Friday, 8 July 2011

Narnian Summer Challenge (1)

Reflections on the Horse and His Boy

Here are my posts from the first three days of the challenge:

Chapters 1 & 2
Of cultural differences and belonging

At first I wasn't sure what to write for these two chapters. Something of a back story could work well - about Shasta's youth, or Bree's adventures in the wars, or Aravis' childhood or Hwinny's capture. But with a bit of a headache and not too much time to spare, I decided to do something a little different. A common theme which struck me while reading is that of cultures and belonging. There is a broad mix of cultures and norms thrown into these first two chapters. Both prejudice and lack of understanding/respect for those who are different are expressed throughout these chapters. Here are my thoughts.

The Horse and His Boy is a unique book in the Chronicles as it immediately thrusts us into a new world and culture, hitherto unknown (except for a brief mention in VDT, when reading in published order). The Calormene culture has a very different favour to that of the Narnia which we are familiar with. Without getting too caught up on the niceties of their culture or their resemblance to certain cultures in our world, I will simply say that we are given a very unique setting. Here is a young boy, who lives with only his "father". They live very simple lives, that of fishermen, and both hard work and harsh discipline make up the main part of this boy's life.

This boy, however, is dissatisfied with his life. He wants to know more, and has a yearning to learn what lies beyond his isolated world. When he discovers he is not Arsheesh's son, but was simply rescued by him at birth and considered something of a slave, the description of how he felt is telling:

    The story about his own discovery in the boat had filled him with excitement and a sense of relief. He had often been uneasy because, try as he might, he had never been able to love the fisherman, and he knew that a boy ought to love his father. And now, apparently, he was no son of Arsheesh at all. "Why, I might be anyone!" he thought.

As a Christian, I sense in Shasta the same response we feel (and it is one I feel particularly acutely when I look around me) "I don't belong here". This world is not my home. I am made for some other place. CS Lewis phrased it beautifully in Mere Christianity:

    If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world...I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find until after death..I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others do the same.

And the relief when we discover it is powerful. It is blessed relief. Unlike Shasta, however, it is not yet time to leave this world. I must live in it for some time longer. But the day will come, when I can leave it all behind - and head for my true home. I love Shasta's response to Bree's suggestion that they travel North in their flight: "I have been longing to go to the North all my life!" To Narnia and the North!

In a way, I am a little more like Bree. Bree too is far from home, living in a land that is not his. He is forced to live like this for many years. And he is forced to hide who he truly is. I thank God, that, though I am a stranger in a foreign land, I do not have to hide my true identity. I live in a country where I am free to express and confess my faith. I think and pray for those many Christians in the world who are not able to do so. They, like Bree, risk unwanted public attention, and must practice their faith in secret.

There is another way in which Bree expresses the issue of cultural belonging and identity. He knows that he is a Narnian horse, but does not know exactly how Narnian horses behave. After Shasta laughs at him rolling on the ground, he says with fear, "It would be dreadful to find, when I get back to Narnia that I have picked up a lot of low, bad habits." He worries here (and in other places in the book) how Narnian horses will judge his behaviour. This may be seen both positively and negatively.

While on the one hand, we as Christians should not conform to the behaviour of the world, but be recognised by the fact that we are different, Bree's attitude also brings up a more negative theme found in various places in the book - the question of prejudice and cultural superiority. When certain behaviour is practised simply because it is "tradition" and not for a moral purpose, we run the risk of feeling culturally superior, which leads to prejudice and judgemental attitudes - both things that do not reflect the example of Christ which Christians try to follow.

Not only does Bree fear the judgement of Narnian horses, but he too shows some prejudice in his attitude towards Shasta. He laughs at him for having only ridden the donkey, and cannot understand why humans can't eat grass, "I suppose, like all humans, you won't eat natural food like grass and're rum little creatures, you humans." Elsewhere, he says to Shasta, "You can't get very far on those two silly legs of yours (what absurd legs humans have)."

