Or 'The One with the Great Journey.'
There are a few spoilers in my discussions below the line, so beware.
I'm chalking this one up for both my Narnia Business and also my choice for Travel or Adventure Classic in this year's Back to the Classics Challenge. Reading it reminds me that this may well be my favourite of the whole Narnia series. It's a tale within a tale, occurring some time during the long and successful reign of the Pevensie kids in Narnia.
Shasta is a fisherman's son who suddenly discovers he's not a fisherman's son after all. On the verge of being sold to a tyrannical master by the man he believed to be his father, he escapes with the man's horse, Bree, who happens to be a talking Narnian steed. They intend to make a dash for freedom from harsh Calormen in the south to glorious Narnia in the north, and Bree has been a prisoner for so long, he barely remembers his roots. On their way they join forces with another pair heading in the same direction. Aravis is a girl of noble birth trying to dodge an appalling arranged marriage, and her gentle mare, Hwin, is another talking horse from Narnia.
Before they make it, there are many dangers to dodge and unexpected evil plots to unmask. Rather than the personal quest it started as, the whole journey turns into a desperate rush to save a country.
Things I appreciated more than before
1) Shasta and his pity-party. This boy gets me nodding with complete sympathy and understanding when he's carried away on tidal waves of self-pity while he convinces himself he's an underdog and victim, born under an unlucky star. When we start thinking in this manner, more reasons to reinforce our outlook keep coming thick and fast. Don't we all know it? But I love how Aslan tears apart Shasta's morbid reasoning with tremendous love and kindness, and without adding fuel to the fire by false sympathy.
2) Bree and his pride. This horse's life experiences make him extremely smug, and being taken down a peg or two is a great turn of events for us readers, though very confronting for him. Through Bree we see that taking a good, hard look at ourselves with honest appraisal is healthy for our self-esteem, instead of detrimental as some modern pop psychology might have us believe. We're all the heroes of our own stories and it's easy to delude ourselves that we're pretty perfect, so I think Bree learns one of the best lessons of the entire series.
3) Aravis and her lion attack. Wow, what an eye-opener for this princess! I'm glad she found out why it had to happen, because I was wondering too. Sometimes our lessons really hurt.
4) Hwin and her unassuming modesty. The gentle mare is a great example for any readers who find ourselves easily cowed by stronger personalities. I notice she's not told to stand up for herself in future, because it's just not in some natures to be confrontational. But I think she's armed with tools to help her not back down in her own mind.
5) The middle-eastern description of the great Calormen capital city of Tashbaan. It reminds me of ancient Babylon, or somewhere from The Arabian Nights.
6) Shasta's creepy experience alone at the Tombs of the Kings, near the start of the desert. Especially the appearance of the comforting cat who helped him fall asleep.
7) Aslan's revelations to the little company of travellers. By the time he finishes with the horses and children, they've learned that great strokes of blessing or destiny may be disguised as hard luck. It's not entirely a provable analogy for real life, but surely enough people have indicated by hindsight that it can be true. Not to mention Aslan's insistence that nobody should be nosy about anyone else's story but their own.
What I wasn't a fan of this time round.
1) The archaic and rigid rules of succession in Archenland. Something as arbitrary as birth order determines every significant decision for a nation, including who should inherit the right to rule the land. Sure, the characters believe this isn't capricious at all but predetermined by destiny. But from our vantage point, it appears that a physically adventurous and thoroughly capable lad who's been groomed from infancy to take his royal place must step aside for a green newcomer who knows absolutely nothing and is loath to take on the responsibility anyway. That's crazy in anyone's books.
Conveniently, Lewis wrote the story in such a way that Prince Corin is delighted not to have kingship looming over his future. But had it been otherwise, he could have made Shasta's life very unpleasant. And having been relegated to second place because he followed his brother into the world a mere twenty minutes later, I think Corin would have had a strong case for being annoyed.
Some Great Quotes
Bree: Now we've got to have reins for the look of the thing, but you won't be using them.
Narrator: In Calormen, storytelling is a thing 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.
Lasaraleen (Aravis' friend): Anyone I catch talking about this young lady will first be beaten to death and then burned alive, and after that be kept on bread and water for six weeks. There.
Narrator: One of the drawbacks about adventures is that when you come to the most beautiful places, you are often too anxious and hurried to appreciate them.
Narrator: Both horses were doing if not all they could, at least all they thought they could, which is not quite the same thing.
Hermit of the Southern March (to Bree): You are not quite the great horse you had come to think, from living among poor, dumb horses. Of course you were braver and cleverer than them. You could hardly help being that. It doesn't follow that you'll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you're nobody very special, you'll be a very decent sort of Horse, on the whole.
Bree: Aslan, I'm afraid I must be rather a fool.
Aslan: Happy the horse who knows that while he is still young. Or the human either.
Stick around, because next up will be Prince Caspian.