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.
Young Shasta is effectively a skivvy for his fisherman ‘father’ on the coast of Calormen, far to the south of Narnia. When he overhears a Calormene lord offering to buy him as a slave he plans to escape on the lord’s own horse after discovering his mount is a talking Narnian horse. And so begins a desperate race to cross the country, the adjacent desert and neighbouring Archenland before his oppressors catch up with him.
But nothing is easy. Who is the rider who seems to be keeping pace with him? Why are lions a constant threat? How will he escape the confines of the Calormene capital, Tashbaan, meet up again with his newfound friends, and survive a perilous trek across a hot sandy desert? And can he warn the king of Archenland that a mounted Calormene force is about to attack the defenceless country before it’s too late?
The Horse and His Boy departs from the expected patterns established by the preceding books: the Call to Adventure that involved English schoolchildren passing from our world to Narnia isn’t followed here – the story begins and ends in the fantasy world and features the inhabitants of that world as protagonists. For those who miss the Pevensies they appear too, but not as youngsters. This all may irk many readers (and I think it initially did me too) but that change of viewpoint was more than welcome on my return visit – even if Shasta and his friends still manage to sound like British schoolkids from the 1940s (“I say” as a common preamble to a statement just sounds affected now).
Meanwhile, the barren landscapes here, because hot and dusty, form what seems a deliberate contrast to those in The Silver Chair in which the protagonists had to contend with cold and wet swampland, moorland or tunnels. But Shasta has more than hostile environments against him: his upbringing in a state of worldly ignorance leaves him nervous and unprepared for the many dangers that lie ahead, perils which will test his perseverance and courage to the utmost.
This being a fantasy, surprises of a different kind also await him. The Calormene people, despite living in a land coexistent with Narnia, are strangers to magic except as rumours of superstition and fables. So Shasta’s first real shock is to discover that Bree is a talking horse, of a kind common in Narnia; another shock will be to find that the huge lion he encounters not only talks as well but that Aslan (for it is he) is not the devil that Shasta’s been told. The Aslan of this book, though, jars with Lewis’s 1961 statement that “The whole Narnian story is about Christ”: to me he’s more the Lion of Judah, or rather the God of the Old Testament, working in mysterious ways, even arbitrarily dispensing punishments.
This chronicle displays Lewis’s delight in working in themes and motifs, not just from religion but also literature: for those alert to the references it’s possible to recognise borrowings from Homer, Apuleius, Beowulf, Jonathan Swift, H Rider Haggard and, of course, the Arabian Nights, among others, but all melded together in Lewis’s imaginative fashion. On one level The Horse and His Boy can be a disappointment because it doesn’t offer the reader what may be expected after previous instalments; but on another level Lewis’s creativity is up to the hoped-for standard, subverting some tropes, substituting others. Echoing many of the images and symbols in the pages the book could appropriately be summed up as … quite mercurial.
Read for the #1954Club, hosted by Karen and Simon, as well as for #Narniathon21, in advance of an open discussion of this title. Next month I shall of course in a couple of posts be expanding on many of the issues and ideas contained here.