“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” – C.S. Lewis.
The Horse and His Boy represents a different direction for the Narnia books. The two previous works have chronicled ordinary children from an ordinary world – but this time, the third time, we’re thrust into Narnia without an introduction. After all, C.S. Lewis thinks, we should be used to Narnia by now! In fact, readers are expected to have become so familiar with Narnia’s otherworldliness that the protagonist, Shasta, and his talking horse Bree – the characters the reader is to identify with and empathise with – are Narnians themselves.
And yet, there is something decidedly different about this Narnia. The land is exotic; think less ‘English woods’ and more ‘Arabian desert’. The Calormen people have slaves. But if you take away the difference in landscapes, the difference in ‘people’, and you’ll find that The Horse and His Boy stays faithful to the core Narnian values and plot points. The hero, Shasta, is about to be sold as a slave to a passing soldier. Turns out that the soldier’s horse (named Bree) can talk, and suggests to Shasta that they escape to the freedom available to them in the land of Narnia. So far, it is similar to the rest of the Narnian series so far in that it is an ordinary boy, chancing upon extraordinary things, and given the chance to visit Narnia. Which Shasta promptly takes. And, like in The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a grand adventure must be had before the story is over.
A particularly fascinating aspect of the book is its similarities to exotic locales of our own world. Living in Western society, most of us have certain ideas – and perhaps even judgments, for the more honest among us – about those who are different. The author doesn’t attempt to direct the reader to feel empathy for the Calormen people: we’re meant to side with the more humane population residing in Narnia. Such an observation is interesting from the perspective of current times, where authors strive to create that empathy for those different from us. I think it’s worth keeping in mind as you’re swept away by the story itself.
The Horse and His Boy is, arguably, the book that could most work as a stand-alone book in the Chronicles of Narnia series. And it sometimes gets a bad wrap, because of the way it deviates from the tone of much of the rest of the series – its laidback humour and strange setting sometimes works against it with the more ‘conservatist’ Narnia fans. But of course I will disagree with its critics: The Horse and His Boy slowly but surely won me over after many rereads, and I find it to be perhaps the most ‘truthful’ and real-to-life of all the books in the Narnia series.