So, let's talk about Narnia, one of the most beloved fictional worlds of children's literature. The magical land through the wardrobe, home to a delightful array of nymphs and witches and wrong-sized animals. I was gifted a box set of the Narnia books as a kid (by my Jewish cousin, who didn't seem to notice and/or mind the overt Christian symbolism) and I read them all repeatedly. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was excellent, because the kids went on a boat and had lots of thrilling boat adventures. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was an absolute classic. Prince Caspian and The Silver Chair have completely merged in my mind, so I'm not entirely sure what happened in either of them (something about a Marsh-wiggle?). The Magician's Nephew was good but kind of scary, and I didn't like The Last Battle because Susan gets cast out of heaven for liking lipstick.
But my absolute favorite Narnia book, hands down, was The Horse and His Boy.
Now I know what you're thinking: "...that was a Narnia book? I do not remember that being Narnia book." And it's true that The Horse and His Boy is kind of an outlier of the series. The Pevensies are not the main characters in it. The main characters aren't kids from our world at all, in fact, and the main action of the book doesn't even take place in Narnia. It's set to the southeast of Narnia, in the country of Calormen (I thought that Narnia was a whole fantasy world but I guess it is just fantasy England? Ok).
And looking back at The Horse and His Boy now, in the year 2018, all I can say is YIKES.
I'm pretty sure that The Horse and His Boy was my favorite Narnia book because it had a horse in it (a talking horse!), and my singular goal in life at age eight was to obtain or become a horse by any means necessary. But I think I also liked it because it wasn't set in Narnia. The world of Calormen was not a vaguely English, vaguely European, vaguely medieval fantasy-scape. It was something different. At the time, that felt exciting, because I had simply read so many fantasy books set in fantasy Europe. And also because I had not yet been taught the term "Orientalist."
Pick up the book now, though, and it's a fairly rude awakening.
If you don't remember the geopolitical world of Narnia, I'll remind you that Calormen is the enemy of Narnia in The Final Battle. It is the country of evil, violent, demon-worshipers who kill all the talking trees and try to defeat Aslan (but he's God, so he's fine). Calormen is also heavily coded as Middle Eastern. Heavily. The cover art of The Horse and His Boy appears to feature at least one mosque in the background. The people are described as having "dark faces and long beards." They live in the desert. They "wear flowing robes and orange-coloured turbans."
And, as C.S. Lewis puts it in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, they are "wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient."
The "cruel" aspect of the Calormene is front and center in The Horse and His Boy. The story follows Shasta, a young (white) boy who was found as a baby by Arsheesh, a fisherman from Calormen. Arsheesh is cruel and hateful (of course!), and tries to sell Shasta into slavery. But Shasta overhears his adoptive father talking to the slaver, who utters this cringe-y sentence:
"This boy is manifestly no son of yours. For your cheek is as dark as mine but the boy is fair and white like the accursed but beautiful barbarians who inhabit the remote north."
And yet again I say: YIKES.
So little Shasta escapes with the help of Bree, a sassy talking horse from Narnia, who was captured by the horrible, mean Calormene as a foal. With a nudge from the omnipotent Aslan, Shasta, and Bree come across Aravis, a Calormene girl who is running away to escape a forced marriage to a terrible, no good Calormene. She also has a magical Narnia horse, Hwin, but Hwin is humble and gentle instead of being sassy because she is a Lady Horse.
The two horses and their kids travel north, get embroiled in a few political plots, and discover that Shasta is really the long-lost prince of Archenland, another vaguely European nation-state! Hooray! (Seriously, how many countries are there on the Narnia planet? Why is Narnia the only magical one?)
But then the Calormene invade Archenland, and the Calormene prince Rabadash plans to hop over to Narnia to kidnap and forcibly wed Queen Susan (you know, from the first book). Luckily, though, the Narnians come to aid Shasta and his buds at the last minute, and Aslan turns Rabadash into a donkey. The Calormene are defeated. Shasta and Aravis get married and rule over their vaguely European nation-state for the rest of their days—but only after Aslan shreds Aravis' back with his claws to punish her for the sins she committed in escaping her forced marriage.
The whole thing is a simpler adventure story than any of the other Narnia books. I can see why it appealed to me as a kid: there were talking horses and daring escapes, and a princess-adjacent girl who could ride and hold her own against the boy (until she is punished by Aslan, marries the boy, and assimilates into Fantasy European culture).
The tropes that Lewis uses aren't even particularly shocking or new. We've seen the secret prince and the "exotic" princess before. We've seen vaguely Christian fantasy European before. We've seen vaguely Middle Eastern bad guys before, especially in the works of Lewis' BFF, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Picking this book up again after so many years, though, I felt very differently than I had as a child. I remembered The Last Battle, where Susan is cast out of heaven for her interest in "lipsticks" and "nylons." I remembered feeling confused that swords and battles were totally cool in Narnia, but makeup was Bad. But I'd forgotten the not-so-subtle hate in The Horse and His Boy. I'd forgotten the way that dark skin, beards, turbans, and even flowery language were made synonymous with dirty, evil, cruelty in the world of C.S. Lewis.
Or worse, I didn't even notice the bigotry as a kid because I was so used to books like this one. I didn't see anything unusual about it. At that age, I don't think I had ever read anything set in the Fantasy Middle East that wasn't written by a European author. The fact that an entire people were typified as "cruel" did not set off any alarm bells. That was just what I expected from a kids' book.
So Narnia. If it meant something to you as a kid, that's fine. But we have to be able to acknowledge the hate in C.S. Lewis' writing, along with all the religious messaging. We have to admit that his books don't just pull from European mythology, but actively support white, European supremacy.
And most importantly, we have to start reading talking horse books (or any kids' books, really) that send a better, more inclusive message.