Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Good Approach to writing about the past

This post from Rosanne E Lortz site tackles the issue of writing about the religion of past people in historical fiction rather succinctly. I think the author's approach to the subject matter is very good.....

Why do I so enthusiastically endorse Mrs Lortz approach here, especially since I have not actually yet read any of her books (I will get round to reading the one I have, sometime, honest)?
I would say it is mainly because I believe an appreciation and understanding of the differences between the values, beliefs, attitudes and opinions of people in past ages, and of out own is arguably essential to understanding them. Their actions, motivations, thoughts, and behaviour as well as the wider environment in which they lived, and the world around them.
It is all too easy for us 'enlightened' modern people with our advanced medical knowledge and appreciation of human rights to look down disparagingly upon the Medical practices of the medieval physician and scorn his supposed ignorance, or laugh at his outmoded and ineffective remedies, or to harp on about the evils of arranged marriage, or the 'barbarism' of capital punishment.
With all our aversion to imperialistic expansionism we may think it only right to judge the conquerors of bygone ages as avaricious, power hungry, greedy, self-seeking, monsters and tyrannical oppressors but does such thinking really enable us to approach a period vastly different from our own on its own terms and with as much objectivity as possible?
Does it enhance our ability to come to terms with a period in which people's circumstances may have been far removed from our own?
Of course, to identify with past people, to appreciate  their values and the basis of their sensibilities does not require us to agree with, share or endorse them, and of course there are absolute standards of morality, belief and behaviour we recognize as Christians and which transcend culture and history.
 However, should we always seek to replace, ignore, or arrogantly dismiss that in the past which we consider controversial, unpalatable or unpopular, or condemn and vilify that which does not line up with the expectations of the 21st century liberal worldview?
Or is it better instead to 'get into the heads of' those who have gone before' and 'try think like them,' in a better attempt to get to grips with the alien past, even if that involves coming up against  difficult subjects or unfamiliar ideologies along the way?

Rant over.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Was C.S Lewis racist?- Exploring 'The Horse and His Boy'

In recent years some people seem to have made much of certain content in some of the books of C.S Lewis 'Chronicles of Narnia' series. Specifically 'the Horse and His Boy' which was the 3rd book chronologically, and 'The Last Battle' which was the 7th and final book.

Both these novels feature characters who hail from the land of Calormen (see map below right) a hot and arid country to the South of Narnia, known as the Calormene. These people are dark-skinned, and many wear turbans or headdresses and carry scimitars, in contrast to the generally fair-skinned Narnians.


These Calormenes have been the cause of much controversy as people have concluded that they are obviously based upon Arabs or other Middle Eastern people, and their religion seems to resemble Islam in some ways.

C.S Lewis, best known today as the author of the 'Chronicles of Narnia' has been subjected posthumously to much criticism for his inclusion of dark-skinned Asian like people in the Narnia books. The depiction  of the Calormenes as slave-traders or owners with often aggressive  expansionist tendencies , and followers of a malevolent god called Tash had been the source of much anger from contemporary readers and has led to Lewis's work, or the author himself being branding as 'racist' and 'Islamophobic' or worse.

Of particular focus by Lewis detractors seems to be the novel 'The Horse and His Boy', which as already mentioned is the third novel in the series, and is set during the time that Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy ruled over Narnia. It is also the only one of the only one of the novels to focus specifically on the other countries to the South and East of Narnia as well as their cultures and people.

In this novel a young boy called Shasta lives with a fisherman named Arsheesh whom he believes to be his father, until a Taarkan, or nobleman of Calormen comes to their home, and points out that Shasta, with his fair hair and pale skin more closely resembles one of the 'barbarians' from the North.
At this point Arsheesh admits that he in fact found Shasta in a boat as a young child, and agrees to sell him to the Calormen Taarkan. Shasta does not stay with his new master for long however, as he escaped shortly afterwards by stealing the man's horse, which he soon discovers is a talking horse from Narnia, and they both decide to journey north to find that country.

On the way they run into much adventure, encounter many perils, and have several narrow escapes. En route Shasta meets with another Taarkan (with another talking horse) whom he thinks to be a boy, but turns out to be a girl named Aravis. She is of noble birth, but is fleeing her homeland to escape an arranged marriage.
That the character of Aravis is the heroine of 'The Horse and His boy' who proves to be a great friend to Shasta, and also happens to be a Calormene is, I believe, evidence that C.S Lewis did not cast all the people of this race as baddies or evil, and seems to reveal a rather more balanced and objective viewpoint on his part.Yet the people who claim this story is racist do not mention Aravis.

What with the selling and exchange of slaves, the arranged marriage of unwilling princesses, the nasty princes and the general willingness to invade other countries with only the flimsiest of causes the Calormenes certainly do not look good, but is the depiction of them truly racist?

 In a strictly historical sense, no. It is a historical fact that the peoples of North Africa, and parts of the near East around the Mediterranean sea and, and the Middle East did trade in slaves from across Europe and other places throughout the Medieval period.
In the early Middle Ages the Vikings are known to have sold kidnapped Europeans as slaves in these regions , but, as time passed it was the people of the slave trading lands themselves who did the kidnapping themselves. amongst these were the infamous 'Barbary pirates' and some of the most well-known of the slaves were the Mamluks, or 'slave soldiers' including the great Muslim commander Baybars, who was not an Arab, but was from the Russian Steppes.

As to expansionism, it is known that many Middle Eastern dynasties and powers ruled over vast empires in the Medieval Period, that were far larger, wealthier and more powerful than any which existed in contemporary Europe. Both before and after the crusades the Turks and others invaded and conquered areas of Europe, getting as far West as Vienna in Austria, and as far North as the borders with Southern France.
As to arranged marriage, this was the norm for aristocrats and Nobles in both the East and the West, and for both sexes.

