Joy Comes in the Morning
The fifth Chronicle begins neither in England, nor in Narnia. Chronicles 1-4 & 6 all begin in England. This one begins in a foreign land (Calormene) in the Narnia world. And The Last Battle begins in Narnia. This is also the only one where there is no “travel” between our world and Narnia.
Which is strange considering this is a story marked by many partings & reunions. It follows the adventures of Shasta, a boy who has been raised by a cruel fisherman. Without love, without wealth, without imagination. But one day a wealthy nobleman needs to spend the night in the fisherman’s home. Shasta learns he is to be sold to the nobleman as a slave, and that he wasn’t really the fisherman’s son. Before he flees, the nobleman’s horse (Bree) speaks to him and informs him that he is a Narnian horse, and longs to return to his homeland. Shasta and the horse concoct a plan to escape together. They succeed in their escape.
But eventually they meet a similarly fleeing princess (tarkina) and her talking horse (Aravis & Whin). They join forces, but are separated in the capital city, where Shasta meets the Narnian cohort (Susan & Edmund, and their attendants). But he also meets a boy who is his spitting image, but is Prince Corin of Archenland.
Once Shasta and his separated companions are reunited, it is revealed that Aravis has learned that Rabadash, prince of Calormene is concocting a plan to kidnap Susan, force her to be his wife, and conquer Archenland and Narnia for his father. Thus, they rush through desert and mountain to reach King Lune of Archenland in time to warn him. Along the way Shasta is once more separated, and is sent alone to find King Lune & warn him of the coming danger. By good fortune, he finds the King in time, warns him, but is once more separated. He wanders, accidentally into Narnia, and again, by a guiding hand (er…paw), is able to warn the Narnian’s of their ally’s danger.
They return to King Lune’s aid just in time. There it is revealed that Shasta is, in fact, King Lune’s son, who’d been kidnapped in infancy. Through this whole saga, operating as it were in the shadows, the Lion has been guiding the whole story, even the darkest chapters, to a bright deliverance.
A Brief Observation
This is, by my reckoning, the first introduction of any sort of organized religion in the Narnian books; and this religion is, of course, a false one. Grave, mysterious, bloody, and ruled over by the demon-god Tash (who reappears in The Last Battle). These last three chronicles are much more “theological” in their themes and plots. This book sets up the antipathy that existed between two religious systems, which The Last Battle will explore further.
The Proud Brought Low, The Low Raised Up
I think it could easily be shown that this chronicle is a parable of “A man’s pride shall bring him low: but honour shall uphold the humble in spirit (Pro 29:23).” When you start looking for this, you see it all over the story.
Shasta the lowly orphan raised to become heir of Archenland’s throne. Rabadash the impetuous, haughty prince of Calormen is turned into an ass (because he totally is an ass). Bree the great war-horse is confronted with the realization that when he gets to Narnia he will be just an average-joe Narnian horse (“as long as you know you’re nobody special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse”).
Aravis the Tarkina becomes a fugitive, but is raised up to become queen, but only after her vanity is humbled, her haughty pride of place is chastised by the Lion’s claws. The Tisroc is revered as god-like authority, but everyone knows he will still die. Or as Bree shrewdly observed, “I don’t want him to live forever, and I know that he’s not going to live forever whether I want him to or not.”
Live Like Kings & Free-men
One of the most easily applicable lessons to be gleaned from this tale is how to live nobly. There are two descriptions we’re given on this front, which we would do well to take to heart. The first can be found in King Lune of Archeland’s admonishment to his son, “For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”
The lesson here is that there will be engagement with enemies. This is a non-negotiable. Thus, a true Narnian spirit is one that leads with courage and sacrifice. In the face of a fight, the instinct is to run to battle and not away. Even in the hardest of circumstance, a Narnian does all this jovially and sets the example of resisting moroseness and despair. Enduring sorrow & suffering is arguably the theme of this book; and King Lune’s admonition here is that lesson stated explicitly. More on that in a second.
The second description which provides a helpful template for how freemen should live and behave is found when Shasta first meets the Narnians during their envoy to Tashban:
“Shasta had never seen anyone like them before. For one thing, they were all as fair-skinned as himself, and most of them had fair hair. And they were not dressed like men of Calormen. Most of them had legs bare to the knee. Their tunics were of fine, bright, hardy colours – woodland green, or gay yellow, or fresh blue. Instead of turbans they wore steel or silver caps, some of them set with jewels, and one with little wings on each side of it. A few were bare-headed. The swords at their sides were long and straight, not curved like Calormene scimitars. And instead of being grave and mysterious like most Calormenes, they walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling. You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly, and didn’t give a fig for anyone who wasn’t. Shasta thought he had never seen anything so lovely in his life.”
If we, as a community of believers, labored to imitate that wonderful description in how we behave ourselves, it will be like the wafting scent of some delicious bakery to this starving world. Be ready to be friends with everyone, and don’t give a rip for what the world thinks about you.
Obedience in the Dark
As I alluded to a moment ago, the theme of this book is learning that the lion’s claws sometimes cut us deeply, sometimes his roar startle us. But this suffering should not be seen as pointless. This tale instructs us that suffering should lead us to obey the Lord in faith.
As the narrator reminds us, “If you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.” We think that if we do some good deed, kick some wicked habit, or overcome some temptation that we can settle in someplace cozy. But sorrow and suffering are given to us as thorns to spur us onward in our pursuit of holiness.
Obedience in the sunshine is quite easy. Obedience in the shadows is not. When all around my soul gives way…what then? Well, that is precisely where faith is shown to be genuine or fraudulent.
Though you walk through death’s valley, the Lion is there before you, behind you, above you, beside you, and underneath you. But His presence is only found by the humble. It is the meek who will inherit the earth. The haughty will be turned into a laughingstock. The Psalmist teaches us this same lesson: “The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry. The face of the LORD is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth (Psa 34:15-16).”
Grace is only for the humble. While God’s fierce immovability is for the proud. Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face. All of your hardships were picked out by the kind providence of God. He aims to humble you, so that He might raise you up. The cross is followed by the crown. Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.