Narnia: A Fine Race for Their Lives

[Narnia Content Note: Racism, Violence, PTSD]

Narnia Recap: Shasta and Bree have escaped into the night.

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

The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 2: A Wayside Adventure

Chapter 2 is one of those chapters that isn't precisely wrong but isn't right at all for me. The thing is, we finally get to meet Aravis (yay!), we get a very decent point about human/Animal interactions (yay!), and the narrative keeps up a much faster pace than in previous books (yay!). The problems are that the means by which Lewis and Aslan choose to introduce Aravis is basically the worst most assholish way (boo!), the human/Animal interactions stuff is fraught with sexism (boo!), and the narrative... isn't my cup of tea.

I give this chapter a B- and we move on.


Okay, okay. ;) Let's go through it together.

   IT WAS NEARLY NOON ON THE FOLLOWING day when Shasta was wakened by something warm and soft moving over his face. He opened his eyes and found himself staring into the long face of a horse; its nose and lips were almost touching his. He remembered the exciting events of the previous night and sat up. But as he did so he groaned.
   “Ow, Bree,” he gasped. “I’m so sore. All over. I can hardly move.”
   “Good morning, small one,” said Bree. “I was afraid you might feel a bit stiff. It can’t be the falls. You didn’t have more than a dozen or so, and it was all lovely, soft springy turf that must have been almost a pleasure to fall on. And the only one that might have been nasty was broken by that gorse bush. No: it’s the riding itself that comes hard at first. What about breakfast? I’ve had mine.”

This isn't awful? I've always read it in an Unreliable Narrator voice, where Bree just flat out doesn't understand that falls hurt. So he's being wrong and insensitive here by acting like Shasta's falls must have been "a pleasure", but he's still gentle and trying. It's sorta sweet, and I will straight-up admit that it's a lot better done (imo) than the Puddleglum stuff. I deem this passage: Adequate.

   “Oh bother breakfast. Bother everything,” said Shasta. “I tell you I can’t move.” But the horse nuzzled at him with its nose and pawed him gently with a hoof till he had to get up. And then he looked about him and saw where they were. Behind them lay a little copse. Before them the turf, dotted with white flowers, sloped down to the brow of a cliff. Far below them, so that the sound of the breaking waves was very faint, lay the sea. Shasta had never seen it from such a height and never seen so much of it before, nor dreamed how many colors it had. On either hand the coast stretched away, headland after headland, and at the points you could see the white foam running up the rocks but making no noise because it was so far off. There were gulls flying overhead and the heat shivered on the ground; it was a blazing day. But what Shasta chiefly noticed was the air. He couldn’t think what was missing, until at last he realized that there was no smell of fish in it. For of course, neither in the cottage nor among the nets, had he ever been away from that smell in his life. And this new air was so delicious, and all his old life seemed so far away, that he forgot for a moment about his bruises and his aching muscles and said:
   “I say, Bree, didn’t you say something about breakfast?”

Thomas mentioned last time that it's, uh, interesting that Shasta speaks like an English schoolboy. I wouldn't find this so jarring if it were something that was consistently used on all the characters; then it would be a writer quirk that is legitimately hard to shake. (Sometimes you just can't make your characters sound less like you, even when you very much want to.) The problem, of course, is that the characters don't all talk like this; the Calormen people (among whom Shasta grew up) have very different speech patterns. And since most of Shasta's differences are explained away as a function of his superior Northern (white, English) blood, that's a problem.

Coming away from the racism and into the nitpickery, the logistics here are a little frustratingly vague. There are huge swaths of land that Shasta and Bree will cross in this chapter which are beautiful, fertile, and utterly unoccupied except for the occasional incurious shepherd. It's a hot day, but not so hot that Shasta has to worry about dehydration, and the nights aren't cold enough that he has to worry about exposure. That seems... convenient? It's certainly a huge tonal change from the miserable traveling in The Silver Chair, and I don't know. It's dreamy and cozy and feels a little unrealistic to me, but again this is more of a personal style than something legitimately wrong, I guess.