Another passage I enjoyed, which relates somewhat to the issue of prejudice is the quips between Shasta and Bree when they first share names with each other. Shasta declares, without trying too hard, that Bree's full name is far too difficult to say and immediately gives him a nickname. Bree responds to Shasta's name with: "Well now, there's a name that's really hard to pronounce."

I can relate to this name issue very well. When you live in a country with 11 official languages, the issue of names and the difficulty in pronouncing them, is very real. In the bad old days (by which I mean up until 20 years ago), the speakers of European languages didn't even try to learn the names of their African-language servants and domestic workers. They would simply give them a European name to which they must respond. Thankfully times are changing. I do not have too much trouble pronouncing the names of my African language students (except when they have clicks, but I'm starting to get that too). The problem still remains, however, and names with which you are not familiar will always have a strange ring to them. Though I might be able to read and pronounce them, I certainly find them harder to remember.

In this brief exchange of names, CS Lewis touched on a world-wide, centuries-long phenomenon. The question of different sounding names (often as an extension of different languages) has and will continue to be an issue of cultural difference, which can in turn lead to complications in inter-cultural relations.

Bree is not the only one with cultural prejudices. Just as Bree thought humans strange with their two legs and inability to eat grass, so the humans had a the view that talking horses were possessions, like slaves.

    "Why do you keep talking to my horse instead of to me?" asked the girl. "Excuse me Tarkheen" said Bree..."but that's Calormene talk. We're free Narnian's, Hwin and I, and I suppose, if you're running away to Narnia, you want to be one too. In that case, Hwin isn't your horse any longer. One might just as well say you're her human."

Part of the reason Shasta and Aravis get along so poorly at the beginning is that they are on opposite sides of the cultural spectrum. Bree and Hwiny, who are both Narnian talking horses, kidnapped in the North in their youth, and in the ownership of a wealthy Tarkaan in Calormen before their escape, get along right from the start. Shasta and Aravis, however, despise each other. She is a wealthy Tarkheena. A member of the Calormen nobility, supposedly able to trace her descent from Tash himself, and used to luxury and getting her way all her life. Shasta was the slave of a poor fisherman and had recently discovered that he was probably not Calormene at all. She despised his poverty, he her wealth; he her nobility, she his slavehood.

Apart from the obvious destinies for which Aslan brought these four together, he almost seems to have had a secondary purpose. Through their journey, and all they have to go through together, they are able to overcome their prejudices and change some of the stubborn beliefs they clung to so hard at the beginning.

And so I can draw two lessons from these chapters. The first is the reminder that those of us who are Christians are strangers in a foreign land. The second deals with a phenomenon that occurs amongst all human cultures and groups; that of judging others who are different - be it the different food they eat, the different way they walk, the fact that they are poor or rich or that they view things slightly differently. As citizens of the heavenly country and not of this world, we must not behave like the world. One way we can do this, is by analysing our prejudices and attitudes. I'm not saying that we should compromise our faith, or water it down. We simply need to ask ourselves, when we have opinions and practices that are different from those around us - what is our motive? Do we have a moral or scriptural reason for disapproving of certain behaviour (example theft or murder) or is it simply tradition that determines our attitude? And even if there is a moral reason - we are still (as runaway slaves from sin, who were once as sinful as the next person) not to judge them with arrogance.

Chapter 3
Hwinny: An unsung hero

Of the four main characters, Hwinny is by far the one given the least attention. As the four set off on their journey together, she is the quietest and shyest. And yet this chapter reveals that behind this quietness lies wisdom, common sense and humility. Although, like Bree, she has lived much of her post-Narnian life in the company of the Calormene nobility, and although both horses get along quite well at the start with their common Narnian origin, it is Aravis and not Hwinny who becomes Bree's partner in conversation during
their travels.
    Shasta thought it had been much pleasanter when he and Bree were on their own. For now it was Bree and Aravis who did nearly all the talking...he knew a great many of the same people and places that Aravis knew...Bree was not in the least trying to leave Shasta out of things...People who know a lot of the same things can hardly help talking about them, and if you're there you can hardly feel that you're out of it.
We don't know how Hwin felt about all this, and how much of the conversations she could follow. While she must have been familiar with much of the places and people Aravis and Bree discussed, I imagine she also felt a little left out when they were discussing wars and warriors. It says of her "Hwin the mare was rather shy before a great warhorse like Bree and said very little."

