Identity, Environment, and Escape in The Horse and His Boy and The Tombs of Atuan

Noah Jensen


C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea are two beloved fantasy series known for their depth of imagination and exploration of complex philosophical issues, yet in many ways, the two series stand in opposition to each other. In the nineteen-fifties, Lewis, like many of his contemporary fantasy authors, drew inspiration largely from tales with traditional Christian and pre-Christian European values featuring idealised male heroes of noble lineages going on fantastical quests to prove their worth, a worldview he often replicated. Approximately two decades later, Le Guin would begin her own fantasy epic. While she drew from many common inspirations, her views were influenced by the growing civil rights, feminist, and other leftist movements of her time, as well as by the various traditions of peoples across the globe. While Narnia is extremely Eurocentric and explicitly Christian, Earthsea is intentionally secular, drawing inspiration from many cultures and religions. Earthsea encourages the reader to question assumptions about race and separates personal identity from ethnicity, while Lewis often relies on racial stereotypes and clings to outdated views of individuals’ worth as inherently tied to their bloodlines. The similarities and differences between Lewis’s and Le Guin’s works are perhaps nowhere clearer than in the fifth book of Narnia, The Horse and His Boy and the second book of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan. Both novels tell tales of escape from patriarchal oppression and use their landscapes to enhance their narratives. They also deal with people of different cultures and skin-tones meeting and, through their interaction, regaining a sense of identity that was taken from them. However, where Lewis ties personal identity to race and tells a traditional heroic tale with a tidy resolution, Le Guin resists such simplicities and calls into question the prevalent racist and sexist assumptions behind such stories. It is quite possible that Le Guin took direct inspiration from The Horse and His Boy, as she published her novel about sixteen years after Lewis’s, but this is not necessarily the case. Le Guin is not just writing a response to Lewis but critiquing the traditional Eurocentric style of fantasy and heroism that he exemplifies. Ultimately, her novel functions as a strong counterpoint to Lewis’s writing and his antiquated notions of race, identity, and environment.

The two novels have several superficial similarities which makes the parallels between them easier to draw. Firstly, both stories centre on an escape from oppression to foreign, magical lands inhabited by people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Additionally, the lands that must be escaped from in both novels are deserts. The desert of Calormen in The Horse and His Boy seems to match Lewis’s Orientalist portrayal of the Calormene people, evoking some vague notion of the Middle East. Le Guin, on the other hand, admits that her primary inspiration for the landscape of Atuan is southeastern Oregon (Le Guin 241-2). Still, the deserts have one notable similarity: they both prominently feature tombs. The tombs in Calormen are described as “great masses of mouldering stone shaped like gigantic beehives, but a little narrower. They looked very black and grim” (Lewis 98), and they are said to be haunted by ghouls. Similarly, the Tombs of Atuan are “several black stones eighteen or twenty feet high stuck up like huge fingers out of the earth” (Le Guin 148) and are inhabited by the Nameless Ones. All of these surface-level parallels say little by themselves, but the similarities can help to highlight the contrast between the works. Both authors may deal with similar landscapes, issues of race (or racialization), and oppression, but their views on these subjects differ greatly.

To understand these authors’ approaches to fantasy, we must first examine how they construct the identities of their heroes, both on a personal level and in terms of their ethnicity and culture. In The Horse and His Boy, Shasta feels out of place in Calormen; he is light-skinned in a country full of dark-skinned people. He learns that Arsheesh, the man he knew as his father, adopted him and now wishes to sell him as a slave (Lewis 13). He decides to escape and tells the talking Narnian horse, Bree, whom he has just met, that he has “‘been longing to go to the North all [his] life” (Lewis 22). Bree responds by saying, “‘Of course you have. . . . That’s because of the blood that’s in you. I’m sure you’re true Northern stock” (22). In other words, Shasta belongs with his own race. Later, after he meets a boy who resembles him named Corin, Prince of Archenland, Shasta learns that his true name is Cor and that he is the Prince’s twin brother and heir to the throne of his father, King Lune (231). With this revelation, he has found what is seen as his proper place in the world. He is given no opportunity to find a place to belong in Calormen. The country and its people are entirely hostile to him, with the one exception being Aravis, a Calormene girl whom he meets and befriends on his journey. She is likewise fleeing from this oppressive culture and the marriage arranged by her family. Cor is presented as naturally superior to the Calormenes due to his noble Northern lineage, while Aravis is portrayed as exceptional and above the culture she was born into and therefore worthy of Cor. In the end, Cor reclaims what is his, including his name, and rules over his good kingdom of people who look like him, while Aravis is rewarded for rejecting her own culture by assimilating into the society of Archenland and eventually marrying Cor. Lewis’s European-inspired light-skinned characters take pride in their heritage and derive a significant portion of their personal identity from their ethnic background, while the orientalised Calormenes are only ever allowed to become sympathetic characters by transcending the evils of their culture and accepting the values of the Northerners. In both cases, the characters do not have the freedom to define themselves on their own terms: their identities are inextricably tied to their placement within rigid and often racist hierarchies.

