Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter seven. Aravis in Tashbaan.

Synopsis: Aravis runs into her old friend Lasaraleen, and asks for her help in escaping. As they are doing so, they hide in a room which the Tisroc, the Grand Vizier and Rabadash enter.

One of the reasons I always liked Aravis so much as a child was her self-possession, confidence and ability to think quickly. Lewis is often accused of sexism (a subject I’m planning to address properly in a separate post – there’s quite a lot to cover) and many of the arguments levelled against him are absolutely fair, with plenty of evidence to support them. However, I didn’t actually spot a lot of these issues when I read the books as a child: it’s only as an adult that I’m aware of this aspect of the Narniad. I didn’t think about Lasaraleen as a symbol of ‘frivolous feminity’. I just thought she was a silly person, not a silly female. What I did notice as a young reader was that every book in the chronicles has at least one prominent, relatable female lead character, often the POV character for much of the book. And when I read ‘The Horse and His Boy’ I wanted to be like Aravis, or to be her friend.

Lasaraleen is annoying, and self-centred, but not actually ‘bad’. She just can’t seem to see things from other points of view, which is something everyone struggles with at times. There are plenty of Lasaraleens  (by which I mean people interested chiefly in the superficial: money, status, celebrity etc.) in the modern world – many accounts on instagram and twitter are evidence of this. She loves to talk but isn’t much of a listener. We all know the frustration of talking to someone who is clearly not actually listening to what you are saying, merely thinking about what they are going to say next.

Pauline Baynes’ illustration of Lasaraleen and Aravis sitting in the room together always made me wish I could have a room like that – spoiled pet monkey included.

The inconsistency I’ve mentioned before in how Narniad characters speak (see posts on VDT and SC)  is evident again here with Lasaraleen. Other Calormenes speak in a very formal style, as mentioned before. Yet she speaks like a decidedly 20th Century person: ‘But darling…Everyone’s crazy about him….I positively adore Prince Rabadash…do listen dear, this is frightfully funny.’

The palace of the Tisroc sounds amazing. Although the architectural style is quite different, the description reminds me of the former Tzar’s palaces in Russia: opulent, richly decorated, hugely expensive, and with rooms decorated along different themes. I’d particularly like to see the beaten copper doors. The palace also reminds me a little of the mysterious palace visited by Anados in MacDonald’s ‘Phantastes’, which of course was a particular favourite of Lewis’.

Lasaraleen’s panic and selfishness (pinching someone’s feet is definitely not a nice thing to do) makes all her earlier boasting sound hollow, but also invites comparison – from Aravis and the reader – between her and Shasta. As they say, money can’t buy class.




Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter six. Shasta among the Tombs.

Synopsis: Shasta leaves Tashbaan. He spends the night at the ancient tombs, but the others are not there. A cat is there with him.

Until this re-read, I imagined that Lewis had simply invented the idea of a stone ‘beehive tomb’. I always thought them a little strange, and found the illustrations quite creepy when I was younger, I think because of the dark, open doorways. However, beehive tombs are real. Also known as ‘Tholos tombs’, these stone structures were built by a number of cultures, in Europe and Asia. Tholoi weren’t only used as tombs; similar structures were also used for rituals, and even dwellings. Once again, Lewis’ classical education and interests can be found colouring the detail of his imagined worlds, and once again the Chronicles have taught me something new. It’s over thirty years since I first read the Chronicles, and I’ve returned to them many times, finding comfort in the familiarity of the Narnian world, but every time I read them there is still something new to notice, to find out about or to discuss.

I always felt heartily sorry for Shasta at this point. He doubts his companions. He is completely alone and defenceless. He knows that he must spend the entire night alone in the middle of an unfamiliar graveyard which people say is haunted by ghouls. It’s an utterly miserable situation for anyone, let alone a child.

Shasta hears a jackal’s call, although he doesn’t actually know what creature it is. Jackals are mentioned on a number of occasions in the Bible, generally in order to illustrate or represent loneliness and feelings of abandonment, due their association with ruins and places abandoned by people. This makes the jackal the perfect animal to appear in this chapter of the book. After all, Shasta is surrounded by uninhabited buildings, feeling lonely and wondering if his companions have abandoned him. An old Indian/Pakistani saying about courage (which is relevant here as Shasta’s courage is being tested throughout this chapter) mentions both jackals and lions: ‘One day’s life as a lion is better than a hundred years life as a jackal’. This also brings to mind Bree’s earlier assertion from Chapter One that ‘An hour’s life there [Narnia] is better than a thousand years in Calormen’, or indeed Zapata’s famous quote: ‘It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees’.