So perhaps, far from being racist, Lewis depiction of some of the Calmorenes was simply a reflection of events and facts from real Medieval History, which the author may have known about. As a student of Medieval history myself, I understand how Lewis' possible historical knowledge may have influenced his writing.

The figures and events that he based the Calmorene's the their behaviours may be politically incorrect, and somewhat out of touch with modern sentiments, but facts are still facts, and the past cannot be changed by ignoring it or calling it 'racist'.

References

Map from http://narnia.wikia.com/wiki/Calormen#People_of_Calormen

Much of the information on the Calormene people comes from the same page, and the specific background of Shasta/Cor is from another page on the same site:http://narnia.wikia.com/wiki/Cor

The historical information is gleaned from my own knowledge and research conducted over the years from a wide variety of sources including books and documentaries. Anyone curious can research this subject matter for themselves. The sources are out there.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Review of 'The Merchant's Daughter' by Melanie Dickerson


 Kindle Edition, 272 Pages
 Zondervan, 2011

"An unthinkable danger. An unexpected choice.
Annabel, once the daughter of a wealthy merchant, is trapped in indentured servitude to Lord Ranulf, a recluse who is rumored to be both terrifying and beastly. Her circumstances are made even worse by the proximity of Lord Ranulf's bailiff---a revolting man who has made unwelcome advances on Annabel in the past.
Believing that life in a nunnery is the best way to escape the escalation of the bailiff's vile behaviour and to preserve the faith that sustains her, Annabel is surprised to discover a sense of security and joy in her encounters with Lord Ranulf.
As Annabel struggles to confront her feelings, she is involved in a situation that could place Ranulf in grave danger. Ranulf's future, and possibly his heart, may rest in her hands, and Annabel must decide whether to follow the plans she has cherished or the calling God has placed on her heart".
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Opinion: I felt the storyline of this novel was good and this is a sweet and compelling Romance novel with a fairly original concept. I don’t well remember the Disney story of Beauty and the Beast except for talking candlesticks and fairies, and you won’t find any of that here. Dickerson instead opts for a more realistic version of the fairy tale set in an actual historical time and place- in this case 14th century England.

The themes of the hero finding reconciliation and peace with God and man through true love were well presented, and seemed to fit in well with the transformation of the beast in the tale. The heroine Annabel's elation at reading the Bible in her own language for the first time was quite believable without seeming contrived. Some have complained about her character having no flaws, but I personally did not think this seemed to be the case all of the time, though she could see, a little too ‘goody goody’ in some parts, she also became jealous, and frustrated and could be stubborn.

The hero Lord Ranulf (the beast) was likeable enough and is sufficiently tough, courageous and manly to be appealing- though he seems fierce and aggressive initially. The only aspect of his character which seemed overbearing was his heroism, risking one’s life to rescue a servant girl was one thing, but braving fire to single- handedly save a few sheep from a barn, when other people were around who could help just seemed  contrived.

The writing style was something of an issue for me it simply seemed rather over simplistic. This is only the author’s second novel, so perhaps such is to be expected but it seemed that the author was not making good use of the “show don’t tell” device in her writing. Thus we are told “she felt” thus or “he felt” like this, and the adverb “a bit” crops up over a dozen times.

As a British reader, reading a book in which Medieval English characters use modern American Idioms such as ‘go tell’ instead of British equivalents like ‘go and tell’ is a little problematic and frustrating, yet it is an almost inevitable consequence of reading a novel written by an American who is not familiar which such linguistic nuances.
By and large, the language of the medieval characters was plausible, or at least passable, and though in some places it did seem a little too modern, there did not seem to be many modern words and phrases which stood out.

I finished this novel with rather mixed feelings, it was enjoyable enough and certainly readable but it fell rather below my expectations were which were perhaps too high as an adult approaching a romance novel aimed at teenage girls. I may well read more of this author’s work, but with such considerations in mind.

Christianity/Morality : There is no swearing, nor extreme violence or sexual content in the novel, though one character does make advances towards Annabel a few times. In one scene the former tries to rape Annabel in one scene, but this is not graphically described. 
Annabel thinks upon how good looking and physically attractive Lord Ranulf is quite a few times, but for the most part this is simply corny and there is nothing smutty or lewd about it. A few of the servant girls make suggestive remarks about him.

Mrs Dickerson to her credit is also willing to at least mention concepts such as sin and the necessity of repentance, which some Christian authors may shy away from, or avoid altogether. There is also much exploration of Christian concepts through Annabel and Ranulf's reading of scripture. Finally, as mentioned above the overall theme of the novel appears to be that of reconciliation, forgiveness, and finding peace though faithfulness and surrender to the will of God.

Historical: The level of historical accuracy, authenticity and research seemed to vary in some places. For instance, the scenes referring to the 'Hallmote' (local community court) and customs or laws regarding duties for peasants as well as the investigations of an itinerant bailiff appeared accurate and show the author has done her research in these areas. Nor did it seem historically implausible for a 14th century woman of the merchant class to have been literate in Latin or English. Passages such as this could make the historical detail appear inconsistent, as it seemed as though the author had devoted much time and energy to researching some aspects of the historical setting, but not others. Perhaps again though, I am being too pedantic!

Personally, though, I could not imagine a Medieval nobleman like Lord Ranulf risking his life to save a servant girl from a wolf; especially since wolves were all but extinct in England by the 1300s. I think it would perhaps have been more plausible for Ranulf's scars and injuries to have resulted from battle wounds- which could still have allowed for the heroism and self-sacrifice of his saving another person. Also it seemed rather unlikely that a nobleman, would not have any soldiers or guards in his employment, and so would be left alone at the mercy of a peasant mob planning to attack his manor.
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