What The Horse and His Boy Can Tell Us About Racism, Cultural Superiority, Beauty Standards, and Inclusiveness
The Chronicles of Narnia has legions of fans around the world. According to journalist and novelist Lev Grossman, the much-beloved series published in the 1950s split the atom on the modern fantasy novel. But as our society becomes more aware of the inequities, injustices, and prejudices of previous generations—and rightfully so—the series has come under increasing scrutiny as espousing racism, sexism, and insensitivity to people outside of Anglo-Western religious and cultural backgrounds.
The nexus of these issues—race, culture, religion, and sex—finds itself in the fifth-published and third-written of Lewis’ Narniad—The Horse and His Boy. With Netflix paying nearly $250 million for film and series rights to all seven books—we assume they don’t plan to sit on the intellectual property—the Narnia series will be the object of increased attention at some time in the foreseeable future. And with that scrutiny will come the equally foreseeable social commentary litigating what the books (and whatever Netflix’s interpretation of the books) are saying about representation and the way people of color and cultures outside of a patriarchal Anglo-Western worldview are portrayed in media.
Any potential adaptation of The Horse and His Boy will be fraught with minefields. Houston Chronicle editor Kyrie O’Connor claims it isn’t far-fetched to see the fantasy as “anti-Arab, or anti-Eastern, or anti-Ottoman” and suggests a desire to “stuff this story back into its closet.” While Lewis’ Narniad is emotionally stimulating and spiritually moving, it can be overshadowed by issues that led another popular fantasy writer and academic—Philip Pullman of His Dark Materials fame—to call it “one of the most ugly and poisonous things I have ever read.” He wrote that in a 1998 Guardian article titled “The Dark Side of Narnia.” Imagine what will be said about Narnia over twenty-five years later if Netflix dares to adapt The Horse and His Boy. (And I say to Netflix, as Aslan says to Bree, “Do not dare not to dare.”)
“Although Narnia has survived countless perils, the Chronicles themselves are now endangered… What’s in progress is a struggle of sorts for the soul of children’s fantasy literature.”
If the struggle is as eschatological as Easterbrook posits—and if Lewis’ reputation is indeed growing “beyond the reach of ordinary criticism” as Pullman argued in his ’98 hit piece—then it’s worth taking the time to look seriously at what the Narnia chronicles tell us about Lewis’ personal views and about the messaging (if any) encoded in the books.
My concern here is primarily The Horse and His Boy. But we can’t separate this work from the whole so we’ll refer to the other novels (not always by name) when needed.