Le Guin, on the other hand, calls such hierarchies into question and allows her characters to define themselves apart from their lineage. In The Tombs of Atuan, the protagonist Tenar is not displaced into a foreign land. She was born on the island of Atuan in the Kargad Empire, and was taken from her family as a child to the Tombs, which are on the same island. The priestesses take away her name and identity, calling her Arha, the Eaten One, supposedly a reincarnation of the highest-ranking priestess of the Tombs. She has light skin like the other Kargish people around her, and when she eventually learns her true name, Tenar, it is not from her family like in Cor’s case, but from a stranger, a dark-skinned wizard from the Archipelago named Ged (203-4). Learning her name is a crucial moment in her journey of self-discovery, and it helps her realize that she has had and can have a life beyond the Tombs. Where Cor must find his race, his family, and his kingdom in order to find himself, Tenar is already in her own country, and yet she never finds her family again. She must define her identity on her own terms, utterly divorced from notions of race, nationality, or religion. All she needs is the confirmation that she can have an identity outside of the oppressive religious institution she was raised in; who she is beyond that, she must discover for herself.

Not only do the two novels have differing views on the link (or lack thereof) between race and personal identity, but they have entirely contradictory views of race in general. Lewis’s portrayal of the Calormenes relies on a host of Orientalist stereotypes of peoples from the Near East: they have dark skin, turbans, and scimitars, and they are cruel and tyrannical. Racial categories are also viewed as essential facts in the novel. As previously mentioned, Bree explains Shasta’s thoughts and motivations by saying that they come from his “blood.” Additionally, the light skinned Narnians and Archenlanders are seen as more beautiful, having “nicer faces and voices than most Calormenes” (Lewis 77). This beauty standard is viewed as objective, even to the Calormenes. One Calormene refers to the Northerners as “accursed but beautiful barbarians” (Lewis 13). None of these statements and assumptions are called into question, and therefore it seems that Lewis takes them for granted.

Le Guin, on the other hand, explicitly sets out to destabilize modern Western conceptions of race. In her first Earthsea novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, most characters have brown or black skin, and the light-skinned Kargs are seen as barbarous others: “they are a savage people, white-skinned, yellow-haired, and fierce, liking the sight of blood and the smell of burning towns” (Le Guin 11). Le Guin has explained this choice as a reaction against stories with “white” heroes wherein “most dark-skinned people were inferior or evil” (128). She says that she “was bucking a racist tradition, ‘making a statement’” (129). She reverses the trend of writing from white perspectives and othering dark-skinned characters in order to show the arbitrary nature of racial categories. In The Tombs of Atuan, however, she once again flips the conventions of traditional narratives and gives the perspective of the othered barbarians, who, because of her choices in the previous novel, are light-skinned. In this second novel, the Kargs act with prejudice toward the dark-skinned people of the Archipelago. The Kargs, who reject magic, see these dark-skinned foreigners, and especially wizards, as evil and untrustworthy. Kossil, a high-ranking priestess on Atuan, says, “They are black and vile. I have never seen one” (Le Guin 175), perfectly showcasing both the ignorance and bigotry that are common in the Kargad Lands. In the first two entries of Earthsea, Le Guin shows the processes of racialization and othering from two opposing sides and therefore shows how arbitrary these processes are. The unlikely friendship between the Kargish priestess Tenar and the wizard Ged in the latter half of The Tombs of Atuan bridges the cultural divide between the two in a far more meaningful way than the interracial friendship between Shasta and Aravis, in The Horse and His Boy, because, while Lewis constantly demonizes and others the Calormenes and praises the Northerners, Le Guin humanizes both cultures in her novel and values the insights that Ged and Tenar can give to each other.

