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Calormenes smell of onions and garlic?

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Jasmine
(@jasminetarkheena)
NarniaWeb Nut

This may sound kind of random, but the book describes Calormenes as smelling of onion and garlic.

Then the dark men came round them in a thick crowd, smelling of garlic and onions, their white eyes flashing dreadfully in their brown faces.

How is that? I know there's been constoversial debate about how the way Calormenes are portrayed as racist (which I'm getting so tired of). But how could they smell of onion and garlic?

"And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me beloved."
(Emeth, The Last Battle)

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Topic starter Posted : October 22, 2021 5:26 pm
icarus
(@icarus)
NarniaWeb Junkie

I know I might be in the minority on this website, but I do think it is important to acknowledge that (admittedly with the benefit of historical hindsight) there are some hugely problematic aspects of the ways in which the Calormen are described in the Narnia stories.

Describing them as smelling of Onion and Garlic is essentially leaning in to the racist stereotype that "All Indian People Smell of Curry".

I've put that in quotes there because it's a horrible thing to say and I don't want anyone attributing those words to my voice, but I think it's important if we are going to discuss that aspect of the Calormen's description, to acknowledge that it is rooted in a stereotype which could at best, by modern standards, be described as "culturally insensitive".

Essentially this passage is utilising popular negative stereotypes of Middle Eastern and Indian people to quickly conjure up the notion in the readers mind of the Calormen being undersirable others from elsewhere.

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Posted : October 23, 2021 3:02 am
Jasmine
(@jasminetarkheena)
NarniaWeb Nut

I get that... and I love Indian food (wonder if Calormenes ate the same kind of food).

Yes, it's best to tried to be sensitive to the aspect of the Calormene culture. While the majority are the bad guys (The Tisroc, Prince Rabadash, Anradin Tarkaan, Azrooh Tarkaan, Chlamash Tarkaan, Corradin of Castle Tourmunt, Ilgamuth of the Twisted Lip, and Rishda Tarkaan), non seem to acknowledge the good Calormenes (Aravis and Emeth). Isn't about time we look through the positive aspect of the Calormenes?

"And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me beloved."
(Emeth, The Last Battle)

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Topic starter Posted : October 23, 2021 7:54 am
Courtenay
(@courtenay)
NarniaWeb Guru Friend of NarniaWeb

They could very easily smell of onions and garlic if that's what they eat a lot of and the Narnians don't (you don't notice those smells nearly as much if you've been eating the same things yourself). And yes, unfortunately, it is at the very least a culturally insensitive stereotype that was pretty much par for the course with British writers writing about "Oriental"-style characters in the 1950s (and earlier, and a fair bit later), but which is jarring to most modern readers, myself included as an adult (I don't remember that particular line standing out to me as a 7-year-old in the late 1980s).

I wouldn't call the portrayal of the Calormenes absolutely, irretrievably racist and offensive any way you slice it. There's been plenty written on how there's far more nuance to it than that. But it IS problematic in being a case of the usually-villainous people in this fantasy world being literally colour-coded (I find "their white eyes flashing dreadfully in their brown faces" more wince-worthy than the onions and garlic reference!!) and following a lot of the Orientalist stereotypes that, again, were very common in literature of Lewis's time and culture. He could have done a lot better, but he also could have done a lot worse.

Rather than ban books like these or edit the questionable parts out of them (interesting that that's never been done to Lewis when some other writers, particularly Enid Blyton, get bowdlerised all the time by modern editors), my own stance is that it's better for today's readers to be able to read them as they are, with the awareness that these works are "of their time" — that this is what writers of the majority (white) culture could routinely get away with, with little or no public objection and probably without even stopping to think that readers of other cultures and skin colours might be very uncomfortable with this. The world has changed hugely since the 1950s and my thought is that it's actually better for young readers to be made aware of those changes, rather than assume that things have always been the way they are now.

