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In the Shadow of Tash, the Inexorable: Darkness, Death, and Transformative Interpretation in The Chronicles of Narnia

I grew up with The Chronicles of Narnia, and  I have a lot of thoughts about all parts of it, especially on the character of Tash. The first difficulty is of course, that there is barely anything about him, and he is much less of a character than an element that is included in order to add a sense of orientalist, exotic flavor to the foreign Calormene culture outlined in the books. He is kind of the epitome of the scary foreign demon god, for whom men are sacrificed on his altar, as the demure white lamb exclaims in The Last Battle. He is seen and interpreted throughout the series through the eyes of white northern Narnians that emphasize fearsomeness and association with rot and death. I find the scene when King Tirian and the gang see the image of Tash floating over the forest for the first time, described as having a “deathly” smell and arms outstretched “as if it wanted to snatch all Narnia in its grip.” The visions of Tash are in the end, interpretations, and it’s the subjectivity of the figure of Tash  and the fear of that limited view of him that greatly interests me.

Illustration from The Last Battle, by Pauline Baynes

In my zine “Inexorable,” I didn’t have a whole lot of time to get into the broader issue of the virulent racism present in Lewis’ works regarding the Calormenes, since in a way I feel like as far as the works go themselves there is not really any easy way to salvage it, given the role that the presentation and concept of the land of Calormen plays as a materialistic place full of worldly temptations and fantasies as opposed to the purity and honest uprightness that the Narnians and other white Northerners are portrayed as. Although I am an Asian woman, given the specific orientalist cultural mishmash of tropes that the Calormenes are inspired by (mostly vaguely Middle Eastern and Indian), it didn’t really feel like my place to “reclaim” per se its depictions and specific human characters, so while I am interested in critiquing it and discussing it, it was not something I felt very comfortable digging into from a creative perspective.

Illustration by tomato-bird

It’s a sad thing and a regret of mine that The Racism™ keeps Narnia from exploring the interesting mythological Christian syncretism it has built in throughout the series. Aslan may be a Jesus analogue, but that doesn’t stop him from cavorting with the Roman gods Bacchus and Silenus and the maenads in Prince Caspian during a wild, possibly drunken, anarchistic romp through the countryside, in which oppressive structures are literally torn down by nature in the name of chaotic joy and celebration. The centaurs, influenced from Greek mythological depictions of Chiron, are depicted as astrologers and stargazers in a way that is portrayed as a positive kind of spiritual divination rather than something inherently sinful. Many other figures borrowed from Greco-Roman mythology such as the minor nature gods and spirits also are there to emphasize different aspects of the world. Lewis may not be as concerned with detailed worldbuilding as his contemporary, J.R.R Tolkien, but he excels at creating a believable mythological mood built on half-heard somber legends and childlike fantasies. That being said, due to the way that the series is structured and due to the time period, perspective and gaze of the author, it probably was somewhat inevitable (inexorable?) that Tash, or any other vaguely Eastern-inspired elements, would not end up incorporated into the world in an awkward, insensitive, and dated way.

For while Narnia may be very interesting in its fantastical depictions of Christianity’s relationship to other beliefs, it is still one that ultimately centers a Christian outlook. Near the end of The Last Battle, when Emeth, the Calormene soldier and Tash devotee encounters Aslan for the first time, Aslan assures him that his good deeds in service to Tash were actually done to him, as Aslan was the real one he was searching for all along. This scene is taken as one of many examples of C.S. Lewis’ non-orthodox views regarding Christianity and spirituality, and one that has been intensely interesting to me and others . However, it is one that still seeks to downplay the role and significance of of Tash (once again casting him as a sort of Satan-figure)  and Emeth’s faith in general, into being that “Well even while you were out there being a pagan, you were on the way to finding the Right Path (aka Jesus) all along.” I actually find that message, while still scandalous to an orthodox view, to be fairly chauvinist. Which is not shocking of course, given Lewis’ own beliefs and the thrust of the whole series, but I thought I would address that given that the scene, and character of Emeth especially, has been used in various Christian devotionals and writings about narnia (such as the book Roar! A Christian Family Guide to the Chronicles of Narnia) to argue that Narnia actually “isn’t really racist.”

