We’re really galloping through the Chronicles of Narnia in our Narniathon readalong, and have now arrived at the fifth published volume, The Horse and His Boy.
Below are the usual trio of prompt questions to get you started on a discussion … should you need them! Feel free to go off at a tangent if there are different points to raise or issues you want to discuss.
As ever I look forward to a lively response to this instalment, frequently cited as readers’ least favourite – but of course you may disagree and want to put up a spirited defence!
Now does my project gather to a head: My charms crack not; my spirits obey; and time Goes upright with his carriage.
‘The Tempest’ Act V Scene I
How could you go about updating while at the same time respecting the plot of a four centuries old play? One way would be to simply set it in the present and have everyone ignore the fact that characters resemble, even share the same names as, those in the old story. Another way would be to recast it as a genre work – magic realism, say, fantasy, or science fiction – that allows for a parallel presentation of plot and characters where the original wouldn’t impinge because it mayn’t have existed.
An approach involving huge risks would be to utilise metafiction, in which original characters and plots are deliberately referenced: how then to avoid individuals consciously knowing they’re playing pre-existing roles and so deliberately sabotaging outcomes? Margaret Atwood turned these risks to her advantage by copying Shakespeare’s own trick of a play-within-a-play, as when the revenge tragedy Hamlet includes the dumb show ‘The Murder of Gonzago, or The Mousetrap’ in which to “catch the conscience of the king.” Or, indeed, when The Tempest itself includes a masque.
With Hag-Seed she cleverly refashions The Tempest as a kind of ‘revenge comedy’ that takes place within a Canadian correctional institution, with Shakespeare’s own words forming a means by which a vendetta may be enacted against unsuspecting victims. By using a light touch she is able to avoid any accusation of over-earnestness, yet she still manages to include issues ranging from the purpose of prisons through corruption in politics and on to coping with loss.
The Horse and His Boy by C S Lewis, illustrated by Pauline Baynes. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2009 (1954).
With its quizzical title – how exactly does an equine creature somehow own a boy? – the fifth book in the Narnia sequence proves itself a bit of a puzzle but, luckily, also offers unsought delights, unspotted during a first read. How unspotted? Probably because mild prejudice blinded me as to this instalment’s merits.
And that prejudice? Twofold, I think: as a first-time adult Narniad reader I could only see painful proselytising and xenophobic slights; now I have a more nuanced view of the text, one where I switch back and forth between young and old eyes, revealing a novel which is more deserving of my admiration than derision.
The puzzle of course comes with an opening where, unexpectedly, we don’t start with youngsters from 1940s England but are thrown straight into a story seemingly straight out of the Arabian Nights. Reader, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Narnia anymore.
The Two Towers by J R R Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings, Vol. 2. HarperCollins 2012.(1954)
First there were nine. Then two were overcome by the Enemy’s minions. Two quietly slipped off and two others were captured, followed by the remaining three going on what appeared to be a wild goose chase. The fellowship so carefully put together to combat the Enemy is in complete disarray. Is the quest doomed?
The first part of The Lord of the Rings had us following an expedition eastwards from the Shire to Rivendell, where the Fellowship of the Ring was established. By devious routes the dwindling company then headed south to the point where the irrevocable split occurred, meaning a single strand narrative is no longer feasible if we are to keep track of the various players.
Thus begins The Two Towers, the central portion of Tolkien’s massive opus, when our focus shifts, now to the east, now the west, in a dangerous game of distraction, duplicity and bluff.
In a companion post (following a review) I discussed the basic plot structure as well as some literary and mythological influences on C S Lewis’s Narnian tale The Silver Chair. I then promised I’d talk a bit about the emotions and ideals I’d detected behind this instalment of the saga.
I’ll focus on a few of the characters who are likely to elicit – or even repel – our sympathies, and consider the messages Lewis may have been overtly, as well as covertly, trying to get across. Along the way I’d also like to consider the influence of the Moon in The Silver Chair, bearing in mind that it’s been plausibly theorised that Lewis quietly set each of the chronicles under the sign of one of the seven traditional ‘planets’ in medieval cosmology, with the moon assigned to this instalment.
So let us, like Eustace and Jill, open the door in the high stone wall at the top of the shrubbery in the youngsters’ school grounds and emerge from out of our whole world into That Place.
The Winter Swan by Sam Youd. The SYLE Press, 2018 (1949)
Beyond the windows the grey, immense afternoon folded like a cloth across the quiet square, the railed-in trees and the glimpse of meticulous grass. A carriage clipped along the road, its miniature thunder trailed flamboyantly before and after it. When it had gone the clock in the corner of the room ticked more distinctly, marking off the seconds, scratching in the odd corners of infinity.
1949. Rosemary Hallam is buried as the thawing snow starts slipping off the church roof, Cedic Garland her only mourner. Somewhere, somehow, her consciousness drifts into those odd corners of infinity, pausing at key moments in her life, seeing herself as others saw her: she becomes, in death more than in life, “a spy, a reluctant, bewildered eavesdropper on the lives of others.”
Sam Youd’s debut novel, begun when he was only 24 and completed a mere matter of months later, is an assured, lyrical and wise work. In revealing both the agonies and joys of its characters it underlines what the author identified as its main theme — that “relationships matter more than anything and spiritual isolation is hell” — an axiom that remains as pertinent to us now as it did then to the author.
