Narnia re-read. Finishing The Horse and His Boy.

I remember absolutely loving this story as a child. This memory was confirmed by the spines of my first Narnia books: HHB’s is much more dog-eared and worn than the others. I must have read it dozens and dozens of times. So how was my re-read, decades later?

Some aspects of the book I did not find enjoyable: this book, along with LB, is the most problematic of the Narniad to discuss. Having to write an exploration of race issues in the story before I began my chapter-by-chapter was, although necessary (I felt, anyway), sad. My recollections of Narnia, and all that it meant for me when I was young, were entirely innocent. So the realisation that Narnia might not always be the totally benign, loving, welcoming world I remembered was an unhappy one. I found myself wishing the book was different. It felt like the literary equivalent of an elderly relative with questionable views. You love them, but really wish they would change their thinking – and what they casually say around the dinner table. I also felt foolish. I’d never noticed the way the Calormenes were portrayed, in all those hours reading the story. What did this say about me?

As I’ve worked my way through the Chronicles on this re-read, I’ve found that Aslan, although clearly present, feels increasingly distant to me. For example, I really envied the Pevensie girls’ closeness to him in LWW, and Lucy’s dreamlike encounter with him in PC. I didn’t envy Shasta being chased and frightened by him, or Aravis being attacked. I didn’t wish it was me walking through the mist with him by my side.

The very existence of Prince Corin is, for me, a definite ‘negative’ when reading this book. I’ve been really surprised by just how strongly I reacted to him during my re-read. I really wanted to jump into the story and shout at everyone, “This boy is a brat! Why has nobody noticed? Why are you indulging him?”

One subject which often concerns people in this book is the approach to gender. As I’ve previously mentioned, I will be exploring this in a separate post. However, I feel it still requires a mention. Lasaraleen is presented as everything which is ‘bad’ about traditional ‘feminity’. Susan, the archer-queen, seems helpless and reliant on the men around her. Do I think Lasaraleen and Susan were short-changed in terms of character traits and story development due to their gender? Yes, I suppose they were.

However, despite it’s issues, I found plenty of positives in HHB too. Gender stereotypes aside, I enjoyed (both now and all those years ago) reading about the proud, courageous, determined, cool-headed, female character of Aravis. She is no damsel in distress. She doesn’t wait around, worrying, for someone to save her. She does it herself. And it was Aravis who stayed in my imagination, long after I’d put down the book. I loved her. I loved Shasta, and Bree too, but especially Aravis.

The glimpses into the world of the Narnian Golden Age were another source of pleasure for me. Some of the blank space between the Pevensies’ coronation and the final stag hunt of LWW is coloured in.

The nostalgia rushes came thick and fast: the beauty of Aravis’ story-telling; the fear of sleeping near the black entrances to the tombs; talk of ‘two hundred horse’; the exhilaration of riding through the moonlit desert. I found some of the descriptive passages (the nightingale singing in the oasis is the one which springs immediately to mind) quite beautiful.

How this book would be for those encountering it for the first time today, I don’t know. For me, it was a real mixture of uncomfortable awareness of the book’s outdated viewpoints, genuine affection for the main protagonists, fuzzy nostalgia, admiration for Lewis’ gorgeous prose and very strong urges to ‘box’ Corin into next week. As I work my way through the Chronicles, the journey feels stranger and stranger.

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter fifteen. Rabadash the Ridiculous.

Synopsis: The victors discuss how to deal with Rabadash. When he refuses their mercy, Aslan punishes him.

Something a little odd happened on my re-read of this chapter. When King Lune welcomes Aravis to Anvard, I felt really emotional. I don’t remember this happening when I was young. Maybe it’s because Aravis must have felt so utterly relieved to be put so at ease after worrying what would happen to her. Maybe it’s because I’ve developed a soft spot for the formal speech employed from time to time in Narnia, when noble people are being courteous to each other. Maybe it’s because Lune is so down-to-earth and fatherly, and my own lovely father is no longer with me. I suspect it’s a combination of all three.

When Cor is initially pleased that his parent hears a story of his heroism, then increasingly embarrassed after multiple re-tellings, I think anyone can relate. Parents feeling proud is lovely, but they do love to re-tell a tale to everyone and anyone they meet.

