The Great Narnia Re-read of 2019: “The Horse and His Boy”

The Great Narnia Re-read of 2019: “The Horse and His Boy”

The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia

It is one thing to say that you love something. It is another to say why you love that thing. The Horse and His Boy is my favorite of the Narnia chronicles, and I was all too happy to return recently to “Narnia and Calormen and the lands in between.” (THAHB is actually the second book that I re-read, before The Last Battle, but I forgot for a minute and wrote the TLB post second.) In this post, I hope to share something of why I love this story so much and what makes this story so meaningful.

Worldbuilding

Narnia and Calormen and the lands in between.
Narnia and Calormen and the lands in between.

Since The Horse and His Boy opens in the foreign land of Calormen, Lewis hands himself a huge task in building up a mighty society that had only been hinted at in other books. And, here again, he does some of his best work. I’ve mentioned before that I have a special love for stories that feature people from various societies, languages, religions, cultures, ethnicities, etc., crossing paths and interacting with each other. I think that’s why I fell in love with Lord of the Rings. But it’s definitely a major factor in why I love THAHB.

This story has it all: adventure, war, romance, palace intrigue, political scheming, twins separated at birth. What more could one want?

I think the power of THAHB partly lies in its backstories. From the start, we are introduced to intriguing and diverse characters doing desperate things. Shasta, realizing he is not who he has always believed himself to be, risks escaping with Bree who also takes the chance given to him. Hwin offers her girl a way out of an undesirable marriage, a way that could win freedom for them both. Rabadash pines for Susan, putting three countries at risk of open war. Corin is eager to box anyone who crosses him or his friends. Each character is given an interesting and harrowing present dilemma. And then, later, we get to see the backstory which deepens and widens the characters, making them even more vulnerable and real.

Theme

Freedom is the theme of The Horse and His Boy: not just freedom in the physical sense, as in from slavery and oppression, but mental, emotional, and spiritual freedom as well. All four of our escapees must learn what it means to be truly free in each of these aspects. But Bree, Shasta, and Aravis must each learn one aspect more heavily than the others.

Bree: The Prison of the Mind

In his journey from southern Calormen to Archenland and Narnia, Bree learns that being a free Narnian horse is about more than simply not being forcibly ridden by a human master or being made to conform to Calormene rules. He has the right idea from the beginning. On the night of their escape, Shasta is shocked that Bree doesn’t say “may he live for ever” when referring to the Tisroc.

“I’m a free Narnian,” Bree retorts. “And why should I talk slaves’ and fools’ talk? …No more of this Southern jargon between you and me!”

Bree and Shasta flee the Lion.
Bree and Shasta flee the Lion.

Bree thinks he knows what freedom is. However, his sense of “freeness” is rooted in his pride. He looks down on Shasta, donkeys, and the “dumb, witless” horses owned by his Tarkaan. He preens in Aravis’ recognition of him as a great war horse. His only real worry is about getting to Narnia and being shamed because he’s picked up habits foreign to horses born and raised in the north.

Bree thinks he’s free, but his mind is enslaved to the worst master one could have — pride. And in the book’s most desperate moments, this master betrays him. If Bree really were a proud, free Narnian horse, he wouldn’t have needed the additional threat of the Lion to drive him to go all out in their effort to warn Anvard of Rabadash’s attack. He wouldn’t have abandoned Hwin and Aravis to fend for themselves against the Lion.

You see, Bree knew what it meant to stare danger in the face. As a slave horse, fighting Calormen’s wars, he had often been forced to sacrifice and risk his life. When the time came for him to sacrifice and risk his life as a free horse, you’d think it would be easy for him. But he was unable to do so. When he left Calormen, he had only traded one master for another. (Or, perhaps, it’s more correct to say that he had been a slave to Pride all along; only now, without the physical presence of a Tarkaan, his slavery to Pride was becoming more apparent.) A person (or horse) enslaved to pride only cares about one thing — itself. In this case, Bree cared only for his own physical freedom, and his pride drove his attempt to save his own skin.

Only a free creature can sacrifice freely. And Bree wasn’t yet free.

O, Bree, proud, brave Bree, where art thou?
O, Bree, proud, brave Bree, where art thou?

