Narnia Recap: Shasta ran into the forest to find King Lune and warn him of Rabadash's approach. He was then separated from King Lune's party in the fog, and briefly overheard Rabadash's army pass by before meeting with Aslan himself. Obligatory note about racism, intent, and Lewis is here.
The Horse and His Boy, Chapter 12: Shasta in Narnia
Wow, it's been over a month since the last update and I am sorry. I slipped into a depression hole over politics and then got the flu and was out for a bit with that. Fun times. But we're back today here and now to tackle Chapter 12!
One of the difficult things about this book is that Lewis hit a problem with pacing. I've talked about this before and I don't want to belabor the point, but this book is about a horse race: Shasta has important news to impart to the king, he and his friends race across the desert, and the information is given. In many books, that would be a climax in itself; if not the climax, then a peak before building even higher to the siege and battle. (The siege is optional--Rabadash is a fool for trying to continue his plan after he's been thwarted--but a good author could make entertaining hay of this straw.)
But Lewis wanted to do Theologies and Cozy Kidlit and we have... well, it's something of a mess. Chapter 12 will attempt to cover theologies (god is always with you kids! except when he's not!), cozy kidlit (bacon! toast! butter!), and the siege of Rabadash all in the space of about 3000 words. That's a lot to cram into a single chapter and the overall impact of pretty much all of it gets lost in the frantic shuffle. But first let's tackle the Theology and get it out of the way.
“WAS IT ALL A DREAM?” WONDERED Shasta. But it couldn’t have been a dream for there in the grass before him he saw the deep, large print of the Lion’s front right paw. It took one’s breath away to think of the weight that could make a footprint like that. But there was something more remarkable than the size about it. As he looked at it, water had already filled the bottom of it. Soon it was full to the brim, and then overflowing, and a little stream was running downhill, past him, over the grass. Shasta stooped and drank—a very long drink—and then dipped his face in and splashed his head. It was extremely cold, and clear as glass, and refreshed him very much. After that he stood up, shaking the water out of his ears and flinging the wet hair back from his forehead, and began to take stock of his surroundings.
Apparently it was still very early morning. The sun had only just risen, and it had risen out of the forests which he saw low down and far away on his right. The country which he was looking at was absolutely new to him. It was a green valleyland dotted with trees through which he caught the gleam of a river that wound away roughly to the Northwest. On the far side of the valley there were high and even rocky hills, but they were lower than the mountains he had seen yesterday. Then he began to guess where he was. He turned and looked behind him and saw that the slope on which he was standing belonged to a range of far higher mountains.
“I see,” said Shasta to himself. “Those are the big mountains between Archenland and Narnia. I was on the other side of them yesterday. I must have come through the pass in the night. What luck that I hit it!—at least it wasn’t luck at all really, it was Him. And now I’m in Narnia.”
I... honestly don't know what to make of a lot of this, partly because it feels so roughly edited.
The massive (yuge!) paw-print of Aslan is straightforward enough to me courtesy of my Christian upbringing: it would have been very important to Lewis that he underscore the encounter with Aslan was real and not a dream or Shasta's imagination. The perfect water (clear! flowing!) feels like a reference to the water of life, although if you haven't spent your life hearing sermons about it I'm not sure you'd get the reference at all. The whole "Christ guided me to where I need to be through the pass" is pretty bog-standard Christian literature stuff, so that part isn't confusing to me either.
No, what I'm really tripping over are things like "apparently it was still very early morning". Shasta has been awake through all of this so I'm not clear why he's taking stock of the time based on the 'appearance' of whether it's early morning. He knows it's early morning! He's been awake for it! Hell, the "early morning" part just happened so what's with the "still"? This reads like the author just now realizing he needs to provide a physical description for the literally blank-and-featureless world he's been guiding us through up until now.
Equally, I tripped over the 'ah, I see, these are the big mountains between Archenland and Narnia' moment, because somehow I missed that was a thing. I went back and checked the text and there are a few scattered references to the "Northern Mountains" but honestly that could mean anything--Peter is, at this moment, in even-more-northern mountains fighting giants. So apparently Narnia's northern and southern borders are marked by mountains and they're both referred to as the Northern Mountains which is kind of hilariously perfect.
Most of all, though, I'm just kind of flummoxed at Shasta's calm "And now I’m in Narnia." I mean, it's a factual statement. But how does he feel about that? Does he even want to be in Narnia? Bree has always wanted to be in Narnia, of course, but Shasta just sorta wanted to be... free? I guess? I've talked in the past about how Shasta is a frustrating cypher of a character, a plot token without goals or ambitions, and now this comes to bite us again because how does he feel about this place Aslan guided him to? Is he happy to have reached his goal? Is he anxious in the face of the completion of one goal and the search for a new one? Is this moment painfully bittersweet because he's here but his companions--Bree, Hwin, and Aravis--are not? Does he even remember his companions? He seems genuinely not to.