Lucy and Aravis instantly like each other. I imagine each would like the other’s straightforwardness. This passage, again, is often cited as an example of Lewis’ sexism. Although I don’t deny that Lewis did write and say sexist things (I’ll explore this fully in an upcoming post) I never read this section in that way as a child. This was only my personal reaction to it, but as I read it all I thought was, ‘I wish I could be their friend, and have some fancy castle rooms set up just for me.’ Gender never featured in this for me, but I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where everyone was a feminist, so maybe that was why.

‘Even a traitor may mend. I have known one that did.’ This quote is all over the internet (instagram, pinterest etc). It really resonates with people. We’ve all done things we regret, but all hope to be given a second chance.

Apes are mentioned here, being described as dishonest. This will become more significant in LB. Is there a folklore precedent for this? I couldn’t find one but it would seem likely.

Rabadash was in a comfortable room with good food, but we are told he had a terrible night due to his own sulkiness. This is similar to Uncle Andrew in MN, in that situations do affect us, but our perception of and response to them are what often decide our state of mind.

My disproportionate dislike of Corin continues with his plea to box Rabadash and his taunting of the Calormene.

According to Downing’s ‘Into the Wardrobe’, Lune calling Rabadash a ‘pajock’ references Hamlet, where Hamlet is about to call someone an ass, but instead uses this term. This is relevant considering Rabadash’s imminent fate.

After reading this book when young, I was determined to learn to waggle my ears. It’s a useless skill but one that Narnia taught me, nonetheless.

‘Lightning in the shape of scorpions’ reminded me of Doctor Evil’s sharks with laser beams from the Austin Powers films.

I don’t know why Rabadash is turned into a donkey rather than any other animal. Maybe because ‘ass’ is a synonym for ‘fool’. Maybe for no particular reason. I have read elsewhere online that it is due to the unpleasant associations the name of  this animal has in arab culture, so was used as a final insult to the ‘middle eastern’ Rabadash. I hope this isn’t the reason. (See my separate post on race issues in HHB.)

I did look in my local library for a good history of Calormen. Naturally, I was disappointed.

A grand feast is the quintessential Narnian ( or Archenlandish) way to celebrate. The setting, with lanterns hung around the moonlit lawn only make it more appealing. Similarly, I love the evening dinner on the Camomile Lawn in Mary Wesley’s book of the same name, or the birthday party in the Weasley’s back garden in Rowling’s Harry Potter. Eating outside, with friends, somewhere warm enough to stay out late, is such a lovely thought.

I’d absolutely love to hear the full version of the lay of Olvin (did anything in Narnia ever sound so Tolkien-esque?).

I’ve always been puzzled by the fact that Lucy tells the others the story of the Wardrobe here. Not long after HHB’s events, the Pevensies are utterly mystified by the lamppost and have no recollection of their origins in our world. How did change this occur?

When Corin says that ‘princes have all the fun’, it always makes me think of the British princes, William and Harry. I wonder if that’s how Harry feels?

Why did Corin box the bear? Why did this make it ‘un-lapsed’?

For some reason (most likely my personal prejudice against Corin) I was always pleased to know that Cor was the more accomplished and dangerous warrior. I’m sure he wouldn’t have boasted about it either.

Personally, I was happy to know that Cor and Araris got married, but I’ve seen people online both agree and disagree with it. It’s the classic ‘buddy/romantic comedy’ result: two very different people forced to work together, where they start off disliking each other but then change their minds. Some people think it is too hastily ‘tacked on’ to the story to be convincing. Others ‘ship it’ and have written plenty of fanfiction on the subject. I just liked the thought of two characters I liked settling down together; why, I’m not sure.

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter fourteen. How Bree became a wiser horse.

Synopsis: Aslan visits Aravis, Hwin and Bree. Shasta’s true identity and backstory are revealed.

Aravis has by this point spent much of the book demonstrating her courage, intelligence and self-control. However, she has also been snobbish and rude. But we see, from her desire to apologise to Shasta, that she has grown and changed.

