#Narniathon21: equine friends

Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms
Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms (Sawrey Gilpin, 1769)

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!

Trojan Horse from a 7th-century BCE Cycladic vase: a horse, but not what it seems!
  1. The Horse and His Boy has a distinctive Arabian Nights feel which some have found problematic. Has this aspect, and its cultural or racial resonances, been an issue for you, or not?
  2. Unlike the previous four titles, this book has the formerly young visitors to Narnia, the Pevensies, more as bit players than as protagonists. Have you found this a disappointment or did you happily adjust to the new points of view provided by Shasta, Aravis and the others?
  3. As a boy Lewis loved to imagine talking animals, and that love permeates all the chronicles, including here with Bree, Hwin and, of course, Aslan. How did you feel about the interplay between the young protagonists and their mounts? Did you spot the literary allusions? And how did you react to Rabadash’s punishment? (Oops, that’s more than one question … but they are related!)

Of course there’s much more that could be said other than the points these questions highlight, so feel free to mention them below. And do add links to your own reviews if you wish, here as well as elsewhere on social media using the tag Narniathon21!


My review of The Horse and His Boy has already appeared here, but as usual I’ll be posting further thoughts on it sometime in the weeks leading up to our discussion of the sixth chronicle The Magician’s Nephew, on Friday 27th May. See you again then!

#Narniathon21 image after Pauline Baynes

As a side note, I apparently began blogging here ten years ago, which is I suppose worth recording! And this weekend I’m involved in musical festival concerts so may be late with responses, for which I apologise.

34 thoughts on “#Narniathon21: equine friends

  1. Happy decade of blogging!
    One thing about the talking horses that I rarely hear anyone else mention is that Hwin’s name uses onomatopoeia, so when I’m reading the book I keep saying it and thinking about how the horses must sound when they talk (perhaps this is an allusion to Swift, as the name of the Houyhnhnms also uses onomatopoeia)

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thanks, Jeanne, I often wondered if I’d manage to sustain Calmgrove for ten years – and I have!

      Hwin, and especially Bree when he tells Shasta his name, is clearly onomatopoeic, and as I hinted by including a painting of the Houyhnhnms in this post I’m certain this is a nod to Swift. I’ll expand a bit on this in a follow-up post.

      By the way, the names are quite Tolkienian, are they not? Coincidentally Bree is the village on a hill east of the Shire in LOTR, and ‘Hwin’ reminds me a bit of Treebeard’s rumbling speech.

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  2. Well, my review is already up of course but in answer to your questions:

    1. I was aware of it but I could deal with it because I see it as Lewis being a product of his time and background.

    2. Back in the day I liked this story less because I perceived it as having little focus on people from our world. This time round, I liked it much more!

    3. I liked the horses and their humans a lot.

    4. As for Rabadash’s punishment, well he wasn’t a nice man… But I did sense Lewis (and Aslan!) getting a bit harsher generally here!

    And congrats on the ten years of blogging!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. And a fine review it is too! Rabadash sounds to have been a thoroughly unrepentant human character, so his punishment – immediate humiliation as well as the future threat of it – seems just about the only suitable way of dealing with him: after all, he wasn’t like Jadis who had to be destroyed because her power was out of control and a threat to the world of Narnia.

      I also felt that Rabadash’s plan of action had very strong resonances with what’s currently happening in eastern Europe, with a more powerful country using weak pretexts to ruthlessly attack an adjacent one. If only a certain potentate could be turned into a powerless braying donkey our world might be a safer place…

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  3. I enjoyed this book very much. As I read though the comments on all the books so far, I think they can be read in a variety of ways. And that’s what makes this kind of literature so much fun and interesting!

    1. I found the story to be very symbolic of the Exodus in the Hebrew Bible, rather than the Arabian Nights, and that’s what I mostly drew from in my post. https://relevantobscurity.com/2022/04/26/the-horse-and-his-boy/
    I didn’t find the racial stereotypes problematic, because it doesn’t come across as purposeful hate, but more as wanting to tell a story, not knowing much about the people you’re writing about so using what you know that happens to be the stereotypes in the time and context in which you write. Today, Lewis should be called out, which he is and that is a good thing.