I do have mixed feelings about Shasta seeing the sea anew after all his life of living ten steps away from it, and about the smell of the air invigorating him. On the one hand, I am a big fan of scenes where a character experiences the mundane differently because something about THEMSELF has changed: the air is sweet and the sea is beautiful BECAUSE I AM FREE. But I don't really know that Lewis is going for that here; I think he's more of the mindset that the air is sweet and the sea is beautiful because Shasta is a few steps further from those awful Calormen. Which... yeah. Not a fan of that undertone which may or may not be there. (See: FedEx arrows.)

   They investigated the saddle-bags and the results were cheering—a meat pasty, only slightly stale, a lump of dried figs and another lump of green cheese, a little flask of wine, and some money; about forty crescents in all, which was more than Shasta had ever seen.
   While Shasta sat down—painfully and cautiously—with his back against a tree and started on the pasty, Bree had a few more mouthfuls of grass to keep him company.
   “Won’t it be stealing to use the money?” asked Shasta.
   “Oh,” said the Horse, looking up with its mouth full of grass, “I never thought of that. A free horse and a talking horse mustn’t steal, of course. But I think it’s all right. We’re prisoners and captives in enemy country. That money is booty, spoil. Besides, how are we to get any food for you without it? I suppose, like all humans, you won’t eat natural food like grass and oats.”

*sound of keyboard smashing*

You know, maybe Lewis just couldn't help himself. Like, maybe he was born so Lawful on the Lawful/Chaotic scale that he just can't turn it off. But what the even fuck? How do I start with this?

For one: Shasta and Bree are slaves. Lewis doesn't seem to understand what that word means, so I will tell him: they were held captive and utilized as unpaid labor. All their labor, every fishing-net Shasta mended, every step Bree took, was stolen FROM THEM. And while I don't think they should go around stealing willy-nilly from random Calormen they meet in the future, they certainly have every right to demand and take compensation of their labor from the specific men who stole from them.

Which leads me to two: Yes, they can take money from the men who kept them captive, but that doesn't mean they're in an "enemy country". I'm getting really damn tired of the narrative treating every Calormen as a priori hostile to Shasta and Bree because they're Northern and White and Good and these other folks are Southern and Brown and Bad. Do they have every right to be cautious and secretive because they don't KNOW who will turn them in as escaped slaves and who will not? YES. (See: Schrödinger's Rapist.) Does that mean they are in an "enemy country" where everything is booty for the plundering? NO.

And for three: There's a distinct impression here that stealing is wrong only because it's a Permanent Mark on their record. Bree isn't worried about stealing in the sense of "will this hurt someone" (the Tarkaan: probably not because he's rich; some random shepherd: probably yes because he's poor); he's worried about capital-s Stealing in the sense that it's a mark on his honor. Shasta seems to share this concern, despite it feeling out of character for him (he didn't seem worried about stealing when he TOOK A MAN'S SADDLEBAGS last night, just saying??).

Again we glimpse this Lawful obsession with Lewis where actions aren't right or wrong because of harm caused, or even right or wrong because of the actor's intentions, but they're Right and Wrong according to definitions. Bree and Shasta aren't Stealing because of the Enemy Country Plunder loophole outlined in subparagraph 47c. It reminds me of Nolan's Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, where he keeps insisting that he's not a capital-c Criminal despite all those laws that he broke because he only steals from Wayne Enterprises, by which he means he steals boxes marked with the W.E. logo and doesn't consider that he's actually stealing from a distributer who paid W.E. for those boxes and won't be reimbursed that money just because they were stolen, etc.

Rules-lawyering: A thing that white dudes loooooooove to do, apparently?

