This month’s Narniathon read, The Horse and His Boy, also counts serendipitously for the 1954 Club hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. It’s going to be interesting to see what else was published in this year (notably including The first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings, which Lewis played an important role in encouraging into print).
As the title of this post indicates, however, interesting is what Lewis’s 1954 Narnia installment is not — to me, anyway. It was always by far my least favorite of the series, and so it proved again this time around. As a child I simply labelled it “boring” and moved on to the more appealing volumes, but this time I thought a bit more about what I find so disappointing.
Most obviously and grievously there is almost nothing numinous or magical. Aside from the talking horses, who are really quite prosaic characters, and a couple of appearances by Aslan that emphasize his more cruel and inscrutable side, it’s a straight adventure story of escape from slavery, and to me not a very engaging one. The characters are for the most part either unpleasant or dull — the main character, Shasta, has almost no personality until he suddenly and inexplicably turns into a hero at the end. This is attributed to the fact that he is actually a prince–a Northern, white prince, therefore of inborn nobility and intelligence even though he has been raised as a slave. It’s just one of the distastefully (though at the time of writing, entirely acceptable and normative) racist tropes that underlies the tale as a whole.
Meanwhile Aravis, the Calormene girl who is the most intriguing character, spends her time with Shasta being arrogant, sneery and superior, then at the end does an abrupt about-face and gets all humble and submissive, discounting her own quite remarkable bravery. She is corporally punished by Aslan for an act of abuse perpetrated by her, which was clearly a thoughtless reflection of the abusive environment in which she was raised, an “eye for an eye” response that comes straight out of the Old Testament, not out of the New Law of transformative love. Aravis deserves a better character arc than that, but all we get is her marrying the prince.
Some of the characters from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe make a brief appearance (I love the glimpse of Lucy riding to war), but are almost instantly out of the picture again and we are back to the dreary Calormenes and their senseless violence, along with Aslan as a scary and punitive figure. It’s such a departure from the magic and mystery of the rest of the series that I could happily leave it out entirely.
This time, I did become interested in how this volume plays into the ever-controversial topic of reading order. There is the publication order (#5), and the internal chronology order (#3). But yet a third alternative is to read the books in the order they were written, and I find that most interesting as a window into how Narnia developed.
The first three books (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) actually form a sort of a trilogy, with an envoi at the end that suggests Lewis may have meant the third book to be the last. But quite soon he got an idea for a story that would play off of some incidents he’d mentioned in the earlier books, therefore not violating the unity of the trilogy but serving as a sort of appendix, as it were.
This book is The Horse and His Boy, #4 in the writing order. And I think that it makes the most sense when placed in that position, as a bridge between the more spontaneous, intuitive storytelling of the first three books, and the more consciously didactic tone that comes into the next three, with set-pieces like Puddleglum’s defense of the “real world,” and a number of characters who exist largely as theological types (the good pagan, the blind unbelievers) — for me it all smacks a bit more of Lewis the apologist. Horse, a book largely set in a desert, is a sort of “dark night of the soul” book that lacks both the numinous refreshment of the earlier books, and the bracing spiritual challenges of the later ones. It seems to have been an interlude composed while Lewis was finding his way back into Narnia.
One can also look at what was going on in Lewis’s life at the time of writing; much as he himself abhorred this approach to literature, it can be extremely illuminating where Narnia is concerned. Horse was composed from March to July of 1950, a very difficult time in Lewis’s life. The woman he lived with as a surrogate mother (and possible onetime lover), Mrs. Moore, had been descending into dementia, and in April was placed into a care home, where she died the following year. The stress and sorrow of her illness, as well as the financial worry of the increased expense of care, which at the time he thought might last for years, must have been weighing on Lewis quite heavily.
The next book, The Silver Chair was completed shortly after Mrs. Moore’s death. It’s the natural follow up to Horse‘s south-to-north journey, leading us even further off into the distant North, a direction which Lewis associated with inner, spiritual liberation, and pictures the death of the snake-witch and the release of the Prince from mental slavery. Without tying these events too firmly to literal events in Lewis’s life, I think it’s clear that it represents a further development of the theme of “escape from slavery” that was presented in germinal form in the earlier composed book. Most importantly, it restores Aslan as a figure associated with life and healing, rather than bloody punishment and revenge, in the wonderful moment when King Caspian comes to life in Aslan’s country at the end.
Regarding the further point of chronological controversy, while everyone assumes it’s most logical to put The Last Battle at the end of the series, Lewis actually completed The Magician’s Nephew last, although he started it soon after Lion. If the books are arranged in the order of writing, an interesting mirror structure emerges (dates of composition from Wikipedia):
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (early 1949) – Origin story (of the Golden Age of Narnia), featuring the White Witch
- Prince Caspian (late 1949) – “Second coming” story with apocalyptic motifs
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (early 1950)- Quest for seven lost Lords, ends at the border of Aslan’s country
- The Horse and His Boy (mid 1950)- Interlude in the desert, theme of escape from slavery
- The Silver Chair (1951) – Quest for a lost, enslaved prince, begins and ends in Aslan’s country
- The Last Battle (1953) – “Second coming” story with apocalyptic motifs
- The Magician’s Nephew (1954) – Origin story (of Narnia as a whole), featuring Jadis, who will become the White Witch
If and when I read the series again, I’m going to read it in this order. I think I will find The Horse and His Boy much more satisfactory as a prelude to The Silver Chair, rather than as a letdown afterwards. And for those who are dismayed by being confronted with the End of the World in The Last Battle, why not end with the beginning of the world instead, as Lewis himself actually did? Thus the cycle of imaginative creation can start over again, and again, as Narnia resurrects itself, a tree becomes a door, and the fruits of the spirit plant themselves in our hearts, endlessly.
But this time around I’ll go along with publication order, which means The Magician’s Nephew is next up. After the slog through this month, I’m looking forward to that, because it’s one of my favorites.
What did you think of The Horse and His Boy? Are you as frustrated by it as I am, or do you find some pleasures in in it that passed me by?