Talking beasts: #Narniathon21

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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.

© C A Lovegrove

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).

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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.

#Narniathon21 image after Pauline Baynes

20 thoughts on “Talking beasts: #Narniathon21

  1. A very fine and balanced assessment, more even-handed than my own opinionated one. I’m glad this grew on you upon a second reading. But I still will never enjoy it as much as the others.

    We can agree that Narnia is above all a literary landscape, even more than a religious or spiritual one (insofar as those can be distinguished from their literary basis). I will look forward to your exposition of some of the influences since you always discover sources that are not familiar to me.

    The old-fashioned tone of the dialog never bothered me, perhaps because I’m not British. In fact it probably forms part of the appeal to me, as I associate it with magic and fantasy, due to the books that were my only source of Britishisms. I was not attuned enough to the nuances to find it out of style or unrealistic.

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    1. The first time I read it I had the same reaction as I did to DWJ’s Castle in the Air, namely uncomfortable. They seemed to be playing on cultural stereotypes which to me felt both out-of-state and inappropriate. I’m so glad though that my rereads of both fantasies have softened my responses by allowing me to notice where the authors’ barbs really lay: criticisms of individual human failings more than lazy caricatures. I’m still uncomfortable but rather less so, especially if I see the satire addressed at Victorian translations more than the originals.

      Seventy years on the archaic Britishisms do to me now stick out like sore thumbs, but if they add to the period charm then who am I to cavil? 🙂 Anyway, I’m looking forward to expanding on the literary and other influences, though I’ll leave them till after the last Friday of the month! (And I haven’t forgotten your fascinating dissection of this title with regard to when it was actually written rather than when it was published…)

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  2. ‘I say,’ you seem to have really enjoyed this one! Reflecting on this volume after posting my own review which was definitely opinionated, I finding it better as time goes on. I remain confused about Aslan as Old Testament God though, but like the expansion of the world of Narnia to include southern lands with a different, if challenging to our modern ideals, way of life.

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    1. I definitely feel an Old Testament vibe for Aslan in this instalment, Annabel, as in Exodus– “For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” – and he just comes across as vindictive more than just. But it is the human characters who redeem this volume for me (not forgetting Bree and Hwin of course!) even if it’s nowhere near the best in the series.

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  3. jjlothin

    The Horse & His Boy was never a favourite, but for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, your analysis is encouraging me to give it another spin … Perhaps it’s the appeal to my Mercury in Leo!

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    Reading The Horse and His Boy for the first time about 1970 I am sure I noticed the proselytizing but not the Xenophobia and I really enjoyed it. Also, I was probably reading The Arabian Knights or some version thereof and all the Enid Blyton characters spoke like caricatures (not to mention bashing Americans or the French) so I was well prepared for this book, if surprised by the setting. However, as I state in my review, I always had mixed feelings about Aslan’s deliberating clawing Aravis’ back. I suppose it is good that Aslan thinks she is worth saving but why does she has to be punished so violently first? Interestingly, he lets Susan fall by the wayside rather than shock her into coming back to the fold, but that can wait until we reach my least favorite book.

    Did any contemporary reviews react with any criticism? The only one I could find is Kirkus, which said, “A beautifully written tale to read aloud as well, in which C.S. Lewis’ talents seem to flower more than ever.”

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    1. I liked your review, Connie, and appreciate your comments here; I too felt the clawing of Aravis’s back was unnecessary – if she was to be punished for unwittingly causing a servant to be punished surely this was not an appropriate way to do it? And the humiliation of Rabadash just felt vindictive, even if his heart was hardened against Archenland and Aslan. I’m less convinced of Lewis’s xenophobia, his depictions here a reflection I think more of lingering imperialistic attitudes in Britain than assumptions of superiority, but I may be being too generous here. Clearly the contemporary Kirkus review had nothing to say on that score other than its Arabian Nights setting.


  5. Of all the Narnia books, this is the one I remember least from my childhood. That probably means it wasn’t a favourite, as I have clear memories of most of the others. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it – even if it’s maybe not as strong as some of the other novels, it’s obviously still a fascinating and worthwhile read.

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    1. Fascinating and worthwhile it certainly seems to me on this second read, Helen, though it’s nowhere near the top of most readers’ favourites! I was pleasantly surprised to find it more engaging than I remembered.

