As we remember C.S. Lewis fifty years after his death, I post a mild rewrite of the third in my 2006 Lent series on characters from the Narnia stories, and what they can teach us about following Jesus. Again, I thank John Bowen of Wycliffe College, whose book ‘The Spirituality of Narnia‘ I was privileged to read in draft form when I was preparing these sermons.
Today I want to tell you a story about two horses.
Over the past few days we’ve been taking as our spiritual guide C.S. Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ stories for children – and for childlike adults as well. Although these stories were not written as textbooks about following Jesus, I believe that they are full of insight into what it means to be Christian disciples. Each week we’re taking one or more characters from the Narnia books and asking ‘What do these characters have to teach us about following Jesus?’ We began with Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure from Narnia; we learned that he is not a tame lion and he’s definitely not safe, but he’s good. Aslan shows us what Jesus is like and teaches us to approach him with absolute confidence in his love for us, but also in absolute obedience to his authority. Then we moved on to think about Eustace Scrubb, a boy who became a dragon because of his selfishness and greed, and could only be changed back into a boy by the power of Aslan. Eustace taught us that only the power of Christ can transform us into the people God wants us to be.
Today our characters are two talking horses from the book The Horse and His Boy. Their names are ‘Bree’ and ‘Hwin’. Hwin is a gentle mare, and Bree is a proud and fierce war horse; his full name is actually ‘Breehy-Hinny-Hooey-Hah’ but we won’t mention that again! The title of the book, The Horse and His Boy, comes from something Bree says in the story; he points out that in Narnia talking horses are free and are not slaves of humans, so he’s not Shasta’s horse; you might just as well say that Shasta is ‘his’ boy.
The Horse and His Boy opens in Calormen, a huge land south of Narnia; there we meet Shasta, the adopted son of a poor fisherman. One night a great Tarkaan, or noble lord, demands to spend the night at their house, and later in the evening Shasta overhears him talking with the fisherman about how much he will pay to buy the boy as a slave.
That same night Shasta discovers by accident that the Tarkaan’s horse, Bree, is a talking horse – something completely unknown in Calormen, although of course it is common up north in Narnia. The two of them decide to escape together to Narnia and freedom. When they have been on their way for a few days, they are pursued by hunting lions and are forced into the company of another talking horse the mare Hwin, and her rider, a young and proud daughter of a Lord, the Tarkheena Aravis. The book then goes on to tell of the adventures that the two horses and the two children have together on their way to Narnia.
Bree explains that he was stolen from the land of Narnia while he was a foal, and has lived in Calormen for years, as he says, ‘hiding my true nature and pretending to be dumb and witless like their horses’. Along the way he has become very proud of himself. He is often concerned about how he appears to others, and even though he wants to get back to Narnia, he has worries about it, too; he worries that, having been away for so long, he might not know the proper protocol. For instance, one of the things Bree really loves in getting down on his back and having a good roll. The boy Shasta sees him doing it one day and bursts out laughing. Immediately Bree gets worried:
“You don’t think, do you,” said Bree, “that it might be a thing talking horses never do—a silly, clownish trick I’ve learned from the dumb ones? It would be dreadful to find, when I get back to Narnia, that I’ve picked up a lot of low, bad habits.”
A little later on the journey the horses and their humans have to go through the huge city of Tashbaan. They are worried that it will be obvious to everyone who looks at them that the horses have come from rich houses, and everyone will see Shasta and Aravis as horse thieves. So they decide that the horses will have to be made muddy and bedraggled, and their tails will have to be cut short and ragged. When he hears about this plan, Bree objects strenuously:
“My dear madam,” said Bree. “Have you pictured to yourself how very disagreeable it would be to arrive in Narnia in that condition?”
“Well,” said Hwin humbly (she was a very sensible mare), “the main thing is to get there.”
For Bree, arriving in Narnia in a bedraggled condition would be ‘disagreeable’ – it would give a bad first impression, and he wants to be seen by everyone as the fine stallion he believes he is. Hwin, in contrast, speaks humbly: to be humble, for C.S. Lewis, is to be sensible and to have a realistic view of yourself.
Now, when I read these stories about Bree, they show me some very unwelcome truths about myself. I realize that in many ways I’m like him. I wish I wasn’t, but in fact I am. I’d like to be able to say, “I don’t really care what other people think of me”, but in fact I notice that I care a great deal. I notice that there are many times – more times than I care to remember – when I do things or say things or wear things or join things, not because I like them or because I think they are what God wants for me, but because I think they’ll make a good impression on other people. People will be impressed, I hope, and if they give me the right amount of respect and attention, I’ll be able to feel that I’m somebody after all. Perhaps I’m the only one who does this, but I suspect not. I suspect we’ve all done it from time to time.
