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Top 100 Children’s Novels Poll #96: The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

#96 The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis (1954)
20 points

Admittedly this one was a real shocker to the system.  Not only did it not show up on the previous poll but I rarely hear it come up in common conversation.  When we talk about Lewis we usually talk about the first three of his titles or maybe The Magician’s Nephew.  We might even debate the relative merits (or lack thereof) of The Last Battle, but The Horse and His Boy?  Yet here we are.  Enough people not only thought it a worthy inclusion, their love for it reigned supreme enough to get it on the Top 100 list!

The plot, as told by Kirkus, reads: “The setting is familiar. There is the eastern flavour to his make-believe kingdoms and great Aslan the Lion is still Narnia’s protector. But for a new hero there is Shasta, a slave boy in the tyrannical land of Calormen, and of unknown parentage, who escapes to the free north with Bree, one of Narnia’s talking horses. En route, they meet Aravis, a Calormene princess also in flight because of an impending forced marriage, and together they help snuff out a Calormene plot to attack not only Narnia but its brother land of Archenland, of which Shasta turns out to be a lost prince.”

Of all the Narnia books this is the one that is believe to be anti-Arab.  As this is the fifth Narnia book (depending on how you count them) there was some talk of whether or not there would ever be a movie.  Yet as the Houston Chronicle pointed out in 2005: “the BBC produced versions of four ‘Narnia’ books in the late ’80s (now available on DVD, in highly respectable renderings, but with cheesy ’80s-era special effects). ‘The Horse and His Boy’ wasn’t among those four.”  While Shasta is light-skinned, the Calormenes are “men with long, dirty robes, and wooden shoes turned up at the toe, and turbans on their heads, and beards . . .”  They lives in a city where “What you would chiefly have noticed if you had been there were the smells, which came from unwashed people, unwashed dogs, scent, garlic, onions, and the piles of refuse which lay everywhere.”

Lots of problems with this, and so one wonders how much would be changed if a film was ever made.  Those who read it in their youth don’t remember these details, of course.  Still and all, it’s good to keep them in mind when we consider this list as a whole.

Kirkus said of it, “A beautifully written tale to read aloud as well, in which C.S. Lewis’ talents seem to flower more than ever.”

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Not a book I wanted to reread – ever. Oh well.

  2. I loved this book chiefly for Aravis. The brave princess, dressing in her brother’s armor and leaving everything she’s ever known and loved for unknown dangers in order to escape a forced marriage to a cruel man … she was awesome. Far more awesome than Shasta, in my mind. Because of her, I never read this book as anti-Arab – but then, I also completely missed the Christian connection in the Chronicles until it was pointed out to me, so it’s entirely possible I was just dumb about it.

  3. I loved this one much more on rereading. As a young adult, I loved all the Christian truths that C. S. Lewis worked in. About how Aslan guided Shasta’s journey, even when it seemed like awful things were happening. About how your reward for doing a task well is to be given a harder one. About how no one’s told any story but his own. (You see, there are many quotable moments in this book.)

    I knew very little about Arab culture when I read it as a kid, so the Calormenes were just Calormenes to me, from a fantasy culture.

  4. This is my favorite Narnia book. Because of Aravis mostly. I love her to pieces. This is actually one I voted for but I had little hope it would actually make the list and am excited it did.

    I was really surprised the first time I heard anybody describe it as anti-Arab because, like Sondy, as a child I read it as Calormenes were Calormenes. As an adult I see more similarities to Ancient Babylon than I do the Arab world, but I can see where other people are coming from with that complaint.

  5. Genevieve says

    Funny, the only one you didn’t mention is my son’s favorite, The Silver Chair.
    When he turned 7, he wanted to have a Silver Chair birthday party, but I convinced him to make it a Narnia party so the other guests would have some idea what we were doing.

  6. Oh, and don’t forget that Aravis herself is a Calormene, so they definitely aren’t portrayed as all bad.

  7. This is one of the more underrated titles in the series– definitely one of my favorites! I think it’s cool that it made the list. (I’ll second the bit about Calormenes being Calormenes).

  8. You’re right, Brandy, the Tisroc-may-he-live-forever has echoes of Daniel in Babylon, constantly saying “O king, live forever.” More Christian overtones — but this one, just a reference to a Bible story about a pagan king. It emphasizes the “otherness” of Calormen, like the Israelites in the Babylonian captivity, among people who didn’t worship the true God.

  9. Genevieve says

    Aravis was a terrific heroine, but I did still have major trouble with the Calormenes – almost all of them were portrayed negatively (the only positive ones I can remember are Aravis and that young man in The Last Battle). I would’ve had an easier time seeing them as just an invented people if they hadn’t been described with the same terms British writers of that era used to describe the Middle East all the time (turbans, long robes, curved swords, garlic and onions – which authors of that era were frequently negative about). It seemed pretty clearly to be a very negative portrait of an Arab country.

    If we had seen more Calormenes who were unhappy with the rule there, then it would just be a picture of a government that was controlling its people, and good people who disagreed with that but had no power to change it. But instead, it’s written as though Aravis is the only good Calormene, and her reward is to live in Narnia. And Shasta is a good Calormene only because he’s really a Narnian.

    So much in this book that I liked – mainly the things Sondy mentioned about no one is told someone else’s story, and Aravis getting scratched by the lion in amounts equal to the amount her serving girl was whipped for letting Aravis escape, the interactions between Bree and Hwin, etc. But so much that gave me serious qualms as well.

  10. Yea for one of my top 10!! We’re a rare breed, we are, who love this book. But it’s a great way to find other kindred spirits :-). Yes to Brandy–I never read this with “Arab” in mind–just “Calormene”….

  11. To me, the cultural coding is unavoidable. The Calormenes manage to pull together all of the standard portrayals of the “mysterious East,” strongly colored by the world of the Arabian Nights. The combination of decadent luxury and casual cruelty, the clothing, the architecture, the fact that the currency is the “crescent,” etc. all add up to “fantasy Arabia.” And the presence of one (or two) good Calormenes does not in any way make up for the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of the culture as a whole.

    That said, if you can set the Orientalism aside (which I don’t think I can) this is, in my opinion, the best-written book in the whole series. It is, more than any of the others, a tightly-written adventure story. It’s well-paced and exciting, with likeable heroes who get to _do_ things, not just watch others do them.

  12. This one is my favorite of the series. I didn’t like it as much when I first read it because I had expected more of the Pensevies, but once I got used to the idea that the main character was Shasta I fell in love with it. My favorite character, however, is Bree. It’s a great story about finding one’s freedom, learning to be humble, and learning to respect others. Also I would not call this story racist, especially given Aravis is one of the main protagonists,… but rather it portrays the difference between two rival cultures… Although the Calormene government seems rather corrupt, there are quite a few Calmorenes in the series who aren’t shown in such a negative light.