As I promised in a previous post I shall be examining the taint of alleged racism that C S Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy has acquired, and ascertaining if it’s justified. I also promised to look at the planetary aspect by which this novel is ruled, according to Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, namely Mercury, which seems to go towards determining Lewis’s overall schema for the Narniad.
But I shall start by also briefly (?) mentioning novels that reveal a glancing relationship with some of this novel’s characteristics.
Note that there’ll be spoilers. Also that most links here will take you to one of my reviews or threads. And now, farther up and farther in!
First is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, particularly the second of two parts that were published in the same year as Lewis’s title. The Two Towers (1954) has a siege at a climax, as does The Horse and His Boy. Though the respective atmospheres could hardly have been different it’s a delightful coincidence that both former Inklings featured citadels menaced by outside forces, and that both Helm’s Deep and Anvard were relieved by friendly armies turning the tide of war.
Another three contrasting fantasies follow. Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain (1968) is an alternative history set in early 19th-century Wales. In this appears a young adult called not Aravis but Arabis. I don’t know where Lewis got the name Aravis for his protagonist from, but the word ‘arabis’ refers to an alpine plant, and thus an apt name for a character in a novel about a mountain; the Welsh word arabus, which is pronounced exactly the same, means ‘witty’. I wonder if Arabis was a subconscious memory of Lewis’s protagonist; however, when once asked what she thought of Lewis’s Narnia books Aiken replied,
I can’t stand them actually. My daughter [Lizza] was very addicted to them, she loved them all, but I prefer his books for adults. […] The children’s books are great adventure stories—but there’s something slightly prissy, and talking down; and the Christian message drummed home. And I just don’t like that great big golden lion.Wintle and Fisher 1974:166
So that’s that… This leaves – where this short discussion is concerned – Philip Pullman and Lev Grossman, both of whom have in different ways more or less explicitly critiqued Lewis while at the same time happily drawing on aspects and elements of the Narnia books.
Critic Sam Leith saw Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series as a kind of “anti-Narnia” while Pullman thought Narnia itself “wicked”. The author found the stories “very dodgy and unpleasant – dodgy in the dishonest rhetoric way – and unpleasant because they seem to embody a world view that takes for granted things like racism, misogyny and a profound cultural conservatism that is utterly unexamined.” He wasn’t alone: Alan Garner recently declared he could never read the Narnia chronicles again: “They were, and remain, nasty, manipulative, morbid, misanthropic, hectoring, totalitarian and atrociously written.”
Pullman’s own dislike though wasn’t absolute, as statements in his essay collection Dæmon Voices indicate. But antipathy to Narnia didn’t stop him also having his own protagonists Lyra and Will visit parallel worlds, or transforming Lewis’s talking animals into dæmons, introducing a wardrobe in the opening scenes of Northern Lights (when Lyra sees Cittàgazze for the first time) and describing mythical creatures like angels and fairies (the latter called Gallivespians, with spurs as dangerous as the stings of gall wasps, the insects from which they may have taken their name). Lyra, you’ll have noted, rides the talking bear Iorek Byrnison whereas Shasta rides the voluble horse Bree.
Meanwhile, Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy (The Magicians and The Magician King, followed by The Magician’s Land) is centred on a parallel world which, though seemingly described by an author called Christopher Plover as fictional in a series of novels (‘Fillory and Further’) really turns out to be accessible by college students using magic. Grossman, a fan of the series though no Christian, set out to write an adult series riffing on Lewis’s Narnia while throwing in elements inspired by, among others, J K Rowling and Donna Tartt: his Neitherlands, for example, is a mix of the deserted city Charn and the Wood between the Worlds from The Magician’s Nephew, while an expedition eastwards by sea is a clear reference to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
As for The Horse and His Boy, there is an appearance right at the end of the third Magicians book of the so-called Cozy Horse, a creature reputed to be one hundred feet high and covered with a velveteen skin. In the novel we’re told it originally featured in the Fillory and Further series, and as well as being vaguely reminiscent of the Trojan Horse it’s clearly both a homage to and a distortion of Shasta’s mount Bree:
It was easily the silliest single inhabitant of Fillory, a total nursery fantasy [. …] “But what’s it doing here?’ The Cozy Horse regarded them dumbly. It wasn’t going to tell. It flared its nostrils and gazed off over their heads in that supremely unconcerned way horses have.Chapter 31, ‘The Magician’s Land’
Critics have long wondered what Lewis’s overarching schema for the Chronicles might have been. Michael Ward argued, very plausibly, that if each of the Narniad titles fell under one of the seven medieval planets (which included the Sun and the Moon) then The Horse and His Boy would’ve been symbolised by Mercury. The real planet is, with a year lasting only 88 days, the quickest planet round the sun and therefore the embodiment of the messenger of the gods, Hermes or Mercury; unsurprisingly the novel is about the horses Bree and Hwin who together characterise speed.
Maybe they are meant as Narnian equivalents of Arab steeds. But we also mustn’t forget that a large chunk of the novel is about getting a message to the king of Archenland warning that Rabadash is about to invade the country, another echo of the role that Hermes assumed.
