Rich in themes: #Narniathon21

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Lewis mines material from his own huge learning, drawing on theology, Renaissance geography, myth, folktales, medieval writings, and even earlier children’s books…

Diana Wynne Jones (2012:48)

Where fans of Narnia are concerned The Horse and His Boy (1954) doesn’t rate as highly among their favourites as others in the series (though usually, it must be admitted, higher than The Last Battle). For many this instalment has issues surrounding racial and/or cultural stereotypes, intermixed with disappointment for some that the expected protagonists take a back seat in the narrative and the action.

However, in common with the previously published titles The Horse and His Boy is rich in themes and motifs which C S Lewis borrowed freely from literature, mythology and folklore.

In this, perhaps overlong, post I want to consider some of these influences, leaving discussion of the issues and of Lewis’s overarching schema to another time. Is it needful to say then that there will be plenty of spoilers ahead?

‘Landscape with Psyche Outside the Palace of Cupid, or The Enchanted Castle’ (1664) by Claude Lorrain

As well as the Old Testament Lewis draws on several sources to provide colour for his tale, including Homer’s Iliad, the Metamorphosis of Apuleius, Beowulf, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, H Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and, of course, the Arabian Nights. Nor must we neglect fairytales such as the Grimms’ The Goose Girl. In turn Lewis’s novel would go on to influence later authors when they came to write their fantasies, and I shall suggest a handful of these writers next time.

The Old Testament is the text that many Christian commentators note as being very present for them in the novel and usually the most meaningful. In particular the central narrative in The Book of Exodus telling of Moses, guided by Yahweh – leading his people out of Egypt, across deserts, through rivers, meeting physical conflicts, to finally reach the Promised Land – parallels the journey of Shasta and his friends. Lewis of course suggests the parallels rather than deliberately copying them, though some are very close to the original.

So when Aslan appears anonymously as a cat to Shasta, thrice declares “Myself” when Shasta asks who he is, and chases Shasta and his companion Aravis to get them to go in the appointed direction, we can’t help but be reminded of incidents such as the burning bush, Yahweh intoning I AM THAT I AM, and the pillars of fire and smoke. And when refreshing water appears in Aslan’s pawprint Lewis is surely recalling the stream coming from a rock for the Israelites in the desert (though Moses strikes the rock with his staff when he should have spoken the appointed words) or the waters of Marah which Yahweh made sweet when a tree was cast into the spring.

But we mustn’t be literal, thinking for example that the River Winding Arrow must refer to the River Jordan – the name means “flowing or descending” – winding down to the Dead Sea. Rather, Lewis means to hint at aspects of Old Testament mythology here, not to simply repeat it.

Trojan Horse from a 7th-century BCE Cycladic vase

In the same way he means to echo other aspects of his reading and interests, as for example Homer. Just as The Voyage of the Dawn Treader borrowed ideas from the Odyssey so does The Horse and His Boy reflect motifs from the Iliad.

First of all how do Shasta and Aravis get access to the capital of Calormen, Tashbaan? By posing as grooms for the two steeds, Bree and Hwin, of course. But the latter are not what they seem: they are Narnian talking horses. In the same way at the siege of Ilium (Troy) the Greeks employ a stratagem suggested by wily Odysseus, namely to construct a horse which isn’t what it seems, for the Trojan Horse is a ruse to smuggle the Greek warriors into the city. Instead of the temple of Athena (as represented archaeologically in Troys VIII-IX) and King Priam’s palace at the summit of the citadel Lewis depicts the House of the Tisroc; and instead of the palladium, the goddess Athena’s talisman which Odysseus then stole from Troy, Aravis (as she lies hidden in the throne room) ‘steals’ the secret of Rabadash’s plan to attack Archenland.

When Rabadash does indeed lay siege to Anvard, the capital of Archenland, he (unfortunately for him) has lost the element of surprise and therefore fails. When his punishment is then meted out by Aslan it is to be turned into a braying donkey. Now, for many readers and others, this motif may remind them of the incident in Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio when the living puppet is turned into an ass, or of Bottom the weaver’s similar metamorphosis in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; but this transformation in fact is a very old notion.