Bree, however, demonstrates the kind of self-deception Lewis is so adept at skewering, but the reader knows the real reason why he is delaying his return to Narnia. His lesson is yet to be learned. He blusters and makes excuses, and adopts his patronising style of speech when explaining about Aslan: ‘You’d hardly understand at your age.’

Are Aravis and Hwin unable to speak simply due to the shock of seeing Aslan, or does he intend for them to be temporarily ‘struck dumb’ while he appears to Bree.

I suppose that the arguments that Bree makes about Aslan not really being a lion, about it being metaphorical, are reflections of arguments people have made against the Christian idea of God becoming a human in the form of Jesus. Bree is Narnia’s doubting Thomas; Aslan tells him: ‘Do not dare not to dare. Touch me.’ Bree is shown the realness of Aslan, and is terrified and ashamed. However, he learns what he needed to know, and is finally ready to accept who he is and return home.

Hwin is drawn immediately to Aslan, and he makes it clear he knows her well. This reminds me of Emeth in LB.

Finally, Aravis learns the truth of her injury by the lion, and shows again how she has changed by asking after the slave. However, the wounds Aslan gives her seem (to me) to be unusual. Aslan doesn’t usually hand out corporal punishment. Edmund betrayed his family and friends and Digory  introduced evil into an innocent world. Neither was hurt physically. Aravis drugged someone in order to escape a forced marriage. Yes, she didn’t feel empathy, but being scratched on the back seems different from the way Aslan usually behaves.

When I was younger I loved reading about Shasta and Aravis being reunited, and the illustration of the scene (included in this post) was one of my absolute favourites.

Did Lewis take the idea of naming brothers in the Archenland style – Cole, Colin, Bar, Barrin etc. from somewhere, or did he invent it? And if Lune had a brother, what would he have been called?

Lewis loved learning but had detested his school days, and Shasta (now Cor) seems equally reluctant to have ‘Education’ imposed upon him.

Finally, the fact that Cor and Corin are twins is confirmed. At this point Michael Ward’s ‘Planet Narnia’ needs to be mentioned. His theory, that each book in the series relates to a heavenly body from medieval mythology, and references to this are made throughout the text, links HHB to Mercury. (See http://www.planetnarnia.com/planet-narnia/the-seven-heavens/mercury) The theory is most convincing. Mercury was known for being the (very fast) messenger of the gods, just as Shasta’s storyline is one of delivering messages. Mercury was also the god of boxing, which is referenced on a number of occasions in relation to Corin, and thieves, which Shasta and Bree become in order to survive their journey. In Greek, he was sometimes called ‘Hermes the Ram-bearer’. Of course, Cor’s son is called Ram. Mercury the metal was known for being able to ‘divide and recombine’ just as Cor and Corin do. And most significantly, Mercury was associated with the twins, Castor and Pollux, the horseman and the boxer.

Did Lune completely give up hope that Cor was alive when he wasn’t on the ship? Did he ever try to search for him?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter thirteen. The fight at Anvard.

Synopsis: Shasta and the rest of the Narnians join the battle at Anvard. The Hermit describes what is happening to Aravis and the horses.

Corin’s comments on Queens Susan and Lucy are often referenced in discussions about the representation of gender in the Chronicles. This subject is important and requires proper examination, which I intend to do in a dedicated post, rather than here. However, when Corin talks about Lucy being ‘as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy’, it sounds exactly like the sort of ignorant comment which the real-life ‘Corins’ of this world (of which I have had the misfortune to meet quite a few) like to share with you, without any prompting.

I haven’t been able to find any real-world examples of the spiked armour-boots which the giants wear here.

Shasta’s involvement here is really frustrating. I never enjoyed the thought of him ending up in a battle which he didn’t understand. I always wanted him to tell Corin ‘no thanks’. I don’t think he could be thought cowardly for doing so. But then I suppose that in LWW, Peter and Edmund joined the Battle of Beruna without really knowing much about swordsmanship.

When Lewis says ‘all prayers said,’ I wonder who Shasta would pray to: would he think that Aslan could be prayed to? Would he fall back on prayer to Tash? Or something else?

The storytelling device of having the battle described to the reader via a third party ‘commentator’ – much like a sporting event would be – is very similar in feel to Miraz and Peter’s single combat in PC.

