Runaway slaves, treason, obsessive lust, oh my!
So hence begins my Chronicles of Narnia chapter-by-chapter, which I will post (knock on wood) once a week on Mondays. I’m starting with The Horse and His Boy instead of The Magician’s Nephew or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the pragmatic reason that both of these books are in the omnibus volume that my husband is currently reading. The lucky man is just discovering Narnia for the first time. How I envy him.
The Horse and His Boy is the 5th or the 3rd book of the Chronicles, depending on where you’re counting from. It’s my favourite Narnia book (although I love the series so much that it’s not by much) for the silliest of reasons – it’s almost a romance, if you squint and the preteen shipper in me who had been rooting for Aravis/Shasta something awful when I read the first book laughed out loud in delighted relief when I got to the end of the book and found out they got married.
Aravis is probably my favourite Narnia heroine. Which is funny, as she’s actually Calormen. In general, a lot of female characters in The Chronicles of Narnia are kick-ass, from not-Queen Jadis’s unnamed sister who won fair and square to Jill Pole who didn’t let her tears wet the string of her bow. But there’s something about Aravis…
Then there’s Shasta, second only to King Edmund in my heart – the slave (in all but name) boy turned Prince turned hero who becomes the most dangerous man in battle and King of Archenland to boot. Then aside from the characters, there’s political intrigue to rival the Phantom Menace, and obsessive lust… Isn’t it glaringly obvious why this is my favourite story?
Chapter One: How Shasta Set Out On His Travels
‘This is the story about an adventure that happened in Narnia and Calormen and the lands between, in the Golden Age when Peter was High King in Narnia and his brother and his two sisters were King and Queens under him.’
The most addictive things about the Chronicles is the way the first line of each story just grabs you and sucks you into the world and this one is certainly no exception. No sooner was I wondering about the strange kind of monarchy that allowed siblings to rule simultaneously (The Horse and His Boy was the 2nd Narnia book I read after The Magician’s Nephew. I had no idea who the Pevensie children were until I read Prince Caspian afterwards), than I was plunged into Arsheesh’s fish-smelling hut and Shasta’s longing for the North.
Shasta, the title character, is is a dreamer. He dreams about going North and finding some great treasure or adventure. He dreams about going into slavery and becoming a hero. He dreams about his ancestry and even speculates that he’s the son of a god. But he’s also a pragmatic Southern Calormen, true and true. He certainly doesn’t dwell on his betrayal of sorts by Arsheesh – rather on how his change in fortune can benefit him. He makes the decision to run away on the spot, without hesitating, without bemoaning his sad, sad fate. And he’d love to take the donkey but he knows he can’t. :)
After reading stories from less talented writers where the hero leaves his home and his unpleasant relatives without a backward glance and only remembers them when he feels a need to feel sorry for himself, Shasta’s own Call for Adventure is a lot less depressing, less sociopathic – and certainly more realistic. He doesn’t care enough about Arsheesh to feel bad about being sold into slavery and it’s a relief that he doesn’t feel guilty any more for not loving his “father”, but he does care enough to miss the old man’s snores and be a little sorry for running away. Arsheesh is a greedy man who has probably never freely done a thing in his life that he didn’t believe he could profit from, but still: he did of his own free will rescue a baby from starvation and cold; he did take care of Shasta in his infanthood at his own inconvenience and long before he could get any service out of the boy. I like the fact that the meanness of Arsheesh – and the fact that he sings his own praises – doesn’t diminish the innate goodness of that action. Shasta could never love him – but he doesn’t hate him either and even we (the readers) are left to judge him for ourselves.
My opinion of Bree-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah changed during the course of the story. He enters the scene as a very magnificent horse, bearing the red-bearded Tarkhaan. When he introduces himself to Shasta, he plays the role of mentor as well as companion: revealing to him the Secrets of the North and the second hint of Shasta’s bloodline, giving Shasta advice about his Master, planning their escape, teaching him to ride. (Bree’s riding tips are very practical, by the way). Bree is the veteran warrior/wise man stereotype to Shasta’s bumbling
Anradin and his strange crimson hair set the ball rolling in this story and then disappear. It makes me smile when I see in retrospect that metaphorically speaking, he is Bree’s vehicle and not the other way around. It’s not the great Knight charging in on his allegorically white stallion but the stallion charging in with the supposedly-great-but-largely-anonymous-K
It would be insidiously appropriate, won’t it, for a book where obsessive lust drives the plot? As the author is dead, I guess no one will ever know because happily, whatever the fate Shasta escapes from, he escapes it. The chapter ends with Bree and his boy making it over the Ridge of Destiny and galloping with Bree towards adventure. I like this cover art, it certainly captures what must have been Shasta’s first experience of horse-riding. :D