Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Narnian Summer Challenge (2)

Reflections on the Horse and His Boy

Here are my next two reflections:

Chapters 7 & 8
Narnia's Trojan War

Chapters 7 and 8 are particularly interesting because we get a small window into world of the Calormene nobility - from the inside. In these chapters, we get to see exactly what kind of life Shasta, had he become a slave to a Anradin, and Aravis, had she married the Grand Vizier, is escaping from. We get to meet Aravis' colourful and dizzy friend, her potential husband, and both Prince Rabadash and the Tisroc himself - in their own nest, as Sallowpad would say.

These characters are cleverly developed by Lewis (even if they are a little stereotypical) and their conversations cleverly crafted. Even though we sigh with relief that our heroes (along with Susan herself) will be spared from this life, the chapters are enjoyable to read. The Calormen characters, though hardly loveable people or the kind we would ever want to emulate, are likeable in their ridiculousness. We laugh at their silliness, and perhaps tremble a little at what disasters they might bring about through their foolishness.

At the university where I did my undergrad degree, not many people major in Classics. Quite a few, however, take individual classical subjects as electives. As a result, those few (like me) who take a full major's worth of courses must suffer a fair amount of repetition. This is never more true than for the Trojan War. In almost every course I took, including not only Greek 1a, but also Latin 1a, we learnt about this most famous of Greek legends. And I suppose it is hardly surprising, since this is the legend that makes up the theme of the first-ever book to be published in the history of European literature.

2500 years later, this story still enthrals the world, and was last made into a major motion picture as recently as 2002, and in many books even after that.

It is not a stretch, therefore, that CS Lewis (a man well versed in the Classics, and who himself began to write a novel covering events after the end of the Trojan War, and a translation of the Roman epic, The Aeneid) had this great legend, The Trojan War, in mind, when penning chapter 8 of The Horse and His Boy.

Thankfully, CS Lewis was more interested in writing an original story for children than retelling the age-old classic, and what we have is a very different story. But bear with me as a present some evidence that the Trojan war may have been at the back, if not the front of his mind, as he penned this chapter. There is more similarities between these two stories than simply that both have something to do with Horses.
"Nothing, I say, will seem as pardonable, if not estimable, in their eyes as this - er - hazardous attempt, especially because it is undertaken for the love of a woman..." Ahoshta - HHB
Some key events in lead up to the Trojan War could be summarised as follows: A Trojan Prince goes to visit the King of Sparta in Greece. The visit is successful, and it would seem that ties between the two counties, and bonds of friendship will be strengthened by this visit. But while there, the Prince falls in love with the Queen of Sparta. He contrives to have her kidnapped and sails away with her in a daring escape back to his city of Troy. Queen Helen's husband Menelaus is incensed. He convinces his brother, King Agamemnon of Argos and the other kings and leaders of Greece to join him in battle as he sets out to reclaim his lost queen. To many, this is seen not just as an act of love, but an excuse to subdue the city of Troy, an "unseemly blot" to the might of Greece.

Our Narnian story bares a few similarities. A Calormene Prince goes to visit the Royal Court of Narnia. He is received well and his behaviour is lauded by the Narnians. But while he is there, he falls in love with Queen Susan of Narnia. Unlike Paris, he does not have her kidnapped immediately, but sends messengers requesting her hand (she is, after all, free to marry and not another man's wife). She and her brother King Edmund travel to Tashbaan as she considers the suit. In Tashbaan, they see the Prince for who he truly is. Susan not only makes up her mind not to marry him, but they realise that the Prince will not easily allow her departure. In a daring escape she, with Edmund and their entourage, sail back their castle at Cair Paravel. When Rabadash realises she is gone, he is incensed. He convinces his father to let him march to Narnia and take her by force. His move is not only because of his passionate love (or should I say lust) for the Queen, but also seen as an excuse and means for subduing Narnia, "an unseemly blot on the skirts of [the] empire."

Obviously the differences between the two stories are apparent. As I said before, Lewis was writing his own story. While in the Trojan account, the Queen is already married, in the Narnian one she is not. In the Trojan story she is immediately kidnapped, in the Narnian one she is not. In the Trojan story, it is her husband and his allies that launch a rescue attack, whereas in the Narnian one, it is the spurned lover who launches an attack by which he plans to kidnap her.

But I think you will agree, there are a few similarities. This may be stretched, by an over-active mind swamped with far too much teaching on the Trojan War than any one person should endure. But I find the few links as they are interesting.

With a few changes, some of the words spoken between Rabadash and his father, may pass as those spoken between Menelaus and his brother as an argument for launching the Trojan War:
"Compose yourself, O my brother," said Agamemnon. "For the departure of guests makes a wound that is easily healed in the heart of a judicious host."
 "But I want her," cried the King, "I must have her. I shall die if I do not get her back - false, proud, black-hearted daughter of a dog that she is! (okay, Menelaus may not have referred to Zeus as a dog - but I'm sure he would have called her some or other names) I cannot sleep and my food has no savour and my eyes are darkened because of her beauty. I must have my Queen."...

