The Horse and His Boy
The Horse and His Boy is the second book in C.S. Lewis's children's fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia. It is probably the most controversial of the stories, as it has generated allegations of racism and sexism.
The Horse and His Boy was first published in 1954 and has remained in publication ever since. It has had renewed popularity due to the film series of The Chronicles of Narnia. The book contains drawings based on original illustrations by Pauline Baynes and was dedicated to David and Douglas Gresham, Lewis's stepsons.
The books title gives a clue as to the twist that is to come: instead of being as 'the boy and his horse, as is usual, it is the boy who is spoken of using the possesive case.
The Horse and His Boy opens in a fisherman's shack in Calormen, a country far to the south of Narnia. A visiting noble warrior seeks to buy Shasta, the fisherman's son, and during the course of the ensuing haggling, Shasta first discovers that he is not the fisherman's biological son. Shasta has apparently never noticed that he is a different colour from his father and their neighbours, and it is descriptions of this difference, and what critics feel is the implicit attribution of superiority to people with "fair" ('light', also a synonym for 'beautiful') skin colouring, and the descriptions of the Calormens as cruel dark-skinned people, that has drawn the accusations of racism.
Shasta's next surprise is finding out that the warrior's steed can talk. The horse tells Shasta that he is from the northern kingdom of Narnia, and he suspects that Shasta is, too. Upon being told that he would be better off dead than a slave in the nobleman's household Shasta agrees to escape with the Horse, called Bree, and attempt to reach the northern kingdoms.
The story continues with their travels through Calormen, where they join forces with a young noblewoman and her Mare, another talking horse from Narnia, who are also making their way north. The girl, Aravis, is a Calormene, but is evading a forced arranged marriage; she was planning suicide but her Mare, Hwin, intervenes and persuades her to try to escape to the 'free land of Narnia' instead.
The friends are accidentally separated while making their way through the capital city. Aravis ends up overhearing a plot by Prince Rabadash to invade Archenland undeclared, and conquer both it and Narnia; Shasta gets mistaken for truant Prince Corin of Archenland, for whom he is a dead ringer. The fugitives are eventually reunited, but Aravis is wounded and Shasta has to make his way alone into Archenland, to warn the king of the impending invasion....
Of course we could tell you the rest of the story, but read the book, it's much better.
Allegations of racist elements
The character of Aravis goes a long way towards debunking the idea of racism. She is indisputably a Calormene, and is given all the most noble of attributes, including grace, intelligence and discretion. Lewis does not tell us explicitly if she is attractive or not, but, he says she was 'as true as steel'. Interestingly, none of the Archenlanders or Narnians make any comment on her colour at all, it is a non-issue in the book and she is accepted instantly by all on the basis of her character. In addition, Calormen itself is described as an advanced civilisation.
As regards sexism, Narnian Queen Susan and the Calormene Lasaraleen are portrayed as having stereotypically feminine vanity and silliness, but Queen Lucy, Hwin and Aravis are described in much more gender-neutral terms, and, says Prince Corin 'Lucy's as good as a man, or at least as good as a boy'.