpson. (Homer: "I’m going to take revenge on that bear!" Lisa: “Dad! You can’t take revenge on an animal. That’s the message of Moby-Dick!” Homer, patronisingly: “No, Lisa. The message of Moby-Dick is: ‘Be Yourself’.”)

I wonder whether Adamson & co plan to film all seven Narnia stories? Of course, true Ludovician fans will remember that LW&W has been filmed before, most memorably by the BBC in 1988. (I also once caught a bad American cartoon version of it on TV one lo-o-o-ong 24 December, years ago). In fact, the BBC went further and turned three other Narnia books into telemovies: Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair.

Now this raises a puzzle and, as Professor Digory Kirk would say: Dear me, why don’t we use logic to figure out the answer. Why did the Beeb film only four of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia books? Why not go for the full seven? It’s not as if they could have reasonably feared that kids wouldn’t want to watch the other three: anyone who likes one Narnia book will usually like all of them, not necessarily with equal intensity, but certainly no one can love one book and detest another: all are of roughly equal quality, unlike (say) the Dune and Star Wars sagas.

What’s that you say? The BBC’s special effects budget ran out after filming four books and they couldn’t have kept up paying for the high quality of special effects shown on the first four telemovies? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha… Excuse me while I compose myself.

No, I subscribe to a different theory. What’s the common thread that links two of the three Narnia books – The Magician’s Nephew, The Horse and His Boy, and The Last Battle – that the Beeb didn’t put on screen? Hmmm… Let's see...

(1) Because none of those three books feature Prince/King Caspian? It’s true the Beeb did film all three of the books that show Narnia under Middle Telmarine Dynasty rule, with Caspian as a boy, a young man, and finally an old man. It’s true he’s not in LW&W, but it’s pretty much non-negotiable that if you’re going to film any Narnia book, you must start with LW&W or at least get around to it later. But I can’t see any reason why the Beeb’s governors would say “We’re only going to film Lion plus the Narnia stories that include Caspian.” He’s hardly the most compelling character in the saga, and in Silver Chair he appears only in passing, and largely as an aged, tragic figure.

(2) Because Magician’s Nephew and Last Battle depict the Creation of Narnia and its Armageddon, respectively, they would cost a fortune in special effects to produce…? Well, maybe. But this is the BBC -- see above. If Tri-Star Columbia Pictures can manage a decent-looking Pegasus for their trailers, surely the BBC could handle Fledge. Nor would the apocalyptic ending of Narnia be much harder. Lewis practically hands them this one: the dinosaurs and dragons eat up the trees "as if they were sticks of rhubarb". Do nip down to t' corner shop and get us five sticks of rhubarb and three rubber dinosaurs, eh loov?

(3) Because Magician’s Nephew and Last Battle depict the Creation of Narnia and its Armageddon, respectively, they’re the most explicitly “religious” of the books...? Hmmm. But what about Horse then? Nonetheless, I think we’re getting warmer…

(3) Because The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle depict Calormenes. And usually not very favourably. Bingo, I'd say.

Now, of course we're shown good Calormenes too. Aravis becomes a naturalised Narnian by marriage, and Emeth finds he’s been a Rähner-style “anonymous Aslanite” during all his years of serving Tash. Even Calormene villains have some admirable qualities, in their own villainous way; Lewis emphasises that Rishda Tarkaan is brave in battle, and that Prince Rabadash despises the fawning flattery of his father’s vizier. Compared to how Lewis depicts his fellow Britons (see, for example, Uncle Andrew, or for that matter most of Lewis' villains in That Hideous Strength), the Calormenes come off fairly well.

Nonetheless, the Calormenes are most undoubtedly Middle Easterners. They dress like Arabs, Persians or Turks; they carry curved scimitars and round shields; their currency is called the “crescent.” A few of Lewis’ descriptions of them, mainly centering on their food tastes (“in Calormen, you nearly always get oil instead of butter..." and "smelling of garlic and onions, their white eyes flashing dreadfully in their brown faces...") do go over the top, and modern reprints of Horse and Last Battle could perhaps (if Douglas Gresham and Walter Hooper agreed) omit these few brief passages with no loss to any reader. However, one of the more criticised descriptions of the Calormenes – as “Darkies” – should remain, since Lewis puts it in the mouths of the uncouth and chauvinistic Dwarfs. That Griffle, Duffle and co are rude to everyone (even Jill, Lucy, and Aslan) makes it consistent for them to use a moderately offensive epithet for dark-skinned people. (I say “moderately” only because, if someone wanted to seriously insult a dark-skinned person, a lot of other words would be more insulting than “Darkies”).

