The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis
This month we come to the fifth book in published order – in 1954 of course – and third in chronological order. The Horse and His Boy is different from the others so far, in that it’s an adventure wholly set during the rule of High King Peter in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe‘s last chapter. So there is no mechanism needed to transport children from Earth into/near Narnia this time.
Instead, it concerns Shasta, a young lad who lives with a fisherman in the land of Calormen way south of Narnia. One day a Tarkaan lord arrives on a great dappled horse and later Shasta is dismayed to find his so called ‘father’ is negotiating to sell him. Sneaking out, he sees the Tarkaan lord’s horse stabled nearby, he strokes its while wondering about its owner, saying:
‘I bet this horse knows, if only he could tell me.’
The Horse had lifted its head. Shasta stroked its smooth-as-satin nose and said, ‘I wish you could talk, old fellow.’
And then for a second he thought he was dreaming, for quite distinctly, though in a low voice, the Horse said, ‘But I can.’
He is astonished when the Horse (now with an ‘H’) talks to him, explaining that he comes from a land called Narnia to the north where most of the creatures talk. They agree to run away together, although the Horse, Bree, is slightly worried that Shasta has only ever ridden a donkey before, but assures him that their journey will make a good rider of him, and that the reins are only for show!
Off they ride on their adventure, and encounter another horse and rider being chased by lions. Together they outrun the beasts and Shasta and Bree discover the other horse Hwin is from Narnia too, and her rider is a girl, Aravis, who turns out to be the daughter of a Tarkaan lord, running away to avoid being forced into marriage. While Shasta and Aravis could do without each other – ain’t it always so between human children in Narnia at first! – the horses naturally bond, and they hatch a plan. Only problem is that it involves going through the city of Tashbaan – where Queen Susan of Narnia is visiting the Prince, her suitor, travelling with her brother King Edmund.
Of course, their transit through the city doesn’t go smoothly as they encounter Queen Susan’s procession and Shasta is spotted in the crowd, mistaken for someone else, and taken back to the palace. Good thing they had a plan to meet at the tombs north of the city if they got separated. Shasta discovers he is the dead spit of Corin, son of the Prince of Lune of Archenland next door to Narnia, travelling with Edmund and Susan. Corin is mischievous having gone out exploring on his own. It gets more complicated for Susan discovers that her suitor Prince Rabadash is a nasty piece of work, there’s no way she’d marry him! The Narnians have to escape too back to their ship.
Anyway, everyone escapes and everyone heads for Narnia, Shasta, Aravis and the two Horses, Susan and Edmund, chased by Rabadash who declares war on Archenland, and Shasta will play his part in bringing the message to Narnia that Rabadash is on the rampage. Later Shasta will meet up with Corin again and asks him where Queen Susan is now…
‘At Cair Paravel,’ said Corin. ‘She’s not like Lucy, you know, who’s as good as a man, or ay any rate as good as a boy. Queen Susan is more like an ordinary grown-up lady. She doesn’t ride to the wars, though she is an excellent archer.’
So Susan looks after Narnia, while Edmund rides to Archenland’s defence. Naturally the combined forces of Narnia and Archenland overcome Rabadash. Shasta also discovers some wonderful news which I won’t spoil.
But what of Aslan? I hear you ask. Turns out he’s been in the background all the time, nudging things along in various feline guises, great and small – and then he does something rather un-Aslan-ish in what I’d call a spell – even a curse – that he puts on Rabadash. He turns him into an ass, and says he’ll be transformed back, ‘healed’, in the temple at Tashbaan, but afterwards, if he goes more than ten miles from the city he’ll become a donkey again. This may be a curse, but has a benevolent consequence in that Rabadash becomes the most peaceful stay-at-home ruler!
This story seems to be missing something. In all the other stories, the magical summoning of the various children to Narnia from our world gave that sense of fantasy which made everything so exciting. The Horse and His Boy has adventure aplenty and a lovable young hero, but that magic isn’t really there – yes I know we have talking horses, and Aslan turns up eventually – but it’s not the same.
The setting of Calormen feels very like that of The Arabian Nights with Shasta as Aladdin perhaps? The dress of the Calormenes certainly has that exotic feel, we’re in a world like the Ottoman Empire, and predictably the writing is of its time. The Latin word for heat is ‘calor’ which surely gives the desert country its name – but I can’t help thinking of Calor Gas (founded in 1935) when I read the word!
There are countless stories of separated twins, and doubles, but for me, Shasta’s confusion with Corin had a bit of the feel of Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. In comparison, Aravis’s story of running away to escape marriage makes her every bit the plucky heroine who would be emanicpated – well, for a while. It parallels with Susan’s trajectory in this tale – in which we have the real beginnings of the ‘Susan problem’. Here, as her Narnian self she is depicted as older than her our-world self. It is quite disconcerting to think that here she is old enough to turn her thoughts towards marriage, she is grown up. Her days in Narnia are dwindling.
The Horse and His Boy is entertaining enough. It has adventure, but not much of the fantastic. I did wonder why Lewis wrote a different type of story within his world.
Source: Own old Puffin paperback, 188 pages.