Aslan’s change in apparent size here, from cat-sized to horse-sized, is similar to how he has seemed to be different sizes in earlier books, depending on who is looking at him and what is happening. (He discusses this with Lucy in PC when she comments that he has grown.) We are told Aslan has green eyes. As far as I’m aware this is the only time Aslan’s eye colour is given. I never imagined his eyes to be green, more of an amber colour, but maybe they change colour in the same way his size changes, and are only green when he takes the form of a large cat.



Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter five. Prince Corin.

Synopsis: Edmund explains the danger he believes them to be in. Tumnus shares his plan for escaping. Shasta is left alone. Corin returns through the window and Shasta leaves.

Mount Pire is mentioned here. I can’t find a specific reason why the word ‘Pire’ was chosen. (Although we later discover the origin of the mountain according to Archenland legend.)

Susan mentions the moles planting an orchard for them at Cair Paravel. I love this little detail. If the books are read in publication order (which I much prefer to the alternative chronological order) then the reader will recognise this orchard. It is the same orchard which has become wild and overgrown in the ruins of Cair Paravel, and from which the Pevensie children take apples in PC.

True to form, poor Susan doesn’t get to show us much ‘grit’ here. We know she is beautiful and tender hearted, but she is also a bit of a ‘damsel in distress’. She is an amazing archer, but we hear nothing about what she could do in a defence of the house against the Calormenes. Of course, this is in keeping with how a ‘medieval’ queen would behave, but Lucy gets to break these ‘rules’. I wish Susan could.

The Narnian galleon is called the Splendour Hyaline. This name combines the Greek word for ‘glassy’ and the Latin for brightness or brilliance. Downing suggest, in ‘Into the Wardrobe’, that Lewis may have chosen the word hyaline after enjoying it in Paradise Lost: ‘cleer Hyaline, the Glassie sea’. Again, this detail references PC, where we were told, via Susan’s reminiscences, of ‘the swan’s head at her prow and the carved swan’s wings coming back almost to her waist…the silken sails, and the great stern lanterns’ and learned about parties and feasts held on board. This ship is another Narnian detail which I would love to see illustrated, but searches, even on the usually reliable, have proved fruitless so far.

Is there a literary precedent for the ‘pretending to hold a party on board the getaway ship’ plan? Or is it a purely Lewisian invention?

The refrain, used throughout the book, of ‘Narnia and the North’, reflects Lewis’ own lifelong live of what he termed ‘Northernness’: Norse mythology, Wagnerian opera and so on.

When Edmund says the Splendour Hyaline could sink any following ships, what is he referring to? Does Narnia have cannons? They don’t have guns. I assume they wouldn’t ram the other ship, which was a common method of sinking an enemy ship in the pre-cannon era.

When I work my way through the Chronicles, trying to recreate all the meals mentioned, I suspect that the one Shasta eats here will be the trickiest. I certainly won’t be able to cook snipe (and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want to). Lobsters and truffles won’t be cheap, and trying to make something tasty involving chicken livers and raisins, together, will certainly be a challenge.

If Corin hadn’t appeared, what would Shasta have done? Would he have confessed?

I’d completely forgotten that Tashbaan has a ‘watch’ (as in a sort of pre-police group of guards who keep the peace in a town or city). For me, the first thing that springs to mind at this point is the Night Watch, which contains some of the most beloved characters in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I’m quite sure Lewis had nobody like Nobby Nobbs and Fred Colon in mind when writing this, although the Calormene guards’ incompetence is certainly familiar.






Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter four. Shasta falls in with the Narnians.

Synopsis: The four companions travel through Tashbaan in disguise. The party of Narnians mistake Shasta for Prince Corin and take him home with them. They begin to discuss their situation.

Tashbaan is described as ‘one of the wonders of the world’. It sounds wonderful, with its ‘pillared colonnades’, ‘roof-gardens’ and striking silver-plated dome. It puts me in mind of medieval cities I’ve visited across Europe, where something interesting lies around every corner and there are a multitude of streets and alleys waiting to be explored.

