The Horse and His Boy is the fifth book in the Chronicles of Narnia, going by the order of the books when they were originally published – and that is the order we use for these podcasts.
As you read the Chronicles of Narnia, you will readily see that Jack loved nature in all her different moods, from the deserts to the moors to the mountains, and he describes all these locales in the Chronicles. Jack found that if we are open to nature, it can at times be a channel for truth and beauty from “outside”, that is, from something beyond nature. This was the romantic part of his makeup, and it was balanced by the rational part, which is one reason why he is such a good writer. This balance is described as the difference between looking at the sea from the shore and looking at a map of the ocean. The seashore gives us the feeling and the experience, but the map organizes and structures it within the context of what other people have experienced, and the map is more useful when we want sail the ocean to a destination. Thus the experience of God in nature or music is fine and good, but doctrine and teaching help us to “journey to” God. (See Mere Christianity for a fuller description of Jack’s view.)
We start by going over a bit of the geography of Narnia and the surrounding lands, since that is essential to understanding today’s story. Basically, to the south of Narnia lies Archenland, then a large desert and then the country of Calormen, where today’s story starts. A map of Narnia and the surrounding lands is found in the Show Notes page and in the list of links on the sidebar to the right of this page.
One thing to remember is that all of the Chronicles are really good stories and can be read as stories in their own right without looking for more or less hidden meanings, etc. You can probably read The Horse and His Boy on 2 or 3 hours – listening to it on CD takes only 4 hours – and you’ll enjoy it a lot.
The basic plot is that Narnia is in danger of being invaded and conquered by a force of Calormene cavalry from the south. Aslan thwarts this by sending a “rescue party” of 2 Narnian talking horses and two young people from Calormene across the desert with a warning to the King of Archenland. The two Narnianian horses, Bree and Hwin, were captured as sold as slaves to Calormenes. They want to return to Narnia and freedom. The young boy, Shasta, also want to escape slavery by going North to Narnia, while the young girl, Aravis, wants to escape from an unwanted forced marriage.
There are two basic themes in this tale (1) the development or recovery of the heroes’ true identity and the idea of Providence. We look at the identity theme first.
Shasta learns that he is not really a Calormene but is a Narnian who has been enslaved from infancy by Calormene fisherman. He has to learn what it means to be a real Narnian – in particular, he must learn self-discipline and courage. Aravis is a high-born Calormene lady, although still young. She is brave and loyal but must learn humility. Bree has been trained as a war-horse and thinks he is brave but must also learn humility. On the other hand, the mare Hwin is shy and unassertive, and must learn courage and self-reliance.
The concept of Providence says that God is really in control of everything that happens, that God is active in the world and causes some things and prevents others in order to achieve God’s purposes for the world. In Narnian terms, this means that Aslan is behind or in control of all the events that happen there. Rather than debate this doctrine, we study how it is shown in the events in The Horse and His Boy. (For an good discussion of Providence see the link below from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
For one thing, in order for the heroes to succeed, they must (1) be mounted so that they can out-ride the invaders (2) know that an invasion is taking place and (3) know a secret shortcut across the desert. Even then, a lion chases them the last mile so that they make it to Archenland in time. Are these all random events or are they directed from behind the scenes by Aslan? (Read the story to find out).