So, I have been ranking the different volumes of C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia. So far, I have covered The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
I am scoring each book using a rubric with four different categories: story, characters, worldcraft, and theology. For each category, I will provide a subscore of 1-10, yielding a cumulative maximum score of 40 points.
I have been following the chronological order of the books (even though I don’t consider that to be the best order in which to read the books), which means that this week, I will be ranking The Horse and His Boy (HHB). Unlike LWW, which I had read multiple times, I think this may have been only my second reading of HHB, and I can’t believe how much more I enjoyed the book this time around.
The Horse and His Boy
This is from a series of brilliant Narnia cover designs by Jeffrey Nguyen
HHB is unique in The Chronicles of Narnia because the entire story takes place within the world of Narnia—no characters are drawn from Britain through magical means. Instead, it is a story from the time in which Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are ruling as the kings and queens of Narnia, and centers around characters—two children and two horses—who live in that world. To me, this feature alone is a point in favor of HHB—Lewis is using what he has already created rather than importing outside elements. It also helps greatly with the pacing of the story, because we launch right into the story of Shasta after one introductory paragraph, rather than the usual instance of having to introduce the children from our world, establish their context, and describe the circumstances that bring them to Narnia.
In the simplest terms, HHB is a travel narrative, recounting the journey of Shasta, the adopted son of a Calormene fisherman, who basically lives the existence of a slave. He meets Bree, an enslaved Narnian (and thus, talking) horse, and the two of them decide to flee together and head North, toward Narnia. Along the way, they encounter Aravis, a Calormene girl of noble birth, and her horse Hwin (another enslaved talking horse from Narnia). Together, they flee from their old lives, discover the wonders of the city of Tashbaan, stumble upon a Calormene plot to overthrow both Archenland and Narnia (Shasta meets Susan and Edmund in the process), brave a grueling journey through the desert, and, ultimately, provide the warning that brings deliverance to Narnia and her allies.
Along the way, Shasta and his companions are pursued by Aslan himself, and they eventually meet and come to love and serve him (more on that in the Theology section below), and Shasta comes to discover his true identity as the missing son of the king of Archenland. Aravis is invited to live with the king and his family as well, and she and Shasta (who’s actual name is Cor) grow up to get married and live happily ever after. Well, sort of. With his typical wit, Lewis says:
Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I’m afraid, even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarreling and making up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently. And after King Lune’s death they made a good King and Queen of Archenland and Ram the Great, the most famous of all the kings of Archenland, was their son. (241)
The plot of HHB is gripping, and the pacing is excellent. Humor, danger, and intrigue are well combined to produce a story that is as interesting and compelling as any in the series.
The main characters of HHB have already been mentioned above: Shasta (Cor), Bree, Aravis, and Hwin. As previously mentioned, these characters are not teleported in from the outside, but arise within the world that LWW creates.
Shasta is the story’s main protagonist. As the adopted son of a Calormene fisherman, he lives a small, poor life, unaware of what lies beyond his home. A chance encounter with Bree and the prospect of his being sold into slavery provides the motivation for his flight from all he has known. Shasta is keenly aware of his deep ignorance and humble beginnings. He is impressed by and envious of the knowledge and experiences of Bree and Aravis, and desperately wants to impress them. He is also kind and courageous, and in a person so marked by fear and self-doubt, the courage is all the more impressive. Meeting Aslan gives Shasta (who feels that he is incapable of accomplishing the task he has been given) the refreshment, vision, and confidence to do what must be done.
Aravis is a firecracker. She is a young Tarkheena, which means that she is the daughter of a Tarkhan, a Calormene noble. She has grown up wealthy and privileged, but a detestable arranged marriage spurs her to freedom. She respects Bree who, as a Tarkhan’s war horse runs in the same sorts of circles that she does, but in her pride and haughtiness, she looks down on the lowly Shasta. She is also brave and resourceful, and shows great development over the course of the novel. First, she comes to respect and admire Shasta (especially for his bravery), and ultimately, after meeting Aslan, comes to repent of the cruel indifference with which she had previously treated those she had considered to be her inferiors.
