THE STAND OUT TALE OF THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
A GRIPPING JOURNEY OF SELF DISCOVERY FOR TWO YOUNG HEROES IN A RACE AGAINST TIME TO THWART A NEFARIOUS CONSPIRACY
The Horse And His Boy
(The Chronicles Of Narnia, Book 3)
Genre: Children’s, Juvenile Fantasy
Format: Paperback, 252 Pages
Date: 20th March 2012 (First Published 1954)
If anyone were to ask me which of the seven books of The Chronicles Of Narnia is the best, without hesitation I would reply, The Horse And His Boy; although I would have no argument with anyone who considered Prince Caspian to be the better book. While they are both excellent reads, what elevates the former over the latter, as well as the other Narnia books, is its unique status within the series. It is the only instalment whose premise doesn’t involve young protagonists from our world being transported to the world of Narnia at a time of great need. In fact, though the story takes place during the reign of the Pevensie siblings, and features cameo appearances by them, Narnia only plays a small part in the book’s setting and plot. The story unfolds mostly in the land of Calormen, far to the south, before moving to Archenland and Narnia, much later on.
I think the principle reason why I have always had such an affinity for, The Horse And His Boy, is that it really speaks to our childhood desire to be more than we are; the desire to live a life other than our own; to maybe be someone else entirely. And this aspiration is embodied in the two young protagonists of the story: Shasta, the supposed son of an abusive, destitute Calormene fisherman called Arsheesh, who dreams of life in the mysterious lands of the distant north; and Aravis, a young noblewoman from one of the privileged Houses of Calormen nobility, who wishes to escape a life of restrictions.
Though the circumstances of the two characters are markedly different, both Shasta and Aravis embark upon journeys, literally and figuratively, with the hope of a new life in Narnia. Shasta’s journey begins with the arrival of a travelling Tarkaan (a Calormene nobleman), who demands hospitality for the night at Arsheesh’s home. This leads directly to Shasta making two shocking discoveries which sets him on the path to “Narnia and the north”. First is a revelation about his origins; Shasta learns that he is not the person he thought he was. He’s not even a native of Calormen. While this discovery is a surprise, it is also a relief. The prospect that he could potentially be someone of significance, with a more meaningful life than the one he has, is a happy one. But the truth is even more fantastical than Shasta realises. Secondly, the biggest shock for Shasta is the discovery that the horse of the Tarkaan can speak. The horse whom he names Bree, tells Shasta of his homeland, Narnia, across the great desert to the north, and seeks his assistance in escaping back there.
Aravis’ journey begins after she resolves not to go through with an arranged marriage to a man old enough to be her grandfather. As her options are limited she decides the only way out is to end her life. She is shocked out of her suicide attempt when her horse, Hwin, speaks to her with the voice of a woman, imploring her not to go through with it. Hwin informs Aravis that she originally hails from the land of Narnia, then persuades Aravis that together they should flee Calormen and journey to Narnia, where Aravis would be free to live a life of her own choosing.
As fate would have it, (or perhaps I should say Aslan), Shasta and Aravis’ paths cross, and the two runaways, with their respective talking horses, become travelling companions. But it’s far from smooth sailing as things start to go awry while the group are passing through the city of Tashbaan, during a visit by a Royal delegation from Narnia. Shasta and Aravis inadvertently stumble upon a conspiracy, that not only threatens to scupper their plans, but also imperils the northern lands of Archenland and Narnia.
No matter how many times I read, The Horse And His Boy, (and believe me when I say I’ve read it more times than I can remember), I always find it “unputdownable”. Even though I know all the great twists littered throughout the story, I still remain impressed by them. They are indicative of why I feel that this is the stand out book of the series. Such a well conceived story with so many surprising turns makes for a more grown up tale in comparison to the other Narnia stories. Certainly, none of the other six instalments are characterised by their intricately plotted narratives. Lewis did an admirable job creating such an engrossing read.
While I would prefer to avoid levelling any criticism at a book I have enjoyed reading so many times throughout my life, I think it is appropriate to address certain accusations that Lewis’ writing has attracted, as The Horse And His Boy, is often referenced to back up some of these assertions. Over the years much of the academic criticism of The Chronicles Of Narnia has cited examples of gender stereotyping, to support claims of sexism, on the one hand, and negative portrayals of non-white characters and cultures, to support claims of racism, on the other. The charges of sexism and racism seem to be the most prevalent of all the criticisms levelled against the Narnia novels, and though I think it is possible to make a defence against some of the sexism claims, it is much harder to refute the accusations of racism. And this book more than any of the other books of the series can be viewed as an offender in this respect.
Looking at the depiction of the land of Calormen and the brown skinned Calormene people, it’s hard not to see them is thinly veiled caricatures of the Ottoman Turks, complete with turbans, gleaming beards, scimitars and shoes curled up at the toe. Throughout the story, the Calormene characters are almost all universally portrayed as a cruel and repressive people, who habitually refer to foreigners as accursed barbarians. I suppose you could argue that antagonists should be unsympathetic, and that it is to be expected that they be written in a negative light. Yet the one Calormene character who escapes the poor characterisation is Aravis; the principle reason seemingly being the fact she chooses to turn her back on all things Calormene, in order to embrace the progressive, freedom loving, and decidedly white Narnians.
Such observations, however, are likely to go unnoticed by the book’s intended audience of child readers. I know that I never fully appreciated the implications of the portrayal of the Calormenes when I was just a kid. That being said, I have to say that these issues do not impact upon my enjoyment of the book. I regard The Horse And His Boy to be a must read book for young readers developing an interest in fantasy literature.
For parents concerned about letting their children read the book, on account of the aforementioned matter, I would say that perhaps you should consider it an opportunity for discussion on the representation of ethnic minorities in the media, in general. Maybe you’ll inspire your kids to grow up to become writers in order to redress the negative portrayals and tackle the lack of diversity in the genre.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.