I’d forgotten that Tashbaan was accessed via a bridge, and that one of the guards at the entrance to the city attacked Shasta.

The description of Tashbaan up close is much less flattering. (See my earlier post about issues of race in HHB.) Lewis seems unable to resist little digs at the details of Calormene life, such as the statues of gods and heroes.

It seems strange that Calormene culture is markedly different from its Narnian counterpart, yet they share the same language.

I don’t suppose I’d given much thought to what Narnian men wore before, but here they are described as having bare legs to the knee, like Ancient Greeks, which I hadn’t expected. And which of them was wearing the silver cap with wings on it, and why?

Again, when we are presented with Narnians, Lewis contrasts them with Calormenes, sometimes in strange ways. The colours of their clothes, the shape of their swords, their lack of reserve: all are presented to us as the ideal. It’s a little cartoonish for my taste as an adult, although I barely noticed it as a child.

One of the reasons I so enjoyed this book as a child was that it afforded me the opportunity to see King Edmund (one of my favourite characters) and his siblings as adults. A large part of me wanted them to remain the rulers of Narnia, and for the adventure to be fleshed out with other stories of their reign. I was also pleased to be reunited with Tumnus, albeit briefly.

When I eat (and drink) my way through all the foods mentioned in the Chronicles, I’m really looking forward to ‘iced sherbert in a golden cup’. (Real gold is probably beyond my budget, but I’ll try to find something similar.)

Surely only Lewis would use the word ‘hastilude’ in a book aimed at under-tens. At times, a dictionary is handy when reading the Narniad, particularly for the antiquated terms which are sometimes used.

The name ‘Sallowpad’ means ‘yellow footed’ or ‘pale footed’, but as far as I’m aware, ravens have dark legs and feet. (I’m happy to be corrected, though, as I don’t know much about birds.)

Edmund and Susan have other humans in their party, such as Peridan. These people are presumably part of the Narnian court.  However, in LWW, there are no humans in Narnia. So where have these people come from? Archenland? Elsewhere? Or is it simply an oversight? It’s only supposed to have been a few years since the children took their thrones.




Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter three. At the gates of Tashbaan.

Synopsis: Aravis tells the story of how she and Hwin came to run away. The four runaways agree a plan for getting through Tashbaan.

A large part of this chapter is Aravis’ story within a story. (In this respect it reminds me of the way PC is constructed.) Aravis’ story begins like a fairytale: wicked step-mothers, evil grand viziers and so forth. I always loved Aravis (I think I liked to imagine that we would be friends when I read the story as a child). I also loved her story-telling style. It’s a similar situation to the archaic speech employed by the adult Pevensies in LWW: I would probably tire of it if the whole book was like this, but used sparingly it’s interesting and, to my mind, beautiful. Of course, for Lewis, story-telling was part of what he did as a writer – although he was equally at home writing prose – but it held greater meaning for him as well. To his mind, story-telling and myth making are ways of encountering, processing and understanding the most important aspects of life. He saw all the greatest myths and stories as leading towards what he considered the ‘true myth’, the story of Jesus. (This idea played a significant part in his conversion to Christianity via conversations with fellow Inklings.)

I wonder who the western rebels are, and what their war was about.

Aravis has a dead mother, just as Caspian X did (did his wife, too?) , and Rilian did, and of course Lewis himself. Of course, parents being absent for whatever reason is a common device in children’s literature because it allows the protagonists to act independently. It has often been suggested that ‘The Magician’s Nephew’, which was the last of the Chronicles to be written, shows Lewis finally writing an alternative happy ending to the story of a young boy with a very ill mother, the ending which he never had in real life.

Aravis’ paraphrasing of Hwin’s plea for her not to commit suicide is very memorable: “Do not by any means destroy yourself, for if you live you may yet have good fortune but all the dead are dead alike.”

When I was younger the mention of Zardeenah and the ritual for maidens reminded me of Greek goddesses such as Hera and Artemis.

I was always glad that Aravis didn’t laugh at Bree’s jokes made at Shasta’s expense. She’s proud and snobbish, and the way she speaks to Shasta is offhand, but there’s another side to her too.