However, what must be noted is that although the Calormenes are Middle Easterners, they are not Muslims. In particular, their religion -- the cult of Tash-worship -- is almost diametrically anti-Muslim, even more (if that were possible) than it is anti-Christian. We learn that Calormene temples have statues of Tash and altars on which they sacrifice men to him. All of these central elements of Tash-worship are not just absent from Islam but particularly abhorred by it. Indeed, Muslims often criticise the Christian doctrine of the Atonement as being too close to “human sacrifice” for Islam’s liking.

Lewis would have known about this, and presumably did intend this. If he had really wanted to make the Calormene religion stand in the same relation to Narnian Aslan-devotion as Islam stands to Christianity in our world, he would, for example, have had the Calormenes worship a god who was stern but unbendingly just: one who would never have offered his innocent self as substitute victim for a guilty traitor like Edmund. The Calormenes would consider it insufferable blasphemy for the Narnians to insist that the Emperor-Over-Sea himself had walked among them in the physical form of a lion.

Lewis only mentioned Islam a few times in his theological writings, not exactly positively but with a certain degree of respect for what it did and did not profess to be:

If you had gone to Socrates and asked, “Are you Zeus?” he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked, “Are you Allah?” he would first have rent his clothes and then cut your head off. -- “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?” Rep in Walter Hooper (ed) God in the Dock: Essays on Theology (London, Collins).

This “natural religion”, [some] maintained, had been vitiated by superstition and dogma] and the late HG Wells. But where are the saints, the consolations, the ecstasies? The greatest of such attempts was that simplification of Jewish and Christian traditions which we call Islam. But it retained many elements which [his debating opponent] Professor [HH] Price would regard as mythical and barbaric, and its culture is by no means one of the richest or most progressive." -- "Religion Without Dogma?" (1946), rep in Walter Hooper (ed) Compelling Reason: Essays on Ethics and Theology (London, HarperCollins, 1996), p 100.

And even by implication:

"If all this West part of the world is apostate, might it not be lawful, in our great need, to look farther... beyond Christendom? Should we not find some even among the heathen who are not wholly corrupt? There were tales in my day of some such: men who knew not the articles of our most holy Faith, but who worshipped God as they could and acknowledged the Law of Nature. Sir, I believe it would be lawful to seek [their] help..." -- Merlin, in That Hideous Strength (London, Bodley Head, 1946), p 293.

Furthermore, Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments by Lewis' wife Joy Davidman – a book that seems clearly influenced by Lewis, particularly in its style – gives Islam a surprsingly positive mention in its chapter on monotheism:

“HEAR, O ISRAEL; The Lord our God is one Lord!” What a surprise! What an incredible thing to say! Everyone knew that the universe was a wild and chaotic thing, a jungle of warring powers... There was a god of the spring planting and another god of the harvest... Now along comes a fool, from an insignificant tribe of desert wanderers, and shouts that all these processes are one process from a single source, that the obvious many are the unthinkable One! Whoever he was, he shouted it so loud that it has echoed down all the time. From the minarets where the muezzin cries that God is God; from the synagogues where the cantor calls in sonorous and unchanged Hebrew; from the churches of Christendom, the voice is the same, and the word the same. The universe is one process, created by one Maker. -- Chapter One, "God Comes First", p 21.

There are two opposing ways Christians can interpret the fact that Calormene religion is far more evil, by Aslanite standards, compared to Aslan-ism than Islam is, by Christian standards, compared to Christianity.

The first way is to hold that Tash-ism is what Islam is really like. Certainly there are many Christians who would not hesitate to assert bluntly that Allah, the God of the Muslims, is no true [G]od, but rather a demon or at best an illusion. Those who take this negative interpretation would read Lewis as saying that, whatever Muslims may claim (or even think), Islam is really a religion of idol-worship and human blood-sacrifice. (Other Christians, by contrast, would concede that Muslims worship the same God as Christians do, but have missed the subtleties of His true character: like someone who, from distance or poor eyesight, thinks that a cluster of three lights is really one single light, or that a triangular shape is really a circle.)

