I’m been thinking recently on whether it’s justifiable to use contemporary moral and social standards to criticise writers of the past for not living up to them.
C.S.Lewis, author of the Narnia books, has been attacked in the last month or two for being sexist, racist and for propagating Christian propaganda.
Because few of his female characters have lead parts and because their faults are shown up to greater effect than their male counterparts, Lewis is sexist. Indeed Philip Pullman has called him “monumentally disparaging of girls and women.”
Because the town of Calormene (in the novel “The Horse and his Boy”) is populated by dark-skinned, turban-wearing, garlic-eating people who worship a vulture god and live in a society beset by brutality and corruption, then Lewis is racist.
Because the story of the Narnia books is fairly obviously based on Christian theological ideas, he is propagating Christian propaganda.
I am uneasy when people make such attacks on a writer who wrote 50-60 years ago. I suspect people in 50-60 years time will be making similar attacks on writers of this oh-so-enlightened generation who might be considered politically correct today. And in any case, at the time Lewis wrote, how many Hollywood movies had women in lead roles, as opposed to hanging on the man-star’s arm? How many black movie stars were there (in positive, non-pigeonholed roles)? Is it fair to condemn Lewis when he lived in such a milieu?
I also feel that using terms like “sexist” and “racist” to describe someone who never actively advocated violence or hatred against either women or foreigners is unfair. Lewis perhaps did have feelings of unease towards people who were different from him, but that’s true of most people at some level. Today certain depictions of women and people of colour are considered offensive and unacceptable, but would have been absolutely normal in Lewis’s era. Lewis can be viewed more as a product of his time and class than as “racist” or “sexist”.
Finally the accusation that he propagated “religious propaganda” is, in my opinion, a gross misuse of the English language. Lewis was a Christian and was interested in using his narratives to get over ideas that were important to him. Isn’t that what writers have always done? I saw the movie “Troy” last year, which had a clear humanist agenda running through it. I didn’t see anyone protesting against humanist propaganda, and nor should they. Writers should be free to write what they want, just as an audience is free to agree or disagree with them. “Propaganda” is a loaded and inaccurate word.
So are p.c. critics so enlightened and wise today that they can confidently dismiss writers from the past according to contemporary standards? Or are they setting this generation up to be similarly judged by future ones, when today’s ideas will look every bit as half-witted as C.S. Lewis seems to some today?