When I first read The Chronicles of Narnia in secondary school, The Horse and His Boy was my least favourite. Even though I have learned to appreciate and enjoy it more over the years, I can still remember why initially The Horse and His Boy did not have the same impact as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or even The Magician’s Nephew did.
The Horse and His Boy is different from the other books in some ways. First and most significantly, it does not take place in Narnia, but in the neighbouring countries of Calormen and Archenland. And second, the plot does not involve children from our world being summoned to Narnia to save the the day. Consequently, the main characters are children from Narnia rather than England. The second difference was of particular issue for me because the word “Narnia” is often associated with the notion of children trying to get into a magical country, and this theme is lacking in The Horse and His Boy.
The Horse and His Boy is set in the Golden Age described in the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Kings Peter and Edmund and Queens Susan and Lucy reigned. In this sense, The Horse and His Boy is a flashback novel. The Pevensies appear as minor characters (as their adult selves) with the major characters being two children, Shasta and Aravis; and two talking horses, Bree and Hwin.
When Shasta learns that he is in fact only the adopted son of the cruel Arshees, he decides to run away to “Narnia and the North” with the talking horse Bree. Along the way, they meet a young Calormene aristocrat Aravis and her talking horse Hwin who are also fleeing to Narnia for a better life. They join forces and on their journey, they pass through the capital city of Calormen where they learn of Calormen’s plan to invade Archenland. It is up to them to stop it.
What ensues is an adventure that is reminiscent of the Arabian Nights. This is the novel’s greatest strength, and it is what makes it unique and appealing to many. Unfortunately, it is also one of the book’s weaknesses because this particular aspect of the book has caused some people to brand C. S. Lewis as racist.
There is the distinction of the Calormenes having “dark skin” and the Narnians being fair. The northern countries of Narnia and Archenland are portrayed as the more attractive nations. Even Aravis, the only “good” Calormene we meet in the novel, hates her country so much that she feels she needs to go the North to be happy.
Calormen is the equivalent of the Middle East in Lewis’ world. Its inhabitant are bearded men with turbans and pointed shoes. There are magestic palaces and slaves carrying aristocrats on litters. Cities are hot and dusty, servants are often mistreated by arrogant masters, and forced marriages are normal. Narnia, in contrast, is a land where people are free and merry (and generally more beautiful).
A Product of its Time
Not to justify the above, Lewis was a product of the early 20th century. He was an academic who had his nose buried in books rather than being out there exploring the world and its different cultures. I don’t think it was his intention to portray the northern countries as superior to the rest of the world because we also see in The Horse and His Boy ideas that celebrate diversity and inclusivity. Aravis, a Calormene, is the heroine of the book – brave and principled. Interracial marriage is not an issue: Queen Susan considers marrying Rabadash and Shasta marries Aravis. People from both cultures display strength and weaknesses. More importantly we see that Aslan judges people by their actions and not their appearances.
If you’re willing to ignore the race issues (intended or not), The Horse and His Boy can be enjoyed as a grand adventure that takes Narnia devotees to parts of Lewis’ world that have not been explored before. We accompany Shasta on a journey that many dream of making: waking up one day to discover that you are not who you thought you were and that a whole new world, and life, awaits. As with the rest of the Chronicles, The Horse and His Boy applauds courage, celebrates friendship and advocates loyalty. For these reasons, it deserves its place as one seventh of one of the world’s best loved children’s series.