The Horse and His Boy was one of my favorite chronicles of Narnia when I was younger — partly because I love all things oriental, and the setting of Calormen is Lewis’s quasi-Arabian society — but more importantly, because of the heroine Aravis. The young Calormene aristocrat, a ‘tarkheena’ as she is entitled, is a singular character in the Lewis mythology: here, for once, the author shows us that he is capable of envisioning a female who is neither a mild-mannered English girl, nor an evil sorceress.
The indomitable Aravis, wearing her brother’s armor, rides off into the night to escape marriage to the disgustingly old and corrupt Ahoshta Tarkhaan. Prepared to end her own life rather than submit, she is persuaded not to commit suicide by her talking horse, of all things (very Lewis), and resolves to escape to Narnia instead. In Aravis, we see Lewis’ incarnation of Scheherezade from One Thousand and One Nights, of course — and possibly a little bit of Mulan, though that might be a mere coincidence.
Unfortunately, there Lewis’s brief excursion into actually respecting female power and other cultures comes to an end. After all — Aravis isn’t Narnian. And the penalty, of course, for not being born into the group of privileged white people known as the “Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve” is that somehow, for some reason, you aren’t as inherently good.
Aravis is accused by both Shasta (who is, for all intents and purposes, a Narnian boy) and Aslan of being unempathetic. During her escape, she drugs a slave in order to escape — knowing that said slave will likely be beaten for oversleeping. Later, Aslan claws her back — actually inflicts physical violence upon her — he says, to atone for the lashings that her slave must have endured. Is that really fair? Should Aravis have really stayed in Calormen, enduring marriage to a sniveling man 4 times her age, just to avoid causing hurt to a slave that will likely be hurt on a regular basis anyway? Does Aslan follow Shasta around and inflict a punishment for every sin the boy has committed? Is Edmund, who gives up his sisters and brother to the White Witch (in the previous chronicle) ever punished for his crimes? No, Aslan takes the blame for good little Northern boys. Not Aravis, though. She’s not allowed to get away with even the slightest blemish on her character.
I find Lewis’s Calormenes (and the Chronicles’ clear bias against them) interesting, as far as his pathological narrow-mindedness is concerned. Throughout The Horse and His Boy, the Calormenes and Calormene culture are referred to with scorn and contempt — particularly by the Narnian warhorse, Bree. They’re rather one-dimensionally depicted; tyrannical, superstitious, idolatrous, vain… Commoners are “men with long, dirty robes, and wooden shoes turned up at the toe, and turbans on their heads, and beards, talking to one another very slowly about things that sounded dull”; the nobility are “mostly impressive, rather than agreeable to look at.” No reason is given as to why this country –which, presumably, was created by Aslan just as well as Narnia and Archenland were — turned out so badly.
Perhaps he implies that religion is to blame for their unjust society; their pagan worship of the god Tash and other deities, like Zardeenah, clearly sets them at odds with the authority of Aslan. Have they just, over the years, lost their way? Maybe that is what Lewis intended…? But it just doesn’t seem like an adequate explanation.
The other protagonist, Shasta, is a boy of Northern descent who just happens to be raised in Calormen — and somehow he escapes the inherent moral corruption of his cruel and greedy “father,” Arsheesh. Aravis’s steelness of character can’t merely be explained by wealth and nobility, since poor, Calormene fishermen apparently have it, too. Bree, the Narnian horse spells it out for us in the first chapter: Shasta is different, Shasta yearns to go North, “because of the blood that is in him.”
Whatever moral arguments Lewis tries to make to rationalize the bad character of Calormenes… It seems to me that their main flaw is apparently not being European. It’s a matter of race, not deservedness; and Lewis dispenses worth preferentially to protagonists of his own ethnicity. For what is Narnia, besides… WWII allied forces? Aravis’s suicide attempt certainly has something Japanese about it. But I digress, that’s for another piece.