The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis, the third book in The Chronicles of Narnia, published in 1954, tells the tale of Shasta, a Narnian boy raised in the country of Calormen by an illiterate fisherman who uses him like a slave and keeps his true identity from him. Shasta and Bree the Talking Horse, also a captive of the Calormenes, escape north to freedom in Narnia.
This particular “chronicle” seems to be less known, due in part to the fact that no modern movie has promoted it, unlike “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, “Prince Caspian”, and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”. The powerful themes of escape, providence, and identity make it my favorite. Aslan, the great lion, appears throughout the story, but in many different guises; all with the same purpose, however, of directing and protecting the main characters. Sometimes he physically guards them, other times he protects them from their own folly.
Chronologically, this story takes place while the four Pevensie children are ruling: “Peter was High King in Narnia and his brother and two sisters were Kings and Queens under him”(p.3). They have grown up enough that Queen Susan is being courted by the ruthless Calormen prince, Rabadash, but they are still young and carefree in their roles as monarchs: “Instead of being grave and mysterious like most Calormenes, they walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed.” (p. 58) The Narnian monarchs visit the Caloremene capital so that Queen Susan can meet her suitor in his own land and find themselves embroiled in political intrigue.
In my edition of the book, a colorful map, illustrated by Pauline Baynes, reminds us that the world of Narnia has surrounding countries, as well as the Great Eastern Ocean with its numerous islands. The Horse and His Boy is set in the land south of Narnia, across a great desert. The Tisroc, a cruel tyrant rules here and desires to gobble up Narnia through treachery if he can, and by force if his attempt at trickery fails.
Into this political intrigue enters Shasta who has grown up with beatings and hard labor and doesn’t realize he is of northern blood. He forms an alliance with Bree, a Talking Horse who was sold into slavery as a foal. During their daring escape attempt, the pair joins forces with another Narnian horse, the humble mare Hwin, and a privileged Calormene tarkeena named Aravis who is fleeing a forced marriage with a man “at least sixty years old with a hump on his back and a face like an ape”. (p.37).
The Narnian horses yearn fiercely for their free homeland : “The happy land of Narnia — Narnia of the heathery mountains and the thymy downs, Narnia of the many rives, the plashing glens, the mossy caverns and the deep forests ringing with the hammers of the Dwarfs. Oh the sweet air of Narnia! An hour’s life there is better than a thousand years in Calormen.” (p. 11). Even though Shasta has no memory of his birth in Narnia, his heart is drawn to it : “‘Oh hurrah!’ said Shasta, “Then we’ll go north. I’ve been longing to go to the North all my life.’” (p. 14)
In a humorous and ironic case of mistaken identity, Shasta falls in with the Narnian monarchs in the capital city of Tashbaan and unwittingly meets his twin. This story resonates for me as much now as it did in my youth when my babysitter, Sandi Beth Sandford, read it to us aloud. How that is possible is the genius of C.S. Lewis’ storytelling and his depth of insight into seeking where we belong and who we really are.
The sixth Chronicle of Narnia, The Silver Chair, also takes place in the land of Narnia, but in a northern country ruled by giants during the time when Caspian is king and Eustace Scrubb returns to Narnia to rescue Caspian’s son and heir.
The chronological order of the Narnia books: The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, and The Last Battle. Thanks to my friend, Lynn – who insisted that her first reading of the Chronicles must be in the order the author wrote them, here is a “publication list”: Lion, Prince, Voyage, Silver, Horse, Magician’s, Last.