Bree feels shame over his actions, but he isn’t shamed enough to repent. (Pride working again, making him unwilling to change.) Up until the very moment of meeting Aslan, Bree remains in his mental prison. Despite admitting that he doesn’t fully understand how Aslan can be spoken of as being a lion, he certainly knows more about the matter than Hwin and Aravis. He thinks it would be “absurd” and “disrespectful” for Aslan to be a real lion because that would make him “a beast just like the rest of us.” In this manner of thinking, Bree attributes his own prideful mentality to Aslan. (How often do we do the same with God, attributing the way we think to Him?) Surely, Aslan has too much pride; he wouldn’t stoop to being a real animal!

Ironically, the lion-fearing Bree is cured only by finally meeting Aslan who is, in fact, a humble beast. “Now, Bree,” Aslan tells him, “you poor, proud frightened Horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast.”

Only by witnessing the humility of Aslan, were the bars of Bree’s mental prison broken, setting him free to be the humble Narnian horse he was meant to be.

Shasta: The Prison of the Heart

Shasta and Arsheesh bow before the Tarkaan Anradin.
Shasta and Arsheesh bow before the Tarkaan Anradin.

When The Horse and His Boy opens, Shasta is in a bad way. He has known one man as a father figure his entire life. Arsheesh, the hardbitten fisherman, obviously doesn’t love Shasta. He beats the boy when things aren’t going well and ignores him at other times. And he jumps at the chance to sell Shasta for profit. Because of this upbringing, Shasta doesn’t trust grown-ups or people in authority. He has learned from Arsheesh to put on a hard face, but inside he is quite fragile.

Shasta gets along quite well when he is alone, skulking here and there. Strangely, he even gets along quite well with Bree. The flaws in his emotional exoskeleton begin to show when he meets Aravis.

Personally, I think Shasta is a little bit in awe of Aravis. Here is somene who is not quite grown-up but carries herself as if she were. Aravis understands the broader Calormene society and knows how to engage with it. Shasta has none of those experiences and feels left out and less-than. He pleads with Bree to go on without Aravis and Hwin, not primarily because he thinks Aravis doesn’t want him along for the journey, but in order to protect his own feelings from being repeatedly laid raw by the realization that Aravis, in his mind, is better than him, and that she will never accept him as he is.

Shasta, Aravis, Bree, and Hwin take a breather after that lion chase.
Shasta, Aravis, Bree, and Hwin take a breather after that lion chase.

Shasta does not know what it means to love or trust, and that in itself is its own form of bondage. His emotional prison is shown nowhere more starkly than in his interactions with the Narnians in Tashbaan. Shasta has only known “grave and mysterious” grownups who might be plotting against you as likely as not. He does not know what it’s like to “walk with a swing” and chat and laugh. While Shasta is able to acknowledge how lovely it is, he can’t give himself up to it because that would mean trusting these strangers and, for the sake of his own emotions, he can’t afford that.

You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly and didn’t give a fig for anyone who wasn’t.

–The Horse and His Boy

To his credit, Shasta is able to fully realize the beauty of the Narnian way. Lying on his couch in the quarters of the Narnian royals, he secretly admires how King Edmund, Queen Susan, Lord Peridan, Sallowpad the Raven, Tumnus the Faun, and the rest care for each other, love each other, trust each other with their deepest fears, and declare their willingness to die for each other.

Queen Susan dances with Tumnus the faun.
Queen Susan dances with Tumnus the faun.

If Shasta were smart — if he could have pushed past his emotional hangups for just a moment — he would have divulged his entire story to the Narnians. No doubt, Edmund and Susan would have ensured his escape, along with that of Aravis, Bree, and Hwin, on the Splendour Hyaline, saving them all a lot of trouble. Here we see the danger of an emotional prison; we see what happens to someone who has suffered abuse and mistreatment for a long period of time. Even though you can often recognize what’s missing from your life when you see it, you are unable to believe that you are worthy of the love, trust, and security of healthy emotional attachments.

“I simply can’t tell them I’m not Prince Corin now,” thought Shasta. “I’ve heard all their plans. If they knew I wasn’t one of themselves, they’d never let me out of this house alive. They’d be afraid I’d betray them to the Tisroc. They’d kill me. And if the real Corin turns up, it’ll all come out, and they will!” He had, you see, no idea of how noble and free-born people behave.

