The Horse and His Boy: Odd one out

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review C.S. Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia The Horse and His BoyThe Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

In many ways The Horse and his Boy is the odd one out in the context of the Narnia series — unlike the other books, this one is set completely in the fantasy world rather than describing the movements of children from this world into that. Although two children are still used as the main protagonists, the entire tone, setting and atmosphere of this book is a little different — here we are simply meant to take this other-world for granted, rather than journey into it from hum-drum life.

Though written and published as the fifth book, chronologically it is third in the series (or if you want to get really technical second-and-a-bit) considering it takes place whilst Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are kings and queens of Narnia — grownup, but before they return as children to their own world. C.S. Lewis once more brings a wonderful fantasy adventure to children’s literature, adding in a touch of Christian allegory and teachings, some unique and beloved characters, and a rather controversial satire on Eastern customs and ideology.

Shasta is a young boy who lives with his father Arsheesh in the proud and cruel empire of Calormen. Despite his simple life as a fisherman, he is captivated with the idea of northern countries, even though his father and most of the rest of the country considers it a haunted and cursed place. One day however, a visiting Tarkaan (a Calorman lord) demands hospitality for the night and Shasta learns that he is not in fact Arsheesh’s son — he was found by the old fisherman, and his colouring suggests he is from Narnia and the North!

Immensely excited by this news, he soon finds himself discussing the matters with the Tarkaan’s own horse — a talking horse named Bree, who is also from Narnia, though captured as a foal and forced to work as a war-horse. Together they plot their escape, and are soon on the road northwards! On the way they must deal with deserts, lions, ominous tombs, approaching armies, the dangerous city of Tashbaan, and two fellow runaways, the Calorman maiden Aravis and the mare Hwin, who are also attempting to reach the freedom of Narnia. Perhaps the most exciting and interesting part of the book is when the two groups are separated in Tashbaan whilst in disguise, forcing both into finding different ways of escaping the city, with the valuable information that they’ve both learnt.

C.S. Lewis has often been accused of both sexism and racism, and The Horse and his Boy contains the strongest evidence for both sides of the argument. On the one hand, the dark-skinned Calormens that sprout long-winded proverbs and ruthlessly attack with curved blades are obvious parodies of the stereotypical Arab world and its inhabitants, whether it is the gluttonous Tisroc, the lustful Rabadash, or the simpering Vizier. Likewise, the character Lasaraleen, an empty-headed, aristocratic ditz is a portrayal of women that Lewis presents frequently in his works.

But both of these examples are somewhat diminished in light of the character Aravis: she is both Calorman and female, yet she is brave, true, intelligent, Amazonian, and improves for the better after her journey. Though she never uses her sword within the course of the story (except to shear the horses’ tails), Queen Lucy joins the archers in the battle against Rabadash’s troops (who is “as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy.”) Complication piles upon complication — Corin’s comment is obviously detrimental to Lucy’s capabilities, but one must keep in mind that it is a young boy making this claim. Sometimes it’s best to just accept that there are prickly issues to Lewis’s writing and just get on with the story.

One thing that is consistent throughout the books is Lewis’s inclusion of Christian meaning, in this case it deals with the reality that behind every occurrence, whether good or bad, is the will of God. In terms of the story, it means that Aslan appears to the characters several times — often in disguise — to guide and drive on the journey in order for it to reach a successful conclusion. It is a comforting presence throughout, and it’s fun to look back over the book once it’s read to see events that seemed somewhat random suddenly make a lot more sense in light of this truth.

The Horse and his Boy is a great adventure story, and although Shasta’s true identity may make some eyes roll, the journey that he must make in order to get there is immensely rewarding. It is definitely the different book in the series, (many who don’t like the others find this one to be the best, and visa versa) and the one that you could perhaps get away with not reading without loosing the overall structure and meaning of the entire series. However, despite all this The Horse and his Boy is the book that I personally have read the most in the series — not through any particular favouritism toward it, but just as an interesting, familiar, rewarding read.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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