But mercury is also the fluid element commonly known as quicksilver, once used as the reflecting material in glass mirrors. This accounts for the frequent mention in the novel of pools, springs and streams being reflective; it’s even hinted at in the galleon with swan’s head prow and carved swan’s wings, the Splendour Hyaline in which the Pevensies sail swiftly to and from Tashbaan. “Hyaline” means glassy or translucent, and in poetry often describes a smooth sea or a clear sky, one mirroring the other.
So with at least those three qualities – swiftness, the conveying of messages, reflectiveness – it’s more than possible to credit The Horse and His Boy with being under the aegis of Mercury, I agree.
Now we come to the frequent accusations of racism and cultural appropriation in The Horse and His Boy. Lewis is obviously referencing historical Levantine and Western Asian culture in his descriptions of the Calormenes as dark-skinned and wearing turbans, sporting footwear with upturned toes, wielding scimitars, and speaking and acting in a stylised way adapted from translations of the Arabian Nights (such as that by the oriental scholar Sir Richard F Burton). Further, their nobles – Tarkaans and Tarkheenas – derive their titles from the Central Asian term tarkhan and their coins moreover are called crescents. Given that many of the male figures – Arsheesh, Anradin, the Vizier, the Tisroc and Rabadash – are portrayed as power-hungry and cruel, it’s easy to gauge that Lewis may have been displaying his prejudice against a whole culture.
But let’s examine the details of that charge sheet, namely in terms of stereotyping, slander or calumny, and Lewis’s own prejudices.
Stereotyping. It’s clear that Lewis was borrowing much that pertained to Calormen from the Arabian Nights. Whether in the bowdlerised versions for youngsters or the dense unexpurgated translations that began to appear in the 18th century we can see that characterisations and descriptions were such that us moderns might well flinch when reading now. In ‘The Story of King Shahryar and His Brother’ which sets up the Scheherazade frame story we read for example of the King’s brother’s wife sleeping with a black cook, the pair murdered by being quartered by the brother with a scimitar before they wake, then the brother seeing the King’s wife sleeping with a “slobbering blackamoor”. The appalling misogyny and racism, along with summary executions, all set the tone for many of the remaining tales.
But, crucially, they didn’t set the tone for Lewis’s novel. Daniel Whyte makes the point very well – better than I can – and as a person of colour he would personally be on the alert for any suggestion of racism in the narrative: Lewis is on the side of Narnia, he says, so enemies of Narnia, whatever the colour of their skin, will always have mean motivations and actions attributed to them. Nor is Lewis anti-Islamic: the Calormenes worship any number of gods but principally Tash, a figure so unlike Allah that no-one would seriously suggest they’re one and the same.
Calumny. The stereotypes of wicked uncle figures, wily viziers, cunning caliphs and duplicitous djinns are also endemic in the Arabian Nights, and while he’s toned down much of their characteristics Lewis has no compunction in drafting them into this fiction. Was he casting aspersions on the peoples of Western Asia in his depiction of the Calormene villains or merely aping his models? Just as he purloined tropes and motifs from medieval European romances for previous episodes such as Prince Caspian (which had their own despicable villains) he may have treated different sources in the same way for The Horse and His Boy. Unlike most of the male characters, however, the females – Aravis and Lasaraleen, principally – are presented more favourably and with more nuance, like some of the strong female roles in the Arabian Nights (beginning with Scheherazade herself).
Prejudice. I think it’s hard to deny that Lewis was prejudiced – as indeed are we all to a greater or lesser extent. Certainly he will have entertained preferences for Northern European cultures: and from the books think of the battle cry “Narnia and the North!” and the many statements that Narnia had a better society than Calormen, that Shasta was intrinsically better than his Calormene contemporaries, that Narnians were way less wicked than Calormenes, the giants of the far North or the Telmarines (until they were assimilated with the Narnians).
However, he wasn’t an insensitive man: we are reminded that although an Anglican he married a Jewish divorcee, suggesting that in religious matters it’d be foolish to accuse him of bigotry; and he always felt an outsider amongst English academics on account of his middle-class Belfast origins, so he knew how it felt to be regarded as somehow different, and not “one of us”. Whyte’s criticism of Lewis’s sensitivity is quite nuanced:
“Perhaps a writer more sensitive to the times, or more cosmopolitan in his outlook, would have considered that people outside of the English and Western European cultural arena might one day read his books and he would have been more meticulous and objective about his world-building. But Lewis was no Tolkien when it came to world-building and tossed in whatever he liked as he went along.”Whyte 2021
Now I’m not setting myself up as an apologist for Lewis. In terms of his portrayal of Calormene peoples and culture we can, even allowing for the transitional post-imperial period he was living in, deduce with some justification that in this novel he could be described as tone-deaf. We may therefore wish he’d avoided outright comparisons with Islamic cultures and steered clear of hackneyed clichés: self-deprecation would’ve been better.
Richard F Burton, translator, Jack Zipes, adapter. 1997. Arabian Nights, A Selection. Penguin Popular Classics.
Lev Grossman. 2014. The Magician’s Land. Arrow Books, 2015.
Michael Ward. 2008. Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis. OUP.
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.
Justin Wintle and Emma Fisher. 1974. The Pied Pipers. Interviews with the influential creators of children’s literature. Paddington Press.