Yet Rosemary, its principal character, does seem spiritually isolated, whether because, orphaned at 13, she has determined not to be bullied by life or whether she is by nature calm and unruffled or, as others mostly see her, cool and aloof. Her last admirer, Cedric, is reminded of a serene swan riding effortlessly over waves; during the course of this novel we get to see how troubled those waves were.
The Fellowship of the Ring by J R R Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings Vol. 1. HarperCollins 2012 (1954)
One of the delights of rereading a favourite book, even one enjoyed multiple times, is the possibility of discovering new aspects to enjoy, despite much remaining familiar. So it is with this, my sixth or seventh visit to Middle-earth in this form, and the surprise is that the tale has not yet grown stale.
What I once saw as longueurs to skim through or skip altogether are now like an overlooked drawer or two in a treasure chest, and even passages I thought I knew well are now revealed new-minted and shiny as if I’d once considered them poor tawdry things. Knowing Tolkien had the capacity to revise and recast and rethink his material over several years has served as a lesson, for me as a reader, to re-evaluate.
Though he was, against his inclination, persuaded to publish his epic fantasy in three volumes (thus potentially jeopardising the integrity of the whole) The Fellowship of the Ring, comprising Books One and Two, does in fact hang together as a narrative, its ending acting as a caesura before the next stage when we follow different individuals and interwoven timelines in The Two Towers. This therefore justifies any overview of the volume as an individual entity.
For at the top of the shrubbery was a high stone wall and in that wall a door in which you can get out in to open moor. […] But when the door actually opened, they both stood stock still. For what they saw was quite different from what they had expected.
Now, after reviewing C S Lewis’s portal fantasy The Silver Chair (1953), I want to dedicate a couple of posts to discussing two related aspects: the emotions and philosophies which a reading reveals, and — for this post — the kinds of influences that may have been absorbed by the novel.
The Cambridge University chair in Medieval and Renaissance English — a professorship in English literature — was especially created in 1954 for Lewis, a year after this novel appeared. I won’t even attempt to compete with the range and quality of the texts this erudite scholar would have known and loved, instead identifying from my limited reading the literary resonances and form that I believe can be detected in The Silver Chair.
If my discussion seems a bit random or episodic that’s because it is, as suits a There and Back Again tale. Warning: there are spoilers galore coming up.
Journey to the River Sea
by Eva Ibbotson.
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001).
Born in Vienna in 2025, Eva Ibbotson had to move to England in 1935 when Hitler came to power. That experience — of being uprooted — was drawn on directly for novels like The Morning Gift (about a girl from a secular Jewish family escaping Nazi Germany) and indirectly, I suspect, for Maia, the young protagonist of Journey to the River Sea.
Who has not imagined what life might be like if one was an orphan forced from their familiar environment? Ibbotson experienced the displacement while the fictional Maia is a genuine orphan — not impecunious, it is true — who at the beginning of the 20th century has to travel away from her boarding school to live with distant relatives.
1872, 1922, 1954. Three years. What do they have in common? They all feature in this post, for a start!
1872. A century and a half ago George Eliot’s Middlemarch was first published in book form, after being serialised by Blackwood magazine. I began this a year or so ago but got distracted, so I’m determined to get back to it this special year. How can I not read this, a classic that’s so highly regarded, not least by Virginia Woolf?
1922. A hundred years ago two particular writers were born whose work I want to explore this year. One was KurtVonnegut whose birthday in November I want to mark with a read of one or other of his titles; the other is Sam Youd — who’s better known as SF author John Christopher but also wrote under other names in other genres — and his centenary occurs this month.
1954. A week this month is being set aside to read a book or two from a more recent year, as part of a reading event called — not unnaturally — the 1954 Club. And the whole month is set aside for Reading the Theatre, so as it happens I have possible titles to pick for both of these events.
But have I bitten off more than I can chew? Interestingly, in March I managed to complete books for Reading Wales, Reading Ireland, March Magics, and Narniathon, so there may be hope!
The Silver Chair by C S Lewis, illustrated by Pauline Baynes. Diamond Books 1997 (1953).
‘Though under Earth and throneless now I be, Yet, while I lived, all Earth was under me.’
After escaping bullies two children from a coeducational school in 1940s Britain find themselves in a strange and extraordinarily vivid land — only to then be blown off a high cliff. They are to be sent on a quest to find a lost prince, but it will require inner resources, courage and imagination to achieve the quest, and it all hangs in the balance if they don’t recognise the signs they’ve been given.
The theme of The Quest may be a staple of myth, fairytale and fantasy but it has its strengths and weaknesses as a narrative driver. If the quest isn’t achieved it runs the risk of disappointment for the audience; if it is too easily accomplished it may seem preordained; only if there is a sense of peril and uncertainty can we feel that the task may have been a worthwhile one.
The Silver Chair (it seems to me) aims to fulfill the third of the criteria, but there are inklings of the first two which could potentially ruin one’s enjoyment of the story as a whole. And yet there is much that satisfies in terms of characterisation, drama and mythic resonances which may well overcome potential stumbling blocks to whole-hearted acceptance of this episode in the Chronicles of Narnia.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.