–The Horse and His Boy
Shasta's mentality is foreign to Prince Corin
Shasta’s mentality is foreign to Prince Corin

When Shasta meets Prince Corin his emotional bondage is shown again. He begins to tell the prince that they will have to switch places on the couch, but then remembers that Corin has a black eye and a missing tooth. “You’ll just have to tell them the truth, once I’m safely away,” Shasta admits.

“What else did you think I’d be telling them?” the prince responds.

Prince Corin, for all his flaws, knows that he is loved by the people around him. He is able to be honest, even if that honesty will get him in trouble. He is emotionally secure, knowing that whatever happens, he can trust his companions to have his best interest at heart. Shasta doesn’t know what that’s like.

Shasta often feels quite alone and left out of things.
Shasta often feels quite alone and left out of things.

Even after his doubly heroic deeds — facing the Lion in an attempt to save Aravis, and running to warn King Lune of Rabadash’s attack — Shasta still feels insecure; he thinks that, despite all his efforts, he’ll never experience the love his heart has been starved for. Working in Shasta is yet another lie that many who have suffered abuse and mistreatment come to believe: You start to think you must earn love and acceptance by your actions. And you begin to think that nothing you do will ever matter.

“I do think,” said Shasta, “that I must be the most unfortunate boy that ever lived in the whole world. Everything goes right for everyone except me. Those Narnian lords and ladies got safe away from Tashbaan; I was left behind. Aravis and Bree and Hwin are all as snug as anything with that old Hermit: of course I was the one who was sent on. King Lune and his people must have got safely into the castle and shut the gates long before Rabadash arrived, but I get left out.”

And being very tired and having nothing inside him, he felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks.

–The Horse and His Boy

All of that changes, however, when Shasta meets Aslan, the Large Voice, the Ghost, the Giant, who plods along silently beside him in one of the most beautiful chapters ever put down in English.

Aslan is one “who has waited long” for Shasta to speak. Aslan is the invitation Shasta has been waiting for. “Tell me your sorrows,” Aslan says. And Shasta does.

At the end of his misery-filled story, Shasta learns that, all this time, he has not really been alone. The Lion has been watching over him his entire life — from pushing the little boat ashore so he could survive to forcing him to join forces with Aravis. Shasta sees that, because of Aslan, all things have worked out for his good. Here is a grown-up who has his best interest — and the best interest of all creatures — at heart. Here is one who truly loves him. Here is one whom he can trust. Shasta’s emotional prison begins to break.

"I am Myself"
“I am Myself”

In Aslan, the insecure, fearful, fretful Shasta finds the sort of creature he himself needs to become — a creature so remarkably confident in his own worth and his own place in the world that, when asked, “Who are you?”, he could only say, “Myself.”

“Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself”, loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself”, whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.

–The Horse and His Boy

Shasta’s newfound freedom and his ability to trust is demonstrated by his response to Aslan:

Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him, nor that it was the voice of a ghost. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him. Yet he felt glad too.

–The Horse and His Boy

Shasta had found one who loved him perfectly. And that perfect love cast out his fear and set him free from his emotional wounds.

Aravis: The Prison of the Spirit

Aravis tells her story.
Aravis tells her story.

Physically, Aravis is the least enslaved of our quartet of escapees. She has money, means, the respect of important people, and a will to use all of that for her own ends. (It is interesting to contrast Aravis’ escape from an undesirable marriage with Susan’s escape from the same.)

Aravis is already “free” by Calormene standards. But, if she is to be truly free (by Narnian standards), she must escape her bondage to the Calormene spirit.

“Doubtless she was beaten for sleeping late,” said Aravis coolly. “But she was a tool and spy of my stepmother’s. I am very glad they should beat her.”

–The Horse and His Boy

The Calormene spirit is what causes Aravis to feel no guilt over drugging her servant knowing she would be beaten for sleeping late while Aravis made her escape. The same is what causes Aravis to act as if she’s better than Shasta simply because of her birth and place in society.

