In Cotsen’s current exhibition, “Ice and Snow,” an illustration of little Kai being carried off in the Snow Queen’s sleigh is next to the iconic image of Mr. Tumnus and Lucy walking through the snow from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As much as I have always loved that picture by Pauline Baynes, the first volume of the Chronicles was not my favorite one: I preferred The Horse and His Boy to it, perhaps because it was the first book I remember buying with my own money.
The Manhattan Beach public library didn’t own a complete set of the Narnia books, so my mother drove me to Either Or, the independent bookstore downtown near the water, to place a special order for a volume I hadn’t read. About two weeks later The Horse and His Boy came in and I begged to collect it first thing after school My mother, who probably had a lot more pressing things to do that miserable, wet November afternoon, indulged me.
Decades later I understand completely why so many people find the Orientalism permeating The Horse and His Boy off-putting. The long exchange between the Tarkaan and Arsheesh the fisherman in the first chapter, which ends in their haggling over a price for Shasta, does deftly set in motion the lost royal orphan plot. But the tongue-in-cheek dialogue in the style of an English translation of A Thousand and One Nights now grates. For better or worse, the adventures of Shasta, Aravis, Bree, and Hwin thoroughly grounded me in Western conceptions of the other–East and West, black and white, North and South, the prince and the pauper. At age nine, I doubt I realized that The Horse and His Boy also showed me at the same time how a cleverly constructed narrative subverts those seemingly inexorable oppositions and demonstrates their truthiness as much as their potency.
It was the thread of political intrigue in The Horse and His Boy that brought me back again and again to the book. I was simultaneously horrified and fascinated by the Tisroc’s calm betrayal of his eldest son Rabadash. That the father could lucidly explain why the military expedition would serve his interests no matter how it turned out showed that he was as cold-blooded as a serpent. Such a master of duplicity deserved to have his ambitions overturned, even though the absurd Rabadash would take the fall.
Then began the most harrowing part of the story–the forced ride across the great Calormen desert to mountainous Archenland. The descriptions of the children beginning the journey across the sands in the cool dark of night, then continuing through the blazing day, was very real to anyone growing up in hot, dry Southern California. It was so easy to imagine how thirsty they all were when they reached the secret valley after traveling nearly twenty-four hours. That they fell asleep out of exhaustion and lost the advantage gained by finding the secret shortcut to Archenland was heartbreaking every time, even though I knew Rabadash would not succeed in extending the Tisroc’s empire into the free North. What the ending of The Horse and His Boy taught me I could have never anticipated. Shasta, who was raised in a fisherman’s hut is dumbfounded with the news that he, not his twin brother Prince Corin, will be the next king of Archenland. Shasta (or Prince Cor as he is now called) generously tries to return the crown he thinks must belong to his brother, but is told by his father King Lune that rulers are under the law and therefore cannot subvert the laws of succession at will.
“Hurrah! Hurrah!” said Corin. “I shan’t have to be King. I shan’t have to be King. I’ll always be a prince. It’s princes have all the fun.”
“And that’s true than thy brother knows, Cor, ” said King Lune. “For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”
When the situation calls for backbone, quite often I hear King Lune’s words about what it means to be a leader. They may be good thoughts to take with us into a new year.