Cities south of Tashbaan are mentioned, but we never learn whether they are all in Calormen or not. (None of the maps Pauline Baynes created showed the land this far south.)

The hermit’s pool reminds me of the pool of Galadriel in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Another echo of this book is in the eagles’ appearance for a key battle.

Once again we are shown the problem of pride: Rabadash is concerned with looking and sounding grand, but when this backfires it adds to his ridiculousness.

King Lune is presented to us as the epitome of real kingliness (after having seen what a dictator is like in the form of the Tisroc). He is disciplined and fair-minded, ensuring that Rabadash is treated ‘correctly’, despite the unprovoked attack he has just led. (I was surprised that Edmund – the just – was not quite so calm.) Lewis was a monarchist and throughout the Chronicles the ‘rightful’ royal is presented as the ideal person to rule a country. Lewis’ own home country is strange with regard to royalty. There is not an Irish royal family (there were noble ruling families in earlier centuries but not one established royal line.) However, in Northern Ireland, where Lewis grew up, those who were Unionists and Protestants considered themselves part of Britain, and saw themselves as associated with the British royal family. Feelings on such matters still run very high in many parts of Ireland.

Finally, we are about to have Shasta’s true identity spelled out to us, but surely the reader has already worked it out for themself?

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter twelve. Shasta in Narnia.

Synopsis: Shasta reaches Narnia, and sends news of the attack on Anvard to Cair Paravel. When the war party passes, he is reunited with Corin.

The spring of refreshing water which appears in Aslan’s footprint is religious symbolism, but the image it most makes me think of is in Bill Melendez’s 1979 animated version of LWW. (I think I’ve seen this particular film more times than any other. I used to watch it all the time.) After returning to life, Aslan jumps around on grass with Susan and Lucy. Wherever he lands, flowers immediately grow.

Is there anyone who doesn’t like the idea of encountering a talking hedgehog?

Whenever stags appear in the Narniad they remind me of the White Stag. Lewis clearly admired these animals, as his description is detailed and beautiful.

One of the defining characteristics of Narnians always seems to be their homely hospitality. (This is discussed in Ford’s ‘Companion to Narnia’, where he notes the contrast to the offered hospitality of the Narnians with the forced hospitality of Arsheesh.) The idea of enjoying simple, homely, physical pleasures – hearty meals, firesides, laughter – is repeatedly described, most lovingly, by Lewis. We know that he himself thoroughly enjoyed ‘simple pleasures’ such as long walks, cups of tea and good books.

Duffle’s breakfast is one of those scenes in the Chronicles I always wished I could dive right into. An open door, a smoking chimney, sizzling bacon, creamy porridge, a checked tablecloth.

Would dwarf dinnerware really be much smaller than that used by humans?

Lewis never misses an opportunity for an unfavourable reference to Calormen: its food, the sound of its horns…

Queen Lucy in chain mail was pretty much the pinnacle of my childhood ambition: she knew Aslan, he knew her, she was a beloved queen of Narnia, and she was a medieval-style warrior. (While my friends were interested in football, ponies, ice-skating and ballet, I was busy designing my own heraldic banners and playing with my toy knights.)

So, at this point I must make a confession. I love Narnia. I love the characters. I love ‘good’ characters like Lucy. I love ‘difficult’ characters like Eustace. I even love the ‘bad’ characters, like Jadis, in a love-to-hate-them way. But I can’t stand Corin. I am absolutely certain that if he were real, I would barely be able to be in the same room as him. (The only other character in the Narniad who comes close is Shift.)

Corin is the embodiment of thoughtless privilege. At this point in the tale he doesn’t know he has a twin. He must be aware of Lune’s grief at losing his wife and other son, and also of his own duty to reign after Lune’s death, but this doesn’t make him more cautious about his own safety. When he visits Tashbaan, his behaviour is cause of distress and possible embarrassment to the Narnian party. He is utterly lacking in self-awareness, empathy or consideration for others.

Corin doesn’t modify his behaviour in deference to King Edmund, despite being a child who has not yet been knighted. The way he treats Thornbut shows a total disregard, not only for a respected dwarf, but for Edmund’s orders too. A king of a friendly country asks him not to do something, and he ignores this reasonable request. Worse still, he uses violence to get his own way, injuring Thornbut in the process. Even then, he shows no remorse, using the incident to once again push his own agenda. Then he drags Shasta along with him, with no thought for his safety either.