This first interpretation would be appealing to many Christians, especially evangelicals. However, I can guarantee that no movie of The Horse and His Boy or The Last Battle that depicts Calormene Tash-worship as thinly disguised Islam is going to get produced, released or screened in the foreseeable future. The era of pre-September 11 films (True Lies, The Siege) with Middle Eastern and/or Muslim villains (who generally are allowed a few minutes of screen-time to rail at the hypocrisy of the West -- "you call us terrorists, yet you bomb women and children!" etc -- before the hero dispatches them) is now officially over.

A second, more positive interpretation would acknowledge that the Calormenes are Middle Easterners, but make it quite clear that they are not Muslims. There is even a way the producers could work this, quite handily, into the script, early on. (I offer this suggestion free of charge and with all copyright claims forever waived and renounced. You can include my name in the credits…)

The idea is that a sympathetic Calormene character – possibly Aravis in Horse, since that book comes earlier in the Chronicles both in Narnian time and in ours than does Last Battle – explains how the Calormenes came from our world to the Narnian universe. There is a precedent for this in the last chapter of Prince Caspian, where Aslan explains how the Telmarines originated. So: Aravis, or else Emeth, gives the Narnians some back-story along the following lines:

“We of Calormen have always worshipped Tash, not only because we fear him but also because his wings shelter us and his claws drive away our enemies. We were once his followers in another world, in a city where his temple held a golden statue of him twenty feet tall. But one day a man and his followers conquered our city, and smashed all our statues, and forbade us to bow any more before Tash, or before any other god but one we could not see. So in obedience to our lord and protector, we fled into the desert beyond our city. Tash in his mercy led us to a cave and to a gap between rocks that was a doorway between that world and this. After we passed through that gap, it closed. In this world we have built many cities, conquered many provinces, and prospered as a great empire, all under the protection of Tash.”

So: a spiel something like this would establish that the Calormenes are not Muslims, nor descendants of Muslims, but descendants of the Meccan polytheists and idolaters who were driven out by the conquering armies of Muhammad. Tash is not a thinly-disguised Allah, but one of the demonic small-G gods whose temples and statues the Muslims destroyed. No Muslim could reasonably object to such a harsh portrayal of their own pre-Islamic history, the pagan era that Muslims themselves dismiss as Jahiliyah, ie, “ignorance” or “barbarism.” (That won't guarantee, of course, that no Muslims will in fact object, but this way the onus will be on the objectors to prove "anti-Muslim prejudice", despite the producers clearly offering an olive branch by making the Narnians’ enemy the same as their Prophet’s enemy.)

Granted, this would involve a slight deviation, not from any of the "scriptures" once and for all by Lewis delivered, but from his "apocrypha": in an unpublished timeline that Lewis prepared for his own use as author, he apparently wrote that "Calormen [was] created in Narnian year 204, when outlaws from Archenland flee south across the desert and set up the kingdom". [UPDATE: sorry, that URL is now as dead as Charn's pool in the Wood Between the Worlds. I saved that article and its URL to disc back in 1999. UPDATE TO UPDATE: Wikipedia reprints Lewis' Narnian timeline here. Thanks to Thorley Winston.] But with all respect to the master, my interpretation is more plausible. If Archenlanders -- who are presented as first cousins of Narnians, and co-descendants of King Frank and Queen Helen, an English cabbie and his English wife -- did ever fall into paganism, they would have evolved a religion far more akin to Norse Odinism than to Islam.

PS 1: Curiously, Aslan [H]imself uses the temple and altar of Tash as the objective instrument for Prince Rabadash's release from his metamorphosis into a donkey...

PS 2: And yes, I acknowledge that my "No one wants to film Narnian stories that depict the evil Calormenes as Muslims" theory doesn't explain why the Beeb omitted The Magician's Nephew. Fear of cruelty to guinea-pigs, perhaps?

PS 3: [UPDATE: At GetReligion, Doug LeBlanc quotes Ross Douthat's piece "The Apocalypse, Rated PG" in the May '05 Atlantic Monthly (subscription required):

... A successful Lion would also mean that [the films' bankroller, reclusive Christian billionaire Philip] Anschutz could start gearing up for the next six Narnia movies — probably culminating around 2015 or so with The Last Battle, a Narnian Armageddon that features Muslim-like villains; subtle riffs on faith, atheism, and damnation; and a decidedly biblical Last Judgment. It’s the best children’s story about the Apocalypse ever written, and it might just be the movie that Philip Anschutz was born to make...]

