The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis
This review was written for CatholicFiction.net
If you’ve read my book blog before, you know that while I praise Lewis as one of the greatest writers of the last century, I generally avoid doing book reviews of his work. This is primarily because I feel unworthy of writing such a review. As one of my primary influences both in literature and theology, Lewis is one of my heroes. You cannot give an objective review of your hero.
That being said, I want to share with you my thoughts on The Horse and His Boy. Now, The Horse and His Boy is either my first or second favorite of the Narnia series (it goes back and forth between THaHB and The Last Battle).
Unlike most of the books in the Narnia series, The Horse and His Boy is a story of its own, with few references to England and only a small number of hat tips to previous adventures. Fans of the Pevensies get to see King Edmund and Queens Lucy and Susan in their glory (well, Lucy and Ed are in their glory—Susan is silly as ever). A few encounters with the Pevensies as more-or-less grown adults with little memory of their true identities are the extent of direct references to the earlier and later stories. The Horse and His Boy is able to stand alone; yet the story takes place almost entirely in Calormen and Archenland, not in Narnia, which also gives shape to the series as a whole.
The story follows two main story lines. The first is that of Shasta, a young boy who finds out that the fisherman who raised him is not his father when he hears the fisherman plotting to sell him to a Tarkaan. The Tarkaan’s horse, Bree, turns out to be a talking horse from Narnia. Bree, knowing that he cannot escape alone, asks Shasta to be his rider:
“If you can’t ride, can you fall?”
“I suppose that anyone can fall,” said Shasta.
“I mean can you fall and get up again without crying and mount again and fall again and yet not be afraid of falling?”
“I—I will try,” said Shasta. (p.209)*
The other storyline follows a young Tarkheena named Aravis who has escaped her father’s house after finding that her father is giving her as a wife to a much older man. First she planned to take her own life, but was stopped when her own horse, Hwin, reveals that she is also a talking horse and stops Aravis from finishing the act, persuading her to flee instead.
The two storylines collide when the children and their horses meet in the dessert, running from lions. Although they are wary of each other at first, they learn to be friends in the end. They have several short adventures together, trying to get to Narnia where they, and their horses, will be free.
As they are traveling through the capital city and making their way towards Narnia, the two become separated and each child has their own adventure and their own secrets to discover. These adventures in Tashbaan are crucial to both the plotline and the character development for the children. Shasta is given the first hint of his true identity and destiny while Aravis learns that she is made of different stuff than other Calormines and will never be happy among them. Together, they learn things (by listening to conversations that they were not meant to hear) that reveal their quest.
While I have read some complaints on review sites that Aslan does not feature well into this story, I think that is a silly thing to say. As in life when we can look back and see the actions of God in guiding us along, in this book Shasta and Aravis are given the opportunity to see where Aslan gently (and sometimes not-so-gently) guided them, guarded them, and helped them do what they were meant to do. Aslan walks into their lives and brings them to their vocations without them realizing it. In fact, they cannot realize his presence because they do not know. They were not raised learning about the lion who so intimately knows his people, instead they were raised learning about a distant god called Tash and practically worshipping the great Tisroc, their version of a king. They are not like Lucy Pevensie, who always recognizes Aslan before her siblings are able to: Aravis and Shasta must first know who Aslan is before they can recognize him. When they do come to know him, they come truly to know themselves. It is the same for Bree, who is embarrassed by his vanity when Aslan comes before him, and Hwin, whose response to Aslan is perhaps best of all:
Then Hwin, though shaking all over, gave a strange little niegh, and trotted across to the lion.
“Please,” she said, “you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”
“Dearest daughter,” said Aslan, planting a lion’s kiss on her twitching, velvet nose, “I knew you would not be long in coming to me. Joy shall be yours.” (p. 299)*
Shasta as a character lacks complexity. I think that Shasta could be characterized as a classic shy introvert: he is awkward and doesn’t know social norms, but he is aware of his lack of knowledge, making him even more awkward. Bree, on the other hand, is exactly what you would expect from a showy warhorse. He is prideful, yet honorable.
If you are looking for a strong female character, look no further than Hwin and Aravis. Where Bree (the male horse) tires out and is prone to cowardice, Hwin gives all she can and is remains the strong, practical voice for the group. Modern readers will also be delighted to encounter Aravis—a strong young woman, capable of taking care of herself but not so independent as to refuse to work with others. She recognizes her faults (admittedly, sometimes after the fact) and is given equal importance to Shasta. Her courage and quick thinking often save the day.
In addition to being a strong female character (neither the first nor the last in this series), I think that Aravis is an extraordinary character in this series for her faith perspective. She is not from Narnia, and therefore not a child of Adam and Eve—meaning she is not part of the sacred lineage that Lewis makes so much of in his other works. Yet, Aslan still appears to her, still corrects her when she is wrong, still loves her gently and fiercely. Aslan’s mercy is also found in another even stranger place: his willingness to forgive and pardon Prince Rabadash, a very flat character who never outgrows his flaws of greed and pride. Aslan’s mercy and love are not limited to what could be called the faith community of Narnia and Archenland—two nations devoted to following Aslan. They extend to all the beings who inhabit the world he created.
Another thing to note is that while Tash is a false god opposed to Aslan, Aslan is able to work miracles even through the temple of Tash. Lewis is saying here the same thing he repeats in The Last Battle: there are many names for God, there are many ways we recognize him, we cannot limit his power to be simply that which we expect from him. Aslan can work in ways outside of the expectations of his own people. He is, after all, not a tame lion.
I dearly love this book, but in each reading I learn something new—often gaining a deeper insight into what I think Lewis was getting at in writing a book so unlike the others. Ignoring the differences, however, we find that the story is yet another adventure story whose deep theological veins connect with the whole work that is The Chronicles of Narnia.
I give The Horse and His Boy a 5/5.
*Quotations are cited based on the page numbers in the all-in-one version (978-0-06-623850-0)