    2. Frankly, I didn’t miss the Pevensies. I don’t think there is anything special or unusual about them in this one, because they’re older and acting like any Kings and Queens. I remember them and their adventures as children, which were more interesting to me. I liked Aravis and Shasta and their adventures and past history drew me.

    3. Lewis gave Hwin and Bree very well-developed backstories. They were both well drawn, especially Bree who was not about to forget where he came from: “I am a free Narnian” as he repeatedly said. He also acted like the adult of the group in keeping everyone on track. Speaking of names, his full name was amazing!

    4. I was a little uncomfortable with Rabadash’s treatment. I know he was a bad guy, but the taunting of him felt a little borderline sadistic. And that he was turned into a donkey and had to be healed by his God, seems very reminiscent of the talking donkey in the Bible and God in general when he was met in the tabernacle. But it’s easy for me to read it this way, Lewis’s point or not!

    As I said in my post I found this book appealing as a freedom and identity story and I suppose the next time I read it I’ll see something else!

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    1. Good to know there’s still plenty to read in and new ways to approach this series, Laurie! Yes, there’s a lot of OT in this instalment, I agree, though clearly Lewis drew a lot from the Arabian Nights in terms of atmosphere, language, appearance and motifs.

      Interesting you didn’t miss the Pevensies: I did wonder at the still proactive Lucy, now more martial than before, but because we got to invest in Aravis and especially Shasta I found I didn’t miss the siblings at all. I too liked Bree’s “free Narnian” stance – hard not to be reminded of the same urge to counter aggression and threat to freedom in eastern Europe and elsewhere. So, yes to “freedom and identity”!

      As for Rabadash, I was reminded less of Balaam’s ass than of Pinocchio or Lucius in The Golden Ass, both of whom were punished thus by the powers that be for poor behaviour.

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  6. I really enjoyed my reading of The Horse and His Boy this time, more than I ever remember from past readings. I was a little bothered by the references to ‘bad’ people who clearly bring Muslims to mind now. But I wasn’t bothered enough to not enjoy the story. I have to remind myself that Lewis wrote the book during a different age. This, of course, made me think of other fabulous pieces of literature like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which have recently come under scrutiny also. Anyway, here is my post where I answer the questions and muse a bit about the books and the publication: The Horse and His Boy

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for linking, Anne, loved your responses to the questions! I tried to leave a long comment on your blog but it disappeared when I tried to validate it, sorry! As to your comment here about works being ‘of their time’ I mostly concur, though I know works by contemporaries of such authors who somehow seem more in tune with more modern sensibilities about gender, culture and so on.

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  7. Congratulations on ten years of a great blog. I just discovered it this year and am impressed with how much there is to discover here! Like you I’m fascinated by Arthuriana, although at least using the search function I’m not finding references to my favorite, T. H. White’s Once and Future King. But on to Lewis!

    I often forget about this one because it’s such a side path from the main narrative and I often skipped it as a kid. But I think it’s actually one of the most successful of the series when it comes to characterizations.

    1. The Orientalism and brown bad/white good is a real problem, of course. How ridiculous, and how representative of colonialism, that the entire world is called “Narnia” when we now see what a tiny country it is, just one of many. On the other hand, I enjoy the way Lewis uses different registers/dictions/narrative methods – it may not be accurate in any way, but it helped me understand as a child that different cultures will communicate differently.

    2. I like that the Pevensies don’t dominate, and I enjoyed the glimpse of the lives we heard about in LWW, except the foreshadowing of poor Susan’s ostracism (that she could have considered marrying Rabadash…)

    3. I love how both children and both horses have distinct personalities and grow over the course of the book. All four are specific characters, regardless of species, and they come to understand and accept each other. Even Lasaraleen is fleshed out enough to be a believable and recognizable person, who can be a good friend despite her laziness. And Rabadash’s punishment turned out better for those around him than Midas’, at least!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Hilary, I wasn’t really fishing for compliments, more noting the anniversary as WP were kind enough to let me know!