I've never been a target of racism myself (being white in a white-majority country), but when it comes to sexism, I grew up being very explicitly taught by my parents that girls can do anything boys can do and I should never accept anyone or anything telling me that girls (or boys!) must or mustn't behave in certain ways. And then I would read children's stories from earlier eras that did contain obvious gender stereotypes — girls doing the cooking and cleaning while the boys had the adventures — and of course I found that upsetting, but Mum and Dad would explain to me that that was actually how most people thought back then. And so I learned from an early age that gender equality hadn't always been an accepted idea and I shouldn't take it for granted!! I might not have learned that nearly as quickly if I hadn't been able to read older books, uncensored, and see for myself how society's standards had changed and think about what those changes meant.

All right, I'll get off the soapbox now Grin  

"Now you are a lioness," said Aslan. "And now all Narnia will be renewed."
(Prince Caspian)

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Posted : October 23, 2021 7:55 am
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Jasmine
(@jasminetarkheena)
NarniaWeb Nut

@courtenay There's that, too. Maybe Narnians did eat onions and garlic (probably not as much though).

As for the racist aspect, I actually didn't think about it when I read the series as a kid (I'm sure a child wouldn't think anything like that).

And what you said about sexist, that's another topic of debate in the Narnia books (which could be discussed in another thread).

"And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me beloved."
(Emeth, The Last Battle)

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Topic starter Posted : October 23, 2021 8:01 am
Courtenay
(@courtenay)
NarniaWeb Guru Friend of NarniaWeb
Posted by: @jasminetarkheena

As for the racist aspect, I actually didn't think about it when I read the series as a kid (I'm sure a child wouldn't think anything like that).

I didn't notice that aspect either as a child, but a child who'd experienced racial bullying — about skin colour or about the food their family eats, for example — probably would.

Posted by: @jasminetarkheena

And what you said about sexist, that's another topic of debate in the Narnia books (which could be discussed in another thread).

I recall it comes up in the "Problem With Susan" thread and probably a few others! Giggle

There's actually an excellent and very comprehensive article by scholar Devin Brown here on NarniaWeb, dealing with both those debates — race and gender — and how Lewis portrays them overall (not just in the bits that critics jump on!): Are the Chronicles of Narnia Sexist and Racist? Well worth reading!

"Now you are a lioness," said Aslan. "And now all Narnia will be renewed."
(Prince Caspian)

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Posted : October 23, 2021 8:10 am
Col Klink
(@col-klink)
NarniaWeb Nut
Posted by: @jasminetarkheena

there's been constoversial debate about how the way Calormenes are portrayed as racist (which I'm getting so tired of)

Posted by: @icarus

I know I might be in the minority on this website, but I do think it is important to acknowledge that (admittedly with the benefit of historical hindsight) there are some hugely problematic aspects of the ways in which the Calormen are described in the Narnia stories

I actually don't mind if people are offended by the depiction of the Calormens. (I'm offended by the quote Courtenay mentioned myself.) I'm just annoyed when people assume the only reason someone enjoys or defends The Last Battle and The Horse and his Boy (or The Merchant of Venice, which is more racist) is because they pander to their racial prejudices. While I'm white, I'm not English and I don't have the same love for stories about medieval kings and knights that C. S. Lewis. To me, the Narnians and Archenlanders are just as much "the other" (I'm kind of sick of that term) as the Calormens are.

Admittedly, I can't get super emotional in condemning the books because I've only heard from a non-Western person who felt personally insulted by them once (and that was so long ago, I may have misunderstood what he was saying.) Mostly it's just talking about non-Western people being hypothetically insulted by them. I'm not a very empathetic person and I especially have a hard time working up sympathy for imaginary people.

This post was modified 2 months ago 2 times by Col Klink

For better or worse-for who knows what may unfold from a chrysalis?-hope was left behind.
-The God Beneath the Sea by Leon Garfield & Edward Blishen check out my new blog!

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Posted : October 23, 2021 8:21 am
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Jasmine
(@jasminetarkheena)
NarniaWeb Nut

@courtenay Yes, I think it was discussed on the Talking Beasts podcast.