The Valley of the Thousand Perfumes reminds me of places described in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. The whole Tarkaan/Tarkheena lifestyle, of water parties and pleasure gardens, sounds really interesting. I wish we saw more of it.

During the discussions about how to get past Tashbaan, the two horses’ natures are clearly revealed. Bree’s pride and concern for how other see him comes to the fore, and Hwin is humble, but wise in what she suggests.





Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter two. A wayside adventure.

Synopsis: Shasta and Bree continue their journey. They are chased by a lion. While they run away from the lion, they cross paths with Aravis and Hwin.

Having fallen into a gorse bush myself, I have every sympathy for Shasta having landed in one during a fall.

The sea, and the fresh smell of sea air, is an image which appears again and again in the Chronicles: the beach near Cair Paravel, with seagulls crying above; the sea around the ruins the children find in PC; landing in the water at the start of VDT; the glassy wave in front of Aslan’s country. The sea is wild, and natural, and beautiful: all things which Narnia (and Aslan) is supposed to be. For Lewis it also seems to be connected to longing, to sehnsucht.

I always imagined the furious Anradin, on discovering his horse and crescents gone, presumably taking out his rage on Arsheesh. We never hear more of Arsheesh or the village. (I always hoped the donkey was alright, in much the same way as young me worried terribly about the fate of Bill the pony in Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.)

I’m planning to cook – and eat – all the food mentioned in the Chronicles once I’ve finished my re-read. I wish I knew what sort of pasty a Calormene lord would have. I can’t imagine it to be like a Cornish pasty. And was the cheese supposed to be green? (Anyway, I’m certainly looking forward to the pasty and cheese meal more than the raw onions, bread and radishes which they eat during the next section of their journey.)

Bree’s concern about rolling, and what other horses might think of him, is the first real clue we have to his biggest fault: pride. Pride and conceit are not appealing qualities in a character, but Bree is lovable enough for the reader to forgive him. Also, worrying about what others think of you, and whether the things you enjoy are cool/classy/common etc. is a preoccupation which most children, and many adults, would readily identify with.

In my memory this part of the journey was quite short, but apparently it went on for ‘weeks and weeks’. I suppose this makes sense when you think that Shasta had to learn to ride properly.

Could a horse really know so much about another horse just from hearing them approach?

When the lion’s roar is described, ‘savage’, ‘long’ and ‘snarling’ all seem like standard adjectives to use, but ‘melancholy’ seems a strange choice. Can a roar be melancholic?

I wonder what Bree’s previous encounter with a lion was. It must have been terrifying to affect him so profoundly.

When you are in extreme situations, you often do exactly what Lewis says: notice everything. When I have received very bad news, for example, I’ve found that I’ve noticed every visual detail around me, including irrelevant ones such as patterns on carpets and the like.

Shasta and Aravis begin as the classic odd couple pairing, just as you might see in a buddy comedy or police series. Surely anyone who is familiar with how stories like this go knows they are destined to fight all the way up to becoming best friends.

Hwin never really gets much mention in favourite characters lists and so on. She’s not funny, or fierce, or quirky. However, as I get older I like her more and more. When I was a child, Bree felt like the horse I wanted to know. But now, I can see Hwin’s positive qualities more clearly. She is independent but not bossy, honest but not impolite, and clever but not conceited. In temperament she is maybe more like Shasta, while Aravis is more similar to Bree.

I couldn’t agree more with Lewis about story-telling and essay writing. Everyone loves  stories, whether spoken or in a book or a film, but there are very few essays I’ve worked through more than once.









Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter one. How Shasta set out on his travels.

Synopsis: Shasta overhears his father selling him to a Tarkaan. The Tarkaan’s horse speaks to him, and together they decide to run away to Narnia.

I have mixed feelings about the first illustration which begins this book. I love a map – especially a fantasy one – but this one is a strange map, as it is mostly empty desert. I wish it included more detail relevant to Shasta’s journey up to Tashbaan.

I love the idea of a totally ‘in-world’ story. There’s no travel between our world and the Narnian world, but I really don’t mind that. I just wish there were more tales from the ‘Golden Age’ available. (some valiant souls on are trying to address this, with varying levels of success.)

(Please see my previous post for a discussion about how the Calormenes are portrayed, and the issue of race in HHB.)