      The last thing I read of TH White pre-blog was his Mistress Masham’s Repose (inspired by Gulliver’s Travels incidentally!) but I have a copy of the posthumous The Book of Merlyn which I last read in the 1970s. I may search these out soon to review – wonder if there’s an anniversary I can link them to?!

      Your HHB responses: you make a good point about Narnia not being the whole of the world that Aslan created (about which we will discover in the next novel) – that was a point that bothered me when I first read the series. Also that the Pevensies are less prominent (and less real?) than characters like Lasaraleen is worth emphasising.

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      1. I love Mistress Masham’s Repose! That’s one of the children’s classics that doesn’t have nearly the recognition it deserves, IMO. The scene in the Lord Lieutenant’s dining room, with its malfunctioning novelty dispensers, still makes me laugh. The Book of Merlyn I haven’t read in quite a while but I remember it as a much-inferior coda to The Once and Future King.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The Book of Merlin was, I believe, a draft, bits of which were used in parts of The Once and Future King. I can’t say I remember much, it’s been half a century since I delved into it! I fancy reading about the Repose first!

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  8. 1. I agree with Laurie that Lewis’s sins regarding the Calormenes are more about ignorance than malice. Ignorance is bad enough of course.

    2. I don’t miss the Pevensies per se. I just could not really feel drawn to any of the new characters. I’ve been impressed from other posts to learn how much people do enjoy them and appreciate their characterization, so on a further read (if any) I may end up reassessing them.

    3. The interplay between the humans and horses was well done. One can see that Lewis really has thought through what animals would say if they could talk. I missed there being more magical and uniquely otherworldly elements, because boy- (or girl-) and-horse stories are common enough in our world, even if the equine friends don’t talk human language. I suppose I expected something different from a Narnia book; if H&B had been a standalone I might have liked it more.

    Thanks once more and felicitations upon ten years! May your WordPress never fill up and your TBR be an endless source of entertainment (none of us truly want to finish it off, do we?)

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    1. I don’t know enough about Lewis to say whether he had an ivory tower attitude, but I know enough postwar attitudes in the UK to guess what were current attitudes in his generation – after all my father, who was well-travelled and born in India of Anglo-Indian stock, could still note without apparent disapproval that some Polynesians were called fuzzy-wuzzies. But I rather think Lewis saw the Calormenes as stock Arabian Nights characters rather like the Narnians were seen as medieval lords and ladies from Europe.

      Because the Pevensies are older they feel a lot more distant to me, though Lewis does indicate the growth in Lucy’s and Edmund’s characters, one even more proactive, the other more sage. It’s clear though that our attention is meant to be on Shasta/Cor’s ‘journey’ and, to a lesser extent, Aravis’s. The reduced magic didn’t bother me as it did some other readers: transformation seemed to be a key theme here, perhaps a hint at Lewis’s quicksilver theme underlying this episode.

      Thanks for your felicitations and wishes! As it could (maybe should) say in, I think, Ecclesiastes, we have no better thing under the sun than to read, and to write, and to be merry… 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I just finished reading this last night. I really enjoyed it the first time I read it. It was one of my favorite books in the Narniad. This time around, I didn’t like it as much. I still liked it, just not as much.

    1. I did notice the problematic language and descriptions of the Calormen. I’m sure many readers probably think of Arabs or Muslims at Lewis’ descriptions. I also thought of the Sikh faith because of the turbans as Muslims don’t actually wear turbans.

    While I think a book written like this today would be extremely problematic, I do try not to cast judgment on people in the past using today’s standards. Yes, racism and prejudice was just as wrong in CS Lewis’ time as it is now. AND, I think it’s better to learn from our past mistakes than to condemn a man for participating in socially acceptable, albeit reprehensible, mannerisms. It’s the same reason I don’t think we should ban Mark Twain’s books.

    2. I was fine with reading the story from other POVs than the Pevensies. I’m not necessarily attached to them. I’m most attached to Aslan and some of the woodland creatures. If Aslan weren’t to show up (I think like in Magician’s Nephew), then I’d be disappointed.