Bree was a character who was hard for me to like, at least initially. A war horse who knows his Narnian birth, Bree is proud of both characteristics, and his arrogance occasionally results in his belittling of others. Much of this, however, is really a reflection of his deep-seated insecurity. As the group draws closer to Narnia, Bree is increasingly concerned that he won’t act like talking horses are supposed to act, and once the plot has resolved, this insecurity actually makes him delay his return home. Ultimately, he meets Aslan and is changed by the experience, realizes the Great Lion for who he really is, and repents of his own pride and foolishness.
Hwin is probably the least-developed of the four, but is still differentiated. She is good-natured, sensible, and shy, and is in awe of Bree the war horse, but also shows her courage in speaking up, and as soon as she meets Aslan, is devoted to him:
“Please,” she said, “you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”
“Dearest daughter,” said Aslan, planting a lion’s kiss on her twitching, velvet nose, “I knew you would not be long in coming to me. Joy shall be yours.” (215)
There are other minor characters who are important to the plot of HHB, but not emphasized much.
The Tisroc is the ruler of Calormen. He is cruel and calculating. He allows his son, Rabadash, to mount a secret invasion of Archenland in hopes of overthrowing Narnia. The Tisroc reasons that if Rabadash is successful, it will be beneficial to Carlormen, and if he is killed, it will eliminate a rival for the throne. For his part, Rabadash is rash and foolhardy—his plan to invade Narnia is partially generated by Queen Susan spurning his romantic advances.
Susan and King Edmund make an appearance in Tashbaan, where Shasta meets them (they mistake him for his twin brother Corin, though neither they nor we realize they are twins at the time). They are visiting Calormen in the first place because Rabadash has asked Susan to marry him. She has no desire to, and they end up sneaking out of town, fearful of the intentions of their hosts. Queen Lucy also makes an appearance when she, along with Edmund and a cohort of other Narnians arrive to give aid to their allies in Archenland.
Overall, the Penvensie children are minor characters in HHB, but they are still crucial to the plot, and Edmund has opportunity to utter one of my favorite lines of the book, which is a clear reference to the events of LWW:
“Your Majesty would have a perfect right to strike off his head,” said Peridan. “Such an assault as he made puts him on a level with assassins.”
“It is very true,” said Edmund. “But even a traitor may mend. I have known one that did.”
And he looked very thoughtful. (230)
As always, Aslan is of supreme importance to the book. In HHB, none of the main characters really know him. Bree has heard of him and repeatedly says things like, “By the Lion’s Mane,” but doesn’t know that Aslan is actually a lion. As a Calormene who grew up worshiping the god Tash, Aravis has heard only fearful things about Aslan. Shasta knows nothing about him at all. But Aslan is still a central character in the story, calling out to Shasta and his companions and driving them along their journey (see more below under Theology), and in meeting him, all four of the central characters experience significant transformation.
HHB stands out in The Chronicles of Narnia because it significantly expands and fleshes out the map of the world of Narnia. Specifically, HHB gives us a detailed portrayal of Calormen, a briefer description of Archenland, and the desert in between the two.
The focus of much of the book is on the people and land of Calormen, and especially its capital city, Tashbaan. Shasta is overwhelmed by what he sees:
At first Shasta could see nothing in the valley below him but a sea of mist with a few domes and pinnacles rising from it; but as the light increased and the mist cleared away he saw more and more. A broad river divided itself into two streams and on the island between them stood the city of Tashbaan, one of the wonders of the world. Round the very edge of the island, so that the water lapped against the stone, ran high walls strengthened with so many towers that he soon gave up trying to count them. Inside the walls the island rose in a hill and every bit of that hill, up to the Tisroc’s palace and the great temple of Tash as the top, was completely covered with buildings—terrace above terrace, street above street, zigzag roads or huge flights of steps bordered with orange trees and lemon trees, roof-gardens, balconies, deep archways, pillared colonnades, spires, battlements, minarets, pinnacles. And when at last the sun rose out of the sea and the great silver-plated dome of the temple flashed back its light, he was almost dazzled. (53-54)
Inside, the city is hot (the heat of Calormen is emphasized to the degree that I could feel it while reading) and crowded, but Shasta remains impressed with it. Further descriptions of fruit trees, watered gardens, silk-curtained litters, and palace corridors add to the mystique of the place. In my estimation, the level of creative detail is unmatched elsewhere in The Chronicles.
