East of the Wardrobe
The Unexpected Worlds of C. S. Lewis
(2022) Warwick Ball, Oxford University Press, £20, hrdbk, xv + 298pp, ISBN 978-0-197-62625-2
Everyone knows that C.S. Lewis was a Christian apologist, albeit one who was subtler and more sophisticated than many of his evangelical advocates perhaps appreciate. It may come as a surprise, then, to be told that many of the elements of the Narnia series, from personal- and place-names to imagery and themes within the stories, have an ‘Eastern’ origin. What is meant by ‘the East’ here is left unclear (perhaps deliberately) but Warwick Ball, an archaeologist and historian who has written on the influence of ‘the East’ on the Roman Empire, takes the ‘unexpected worlds’ of the title to range across the ‘near’ or ‘middle’ East, from Armenia and Afghanistan to Egypt and Persia (as was).
So, for example, we are told that one of Lewis’ favourite stories since childhood was Matthew Arnold’s epic Sohrab and Rustum, based on the Shahnameh or The Book of Kings by the tenth-century Persian poet Firdawsi. Just as in The Magician’s Nephew, the story opens with the reign of benevolent kings who rule over humans, birds and animals equally, until the equivalent of the White Witch steals into the world. Likewise, we encounter princes being brought up as commoners, as in The Horse and His Boy and two champions facing off in single combat, as in Prince Caspian. Indeed, Ball maintains, the core plot of the former closely follows a significant motif in the Shahnameh of a prince, unaware of their royal status, fleeing on horseback back to their homeland, with a beautiful woman.
Similarly, Pauline Baynes, Lewis’ original illustrator (also Tolkien’s), drew on Persian art in the way she framed her illustrations with, for example, trees curving over Aslan in her picture of the creation of Narnia. And her drawings of the Calormen city Tashbaan and their god, Tash, recall, respectively, the Assyrian city Ashur and eagle-headed protective genie, depicted on the Nimrud reliefs currently displayed in the British Museum. Frustratingly, however, many of the reproductions here are rather small and all reproduced in black and white only, making detailed comparisons difficult (as in the case of the drawing of the birds in Aslan’s country from The Silver Chair and an illustration of swooping birds in the Khamsa of Nizami, on p. 80).
The name ‘Aslan’ itself can also be traced back to James Morier’s The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, in which the eponymous hero is captured by the Turkoman chief known as ‘Aslan Sultan’, or ‘the Lion Chief’ (p. 45). Even the more explicit Christian elements in the books are suggested as having a similar origin: in The Magician’s Nephew Aslan sets Diggory on a quest to bring back a magic apple from an enchanted garden, a theme which can also be found in one of the stories from The Arabian Nights (which Lewis apparently disliked). The enchanted garden itself appears again in The Last Battle, as Paradise of course, but as Ball points out, ‘secret’ walled gardens are an important feature of Persian architecture, still present in today’s Iran, and were known as ‘paridaida’, from which the English word is derived.
At times, however, these examples become repetitive, as when we read, more than once, that ‘Tash’ is the Turkish for ‘stone’. More importantly, not all of the supposed ‘Eastern’ influences are so firmly rooted and a number seem to be entirely speculative. We are told, for example, that Lewis was a ‘great consumer of books’ (p. 16) and so he ‘presumably’ obtained the ‘Arabish’ names of the Calormen, as well as their customs and dress, from Edward William Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, which was commonly available at the time. Likewise, in an otherwise intriguing chapter (Ch. 6) that draws out those religious elements in the series that go beyond ‘mere’ Christianity (thereby cocking a snoot at the evangelical advocates mentioned above), Ball examines the ‘hints’ of Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism to be found in Lewis’ work. As to the source of such elements, however, he rather feebly notes that as an Oxford Professor ‘Lewis may well have known R. C. Zaehner’, another Oxford don, who wrote articles on Zoroastrianism and ‘might well have attended’ the series of lectures, given in Oxford, of the well-known Zoroastrian scholar, W. B. Henning (p. 206).
Contentiously, the Calormen, who personify ‘the East’, are described as dark and cruel, proud and courteous. In defence of such a stereotypical characterisation Ball offers not just the time-worn appeal to Lewis being a product of his time but also argues, somewhat paradoxically, that within the books his ‘East’ should not be understood as a reflection of the ‘real’ East but only as a fantasy. No doubt Edward Said, the famous author of Orientalism, cited here, would have insisted that this is precisely what ‘the West’ has always done – appropriating the culture of ‘the East’ while simultaneously portraying its inhabitants as ‘the Other’.
As a result, Ball’s ‘fresh perspective’ is obtained from atop a structure that is rather more rickety that the reader might have anticipated. Having said that, there is still a lot to dig into here and many intriguing and delightful rabbit-holes to go down – to use an image from a different Lewis.
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