Narnia: Leaving the Donkey Behind

[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence]

Narnia Recap:When we last left Shasta, he was given a loaf of bread and shoved out of the cottage so that the guest (the Tarkaan) and his "father" (Arsheesh) could speak without children present. The Tarkaan then offered to buy Shasta as a slave. 

Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.

The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 1: How Shasta Set Out On His Travels

I pointed out in previous posts that I find Shasta uncompelling as a protagonist, and the comments have done a great job of fleshing out what a cipher he is. He actually reminds me of Anastasia Steele from Fifty Shades of Grey; someone (I believe it was Cliff at The Pervocracy) has memorably noted that as a character she seems to have been decanted a maximum of one whole day prior to the start of the novel. Shasta has this exact same problem: He's missing crucial experiences and understandings of the world around him. These can't just be explained by being sheltered; these are things that he would have needed in order to get from Point A (birth) to Point B (here, where the novel starts).

Lewis tries to have his cake and eat it too with this. Shasta is characterized as curious and yearning for the north, but he's never tried to go exploring on his own when Arsheesh leaves daily for the village to sell his catch. And when Arsheesh took him "once or twice" to the nearby village to conduct his business*, Shasta has apparently never asked anyone else what lies to the north. He is therefore both curious enough to repeatedly ask the same question that gets non-answers and beatings in response, but not curious enough to try to learn the information he seeks via some other vector. His "yearning for the north" becomes less about an actual character trait on his part (curiosity) and more one of Arsheesh (i.e., stupidity and cruelty) with a footnote about Shasta's northern blood in his veins calling him inexorably home.

* Speaking of decanting characters: How can Shasta have only been "once or twice" to the village? Arsheesh has "never married" and there's no indication that there were other people around to help with Shasta, who was acquired by Arsheesh as "a child" (which could be any age, but the book later indicates that Shasta was an infant, less than a year old and possible less than a month old!). Even if we assume the narrative means that Shasta went to the village as a baby but never went more than "once or twice" past toddler-age, that's still plenty of time to wheedle information out of the village women and children with his accursed good looks!

It may seem like a small thing that Shasta is characterized sparsely, but it means that the author spent less time and effort characterizing his ostensible protagonist than he did in characterizing a racist caricature that we will not see past this chapter. If you read Chapter 1 again, from start to finish, there is far more actual characterization of Arsheesh than there is of Shasta--whose age we do not even learn!**--with a lot of side-characterization of the very few nameless "men with long, dirty robes" who live in the village and then of the Tarkaan. That is a lot of time to spend on people we will never see again, and very little time to spend characterizing the main character. And I feel very strongly that an author spends time and words on the things he considers important.

** I can't work out Shasta's age from the book. Turning to the internet, we receive: "To determine Shasta’s age, we look to chapter 1, where Arsheesh reveals that he found Shasta as an infant in the same year that the Tisroc came to power. Second, in chapter 8, Ahoshta Tarkaan reveals that the Tisroc came to power in the same year that the White Witch’s winter ended. Third, the timeline at Angelfire places The Horse and His Boy 14 years after LWW. Therefore, in HHB Shasta is 14 years old."

If that's true and if Susan was 12 in LWW, that means she's 26 in this novel. But all those years and ages and dates are, I believe, best-guesses, not canon. Shasta here feels a lot younger than 14, and textual clues could point to a younger age: Aravis is older than he, but not by much. If her father is marrying her off at menarche (which varies, yes, from person and setting) (and her being married off at or near menarche is also not canon, just me hypothesizing), she could be 11 or 12, which could place Shasta closer to 10 and Susan closer to 22. But, hey, who knows.

All this brings me back in a roundabout way to the character Lewis seems to have spent so little time on. Shasta has apparently never asked Arsheesh why their skin colors are so different. He has apparently not asked Arsheesh about his missing mother. Perhaps he has asked (boundless curiosity!) and been beaten and given non-answers for his trouble. And yet... surely if he had considered those things at all, this revelation that he is not related to Arsheesh would not now come as a surprise.

