“I’m a free Narnian.”
“We’re free Narnians.”
“He was a free Narnian horse.“
“I have been longing to go to the North all my life.” “Of course you have. That’s because of the blood that’s in you. I’m sure you’re true Northern stock.”
For a series of books written for children CS Lewis sure doesn’t sugar-coat childhood. He tackles bullying, the separation of families by war, the betrayal of siblings against each other and in this one child slavery, physical abuse and forced marriage, just to name a few. In The Horse and His Boy, there is less magic and playfulness and more realism. Lewis is telling a different kind of story here, where Aslan is mostly absent and Shasta and Aravis, the main characters, are on their own. In previous stories, the children knew they were on a mission for Aslan. This time, however, both have never even heard of Aslan and only find out later he has been guiding them from the beginning. But in the moment, their desire to escape, their plans and strategies have been due to their own will and wits.
Lewis also uses a different storytelling technique in this novel than he does in the others. In all the other books he is the creator of all the fantastic beasts, the flora and fauna and other beings. In this novel, he borrows the Calormen from a known culture, who are based on a middle eastern country, or tribe, or people, and sadly, are full of all the stereotypes one could imagine. At present, he has been rightly criticized and perhaps should have rethought this, however, I believe the story is still a good one and should be taken in the context of the time he was writing during which Asia and the Middle East were rather mysterious to the West.
When the story begins we meet Shasta, who as a young child was found drifting in a boat and is now the property of Arsheesh, a poor fisherman. Shasta is beaten regularly at Arsheesh’s whim. There are days when Shasta wants to escape and feels a pull to the North. Arsheesh is only too happy to turn him over to a Calormen nobleman who wants to buy him and while awaiting his fate in a stable Shasta finds that one of the horses can talk. Bree is a Narnian Horse belonging to this man, although he has kept his identity secret, and is treated cruelly, which both realize will be the same fate for Shasta. The two contrive a plan to escape to Narnia. On the road they meet another escapee from these lands, Aravis who is fleeing an arranged marriage. She is riding her horse, Hwin, who also happens to be a Talking Horse from Narnia.
The four team up, but it is a perilous journey and the children are challenged by the desert, ghoulish imaginings in the night, stalking, by what seem to be many lions, in which Aravis is wounded and an army trying to stop them that also wants to capture Narnia.
While this is very much an escape story, it is also a story about freedom and identity and about discovering who you really are and in remembering who you are. “I am a free Narnian,” says Bree repeatedly. Though long captured he hasn’t forgotten he is a noble war horse from Narnia and he is a free horse, belonging to no human.
Excuse me, Tarkheena [Aravis]…We’re free Narnians, Hwin and I, and I suppose, if you’re running away to Narnia, you want to be one too. In that case Hwin isn’t your horse any longer. One might just as well say you’re her human.
Shasta has always been attracted to the North (where Narnia is located), not the South even though southern travelers often come to sell fish and have great stories to tell. He knew who he was, before he was aware of it. And in a fairly obvious twist of fate it turns out Shasta’s identity is more than that of a common Narnian citizen.
And what to make of this Aslan? Though largely absent throughout the book when he appears he is often distant, distracted and removed. In a very different relationship with the main characters in this book than in previous novels, he is allowing them their journey without micromanaging the details. I believe this is a conscious shift in the message Aslan brings up to this time between what it means to be a child with all the hands-on guidance those ages entail to the next stage when you go out in the world and experience it through what you have been taught so far, including the making of mistakes. And with this new stage is the responsibility you accept for these mistakes, as Aravis learned when she experiences the consequences of a selfish act made against someone more vulnerable and much less socially powerful.
“It was I who wounded you,” said Aslan. Do you know why I tore you?”….The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like.”
That is harsh. But a very good example of a true understanding of an “eye for an eye,” which is not the same punishment, but a fitting punishment.
And then there is this passage that seems very odd, but I connect it to the idea of identity. This is Aslan’s response to Shasta when he meets him for the first time and asks who he is.
“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.
It sounds like Aslan is trying to justify himself to more than Shasta. I would like to know what anyone else makes of this?
Suffice to say that I have no idea how I would have responded to this book as a child, but as an adult I feel like I am on a journey with these books as a whole. Almost like exoterica and esoterica, that is, you can read them as delightful adventure stories, but there is the deeper, hidden messages that take time to decipher. In fact, I had a thought as I was finishing this up that this whole story is reminiscent of the Old Testament and the Israelite’s journey out of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land-Shasta was found floating in a boat like Moses in his basket, Shasta is more than even he thinks he is again like Moses, Aslan is a fearful and often cold entity, the Calormen lands are in the desert. To plumb for another time?!!
“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 of 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.”
“By the Mane.” “Thanks be to the Lion.” “By the Lion’s Mane.” “By Aslan.”
Bree and Hwin lived happily to a great age in Narnia and both got married but not to one another. And there weren’t many months in which one or both of them didn’t come trotting over the pass to visit their friends at Anvard.
The discussion for this book will take place on April 29th, hosted by Chris at his blog Calmgrove. If you have read this book or are interested in what others have to say, please take a look at Chris’s post and the comments section.