I've been thinking about this post over at Sarsaparilla, and I've been thinking about the conversation that resulted, and criticism by a few of the Sars folk of writers like C S Lewis and H Rider Haggard. Comments like '... I loved Lewis at 10. Sadly, as I grew older, the British Empire racism and sexism began to be a little too intrusive for me ... '. Or '.... It's a problem with that Empire stuff - I put Kippling and Rider Haggard in that (adventurous) basket - of its age, but still gripping yarns for kids ... '
I'm still not sure how far I go with comments like this. Sure, there are a few racist and sexist stereotypes in the Chronicles of Narnia. To me, that doesn't detract from the fact that when he was writing at his best, Lewis really had the ability to write feelingly, incisively, and powerfully about his characters. You won't very often see a better character portrayal than Eustace Clarence Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And I don't think there's much sexism in his portrayal of Lucy, a heroine of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, who fights alongside her brothers in the penultimate battle of that novel.
It could be that for me it just comes down to a few ideological differences I have, or I think I have, with most of the Sarsaparilla bloggers and commenters. They're by and large from the intellectual left, and you see comments like 'This writer tends to be racist' or 'There are sexist implications' from time to time. I even remember one conversation where another commentator asked me if I saw the racist implications in a schooltime snack (Redskins). It is worth talking about things like racism and sexism, but I just find it a bit silly discussing the racial implications of childhood snacks. It's an old left-right division, maybe: to the Left, everything (even childhood snacks) can be political. Right-leaning people like myself would prefer childhood snacks to stay unpolitical, thanksverymuch.
And then there's the statement in the same thread: "There can be no knowing through stereotypes". Bit of a stereotype, no? For me, I think the truth is probably closer to the opposite: that people only can know through stereotypes - that it's through generalising about people and about things that we are able to see the hidden connections and laws that make up our world.
That's another reason why I'm a little wary about talk about 'racism'. What modern people might see as racism in books by people like Lewis or Rider Haggard or Kipling could just be those authors using literary and stylistic techniques to distinguish their characters, to impose order on their fictional world. Was Lewis really being racist, for instance, when he made a division between Narnians and Calormenes in books like The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle? He could write sympathetically about Calormene's too, ennobling them with a history and a culture; one of his heroines is Calormene by birth and by upbringing. Is it really fair to insist that Lewis's often highly-stylised allegorical fantasies conform to modern expectations about portrayal of race?
Or then, with Rider Haggard. King Solomon's Mines is a brilliant adventure story that ranged over an entire continent - it goes from the forests to the desert to the mountains and then through a series of caves, right into the bowels of the earth, as his heroes (Englishmen in a time of British empire) went on a treasure hunt. His book is full of racial stereotypes: but then, he was writing at a time when national and ethnic differences would have been much starker than they are now. And he wasn't ignorant of the African way of life; he was writing after having worked for several years as a colonial administrator in South Africa.
An even starker example of racial stereotyping appears in the early SF novelette The Time Machine, where the Time Traveller goes forward into the future and finds a world where the poor and the rich have evolved into different species altogether; the poor have evolved into cunning beasts who live underground and feed off the stupid but gentle above-ground dwelling rich.
A world where the poor and rich are separate species? That's pretty racist! And Wells, unlike Lewis or (presumably) Rider Haggard was, at the time of writing this story, a radical socialist. So I don't think the stereotyping you find in these adventure stories is used (as some would argue) to prop up existing social structures. I think that it's often wiser to take stories by writers like Lewis and Rider Haggard on their own terms, not on the terms set down by modern political ideology. And you can get a lot out of them that way, too: Rider Haggard and Lewis and Wells wrote with such imaginative force that there is a constant sense of discovery and awe to their adventure narratives. Lewis and Wells, in particular, went even further; their books took sudden diversions into drama, allegory, satire, myth, and religious and philosophical tracts; and they managed bring to light ethical problems in a way not possible in other writing genres.
That's good enough for me!
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