I am, and have been, personally drawn specifically to the figure of Tash and his connection with Narnia the series’ relationship with ideas of spirituality, mythology, and the supernatural. Tash is an enigma because, as mentioned above, his character is extremely limited, and we know of him mostly through what characters speak of him–fear and suspicion, from the perspective of the Narnians,   courtly veneration and obligation, called upon for his association with royalty and power by the noble Calormene Tarkaans, and spoken of with personal connection and reverence by the soldier Emeth. Tash is presented, by the narratives and characters, as a figure that is the opposite of everything Aslan is–bony and sharp, rather than warm and cuddly, a bringer of death and despair, rather than hope and victory. A god who feeds “upon the blood of his people,” unlike Aslan, “the good Lion by whose blood all Narnia was saved.” He is awkwardly construed in Christian devotional interpretations as a kind of Satanic-perceived analogue, although curiously aside from generally looking scary and the racist accounts in story of him requiring human sacrifice, he does not really fit the usual description of Satan-like characters, and is not shown to do or proclaim evil.  Tash is, as far as the elements and portrayals go, a static figurehead and simple symbol of Calormene royalty and power (similar to how the Narnian monarchs use the figure of the lion), or–in the first and final scene where he appears and speaks directly to the characters, a powerful but highly unamused being who devours the corrupt ape and Calormene officer who thought they could get away with manipulating Narnians through their fear of the wrath of Aslan and the bloody frightfulness of Tash.

In my own interpretation, I do not find a whole lot to work with in the conversation between Emeth and Aslan, aside from the character of Emeth who is interesting on his own. In my transformative interpretation of Tash, I see him as a kind of amoral representation of the forces of nature, in this case specifically of death and of inevitable endings in general. There is a simplicity and impersonal being to his existence that I wanted to dig into, as well as the interesting relationship between his existence and Aslan’s. Aslan is, for all intents and purposes, the main “God” of the world that is Narnia, due to both Lewis’ establishing him as a Christ figure, as well as showing that he exists kind of outside of Narnia-the-World in his own way too. Aslan has no limits, Tash’s being is about limits and working within them. It is also interesting to me that Aslan, despite his grumblings to Emeth in The Last Battle, in which he proclaims that they are “opposites,” seems to have an interesting but distant respect for the local reverence of Tash. In The Horse and His Boy, when Prince Rabadash is humiliated and transformed, Aslan instructs him to return to the temple of Tash in order to be healed. Now, I do not really demand consistency from The Chronicles of Narnia of all things, but I find it an fascinating detail that kind of holds a respect for the reverence shown to Tash. The main epithet of Tash is “The Inexorable, the Irresistible,” and I find the choice of “Inexorable” particularly interesting. In the context of the characters who laud him as such “Inexorable” do so in the context of battle and victory–with the implication that it is victory that is inexorable, that is assured. However, I could see an interpretation of inexorability regarding fate, or things that will come to pass regardless of one’s efforts, and connecting that with the impression the series has of Tash as a death-god seem to fit in with that. The Last Battle is a book about death, the fear of death, the inevitability (inexorability) of it. It is entirely appropriate then, that Tash would be present for the end of things, even if what comes afterwards does not concern him.

Aslan’s country, and the New Narnia, is what lies beyond death, the gaping maw of the stable door. Aslan is after all the christ-analogue, he who broke the stone table and who overcame death, who exists beyond and outside of it. He is there to comfort the Pevensies and the survivors of the battle, he is there to show that the world beyond is greater, and bigger, and richer, and more full of joy than the dead, dark, frozen world they closed the door on. The ending of The Last Battle is beautiful, and a scene that has stuck with me my entire life. It is an impression of a Christian Heaven that is not sterile and white, but one of laughter and adventure, of discovery and rediscovery, of reconnection with one’s loved ones and reveling in community and beauty. Lewis ends his apocalyptic tome not describing an ending, but the beginning of a true happy ending, an exit out of the dreariness of the “shadowlands” into a new and rich afterlife. As he joyously proclaims, “The dream is ended: this is the morning.” There will be no more endings from now on.