   When Shasta had finished his breakfast (which was by far the nicest he had ever eaten), Bree said, “I think I’ll have a nice roll before we put on that saddle again.” And he proceeded to do so. “That’s good. That’s very good,” he said, rubbing his back on the turf and waving all four legs in the air. “You ought to have one too, Shasta,” he snorted. “It’s most refreshing.”
   But Shasta burst out laughing and said, “You do look funny when you’re on your back!”
   “I look nothing of the sort,” said Bree. But then suddenly he rolled round on his side, raised his head and looked hard at Shasta, blowing a little.
   “Does it really look funny?” he asked in an anxious voice.
   “Yes, it does,” replied Shasta. “But what does it matter?”
   “You don’t think, do you,” said Bree, “that it might be a thing talking horses never do—a silly, clownish trick I’ve learned from the dumb ones? It would be dreadful to find, when I get back to Narnia, that I’ve picked up a lot of low, bad habits. What do you think, Shasta? Honestly, now. Don’t spare my feelings. Should you think the real, free horses—the talking kind—do roll?”
   “How should I know? Anyway I don’t think I should bother about it if I were you. We’ve got to get there first. Do you know the way?”


I will give points for Bree's characterization here: he's adorably self-conscious. I think it's realistic that he would struggle with vanity. Later the point will be made that he's spent a lifetime thinking of himself as exceptional because he's been a Talking Horse among non-talking horses, and that he needs to let go of that misplaced pride. And Shasta and Hwin make the point (albeit perhaps less strongly than I would like) that Bree should do the things that he enjoys rather than making himself miserable trying to adhere to social rules of conduct.

But, okay, here's where I put on my Humorless Feminist hat and dig into the problem that this point--like many of Lewis' points--is woven into the narrative in really problematic ways. Be Yourself! and Buck Society! is all very well and good until we remember that this is a series which can be read as condemning one girl to hell for wearing lipstick. Susan didn't buck societal conventions, so she isn't welcome in Narnia, and also she wasn't REALLY being herself because she doesn't understand herself and she's in a hurry to grow up and also she's silly and fuck her.

"Be your unique self but only in this NARROW SPECIFIC WAY" isn't freeing or inclusive. It's just a competing set of rules. Which makes Bree's anxiety seem less adorably funny and more tragically horrifying. He's RIGHT to worry about whether he's living his life the "correct" way. Any deviation, however minor, could lock him out of paradise. He's living in a universe conducted by rules which were set down by an abusive god, which is actually really fucking frightening.


   “I know my way to Tashbaan. After that comes the desert. Oh, we’ll manage the desert somehow, never fear. Why, we’ll be in sight of the Northern mountains then. Think of it! To Narnia and the North! Nothing will stop us then. But I’d be glad to be past Tashbaan. You and I are safer away from cities.”
   “Can’t we avoid it?”
   “Not without going a long way inland, and that would take us into cultivated land and main roads; and I wouldn’t know the way. No, we’ll just have to creep along the coast. Up here on the downs we’ll meet nothing but sheep and rabbits and gulls and a few shepherds. And by the way, what about starting?”

Bree is more optimistic than I about this whole desert thing.

   Shasta’s legs ached terribly as he saddled Bree and climbed into the saddle, but the Horse was kindly to him and went at a soft pace all afternoon. When evening twilight came they dropped by steep tracks into a valley and found a village. Before they got into it Shasta dismounted and entered it on foot to buy a loaf and some onions and radishes. The Horse trotted round by the fields in the dusk and met Shasta at the far side. This became their regular plan every second night.

Incidentally, I didn't touch on this earlier, but the "forty crescents" were more money than Shasta had ever seen and I'm sort of wondering why his village (that he visited only three times) even used money because it really felt more like a barter situation, but I guess the economy is setup to accommodate random strangers coming in with money in order to buy onions. I sort of feel like Shasta should maybe be concerned about thieves or suspicious people turning him in as an escaped slave; the fact that apparently no one hassles him in the least sort of proves my point that the Calormen people are apparently a pretty decent lot despite what Lewis would have us believe.