The name Arsheesh doesn’t have a specific meaning, although Ford suggests, in ‘Companion to Narnia’, that it may be intended to echo the word ‘harsh’ which could also describe the man’s nature. The relationship between Arsheesh and Shasta is described as cold and functional, with no affection.

The ‘oh my son’, ‘oh my father’ pattern in their speech is reminiscent of ancient texts such as the Bible and Quran. Arsheesh’s ‘practical’ nature is shown to the reader with the intention of us thinking him dull and unimaginative in the ‘grown-up’ way which Lewis often refers to in the Chronicles.

The use of the term Tarkaan for lords such as Anradin is most likely derived from Tarkaan/Tarkhan – a term used in the Mongol society of the Middle Ages to describe a specific rank of nobleman. We are told that Anradin demanded hospitality from Arsheesh, a situation which is presumably intended to be in contrast with the repeated examples of hosipitality which we see freely offered by Narnians throughout the Narniad.

The use of the word ‘carbuncle’ refers to a precious stone, but its other meaning (an infected, unpleasant boil) is what always springs to mind when I read this chapter.

Shasta’s daydreams about his possible identity reflect those enjoyed by most children at some level – ‘you are special, you have a great destiny’ etc. – and by children who are unsure of who their real parents are particularly. And of course, Shasta wonders if he might be the son of the Tisroc, or of a god. The idea of Shasta having royal blood re-emerges later in the book, and in some sense all Narnians are thought to be the children of Aslan, so his daydreams aren’t entirely flights of fancy.

When Bree says, “But I can,” I still get a little thrill of excitement, even after multiple re-reads and many years. Who wouldn’t love to meet a truly talking animal?

Bree’s description of Narnia: “Narnia of the heathery mountains and the thymy downs, Narnia of the many rivers, the plashing glens, the mossy caverns and the deep forests ringing with the hammers of the Dwarfs,” is for me one of the most evocative in the entire series. It is so full of longing, so simple and (to someone who has lived in northern Britain all their life) so familiar.

Bree’s ‘horsy’ nature, his equine tricks of speech, and his opinions of humans from a hose point of view all endear him to the reader. And I always remembered his clever idea of laying false tracks through water – not that I’ve needed to use it so far.











Narnia re-read. Beginning The Horse and His Boy: issues of race.

I felt that before I began my re-read of this book of the Chronicles of Narnia, I had to make a post addressing issues of race, in relation to the story.

Points of view and opinions about the work of C. S. Lewis tend to divide quite sharply between devoted lovers of his work and staunch detractors. This can make it difficult to find objective opinions about certain aspects of the Chronicles.

People who love Lewis’ writing are often heavily invested in the writer himself. This particularly applies for certain groups of people, who see him as a mentor in terms of their religious faith. Because of his skill at making his reader feel like they know him, that they have common ground, that they have a relationship with him, they can become very defensive about him. And because his religious writing has given many people comfort and inspiration, there is sometimes a tendency for him to be presented as someone ‘saintly’. This attachment to these readers’ idea of Lewis can lead people to be very sensitive to any criticism of him.

On the other side of the argument, those who are (very definitely) not fans of Lewis can be quite vitriolic in their dismissal of the man and his works. They see his writing as a series of defences of the indefensible: racism, sexism, inequality, bigotry and ‘the system’. Because of this, they see the Chronicles as unsuitable for children, due to it being full of cruel, out-dated and hateful messages.

I hope that I fall into neither camp, but can see the points of view of both. So I’m trying to look objectively at The Horse and His Boy. (Hopefully without offending anyone myself.)

The reason this subject is relevant to this story is the prominence of Calormen and Calormenes, mentioned only briefly in earlier books in the series. The country of Calormen, its people, and how they are described, is where the problems lie. Some of the accusations levelled at Lewis are, I believe, justified, some are inaccurate, and others can be explained but perhaps not excused.

Accusations I believe are justified.

Mention is made of the ‘dark’ skin colour of the Calormenes, which is contrasted with the ‘fair’ Narnians. Throughout the book the reader is left in no doubt as to which nation is the ‘better’ one. This is a generalisation, as the race of characters doesn’t determine their qualities, but is noticeable nevertheless. The ‘best’ Calormene, Aravis, has to abandon her people and way of life and move to the North in order to be happy.