PS 4: Thanks to Kathryn B for a perceptive comment. There is one other way, of course, by which the filmmakers could depict Calormenes without provoking a response somewhere between The Siege and The Satanic Verses, and that's the "Everett McGill/ Steven Berkoff" gambit -- to have the Tisroc, Rabadash, Arsheesh, Ahoshta, Rishda Tarkaan, Emeth, et al, played by WASP actors who don't look OMEA in the slightest. The Steven Berkoff Fremen are not only all Caucasians (okay, Chani is played by a Hungarian actress, but that’s about as exotic as they get), but their Muad’Dib cult has a temple... with priests... and giant, faux-Coruscant (or faux-Helsinki) human statues adorning it. Ie, about as non-Islamic as you could get.

Or else, as a via media, actors who are not WASPs but are also not of Middle Eastern (Arabic/ Persian/ Turkish/ Kurdish) background either... Parminder Nagra or Aishwarya Rai as Aravis and Alexander Siddigh as Emeth? Any more gratuitous (or more-gratuitous) casting suggestions?

PS 5: Or they could cast Israeli actors to play the Calormenes: they can pass for Arabs or Persians at a pinch...

PS 6: Kathryn also suggests that "the fundamentalists might just panic a little too much about someone treading on their precious Creationism" in a filmed Magician's Nephew. One thing that's always puzzled me is the seven-day creationist wing of fundamentalist Christianity's dislike for an author who uses the phrase "son of Adam" and/or "daughter of Eve" at least four times per chapter...

PS 7: Guess we can rule out casting Jessica Alba as Aravis then..

"For one thing, they [a visiting Narnian delegation] were as fair-skinned as [Shasta] himself, and most of them had fair hair... And instead of being grave and mysterious like most Calormenes, they walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free." - The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 4.

"Alba prefers to talk about her career-boosting decision to go blonde... Alba clearly feels there has been too much emphasis on her either being Latin or playing dark and mysterious." - interview with Garth Pearce, Weekend Australian (9-10 July 2005), magazine p 33.

(Pearce really means "Latina". If she really were "Latin", she'd have the same initials as another J. Alba.)

PS 8: "However successful the film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe may be, it is hard to see how The Horse and His Boy could be made into a sequel today without serious political repercussions." - Alison Lurie, "His dark materials," The Grauniad (3 December 2005).

PS 9: This issue's come up again at chez Rilstone, with much deep discussion:

[a] "... And I agree that Hollywood adaptation of Last Battle or Magician's Nephew is inconceivable. Aunty Beeb made her excuses and left after the Silver Chair. My money would be on Uncle Walt filming the basic trilogy and leaving it at that."

[b] "... Unless the very rich Christian businessman who's apparently involved in this project pushes the point. But I think (from quite distant memories) that a viable and somewhat agnostic movie could be made out of Magician's Nephew. Sure, the religious symbolism is increasingly explicit, but you've also got some nifty landscapes and generally plenty of scope for the FX department to blow the budget, coupled with the kernel of a straight adventure story about unhappy children, wicked uncles, cross-dimensional adventuring, and magical super-weapons. I think that a competent scriptwriter could handle this.

I also think that Horse and His Boy could be less of a problem than some people expect. A lot of the objectionable material seems to come in authorial asides or incidental descriptions which can simply be quietly lost, leaving another adventure story with at least one heroic Calormene and lots of Arabian Nights scenery. (Lewisites who object to the loss of incidental racist or sexist material can be very, very safely ignored)..."

Well, Disney did make Aladdin, although that was a whole 13-14 years ago.

PS 10: Cathy Seipp, "Narnia and its enemies" (posted 9 December 2005):

Speaking of those Calormenes, [Charles] McGrath’s complaint in the New York Times that they "are oily cartoon Muslims" is typical, if not quite correct; actually, they are pre-Islamic Islamofascists who keep slaves, oppress women, and worship a Baal-like god named Tash. That they have dark complexions, which Lewis’s critics harp on more than Lewis did, really isn’t the problem. As it happens, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe's evil White Witch, interpreted by Tilda Swinton as an Aryan goddess in the movie, is "not merely pale," as the book describes her, "but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar...proud and cold and stern."