I kinda want fanfic of the village people feeding Shasta and gently NOT bringing up all the super-suspicious bits about him, like his just supposedly walking there from nowhere, dressed in dirty clothes, and with bright white skin that marks him as a foreigner, etc.

   These were great days for Shasta, and every day better than the last as his muscles hardened and he fell less often. Even at the end of his training Bree still said he sat like a bag of flour in the saddle. “And even if it was safe, young ‘un, I’d be ashamed to be seen with you on the main road.” But in spite of his rude words Bree was a patient teacher. No one can teach riding so well as a horse. Shasta learned to trot, to canter, to jump, and to keep his seat even when Bree pulled up suddenly or swung unexpectedly to the left or the right—which, as Bree told him, was a thing you might have to do at any moment in a battle. And then of course Shasta begged to be told of the battles and wars in which Bree had carried the Tarkaan. And Bree would tell of forced marches and the fording of swift rivers, of charges and of fierce fights between cavalry and cavalry when the war horses fought as well as the men, being all fierce stallions, trained to bite and kick, and to rear at the right moment so that the horse’s weight as well as the rider’s would come down on an enemy’s crest in the stroke of sword or battle-axe. But Bree did not want to talk about the wars as often as Shasta wanted to hear about them. “Don’t speak of them, youngster,” he would say. “They were only the Tisroc’s wars and I fought in them as a slave and a dumb beast. Give me the Narnian wars where I shall fight as a free Horse among my own people! Those will be wars worth talking about. Narnia and the North! Bra-ha-ha! Broo hoo!”

I deem this passage: Adequate.

Really, I know everyone thinks I hate Lewis, but I do like parts of these books or else I wouldn't care as much as I do. I like that Bree just straight-up doesn't want to talk about wars where he didn't have a choice whether to participate or not. I like the characterization of Shasta and Bree learning to work together and navigating Shasta's youthful exuberance for these tales against Bree's weariness of living that life. It's nice. I like it. Could be better, sure, but it's a good piece.

Okay. Deep breath. Here it comes.

   After they had traveled on for weeks and weeks past more bays and headlands and rivers and villages than Shasta could remember, there came a moonlit night when they started their journey at evening, having slept during the day. They had left the downs behind them and were crossing a wide plain with a forest about half a mile away on their left. The sea, hidden by low sandhills, was about the same distance on their right. They had jogged along for about an hour, sometimes trotting and sometimes walking, when Bree suddenly stopped.

Short version: Bree hears another horse nearby, and he can tell by the riding that it's not a farmer nor a farmer's horse. (Although his powers of deduction are a little laughably specific: “That’s not a farmer’s riding. Nor a farmer’s horse either. Can’t you tell by the sound? That’s quality, that horse is. And it’s being ridden by a real horseman. I tell you what it is, Shasta. There’s a Tarkaan under the edge of that wood. Not on his war horse—it’s too light for that. On a fine blood mare, I should say.” Someone get Sherlock Holmes in here to help.)

Bree and Shasta decide to wait for a patch of darkness and then try to avoid the rider.

   They waited till the cloud covered the moon and then, first at a walking pace and afterward at a gentle trot, made for the shore.
   The cloud was bigger and thicker than it had looked at first and soon the night grew very dark. Just as Shasta was saying to himself, “We must be nearly at those sandhills by now,” his heart leaped into his mouth because an appalling noise had suddenly risen out of the darkness ahead; a long snarling roar, melancholy and utterly savage. Instantly Bree swerved round and began galloping inland again as fast as he could gallop.
   “What is it?” gasped Shasta.
   “Lions!” said Bree, without checking his pace or turning his head.

And here's where I just want to shake Lewis, because (to him) the best way to pair up the two sets of horses and riders was to have Aslan chase them in a frantic race that wears both the horses out and drives them together, so that eventually they're (a) in the same place and (b) too tired to separate, so of course they have to bed down for the night and get to know each other.