    3. I really liked how Aslan shows up in this book. It’s one of the things I like about this book. I think Rabadash’ punishment was just. I’m not sure how they’re related, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting, Jenni Elyse, always good to hear your thoughts. This book definitely elicits varied responses from Narnia fans, doesn’t it!

      You’re right, these days we mostly associate turbans with Sikh men, but it’s not exclusive to them – desert peoples like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan also wear them. The word has come to us from Persian via Turkish and French, and medieval and later illuminated manuscripts from Iran, Iraq and Ottoman Turkey show them worn by men as a matter of course. As I mention elsewhere, Lewis’s inspiration for the Calormenes is from the ‘Arabian Nights’ just as the Narnians and Telmarines are taken from Arthurian romances. I do agree that we shouldn’t ban books just because some aspect of them is no longer acceptable, else we’d end up banning most literature!

      Aslan does in fact turn up in The Magician’s Nephew, doesn’t he, when he first creates Narnia as it appears for most of the series. But like you I wasn’t attached to the Pevensies so much that I was disappointed by their late appearance.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for correcting me about the turbans. I didn’t realize that. I thought only Sikh men wore them. It’s always good to learn something new.

        I honestly am not sure about The Magician’s Nephew. It was one of my least favorite books in the Narniad. I remember the professor, the lamppost, the White Witch, and the tree the wardrobe is made of and that’s it.

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        1. No worries, turbans are certainly more visible on Sikhs in the West so it’s an easy assumption to make. I do that sort of thing all the time!

          I hope you do give The Magician’s Nephew another chance, so much to notice on a second read. You must at least remember the city of Charn, surely, where Polly and Digory meet Jadis? I discuss it and other deserted cities here, if that helps: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-carceri

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  11. The Arabian Nights! Now why didn’t I think of that. It does very much have an Arabian Nights feel to it, the setting, the prophecy and also the magic with Rabadash at the end.

    1. I think I noticed the prejudice much more on this read, but while it does add a hint of discomfort, one can understand much of it as a product of its time. That food and poetry came into this was curious though. But I enjoyed it all the same. The eastern setting, despite its prejudicial undertone adds a bit of magic to it, and I loved how that came through in the illustrations

    2. This does seem like a separate story from the Narniad in a way. While the Pevensies and touches of the familiar world come into it, I felt it belonged in a more dreamy, fairy tale space apart from yet within the world.

    3. The punishment was rather like a Hindi film.i once watched with the same fantasy/lost prince, evil vizier theme, where one of the villains is turned into an ass! A little harsh may, but also perhaps a case of ends justifying means? Well, like Lewis, I always wished I could talk to animals, so the fact that Bree an Hwin could communicate with their people was lovely. I thought despite Bree’s snobbishness, he and Shasta do get along quite well, and he does manage to teach Shasta how to ride!

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    1. The Arabian Nights very much struck me from the start as a likely model for this book. Surely Lewis largely took stock characters from that classic collection – the cunning Caliph, for example, the wicked Vizier, even the Tarkaan Anradin is the stereotype of the ‘uncle’ who seeks to lure the young protagonist away. Those who don’t play to type, like Shasta or Aravis’s friend, are recognisable as conforming to the Chosen One trope or the empty-headed acquaintance we find an embarrassment. Well, so it seemed to me! As for the accusation of cultural or racial stereotyping I hope to discuss that more in a future post, but this post I saw was interesting: https://wp.me/p1L28Z-3XX

      Your example of shape-changing into an ass shown in a Hindi film is fascinating – I wonder what it was? – and though so many cultures use this motif in tales I thought Rabadash may have been let off quite lightly bearing in mind he’d caused so much tragedy. Bree’s discomfort was more believable though!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll be looking out for that post. The stereotyping seemed more underlying than outright but one does feel it. As Karen also said, one is able to see it as a product of it’s time.

        I’m trying to rack my brains now for other instances where a similar shape change happens.

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