"I desire and propose, O my brother," said Menelaus, "that you immediately call out your invincible armies and invade the thrice-accursed land of Troy and waste it with fire and sword...killing the King and all of his house except the Queen Helen. For I must have her back as my wife, though she shall learn a sharp lesson first."
Of course, in the Narnian story, the Tisroc declines giving aid in open war and the Prince must win her back with his own small force. It is interesting that the Tisroc fears Narnia because of the legends around it. Troy had some legends of its own - the walls had been built by Poseidon himself and would never be conquered from without (though these were not quite so powerful legends in the minds of the Greeks so as to prevent their war).

Thankfully, the outcomes of the two wars are also very different. During the Trojan War, the Olympian gods are said to have played an important role. Olympus was divided with half the gods favouring the Trojans and the other half the Greeks. This is part of the reason the war remained a deadlock for ten years. The Narnian situation is different. Rabadash thought he had the gods of Calormen on his side, but we read nothing of them (for we know that, thought limited in power, there was some real creature or spirit behind at least one of their gods). Tash however has no interest, so far as we can tell, in Rabadash's affairs. And even if he had, I doubt he would dare to take on an attack on Narnia and Archenland, knowing that Aslan was behind its kings and queens all the way.

And therein lies the difference. Rabadash had not factored in Aslan, and Aslan's use of of a runaway slave boy and Calormene girl. As something seemingly harmless, the Trojan Horse, was what brought about the destruction of Troy, so Aslan used the most unlikely of people to accomplish his plan and save Narnia from sharing Troy's fate. In a sense it was Shasta and Aravis, with the aid of the horses that served as Narnia's "Trojan Horse".

Rabadash would have done well to heed his father's warning, mistaken though it may have been in part:
"It is commonly reported that the High King of Narnia...is supported by a demon of hideous aspect and irresistible maleficience who appears in the shape of a Lion."
He was no demon, but something far more dangerous to any who would seek to destroy Narnia - he was the creator of Narnia and Archenland and Calormen himself!

Chapters 9 & 10
Refreshing Water

Chapter 9 well describes the harsh reality of desert travel:

    "jingle-jingle-jingle, squeak-squeak-squeak, smell of hot horse, smell of hot self."

I don't know if any of you have been in a desert. I drove with my family to and around Namibia in 2006. Only part of the journey was in the "true desert" and we were on well maintained dirt roads in an air-conditioned car. So I cannot really empathise with what our four heroes experience on their journey.

Except when it comes to time. Time drags in the desert. You have to travel miles before you get anywhere, and the terrain is so flat and unchanging that you can go a long way and feel you've travelled only a little. Our first night's stop was an experience in itself. It was dark long before we arrived at the little "town" of Seeheim (consisting of the farmhouse/hotel where we stayed and a petrol station). There were no street lights on the road - only mile after a mile of dark road and twinkling stars. We even began to imagine we saw trees lining the side of the road - some mysterious trick of viewing dark nothingness through car windows. I have yet to figure out what caused it.

Later on our holiday, we travelled through the desert to see the famous Welwitschia plants that live for thousands of years, have only two leaves which are never shedded for their entire lifespan and are found only in the Namib desert. The drive to the most famous (one of the largest) of these plants is a long monotonous one through the desert reserve. It took us half of the day just to get there and see it, then to turn around and make the long trek back along the same road. It was worth it, but a tiring drive, and probably the closest I've experienced to what our heroes felt on their desert trip.

For me, it is the end of this chapter which is the most worth commenting on. When they finally get to the end of the desert and find a river and refreshment. The feeling of relief is palpable.

    Before them a little cataract of water poured into a broad pool, and both the Horses were already in the pool with their heads down, drinking, drinking and drinking. "O-o-oh," said Shasta, and plunged in - it was about up to his knees - and stooped his head right into the cataract. It was perhaps the loveliest moment in his life.

The water from the river and this pool was just what they needed at this particular point in time. They had had a hard journey and "were almost in despair" when they found it.

We too have moments like this in our lives. We may go through times of harsh toil, when everything is a struggle and life is one unforgiving day after another. But the Lord knows our needs, and when the time is right - often when we feel that we cannot go on any further, when we cannot survive another day - we are brought the refreshment we so desperately need.

This is not the last time in the book, and certainly not the last in the Chronicles, where a stream is provided providentially. The other two occurrences (in chapter 11 of this book, and at the beginning of SC) link the stream directly to Aslan - pointing out that he is the source of refreshment and revival.

    Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water... Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” (John 4:10, 13-14)

Going beyond our strength

The theme of refreshment was the first that struck me as I read these chapters. The refreshment of the stream and later relaxation (at least for three of the characters) at the Hermit's place.

But there is another theme that I noticed. I'm not sure exactly how to phrase it, but these chapters are packed full of "lessons" about physical ability and what is expected of us.

It is interesting to note, that the stop for water and refreshment is not the end of the journey or a reward for their hard work. It is simply an opportunity for the characters to catch their breath and refuel for the last leg of the journey - which will be even harder and more demanding than the rest (be it in the hills of green Archenland and not the desert).

The children and horses make the mistake of thinking it is an excuse to slow down and take things easy. They oversleep and don't travel as fast as they could, and barely make it in time. They suffer for this. Shasta has no time to rest before setting off on the next leg of the journey. Aravis comes out wounded, and the horses suffer extreme exhaustion. Had they carried on at a sensible pace, Aslan would not have had to push them so hard at the end of their journey.

We too must not allow times of refreshment to make us lazy. I know many a time that I have been working so hard at something. I convince myself that I "deserve" a break (or maybe am even granted a break - for example an extension on an assignment). I regard this as my due, and stop working as hard as I was beforehand. As a result, I still end up finishing late the night before the deadline.

That is a minor example. I think there are times in life when we are like that too: I've been to Church every Sunday in the last month - I deserve to sleep in for once; I've been helping out with Friday Night Youth, why should I sacrifice another evening for Bible Study? I've worked so hard for the Lord on this missions trip or that Bible Holiday Club, that I can afford not to help out at the church fundraiser.

I'm not saying that it's wrong for us to take a break now and again, and we should not over-tax ourselves to the point where our lives, or relationships with God and others suffer. But I think there are times, when it's easy, like the characters in the story, to feel that we have done what we can and worked hard and now we can either rest or take it slow.

Of all the characters, it is Hwin who understands this fully. When they have refreshed themselves at the river and are ready to sleep, she is the one who says:
    "But we mustn't go to sleep. We've got to keep ahead of that Rabadash."

The next morning, when Bree says he needs a break from his saddle and some breakfast, she says,
    "I feel just like Bree that I can't go on. But when Horses have humans (with spurs and things) on their backs, aren't they often made to go on when they're felling like this? And then they find that they can."

Lewis, through Hwin, is making an important point here. Sometimes we think that we are incapable of doing something - but is only our fear or self-doubt that prevents us. Given enough reason to do something, given no choice, we find that we can - because we have to. "Necessity is the mother of invention" goes the saying. There should be another like it (and may well be though I can't think of it) that expresses this idea; that when we are forced to do something we normally would refuse to do - we find we can do it.

I hate speaking on the telephone - but have to sometimes (especially know with sorting out my scholarship and move to Oxford). My mother struggles working with computers, but I hope, and am sure, that she will be able to work with emails and skype once I am overseas. When we have no choice but to do the impossible - we often find that it was never so impossible in the first place.

This is an encouragement but also helps us to understand the unexpected troubles we face. It is encouraging because it means that we need not fear the impossible. When I say that "we find a way" to do things we thought we couldn't, it is often rather that God grants us the ability and strength to do it ("his strength is made perfect in my weakness"). On the other hand, it may explain some of the struggles we go through in life. Sometimes, we may not understand why we are suddenly in a difficult or uncomfortable situation. Like Hwin and Bree, running for their lives from the Lion - that pressure may be God's way of pushing us to do that which we thought we could not do.

Look at how pressure is required for Bree to race at his full potential. When they first set out from their sleeping place by the river, it says
    "Bree took things much more gently than yesterday".

Later, when they see how close Rabadash's army, it says:
    "And certainly both Horses were doing, if not all they could, all they thought they could; which is not quite the same thing."

Finally, when the Lion is chasing them down, it says:
    "And Bree now discovered that he had not really been going as fast - not quite as fast - as he could."

Sometimes we need a bit of pressure to show us just what we are capable of. Shasta is taught a similar lesson. He arrives at the Home of the Hermit, only to be told that the journey is not over, and he must advance alone to Anvard.

    Shasta's heart fainted at these words for he felt that he had no strength left. And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward is usually to be set to do another and harder and better one.

Despite this his sheer exhaustion, he finds a way to do it. He simply puts one foot in front of the next, and runs in a straight line as commanded.

And so let us not be like Bree, that is is our "right" to take things slowly, but let us be like Hwin, ready to do what ever is required (regardless of our feelings). Let us be like Shasta, and put one foot in front of the other until our mission is complete.

All illustrations are from covers of various editions of The Horse and His Boy

See Also (other reflections on HHB)
On first meeting Aslan (Shasta)
On first meeting Aslan (Bree)
On first meeting Aslan (Aravis) 

Summer Challenge 1

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