And I just want to point out that authors have an infinite number of options. Other ways to introduce Aravis and Hwin:

* Fortuitous chance that doesn't involve terrifying everyone. Shasta and Bree round a hill and whoops Aravis and Hwin are right there and they're speaking to each other and the secret is out. (See also: Running into a Faun in Lion, Witch, Wardrobe.)

* Prophetic dreams that aren't terrifying. (See also: Jill's dreams in The Silver Chair, but without the terrifying bits.)

* A shadowy trustworthy guide that leads the parties together. (See also: Semi-visible Aslan in Prince Caspian.)

* Bree and Hwin could run into each other while they skirt around a town waiting for their human to rejoin. (Assuming Aravis is doing the dismount-and-go-into-the-village-for-food thing, and she'd sort of have to.)

* Literally anything else.

Instead we went with a lion chasing two horses and two humans until they're about to drop dead from fright and exhaustion. And Lewis loves this motif SO DAMN MUCH that we're going to do it again later. Because that's what god is in this book: a horrifying demon-creature who motivates people through sheer terror.

   After that there was nothing but sheer galloping for some time. At last they splashed across a wide, shallow stream and Bree came to a stop on the far side. Shasta noticed that he was trembling and sweating all over.
   “That water may have thrown the brute off our scent,” panted Bree when he had partly got his breath again. “We can walk for a bit now.”
   As they walked Bree said, “Shasta, I’m ashamed of myself. I’m just as frightened as a common, dumb Calormene horse. I am really. I don’t feel like a Talking Horse at all. I don’t mind swords and lances and arrows but I can’t bear—those creatures. I think I’ll trot for a bit.”


   About a minute later, however, he broke into a gallop again, and no wonder. For the roar broke out again, this time on their left from the direction of the forest.
   “Two of them,” moaned Bree.
   When they had galloped for several minutes without any further noise from the lions Shasta said, “I say! That other horse is galloping beside us now. Only a stone’s throw away.”
   “All the b-better,” panted Bree. “Tarkaan on it—will have a sword—protect us all.”
   “But, Bree!” said Shasta. “We might just as well be killed by lions as caught. Or I might. They’ll hang me for horse-stealing.” He was feeling less frightened of lions than Bree because he had never met a lion; Bree had.


I really am not a fan of Lewis just hammering in that Bree doesn't like lions, Bree is afraid of lions, Bree has met lions, etc. WE GET IT. He's an apostate in need of religious saving and he's going to be reaaaaaaaaally uncomfortable under the Pevensie reign (where they stamp lions on literally everything) unless he stops Being Himself! and Bucking Society! and begins to worship lions properly with the rest of everyone else. CONFORMITY!

And obviously this is the best way to bring about that religious conversion is to traumatize him to the point where lions will probably be a trigger for him in the future. Love for god should feel exactly like a PTSD episode, right? //weary sarcasm

   Bree only snorted in answer but he did sheer away to his right. Oddly enough the other horse seemed also to be sheering away to the left, so that in a few seconds the space between them had widened a good deal. But as soon as it did so there came two more lions’ roars, immediately after one another, one on the right and the other on the left, the horses began drawing nearer together. So, apparently, did the lions. The roaring of the brutes on each side was horribly close and they seemed to be keeping up with the galloping horses quite easily. Then the cloud rolled away. The moonlight, astonishingly bright, showed up everything almost as if it were broad day. The two horses and two riders were galloping neck to neck and knee to knee just as if they were in a race. Indeed Bree said (afterward) that a finer race had never been seen in Calormen.

So glad that the narrative is using these wonderfully cozy words like "race" rather than "these people are genuinely pissing themselves with terror because they're pretty certain that they're about to die".

Annnnnd I'm going to cut off here, because I want to take the Aravis/Hwin/Shasta/Bree conversation in a whole separate post.


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