Most famously it appears in the scurrilous Roman novel The Golden Ass by Apuleius, also known as the Metamorphosis, in which Lucius the protagonist is accidentally transformed into a donkey. Not only had Charles Kingsley briefly featured “the Island of Golden Asses” in his literary fairytale The Water-Babies (1863) but just two years after The Horse and His Boy Lewis was to publish Till We Have Faces (1956) in which he retold the myth of Cupid and Psyche as it had appeared in The Golden Ass.

Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle © The Trustees of the British Museum

The inclusion of Beowulf in the list of influences may surprise, though to be honest it’s a passing reference. Shasta of course will be eventually revealed as the missing Prince Cor, stolen at birth and found floating in a boat close to shore by the fisherman Arsheesh. Plenty of commentators are happy to point to the example of Moses found in the bullrushes as the inspiration for this incident, but just as close a parallel is found in the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem. At the start the body of Scyld Scefing (literally “shield child of the sheaf”) is placed in a richly-adorned funeral boat, an act which referenced his discovery as a child:

“They furnished him with offerings from the nation’s wealth – and by no means so poorly as those others had done who, in the beginning, had sent him forth alone over the waves when he was but a child.”

G N Garmonsway et al (1980:4)

Did Lewis give the name Shasta to Cor as a nod to the doubled ‘sh’ sound in Scyld Scefing? And then there’s also this from the 12th-century De Gestis Regum Anglorum (‘About the Acts of the Kings of England’) by William of Malmesbury, in which Scyld and Sceaf are somehow conflated:

[…] Sceldius, the son of Sceaf. He, so they say, as a small child, was driven ashore in a boat without oars on a certain island of Germany called Scandza […]. He was asleep, and at his head was laid a sheaf of corn; for this reason he was given the name Sceaf, and was received as a miracle by the men of that region, and carefully reared.

Garmonsway et al (1980:119)

Some may argue that the Beowulf poet and others were merely borrowing the Scyld Scefing incident from the Moses story, but of course this origin story for Moses is definitely not unique to him: it’s shared for instance with the Mesopotamian king Sargon of Akkad, the twins Romulus and Remus cast adrift on the Tiber, and the Welsh poet Taliesin whom the witch Ceridwen threw into the water in a leather bag but who was then rescued by Elffin ap Gwyddno. This folktale motif is classified by Stith Thompson as S141 – “Exposure in boat. A person (usually woman or child) set adrift in a boat (chest, basket, cask)” – details with which Shasta’s first appearance in Chapter One conforms.

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

Jumping forward a few centuries we now come to Lewis’s fellow Irish compatriot Jonathan Swift. The final book of Swift’s most famous satire, Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels, is entitled ‘A Voyage to the Land of the Houyhnhnms,’ describing the voyager’s experiences amongst talking horses which must surely have inspired Lewis in writing this novel. “Houyhnhnm” is how Gulliver renders the horses’ whinnying description of themselves, to which we must compare this exchange in The Horse and His Boy:

“I don’t know your name.”
“Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah,” said the Horse.
“I’ll never be able to say that,” said Shasta. “Can I call you Bree?”
“Well, if it’s the best you can do, I suppose you must,” said the Horse.

Chapter One

Hwin’s name is even closer in sound to Gulliver’s equine friends the Houyhnhnms, and her name may even be derived from the beginning of their collective name. Meanwhile Bree’s self-important attitude to Shasta and the Calormenes equates to the superiority which the Houyhnhnms assume in relation to not just Gulliver but also the brutish Yahoos of their land. Unlike Swift’s horses, however, whose nobility and manners are there to contrast with the almost subhuman Yahoos, Bree’s pride suffers a fall before the end of the tale (which his equine companion Hwin has been constantly warning him about).