   You must not imagine that Shasta felt at all as you and I would feel if we had just overheard our parents talking about selling us for slaves. For one thing, his life was already little better than slavery; for all he knew, the lordly stranger on the great horse might be kinder to him than Arsheesh. For another, the story about his own discovery in the boat had filled him with excitement and with 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 relation to Arsheesh at all. That took a great weight off his mind. “Why, I might be anyone!” he thought. “I might be the son of a Tarkaan myself—or the son of the Tisroc (may he live forever)—or of a god!” That's not how this works. That's not how any of this works.

Sigh. Okay. First of all: Shasta is being abused, yes. He is left alone every day while Arsheesh goes to the village, and set with a myriad of chores; when Arsheesh comes home, he criticizes everything Shasta does and beats him. That is abuse, full-stop. From a Watsonian perspective, I think it is perfectly valid that Shasta doesn't love his abuser, yet feels like he ought to.

But from a Doylistic perspective, I heavily question the choice to have this revelation ("I don't love him and maybe that's okay!") not come from taking a step back and examining Arsheesh's behavior and Shasta's situation. This examination would be entirely possible here: "I don't feel apprehensive about being sold. Is that because I already feel like a slave? Gosh, maybe that's why I don't love my father." Instead, Shasta's moment of actualization comes from the revelation that he doesn't share any blood in common with Arsheesh so hey whoa haha no wonder I never loved that guy.

Would he still feel he needed to love his "father" if Arsheesh really were his blood-relative father? Who knows. And that's part of the problem.

Additionally, the fact that it is this revelation that allows Shasta peace of mind (We're Not Related --> That's Why I Don't Love Him) undermines again this idea that Shasta is has a curious exploratory optimistic mind, and again makes him seem very young to me. He's honestly never considered the idea that the man who treats him poorly and looks significantly different from him might not be his father? Despite being long plagued with unease over his own unfilial disaffection?

Second of all, I am strongly side-eyeing this cheerful swoop over the prospect of becoming a slave with "eh, my life is practically slavery anyway!" It's certainly possible that abuse and depression have so ground down Shasta that the best his curious mind can imagine is "maybe THIS master will be slightly less shitty to me", but to me that's a darker story than Lewis is willing to tell properly.

If this is going to be light-hearted fare, then why not just have Shasta think "oh no, slavery!" (which would be a valid thing for him to think!) and then escape (which he's going to do anyway), rather than pretend that slavery isn't always bad by virtue of being slavery? And if we want to pull the "oh, well, Shasta is depressed and abused and has internalized slavery", okay, but that needs to be handled with a modicum of sensitivity or indeed addressed at all, which the narrative makes no point of doing.

I am bothered, frankly, that we have a story about a boy escaping slavery not because Slavery Is Bad but rather because Bad Slavery Is Bad. And indeed, this will dovetail in displeasing ways when we get to a girl escaping a forced marriage while the author tries to make up his mind whether she was justified in doing so because he doesn't seem to grok that forced marriage is rape. Period. Stop. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars. If a girl is married to a man she doesn't want to be married to, for any reason, and that marriage forces sex on her? That is rape.

Rape is bad. Slavery is bad. It feels weird that I have to state these things because Lewis couldn't.

And so we get this passage where Shasta is excited to hear that he's a slave to a man who isn't related to him, because the next non-related man that he is about to be a slave to might be way cooler. Again: I think this is realistic for an abuse victim to believe, but the narrative doesn't approach Shasta that way. And if this is what Lewis was going for, he swooped away so quickly that I feel (as an abuse survivor) that the topic was handed so flippantly as to be flatly offensive.

So. Enough with that paragraph.

*dusts off hands*

   He was standing out in the grassy place before the cottage while he thought these things. Twilight was coming on apace and a star or two was already out, but the remains of the sunset could still be seen in the west. Not far away the stranger’s horse, loosely tied to an iron ring in the wall of the donkey’s stable, was grazing. Shasta strolled over to it and patted its neck. It went on tearing up the grass and took no notice of him.

Wait what.

This horse is the Tarkaan's horse. He is the Tarkaan's war horse. Now, I don't know about war horses in Calormen, but I know about war horses in Europe (thank you, Barbara Tuchman!) and again this is not how any of this works. War horses are, for one, not ridden around for country jaunts. You rode your regular horse for that and your squire brought the war horse along for you to switch over when war happened.

