I’ve always had a soft spot for this book – mainly because it’s just so much fun. I really can’t remember distinct feelings about it outside of enjoying it immensely. Granted, I was most likely attracted to it early on because I loved horses and horse books, but my love for it only increases in different ways.
The Horse and His Boy has one of the largest ensemble casts of the series, and what’s more, a great deal of the characters are unique to this particular story (you have Aslan, the Pevensies, and a handful of their courtiers, but that’s about it for recurring characters – and they’re all in supporting roles, to say the least). Despite the large cast, however, it’s also one of the most plot-driven stories, although that plot happens to be incredibly character-driven…it’s just a really well-crafted story, with a variety of likeable characters. I’ll just say this up front: Someone should make a movie out of this. It’s never gotten one in any iteration of the franchise, presumably due to its odd placement chronologically combined with its relatively late appearance in publication order. Although I suppose the real reason why it seems that it would make a good movie is because the pacing of the book is so cinematic; doubtless it would have just as many issues with adaptation as the other stories.
The ruling planet for this one is Mercury, the Messenger. As such, stories and storytelling are very important to this book. As a matter of fact, the whole story is framed as a “tale”, which is alluded to twice in The Silver Chair. Honestly, it’s hard to tell whether the formality of the dialogue is simply meant to be indicative of the different cultural background (oh yes, we’ll get into that soon enough) or the fact that it is itself a story or both. Another element of Mercury is, well, the element Mercury, AKA quicksilver. Its quality of separating and reuniting with itself gives you some idea of what the planet Mercury stands for. Characters and information may diverge at times, but always reunite eventually.
As for stylistic influences, if I had to guess, I’d say the general style is probably based on The Arabian Nights (but don’t quote me on that, since I’ve never actually read The Arabian Nights). It’s definitely based on something, though – the tone and style are far too distinct not to be. As far as biblical influences go, it seems to borrow from both Exodus and Esther. The Exodus comparison is a bit of a no-brainer, considering how prominent slavery is in the narrative, although the comparisons do go deeper than that; Esther has more thematic ties (along with some plot developments which I’ll note when they arise), as well as the whole “Israel in exile” thing, which is itself something of an echo of the Exodus story.
One of the main themes of the book is actually agency and freedom, as hinted at by the title. Unlike most stories concerned with the subject, however, the cast is more or less gender equal, and they’re all objectified and commoditized to various degrees.
This is the story of 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.
Thus our story begins with a very classical introduction, and the plot actually begins in the first chapter! Our hero is Shasta, a boy raised by a fisherman in Calormen who promptly discovers what was apparently obvious to everyone who knew him: He’s adopted. But he only discovers this because his “father” is cornered by a Calormene lord (or “Tarkaan”) who’s interested in buying Shasta as a slave. Since he’s already a slave in all but name, of course (and slavery is evidently a cultural norm), he’s not actually bothered by it all that much.
“I wonder what sort of a man that Tarkaan is,” [Shasta] said out loud. “It would be splendid if he was kind. Some of the slaves in a great lord’s house have next to nothing to do. They wear lovely clothes and eat meat every day. Perhaps he’d take me to the wars and I’d save his life in a battle and then he’d set me free and adopt me as his son and give me a palace and a chariot and a suit of armor. But then he might be a horrid cruel man. He might send me to work on the fields in chains. I wish I knew.”
One of the first things we hear from Shasta is (naturally) a story – a story he hopes to be his future, but a story nonetheless.
The Horse had lifted its head. Shasta stroked its smooth-as-satin nose and said, “I wish you could talk, old fellow.”
And then for a second he thought he was dreaming, for quite distinctly, though in a low voice, the Horse said, “But I can.”
The Horse explains that he was born in Narnia, but was kidnapped as a foal and forced into slavery, masquerading as a regular horse for fear of the intense security that would inevitably be placed on him should his ability to speak be discovered by his Calormene masters.
“Now look,” it said, “we mustn’t waste time on idle questions. You want to know about my master the Tarkaan Anradin. Well, he’s bad. Not too bad to me, for a war horse costs too much to be treated very badly. But you’d better be lying dead tonight than go to be a human slave in his house tomorrow.”
“Then I’d better run away,” said Shasta, turning very pale.
“Yes, you had,” said the Horse. “But why not run away with me?”
The Horse needs a rider, otherwise every man that saw him would try to catch him, and the boy could certainly use transportation, so he agrees to it. Honestly, though, the Horse gets much more out of the bargain than Shasta – if they’re caught, the Horse would only go back to the Tarkaan, but Shasta would be executed as a horse thief.
“You can’t ride. That’s a drawback. I’ll have to teach you as we go along. If you can’t ride, can you fall?”
“I suppose anyone can fall,” said Shasta.
“I mean can you fall and get up again without crying and mount again and fall again and yet not be afraid of falling?”
“I – I’ll try,” said Shasta.
“Poor little beast,” said the Horse in a gentler tone. “I forget that you’re only a foal.”
That’s the only way to really learn anything – by falling, and never giving up.
The Horse naturally wishes to return to Narnia, so they plan to travel through the Calormene city of Tashbaan.
“Oh hurrah!” said Shasta. “Then we’ll go North. I’ve been longing to go North all my life.”
“Of course you have,” said the Horse. “That’s because of the blood that’s in you. I’m sure you’re true Northern stock.”
The rest of the chapter is mainly the Horse (eventually dubbed Bree) teaching Shasta to ride, then setting up a false trail for the Tarkaan to follow.
Then, still at a walking pace, it went Northward till the cottage, the one tree, the donkey’s stable, and the creek – everything, in fact, that Shasta had ever known – had sunk out of sight in the gray summer-night darkness. They had been going uphill and now were at the top of the ridge – that ridge which had always been the boundary of Shasta’s known world. He could not see what was ahead except that it was all open and grassy. It looked endless: wild and lonely and free.
Until next time…