The description of the tombs, the desperate trek through the desert, the narrow gorge into Archenland and the description of mountainous country add to the already impressive worldcraft of HHB. Like no other book in the series (even Dawn Treader), HHB creates a vivid world that the reader can easily visualize and experience.
As much as I enjoyed HHB, theology represented its weakest sub-score on my rubric.
Late in his life, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter in which he provided a brief overview of The Chronicles from a spiritual perspective. Describing HHB, he said it was about “the calling and conversion of a heathen,” and this makes sense, as the missionary nature of Aslan shines through clearly. Aslan seeks out Shasta and Aravis, nudges them together, aids them on their journey and, ultimately, reveals himself to them:
“Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?” said Shasta.
“There was only one lion,” said the Voice.
“What on earth do you mean? I’ve just told you there were at least two the first night, and—”
“There was only one: but he was swift of foot.”
“How do you know?”
“I was the lion.” And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.” (175-76)
All along the way, even from Shasta’s infancy, Aslan was there, behind the scenes, orchestrating circumstances and providing nudges that would lead Shasta to himself. As Shasta says of Aslan late in the book:
“…he seems to be at the back of all the stories” (222-23)
Clearly, then, it is not just Narnians who are loved and called by Aslan. He calls Archenlandians and Calormenes as well, which reflects the biblical motif of a God who loves all people and seeks to bring blessing to all nations through Abraham and his descendants.
And when Aslan does reveal himself to Shasta after staying in the background for so long, the exchange brings chills (and, to me, evoked echoes of God’s interaction with Elijah in 1 Kings 19):
“Who are you?” asked Shasta.
“Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself,” loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.
Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him, nor that it was the voice of a ghost. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him. Yet he felt glad too. (176)
The conversion motif plays out clearly in the book, as it applies not only to Shasta, but each of the four main characters who are transformed after meeting Aslan (as described above).
A 36/40 is a really high mark; this would be a 5-star rating on Amazon. What’s more impressive than that is how much HHB climbed in my estimation: prior to this read-through, I think it may have been my 6th favorite (out of 7); it is certainly higher than that now. Also, with a 10/10 in the Worldcraft category, HHB earned the second Perfect 10 that I awarded to any of the books (I gave LWW a 10/10 in Theology).
Check out the full series of posts:
Lewis has long been accused of racism for his portrayal of the Calormenes in The Chronicles of Narnia. I don’t fully intend to go into that here, but I think those accusations are at least partially misguided. Clearly Lewis portrays Calormen in generally negative terms, but a strong argument could be made that this is based not upon their race, but rather their allegiance to the false god, Tash, which leads to negative characteristics (for example, their cruelty and violence).
We could also talk about the fact that Lewis does not universally portray the Calormenes in a negative light (Aravis is an example of this), and that humans in general are frequently portrayed negatively in Narnia (such as the Telmarines in Prince Caspian). But perhaps the most fundamental question is whether or not we can truly call descriptions of an imaginary people group “racist”: as the imaginative creator of this nation, why would Lewis’s depiction be considered racist rather than an accurate description of the thing he created?
And, finally, we could point out that the word “racist” as it is frequently used in contemporary discussion makes little sense in this context, as the Calormenes are hardly an oppressed people group. Rather, the Calormen Empire seems to represent the strongest force in the world of Narnia, and is bent upon the conquering and subjugation of other nations. So, it would seem that the word “prejudiced” would better fit in the accusations against Lewis here, but I still think that is a problematic term for the reasons described above.
Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 2005): 6.
One commentator sees significant similarities to Moses in the character of Shasta:
- Shasta and Moses were both sent away from their families at birth.
- Both babies were found floating in water: Moses was found in a basket on the Nile (with his protective sister hiding nearby), and Shasta was found in a boat in the ocean (with a dead Archenlandian knight who had been his protector).
- Both turned away from the country in which they were raised: Shasta from Calormen, Moses from Egypt.
- Both turned out to be saviors of their true countries: Shasta of Archenland, Moses of Israel.
Of course, there is a significant difference as well: “In one aspect, the roles of Shasta and Moses are reversed: Moses was raised in nobility and wealth and eventually became a shepherd. Shasta was raised in a poor fisherman’s home, and eventually became a King (although Moses also eventually became the leader of the Israelite nation).”
I haven’t fully thought this through, but I think the similarities are striking.