After selling quite a few copies of the Narnia books at the Christmas book drive in the bookstore where I used to work, I decided to pick up this book, one of the two Narnia books I hadn’t read. It always looked boring to me as a child, so I skipped it when reading the series.
The book has many virtues, including a female character with, well, character, a proud, haughty, brave, loyal, impatient girl named Aravis who accompanies main character Shasta on his journey from Calormen to Narnia. Faced with a forced marriage, the young noblewoman steals her dead brother’s armor and runs away from home. Unsurprisingly for an aristocrat or “Tarkheena,” she looks down on Shasta, a fisherman’s adopted son, but she learns better when he shows his courage, facing a lion to help her. Like most of Lewis’s sympathetic female characters, she’s a tomboy and finds her “friend” Lasaraleen, a girly-girl, silly and selfish–their interaction confirms for me that there really is some misogyny in the exclusion of Susan in The Last Battle. Lewis (correctly imo) sees traditional femininity as a trap. However (and here’s where the misogyny comes in), he doesn’t see that traditional masculine roles can also be a trap, and the always-up-for-a-fistfight minor character Corin is portrayed uncritically.
However, I absolutely loved Aravis. If I have a complaint, besides the big one that I’ll get to at the end, it’s that this isn’t a more character-driven book–Aravis’s grief for her brother is largely unexplored, and Shasta, though real enough, is not very deeply characterized. Aravis certainly isn’t the equal of Orual from Lewis’s post-Narnia book Till We Have Faces in terms of depth, but she’s flawed and vivid and good, and I was very happy to find such a character in Narnia, especially one who’s female and nonwhite.
Alas, as I could have predicted from The Last Battle, pretty much the entire country of Calormen is portrayed negatively and racistly. They’re a massive traditional stereotype of a decadent Eastern empire, dirty and superstitious and tyrannical, proud without much to be proud of. Someone on Twitter pointed out that Aravis from this book and Emeth from The Last Battle, the two “good Calormenes” we encounter, are some of Lewis’s best-drawn characters in the series, which is certainly true, and I give him credit for not painting them all with one brush. However, the racism was pervasive and disturbing enough–and it’s not just about culture, there’s emphasis on how much nicer-looking the white Narnians are–that I deducted a star from this otherwise five-star book.
However, it has Lewis’s usual sense of humor (the grown-up Aravis and Shasta marry so as to go on quarreling and making up “more conveniently”) and sense of the numinous in religion (Aslan of course puts in an appearance, in both his terrifying and comforting forms), and I enjoyed Aravis so much (though Shasta is really the main character) that it may be my favorite Narnia book.