The Calormene culture and civilisation is generally viewed critically and sometimes played for laughs. It is clearly based on (Lewis’ idea of) a Middle Eastern style culture, his main influence probably being what Lewis knew of the Ottoman Empire and his reading of tales such as the Arabian Nights. We are presented with plentiful examples of stereotypical imagery: bearded men in turbans and pointed shoes; ornate, opulent palaces; slaves carrying aristocrats on litters; perfumed pleasure gardens and so on. Calormene society is depicted as being stilted, overly formal and restrictive. Cities are dusty and smelly, speech is flowery, faces are serious and haughty, girls are forced to marry, servants are grovelling and obsequious, and masters are arrogant and cruel. This is contrasted with the northern lands, where people are merry, free, informal and generally attractive. Even the food reflects this bias – we are told about a wholesome, hearty Narnian fry-up versus ‘a complicated dish’ of chicken livers and raisins served in Calormen. This is not how (one would hope) people would write today.

Accusations I believe are not correct.

It has been suggested that Lewis used the Calormenes as a Narnian equivalent to Muslims. I really don’t believe this is the case. The Calormene religion is not monothestic: Tash is the god mentioned most often, but Azaroth and Zardeenah are also worshipped. Sacrifices are made to these gods in secret rituals. This is most unlike Islamic worship, either in the Mosque or during daily prayers. I personally see no link between Islam and the Calormene religion. I imagine it to be more of a ‘mish-mash’ of ideas Lewis picked up from multiple sources. (Similarly, the habit of saying ‘may he live forever’ after the Tisroc is mentioned is inspired by E Nesbit’s ‘The Story of the Amulet’.)

Explanation and exploration (not justification) of some points.

Lewis was a product of a particular place and time: the British Isles of the early Twentieth Century. He only left Britain/Ireland twice (once to go to war). He lived a ‘stuffy’ life, working in the closed world of academia, surrounded by other men, and immersed in texts from much earlier times. This was not an ideal breeding ground for ‘modern’ or progressive thinking on such issues as race and gender. Lewis doubtless had, and expressed, prejudices and opinions which we would find wrong today. In fairness, this was the case for the majority of men of this time. Naturally, we wish that the opinions of authors whose work we enjoy mirrored our own, more enlightened ways of thinking, but it is difficult to apply our standards to the world Lewis grew up in. (He was thirty before women gained full voting equality, for example.) This doesn’t necessarily excuse some of the things included in his work, but does help to explain them.

Lewis did, however, revel in his ‘fogeyish’ ways. He liked large helpings of plain food (without the garlic which Calormenes enjoyed). He drank ale, was boisterous in pubs and smoked heavily. He was self-consciously nostalgic and pined for an idealised  pre-industrial world which had never truly existed. He sought out the company of other middle-aged men to smoke, drink and be boisterous with. Lewis, who thought so long and so deeply about so many things, didn’t seem prepared to spend too long thinking about how he was portraying the Calormenes to his readers: were they to be judged partly on their skin? Was their ‘darkness’ bound up with the aspects of their culture which are shown to be wrong, such as tyranny and slavery?

Having loved the Chronicles in my childhood, I feel sad that this issue is contained within them. Narnia was always the place I would escape to when our world seemed unjust and unfair. (I didn’t notice anything about race in them as a child, to be honest – it sailed right over my head, along with many of the religious allusions. Plus, even thirty years ago our awareness of such matters was much less widespread.) I think what bothers me most is the thought of a child reading the stories and feeling that Narnia is for other people, people whose skin is fairer than theirs. That wardrobe doors are selective about who they let in. I don’t know if people do feel this when reading this book, but the thought isn’t a pleasant one. I wish I could wholeheartedly endorse the Chronicles to everyone, without any hesitation or reservations at all, but am not entirely sure I can. There are always going to be provisos.

On the positive side, when I read the story I see hopeful points as well as the ones mentioned above. Aravis is a real heroine: brave, resourceful and interesting. Nobody in the Narnian world thinks anything of interracial marriage; Susan considers marrying Rabadash, and Aravis marries Cor. Characters of both cultures are shown to have weaknesses and strengths, to be good or otherwise. And in a world where Aslan knows and sees what is inside people – their thoughts, their fears, their hopes – he doesn’t judge them by their appearance but by their actions.

