Let’s talk about religion, culture, and its place in fantasy.
This chapter focuses primarily on Aravis’s backstory (told by herself, naturally), and between the contents of her story and the framing of it, we get a good sense of Calormene culture. One of the first things to jump out at me, surprisingly enough, is the Calormene religion – mainly because it throws the Narnian culture into sharp relief. Narnia has no organized religion. This begs the question of why Lewis chose to include religion in Calormen when he felt it was superfluous for Narnia itself.
First, I find it helpful to consider Tolkien’s body of work. He was very interested in the cultures of Middle-Earth, but none of the races appear to have religions. There are no temples. They have beliefs, of course, but they’re all founded on verifiable facts within that universe. This is what generally separates the worlds of fantasy from reality: They don’t need organized religion because the gods are tangible. Religion is, by definition, a way of approaching God (or the gods or whatever it may be). Thus, in a culture like Narnia’s, where Aslan simply makes his will known or otherwise intervenes whenever necessary, there’s no significant barrier between God and man. In a sense, the world itself becomes a temple. Not so for Calormen.
Despite all the obvious Arabic trappings (especially in the illustrations), Calormen’s religion is most comparable to that of Rome. They have multiple gods which are said to have human offspring; whether or not they are real in-universe is never addressed in this book, and honestly, the religion itself is all that’s relevant to this story. Whether their gods are real or not, there is definitely a barrier between the Calormenes and their gods which isn’t present between the Narnians and Aslan.
As for the accusations of racism that are infrequently lobbed at Lewis, I honestly don’t see much ground for it here. The Calormenes are dark-skinned, sure, but they’re not intended as a caricature of Muslims or something. They have more in common with ancient Israel than modern Islam.
Anyhow! Now that I’ve talked about that enough to undoubtedly be forced to eat some of those words at a later date, let’s move on to the chapter at hand.
Aravis explains how her mother died (apparently when she was little), and her stepmother hated her so she set up a marriage between Aravis and a man probably old enough to be her grandfather (who also happens to be ugly as sin, but just rich and powerful enough to get her father on board). When I was younger, I assumed that she must be about 12, but now it seems more likely to me that she’s not more than 10, because this is Shasta’s reaction:
“And there’s another thing I don’t understand about that story,” said Shasta. “You’re not grown up, I don’t believe you’re any older than I am. I don’t believe you’re as old. How could you be getting married at your age?”
Aravis said nothing, but Bree said at once, “Shasta, don’t display your ignorance. They’re always married at that age in the great Tarkaan families.”
So yeah. Aravis was totally supposed to be a child bride.
Funny enough, Aravis’s situation parallels Shasta’s in more ways than they would like to admit. They were both essentially being “sold” by their fathers, at which point they realized that they must escape or die – Aravis just ended up focusing a lot more on the “or die” half, partly because her beloved brother AND her mother were already dead, and partly because she literally saw no other way out until Hwin spoke up. Shasta, in contrast, was made aware of both options at virtually the same time, and considering that he had a less ethical upbringing than most, he would see no honor in death as Aravis might.
Can I just say that I adore Hwin?
“After that I shut my eyes and my teeth and prepared to drive the dagger into my heart. But before I had done so, this mare spoke with the voice of the daughters of men and said, ‘O my mistress, do not by any means destroy yourself, for if you live you may yet have good fortune but all the dead are dead alike.’”
“I didn’t say it half so well as that,” muttered the mare.
She’s the sensible, maternal type which I think Lewis was aiming for with Susan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, except that not only does he convey it much better here, but it actually makes sense. She’s rather quiet because Aravis is so assertive, but she also cares about her a lot and generally knows what’s best for her, and she will prevent Aravis from hurting herself whenever she can (she sticks her head between Aravis and her dagger, for crying out loud!). The age difference lends more credence to their relationship, as well as Hwin’s personality in general.
Aravis herself is quite an interesting character. Not only is she a very assertive female character, but she’s portrayed sympathetically in spite of that; honestly, she’s more condemned for her classism than anything else (which was basically the ancient equivalent of racism). It’s obviously something she’ll have to overcome before she gets to Narnia since, as Bree pointed out, there are no class distinctions there – but then, Bree has his own issues to work through.
“My dear Madam,” said Bree. “Have you pictured to yourself how very disagreeable it would be to arrive in Narnia in that condition?”
“Well,” said Hwin humbly (she was a very sensible mare), “the main thing is to get there.”
After they’ve swapped stories, they’re forced to come up with a plan for getting past Tashbaan. They reluctantly agree to travel through the city itself (figuring they would be less conspicuous in the crowds), and attempt to disguise themselves as slaves and packhorses.
Next time: The plan begins to go awry…