And yet Hwin was just as much a hero in her own right. It was she who had saved Aravis from killing herself twice, and who provided her with a means and place of escape - Narnia. She had risked all and given away the secret that she could speak before a girl who could have abused that knowledge and make a spectacle of her. I imagine that it was only love for Aravis (who may have treated her kindly, but would have treated her as a possession possibly and possibly even lashed her at times) that made her speak up. She could easily have let Aravis kill herself then and there and, and then made a run for it on her own. Of course she was at risk riding alone through Calormen, but I dare say that was a lesser risk than giving away her secret.

It almost seems in this passage, that Aravis does not fully appreciate what Hwin had done for her. Again, it was probably not an intentional neglect (as Bree did not intentionally exclude Shasta), but Hwin seeks no extra praise for herself. She is the example of a true servant.

At the end of this chapter, it is Hwin who comes up with a plan for them to get through Tashbaan. Bree and Aravis are reluctant to adopt the plan because it means humiliating themselves by dressing like beggars. They criticise her too for not thinking it through. Her reply reveals her character so well:

    I know it's not a very good plan...but I think it's our only chance. And we haven't been groomed in ages and we're not looking quite our selves (at least I'm sure I'm not).

Later when Bree objects to them arriving in Narnia looking bedraggled with cut tails:

    "Well," said Hwin humbly (she was a very sensible mare), "the main thing is to get there."
    Unlike Bree and Aravis, Hwin is willing to suffer a little humiliation for the sake of security. She really is a very sensible mare. Her plan also reveals that beneath her shy and humble exterior lies a firm courage. She is not at all afraid to take risks (as we had already seen when she first spoke to Aravis).

    Finally, I see in Hwin, a strong sense of concern for the underdog. Shasta had been having a hard time since the four met up, yet she is the one who reaches out to and encourages him. As they they approach the ridge of the last hill before Tashbaan, Shasta turns to her and says "I do wish we were safely past it". Like a gentle mother, in a similar way to how she had comforted Aravis in her most desperate hour, she says fervently back to him: "Oh, I do, I do."

    Sweet Hwin is an example to all of us. She represents humility, courage and comfort. She seeks no glory for herself, but watches out for others. She is wise and practical. She really is a sensible mare.

    Chapter 4
    Stuck in Tashbaan

    For this chapter I'm going to write something a little different. Some of you may have heard this story before, but I repeat is for those who have not, and tell it in a slightly different way.

    In the same way that Tashbaan becomes the "spanner in the wheels" of our heroe's journey to Narnia, Tashbaan (and this chapter in particular) was the cause of delay on my early childhood trip to Narnia.

    When I was in Grade 4, we read The Magician's Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in class together. I enjoyed them so much, that I took out the next book, The Horse and His Boy from the school library. I got as far as Chapter 4 and got stuck in Tashbaan. For some reason (I can't say for sure what it was) I got no further.

    I found the crowded streets and the complex maze of terraced roads terribly confusing. I couldn't picture what was happening and got lost in the business and crowdedness of the city. At that point, I gave up on the book, and on the series.

    It would take another five years, before I would resume my journey to Narnia. After watching the BC LWW one day in Grade 9, I returned to the series, read it and fell in love with it. Three years later, Walden Media began to make books into films.

    I often wonder what my life would have been like had it not been for that delay in Tashbaan. I can't answer that. As Alsan would say, "You can never know what would have happened, only what will happen." But I believe there was some reason for that delay. Perhaps I was too young (I know it sounds odd for a children's book series). But perhaps my appreciation of Narnia today would have been spoiled had I become familiar with it too soon. I can well imagine I would have scorned it completely, when I went through my "everything with the slightest hint of magic in it (yes everything, from the series that will not be named to The Wizard of Oz) is evil" phase in Grade 7. The delay meant that Narnia was spared from, and perhaps helped to bring about an end to that phase of my life.