The Calormenes speak in a flowery, Arabian Nights-style manner worthy of Osama bin Laden, but Lewis gives them their due for that. In Calormen, he explains in The Horse and His Boy, story-telling "is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays."...

PS 11: Judith Shulevitz, "Don’t Mess With Aslan", New York Times (26 August 2001):

"... Muslims also haunt Narnia – or rather, cartoon infidels, a turbaned, dark-skinned people called Calormenes, who live to the south of Narnia. The Calormenes are a greedy, cruel, proud, enslaved and enslaving race. Their god is a murderous demon named Tash. They speak an argot filled with cloying, ingratiating phrases and live in cities that reek of dung [?] and sweat. The Narnians, by contrast, are fair, blond, noble and free: 'They walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed... You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly and didn’t give a fig for anyone who wasn’t.' The Calormene boy who sees this and admires them turns out to be a Narnian foundling. As a Calormene warrior points out to the boy’s adoptive father, '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.'..."
PS 12: Gee, I wonder why only those five.
... Plans for the next movies in the Chronicles of Narnia franchise have been outlined by Walden Media president Cary Granat.... Though Walden could produce a seven-movie series, Granat has only committed publicly to four or five pictures, and told Variety that The Silver Chair is the most likely fourth film. While he made the rather-obvious comment that "there are a lot of stories to be taken from the books", it seems most likely that film five will be The Magician's Nephew, meaning that The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle might never make the silver screen... "Narnia plans set in stone" (Monday, 8 October 2007)

PS 13: After seeing how much in the Prince Caspian film was added to the original book, I have to say that my suggested fanwank script-doctoring above would be relatively small beer (NPI) in comparison. Turning the Calormenes into Meccan polytheistic idolators is less of a stretch than turning the Telmarines (who in the book have red hair, say "Bloomin' heck" and don't have Antonio Banderas and Xanana Gusmao sitting on the royal council of Lords) into Hispaniards. Yes, it was an improvement and it did make sense of why descendants of marooned pirates would wear big gold earrings. Just saying: it did depart from the original text.


Kathryn B said...

This is a really interesting argument. I do have a few guesses on why they wouldn't have made a film of TMN -- I think the fundamentalists might just panic a little too much about someone treading on their precious Creationism, though maybe that's my North American bias -- but I think you are right on the money with THAHBoy and its Middle Eastern stereotypes. I particularly liked your idea for a film of changing the heritage of Calormenes -- although it still doesn't solve the problem of bad brown people vs. good white people, which is pretty hard to get away from in this storyline. I do disagree with you, though, that you could remove certain passages and make the novel inoffensive or non-racist. The entire thing is stuffed with negative stereotypes, little asides to the audience about the objective superiority of everything British, from breakfast food to bedding, and in the end Aslan comes out and makes a speech asking, essentially, why can't you people just accept the Narnians' authority over you? They're objectively better than you! It's troubling to say the least, especially since I love so much about the narrative, but I'm just not sure it's salvageable without inculcating some very dangerous stereotypes.

Anyway, thanks for your interesting and insightful post. Well written and good food for thought.


Stephen said...


This is a re-post,no?

Are you trying to trick the googlebot?


Tom R said...

That was not my main motive. This is a revised post, and I've recently posted (germane) comments at a few oth3er sites linking to it (now that the Narnia films are nearing release date, it's more topical), and wanted to make sure people could find it easily.. I'm not that narcissistic.

Anonymous said...

I alwasy envisioned Calormenes as easily being Roman as Turkish. Not that i understand being offended at lewis' jokes about butter vs. oil on one's toast.

Also, the 'narnian's authority over you' is of a prison of war, in archenland (basically narnia) after he attacked.

The basic EVIL of tHahB is that the countries aren't thouroughly cosmopolitan/multicultural. Cultures existed, and ethinicities basically (with exceptions) followed what otehrs in their culture did. And some cultures were better. and the better cultures (peaceful, non-slaving, non-humansacrificing) have features that are like England. some are harmless and unimportant (the target of jokes like the food, bedding, and clothing selections) others things people might care about, like skin color. but the two are basically seperate.