Book five in the Chronicles of Narnia is titled The Horse and His Boy. This volume presents the reader with a vastly different adventure from the previous four books. Action takes place only in the Narnian world, no coming or going back to England. The Pevensies (having appeared in the four previous books) play a minor role here, while the first major character is a child named Shasta.
Three more major characters emerge quickly. First is Bree, a talking war-horse, Aravis, a young girl with status in Calormen, and Hwin, another talking horse (a mare). Almost immediately, one notices a symmetry to the main characters. Shasta rides on Bree and Aravis rides on Hwin. Such two-by-two symmetry persists at every turn.
The book begins with longing. “To Narnia and the North” is an oft-repeated refrain. While doing his chores, Shasta observes that “no one ever went north,” but that’s where he longs to go. Though he can’t articulate it, he has this irrepressible yearning in his soul for the north country. When Shasta meets Bree, (who was Narnian and had been horse-napped to Calormen as a foal) the war-horse reveals his plan to return north. Bree also suggests Shasta’s longing for the north is because the fair-skinned boy (so different from the dark-skinned people of Calormen) has the blood of “true northern stock.”
The unlikely pair make their escape and head north. Later in the tale, when someone accuses Shasta of having stolen a soldier’s horse, Bree claims it is more accurate to say he who has stolen the boy. Hence the title, The Horse and His Boy.
Another example of symmetry that carries throughout the book is the contrast of two peoples, the Narnians and the Calormenes. The descriptions of Calormen lands and people evoke images of a middle-eastern culture: the men wear turbans and wield scimitars, they rely on disposable slaves for labor, their speech is flowery and amply sprinkled with aphorisms from “the poet” and other purported wise men, and when they speak of their ruler (Tisroc), they add “may he live forever.” The proud Calormenes consider the Narnian people barbarians whose deity (they believe) is “a demon of hideous aspect and irresistible maleficence who appears in the shape of a Lion.”
By contrast, the Narnians are more Elizabethan in dress, prone to pithy (and folksy) quotes, and hold a high view of personal freedom (Narnian women aren’t forced to accept marriages against their will) and diversity (including talking beasts). They have kings and queens for rulers but their monarch is Aslan, son of the Emperor-over-Sea.
Besides the contrast between two countries, there’s a familiar elder/youth clash that’s expressed in conversation between the Calormene ruler Tisroc and his son Rabadash. In his arrogance, the younger man mocks the notion of an enchantress (the White Witch who held Narnia under her spell for a century) and suggests his scientific explanation is preferable. The Tisroc disagrees, insisting it was “strong magic” that crippled Narnia and still expresses itself through the demon, Aslan.
Conversation between father and son reflects the tension of an ambitious prince anxiously envisioning the day when the throne belongs to him. The Tisroc admits his suspicions − Rabadash is “beginning to be dangerous” − and sends the younger man on a fool’s errand (war), expecting to be succeeded by one of his eighteen other sons.
Throughout the story, Aslan plays a significant and moving role as he reveals himself to Shasta. The impressionable boy knows little about the world he experienced before running off with Bree, but he quickly learns to recognize the roar of a lion (and he hears the fearsome roar every time he senses danger). As one might expect, Shasta is most fearful the beast will devour him, not realizing at each juncture along his treacherous path to Narnia, Aslan is overseeing Shasta’s travel, interceding on his behalf. Toward the end of the book, Shasta laments: “I am the unluckiest person in the whole world.”
In response, Aslan patiently says: “Tell me your sorrows.” Of course, Shasta declares a laundry list of misfortunes that have defined his short life. A beautiful exchange follows wherein the Lion reveals he is the one lion who brought Aravis and Hwin into their company, the one who comforted Shasta in the dark night, the one who drove away hungry jackals while Shasta slept, the one who gave them strength for the last miles of their journey. Aslan was the lion who guarded Shasta (in infancy) and gave him a home.
When Shasta asks, “Who are you?” Aslan responds with Trinitarian simplicity. “Myself,” “Myself,” “Myself.” Aslan’s diction is unequivocal: his person encompasses the depths, the heights and the breadth of the Narnian world.
As with other characters in the Chronicles of Narnia, Shasta is transformed. Similar moments occur for Bree, Aravis and Hwin, though Aslan is careful to caution each character that “No one is told any story but their own.” Transformation is a private affair between Aslan and each individual.
One transformation in the final chapter, however, stands as an object lesson for all … and occurs publicly. When the unrepentant Rabadash challenges Aslan, the forbearing Lion finally dispenses a justice “mixed with mercy.” Without giving too much away, suffice to say that for the rest of his life, “behind his back he was called Rabadash the Ridiculous.”
He stubbornly refused to listen to the Lion.