On the shore of a country called Calormen lives a very poor fisherman named Arsheesh—and Shasta, a boy who “calls” him father. Life (catching and selling fish) is very hard, and depending upon the state of commerce Arsheesh is either basically good-tempered toward Shasta or takes out his frustration by beating him. It is easier to find fault with Shasta than to look for things to praise. Curiously, Shasta finds that he has no interest in being an active part of Calormene culture and is constantly dreaming of whatever might lie to the far north. When he seeks more information he is most likely to receive a blow for his inquisitiveness.
One day, a strange man rides in from the south on a fine specimen of dappled horse. The visitor has very dark skin, as most Calormenes do, and Arsheesh immediately recognizes that this man is a Tarkaan or “great lord” because of the amount of gold he is wearing. The Tarkaan forces himself upon Arsheesh’s hospitality for the night so Shasta is ousted from the cottage. Being unready for sleep, he sits outside by a crack in the wall and listens to the conversation inside. The Tarkaan demands that Arsheesh sell Shasta to him, and in the negotiation process Shasta hears a story that fills him with great delight: Shasta is not Arsheesh’s son but an orphan baby rescued by the insomniac Calormene from a boat on an incoming tide. At last Shasta understands why he has never been able to feel real love for this man, and why his own fair skin and hair make him so out of place in Calormen. He knows that Arsheesh, because of his greed, will end up selling him—so he goes to the stable where he will most likely spend the night and pauses to pet the Tarkaan’s beautiful horse. Musing out loud, he speculates on the kind of man his new master will be and wishes that the horse could talk and tell him about him. To his great wonderment, the horse answers and Shasta is introduced to a real Narnian talking horse who was kidnapped as a foal and made a slave to humans in Calormen. He reveals that the Tarkaan’s name is Anradin and advises Shasta that death would be better than serving in the Calormene's house as a slave. Between them, they hatch a plan to escape to the north and freedom in Narnia—the horse needing a rider to keep from looking odd by traveling alone, and Shasta needing more than his own two legs to flee with any speed. Shasta has a fleeting moment of bittersweet regret after the arrangements are made, but this passes quickly and after a few quick lessons in horsemanship, the two are off into the night, putting in as much distance as they can before either is discovered missing. After setting up a false trail to the south and “home,” where a “normal” dumb horse who broke loose would return, Shasta and the horse (whose long unpronounceable name gets shortened to “Bree”) gallop off into the night.
Shasta awakens the next day at noon and realizes that a) he has been asleep on the ground, b) he no longer smells fish, c) he is on higher ground than he has ever been, and d) that he is so sore that he really doesn’t want to climb back up on Bree ever again. To continue, of course, he eventually has to get back on Bree’s back—and so begins a journey of several weeks filled with tales of Bree’s exploits as a war horse that give way to his longings to forget those days and be a truly free Horse again. They are traveling toward the great city of Tashbaan, the capital of Calormen and the gateway to the north, as Bree sees it, because any other route would take them inland into unfamiliar territory. As they move along across a plain, Bree and Shasta sense that they are not alone. There seems to be another horse nearby. Panic-stricken at the thought of being followed, Bree gallops off inland until the roar of lions forces him to change direction several times. The other horse is now galloping beside them and Shasta sees that the rider is quite small and clothed in chain mail. The horses crash and splash across a sea inlet and pause to blow on the other side as one last angry roar draws their attention to a great and terrible lion crouched on the other side. The strange horse speaks, the strange rider tells her to be quiet, and Bree and Shasta discover that the horse, Hwin, is also a Narnian talking horse ridden by a young girl—and that both are also attempting to escape to Narnia. Bree suggests that all four travel together, a suggestion which is roundly approved by Hwin; but animosity between the girl and Shasta threatens to kill the partnership before it begins and Bree suggests a rest and a time to share stories.
Aravis Tarkheena, a member of Calormene royalty, tells her story. Here’s the gist of it:
- Mother died and father remarries to a woman who hates Aravis. (Naturally!)
- Father promises Aravis (14 years old) in marriage to Ahoshta Tarkaan who is 60, humpbacked, and looks like an ape. (That’s appealing to a 14 year old!)
- Aravis rides to the woods and prepares to kill herself rather than marry the ape-face.
- Aravis’ horse talks and prevents her from the suicide.
- Aravis and her new found friend, Hwin, devise a plan to escape for the freedom of Narnia and the north. (Hmmm… where have we heard that before?)
- Aravis forces an old and trusted slave to write a letter for her—which she later sends to her father from Azim Balda (some town) —the contents of which are written as if coming from Ahosta saying that he discovered Aravis in the forest and HAD to marry her immediately! This, hopefully, to buy enough time to make good the escape.
- Aravis and Hwin meet up with Bree and Shasta.
The next day, the four continue on toward Tashbaan hiding by day and traveling by night. They agree to meet at the Tombs of the Ancient Kings on the northern side of Tashbaan if they get separated. On the outskirts of the great city, Shasta and Aravis dirty themselves up and get some peasant clothing for Aravis, bundling the horse equipment to look like packs, and they all proceed into the city—the horses being “driven” by the two “peasants.” With admonitions to go straight through the city, the children join the huge, pressing crowd of humanity that occupies it. The quickest way through Tashbaan is up one side and down the other, crossing the river on both sides. (The city is an island in the middle of a river, you see!) They are not even half way through with the upslope before Shasta is mistaken for a runaway by a group of visiting (Narnian) royalty and is whisked away to “safety” while being called naughty (and by the name of Corin—the son of the king of Archenland). He is taken to a palace where, mute with fear, he learns that Narnia’s Queen Susan is in Tashbaan to become the bride of Prince Rabadash, son of the Tisroc (“May he live forever”—you have to say that every time you say his name!) and direct descendant (ahem!) of the god, Tash. But Queen Susan has decided that Rabadash is a creep, and so yet another escape plan is in the making.
As Shasta listens to the Narnians devise a way to return safely home without leaving Queen Susan behind, he hears of a secret pass across the desert that leads into Archenland, which affords access to Narnia beyond. Shasta also hears of the plans to escape aboard the Narnian ship Splendour Hyaline, and so feels that he cannot possibly reveal who he really is without being punished as a spy. Left alone to rest, Shasta falls asleep until awakened by a ruckus at the window. The real Corin, who is an indefatigable adventurer, falls into the room, realizes what has happened with Shasta and helps Shasta get away, telling him to go to his father, King Lune of Archenland. Shasta completes the trip out of the city expecting to find his companions at the tombs, but darkness falls—and after searching around every tomb, he realizes he will be spending the night alone. A very large cat appears from nowhere and leads Shasta to the edge of the desert where it sits facing Narnia. Shasta falls asleep with this cat at his back until awakened by the cries of jackals. The jackals are driven off by a huge lion that Shasta is sure will eat him. He closes his eyes to wait for the teeth, but when nothing happens, he opens them again to see the cat lying at his feet. The next day is long and hard as Shasta waits to see if Bree, Hwin, and Aravis will show up. