from The Chronicles of Narnia
by C. S. Lewis
“‘I say, Aravis, there are going to be a lot of things to get used to in these Northern countries'” (Lewis, 206).
As I said previously:
I happened to find this on my bookshelf while organizing my piles of writing into binders and read it over the weekend. Of the seven books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia, this has always been my favorite. Which is probably why it’s the only one I have with full color illustrations (and which was the specific edition that I read).
The story takes place during “the Golden Age when Peter was High King in Narnia and his brother and two sisters were King and Queens under him” (3). How this happened and who they are is explained in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and their reign (the Golden Age) mentioned.
My main question while reading it was: why did I like it so much, or what made it likable to me? What, if anything, made it stand out against the other Narnian books?
Last time, I discussed how the culture of Calormen is meant to caricature the culture and tone of the 1001 Nights but without Islam, seeing as Calormene worship multiple gods.
In fact when I started reading, I tried to wrap my head around the presentation of the Calormene natives (Bree’s owner and Arsheesh, Shasta’s fisherman father). Both seemed written to be dislikable. And this brought to my mind the idea of characters flaws and how non-white (or non-English coded) characters are portrayed in the story.
Like Arsheesh is described as greedy, which characterizes him as bad, but why should it be his business, as a fisherman, to learn about the North so he can answer Shasta’s questions? And later, Ashokta, the man Aravis refused to marry, grovels before the Tisroc, but I can’t help feeling sorry for him whenever Prince Rabadash kicks him for saying anything that displeases the prince.
As for the main characters, they had flaws too. Aravis was classist, Bree was pompous, Shasta was sullen and ignorant, and Hwin, well, Hwin’s meekness might be a flaw, she was usually the right and sensible one. Or maybe it’d be more accurate to say nobody except Hwin was very nice when they all met. By the end they’ve changed, especially Aravis and Bree.
On the subject of change, let’s talk about Rabadash’s punishment. First, he’s defeated more by misfortune than battle prowess, since he gets caught on a hook and hung up the end of the battle. Later Aslan arrives and decides what happens to the prince.
What struck me was how Aslan keeps warning Rabadash until – too late! – he’s turned into an ass. It has a taste that Rabadash’s punishment would not have happened if he had listened to Aslan. But he didn’t. So there’s an uncomfortable feeling of an unsuccessful Christian conversion.
“‘You have appealed to Tash,’ said Aslan. ‘And in the temple of Tash you shall be healed. You must stand before the altar of Tash in Tashbaan at the great Autumn Feast this year and there, in the sight of all Tashbaan, your ass’s [sic] shape will fall from you and all men will know you for Prince Rabadash'” (219)
I want to touch on how Rabadash becomes known as a peaceful ruler but is still deemed ridiculous. His reason for maintaining peace (and therefore not sending out armies) is because he could not leave Tashbaan without reverting back into an ass. And since he did not want his armies to gain renown from fighting, he kept them at home. While his reasons were not good, if he had been another character his peaceful reign would have been admired. The fact that the antagonist in this book – the only one to heavily feature lands and people outside Narnia – is written in such a way should be taken note of.
More positively, I liked Aslan’s attitude and how he only told people about their story. (See the quote at the end of “The Horse and His Boy | Customs.”) I still like that. But Shasta’s response after he’s finally talked to Aslan felt like proselytizing:
“Luckily Shasta had lived all his life too far south to in Calormen to have heard the tales that were whispered in Tashbaan about a dreadful Narnian demon that appeared in the form of a lion. And of course he knew none of the true stories about Aslan… But after one glance at the Lion’s face he slipped out of the saddle and fell at it’s feet. He couldn’t say anything but then he didn’t want to say anything, and he knew he needn’t say anything” (166).
(So how did Aravis, who had obviously been raised in the elite circles of Calormene life, feel seeing Aslan? On that point, I think it’s worth noting that Aslan calls Aravis “daughter” and calls her to him (201). She isn’t immediately pulled into the Christianity of Aslan the way Shasta is.)
Additionally, it’s one of the only Narnian books to present a negative perspective on Narnia. Admittedly, those who espouse Narnia as a land of demons and ice are supposed to be in the wrong, but I find the idea of extremely varying cultural stories about a place (theirs and others) really interesting. Why does Calormen dislike Narnia?
The simple answer could be they’re pagans, but since this book tries hard to do some worldbuilding in the lands surrounding Narnia, let’s think of an in-world reason.
An obviously one is the White Witch. Her endless winter lasted a long time and the Calormen seem to fear demons and dangerous magic. It makes sense they would develop an outlook that Narnia is deadly. Heck, the Tisroc says that’s why the Calormene Empire has not conquered Narnia. And I just think that kind of perspective – percolating it down to the more common citizens in Calormen who would be less stuck up – would be fascinating.
Finally, by the end, I feel like Lewis forgets the worldbuilding and character building he’s done, particularly with Aravis. The most glaring one is when she meets Lucy and the two go off to talk about “girl things” with the implication being clothes and hair. Which doesn’t make sense since the text told us earlier that “Aravis had always been more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming” (99). Although this does speak well for her adjustment to Archenland culture where we see one instant of a hunt and allusions to kennels.
I wonder a lot about what life was like for them in Archenland. How did they incorporate Aslan into their original Calormen upbringing (especially Aravis)? How was their son raised? Did they cause any changes in the customs at Calormen (Aravis in particular)?
For example, Aravis is fleeing to Narnia to escape an unwanted marriage. But once she’s there she’s struck with a very real exile/refugee situation: “She was beginning to wonder what exactly she would do in when she got there and was feeling a little lonely” (198).
Yes! This. I would have like this angle explored more. Even Shasta (who is really Prince Cor of Archenland) says that there’s “‘going to be a lot of things to get used to'” (206). They were raised in an entirely different culture from the North and that’s going to have some affect on how they feel about it and how they live among it.
But Lewis ignores this in favor of praising everything about the North: while dressed less extravagantly they have the nobility of Emperors, their storytelling is livelier, their food is astonishing. It’s like the book is trying to pretend Aravis and Cor’s upbringing is completely moot now that they’ve reach the North. Pooh on that I say. I don’t accept that as their identities.
I think some of this might be part of my interest in the story: not only a different culture, one flavored with the 1001 Nights, which I admittedly do like, but the adaption to new culture. Well, that and the way the characters grow likable by the end of their journey. I’m always so fond of them by the end, especially Aravis.
No words. There may have been some, but I wasn’t keeping track.
“In this idea about Aravis Shasta was once more quite wrong. She was proud and could be hard enough, but she was as true as steel and would never have deserted a companion, whether she liked him or not” (85-6).
Lewis, C.S. The Horse and His Boy. Full-Color Collector’s ed. Vol. 3. New York: HarperTrophy-HarperCollins Publishers, 2000. Print.