The land of Calormen, located southeast of Narnia, appears twice in the seven Chronicles of Narnia books, but not once at the cinema. It’s the scene of some of CS Lewis’s most thrilling games. narnia stories – and also some of the more controversial ones.
Throughout the only book where characters have actually set foot in Calormen, The horse and his boy, CS Lewis can’t decide how to handle it. He describes it as “one of the wonders of the world” with “orange and lemon trees, roof gardens, balconies, deep arcades, pillared colonnades, spires, ramparts, minarets, pinnacles. ..” And yet the Calormene people “were not the fair-haired men of Narnia: they were the dark-haired, bearded men of Calormen, that great and cruel land ‘smelling’ of garlic and onions, their white eyes shining terribly in their brown faces”.
Finally – and perhaps most ominously for a series of books that is obviously Christian allegory – “they have a god called Tash. He is said to have four arms and a vulture’s head.
I first read The horse and his boy when I was eight, and it’s quickly becoming my favorite of the Narnia books. I love Calorman. I love that the food there resembles the food my family cooks; that the men of Calormen wear turbans, like the central figures of my religion; that the main character is a dark-skinned girl – and both a warrior and a storyteller; and that her name, Aravis, with its short, simple spelling but decidedly non-Western sound, sounds so much more like mine than Susan or Lucy ever did.
At eight years old, I’m too young to grasp that food is supposed to be disreputable, that turbans belong to salacious and violent men, and that the warrior princess must leave Calormen forever to become worthy – to become whitewashed .
“Oh the sweet air of Narnia!” Lewis has an exclaimed character in The horse and his boy. “An hour of life is better than a thousand years in Calormen.”
Growing up, I found excuses for the smell and questionable morals of Lewis and the Calormenes, and I reread The horse and his boy more times than I can count. I ignore the fact that on the internet you will sometimes find the etymology of Calormen defined as /men of color/. To me sometimes Calormen feels more real than Narnia.
But Disney skips the book when adapting the narnia books, making three films centered solely on Pevensie’s four British children.
(“I say,” Shasta exclaims in Chapter IV. “It’s a wonderful place!”
“I dare say,” Bree said. “But I wish we were safe and on the other side.”)
Instead, Disney does The Prince of Persia (released in 2010, the same year as the third Narnia movie, The Odyssey of the Dawn Treader), which features a mostly all-white cast heavily covered in brown makeup. It features a heavily stylized Jake Gyllenhaal, a presumably more palatable version of my ancestors, with Gemma Arterton as the sexualized ‘brunette’ princess with Persian magic.
A live action Aladdin the gossip begins to circulate and the online discourse begins – a slow, turbulent bubbling of concern. We all remember “It’s barbaric, but hey, this is my home,” and, now an adult working as a film critic, I write at length about this issue. Suddenly, Calormen’s underlying contradiction becomes impossible for me to ignore. What is Calormen but just a more vicious Agrabah?
How to love a book that hates you?
I read page after page of Lewis, trying to get a sense of what he really thought; who he really has been. I read to the end simple christianity and screw letters almost obsessively, as if they could explain Tash as something other than a demon, or the Calormenes as something other than villains – as if Lewis’ universe could ever reconcile Aslan and Tash, his culture and my culture, his vision and mine. Like there’s a page somewhere where he explains why he wrote things that way – where he tells me he really liked Calormen from the start.
I find Philip Pullman’s take on the show, of course, in articles like “The Dark Side of Narnia” (“There’s no doubt in my mind that this is one of the ugliest things and the most poisonous ones I have ever read.” ) but also a surprisingly insightful line in the Calormen wiki – now missing from the page: “…the female protagonist is a noble Calormene who comes to marry a prince of a more European ethnicity ; a progressive and bold statement by Lewis at a time when interracial relationships were neither as common nor as accepted as they have been in recent years.
In his book on The last battle Andrew Howe writes: “Furthermore, nothing significant concerning a strong dislike or even suspicion of Islam appears in either volume of The Collected Letters of CS Lewis, which cover 44 years of his life.
“In our post-9/11 world, [Lewis] would, I am sure, want to reconsider this insensitivity,” writes Paul F. Ford in his CS Lewis’ Guide to the Wizarding World, maybe hope so.
All weak defenses, but I confess that I cling to them.
Unable to find a home in film or existing fiction, the fictionalized Orient finds a home on fanfiction sites like Archive of Our Own, in the anonymity of screen names.
It overflows – both love and frustration.
A user by the name of Transposable_element explores the culture shock of the Aravis in the face of Narnian standards of beauty. “In Calormen there were many terms describing black hair,” they write, and describe a different kind of beauty in words Lewis never thought he would use. “Jet (so shiny), charcoal (so soft), smoky (so brownish). Black with red highlights was called crimson. Black with blue reflections was called indigo and was much admired.
A writer called Flourish goes beyond the oil on bread I once clung to, describing “a real Calormene supper – chicken cooked with onions, sumac, allspice, saffron and pine nuts of pine, on soft flatbread and kanafeh for afterwards”.
Elsewhere, sovay writes the name of the Calormene god, Tash, with diacritics— Taš. She says she likes it better. In her writing, she takes the vulture-headed god and embraces him, four arms and all.
She writes of “fair-skinned traders or adventurers in the markets…wearing the clothes of their country, always looking around them as if the stalls of cotton and dyed vegetables and the copper vessels were a fabulous panoply unrolled for their fun, like a play.
She should have mercy on them, born in an unknown land of Taš. Without her four arms to protect themselves from danger in all directions, she could imagine a people instead turning to the very powers of chaos that beset them, worshiping their savagery and unpredictability.
I write 100,000 words and make Aravis an empress who never had to leave her land to be deemed worthy. Who hasn’t felt that desperate need to classify Tash or Aslan as fake and then worship the other.
Together we reframe Calormen. We reinvent it.
In the story “Not a tamed lion”, sovay recounts an encounter between a Calormene woman and a Narnian:
“Once…she had seen a dark-haired man in a tunic and barbarian stockings bend the hand of a begging child over the reflection of a silver crescent with a serious wink, like a street magician pulling a flower from behind his ear, and felt strangely reassured, as if a ghoul had smiled and showed ordinary human teeth.
Then she had watched him get up and, hearing the call to prayer from the temple at noon gong, make a grimace as ironic as if he had drunk vinegar, put an arm around the shoulders of his compatriot burned by the sun, and both hurry up laughing.
CS Lewis, now dead, cannot defend himself. I can’t console myself and say he didn’t mean it. Can’t write an eighth book where he claims Calormenes smells like rose water.
I think of the Narnian man that sovay describes – how Susan and Edmund Pevensie might have experienced Calormen, and therefore how Lewis himself might have experienced it. I wonder how he could see so little in a country where I have seen so much.
These days, I like to think of Lewis as a benevolent old traveler who took a few well-meaning notes but, like most Western tourists, missed too much of the beauty of the East.
Don’t worry, Mr. Lewis. We fill in the blanks for you.
Nasim Mansuri is a writer, editor, and engineer living in the Boston area. Born into a Middle Eastern and Latin American family, she grew up in Paraguay and lived in many different countries in her early twenties. In his spare time, Nasim writes fanfiction and loves a chubby calico cat. You can find her on Twitter and pretty much every other platform like @nasimwrites.