The Horse and His Boy

by C.S. Lewis

Cover image

Illustrator: Pauline Baynes
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #5
Publisher: Collier Books
Copyright: 1954
Printing: 1978
ISBN: 0-02-044200-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 217

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The Horse and His Boy was the fifth published book in the Chronicles of Narnia, but it takes place during the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in the midst of the golden age of Narnia. It's the only true side story of the series and it doesn't matter much where in sequence you read it, as long as it's after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and before The Last Battle (which would spoil its ending somewhat).

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW.

The Horse and His Boy is also the only book of the series that is not a portal fantasy. The Pevensie kids make an appearance, but as the ruling kings and queens of Narnia, and only as side characters. The protagonists are a boy named Shasta, a girl named Aravis, and horses named Bree and Hwin. Aravis is a Calormene, a native of the desert (and extremely Orientalist, but more on that later) kingdom to the south of Narnia and Archenland. Shasta starts the book as the theoretically adopted son but mostly slave of a Calormene fisherman. The Horse and His Boy is the story of their journey from Calormen north to Archenland and Narnia, just in time to defend Narnia and Archenland from an invasion.

This story starts with a great hook. Shasta's owner is hosting a passing Tarkaan, a Calormene lord, and overhears a negotiation to sell Shasta to the Tarkaan as his slave (and, in the process, revealing that he rescued Shasta as an infant from a rowboat next to a dead man). Shasta starts talking to the Tarkaan's horse and is caught by surprise when the horse talks back. He is a Talking Horse from Narnia, kidnapped as a colt, and eager to return to Narnia and the North. He convinces Shasta to attempt to escape with him.

This has so much promise. For once, we're offered a story where one of the talking animals of Narnia is at least a co-protagonist and has some agency in the story. Bree takes charge of Shasta, teaches him to ride (or, mostly, how to fall off a horse), and makes most of the early plans. Finally, a story that recognizes that Narnia stories don't have to revolve around the humans!

Unfortunately, Bree is an obnoxious, arrogant character. I wanted to like him, but he makes it very hard. This gets even worse when Shasta is thrown together with Aravis, a noble Calormene girl who is escaping an arranged marriage on her own talking mare, Hwin. Bree is a warhorse, Hwin is a lady's riding mare, and Lewis apparently knows absolutely nothing about horses, because every part of Bree's sexist posturing and Hwin's passive meekness is awful and cringe-worthy. I am not a horse person, so will link to Judith Tarr's much more knowledgeable critique at Tor.com, but suffice it to say that mares are not meekly deferential or awed by stallions. If Bree had behaved that way with a real mare, he would have gotten the crap beaten out of him (which might have improved his attitude considerably). As is, we have to put up with rather a lot of Bree's posturing and Hwin (who I liked much better) barely gets a line and acts disturbingly like she was horribly abused.

This makes me sad, because I like Bree's character arc. He's spent his whole life being special and different from those around him, and while he wants to escape this country and return home, he's also gotten used to being special. In Narnia, he will just be a normal talking horse. To get everything else he wants, he also has to let go of the idea that he's someone special. If Lewis had done more with this and made Bree a more sympathetic character, this could have been very effective. As written, it only gets a few passing mentions (mostly via Bree being weirdly obsessed with whether talking horses roll) and is therefore overshadowed by Shasta's chosen one story and Bree's own arrogant behavior.

The horses aside, this is a passable adventure story with some well-done moments. The two kids and their horses end up in Tashbaan, the huge Calormene capital, where they stumble across the Narnians and Shasta is mistaken for one of their party. Radagast, the prince of Calormen, is proposing marriage to Susan, and the Narnians are in the process of realizing he doesn't plan to take no for an answer. Aravis, meanwhile, has to sneak out of the city via the Tisroc's gardens, which results in her hiding behind a couch as she hears Radagast's plans to invade Archenland and Narnia to take Susan as his bride by force. Once reunited, Shasta, Aravis, and the horses flee across the desert to bring warning to Archenland and then Narnia.

Of all the Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy leans the hardest into the personal savior angle of Christianity. Parts of it, such as Shasta's ride over the pass into Narnia, have a strong "Footprints" feel to them. Most of the events of the book are arranged by Aslan, starting with Shasta's early life. Readers of the series will know this when a lion shows up early to herd the horses where they need to go, or when a cat keeps Shasta company in the desert and frightens away jackals. Shasta only understands near the end.