But regardless of that promise, the reality is that there was an ending– two, if you count the deaths of the Pevensies in the train accident along with the titular bloody last battle in which we are led to believe Tirian saw all his friends and companions fall. These are endings that were violent and ghastly and traumatic. There is no comfort in them, but they exist, and they are important. That is the space in which for me, Tash occupies. The darkness in the cliche of “darkness before dawn.” Not the cause of it, but one who inhabits and embodies it. In my zine, the time Tash spends with Aslan is the time before his resurrection in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, not as an evil figure, but simply one who exists. A figure who plays a different role than the Lion, opposite, but not necessarily opposed.

This is a particular time, for me but specifically for the rest of the  world, in which for Christians, and those especially influenced by the ever present American Christian culture, there is the push to put a cheerful presentation on  in which while everything seems dark and depressing now, it will somehow work out, and either the apocalypse will happen and Jesus will return and set the world right, or in more modest terms, we can return to a relieved sense of “normal” again after dealing with the heavy weight of so much death. There is an afterlife to this. There will be a purpose in the suffering, and it will be redeemed in the end. That is a comforting message, and I am not begrudging its existence. It is something I suppose I do ultimately believe. However I also think there is a merit to dwelling in the dread, in the shadow of Tash, and acknowledging the ugliness and pain and rage against the meaninglessness of suffering and deceit. Sometimes, there is no need for comfort, but for the desire to conceptualize and embody that darkness and frustration, and mournfulness that comes with acknowledging an ending. In the traditional procession of Holy Week, before the coming of Easter, one must sit in the grief of Good Friday and the ambivalence of Saturday, after all, before one can recognize the joy on Sunday and move forward into a world of celebration. The sitting in ambivalence and the existence of negative feelings  is one that American Christian-influenced culture is loath to acknowledge on their own without instantly adding the frame of hopefulness to the end, as if to disclaim the embarrassing existence of such feelings in the first place. Sometimes, there is a simply need for expressions of grief without platitudes, for despair without comfort, sometimes there is a need to see clearly the darkness in the world and say, “Now THAT is some fucked up shit!!!!”

It’s not a place that is by any accounts healthy to stay permanently in. But it is real. And whether or not Lewis intended for Tash to speak to that, that is how I choose to interpret him in my own imagination. If Aslan represents hope and comfort desire for a future transformation whether in this life or the next, Tash for me represents and embodies the view of current existence and all that comes with that. And maybe in some ways, that acknowledgement is both chilling and comforting, in the way that truth often is.

(For those interested in purchasing my short comic zine, “Inexorable,” which is what this blog post was written in conjunction with, you can see information about it in this post. )

Author: maiden theory

I'm just a Bird whose intentions are good

5 thoughts on “In the Shadow of Tash, the Inexorable: Darkness, Death, and Transformative Interpretation in The Chronicles of Narnia”

  1. I have just finished writing my main character to a happy ending–in fact, into a world that does not have suffering as one of its core tenets, and was looking for an approach to the epilogue, where I step back, and acknowledge that the suffering from the reality she sloughed off still, on one level of reality or another, exist(ed/s), and that truth cannot and should not be abandoned… I have written an avatar of all earthly suffering, and the cosmic being who has taken on the task of never looking away from it. I have been struggling with how to approach the scene, how to convey the importance of the quasi-derealized sum of earthly pain being told “You exist, and that matters.” I was, in fact, browsing content in order to procrastinate on that very attempt. And then I just happened to come across this post, which taps the pieces into place and perfectly aligns me with my ends… thank you. This is profound AF

    Liked by 1 person

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