Now, maybe this Tarkaan is hard up for money and can only afford the one horse. But regardless, this creature is expensive. You don't let some random fisherman's kid tend him for the night and tie him to the donkey stable. The war horse is an investment. Did the Tarkaan tend to it himself? That seems really unlikely, given what we've seen of him, but again: where is his retinue? And he has no guard posted out here, despite the fact that there's a fisherman's kid and/or slave just wandering around the area? What's to stop Shasta from stealing the horse? From hurting it by accident? This is not how this works!

   Then another thought came into Shasta’s mind. “I wonder what sort of a man that Tarkaan is,” he said out loud. “It would be splendid if he was kind. Some of the slaves in a great lord’s house have next to nothing to do. They wear lovely clothes and eat meat every day. Perhaps he’d take me to the wars and I’d save his life in a battle and then he’d set me free and adopt me as his son and give me a palace and a chariot and a suit of armor. But then he might be a horrid cruel man. He might send me to work on the fields in chains. I wish I knew. How can I know? I bet this horse knows, if only he could tell me.”

Okay, no. How does Shasta know any of this? He's established that he's been to the village twice, tops. His entire life is this little shack and his "father". Does this mean that Arsheesh tells him stories in the evening, after the beatings are over? Spins tales of great lord's houses and saving lives in battle and being adopted as a son? Because, I mean, yes, abusers can be very charming and I don't want to belittle that, but Arsheesh has been characterized as cruel and possessing a "practical mind" who "didn't know [and] didn't care" about things beyond his little hut. So... Shasta is absorbing these tales from thin air?

   The Horse had lifted its head. Shasta stroked its smooth-as-satin nose and said, “I wish you could talk, old fellow.”
   And then for a second he thought he was dreaming, for quite distinctly, though in a low voice, the Horse said, “But I can.”
   Shasta stared into its great eyes and his own grew almost as big, with astonishment.
   “How ever did you learn to talk?” he asked.
   “Hush! Not so loud,” replied the Horse. “Where I come from, nearly all the animals talk.”
   “Wherever is that?” asked Shasta.
   “Narnia,” answered the Horse. “The happy land of Narnia—Narnia of the heathery mountains and the thymy downs, Narnia of the many rivers, the plashing glens, the mossy caverns and the deep forests ringing with the hammers of the Dwarfs. Oh the sweet air of Narnia! An hour’s life there is better than a thousand years in Calormen.” It ended with a whinny that sounded very like a sigh.
   “How did you get here?” said Shasta.
   “Kidnapped,” said the Horse. “Or stolen, or captured—whichever you like to call it. I was only a foal at the time. My mother warned me not to range the Southern slopes, into Archenland and beyond, but I wouldn’t heed her. And by the Lion’s Mane I have paid for my folly. All these years I have been a slave to humans, hiding my true nature and pretending to be dumb and witless like their horses.”
   “Why didn’t you tell them who you were?”
   “Not such a fool, that’s why. If they’d once found out I could talk they would have made a show of me at fairs and guarded me more carefully than ever. My last chance of escape would have been gone.”
   “And why—” began Shasta, but the Horse interrupted him.
   “Now look,” it said, “we mustn’t waste time on idle questions. You want to know about my master the Tarkaan Anradin. Well, he’s bad. Not too bad to me, for a war horse costs too much to be treated very badly. But you’d better be lying dead tonight than go to be a human slave in his house tomorrow.”

Wait. How is. How is this even.

Calormen borders Archenland, which borders Narnia. The White Witch has been gone for 14 years; prior to that, she ruled for 100 years. I grant you that during that time there was very little trade or contact between Calormen and Narnia. We have no idea how Archenland was affected by the winter (one suspects that the border territory didn't exist in the author's mind during the writing for LWW), but let's say that it iced over as well as that will neatly explain why the Talking Animals didn't flee to Archenland during the winter.

[Except wait, that doesn't work either; Lune was king of Archenland during that time and Archenland had humans in it, and presumably a few Talking Animals settled there. Why wasn't Archenland helping the Talking Animals? I mean, again, it probably didn't exist yet, but it was retcon'd in and it needs a reason for why it wasn't running an underground railroad, dammit! You can't retcon something in and then just ignore all the ripples its new existence causes!]

