Alone among the Narnia books, The Horse and His Boy is not about children from our world who stumble into a magical land of adventure as its saviors, although some of those children make cameo appearances as adults. Rather, it is the tale of two children from that world seeking to escape the constraints of their societies and find freedom in the north.
And as you might be guessing, it is not without its problematic elements.
The book begins when Shasta, a young boy living far south of Narnia, makes two important discoveries: one, his father is not really his father, and two, Bree, the horse currently overnighting in the stables can talk. Putting these two facts together, the horse and his boy decide to flee to Narnia and the north. Along the way, they meet a young girl, Aravis, who just happens to be riding another talking horse, Hwin, because lions just happen to be chasing all of them. Things do just happen in tales of this sort. The four all agree to travel together to the north for safety, but some bad luck—or great fortune—along the way just happens to let them find about some treachery towards Narnia and its neighbor, Archenland, that they might, might, be able to stop in time, if they can force themselves to travel quickly enough and stop thinking about water all the time. Three earlier characters—Susan, Lucy and Edmund—make cameo appearances as grown-ups.
As you might be gathering, The Horse and His Boy relies just a little too much on coincidence. (Which Lewis somewhat airily explains away by saying that Aslan is behind most of this. Of course.) But for all that, this is one of the more neatly plotted of the Narnia books, with a tightly wrapped up conclusion and a prophecy that actually makes sense, marked by a few distinct elements.
The first is the setting, which, for the most part, is not in Narnia, but in Calormen, a vaguely Islamic-style empire, loosely (very loosely) based on the Ottoman and Persian Empires. (I said, loosely.) For a series of books emphasizing Christian theology and symbolism, this sudden choice of background feels a bit, well, odd.
Most of this discussion belongs more properly to The Last Battle, where the Calormenes take on a considerably more sinister, problematic and, I fear, religious role. Here, aside from the occasional plot to murder their sons, a penchant for underage wives, and an embrace of slavery, the Calormenes are not described as inherently evil. Indeed, a few seem like very decent people, and one, of course, is the heroine of the book. This is actually a refreshing change; in other Narnia books, those who denied or simply didn’t like Aslan were instantly marked as evil.
At the same time, I find it somewhat distasteful that the young, dark skinned Muslim girl had to flee to the kindly, courtly lands of the white people in order to find freedom, because only her Calormene family and friend would urge her to enter a horrific marriage with a man many times her senior, just because he was rich. These sorts of marriages of young women to wealthy older men happened in white, Christian cultures as well, and the scholarly Lewis knew this quite well. And it is also somewhat odd to hear the constant cries of Freedom! Freedom! Narnia and the north! given that both Narnia and Archenland are monarchies believing in the divine right of kings. (Not to mention all of those giants, mentioned in a sidenote here, who are, we are to understand, not exactly engaging in democratic practices.) Yes, this is a work of its age, and the very welcome that Aravis receives in the north, despite her background, speaks well for Lewis’s comparative tolerance. But this element is still there, and will be revisited later.
The second element is Aravis, the next in the series of really cool girls. Aravis is a trained storyteller, a tomboy, and quite capable of doing whatever she needs to do to get what she wants. She is, hands down, the most ruthless protagonist the series has seen so far, and she is the first to receive a direct, physical punishment from Aslan in return. And yet, she is sympathetic: the marriage she wants to escape is truly hideous (the glimpse we get of her prospective bridegroom actually makes it seem worse); bad enough for her to consider suicide. (If this seems extreme, she is probably about twelve, if that, and her prospective bridegroom is at least 60, if not older.)
She is cool in other ways as well: she knows how to use weapons and armor, and finds parties and gossip and the like all too boring. She has her distinct faults: that ruthlessness, and her pride (which Shasta finds very silly). But, as Lewis says, she is as true as steel.
And, despite her outright rejection of her society’s gender roles (they aren’t excited about her learning weaponry, either) she is the only one of the five girl protagonists in the entire series to get married. (Caspian does get married, off screen and between books, to a girl who has only a few lines of expository dialogue.) To be fair, if we are to believe Lewis’s timeline, at least two of these other girls never really had a chance, and we cannot be sure if a third married or not. But since Lewis elsewhere embraced very traditional gender roles in the books, making a point of the differences between girls and boys, having only the tomboy marry, whether an accidental or purposeful artistic choice, seems… odd. On the other hand, it shows that Lewis, who was, after all, to marry a career-minded woman (this book is dedicated to her two sons) did not believe that marriage was a woman’s only destiny.
Sidenote: The alienation of Susan that I’ve mentioned before makes a reappearance here. Colin calls her a more “ordinary grown-up lady,” comparing her to the sympathetic Lucy, “who’s as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy.” Susan’s inability to see beyond appearances nearly dooms Narnia and Archenland to conquest and slavery. And, she is unable to save herself from an unwanted marriage, instead needing to rely on her courtiers, brother, sister and pretty much the entire country of Archenland for help. This would be less bad if it did not occur in the same book where the comparatively powerless Aravis coolly saves herself from an equally unwanted marriage.
If you’re reading along for the first time, get worried for Susan. Very worried.
This is also the book where Lewis tackles the issue of fairness head on, when when Shasta, after what most dispassionate observers would consider a rather unfair series of events (a childhood spent in slavery, a horrific trek across a desert to save a country he knows nothing about, getting chased by lions, and getting lost in foggy mountains) spends some time complaining to a Voice. The Voice, which turns out, of course, to be Aslan, explains calmly enough that all of this bad luck is no such thing, but, instead, has been part of a nice divine plan. Well. It comforts Shasta, at least.
I’d be remiss if I left this book without mentioning the most delightful part: the two Talking Horses, pompous Bree and quiet Hwin. Bree provides the book’s humor; Hwin provides the soul, and much of the practical planning, in another quiet instance of this book’s girl power. If you like horses, talking or not, you will probably like this book.
Mari Ness spent some time looking hopefully at horses after reading this book, but never found any who would talk to her. She lives in central Florida.