In this discussion of Calormenes, in The Horse and His Boy, Prince Rabadash wanted to marry Susan because she was beautiful. She turned him down not because he was a Calormene, but the kind of person he was. When he visited the Pevensies at Cair Paravel, he acted like he was courteous and kind. But when Susan and Edmund visit Tashbaan, they saw the truth- he was cruel and arrogant. I think the whole theme of The Horse and His Boy is how appearances can be very deceiving (I think it's played throughout the Chronicles though).

I never consider myself racist or sexist, because I believe in equality (I have close friends who are Hispanic...and an aunt who is Mexican descent.. and our pastor and his wife adopted a girl from Ethiopia).

I think in Narnia, Aslan accepts not only Narnians, but Telmarines, Archenlanders, and Calormenes... that's why Emeth is one of my favorite characters in the series. I think we get too focused on the negativity of the Calormenes, but never acknowledge their positive characters.

"And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me beloved."
(Emeth, The Last Battle)

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Topic starter Posted : October 23, 2021 8:22 am
Col Klink
(@col-klink)
NarniaWeb Nut
Posted by: @jasminetarkheena

non seem to acknowledge the good Calormenes (Aravis and Emeth). Isn't about time we look through the positive aspect of the Calormenes?

Well, FWIW, I've heard people acknowledge Aravis and Emeth when defending the Narnia books. Giggle I feel like the reason we focus on the negative aspects of Calormen while reading the books is because we're supposed to do so. If we didn't see the Calormenes conquering Narnia in The Last Battle as a bad thing and Shasta, Bree, Aravis and Hwin going from the South to the North in The Horse and his Boy as a good thing, the stories would cease to make dramatic sense. In fact, the main reason Aravis is a postive character is because, unlike Lasaraleen, she rejects the Calormene way of life. (Incidentally, this basic dynamic is not completely foreign to modern, theoretically less racist, stories. It exists in movies like Titanic or The Greatest Showman with the upper classes standing in for Calormen. Pretty much any movie with a strong political, religious or social message is going to fallen into this pattern.)

For better or worse-for who knows what may unfold from a chrysalis?-hope was left behind.
-The God Beneath the Sea by Leon Garfield & Edward Blishen check out my new blog!

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Posted : October 23, 2021 10:07 am
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Jasmine
(@jasminetarkheena)
NarniaWeb Nut

@col-klink That's true.

Aravis was running away to Narnia because of an arranged marriage (I find it sad that a girl as young as 12 or 13 would be married off to a much older guy, as 50 or 60). Lasaraleen is a girly kind of person, and Aravis is the opposite, though they have been close friends.

Emeth stands out from Rishda (and most other Calormenes) because he served Tash out of love and devotion, though not knowing he was actually serving Aslan.

(I don't know if Rishda and Emeth were close friends, but it could be discussed in another thread).

"And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me beloved."
(Emeth, The Last Battle)

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Topic starter Posted : October 23, 2021 10:13 am
Cobalt Jade
(@cobalt-jade)
NarniaWeb Regular

I recall reading another novel, I think it was called Druids by historical writer Morgan Llewellyn, that was about the Roman invasion of Gaul. In that book the Gauls were written as looking down on the Romans because they smelled of garlic and olive oil, I can guess there may be historical precedent.

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Posted : October 23, 2021 11:14 am
The Rose-Tree Dryad
(@rose)
Secret Garden Agent Moderator
Posted by: @courtenay

But it IS problematic in being a case of the usually-villainous people in this fantasy world being literally colour-coded (I find "their white eyes flashing dreadfully in their brown faces" more wince-worthy than the onions and garlic reference!!)