So, yes, for 100 years there was little contact between Calormen and Narnia. And trade and commerce and whatnot are slowly picking back up now that ~14 years have passed. But both Calormen and Narnia existed before the White Witch shut travel and trade down. Talking Animals should be a known thing in this world. Perhaps not common in places like Calormen (which inexplicably do not have Talking Animals apparently), but not so uncommon that this becomes a "show them at fairs" prospect, surely! "Come and see the talking horse who talks just like the emissary from Narnia," doesn't seem like a huge crowd-drawing affair. Does it? they even have a Narnian embassy? Like, it's noted that the Calormen prince visited Narnia, and surely he had a retinue, and surely they would have seen a zillion Talking Animals because the only humans in Narnia right now--literally the only ones--should be Peter and Susan and Lucy and Edmund. That retinue (which by rights should have been dozens if not a hundred people, because if you're going to travel in splendor you should go all out) would have told people when they got home. And these visits really ought to have been happening for years--not starting with the Prince, no, but tentatively sending out some diplomats to meet the new monarchs, yes.

I just. I can accept that Talking Animals would be odd, but not OHMYGODITTALKS and certainly not in the major business centers of the country. There ought to be Talking Animals there now, carrying out King Peter's trade relations. I just kinda get the impression that Lewis forgot that Narnia doesn't have humans in it right now and that all Calormen / Narnia trade and communication and diplomacy would be through Talking Animals.

(And I would argue that the total takeover of the country by Telmarines, even post-Caspian, could be seen as reflecting a deep insecurity on the part of the author about a country of marginalized peoples remaining a majority in their own country.)

(And which I believe we most certainly see in, say, VoDT, where the entire crew seems to be 100% human plus one Rat who came along on a very specific mission as opposed to just a normal crew member. Talking Animals simply aren't treated like normal people in the narrative despite the fact that the setting would seem to demand it.)

   “Then I’d better run away,” said Shasta, turning very pale.
   “Yes, you had,” said the Horse. “But why not run away with me?”
   “Are you going to run away too?” said Shasta.
   “Yes, if you’ll come with me,” answered the Horse. “This is the chance for both of us. You see if I run away without a rider, everyone who sees me will say ‘Stray horse’ and be after me quick as he can. With a rider I’ve a chance to get through. That’s where you can help me. On the other hand, you can’t get very far on those two silly legs of yours (what absurd legs humans have!) without being overtaken. But on me you can outdistance any other horse in this country. That’s where I can help you. By the way, I suppose you know how to ride?”

I guess I'm glad that Shasta decided to run away without any prompting (yay! protagonisting!), but we're back to the fact that he's not running away because Slavery Is Bad but because Bad Slavery Is Bad.

Also... what on earth does the Tarkaan do to his slaves that prompted Bree's strong "you’d better be lying dead tonight" warning? Assuming that Bree is in full possession of the facts (which I don't know how he could be, but the author frequently beams information into the minds of his characters), and assuming that Bree isn't exaggerating to convince Shasta to escape with him, he's saying that the Tarkaan is worse than (a) almost total isolation from other people, (b) constant never-ending chores, (c) unfair criticism and beatings.

The thing is, I think you can either do a Fluffy story or a Grimdark story, but things get complicated when you try to have both without treating the grimdark parts with respect.

Here's the fluffy version of this chapter: Shasta overhears that he's going to be sold as a slave. He isn't happy about this (because Slavery Is Bad), but he feels a sense of strange relief at the realization that he's already sort of a slave already (So Things Can Only Get Better From Here!) and that insight absolves his guilt over not loving his father. He speaks to the horse about his longing to escape to something better. Bree speaks up and they decide to escape because Slavery Is Bad and Freedom Is Just Over That Hill If We Try.

Here's the grimdark version of this chapter: Shasta overhears that he's going to be sold as a slave. He's so ground down and abused that this doesn't even seem that bad (because Things Can't Be Worse); the only positive he can find in this hopeless situation he's in is that at least he's not a monster for not loving his father. And hey, maybe the next master won't be as awful as this one. He speaks to the horse about his tentative hope that maybe the future will be less bleak. Bree speaks up and tells him that the abuse will only worsen under the Tarkaan, but maybe they can Gamble Everything for a Future That Isn't As Terrible As All This.