Although Le Guin avoids the prevalent racist ideas that Lewis reproduces, both authors present cultures with oppressive elements that the protagonists must escape. For instance, both Calormen and the Kargad Empire have authoritarian theocratic monarchies and practice slavery. In The Horse and His Boy, Shasta must leave Calormen to escape slavery. Along the way, he meets Aravis, a girl from an aristocratic family who is fleeing a forced marriage. Both of them ride on talking Narnian horses who are fleeing from human oppression. Tenar, in The Tombs of Atuan, lives in similarly oppressive conditions. She has great power as a priestess, much like Aravis with her class privilege, but both have their agency severely limited because they are girls living in patriarchal societies. Aravis is given no choice but to marry an old man that her rich family has chosen for her, just as Tenar is given no choice but to be a lonely, isolated, celibate priestess living in darkness for her entire life. Speaking on Tenar’s contradictory power and powerlessness, Le Guin says that “[h]er power imprisons her” (243). However, both characters find themselves having power over others. The rich slave-owning Aravis looks down on and belittles Shasta, a poor boy fleeing slavery. Likewise, Tenar has the power to torture and kill Ged, the foreign wizard trespassing on her holy domain, and commits to doing so. Eventually, though, Tenar realizes that she must join in friendship with Ged, so they can both escape the oppressive Tombs together, just as Aravis learns to accept Shasta and the help he can bring her as they both flee north.

The journeys to freedom in these two novels, however, are almost entirely different in nature. The journey of The Horse and His Boy has a straightforward goal; they are heading, as Bree the horse often says, “for Narnia and the North” (Lewis 26). “Narnia and the North” represent freedom, justice, and goodness. As the children and the horses move northward, they go further from the tyranny of Calormen and come closer to the freedom of Narnia. The landscapes of the novel represent ideals and ideologies, both those that the heroes reject, and those that they pursue. Shasta, Aravis, and the horses’ internal journeys, then, can be conveniently mapped onto the geographical journey they make. The Tombs of Atuan, in contrast, is an extremely static novel until the ending. Tenar does not even consider leaving the Tombs for years, and it is only after hearing about the outside world from Ged that she reconsiders her life. The static landscape of the novel is itself oppressive, and many scenes take place in a dark labyrinth inhabited by the malevolent forces known as the Nameless Ones. Tenar, being trapped in her mental and physical darkness and narrowness, is fascinated by Ged’s tales while also denying their truth and value:

You’ve seen dragons dancing, and the towers of Havnor, and you know all about everything. And I know nothing at all and haven’t been anywhere. But all you know are lies! . . . All I know is the dark, the night underground. And that’s all there really is. That’s all there is to know, in the end. (Le Guin 198)

Most of her journey, then, consists of her slow re-evaluation of her place in the world, as her growing desire to leave overcomes her ingrained prejudices and beliefs. When she and Ged finally escape, the Nameless Ones, who are the embodiment of the landscape itself, rebel and collapse the Tombs with an earthquake, destroying the home that she can never return to (Le Guin 223). In this way, though there is less physical travel in The Tombs of Atuan than in The Horse and His Boy, the landscape of Le Guin’s work plays a more active role. The environment does not simply represent things; it does things.

The character growth of Aravis in The Horse and His Boy is about as straightforward as her geographical travels, whereas Tenar’s internal journey is more complex. Both characters are initially highly flawed. Aravis comes from a noble slave-owning family, and her views of the value of other people are shaped by her upbringing. She dismisses Shasta as “a rude, common little boy – a slave probably” (Lewis 40). She recounts how she drugged a slave to sleep so she could escape her family and admits that the slave was most likely beaten as a result. She expresses no remorse and even says, “she was a tool and spy of my stepmother’s. I am very glad they should beat her” (54). She shows absolutely no understanding of the life and struggles of slaves and the lower classes until she leaves her homeland of Calormen, moving into a better environment, and realizes she was wrong to judge Shasta: “I’ve been snubbing him and looking down on him ever since you met us and now he turns out to be the best of us all” (173). She further learns the error of her ways when Aslan claws her in the same way that her stepmother’s slave was beaten. Aslan explains that she “needed to know what it felt like” (229). With this one experience, the last of her deeply ingrained classist beliefs seem to simply disappear. She then is allowed a simplistic happy ending where she gets to be what Lewis apparently views as a good aristocrat, eventually becoming the queen of Archenland. It is said that Aravis marries Prince Cor, and though they often quarrel, “they always ma[k]e it up again” (254). At this point, Aravis’s character growth is rendered irrelevant in her relationship with Shasta, as he is no longer a runaway slave she must learn to accept, but Prince Cor of Archenland. Aravis is allowed to live an uncomplicated and unconflicted life simply because she has left her oppressive homeland behind.