What I find strangest about all this is that I can’t imagine Lewis would ‘get on’ with Corin. He is just the sort of brash, overly-physical public schoolboy whom Lewis admitted detesting in ‘Surprised by Joy’. Yet we seem to be expected to like him. Writing this post has confirmed for me just how much I don’t; he’s like a Narnian echo of every over-confident, arrogant, spoiled brat I’ve ever encountered in this world.

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter eleven. The unwelcome fellow traveller.

Synopsis: Shasta finds and warns King Lune of the attack. He then loses the rest of the party in the darkness and is joined by a mysterious fellow traveller.

I always felt heartily sorry for Shasta having to leave behind his friends, and continue his stressful journey alone. In his ‘Companion to Narnia’, Ford talks about Shasta’s having only to run and not question this instruction as demonstrating obedience, in a way which reflects religious obedience.

‘It had become one of those hot, grey days when there seem to be twice as many flies as usual’. This phrase often comes to mind when I am walking in England and Scotland.

I always loved King Lune – who wouldn’t love apple-cheeks, deep voices and twinkling eyes- but when I was very small his name confused me. (I didn’t know it wasn’t the same as ‘loon’.) There are various English rivers called Lune, and one in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Does anyone get through this chapter without working out who Shasta really is? Are we meant to?

The Archenlanders admire Shasta’s horsemanship. In the Chronicles, horse and rider working harmoniously together represent physical and spiritual aspects of a person working together. (Ford discusses this in detail in ‘Companion to Narnia’. This idea also appears in ‘The Great Divorce’, where a man is shown mastering his desires and fears, which then become a mighty horse, which he rides into heaven.)

I distinctly remember finding the next section of this chapter really frustrating. I wanted Shasta to ask for help, or call out to the others, or someone to notice him. Lune suspects who he might be; would someone who had lost their child at birth, then meets a boy who looks exactly like the child, really let this person dawdle off in some fog? I love the Chronicles, but there are plenty of plot holes such as this when you look at them with an adult eye.

I’m guessing that using ‘winded’ rather than ‘wound’ for the horn being blown is a more poetic or archaic version of the verb, but I have no evidence to back this up.

Shasta getting lost round the corner of a winding road was a really clear picture for me as a reader. It often pops into my mind when I’m driving through places like the Sottish Highlands, where the dramatic scenery, winding roads and unpredictable weather combine to put me in mind of Narnia – or, more accurately – Archenland.

Whenever we overhear a conversation Rabadash is involved in, we learn more about just how unpleasant his intentions and motivations are.

Usually when characters in books are feeling sorry for themselves I feel annoyed at them, but here I really do feel like Shasta is entitled to a moan. He’s had a life of near-slavery and misery, only recently enlivened by lion-chases, snobby put-downs, nights in graveyards and loneliness.

This is really difficult for me to say – bearing in mind that most of my childhood was spent longing to meet him – but I don’t understand Aslan’s behaviour here. Why be so oblique? Why not simply comfort Shasta, like the ‘cat’ at the tombs? Why frighten him?

Once again, it is made plain to us that we can’t (and shouldn’t) know the details of anyone else’s story. This idea surfaces throughout the Chronicles.

Until recently I had no idea why Aslan says he is, ‘Myself…myself…myself,’ in such a strange way. Now I can see that each ‘Myself’ represents a different aspect of the Christian trinity: the powerful Father, the joyful Son and the mystical but all-encompassing Spirit. And as has happened so many times already in the Narniad, meeting the ‘terrible or beautiful’ Aslan produces a combination of emotions: fear and happiness.

How of Earth did I read phrases such as ‘High King above all Kings’ when younger and make no connection with what I knew of Christianity?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter ten. The Hermit of the Southern March.

Synopsis: The companions reach Archenland, but see that Rabadash is not far behind. They are chased by a lion. They reach the Hermit of the Southern March, who sends Shasta on to warn King Lune.