This is probably my least favorite line in all of the Narnia books. I don't remember noticing it on first reading, but it definitely makes me uncomfortable whenever I read it now. Obviously characters like Aravis and Emeth dispel the notion that the books are racist (Emeth is one of the bravest characters in the series!), but that line, taken in isolation, makes the Calormenes seem physically repulsive/frightening for things that are either an innocuous cultural difference (their diet) or something they cannot help (the contrast of their skin and eyes). I don't know if that's what people would label the most "problematic" line about the Calormenes, but it's definitely the one that stands out to me.

Twitter: Rose_the_Dryad

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Posted : October 23, 2021 8:24 pm
Jasmine
(@jasminetarkheena)
NarniaWeb Nut

@rose I thought that Calormenes would at least have brown eyes (I have brown-green eyes, being of Italian descent... my surname Laury is of Italian origin). But yes, Emeth is one of the bravest and eager.. one of the reasons why he's one of my favorite characters.

"And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me beloved."
(Emeth, The Last Battle)

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Topic starter Posted : October 23, 2021 8:31 pm
Courtenay
(@courtenay)
NarniaWeb Guru Friend of NarniaWeb
Posted by: @jasminetarkheena

@rose I thought that Calormenes would at least have brown eyes

I think the reference to "white eyes" is meant to mean the whites of their eyes, not literally that the entire eye is white. The Calormenes are explicitly human — descended from outlaws who fled across the desert from Archenland, according to Lewis's Narnia timeline — so I would assume their eyes aren't any different from ours, and there certainly aren't any human beings with entirely white eyes (as far as I know!!). As you say, most likely their irises are some shade of brown. I assume Lewis was thinking of the fact that people with dark skin naturally have more of a contrast between their skin colour and the whites of their eyes. But picking this out (and their diet too) as making them "dreadful" and menacing is racist whichever way you look at it, really.

As @rose says, that passage taken on its own is one of the most problematic in the Chronicles and I'm glad there's plenty of evidence that the books as a whole are not racist and in fact carry some quite clear anti-racist messages. I'm thinking of the Devin Brown article I linked to above where he looks at Susan and Edmund's discussion about why Susan should not marry Prince Rabadash (in HHB). The offensive thing about Rabadash is that (as they've now seen) he is a "most proud, bloody, luxurious, cruel and self-pleasing tyrant" — not that he has dark skin or a different culture or a different religion. Let alone that he eats onions and garlic!! Giggle  

"Now you are a lioness," said Aslan. "And now all Narnia will be renewed."
(Prince Caspian)

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Posted : October 25, 2021 12:33 pm
The Rose-Tree Dryad
(@rose)
Secret Garden Agent Moderator
Posted by: @courtenay

The offensive thing about Rabadash is that (as they've now seen) he is a "most proud, bloody, luxurious, cruel and self-pleasing tyrant" — not that he has dark skin or a different culture or a different religion. Let alone that he eats onions and garlic!! Giggle  

Giggle

"Yet when he was with us in Narnia, truly this Prince bore himself in another fashion than he does now in Tashbaan. For I take you all to witness what marvellous feats he did in that great tournament and hastilude which our brother the High King made for him, and how meekly and courteously he consorted with us the space of seven days. But here, in his own city, he eats GARLIC and ONIONS." Tongue

On a more serious note...

I don't think enough is made of the fact that The Horse and His Boy includes not one but two interracial relationships, given the year that it was published. Very few people approved of interracial marriage in the 1950s; in the United States, the number was vanishingly small according to this data from Gallup. I imagine it wasn't much better in the U.K. based on what I have read.

I've been wracking my brain to see if I can think of another book from children's literature or otherwise from the 1950s or prior that included an interracial relationship and I'm coming up empty-handed. I have found that marrying the foreign princess or non-Arab slave girl was a common theme in Arabic and Persian literature, so it seems that Lewis was drawing on that with the failed Susan/Rabadash romance and also subverting the trope by having the "Arabic princess" (I think Aravis would be annoyed with me calling her a princess Tongue ) end up with the Northern peasant boy.

Twitter: Rose_the_Dryad

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Posted : October 27, 2021 3:19 pm
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