|Synopsis||A young slave boy and a Narnian horse flee north from slavery to the free lands of Narnia, stumbling upon a dangerous conspiracy in the process.|
|Release Date||September 6, 1954|
I recently had the opportunity to visit The Museum of the Bible in Washington DC on a business trip and bought a ticket to The Logos Theater’s production of The Horse And His Boy, a Lion King-esque stage play of the beloved fifth book in the Narnia series that was never adapted to film. The production was absolutely inspiring and led me to go back to the book I had largely never gotten to read. I am glad it did because working through the story twice last month helped me deeply examine this strange side story and contemplate C.S. Lewis’s intentions for one of the strangest books in his beloved canon.
Spiritual Content: The book is part of a series that explores Christian themes in a whimsical fantasy setting.
Violence: Some fantasy violence with descriptions of battles, blood, and severe injuries
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: Several characters get married, and another character threatens to marry a woman after capturing her and killing her brother.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Some references to alcohol consumption
Other Negative Themes: None
Positive Content: Themes of conversion, suffering, and pain in the Christian life
The Narnia series famous for being highly conspicuous. Lewis’s friend and fellow fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien was a critic of the books right out of the gate and disliked the kind of obvious scattershot parable that Lewis was exploring within the context of the saga. But that did not stop Lewis, nor did it stop generations of readers from falling in love with his magical realms and unique retelling of Christian ideas and themes.
I’ve been slowly going back and reading the Narnia books for the first time since when I was very young. And reading them as an adult, you definitely interact with them differently. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is still the best of the narratives from a storytelling perspective. However, the books themselves have a life all their own, even as they start getting less subtextual and more aggressively theological towards the end of the series.
My recent reading of The Magician’s Nephew left me with a sense that it was among the more well-thought-out and creative of the stories, as a curious retelling of the Genesis creation account set in Narnia. Recently, though, that thought has changed during my first time reading The Horse and His Boy. Weeks later, I’ve gone through the story twice, and I cannot stop thinking about it.
The Horse and His Boy, chronologically, is a bizarre book. It was one of the last books in the series that Lewis published. However, it was set during the events of Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe between the crowning of the four Kings and Queens of Narnia and the children’s return to the Wardrobe, during the decades they sat on the thrones. We’re treated to a new area of the story populated with strange characters and factions that were unfamiliar in the previous book, but who implicitly play a larger role in Prince Caspian in the distant future.
The Horse and His Boy is a peripheral story to the opening books in the Narnia franchise — smaller, more intimate, and less connected to the major events before The Last Battle. At its heart lay a pair of very powerful conversion stories, both loaded with clear symbolism and real-life analogs. A story of two people running away from home to seek the kingdom of Narnia — and one of them just so happens to be a talking horse.
The story picks up in the far southern lands of Narnia’s realm. A tribe of Middle-Eastern-coded slave laborers and fishermen are living under the heel of cruel slavemasters and rulers. Among them is an adopted boy named Shasta, who regularly faced beatings and cruelty from his unknowingly adoptive father. When he finds out the truth and that he is set to be sold to a cruel slave driver, he stumbles upon a Narnian horse named Bree that gives him the chance to flee north to his heavenly homeland and freedom.
After they make their daring escape, Shasta and Bree stumble upon another young southern princess fleeing with her own Narnian horse and a larger political conspiracy. The Prince of their realm is seeking to lay siege to Narnia by conquering its neighboring allied kingdom and leading an army against Narnia’s rulers. This simple story of two conversions escalates with the only hope of Narnia falling into the hands of these outsiders.
At times, the sheer volume of proper nouns can make the story a bit unwieldy to a first-time reader. We are meant to take away that this is setting the stage for the events of Prince Caspian, where humans have overrun Narnia and enslaved the free peoples and animals. But the book does not always clarify how it fits into the overall narrative. The previous chronological story gave no hint at the politics of this realm or how other humans fit into it. Nor did it disclose that Narnia is actually a smaller kingdom aligned with its neighbors against multiple large empires on the periphery of its magical realm. The density pays off upon reexamination, though. It’s a sprawling story for its size, with tremendous amounts of realpolitik and drama to its moral vision, helmed by some of the darkest themes and story concepts of the entire saga.
It is not hard to tell from the get-go what The Horse and His Boy is doing as a story. It is a classic tale of how converting to Christianity frees oppressed peoples from slavery, necessitating radical actions, breaking culture and family ties, and committing to a journey of pain, discomfort, and uncertainty that makes it challenging to move further and grow in faith.
The story carries echoes of the classic St. George and the Dragon, which is thematically an exploration of how Christianity frees enslaved peoples from Pagan superstition. After St. George walks into a town that is commanded to sacrifice a virgin to a man-eating dragon once a year, he slays the dragon, giving the people freedom from their arbitrary and horrific tyranny.
The Horse and His Boy makes for a powerful conversion story, and a dark one at that — a story about two people fleeing from a hostile and abusive culture to the freedom and love of Christ’s Church. Its darkness and content showcase how fraught of a reality that real-life story is. These characters are in constant danger from the get-go and have to conspire and survive in a world that is hostile to their goals.
What makes the book pay off so well is that it gives Aslan arguably his most powerful depiction in the entire series. Aslan appeared multiple times in unexpected forms prior to revealing himself to Shasta and Bree. As we come to realize, the daring escapes and close calls have actually been authored from the moment the story began. Aslan has been guiding these converts through the most painful moments of their lives, even appearing in horrific and painful forms to set the course of events in the right direction.
His conversations with the lead characters are greatly revelatory, giving the reader a sense that pain and suffering are vital parts of the Christian journey. It echoes Lewis’s own moral sentiment, best espoused in The Great Divorce, that all of a person’s life experience is ultimately revealed to be in service of the realization that we’ve been in heaven or hell the entire time without realizing it and that those moments are vital for our growth and specification.
This pays off most powerfully with Bree. Despite being a talking horse, he actually gets the most complicated and best writing of any character. He is introduced to the story as a war horse, confident and powerful in his abilities and strength. But as a Narnian horse, he remembers the homeland from his childhood and wants nothing but to return to his mother and people. Unfortunately, he cannot complete the quest on his own. He is too proud to admit that he’s made mistakes that separated him from his home and is too afraid to own up to them. He’s afraid he’s sullied by his experiences.
Most importantly, he’s too proud to recognize Aslan’s true nature until he’s directly faced with it and forced to swallow that pride. More than Shasta, Bree’s story captures some of the hardest feelings about what it means to truly convert to Christianity and how much emotion stifles that journey and holds us back, leaving us constantly tempted to return to slavery and despotism rather than embracing the glorious challenge of sanctification.
The Horse and His Boy has traditionally been considered one of the weirdest Narnia books. It was one of the last ones that Lewis wrote, despite retroactively sticking it early in the chronology of the story. It is a much smaller and darker story than many of the others, focusing on a smaller cast of characters with a much less noticeable impact than the Pevensie children or any of the other leading protagonists of the series. Yet I cannot stop thinking about it. It is told with the simplicity of a children’s fairy tale and unfurls, strangely and perhaps convolutedly, into a larger story about how our journeys transform us and how the hardest realities of life all work toward our good.
+ Great Central Story
+ Powerful Character Arcs and Themes
+ One of the Most Unique Narnia Stories
- Some massive conveniences and convoluted story points
The Bottom Line
The Horse and His Boy is neither the best nor most famous Narnia book, but its smaller story captures many of the most complicated and challenging themes that Christians face in their journey.