We get none of this, so there is zero emotional payoff for this moment. Aslan-Jesus brought our protagonist here over a difficult pass in the dead of night, and we have no idea how he feels about this magical, transcendent, religious experience. For Christian literature, this is a strange and baffling omission! If there's one thing Christian literature cares about, it's the inner emotional journey from Lost to Found and from Slave to Free! By coming to Narnia and Aslan, Shasta has left both physical slavery and spiritual bondage--the climax of any religious journey--and he... remains an empty skin-suit.
What does he do instead? He gets rid of his horse. For... reasons?
He turned and unsaddled his horse and took off its bridle—“Though you are a perfectly horrid horse,” he said. It took no notice of this remark and immediately began eating grass. That horse had a very low opinion of Shasta.
I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS. The unsaddling-of-the-horse is a moment when the protagonist has reached his destination. He's reached Heaven, Elysium, Valhalla, Paradise and he needs to go no further nor ever turn back and so he symbolically marks the occasion by freeing his mode of transportation. (Unbuckling a sword belt and dropping weapons in the grass is an optional bonus for warriors.) But Shasta hasn't reached his goal! He is at the very tip of Narnia with no food, no idea where to travel next, lost companions he (presumably?) wants to return to, and that whole Anvard thing behind him that he (presumably?) cares to know the result of. Yes? I think?
Hell, this isn't even really his horse to free. I grant that he might have Opinions about the ownership of horses after his time spent with Bree, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. He seems to have taken the Lewisian theory that "possession is ownership and kings possess everything" and decided that he owns this horse that was briefly loaned to him. So that's kind of awful and I'm additionally a wee bit concerned for the health of this horse; can a domesticated horse thrive as a wild horse without a herd to protect him?
Also, and this is a small nit to pick, but the horse hasn't done anything "horrid" except walk slower than Shasta wanted-yet-failed-to-communicate. I'm not planning to stan for the nameless horse--I don't think he needs me to fangirl for him--but this ties into how Talking Animals will be portrayed later in the chapter: stubborn, stupid, and horrible for being animals instead of humankind.
“I wish I could eat grass!” thought Shasta. “It’s no good going back to Anvard, it’ll all be besieged. I’d better get lower down into the valley and see if I can get anything to eat.”
Serious Question: Does Lewis remember that Bree and Hwin and Aravis exist? Shasta clearly does not, but I can't tell if this is a characterization detail or an author failure. Moments like these undermine the sloppy and unconvincing romance Lewis tacks on at the end of the book, where Shasta's and Aravis' marriage is treated as some kind of inevitable result of their unresolved sexual tension, because there is no unresolved sexual tension between the two! Shasta doesn't even think about Aravis when she's not present!
So he went on downhill (the thick dew was cruelly cold to his bare feet) till he came into a wood. There was a kind of track running through it and he had not followed this for many minutes when he heard a thick and rather wheezy voice saying to him:
“Good morning, neighbor.”
Shasta looked round eagerly to find the speaker and presently saw a small, prickly person with a dark face who had just come out from among the trees. At least, it was small for a person but very big indeed for a hedgehog, which was what it was.
Gee, Shasta, maybe the thick dew wouldn't be so cruelly cold to your bare feet if you still had a horse.
“Good morning,” said Shasta. “But I’m not a neighbor. In fact I’m a stranger in these parts.” “Ah?” said the Hedgehog inquiringly. “I’ve come over the mountains—from Archenland, you know.”
“Ah, Archenland,” said the Hedgehog. “That’s a terrible long way. Never been there myself.”
“And I think, perhaps,” said Shasta, “someone ought to be told that there’s an army of savage Calormenes attacking Anvard at this very moment.”
I... I just... what? Is Lewis trying to set up another horse race? I... what? What is this? Did Lune not send off a rider or a bird or a Bird to his neighboring ally the moment he got back to Anvard? If Shasta thinks that Narnia doesn't know what Archenland faces, and if he thinks it matters that they be told, why did he just get rid of his primary force of transportation?
Does Shasta care whether Narnia be told about the invasion? He's so passive about it here. "I think, perhaps, someone ought to be told about the attacking* army", he says. Told by whom? Is he volunteering to do the telling? This is hardly the stepping up of a Hero to identify a problem and offer to solve it. Let us remember that Lewis was friends and writing buddies with Tolkien, the man who gave us this:
At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice.
‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.’
Perhaps there was a rough draft somewhere in which Frodo said 'I think, perhaps, someone ought to take the Ring' but this is why writing is re-writing. Now I'm going to stop here today so we can deal with the treatment of the Talking Animals next time. There will also be bacon and eggs in the next segment, which continues to be queasy and horrifying to me in a world of Talking Birds and Pigs.
* Note that Shasta refers to the Calormen--his countrymen--as "savage". This is an word that is extremely loaded with racism. There is no reason at this point to assume that the horsemen brought by Rabadash are "savage" rather than just random members of a standing army following their prince's orders while being kinda bothered by the ethics of it all. This isn't a line that their Archenland victims should be expected to parse, of course; intent is not magic, etc. But it is important to be aware of loaded racism words like these when we're talking about Fantasy Muslim Arabs.