For some reason (I’m not sure why) The Horse and His Boy was not on my radar as one I would particularly enjoy. I have a dim memory of one of my brothers not liking it much, but I couldn’t very well skip it, now could I? And now, knowing what I do, I would never have forgiven myself if I had.
I think the most off-putting thing at first is the fact that the lead character is not a Pevensie, or even the relative of a Pevensie. But Shasta is a hero in his own right. The slave-son of a poor fisherman, Shasta sets off on a grand adventure to flee to Narnia and escape his country of Calormen with Bree, a talking Narnian horse. Another escapee and her talking Narnian horse join them on the way. Each of the four traveling companions has their own flaws and strengths. Each has to learn how to cooperate and “play well” with the others, often in the face of impossible circumstances. The teamwork their journey requires brings about a level of character growth that stands out even from the other Narnia books.
While on the surface the plot sounds a bit thin (simply leaving their country doesn’t sound that interesting), the setting and background plots were what really grabbed me. Calormen is frequently talked about in the other Narnia books, and at least you get to visit it. Lewis built quite a beautiful country, though it is a sharp contrast to Narnia – a pagan desert land, ruled by Tisrocs and Tarkaans (this land’s version of sheikhs and sultans), reigning in magnificent palaces while their people live in squalor.
Add to the setting a conspiracy against the Narnian kings and queens, the Pevensies, a plot to force Queen Susan to marry against her will, and the possibility of a three-nation war, and I found myself glued to this book.
As with the other Narnia books, I saved a few of my favorite quotes, some meaningful, some simply comical.
Natural affection is stronger than soup and offspring more precious than carbuncles.
…In Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a things you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.
Strong hands wrenched [his] sword from him and he was carried away into the castle, shouting, threatening, cursing, and even crying. For though he could have faced torture he couldn’t bear being made ridiculous.
…Draw near. Nearer still…Do not dare not to dare.
Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I’m afraid, even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarrelling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently.
I have to say, that last quote may be my all-time favorite variation on “and they all lived happily ever after.”