Surely Michael Ward’s mind boiled and brightened in 2003 when he discovered that each of the seven books in C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia echo one of the seven spheres of the medieval solar system. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example, embodies the festivity and sovereignty of the planet Jupiter, while The Horse and His Boy embodies the haste and heraldry of Mercury.
The analogues are many: Because Mercury oversees the constellation Gemini, Boy oversees two horses, two princes, two girls, two countries. Just as mercury is a rolling, liquid metal which separates and reforms, so is Boy about division and reunion. Indeed, Mercury is god of crossroads and messengers. Thus Shasta embodies the herald rushing to warn of coming war. As Mercury is fastest of the spheres, spinning nearest the sun, so does Boy pulse with urgency and hope on the brink of disaster.
But there is more going on here than fun-facts about Mercury. Boy is the best in the Chronicles because it is, in this sense, closest to the light and the heat. It is the only book of the seven which takes place entirely within the subcreation of Narnia. Such proximity to the source brightens the extremes of “the terrifying and the beautiful” (or as Lewis wrote a decade prior, “the horror and the glory.”) Boy is the Ecclesiastes of Chronicles: a severe mercy that cuts through hollow proverbs and humbles the proud. It is the Exodus that frees us from exile but finds us longing for home.
Indeed, there is no passage between worlds here, and it doesn’t take long for “the smell and heat and noise” of Tashbaan to find us pining again for “Narnia of the heathery mountains and thymy downs, Narnia of the many rivers, the splashing glens, the mossy caverns and deep forests, Narnia of the cool woods and dewy slopes, the castles and the great ships.”
Boy is thus a pinnacle of one of Lewis’s calling cards: sehnsucht, the sacred longing—for beauty, for adventure, for home. Shasta, at first silent despite Mercury’s skill of speech, is sodden with “the secret which pierces with such sweetness” that we were made for another world.
And here Mercury yields to Moses. The infant Shasta floats down foreign waters. He crosses a desert to confront an empire. He walks with God in the fog and fear of the mountain. He helps rescue his people but never quite makes it to the promised land.
Likewise, even as we enter the Chronicles, we obviously stay in our own world. Even worse, Boy drops us in Calormen as members of the apparent global superpower—one that sees Narnia as a small “unseemly blot on the skirts of our empire.” Indeed, the Calormenes are presented, perhaps like us, as expansionist and mercurial—fickle, proud, overly ambitious—harkening to Dante’s second sphere of Paradiso in which those who forge their own fame merely fade in the brightness of God’s Glory.
My old RUF campus minister often said that if you could summarize the Bible in one verse, it would be “God opposes the proud but gives grace to humble.” Boy arouses the same claim. Hwin, the weaker of the two horses, sets the pace for the proud war-horse Bree. It is she who comes first to Aslan (“I’d rather be eaten by you than fed by anyone else”). Whereas Bree gallops away at the cusp of the Lion’s claws, it is Shasta—the one who has never faced combat—who turns back to defend his friends.
Our main characters are forced to reckon with their actions in a way that recalls the restoration of Peter and the doubting of Thomas: “Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast.” Indeed, Boy finds Aslan at his most austere. No Dawn-Treader dragon-skin baptism here. Aslan’s claws tear straight to the skin.
But even among this vision of a Lion who brings justice (the deficient virtue in the sphere of Mercury), Boy also shows us Aslan at his most steadfast, merciful, present. (Who can forget those cascading indicatives: “I was the lion…”?) Indeed, even as Aslan slashes Aravis’s back, he does so at the threshold of The Hermit of the Southern March—a sort of Tom-Bombadil-esque Franciscan who calls the horses “cousins,” Shasta “son,” and Aravis “daughter,” and who is called “father” in return.
The Hermit is among my favorite characters in all of Narnia. He is the primeval wayfarer and healer—an inspiration to me as a physician, to heal the wounded and the traveler and send them off true. To give rest and yet also be willing to say “run, run, always run” when a charge of courage is needed. Just as Mercury holds the caduceus, it is fitting that the hermit speaks in words reminiscent of the Oaths—“I know many present things by my art [but] I do not know when whether any man or woman … will still be alive when the sun sets … But be of good hope.”
Boy reminds us that hope is not something promised so much as practiced. It forces us to reckon such hope between the Judge and the Healer—to wrestle seriously with God’s Providence but also His respect of free choice. Boy presents an Aslan who seems “intent to aggravate my woe” yet heals the wounds he Himself has wrought.
As the warm debate over which book is best in the Chronicles completes another orbit, The Horse and His Boy stands small but brilliant, a pearl of bright quicksilver “boiling and bubbling in mind and heart,” spinning faster, faster, faster—ever closer to the One who cuts through vain ambition and heralds good news, protector of the thymy downs and desert tombs—“the one who was has waited long for you.”