When the Brothers Grimm published their fairytale collection it included ‘The Goose Girl’, a curious tale which included a horse called Falada. This name seems to derive via Old Portuguese falar from Vulgar Latin *fāb(u)lāre meaning to chat or converse, with feminine singular past participle falada translatable as “spoken”. It won’t surprise you to know that Falada in the fairytale is a talking horse which, even after its severed head is nailed above a gateway, continues to speak and thus ultimately helps to reveal the goose girl as a princess. I wonder if the combination of talking horse and a noble personage being revealed helped Lewis configure his story? And how much influence, if any, did Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (1881) and its doppelgänger motif have on Shasta and his twin Corin when Lewis was writing?

The journey which the two youngsters and the horse take across the desert from Tashbaan must also owe something to Lewis’s undoubted childhood acquaintance with Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1889). In this gung-ho adventure novel Allan Quatermain and his companions cross a desert, avoid tainted water, cross a mountain range and arrive at a fabled land, all to find a long-missed brother, thus matching much of Shasta’s group’s journey northwards after they leave the tombs outside Tashbaan.

Haggard’s map for his novel

I mentioned the input the Arabian Nights will doubtless have had on the settings of Lewis’s narrative, but really it has a bearing on accusations that The Horse and His Boy exhibits the taint of racism, so I will explore this matter in another post, along with the planetary aspect which this novel is apparently ruled by. I will also briefly mention novels that reveal a glancing relationship with some of this novel’s characteristics.

It’s easy to suggest the sort of reading matter Lewis may well have been acquainted with but as I’m no Lewis scholar I’m unable to quote references that may confirm my suggestions. But most of the above will have been titles very familiar to children of his generation (as they were to mine), and the rest were of course well known to scholars like him.

#Narniathon21 image after Pauline Baynes

Links in the essay are generally to my reviews. My next discussion of this novel will follow in due course, with the #Narniathon21 general discussion post appearing on the last Friday of this month, 27th May, when we’ll be looking at The Magician’s Nephew.

G N Garmonsway, Jacqueline Simpson, Hilda Ellis Davidson. 1980. Beowulf and its Analogues. Everyman Paperback.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Complete Fairy Tales. Routledge Classics, 2002. [‘Die Gänsemagd’, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (‘The Goose Girl’, Children’s and Household Tales), No 89.]

Diana Wynne Jones. ‘Reading C. S. Lewis’s Narnia’, in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing. Greenwillow Books. 2012:47-50.

C S Lewis. 1954. The Horse and His Boy. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2009.

S Thompson. Motif-index of folk-literature : a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends.
Revised and enlarged edition. Indiana University Press, 1955-1958.

Daniel Whyte IV. 2021. ‘There Are No Cruel Narnians: What The Horse and His Boy Can Tell Us About Racism, Cultural Superiority, Beauty Standards, and Inclusiveness.’ A Pilgrim in Narnia.

17 thoughts on “Rich in themes: #Narniathon21

    1. Thanks, Silvia. 🙂 This instalment, as much as many of the others, is a good example of what I think of as ‘narrative syncretism’, Lewis’s ability to weave.togethet lots of strands from different literatures to produce a new garment.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re too kind, Karen, I think my scholarship, such as it is, is less deep than broad, and scattergun more than precisely targeted, but I try my best! I really don’t know if there is such a thing as ‘narrative syncretism’ but I certainly think it applies to Lewis’s approach in the Narniad.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I so much enjoy these books that can be read with a number of influences in mind. Thank you for this great work, Chris. I appreciate it. As an aside, I really need to reread Beowulf as it’s referenced so often and it has been too long since college!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too, Laurie, I’m well overdue a proper reread of Beowulf – and a proper read of all the tomes of critical commentary I seem to have accumulated over the years! And I hope you enjoy the next (and last) post I’ve lined up on The Horse and His Boy for next week. 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a very rich post this is with so many insights into allusions and inspirations that I didn’t pick up on at all. You’ve certainly had me rethinking the book in my head and trying to appreciate it once more in light of these insights. I did enjoy the book a lot overall, and realise that the tones of what one might see as racism or stereotyping are not also as straightforward. Looking forward to your post exploring these themes.

    Liked by 1 person

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