    Thankfully, for Shasta and his friends, their delay in Tashbaan is a lot shorter than mine was. And from that delay came at least two good things - they learned of the short route to Archenland via Mount Pire, and of Rabadash's plan to invade Archenland and then Narnia.

    Delays and seemingly unnecessary hold-ups occur often in our lives. And often we can't see the reason for them. But God is perfect in his will and timing - and a hold-up might be just the thing we need at that moment in our lives.

    Chapter 5
    The Lost Prince

    Corin watched as the boy's hand disappeared from view. “What a strange boy,” he thought to himself, “What a strange city this is.” He was looking forward to returning home.

    Just then, he heard the clop of Mr Tumnus' hooves as he entered the room. “My young prince, you should be lying–” His sentence was cut short when the boy turned to face him and saw his eye. He stared at Corin for a moment, taking everything in. His first suspicion was that the boy had run off into the streets the moment he had left him, but then he noticed his clothes.

    “What, by the Lion's Mane, is going on young man? Poor Susan was worried enough about your condition. Either my eyes are deceiving me, and I am bewitched or you are not the same Prince Corin that was here earlier! I do hope the Grand Vizier did not have my food laced with some !” The faun sat down in despair and gripped his horns in frustration for the second time that day.

    Prince Corin walked over to him, and smiling, placed a hand on the faun's shoulder. He had been tempted to let his Narnian escort wonder for a while, before revealing the whole truth as he had promised the other young boy he would. He was most disappointed the boy had not stayed so they could pull off a few pranks.

    Seeing Tumnus in such a state, he realised how this city was working on everyone's nerves and understood that now was not the time for games. “It's okay, Mr Tumnus,” he said, as the faun raised his head and looked into his eyes. “I am not the same Prince Corin you saw earlier today. Your eyes do not deceive you.”

    Instead of the expected sense of relief in the faun's face, he saw instead further puzzlement. Corin sat down next to his dear friend and told him the whole story; how he had snuck out of the place they were staying, his adventures in the streets of Calormen, his waiting through the night, and his arrival back into that very room, only to find a young boy who looked almost exactly like him waiting there. He explained how the boy had been in a hurry to leave and of how he had some crazy idea of crossing the dessert. Corin had not had time to inquire any further before they had heard Tumnus' approach and the other boy had made good his escape.

    Tumnus sat quietly and listened. He could tell from the Prince's tone that he spoke the truth and was not up to some trickery. “How strange,” he finally said, “that we should find a boy who so closely resembles your Highness amongst all the dark faces and heads of Calormen.”

    “He said he thought he was Narnian,” answered the Prince, “Although he didn't seem entirely sure or even convinced of that fact. He also claimed to have some or other talking horse. Say, you don't think he was a spy, do you?” He added the last comment as it suddenly occurred to him, his young mind running wild. What's to bet he wasn't sent by Rabadash to make sure Susan marries him. That prince is crazy, I saw it in his eyes when we met him the other day.”

    “Calm down, your Highness,” answered Tumnus, trying to stay calm himself. His suspicion was that the young boy was simply a beggar, overwhelmed by being mistaken for the prince. Tumnus had seen no malice, only confusion in the boy's eyes. But something told him that there was more to it. The resemblance to the Prince was uncanny. In fact, that boy almost looked more like the Prince Corin he knew than the one that stood before him now. But he knew for certain that this was the real prince from the way he spoke. The other one had not spoken enough to reveal his identity.

    “Come, your Highness,” said Tumnus finally, “We must work out this puzzle at some other time. We must make our way to the ship.”

    So as not to arouse suspicion, the various members of the Narnian contingent were to take different routes to the ship. Tumnus led Corin though a tangle of streets and past some vendors where they collected the oranges and apples he had ordered earlier that day. “Did you know that they imported Narnian apples here?” he said, by way of conversation, “How appropriate for our feast to honour the prince.”