When I was younger I always wondered how the arid desert could be so close the lush, green lands described from this point on in the book. The map at the start of the book didn’t really help with this – it doesn’t really look like a map of somewhere ‘real’ and doesn’t show the rest of the geography of Calormen which the journey moves through, only the mostly featureless desert and mountains.) However, I geography was never my strong point so I have no idea if this is a common or plausible situation or not.

The landscape of Archenland is never, to my mind, described in such as way as to make it sound quite as appealing as Narnia. The main image it left in my imagination, which my re-read didn’t really change, was one of damp greenness. It also felt small. Really small. I didn’t really picture much apart from Anvard, but surely a kingdom needs some subjects. Years after reading Narnia, when I discovered (the unadulterated joy of) Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the tiny Ramtop kingdom of Lancre felt similar in size.

We are told about the difference between the horses thinking that they were doing all they could, and actually going flat out. This is something I’ve certainly experienced. Fear is a great motivator.

The description of the lion’s attack always puts me in mind of those times where you can see that something is about to go horribly wrong. You can see what is happening, with absolute clarity, and it almost feels as if time slows down, but you are totally powerless to prevent it.

Shasta’s desperate attempt to help Hwin and Aravis is one of the moments in the Chronicles that I find most moving. What he does is almost comical, shouting at a lion to ‘Go home’. But the intent is so selfless, so loyal and so brave, I find it really touching.

What sort of man is the Hermit of the Southern March? His appearance is similar to Coriakin and Ramandu, but he is not a star. His long beard, robes and staff all remind me of Tolkien’s Gandalf, and he certainly seems to possess some sort of magical skills, as he knows all about Rabadash, and where King Lune can be found. He mentions his ‘art’. What exactly is it?

I always liked the way the Hermit called the animals ‘cousins’.

Having read here that heather was ‘the best bedding’, I spent my childhood testing out the theory by lying in any outdoor spaces. (Heather is nice, but I have to say I prefer moss.) It’s little things like this which ensured that the Narniad was integrated with my ‘real’ life through my childhood.

I’m sure there’s a religious/spiritual reason for the Hermit’s home being like a ‘great, green cup’ filled with sunlight. By this point in the Chronicles, the Christian references are coming thick and fast, and I don’t always identify them correctly.

Once again, ‘lonely’ is used in a positive description of a place. Presumably, the loneliness of the Hermit’s home is a lovely loneliness like that found on the Lone Islands in VDT.

How mournful can a horse’s face be? Do horses like hot mash? Reading this, I realise I know nothing about horses in our world.

Bree’s wounded pride is shown here. In other writings, Lewis often referred to the seriousness of pride, and how he felt it led to other faults.

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter nine. Across the desert.

Synopsis: Aravis escapes with the horses, and they are reunited with Shasta at the tombs. Aravis tells the others about Rabadash’s plan. The four set off to Anvard, to warn King Lune of the impending attack. They travel through the desert, stopping to rest at the gully.

Once again we see Aravis’ self-control. She is as scared and shaken as Lasaraleen, but she doesn’t waste time or lose sight of what she needs to do. I love the little detail of her sticking out her tongue as she braces herself to make her way to the tombs.

Aravis is affectionate in her greeting of the horses, but doesn’t give Shasta any indication that she’s changed in her attitude towards or opinion of him. The lessons which she needs to learn in order to complete her ‘journey’ have not been fully absorbed; she began to realise Shasta’s qualities when with Lasaraleen, but doesn’t yet give him any indication that she’s changing her mind about him.

Deserts, springs, thirst. Such things are often used as spiritual or religious metaphors. Deserts are also the backdrop to some Bible stories, such as Jesus’ temptation by the devil. It is then unsurprising that Lewis features one in a Narnia story.

Bree is vain and can be silly, but he’s not stupid. He shows this when he explains to the others about Rabadash’s execution of the plan, and also how they need to approach their crossing of the desert.

The actual crossing of the desert was my favourite part of this story when I was young, thanks to the author’s descriptions. It’s exciting, and dramatic, but also beautiful and even dreamlike in places. I’ve only ever travelled through a desert in a camper van, so I don’t actually know if it is an accurate description, but as a child I trusted the Narnia books implicitly. Any deserts I’ve heard about since have all been, in my mind’s eye, based on this desert, just as all the castles I visit have a little of Cair Paravel somewhere.