Here's the weird combination version: Shasta overhears that he's going to be sold as a slave. He's so ground down and abused that this doesn't faze him (because Things Are Already Awful); except that he also has boundless excitement that he might be the son of a god (Why Not!) and also maybe the next master will lavish him in riches and love (As They Are Wont To Do!). He speaks to the horse about his deepest fears and boundless hopes, all of which coexist alongside each other as equally-likely events. Bree declares that life under the Tarkaan isn't merely bad, it's A Fate Worse Than Death, and they decide to escape with each other because Together We Might Succeed.

None of this works for me, tonally. Shasta is excited and cheery in one moment, his imagination reaching to the stars; in another, he is so thoroughly inured to the horrors of his life that his literal first thought to being sold as a slave is "eh, so what else is new". This works better, or at least is more consistent, if we buy into the lingering suspicion that Shasta (and likely Lewis) thinks that slavery can be good, under the right circumstances.

But why would Shasta think slavery can be good? The only slavery he's ever known is the one in which he's beaten and kept from the knowledge and exploration he so desperately craves. Like, I can imagine why Lewis thinks some slavery could be great; for one, he's a privileged white man who hasn't experienced slavery, and for two, he's got all this theology and kink wrapped up in the concept which makes it a tangle to poke at. But Shasta has not had those experiences. He's only been the unhappy kind of slave.

It feels like a mess to me. I just want to revise the whole damn thing to be more consistent and to not leave the reader with the impression that SOMEONE in this mess, either character or author, thinks that slavery has its good points.

And then we get hints of the Tarkaan being a Fate Worse Than Death, which I presume Lewis means more beatings and less food rather than, say, sexual abuse, except who even knows (Because Orientalism and Homophobia) and it's kinda odd to me that the boundlessly curious Shasta has no interest in hearing more. I mean, he's about to steal a war horse which will probably get him executed if they're caught, or something else unpleasant and unwanted; I'd want to hear a little more about this Fate Worst Than Death rather than taking the word of a horse. (And again seems to fit better if Shasta is, say, 10 years old rather than 14 years old.)

   “Oh yes, of course,” said Shasta. “At least, I’ve ridden the donkey.”
   “Ridden the what?” retorted the Horse with extreme contempt. (At least, that is what he meant. Actually it came out in a sort of neigh—“Ridden the wha-ha-ha-ha-ha.” Talking horses always sound more horsey in accent when they are angry.)
   “In other words,” it continued, “you can’t ride. That’s a drawback. I’ll have to teach you as we go along. If you can’t ride, can you fall?”
   “I suppose anyone can fall,” said Shasta.
   “I mean can you fall and get up again without crying and mount again and fall again and yet not be afraid of falling?”
   “I—I’ll try,” said Shasta.
   “Poor little beast,” said the Horse in a gentler tone. “I forget you’re only a foal. We’ll make a fine rider of you in time. And now—

How old is Bree? I wouldn't really care, except he was probably born after the Great Unthawing or whatever they call it in Narnia, because he doesn't seem to remember or talk about the endless winter or the White Witch. And, okay, in horse-years being 14 years old might be pretty damn old (don't know, don't care) except that Bree is a Talking Animal and it's always been implied that their development is a little different from their non-talking counterparts.

If he was born right after the Great Unthawing, why does he know about Aslan in the glib careless paradigm that he employs? He has all these "by the lion's mane" expressions that he uses while (sacrilegiously!) pooh-poohing them as non-literal expressions, but how did he pick those up? In the endless winter, talking about Aslan at all was a crime, so if he'd been alive during that time whatever he'd learned would have been in hushed tones and with the greatest importance attached. The person using the saying would have been literally risking their life to do so.

After the unthawing, anyone talking about Aslan would have first-hand (or, at most, second-hand) experience seeing and interacting with their god. "By the lion!" would have be a proudly uttered statement, a defiance against all those years of having to keep their religion hidden. Children would be taught, heavily, the importance of Aslan who saved them, Aslan who led an army and crowned kings, Aslan who they had literally met as a literal lion who was literally soft and furry and terrible. 

