I feel really guilty about loving this book as much as I do. I loved it as a kid and I love it now, and there is just so
much wrong with it.
The xenophobia is positively racist -- by page 5, we're already hearing the first of many references to the fact that the residents of Narnia are considered by the residents of their southern neighbor, Calormen, to be "fair and white...accursed but beautiful barbarians."
The Calormenes, on the other hand, are nothing but walking Middle Eastern stereotypes. They wear turbans and have long beards and speak in overblown wise old sayings like, "Has not one of the poets said, 'Natural affection is stronger than soup and offspring more precious than carbuncles?'"
This aspect of the story is ridiculously, inexcusably bad. As I've mentioned in reviews of other Narnia books, Lewis seems to take great pride in backing the wrong horse at every possible social and/or historical point, and boy howdy, does he blow it here. He puts his last dollar down on good old colonialist "Hey, look! Savages! If only they had a civilized country to tell them what to do!"
(This should not be taken as me buying into moral relativism and excusing the very real sexism and lack of democracy running rampant through the real Middle East, by the way. It's me thinking that those weren't exactly the things that bothered Lewis about that region.)
So: knowing all that, how can I possibly enjoy this book?
I cringe at times, but I do. Lewis has some of his most memorable lines and greatest moral triumphs in this story.
For instance, I once wrote an article and later created an e-card featuring this terrific line:
"If you do one good deed, your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one."
It's true. It's one of the horrible unfairnesses of life, but there it is. And when you see life in those terms, you're better able to bow your head to the deeds that are your lot. It isn't fair. It just is.
I also love when Hwin, the gentle nervous motherly talking horse, speaks up to Bree (another talking horse) when he insists they should take a break before setting out on a march. Time is short and the enemy is almost at the gate, but he wants a snack and a rest and a rubdown first. More than that -- he thinks he needs
"'P-please,' said Hwin, very shyly, 'I feel just like Bree that I can't
go on. But when Horses have humans (with spurs and things) on their backs, aren't they often made to go on when they're feeling like this? and then they find they can.'"
This is true both morally and physically. How often do we get to what we think
is the breaking point -- the point where we simply Can. NOT. Go on. And then, if we don't give in but push ourselves a little harder, we learn the difference between what we think we need and what we're really capable of. Because of course Hwin turns out to be right, and Bree's wrongness almost ruins everything.
I didn't understand this when I read it for the first time, but I remembered it. And now I think about it all the time, whether I'm running a hill or writing a few more words (or any words at all on a day I could have sworn I was too tired to get some writing done).
There are too many outstanding examples like this to resist. And as always, Lewis nails the little moments we can all relate to, even if we've never quite experienced them. Like when Shasta, waiting anxiously for his friends alone in the dark among some ancient tombs, hears a terrible noise. After almost jumping out of his skin, he realizes it's a distant horn blowing for the closing of the city gates:
"'Don't be a silly little coward,' said Shasta to himself. 'Why, it's only the same noise you heard this morning.' But there is a great difference between a noise heard letting you in with your friends in the morning, and a noise heard alone at nightfall, shutting you out."
And then, later, when the two main character children (Shasta and Aravis) are riding across the desert:
"On again, trot and walk and trot, jingle-jingle-jingle, squeak-squeak-squeak, smell of hot horse, smell of hot self, blinding glare, headache. And nothing at all different for mile after mile."
Such brilliantly understated word-painting.
Oh, and one last passage, a short one and one of my favorites ever:
"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."
So, yes, this book is bad. And yes, I love it. Because it's great, too.