Tenar’s story in The Tombs of Atuan is allowed no such neat resolutions. Like Aravis, Tenar has hurt others, due to the way she has been raised. She is told that as Arha, the One Priestess, she must execute prisoners sent to her from the Godking of the Kargad Empire (Le Guin 156). She decides to have three men starved to death (161-2), and though she has no say in their death sentence and has no real power to prevent their deaths, she still chooses a remarkably cruel method of execution. However, she does not need a figure like Aslan to guilt her and tell her that what she has done is wrong, but rather, “each night, in the dark, she w[a]ke[s] up screaming, ‘They aren’t dead yet! They are still dying!’” (165). Much of the conflict in the novel subsequently comes from the tension between her obligation to kill the trespassing and thieving wizard Ged and her revulsion at the thought of killing someone again. When she finally does decide to escape with Ged, after coming to understand his humanity through their conversations, she cannot adjust to life in the outside world nearly as well as her Narnian counterpart, Aravis. Shortly after escaping the Tombs, she looks at the world around her with “unquestioning delight” (224), but as she sees people and towns, she is overwhelmed: “She knew nothing but the desert and the tombs. What good was that? . . . She knew nothing of forests, or cities, or the hearts of men” (231). She still cannot bring herself to fully trust Ged and even raises a dagger ready to kill him because she is convinced that he only befriended her in order to rob the Tombs, but she relents at last (233-4). As they then sail away from Atuan, toward the magical lands Ged is from, she cannot feel happy but instead cries: “She wept in pain because she was free” (234). It is still ultimately positive for Tenar to escape to the Archipelago, but simply leaving the Tombs cannot solve all of her problems. After the struggle to escape from oppression, it is another great struggle to adjust to freedom. And, of course, as later books in the series explore, Tenar will continue to face adversity as a woman in a patriarchal world, prohibiting the possibility of an unconflicted happy ending.

When the evidence presented thus far is considered, it may be tempting to denounce Lewis’s fantasy as antiquated, irrelevant, or even distasteful, in comparison to Le Guin’s, yet the contexts and aims of these writers should be taken into account. It can be easy to say that Le Guin tells complicated and rich tales while Lewis’s morals and view of humanity and society are overly simplistic, but, while some of his assumptions are troubling to say the least, it is important to remember that Lewis’s attention is usually elsewhere, contemplating theology more than the societies or the physical environments of his worlds. It is also worth noting that Le Guin had the privilege of living through the enormous cultural changes that came with the civil rights and feminist movements. She was writing at the beginning of a new generation of fantasy authors who built on the works of writers like Lewis and were able to challenge their fundamental assumptions. Both Narnia and Earthsea have certain relevance specific to their own times and cultural contexts as well as a more timeless relevance due to their philosophical and metaphysical explorations. It must be mentioned that these statements are not intended to be a definitive and comprehensive condemnation of Lewis’s series as a whole or an all-encompassing defense of the merits of Le Guin’s works. Rather, the intention is to compare certain specific aspects of the two writers’ styles and worldviews.

Lewis’s Narnia and Le Guin’s Earthsea provide extremely different and often contradictory views of what heroism, fantasy, the environment, culture, race, gender, and religion are. Similar observations could be made in comparisons between any two books in the series or of the series as wholes. However, the similarities in the settings, characters, and plots of The Horse and His Boy and The Tombs of Atuan allow for particularly clear contrasts, showcasing the differing philosophies of the two authors and their respective series. While we can view the two in opposition to each other, this need not lead us to choose one over the other, as it is precisely this comparison that can often lead to insights into both works. If one wishes to understand Lewis and his potential shortcomings, reading later authors like Le Guin can illuminate what is absent in Narnia. Likewise, if one seeks to understand why Le Guin chooses to tell the stories she does and see what she is reacting against, Narnia is a good place to start.



Works Cited

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition. Saga Press, 2018.

Lewis, C. S. The Horse and His Boy. Arcturus, 2017.


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