Aravis is brave and admirable for escaping to lands unknown. But unless she escapes her spiritual prison as well, she will go on living (or attempting to live) as a cruel, cunning, coldhearted Calormene in Narnia, unable to fully enjoy her physical freedom.

Aravis meets Prince Cor of Archenland.
Aravis meets Prince Cor of Archenland.

It is Shasta who sparks the emancipation of Aravis. When he goes back to face the Lion, it is the first time in the story that someone has acted selflessly toward her of their own will. (The tearing of Aravis’ skin is reminiscent of Aslan’s tearing of Eustace’s dragon skin. Here, the physical tearing is symbolic of Aravis’ closed-off mentality being ripped away.) Shasta, before he knows it, embodies the Narnian way, and that’s not lost on Aravis. Unlike Bree, who, when finally betrayed by his pride, condemns himself as worthy only of a return to slavery, Aravis is ready to repent and reject the Calormene way.

“Shasta was marvellous. I’m just as bad as you, Bree. I’ve been snubbing him and looking down on him ever since you met us and now he turns out to be the best of us all. But I think it would be better to stay and say we’re sorry than to go back to Calormen.”

–The Horse and His Boy

Aravis’ repentance is richly rewarded when Shasta returns as Prince Cor and invites her to come live with him in Anvard.

Hwin

Hwin, "dearest daughter"
Hwin, “dearest daughter”

When it comes to grasping true freedom, Hwin is much further along than her companions from the start. She has none of Bree’s conceit or Aravis’ coldness. She has no problem deferring to the advice of others, yet isn’t so timid that she can’t suggest plans of her own. If anything, Hwin shares some of Shasta’s emotional fragility.

Of all the escapees, Hwin is most ready to embrace life as a free Narnian. She has no hangups about old Calormene ways or unfounded northern suppositions. She is the one most willing to receive the gifts of Narnia and the north. And when she meets Aslan, she is ready to give herself up to him.

Hwin, though shaking all over, gave a strange little neigh, and trotted across to the Lion.

“Please,” she said, “you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”

“Dearest daughter,” said Aslan, planting a lion’s kiss on her twitching, velvet nose, “I knew you would not be long in coming to me. Joy shall be yours.”

–The Horse and His Boy

It is through each of their interactions with Aslan, some more obviously than others, that the four escapees find not only physical freedom, but the deeper, inner freedom that they needed even more.

Spiritual Motif

The overarching spiritual message of The Horse and His Boy is that of providence. Shasta, Bree, Hwin, and Aravis could not have predicted that their journey would have happened the way it did. They did not know that the Lion was guiding their steps in order for Archenland to be saved. How wonderful it is to consider that, at any moment, one might get caught up in a story larger than one’s own! By all means, we must gratefully accept whatever adventure is sent our way. It is often through these unplanned adventures that God plans to give us our heart’s desires. And he may just intend to make heroes of us yet.

Engaging With Modern Sensitivities

The Horse and His Boy is a fun, complex, compelling adventure story that would make for a great movie. But adapting THAHB for modern moviegoers can be a fraught proposition, primarily because someone is bound to point out that, in this tale, it appears all of the “good guys” are fair-skinned while all of the “bad guys” are brown-skinned. Aravis notwithstanding, there will be some movie-goers and movie critics, fans of Narnia and non-fans alike, who will raise this question once (if?) it’s announced that this book will get the big screen treatment.

I think it’s wise for Narnia fans to talk about such things now (and I know some already have), and for the eventual movie-makers to not go into making this film without a plan for satisfactorily addressing this issue. Of course, they won’t please everybody, but that can’t be helped.

The Tisroc, may he live for ever
The Tisroc, may he live for ever

Others have written before on the common fantasy literature and film trope of goodness and light being associated with whiteness, while evil and darkness are associated with blackness/brownness. (See: LOTR.) I’ve never seen THAHB in the same vein. It appears C.S. Lewis wanted to cast a culture vastly different from that of Narnia in order to heighten the contrast of our heroes’ escape from slavery to freedom.

And, of course, the best way to create something new in fiction is to base it on something that is real. Lewis, being a lover of medieval Europe, would have been familiar with the confluence of the High Medieval Period and the Islamic Golden Age, and how the latter influenced the former.