    The remainder of the trip was completed in silence. Once on board the Splendour Hyaline, Tumnus took the prince to Susan's quarters, explaining briefly what had happened. Susan's eyes opened wide with wonder, and she hugged the prince, ordering an attendant to fetch ointment for his eye. She also bade Tumnus bring Edmund and Peridan to her cabin.

    When the men arrived, she asked Corin to retell his story of the strange boy again. He told them everything.

    After a while, Edmund spoke up, “There's nothing to it,” he said. “We will have to trust that the boy was not a spy, we cannot change our plans now.”

    “But what if he was,” said Susan, worriedly. You yourself said the Prince was getting suspicious. What if he planted him? Perhaps the boy did not even know he was hired as a spy, and now they'll beat him to get the truth out of him. He heard our entire escape plan! And the secret of crossing the dessert to Archenland!” For the second time that day she regretted her decision to come to Calormen and felt that this was all her fault.

    “Your Highness need not fear the boy,” spoke up Lord Peridan. Everyone turned to look at him, but despite the subtle hint in his smile that he might know something the others didn't, he gave nothing away. “I believe that he was correct in telling young Corin that he is of Northern stock. Why ever would he make up the story of having a talking horse.”

    “But if he spoke the truth, and really has befriended a talking horse,” said Susan, a new worry in her face, “how dare we leave a fellow Northerner in this forsaken city. He stands little chance of making it out alive. What if someone else mistakes him for one of our party and harm comes to him on discovering our escape?”

    “I hear you, your majesty,” replied Tumnus, but what could we do? If we were to send out a search party now, we would have to delay our escape, and our attempt at escape might be discovered. We would be putting the whole Narnian party at risk for a young boy that would have us believe he was Prince Corin, and made a fast departure the second the real Prince appeared. The boy said he had a plan, is it worth us interfering at the risk of our own?”

    Peridan had been watching this exchange closely, uncertain of what to do. He turned now to Edmund, deciding to risk a few moments discomfort. “May I have a word with your highness in private,” he whispered. Edmund looked up at him in surprise, but nodded and stepped outside the room with him.

    “Your majesty, I do not mean to exclude any of the present company, and your royal sister deserves to hear this as well as you. But I fear to upset her further in her present state, especially not unnecessarily. There is something I think you should know...”

    Peridan began to tell the king, who was at this time completely ignorant of the matter, of Prince Corin's twin brother. The boys were born a couple of years before the Pevensies first arrived in Narnia. At this time, Archenland had been long isolated from her northern neighbour, cut off by the power of the White Witch and her perpetual winter which made the mountain pass into Narnia impossible, despite that fact that Archenland herself was largely spared from the harsh weather. It was not long after Prince Cor's capture that the Pevensies came to power, but by the time contact was made between the two nations it had been decided that it was prudent that Corin's brother, the lost prince, never be spoken of in Archenland or elsewhere.

    This was by the advice of the same centaur who had predicted Cor would one day rescue Archenland. Lune made his way with Peridan's father (one of his most trusted advisors) back to the centaur after Cor's kidnapping. The centaur said that the future of the boy had become dark and he did not know whether the prophesy could still reach fulfilment. King Lune always believed that his son was not dead and would one day return to fulfil his prophesy. The centaur bade them never to speak missing prince openly again.

    “Since joining the young Archenlander volunteers who came to serve in your court, your majesty,” concluded Peridan, “I have never once thought of the lost prince until this day. There is a fair chance that that young man we mistook for Corin, was in fact his lost brother Cor, though neither boy would have known it.”

    Edmund was speechless, “A well kept secret indeed. I have heard not the slightest rumour of it before. But was it prudent, I wonder? Had we known this, we could have prevented his escape.”

    “We might still not have known the boy was not Corin until it was too late,” countered Peridan. “Also, we do not know that this is the lost prince. We have no guarantee the boy ever survived.”

    “Oh dear,” sighed Edmund, “Whatever shall we do? I want not a word of this whispered to my sister, she is too emotionally vulnerable as it is. In fact, we will keep this between ourselves for the time being.”

