Flight to the Free Land of Narnia
(A Book Review of C. S. Lewis’s The Horse and his Boy)
What makes C. S. Lewis’s The Horse and his Boy special among the books in The Chronicles of Narnia is it’s the only one to be told entirely from the point of view of a native of Narnia instead of the Pevensie children. The eponymous characters refer to the young slave boy Shasta and Bree, a talking battle horse owned by a Tarkaan (lord). Both live lives of severe hardship in the vast empire of Calormen, an arid realm far south. Through a fortuitous encounter they decided to run away together — to break the chains of oppression and head north to the free land of Narnia. On their way to the bustling city of Tashbaan they get together with another pair of runaway, Aravis, who’s escaping an arranged marriage enlisting the help of Hwin, also a talking horse.
However, the way to freedom is not a walk in the park for this band of misfits as their quest is filled with snags as the desert is full of quicksand. Before long, they even get tangled up amongst Calormen-Narnian intrigues. Royalty from Narnia and its neighboring kingdom Archenland are in Tashbaan on diplomatic business — a matter that will turn ugly indeed that could likely set off a war between the two nations.
Where the three previous books — The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader — are children’s stories with a simple narrative structure, The Horse and his Boy is a full-blown adventure novel and little more complex; it seems to me that Lewis had in his mind the readers who had since grown up from the time when the first book in the series was published. There’s a lot going on and their quest at large involves some interesting surprises and Lewis never forgets to keep things interesting with balanced helpings of humor and emotional engagement to offset the action and intrigue. In keeping with Lewis’s brand of storytelling it still has some of the elements that children came to enjoy from the series and has enough entertainment value for imaginative adults as well. And did I even mention that it has a strong female protagonist?
The author has also something new to bring to the table as readers are introduced to the exotic land of Calormen and their truly distinct customs. Some of the scenes in the capital city of Tashbaan have that sense of place and in its evocative and vividness it can’t be helped (at least to my mind) that Lewis must have been inspired by the Arabian Night legends.
Some readers view that The Horse and his Boy is a somewhat racist book because of the way Lewis depicted the Calormens. In my opinion, that’s taking it too far (equating Calormens to Muslims) for as I see that the author only did what he did as a basis for contrast for the two nations.
The religious allusions in the book doesn’t seem to be as overt in here as in the earlier books, and it was surprising to learn — after I read Paul Ford’s Companion to Narnia — that some passages were inspired from certain Bible verses. But really, I even didn’t manage to tell which is which, engrossed as I was with the story. Another aspect of the novel that I also like is that Lewis managed to bring some sense of reality in his story, particularly in how it portrays the discomfort and hardships any traveler to a desert will naturally feel: muscles crying tired from the day’s ride; the sweat, thirst and that parched sensation when traveling on such a boiling climate; that dragging feeling as time slowly crawls by; and, ultimately, the fear that you’ve gone astray, the panic one suffers when one gets lost. Those bits of realism and the consequences of undertaking an adventure makes the fantasy more gratifying, I think; in that by the end of the story you know all to yourself that these characters deserve their happy endings in their own right.
The Horse and his Boy, through its well-rounded characters, teaches at its heart important lessons in humbleness and empathy — understanding what it’s to be like in somebody else’s situation. Underscored by Aslan’s awe-inspiring compassion toward his subjects, its spiritual message and overarching theme is God’s providence and sovereignty — there are no accidents in our lives as it is definitely known by the Hand that wrote it all, and we need only to concern ourselves but with our own story.