On reflection, I would say that I would still read the story with children, but also have a discussion about it with them to ensure that they were clear on certain points as and when they arose. As a child I was fascinated by descriptions of the Calormene world, without absorbing any of the prejudices held therein. Hopefully this could be the case for others.

(A helpful, detailed discussion of this subject can be found in Laura Miller’s ‘The Magician’s Book’.)










Narnia re-read. Finishing The Silver Chair.

Before beginning my re-read of the Chronicles, I was really looking forward to rediscovering The Silver Chair. I remembered it fondly, and remembered re-reading it frequently. I remembered finding the book exciting, and even frightening in places. So how did I respond to it as an adult? Some aspects of the book fully lived up to my recollections; others were not quite as I anticipated.

I remembered really liking Jill as a child, and identifying with her. Reading the book as an adult, I found her less sympathetic. Maybe this is because my memory-version of her also took into account her behaviour and actions in The Last Battle. Based solely on this book, however, there is less to warm to. She is brave, and a good friend, but I don’t feel that I know her as well as I thought I did. At times I even found myself feeling frustrated with her, for example when she neglected the signs. (This is somewhat unfair of me, as her behaviour is entirely human and completely understandable.)

Eustace I remembered as another favourite character. However, again I suspect that this depth of affection was built up from reading the three books he appears in. We see less of his thoughts in this book than in VDT, as we generally see things from Jill’s point of view. He’s not presented to us in much detail for large parts of the story.

I’d never really thought much about Prince Rilian until now. He wasn’t really a fully fleshed-out character in my imagination. Instead, he appeared more as a plot device, a reason for the main characters to embark on their quest. Upon re-reading the book, I found two, quite similar, Rilians. The enchanted Prince is arrogant, discourteous and self-centred. He speaks like a character from an Arthurian romance, a trait I’d never thought much about as a child, but one which contrasts with his father’s speech and actions elsewhere in the Chronicles. The ‘disenchanted’ Prince is again like a Round Table knight, in actions and speech, but obviously much more likeable.

Young me loved Aslan. Really, really loved Aslan. However, the Aslan of The Silver Chair seems more remote and stern than the solemn but ‘glad’ character of earlier books. For example, Jill’s dreamlike experience of Aslan at Harfang is frightening and upsetting, leaving her in tears. Lucy’s dreamlike experience of Aslan in PC was one of intense happiness, comfort and joy. Even in his own country, there are few clues to this warmer aspect of the character other than the ‘wild kisses’ he gives the resurrected Caspian.

The story itself was grimmer than I remembered. The travellers face dangers not only in the form of their various enemies, but also from physical hardships. They are tired, hungry, wet and cold for much of the time; traipsing across hostile moorland in driving rain and snow doesn’t sound like much fun. They also have to face their fears: heights, enclosed spaces and failure in the task they have been given. Nostalgia had re-dressed the book as some sort of jolly romp across Narnia in my imagination, so the ‘darkness’ of the book surprised me.

However, despite some aspects not being quite as I expected, there was a lot which met or surpassed my recollections.

I really enjoyed the episode based in Harfang. Actually, enjoyed is probably the wrong word. I appreciated the sinister feel of these chapters, the unpleasant details and the sense of foreboding and fear which permeates them. The giant licking his lips, the crudely-made toy horse, the cook book: these images really stayed with me.

The ideas, revisited throughout the story, of doubt, belief, trust and truth were more apparent to me as an adult reader, and I really enjoyed this aspect of the book. I also enjoyed the ‘layers’ of the book which I was unaware of as a child, for example the references to quest stories, or the ‘lunar’ symbolism unearthed by Michael Ward.

Over all else, however, Puddleglum is – for me – the absolute highlight of this book. He’s entirely unaware of how funny he is, which is utterly endearing. (I think, of all the characters in the Narniad, he’s the one with the funniest ‘lines’ – although the diaries of the ‘pre-dragoned’ Eustace of VDT run him a close second.) He’s incredibly brave without being consciously ‘heroic’ or ‘noble’. He’s loyal and wise without being in the slightest arrogant. He’s so unheroic in appearance and demeanour that it makes his good qualities seem unexpected and somehow more impressive. I think his quiet heroism means even more to me as an adult. He’s like the everyday heroes in the real world: people who are ‘ordinary’ and unassuming but who demonstrate amazing bravery when circumstances demand it. I’ll take Puddleglum over any loud, dramatic, self-conscious hero any day.