Lewis wants Bree to be a lapsed / lukewarm Christian who believes in god only in a metaphorical sense only to learn (surprise!) that, no, Aslan is real and a real Lion and haha you didn't want to take it literally but you were WRONG. Except that this doesn't make sense in the setting; Bree doesn't come from a background where "by the lion" is uttered in a ho-hum sort of way. If he knows about Aslan, he knows because the information was considered important; he can't know about Aslan in this lukewarm careless fashion, even accounting for the years of his captivity. Point A to Point B isn't probable here.

Again this feels like we're writing from a post-Telmarine perspective several years later where Aslan is generationally removed from the populace's memory. As opposed to a mere 14 years after he showed up in person and ate the White Witch and freed us all from everlasting winter.

   “Poor little beast,” said the Horse in a gentler tone. “I forget you’re only a foal. We’ll make a fine rider of you in time. And now—we mustn’t start until those two in the hut are asleep. Meantime we can make our plans. My Tarkaan is on his way North to the great city, to Tashbaan itself and the court of the Tisroc—”
   “I say,” put in Shasta in rather a shocked voice, “oughtn’t you to say ‘May he live forever?”

Shasta is a chronic interrupter and later I will hate him for it Because Aravis, but this cracks me up because Shasta interrupts Bree here because he telepathically knows that Tisroc wasn't going to be followed with a "May he live forever". Telepathy rocks.

   “Why?” asked the Horse. “I’m a free Narnian. And why should I talk slaves’ and fools’ talk? I don’t want him to live forever, and I know that he’s not going to live forever whether I want him to or not. And I can see you’re from the free North too. No more of this Southern jargon between you and me! And now, back to our plans. As I said, my human was on his way North to Tashbaan.”

Okay, I talked last time about how this "May he live forever" thing is super racist and (imho) a deliberate jab at Islam and inclusive Christians.

Then there is that obligatory (and "hypocritical" to many white western eyes) phrase that will appear after the Tisroc's name: "may he live forever". This is strongly reminiscent of honorifics commonly said or written alongside Allah, such as "may he be glorified and exalted" and "may his glory be glorified". The first one (subḥānahu wa ta'āla) was taught to us in my conservative Christian community growing up: the fact that it is sometimes abbreviated as "swt" was taken as evidence of hypocrisy, that the speaker didn't really mean the words but was just going through the motions. As all the Calormen in this book will be shown to do; indeed, the "may he live forever" will be discussed in detail. And, again, the things that Lewis remembers to pay attention to usually point to where his priorities lay.

Authors spend time and words on things that are important to them. A lot of time and words are spent on the subject of honorifics. Here Bree flatly states that only "slaves and fools" would use an honorific or, if we want to be very charitable, an honorific that (to him) does not make sense because the sentiment is technically impossible. The honorific is dismissed as "Southern jargon" that is not for people from the "free North" and this is particularly telling when the North represents Christianity and the South represents Islam.

Let it please be known that there is a strong segment of Christianity which is obsessed with flouting the conventions of other cultures and religions. The taking off of shoes and hats when asked to. (Or the covering of feet and heads when asked to.) Not drawing religious figures from religions which forbid such drawings. Defacing sacred objects. Asserting "freedom" in ways that are aggressively intended to shock, hurt, or harm others.

I am not saying that people are bound to religious rules they haven't opted into. For example: I sometimes wear clothes in public that would offend many Christians because parts of my body are not "modestly" covered. They can deal with their discomfort; I haven't opted into the same rules that they follow for themselves. But there is a difference between living my life according to my own code of conduct versus going out of my way to find a group of marginalized persons and saying "do you have a rule about this? oh oh oh, look at me, breaking your rule at you!"

It is the difference between my not touching you in a public space versus my following you around while I hover my finger an inch from your body and chant "I'm not touching you". Pre-schoolers can tell this difference; many fundamental Christians choose not to when they can use that deliberate "misunderstanding" of basic social contact in order to behave in racist ways. (Nor is this limited to Christians.)

Which brings me to: Bree and Shasta don't have to use honorifics if they don't want to. But they are not simply choosing not to use them. They are drawing a line and saying that only the people who use them are slaves and fools, while those who do not use them are free and wise. That is a problem, and it is a racist one--both in-universe in the context of Calormen and Narnia and externally in the context of Christianity and Islam.