I remember this being compelling stuff as a young Christian reader. This personal attention and life shaping from God is pure Christian wish fulfillment of the "God has a plan for your life" variety, even more so than Shasta turning out to be a lost prince. As an adult re-reader, I can see that Lewis is palming the theodicy card rather egregiously. It's great that Aslan was making everything turn out well in the end, but why did he have to scare the kids and horses half to death in the process? They were already eager to do what he wanted, but it's somehow inconceivable that Aslan would simply tell them what to do rather than manipulate them. There's no obvious in-story justification why he couldn't have made the experience much less terrifying. Or, for that matter, prevented Shasta from being kidnapped as an infant in the first place and solved the problem of Radagast in a more direct way. This sort of theology takes as an unexamined assumption that a deity must refuse to use his words and instead do everything in weirdly roundabout and mysterious ways, which makes even less sense in Narnia than in our world given how directly and straightforwardly Aslan has acted in previous books.

It was also obvious to me on re-read how unfair Lewis's strict gender roles are to Aravis. She's an excellent rider from the start of the book and has practiced many of the things Shasta struggles to do, but Shasta is the boy and Aravis is the girl, so Aravis has to have girl adventures involving tittering princesses, luxurious baths, and eavesdropping behind couches, whereas Shasta has boy adventures like riding to warn the king or bringing word to Narnia. There's nothing very objectionable about Shasta as a character (unlike Bree), but he has such a generic character arc. The Horse and Her Girl with Aravis and Hwin as protagonists would have been a more interesting story, and would have helpfully complicated the whole Narnia and the North story motive.

As for that storyline, wow the racism is strong in this one, starting with the degree that The Horse and His Boy is deeply concerned with people's skin color. Shasta is white, you see, clearly marking him as from the North because all the Calormenes are dark-skinned. (This makes even less sense in this fantasy world than in our world because it's strongly implied in The Magician's Nephew that all the humans in Calormen came from Narnia originally.) The Calormenes all talk like characters from bad translations of the Arabian Nights and are shown as cruel, corrupt slavers with a culture that's a Orientalist mishmash of Arab, Persian, and Chinese stereotypes. Everyone is required to say "may he live forever" after referencing the Tisroc, which is an obvious and crude parody of Islam. This stereotype fest culminates in the incredibly bizarre scene that Aravis overhears, in which the grand vizier literally grovels on the floor while Radagast kicks him and the Tisroc, Radagast's father, talks about how Narnia's freedom offends him and the barbarian kingdom would be more profitable and orderly when conquered.

The one point to Lewis's credit is that Aravis is also Calormene, tells stories in the same style, and is still a protagonist and just as acceptable to Aslan as Shasta is. It's not enough to overcome the numerous problems with Lewis's lazy world-building, but it makes me wish even more that Aravis had gotten her own book and more meaningful scenes with Aslan.

I had forgotten that Susan appears in this book, although that appearance doesn't add much to the general problem of Susan in Narnia except perhaps to hint at Lewis's later awful choices. She is shown considering marriage to the clearly villainous Radagast, and then only mentioned later with a weird note that she doesn't ride to war despite being the best archer of the four. I will say again that it's truly weird to see the Pevensie kids as (young) adults discussing marriage proposals, international politics, and border wars while remembering they all get dumped back into their previous lives as British schoolkids. This had to have had dramatic effects on their lives that Lewis never showed. (I know, the real answer is that Lewis is writing these books according to childhood imaginary adventure logic, where adventures don't have long-term consequences of that type.)

I will also grumble once more at how weirdly ineffectual Narnians are until some human comes to tell them what to do. Calormen is obviously a threat; Susan just escaped from an attempted forced marriage. Archenland is both their southern line of defense and is an ally separated by a mountain pass in a country full of talking eagles, among other obvious messengers. And yet, it falls to Shasta to ride to give warning because he's the human protagonist of the story. Everyone else seems to be too busy with quirky domesticity or endless faux-medieval chivalric parties.

The Horse and His Boy was one of my favorites when I was a kid, but reading as an adult I found it much harder to tolerate Bree or read past the blatant racial and cultural stereotyping. The bits with Aslan also felt less magical to me than they did as a kid because I was asking more questions about why Aslan had to do everything in such an opaque and perilous way. It's still not a bad adventure; Aravis is a great character, the bits in Tashbaan are at least memorable, and I still love the Hermit of the Southern March and want to know more about him. But I would rank it below the top tier of Narnia books, alongside Prince Caspian as a book with some great moments and some serious flaws.

Followed in original publication order by The Magician's Nephew.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-05-31

Last spun 2021-06-20 from thread modified 2021-06-01