Thursday, April 21, 2022

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis #1954Club #Narniathon21

Title: The Horse and His Boy
Author: C.S. Lewis
Publication: Puffin, paperback, originally published in 1954
Genre: Juvenile fantasy/series
Setting: South of Narnia
Description: Shasta, a poor fisherman’s son in Calormen, Narnia’s traditional frenemy, is used to the abuse he gets from his alleged father, Arsheesh, but when a Tarkaan (great lord) demands hospitality and offers to purchase Shasta, he is afraid it might be out of the frying pan, into the fire. Arsheesh admits to the stranger that Shasta is not his real son but a light-skinned foundling. As the Tarkaan’s horse reveals himself to be a talking horse from Narnia, Shasta and the horse escape together, hoping to reach the safer north. Along the way, they are terrorized by lions and meet up with modest mare Hwin and her rider, Aravis, who is fleeing an unwanted marriage. Their quest to reach Narnia is interrupted when Aravis overhears a plot to invade Archenland and Narnia, and becomes a desperate trek by Shasta to warn the good guys the Calormenes are coming (one if by land and two if by sea; no, sorry, that’s another story, albeit a timely one this week). His reward – in addition to meeting King Edmund, Queen Susan, and Queen Lucy, still in their LWW reign – is to learn the secret of his birth and be welcomed by the family he had not known existed.

My Impression: This is an unusual Narnia book in good and bad ways. It is a rollicking adventure with a brave orphan boy, a feisty heroine, talking horses, villains, impersonation (unintentional), battle, and, of course, Aslan himself.  I particularly love the dynamic between Shasta and Aravis as their relationship evolves from a dramatic difference in station to a real friendship. Despite all the adventures, the two most memorable sections involve Aslan, although initially, no one knows it is he. In the first, Shasta, feeling sorry for himself, is on a narrow mountain pass in the dark when he senses someone or some thing walking beside him.
What he could hear was breathing. His invisible companion seemed to breathe on a very large scale, and Shasta got the impression that it was a very large creature. . . . He bit his lip in terror. But now that he really had something to cry about, he stopped crying. . . .

“Who are you?” he said, scarcely above a whisper.

“One who has waited long for you to speak,” said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.
Not only does Aslan snap Shasta out of his self-pitying mode, he guides him over the mountains to Narnia by walking to Shasta’s left so he does not fall into an abyss in the dark in a very dramatic and chilling chapter.

In the second, the lion deliberately attacks and wounds Aravis by clawing her shoulder, leaving her back covered with blood and very painful. Later, we learn that he did it so she would know the consequence of drugging her servant in order to escape from home. Shasta had also pointed out that someone suffered in order for Aravis to be able to leave. Although Aslan seems as harsh as the Old Testament God here, I reluctantly agree that Aravis needs some lesson to start thinking of others before she can follow Aslan, whereas Shasta’s instincts were good so he is able to receive Aslan’s glory on that mountain pass.
On the negative side, although I certainly didn’t notice it as a child, Lewis’ description of all the nefarious characters as dark-skinned and having a god, Tash, from whom they claim to be descended, now seems racist. Aravis is the only good Calormene (until The Last Battle) and is initially very arrogant until she is “saved” by Aslan, and comes to her senses and apologizes (although she does. Even a brutal stranger can see that Shasta, the pale-skilled fisherman’s son, doesn’t belong in Calormen. He also needs to be saved by Aslan before he can claim his birthright. As Mitali Perkins observes in her lovely book, Steeped in Stories: Timeless Children's Novels to Refresh Our Tired Souls, sometimes our childhood favorites have flaws related to race, culture, and power, but we should not reject books that gave us such pleasure, instead recognize their strengths and weaknesses.  However, the implication that these Calormen heathen have to be converted is very condescending.
This review is for the #1954Club, hosted by Simon and Karen, in which bloggers are invited to read and review books that were published in a chosen year. It is also the April installment of #Narniathon21, hosted by Chris at Calmgrove. I noticed for the first time when I was rereading The Silver Chair last month that Shasta and Aravis’ story is foreshadowed there:
And when all the serious eating and drinking was over, a blind poet came forward and struck up the grand old tale of Prince Cor and Aravis and the horse Bree, which is called The Horse and His Boy and tells an adventure that happened in Narnia and Calormen and the lands between in the Golden Age when Peter was High King in Cair Paravel. (I haven’t time to tell it now although it is worth hearing.)
Source: Personal copy.  Click here for my other Narnia reviews.


Lory said...

I'm glad we've gotten past this one and now can move on to The Magician's Nephew. It is not one of my favorites.

The Horse and His Boy is mentioned in The Silver Chair because it was actually written first. And as I'm going to argue in my post tomorrow, I think it would be better to read it before SC as well ... I wonder if anyone will agree with me.

Lark said...

I tried to read this book once when I was a kid, but I just couldn't get through it. I mostly loved the Narnia books with Lucy in them. :D

ed.pendragon said...

Fair comment, Connie, regarding the pros and cons of this book, though as I mention in my review I find Aslan more vindictive than usual, which I'm less happy about, though he does try to be fair. I'll discuss the perceived racism in a related post on my blog, but I admit I thought that aspect distasteful the very first time I ever read this – I find my criticism more nuanced this time. Chris.