buckle down and finish reading the last four books in The Chronicles of Narnia this year, The Horse and His Boy was the one I was most dreading. I'm not exactly sure why--just little things people had said: It's very different from the others...the main character is a Narnian...it's a little slow--that sort of thing.
The funny thing is, all of those statements were true, but they didn't make me dislike the book; they made me love it! It just goes to show that I cannot always trust my first impressions and/or perceptions. They're sometimes so wrong. Everything deserves a fair chance. (Does "everything" include Twilight? Okay, that might be carrying it a bit too far!)
The Horse and His Boy is about Bree (the horse) and Shasta (the boy). When the story begins, both are longing to escape the land of Calormene--Bree because he is a Narnian-talking horse who was captured and enslaved many years before and he is ready to return home and Shasta because he is about to be sold to a cruel man. They realize that together they might have a chance of breaking free. A short ways into their journey they meet Aravis, a Calormene aristocrat, and her horse, Hwin. As they travel, they discover that there is much, much more at stake than just their own freedom.
Like I said above, people had warned me that this book felt very different from the others in the series. (Yes, it really did come across as a warning, whether intentional or not, which is why I think I have this book linked with a dark feeling of foreboding.) But, case in point, different isn't usually bad.
In talking about it, my friends and family got so caught up with warnings, they failed to make any mention of the fact that Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter play a part in this story, albeit a backseat role. This would have been a huge selling point for me (so make note of it, any of you out there who are afraid of this "different" Narnian story). In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we don't really hear about any of the siblings' adventures from the time they became kings and queens of Narnia to the time they returned home. We only know they spent a number of years ruling the land. All this time, I thought that really was the extent of the details during that period of Narnia.
So it was a great, wonderful surprise when I began this story and found out that it took place smack dab in the middle of their reign. There were actual conversations between Lucy, Edmund, and Susan (Peter is only ever referred to--too busy with affairs at Cair Paravel, I guess). I found this utterly delightful. Seeing them through the eyes of Shasta cast them in a new light. I found that when I wasn't tied up in their emotions and objectives and angles, it helped me understand them in a new way.
Finding the Pevensies in the middle of this book really did feel like some amazing discovery to me--almost like this book hadn't been a part of the series for, oh, sixty years, but that it was only recently found at the bottom of some trunk in some unknown attic. Ridiculous, I know, but I'm kind of glad I didn't realize it before I started it. It made the story even more fun.
I felt like the religious symbolism was a little less prominent in this installment. I think this may have been due, in part, to the fact that Aslan is totally unknown to Shasta and Aravis. They have been brought up in a different world, one that does not believe in Aslan. So even though he is still there and orchestrates much of their journey, they are unaware of it until the end. So overall, maybe this one is actually the most symbolic of all--showing the conversion process from total ignorance to feeling the undeniable love of God. I think Shasta's response and "faith" is very similar to those who investigate Christianity: he didn't understand a lot of things, was even a little bit fearful, but he felt that settling in his mind and heart that told him Aslan was good and true.
There were a couple of other symbolic moments that I also really liked:
The first was when Shasta, after saving Aravis from the lion and getting everyone to safety, is told that he must run to Archenland to relay the news of Prince Rabadash's impending attack. Shasta is exhausted and wants to rest and eat with the others. These two lines were especially poignant to me: "And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed, your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one." Isn't that true? The harder we work, the more notable and helpful our efforts, the more others come to rely on us. And when I think about it, this description fits in perfectly with the way I view God's plan for me: as I honor the responsibilities I've been given, He blesses me with more, thereby helping me grow, little by little, more like Him.
At the end of the book, there were another few lines that really resonated with me: "There was a short silence, and then they all stirred and looked at one another as if they were waking from sleep. Aslan was gone, but there was a brightness in the air and on the grass and a joy in their hearts, which assured them that he had been no dream." I think I like this so much because this is what my own testimony feels like: bright and joyful, something that is not necessarily tangible but still undeniably present.
I meant to mention this when I reviewed The Silver Chair, but Alex Jennings, the narrator for the audio versions of both this book and The Silver Chair, is incredible. One thing that particularly impressed me, especially in The Silver Chair, was the way his voice became whatever character was speaking. I especially think it's difficult for male narrators to convincingly narrate female characters--either they try to make their voice sound too feminine so that it just draws glaring attention to itself or they still sound awkwardly masculine. But with Alex Jennings, you just forget. It's not that he necessarily sounds like a girl; but the female voices just fit in and blend so perfectly with everything else that you forget you're even listening.
And just as a funny side note but related to audio books: is anyone else surprised by some of the spellings of names or places when you finally see them in print after listening to them for many hours? When I write these reviews, I usually try to look up the spellings of any names I'm using because often they're completely different than I pictured them in my head. For example, I never would have spelled Hwin (Aravis's horse) H-W-I-N. It took a moment for it to even register that Hwin and Winn (the way I saw it in my head) were the same horse.
This story was a wonderful, delightful surprise. I liked it so much more than I was expecting and am now looking forward to the last two books in the series.