   “Does that mean we’d better go to the South?”
   “I think not,” said the Horse. “You see, he thinks I’m dumb and witless like his other horses. Now if I really were, the moment I got loose I’d go back home to my stable and paddock; back to his palace which is two days’ journey South. That’s where he’ll look for me. He’d never dream of my going on North on my own. And anyway he will probably think that someone in the last village who saw him ride through has followed us here and stolen me.”


Or... he could assume that the missing slave boy who is, you know, missing, took the horse.

I really do not think that Arsheesh is meant to be secretly fond of Shasta; I don't credit Lewis with that level of subtlety or sensitivity. But he basically must be protective of Shasta in the context of the story because otherwise why would he not tell the angry and cruel Tarkaan that Shasta has always had a longing to know what lies to the north?

   “Oh hurrah!” said Shasta. “Then we’ll go North. I’ve been longing to go to the North all my life.”
   “Of course you have,” said the Horse. “That’s because of the blood that’s in you. I’m sure you’re true Northern stock. But not too loud. I should think they’d be asleep soon now.”

Oh for fuck's sake, it's not even metaphorical that his blood draws him north. It's actual in-universe canon.

   “I’d better creep back and see,” suggested Shasta.
   “That’s a good idea,” said the Horse. “But take care you’re not caught.”

Why? Why would it be a problem if he's caught. THEY KNOW THAT SHASTA EXISTS AND IS OUTSIDE. If he's "caught" peering in, his excuses are "can I have a blanket and also maybe more bread". His being out here isn't suspicious; he didn't sneak downstairs or whatever, they literally threw him out here.

   It was a good deal darker now and very silent except for the sound of the waves on the beach, which Shasta hardly noticed because he had been hearing it day and night as long as he could remember. The cottage, as he approached it, showed no light. When he listened at the front there was no noise. When he went round to the only window, he could hear, after a second or two, the familiar noise of the old fisherman’s squeaky snore. It was funny to think that if all went well he would never hear it again. Holding his breath and feeling a little bit sorry, but much less sorry than he was glad, Shasta glided away over the grass and went to the donkey’s stable, groped along to a place he knew where the key was hidden, opened the door and found the Horse’s saddle and bridle which had been locked up there for the night. He bent forward and kissed the donkey’s nose. “I’m sorry we can’t take you,” he said.

Serious question: Why can't they take the donkey?

Shasta has said that he can ride it. The donkey and Bree will need much the same food, so it's not really a question of logistics (or, if it is, Shasta hasn't considered them; have they talked about what either of them will eat on this journey?). And it would frankly make for a better cover story. Like, seriously? The plan is that Shasta, a beaten young boy who has all the marks of a slave from the North, is going to ride a war horse like he owns it? Wouldn't it make 1000% more sense if he was a slave riding a donkey and leading his master's war horse to him?

Hell, it would even shore up their escape story: the war horse got loose and went south, while the boy who loosed him (playing around, trying to pet him, whatever) panicked and took the donkey north like he'd always wanted. Arsheesh wouldn't be able to follow him on foot, but the Tarkaan (who I suppose has other horses? possibly nearby? with his... lost retinue?) would be thrown off the scent and would scour the south rather than look north.

Plus, it would just be kind. This donkey is supposed to be the only thing good in Shasta's life, and he's leaving it behind. (Aslan will be curiously okay with this!) There's an undercurrent of an idea that only talking people/animals really matter. That's upsetting to me in the context that the horse just turned out to be a Horse. There was hidden worth there, for people who were wise enough to see. But the donkey... is just a donkey and doesn't deserve freedom.

I guess the trope of the protagonist leaving things behind is well established but it just... doesn't sit well with me here. And I can't help but remember how Tolkien was concerned about Bill the pony, who was purchased in Bree. He and Sam cared about that damn horse, and so did I. Yet we don't get a kind epilogue for the donkey, or a happy ending, or even a name.