Narnia re-read. The Silver Chair Chapter sixteen. The healing of harms.

Synopsis: The children say goodbye to Puddleglum. Centaurs take them to Cair Paravel.  They see Rilian reunited with Caspian, who then dies. Aslan takes them back to his country. There, they see Caspian lying in a stream, and Aslan brings him to life. The children return to our world, and with Aslan and Caspian’s help they punish the school bullies.

As ever, the home of a good Narnian is here shown to be a cosy, homely place, with delicious food and comfort all around. The description of the sausages is most enticing, which is unsurprising considering that Lewis completed the Chronicles in 1954, when meat rationing finally came to an end in Britain. Lewis would probably have thoroughly enjoyed a feast of fat sausages, ‘just the tiniest bit burnt’. (I’m planning to eat my way through all the food mentioned in the Chronicles once I’ve finished my re-read, and I’m really looking forward to this meal.)

Reading the book as a child, I just accepted the way things happened in the story. Now, when I read that Caspian had been told by Aslan to return to Narnia, I find myself wondering why he didn’t do so sooner. The voyage can’t have been good for the king.

When Cloudbirth the healer is described as a ‘leech’, it refers to the obsolete use of the word to mean ‘physician’. (This is derived from the Old English word ‘læce. Cloudbirth’s name follows the convention throughout the Chronicles (although disregarded in the film adaptations) of portmanteau words. (Roonwit, Glenstorm, Ironhoof etc.) Maybe Lewis chose this form because of their similarity to kennings: descriptive two-word nouns associated with Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse poetry. (For example: ‘battle sweat’ meaning blood, and ‘raven harvest’ meaning corpse.) I don’t have evidence for this particular idea, but it does seem plausible, bearing in mind Lewis’ areas of interest and love of wordplay. 

The little comic touches here a real pleasure: the seriousness of having a centaur to stay for the weekend; Puddleglum’s fear that neither he nor the Prince will survive for long, Puddleglum’s assessment of himself as ‘a good-looking chap’.

We learn that Aslan has ‘nine names’ but they are not listed. Of course, religious figures in our world have multiple names. Allah has 99 names. Jesus is known as Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace etc. Aslan is referred to elsewhere in the Narniad as ‘the son of the Emperor over the Sea’ and ‘the Great Lion’. I can’t think of any others but will have to double-check that I’ve not missed one.

A perfect example of Lewis’ ‘sehnsucht’ is given here. The centaur-ride was rough and uncomfortable at the time, but the children would later long for another chance to experience this moment again. The mood continues in this vein, with ‘a tune to break your heart’ being played. (Similar words were used in VDT.)

Jill’s eyes fill with tears. Eustace weeps for Caspian. Characters often cry in the Chronicles, and it is not shown as weakness or silliness, but as a natural response to intense emotions or physical hardships. I can only imagine how crying was viewed at Lewis’ boarding schools. Maybe the two are connected.

In VDT the religious aspect of the Chronicles was made more explicit than previously. In this chapter of the Silver Chair it becomes so again. Young me didn’t really notice this, but now, reading it, I’m struck by how odd it is to read in a children’s book about a hero growing old, dying, and then being resurrected with the blood of Aslan. I can’t think of any parallels with other children’s literature.

Does everyone who dies appear in the golden stream in Aslan’s country? Does he have to shed blood in this way for others? Or are kings different?

I distinctly remember the line, ‘He has died, Most people have, you know. Even I have.’ It was the first time that I really considered how many people had lived before I was even born. (Children often do find it difficult to concieve of a world that preceded them.)

Aslan tells the children they will come to this place again – permanently. How on earth would you be able to get on with your ordinary life, knowing that? Every day you would be wondering, ‘Is today the day?’

Lewis, the man who had hated boarding school, and hated the social structures and bullying which he suffered there, must surely have been indulging in wish fulfillment here,  as Caspian and the children beat the bullies. It’s an odd scene, which I think I care for much less now I’m an adult.

Why on earth did Eustace bury his Narnian clothes? It’s such a strange way to deal with them. I would definitely do what Jill did: keep them and wear them.

The open hillside, with the lake in it, is described briefly in just two sentences, but the image has stayed with me over the years. If there’s an equivalent in our world, I would love to go.