from The Chronicles of Narnia
by C. S. Lewis
“‘When this news was brought to me the sun appeared dark in my eyes, and I laid on my bed and wept for a day. But on the second day I rose up and washed my face and caused my mare Hwin to be saddled'” (Lewis, 36).
I happened to find this on my bookshelf while organizing my piles of writing into binders and read it over the weekend. Of the seven books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia, this has always been my favorite. Which is probably why it’s the only one I have with full color illustrations (and which was the specific edition that I read).
The story takes place during “the Golden Age when Peter was High King in Narnia and his brother and two sisters were King and Queens under him” (3). How this happened and who they are is explained in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and their reign (the Golden Age) mentioned.
My main question while reading it was: why did I like it so much, or what made it likable to me? What, if anything, made it stand out against the other Narnian books?
To start, it is the only Narnian book that makes no reference to our world. Or more precisely, it is about the lands south of Narnia: Calormen and Archenland. There are Narnian characters (specifically a few from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) and a chapter devoted to a glimpse of southern Narnia. And of course Aslan’s in it, but he appears constantly throughout, unbeknownst to the main characters: Shasta (later revealed to be Cor), Aravis Tarkheena, and two Talking Horses, Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah (or Bree for short) and Hwin.
So a little history for those who don’t know about the lands south of Narnia. Archenland is a tiny kingdom between the mountains and the desert. It is full of trees and, as far as I know, there are no Talking Beasts or other Narnians (Centaurs, Dwarfs, etc.) residing in it.
On the other side of the desert is Calormen, a vast Empire of dark-skinned characters with a very complex and rich culture (as compared to what we see in Narnia or Archenland). They worship multiple deities, such as Tash (their paramount deity) and Zardeenah, Lady of the Night and Maidens. They have a vast class divide and their capital Tashbaan is a teeming metropolis. Oh, and their entire culture – speech, dress, food, architecture – is a caricature of 1001 Arabian Nights.
For example, when Shasta and his fisherman father Arsheesh are visited by a Tarkaan (or nobleman), the latter asks to buy Shasta from the fisherman. He answers,
“‘O my master…what price could induce your servant, poor though he is, to sell into slavery his only child and his own flesh? Has not one of the poets said, ‘Natural affection is stronger than soup and offspring more precious than carbuncles?”” (7).
This resembles the references to poets and sayings from the Quran and hadith that is sprinkled throughout the 1001 Nights. Seeing as the Calormen do not worship a single deity, it stands to reason that all their references are strictly derived from poets. (The Tisroc’s vizier also quotes the sayings of poets.)
“‘My name…is Aravis Tarkeena and I am the only daughter of Kidrash Tarkaan, the son of Rishti Tarkaan, the son of Kidrash Tarkaan, the son of Ilsombreh Tisroc, the son of Ardeeb Tisroc who was descended in a right line from the god Tash'” (36).
This evokes the tradition of reiterating one’s lineage. Lewis’ also makes a point that Aravis’ storytelling tone is entirely different from her usual one, “[f]or in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay writing” (35). There is a cultural tradition in how they tell stories.
(And yes, Lewis makes a lot of comparisons to his English audience to contrast what they might expect to what is done in Calormen.)
I think the tone is supposed to be stiff and ornate because near the end in Archenland when someone is going to tell a story both Aravis and Shasta-turned-Cor are expecting to be bored. (I’ll go into how I feel that mis-characterizes them later.)
When Aravis, Shasta, and the Talking Horses reach Tashbaan and are separated, Aravis has to rely on the help of an old acquaintance to stop anyone from recognizing her (being, as she is, from a prominent family). Her acquaintance, Lasaraleen,
“insisted on Aravis having a long and luxurious bath (Calormene baths are famous) and then dressing her up in the finest clothes before she would let her explain anything… But when at last they were both seated after a meal (it was chiefly of the whipped cream and jelly and fruit and ice sort) in a beautiful pillared room (which Aravis would have liked better if Lasaraleen’s spoiled pet monkey hadn’t been climbing about it all the time” (99)
This reflects the common practice in the 1001 Nights where characters are taken to the baths and dressed up in beautiful and better clothes than they were wearing prior to their bath. Also, there is a nod to food and architecture, and even the fact that wealthier Calormene can afford to wild animals as pets. The last one isn’t really apparent in the Nights but it tells something about Calormene nobility and their class divide.
And after Shasta is mistaken for Prince Corin (it’s revealed that they’re actually twins), everyone, thinking he is sun-struck, gives him “an iced sherbet in a golden cup to drink” (63). I can confirm that sherbets are drunk in the 1001 Nights because as a child, before I knew better, I kept imagining they were drinking this, which is a frozen dessert between ice cream and sorbet. (And which is apparently an American thing.)
Additionally, when the four arrived in Tashbaan, its
“Palm trees and pillared arcades cast shadows over the burning pavements. And through arched gateways of many a palace, Shasta caught sight of green branches, cool fountains, and smooth lawns” (56).
And there are certainly tales in the 1001 Nights that take time to gush over the amazing beauty of gardens. Also, the mention of fountains reminds me of a planning style that developed in Islamic architecture. Despite that, with their overflown speech, their fashion, their architecture and their food (Tashbaan), they convey more a sense of caricatures of the 1001 Nights if they were pre-Islamic.
So after all that, one of the aspects of why it’s my favorite is its vastly different culture. Is it done in a good way? Eh…it’s certainly a simple, but the Chronicles of Narnia aren’t exactly ripe with elaborate worldbuilding. That said, it’s easy for my mind to imagine a more nuanced and less caricatured culture.
Despite it’s obvious model, I feel like the book is trying to show us another culture by comparison. Is this the best approach? Probably not. Does it eventually all percolate into idealizing Anglophone Christianity? You bet! But before Shasta gets to Narnia, while there may be greedy (Arsheesh), spoiled (Rabadash) or silly (Lasaraleen) people in Calormen, there are also brave (Aravis’ brother) and driven (Aravis) people, too. I like to think it’s a place of many kinds of people, whatever Lewis wants to imply.
And that’s why I feel that the last few chapters seem to discount the earlier half (but I’ll get to that next week).
No words. There may have been some, but I wasn’t keeping track.
Aslan: “‘Child,’ said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own'” (202).
Lewis, C.S. The Horse and His Boy. Full-Color Collector’s ed. Vol. 3. New York: HarperTrophy-HarperCollins Publishers, 2000. Print.