Red Dwarf, Black Dwarf: The Racial Overtones of Narnia

A lot has been written about the racial content embedded into The Chronicles of Narnia, but I recently re-read them, so it’s been on my mind. These are books which I read over and over again as a child, ignorant of the kind of dangerous and questionable messages embedded in their content (no, I’m not talking about Christianity). There’s the Problem of Susan, of course, and the generally antifeminist nature of the books, in which the only women who are lauded are those who remain simplistic and do not attempt to interfere with the adult male world.

And there’s the racial content. One could write this off as a legacy of the era, except that people are still reading these books, and still making film and stage adaptations of them, which means that these racial overtones are being preserved. And that raises some kind of uncomfortable questions. Looking at the books objectively now, I think that they are books which need to be navigated with care; if the reader is not questioning and willing to engage with the content, it’s possible to absorb some icky stuff.

The Pevensie children are, of course, all white, and we are reminded regularly that Narnians in general are white. The implication goes that they are also of powerful, sensible, morally upright stock. Simply being Narnian makes you special, just like simply being white is deemed a positive personality trait in some corners of the world. Indeed, in The Last Battle, when characters go into blackface to disguise themselves as Calormenes, much is made of the scene in which they wash the makeup off, returning to their “pure” Narnian state of whiteness.

The Calormenes are, naturally, the “dark” evil polytheists to the South. (They are at one point actually referred to as “darkies.”) Their society is clearly reminiscent of Middle Eastern cultures (the crescent as a symbol, for example), although the Calormenes aren’t Muslims (or Lewis had a very imperfect understanding of Islam). They are viewed as uncivilized and rather unpleasant, and we are reminded that they are inferior to Narnia in every way pretty much whenever they come up.

There are some lovely Christian/Muslim overtones in here even though the Calormenes are not explicitly Muslim; they are the enemies of Aslan (God) who want to take over Narnia (Christendom) and force people to worship their “false idols.” Fortunately Narnia (right) prevails over Calormen (wrong) for much of the series. Eventually, the Calormenes succeed in the final book, but of course the Narnians get the last laugh because the world is destroyed and they are called to the Last Judgment, in which all the righteous get to go play forever and ever in a world which never ends.

Yes, Aravis, the love interest in The Horse and His Boy, is Calormene. But is she really an example of racial tolerance? No, she’s not, because her characterization revolves around the fact that she wants to flee Calormen, that she rejects Calormene culture, that she wants to be a “free Narnian” instead of a Calormene noblewoman. Because, of course, all women in those scary dark Southern cultures are slaves who are stripped of free will, and they all secretly long to be rescued by handsome white men from the North.

How progressive of Lewis to create an interracial relationship, the argument goes, therefore the characterization of the Calormenes isn’t racist! Only it’s a totally regressive relationship in many ways, which plays on very tired racial tropes; literally, the Great White Knight swoops in to rescue the oppressed brown woman.

Even within Narnian society, this supposedly free and equitable society, there are racial divides. Take the Dwarfs. Narnian Dwarfs come in two groups, the Red Dwarfs and the Black Dwarfs. The Red Dwarfs are the nice, helpful ones who ally with the Narnians and work with them. They are part of Narnian society even though they are kind of lesser because, well, they are Dwarfs, not people, so clearly they can’t be equal.

The Black Dwarfs, on the other hand, are manipulating and malicious and selfish. They do whatever they need to do to get ahead. They will turn on both sides in a battle, they will sell out the Narnians, given the chance, even though the Narnians are so magnanimous and kind to allow them to join their society.

Is it a coincidence that they are Black, as opposed to, well, any other colour?

I think not.

Is it a coincidence that the good, righteous humans are, for the most part, white, and that they are assisted by capable, friendly, benign animals and mythical creatures like satyrs and fauns? Again, I think not. Narnia has racial stratification built into its very core. Reading these books as a white child, I didn’t really question the centering of white characters and the assumptions that, of course, Narnian society would be structured around keeping the white people happy and around serving them.

Reading it as a white adult, I’m actually rather appalled. I wonder about what it feels like to read this books as a young person of colour, about the kind of messages you absorb when you cannot identify with the main characters because they are not like you. How alienating it is to be told that even when you worship the same god as the white people, you still need to remember that you are subordinate to them.

And how insidious to see a “model egalitarian society” in which people are so clearly given social power by nature of their race. Here is a world in which supposedly everyone cooperates and works together, but no one ever questions that the whites should be in charge (indeed, a “Son of Adam” or “Daughter of Eve” must sit on the Narnian throne), and no one questions that the needs and desires of the whites should be set above those of everyone else.

Oh, but they’re harmless children’s books, people say. Except that they aren’t, because everyone internalizes the messages they read in books, to some extent. And the message I internalized when I read these books was definitely not harmless.

3 Replies to “Red Dwarf, Black Dwarf: The Racial Overtones of Narnia”

  1. Who also later appears as very Black and evil, yeah? (Which is a little racebendy, at that.) One counterexample does not a counterargument make, in my opinion.

  2. Let me start by saying I am certainly not disagreeing with this critique – these books most definitely have some very negative messaging going on, although I would argue the bulk of it is simply drawn whole cloth from the Christian mythos, so any critique of those themes is, vis a vis, a critique of the portrayal of Christiandom in the book.

    But I do think calling Lewis out for his use of the black/white dualism is somewhat unfair in the case of the Dwarves, and I do not particularly agree that it necessarily belies racial undertones. While the black/white dualism was used by whites in their discrimination of people of color, it certainly doesn’t have its roots their. The Egyptians were invoking it as a marker of evil and good millenia ago, the tropes of black and white magic are well established, the association of twilight and night with evil and the sun and daylight with good have been around for even longer. All these fed into plenty of myth structures with dark races underground that had malicious intent. I do not doubt that Lewis was simply drawing on this established tradition – which I suppose you may look to for a heritage of racism, but which I suspect has more to do with the associations of night and darkness – when crafting his red and black dwarves.

    In the case of the Calormenes, I think he was taking an easy way out, which I think one can make a strong case for being racist. His protagonists were British children, and the mythology of Narnia was built about them. Choosing an enemy that was different in an easy and overt physical way like skin tone makes sense, but does definitely send a negative message that I disagree with. Although the modern trend of picking on albinos instead seems hurtful too. That’s why smart fantasy writers just choose non-existent skintones like green and blue for their villains. Although that by no means protects them from a racial analysis.

    Now I have to re-read the Chronicles. See what you’ve done?

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