   “There you are at last,” said the Horse when he got back to it. “I was beginning to wonder what had become of you.”
   “I was getting your things out of the stable,” replied Shasta. “And now, can you tell me how to put them on?”
   For the next few minutes Shasta was at work, very cautiously to avoid jingling, while the Horse said things like, “Get that girth a bit tighter,” or “You’ll find a buckle lower down,” or “You’ll need to shorten those stirrups a good bit.” When all was finished it said:
   “Now; we’ve got to have reins for the look of the thing, but you won’t be using them. Tie them to the saddle-bow: very slack so that I can do what I like with my head. And, remember—you are not to touch them.”
   “What are they for, then?” asked Shasta.
   “Ordinarily they are for directing me,” replied the Horse. “But as I intend to do all the directing on this journey, you’ll please keep your hands to yourself. And there’s another thing. I’m not going to have you grabbing my mane.”
   “But I say,” pleaded Shasta. “If I’m not to hold on by the reins or by your mane, what am I to hold on by?”
   “You hold on with your knees,” said the Horse. “That’s the secret of good riding. Grip my body between your knees as hard as you like; sit straight up, straight as a poker; keep your elbows in. And by the way, what did you do with the spurs?”
   “Put them on my heels, of course,” said Shasta. “I do know that much.”
   “Then you can take them off and put them in the saddle-bag. We may be able to sell them when we get to Tashbaan. Ready? And now I think you can get up.”
   “Ooh! You’re a dreadful height,” gasped Shasta after his first, and unsuccessful, attempt.
   “I’m a horse, that’s all,” was the reply. “Anyone would think I was a haystack from the way you’re trying to climb up me! There, that’s better. Now sit up and remember what I told you about your knees. Funny to think of me who has led cavalry charges and won races having a potato sack like you in the saddle! However, off we go.” It chuckled, not unkindly.

Mixed feelings about this. It's certainly nice to see a Talking Animal assert themselves to a human. That's much-needed and we haven't had a lot of that in this series. (I'm not sure we've had any of it, to be honest!) But then later we'll learn that it's just dreadfully awful for a human to ride a Horse at all, period, and I have a lot of thoughts for when we get there and I'm just going to save them except to say that I much prefer a Xanth model where animals assert rights and independence but they're still okay with letting friends ride them sometimes because inter-species friendships are complicated and people are individuals and Strict Social Rules Of Conduct about whether you let your friends touch you a certain way in private can take a flying leap and honestly I don't trust Lewis to write good physical touch-based companionship *anyway*.

I'm a very touchy person. By which I mean I love touch with my friends. I exist.

Incidentally, the next paragraph makes no sense until you realize that Bree is being referred to with it/its/itself pronouns, as above: It chuckled, not unkindly.

   And it certainly began their night journey with great caution. First of all it went just south of the fisherman’s cottage to the little river which there ran into the sea, and took care to leave in the mud some very plain hoof-marks pointing South. But as soon as they were in the middle of the ford it turned upstream and waded till they were about a hundred yards farther inland than the cottage. Then it selected a nice gravelly bit of bank which would take no footprints and came out on the Northern side. Then, still at a walking pace, it went Northward till the cottage, the one tree, the donkey’s stable, and the creek—everything, in fact, that Shasta had ever known—had sunk out of sight in the gray summer-night darkness. They had been going uphill and now were at the top of the ridge—that ridge which had always been the boundary of Shasta’s known world. He could not see what was ahead except that it was all open and grassy. It looked endless: wild and lonely and free.
   “I say!” observed the Horse. “What a place for a gallop, eh?”
   “Oh don’t let’s,” said Shasta. “Not yet. I don’t know how to—please, Horse. I don’t know your name.”
   “Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah,” said the Horse.
   “I’ll never be able to say that,” said Shasta. “Can I call you Bree?”
   “Well, if it’s the best you can do, I suppose you must,” said the Horse. “And what shall I call you?”
   “I’m called Shasta.”
   “Hm,” said Bree. “Well, now, there’s a name that’s really hard to pronounce. But now about this gallop. It’s a good deal easier than trotting if you only knew, because you don’t have to rise and fall. Grip with your knees and keep your eyes straight ahead between my ears. Don’t look at the ground. If you think you’re going to fall just grip harder and sit up straighter. Ready? Now: for Narnia and the North.”

I'm not sure how "Shasta" is hard to pronounce when Bree managed the "sh" in "hush" and the "ah" in "captured" earlier but okay we'll take his word for it.


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