Shasta, is a white boy being raised by a dark-skinned fisherman in the country of Calormen. He overhears the fisherman negotiating a sale of him as a slave to another man. Shasta runs away with the help of a talking horse named, Bree, that wants to return to his homeland of Narnia. Shasta learns that the Narnians are fair-skinned like him and he agrees to flee with Bree. While on the run they meet up with Aravis, a Calormene princess, who is running away from a forced marriage with a man in his 60s. She too, has a talking horse named, Hwin. The four have some unusual adventures that lead Shasta to saving another country that is under attack from the Calormenes.
Heigh-ho! I say to the beginning of this story. The Calormens are flat and cartoonish. There is little depth and they are portrayed as violent for the most part. Lewis seems to miss the mark in trying to impart the message that slavery is deplorable to freedom. Some have called the book racist in its portrayal, but I think it is more stereotypical and not well done. If it was truly racist then why do two of the main characters, one Calormene and the other white, get married at the end of the story? Interracial marriages were frowned upon during the time the series was published. Jim Crow laws were still in place in America. In today's global world the author's portrayal of the Calormens reflects a politically incorrect and insensitive attitude versus racism. I'm not sure how much young readers will notice that. I was obsessed with horses and my best friend had a poster of Secretariat up in her room who won the Triple Crown that year. We practiced drawing horses, memorizing their anatomy, and going horseback riding. It was true love. It was the Year of the Horse. We were oblivious to politics.
The mix of fairy-tales and theology is on a much smaller level in this book that the other two. Aslan appears less in this story; hence, there is less Christian symbolism. Actually I only noticed the obvious one of water as a symbol of living water. Shasta drinks water that has filled up where Aslan has stepped. It refreshes him. Jesus talks much about satisfying people's thirst; that he is the "well of water springing up to eternal life." Aslan is more of a protector or guardian of the characters in this story. He is also judges the characters actions. The theme of taking responsibility and how decisions have small and large consequences is found in the horse, Bree, and Princess Aravis. Aslan teaches Aravis a lesson about the consequences of her actions on a servant while Bree must learn to face his insecurities that make him proud. Shasta has insecurities but is inherently good and humble. The fairy tale mix is Arabian Nights, but there are not too many parallels.
I thought this book lacked the character development in the other two. Shasta is a nice guy and Aravis has more spunk than most of the girls in his story but she gets side-lined with an injury and plays a minor role. Rabadash is a one-dimensional villain and somewhat boring. While there is plenty of external action there is not as much internal tension with the characters making ethical decisions. I have noticed that many authors of this time period (about 75 years ago) seem to short-change girls and other cultures subverting them to minor roles. The protagonist's are white boys that wield swords and fight for justice or save the day. While Lewis did much for giving children's fantasy literature a boost, I like today's evolution of children's books and the variety of genders and cultures represented. Since this is the Year of the Horse according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, it seems appropriate that I reread it. Giddyup and git readin' ya'll!