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  6. Put me in the “I enjoyed this” camp. I hope to get a post up this week. I found the story telling more adultish or at least young adultish. I do like the Aslan as the Lion of Judah symbol as it matches the desert designation for both the Israelites and the Calormenes. Aslan is so very different in this book, isn’t he? Also, looking forward to the discussion on Friday. I am sorry I missed it last month.

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    1. I’m not myself a fan of OT Yahweh, Laurie, smiting his enemies and so on, but I agree the Lion of Judah suits the book’s setting, as with the pillars of fire and cloud leading the Israelites through the desert much like Aslan directing Shasta and Aravis’s routes. No worries about missing the Silver Chair discussions, the Narniathon is meant to be an easy meme – at least that’s how you sold it to me! 🙂

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  7. I say, I’m glad you found so much enjoyment in this one, Chris!
    For me the racism was a glaring obstacle to enjoyment; and the sudden change from New to Old Testament, as you noticed, didn’t work for me as this new vengeful Aslan seems to me a very harsh and unforgiving entity.

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    1. I hope to discuss the perceived racism in a follow-up post, Ola: it was less glaring to me this time around I think. But, yes, OT Aslan is even less easy to like in this episode – he’s a bit of a bully compared to the meek and mild friend from LWW and elsewhere.

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    1. Oh, excellent commentary, Jean, and I’m glad you brought out the mercurial aspects (which I’ll also be mentioning in a follow-up post). I liked the way you characterised Aravis and her friend as essentially Brits from Lewis’s period overlaid by an Arabian Nights gloss.

      I’m also amazed that Aravis has some slight resemblances with Éowyn in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring which was published in the same year! And it’s curious that Joan Aiken’s proactive heroine in The Whispering Mountain is called ‘Arabis’, the name of a rock plant but also strangely similar to the word ‘arabic’.

      [In case this comment disappears (or never appears) on your review I’m repeating it here in response to your comment on my review!]


  8. I enjoyed it much more than I expected as you know Chris, and I suspect my previous resistance was because of exactly what you stated in your excellent review, that departure from the established formula of the earlier books. But this one has so much to enjoy about it, not the least the wonderful conjuring of the locations. I agree about the punishment of Aravis being harsh – I was a little concerned at that – and the mockery is perhaps more than we would be comfortable with nowadays. But like you I think the attitudes are very much of a man of his time and background which helps me understand them.

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    1. I agree, Karen, I think we can indeed allow Lewis a little bit more leeway as being a man of his time and background – a Late Victorian no less! – and look to what it is that we can individually enjoy about this offering: the landscapes, the adventure, and so on.

      I suppose the question Lewis asks concerns consequences and whether they’re foreseen or unforeseen: if foreseen I suppose, like Gilbert and Sullivan his “object all sublime” is “to let the punishment fit the crime.” It’s a bit too eye-for-an-eye vindictive for my liking though!

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  9. This one of all the books in the series was the least vivid in my memory yet as I read sentences, and in fact whole passages at times, were instant recognisable to me. It’s fascinating how it must have lodged in my memory somehow. The re-read also reminded me that I had enjoyed the children’s adventure at the time and I wonder why my attitude to the book has hardened over the years. I think possibly after I read The Last Battle, which disappointed me as a child, I then linked the two together, as I think from memory CS Lewis’s attitudes are obvious in both. I agree completely with your comments on the Old Testament Aslan but honestly can’t remember if I picked this up a child. Perhaps this less kindly version affected my memory of it too. I’m glad I’ve read this again though as my appreciation of the chronicles as a whole has been affected by it. Thanks again, Chris.

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    1. Whether or not one would pick up on the OT vibes as a child – and it’s very possible that if there was there’d be a very faint echo – I think what would’ve lodged with me if I’d read this as a youngster would be Aslan’s scary interventions, roaring, chasing, and clawing, and how unnecessary it would seem. And as a sensitive child I wouldn’t have relished the humiliation of Rabadash, however wicked he’d been – that would’ve just felt vindictive, even for someone as unrepentant as him.

      But I’m really pleased that the opportunity to reread the whole Narniad has proved helpful, Anne, that’s really gratifying!

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