Beautiful descriptions are mixed with practical detail in the desert journey: we know about the squeak of the saddle leather, the altered sound of the horses’ hooves, the smells, the sounds, the physical experience of heat and light. Because of this, the refreshing relief of the water, once reached, is understood and appreciated by the reader.

Nightingales seemed to appear in quite a few children’s stories. I always imagined they’d have the most beautiful, haunting songs. However, having heard one, I think I prefer the humble blackbird’s call. Nightingales have been used in literature and myth, from as long ago as Homer’s Odyssey, to represent different things, chiefly love, faithfulness and yearning, and the relationship between love and loss.

It’s refreshing to see the heroes in a story making a mess of things every once in a while. It isn’t an enemy’s fault that they oversleep. This is typical of Narnia stories. Although there are external enemies – Jadis, Miraz, Rabadash etc. – the real battles faced by the protagonists are often internal struggles, against doubt, selfishness, greed, and so forth.

Like Aravis, Bree has yet to learn his ‘lesson’. He’s still condescending and superior towards the long-suffering Hwin, even though she is absolutely correct in what she says. He dawdles and wastes time.

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Horse and His Boy Chapter eight. In the House of the Tisroc.

Synopsis: Rabadash, the Grand Vizier and the Tisroc discuss Narnia. The Prince asks for the Tisroc’s permission to attack Anvard, in order to subsequently capture Queen Susan. The Tisroc agrees, but will pretend to know nothing of the plan.

This entire chapter has a very distinct feel. It is full of the ‘Eastern’ stereotypes discussed in my initial post about this book. For the modern reader, there are also echoes of Disney’s Aladdin to be found, with the portly ruler and thoroughly unpleasant Grand Vizier.

As is generally the case in Narnia, it doesn’t take the reader long to establish just what sort of people these characters are. As Ford points out in ‘Companion to Narnia’ Rabadash is well suited to his name; it sounds like ‘rabid’ and ‘dash’. He is certainly both wild and impetuous. We are left in no doubt about his suitability as a husband for Queen Susan.

The Tisroc’s calm, cold manner is in total contrast to his loud, over-emotional son. I’m not sure how I felt about it when I was young, but the Tisroc is certainly more menacing to my mind now.We’ve been shown how kings and queens should behave elsewhere in the Chronicles. (In this particular book, King Edmund and King Lune provide the most obvious examples.) Here we are shown a tyrant. He calls his own people ‘vile persons’. He has people put to death – for the most trivial of reasons. Even his own son is treated with disdain and suspicion – there is a distinct lack of love and affection between the Tisroc and Rabadash. They seem to tolerate each other and find the relationship useful, but I can’t imagine either would lose much sleep if something happened to the other. Throughout the chapter, the characters’ speech is evidently insincere: they reel off meaningless compliments while actually disregarding or even disliking each other.

I think the Grand Vizier, and his treatment by the others, is supposed to provide comic relief here, but it doesn’t really amuse me for some reason.

The discussion of Narnia is fun for the reader, when Jadis’ long winter is mentioned, and the ‘demon in the shape of a lion’. Of course, we know better.

It is interesting that Rabadash ascribes the changes in Narnia to ‘the alteration of the stars’. In the Narnian world, we have seen before that the movement of the stars is significant, and that centaurs can make accurate predictions based on what they see in the sky. Maybe the thinking is that Aslan decides how the stars move, and he decides the future, so their movements are able to be interpreted.

Rabadash’s plan for the attack on Anvard, and subsequently Narnia, shows us that he doesn’t ‘play fair’, something which in the Chronicles is a sure sign of a ‘bad egg’. It also seems to misjudge King Peter. I’m reasonably sure that if Susan was abducted he and Edmund – and Lucy – wouldn’t rest until she was either rescued or avenged. This suggests a totally different way of looking at the world; presumably Rabadash would be happy to reach a compromise or deal if one of his siblings was similarly treated. He can’t see what the Pevensies mean to each other.

I’m starting to think that ‘carbuncle’ must be a favourite word of Lewis’ as it keeps appearing in the Chronicles.

 

 

 

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 deviantart.com, 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 fanfiction.net 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’.)