Lewis also served in World War I, in which the Ottoman Empire was on the side opposite the Allied Powers. The Narnia stories include a number of Ottoman (or Turkish) influences including the name “Aslan” (the Turkish word for “lion”), which Lewis said he found in the footnotes of a translation of the Arabian Nights. The description of Aslan’s camp in LWW also exhibits Ottoman and Turkish influences. It’s possible Peter’s title of “Magnificent” was inspired by the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent.

Possibly more than any other fantasy literature, the Narnia series was influenced by an abundant variety of myths, legends, and real-world aspects with which the author was familiar. That’s not a negative; that’s a plus.

Tashbaan
Tashbaan

C.S. Lewis didn’t simply change the Calormenes’ skin color as a way of differentiating Narnia’s enemies from its heroes. It’s also clear that, unlike what has been alleged against Game of Thrones, Lewis does not treat the brown-skinned Calormenes as any less than the Narnian and Archenlandish peoples in his literary portrayal of them. The Calormenes are fully realized people — proud, strong, and with a diversity of personalities. (Even if Lewis intended to make them wholly evil — which, he obviously didn’t — they are not homogeneous, unlike Tolkien’s orcs.)

Lasaraleen, the Instagram girl of Tashbaan, cannot switch places with Aravis and the story remain unchanged. Rabadash, the Tisroc, Ahoshta, Anradin Tarkaan, and Arsheesh are all fully rendered. The land of Calormen is likewise painted with rainbow vividness. The loud, crowded, noisy streets of Tashbaan, the city set on a hill in the middle of a great river. The rolling, grassy hills, and the many-inleted coast. The riverside houses with their cool gardens and citric orchards. I think it would be fantastic to see this beautiful culture brought to life on the big screen. And I think it can be pulled off without the story appearing to depict brown-skinned people as the “bad guys.”

(I trust the filmmakers won’t make the bone-headed decision to depict all the Calormenes as white or — even worse — to depict all of the main Calormene characters as white and relegate the people of color to background status. That would be the worst-case scenario.)

Lasaraleen and Aravis catch up.
Lasaraleen and Aravis catch up.

One thing the filmmakers could do (and something I think they would be wise to do) is to include more people of color in the royal courts and cities of Narnia and Archenland. Since, obviously, it wasn’t a rare thing for Calormenes to travel north — they at least got up there to kidnap horses or to buy kidnapped slaves (VODT) — it’s not far-fetched to assume that there were Calormenes who had moved to Narnia and Archenland and took part in the northern way of life. Narnia and Archenland are already quite diverse — you have centaurs, dwarves, dryads, hedgehogs. It’s not a stretch to assume that Calormenes, or the descendants of Calormenes, lived in those northern countries as well.

I suppose I just made the case for a purist book-to-movie translation. Well, what can I say? I love this story.

Misc.

The Narnians ride to war.
The Narnians ride to war.

You know what would make me happy? For William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes, and Georgie Henley to reprise their roles as kings and queens in Narnia’s Golden Age. Of course, Peter wouldn’t make more than a cameo appearance. But Edmund, Susan, and Lucy would have significant screentime. Is this too much to hope for? The sun would appear dark in my eyes if this does not come to pass.

Rabadash rushes to summon his "two hundred horse."
Rabadash rushes to summon his “two hundred horse.”

Despite being the villain, Rabadash is one of my favorite characters. You think he’s a selfish, spoiled brat who will burn the world down if he can’t have what he wants. I say, no! He is a helpless romantic who becomes so besotted with love for Susan that he cannot fathom being separated from her any longer than necessary. (And, yes, he will burn the world down if his love is unrequited.)

It’s too bad Calormen doesn’t have an entertainment industry. The Real Housewives of Tashbaan would be a hit.

If I had to name a single favorite character in all of the Narnia stories, it would probably be Prince Corin. I love his outlook on life and how he bounces from one adventure to the next. He’s good-hearted but a little reckless, and his actions often have unintended consequences. A book or TV series based on his non-canonical adventures, often with Queen Susan, would be very cool.

Another highlight of The Horse and His Boy is the dialogue! It is lively and quick and realistic. I particularly love chapter eight, “In the House of the Tisroc,” which features some of the best repartee in literature.