    “What are you going to do?” Peridan could see that the king had some plan. “We will go ahead with our escape as planned. Summon Lord Reilaf immediately. He is trustworthy, but has been little enough seen in public that he will not be recognised. With his dark hair, he can disguise himself as a Calormene. I shall leave him in the city to scout for the boy. If he can by any means find him, he will do so. If the boy is no spy, but indeed a northerner, prince or not, he will contrive a way of escape for them both. It is the best I can do at such short notice. If he truly is the prince, and has survived this long unscathed, I do believe that he can take care of himself. Who knows but that he might be safer in the city than on board our fleeing vessel. Aslan be with us all this night and in the days that lie ahead.” 

    Chapter 6
    Fear among the tombs

    Reflecting on chapter 6, I find that this is a chapter about fear. Not that I'd call Shasta a coward, but in this chapter, as he sits alone among the tombs, brings to light both his ignorance of how the world works, and with that the things he fears most.

    As I said, Shasta is no coward. He would never have gotten this far if he were. And if anyone is in doubt of his bravery, one need only continue to read the book to see how courageous he really is. But with the knowledge of the rest of the book and what is to happen next (knowledge Shasta does not have) he really appears quite foolish in this chapter.

    But when you are alone, in a place steeped in superstitious rumours, even the bravest soldier may fear. The irony of this chapter, however, is that Shasta fears the things he need not fear, and does not fear the things that he should. These are a result of his ignorance about the world - something that is really not his fault, so much as a consequence of his isolated life.

    He fears the rumours of ghouls among the tombs. Despite the fact that Bree had dismissed these rumours as "Calormene nonsense." But Shasta has grown up as a Calormene and so, what might be considered "nonsense" to a Narnian horse, is a real fear to this young boy who has lived among Calormenes his whole life.

    The second thing he fears is betrayal. Twice he fears that the others may have gone on without him: when he first arrives and finds no sign of them, and the next morning, while washing in the river. This second time, his fear makes him foolish and he sprints back to the tombs "so that he was all hot and thirsty when he arrived and so the good of his bathe was gone".

    The third thing he fears is the lion. On the one hand, this lion, revealed later in the book to be Aslan himelf, should be feared as God should be feared (he is not a tame lion). But what Shasta does not realise is that of all lions, he need not fear being eaten alive by this one. As a matter of fact, the lion whom he fears has actually just saved his life from the jackals howling in the distance.

    And here we see his folly - where he does not fear something he should fear. Not knowing exactly what these beasts were, he did not realise his real danger. He feared the thing he did know about (ghouls) more than the thing he knew nothing about (jackals).

      I suppose that if he had been an entirely sensible boy he would have gone back through the Tombs, nearer to the river where there were houses. But then there were...the ghouls...It may have been silly, but Shasta felt he would rather face the wild beasts.

    The final thing which reveals his ignorance is the desert itself. Convinced that the others have either gone on without him, or will never come, and afraid of spending another night among the tombs, he decides to brave it alone in the dessert.

      It was a crazy idea and if he had read as many books as you have about journeys over desserts he would never have dreamed of it. But Shasta had read no books at all.

    Ignorance is a dangerous thing, as is letting our imaginations and rumours take hold of us. We run the same risk as Shasta of being quite foolish by fearing the things we need not fear and not fearing the things we should.

    We, however, have the privilege Shasta did not have. Although we do not know the future any more than he, we do have access to far more knowledge than he had had in his isolated life. More importantly we have the knowledge that we are not - never - in this alone. Had Shasta only known that the cat which brought him comfort was Aslan himself, and had he known that Aslan was in control of everything, he would have been a far more sensible boy.

    We have that knowledge, and the Bible. It teaches us what we ought to fear and what we should not fear. And it teaches us that we have someone with us every step of the way - there to protect us from the jackals and to comfort us in the dark. And that someone is not, as Shasta thought, simply a warm but unintelligent someone - but someone with all the wisdom in the world who understands our greatest fears more than we do.

    Let us make use of the knowledge and not behave foolishly as Shasta did.

    For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. 2 Tim 1:7

    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 2 

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