In Philippians 2:3-4 Paul says: ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others’. Bree’s pride takes the form of ‘conceit’, but there’s another proud character in The Horse and His Boy – the Tarkheena Aravis, the young noblewoman who is escaping to Narnia with the horse Hwin in order to get away from a forced marriage. Aravis’ pride takes the form of looking to her own interests and forgetting the interests of others – especially those who are of a lower social class than her. For instance, she tells of how, when she was escaping from her home, she drugged her stepmother’s maidservant so that she would not prevent her escape. Shasta asks what happened to the maidservant.
“Doubtless she was beaten for sleeping late,” said Aravis coolly. “But she was a tool and spy of my stepmother’s. I am very glad they should beat her.”
Aravis sees her maidservant as inferior and doesn’t care about her suffering; she’s just a tool. But to Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure in the Narnia stories, this incident is very important. Later in the story he pursues Aravis and strikes her across the back with his claws. When he explains to her why this happened, this is what he says:
‘The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like’.
Bree needs to learn not to think of himself as better than others; Aravis needs to learn to think of others and not just herself. We’ve seen how Aravis learns her lesson; Bree’s lesson is interesting, too. He likes to come across as a big brave stallion, but there’s one chink in his armour; he’s terrified of lions. We first see this the night he and Shasta meet Hwin and Aravis. They hear the roar of a lion, and Bree runs in terror. Later on he says to Shasta:
“Shasta, I’m ashamed of myself. I’m just as frightened as a common, dumb Calormene horse… I don’t feel like a talking horse at all. I don’t mind swords and lances and arrows but I can’t bear – those creatures”.
But Bree isn’t really brought face to face with the truth about himself until we get toward the end of the story. The children and the horses are approaching the land of Narnia, just ahead of Prince Rabadash who is bringing an invading army. A lion pursues them – it later turns out to be Aslan, who wants to give them the extra speed of fear so that they can warn people in time about the invaders. The lion leaps at Aravis; Bree runs away in terror, and it is little Shasta who jumps off and runs back to help Aravis. The lion runs away, and the four of them all reach safety in the home of a Hermit, but the experience has been a revelation for them all. Bree finally sees the truth about himself, and later he says to the Hermit:
“I who called myself a war-horse and boasted of a hundred fights, to be beaten by a little human boy—a child, a mere foal, who had never held a sword nor had any good nurture or example in his life!”
Proud Bree finds this truth devastating; he feels he has lost everything, and he talks of going back to Calormen. But the Hermit of the Southern March is a wise man, and he sees the reality of the situation. He says to Bree:
“My good horse, you’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit. . . . If you are really as humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses”.
Bree’s problem has been that he thinks he’s more than he really is; he believed a lie about himself, and now he’s been forced to accept the truth. The truth isn’t that he’s a bad horse; it’s just that he’s not quite the star of the show he had believed he was. Humility means accepting the truth about ourselves: that, like every other person in this fallen world, we are a combination of strengths and weaknesses, no more or less important than anyone else.
A moment ago I referred to two verses from Philippians chapter two. In many ways, the story of The Horse and His Boy could be a commentary on this chapter. Let me refer you to the first five verses:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:1-5)
Bree, as we’ve seen, needs to learn the truth of verse 3: he acts out of conceit and sees himself as better than others. And yet, we also get the sense that there’s a basic insecurity in him too; he’s always wondering what others think of him and is terrified that they might not think well of him. It’s my observation that many people who come across as proud and arrogant actually have a deep insecurity inside; they want others to look up to them because they have an inner need for attention and strokes.
Aravis, on the other hand, needs to learn the truth of verse 4: she grew up thinking only of her own interests and not the interests of others – especially those of a lower social class than her. She doesn’t worry about her maid’s sufferings; all she cares about is getting away. She’s not being intentionally malicious; this is the way she’s learned to think, and she needs to be trained to see others as equally important and significant as her.
The solution to both these forms of pride is in the rest of the passage:
‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8).
Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who had the highest claim on a position of respect and importance. And yet he humbled himself, became one of us human beings, and went so far as to die on the Cross for us. Can you ever imagine Jesus asking the question, “Is anyone noticing me?” Jesus didn’t need to ask that question. At his baptism he had heard the voice of his Father in heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Once he knew that truth about himself, it didn’t matter whether people noticed him or not.
This is the secret of true humility: coming to believe the truth about yourself as God sees you. The truth is that all of us are children in the Father’s family, and each of us is no more important, and no less important, than any of God’s other children. The important thing is not that the other children admire you; the important thing, rather, is that the Father loves you. And once you believe that, you can put your mental mirrors away, and stop worrying about how you look and what sort of impression you’re making on others. Instead of looking to others to bolster our low self-esteem, we can concentrate on loving them, because God loves them, and we are the children of God, and it’s in the nature of the children of God to imitate what their Father is doing.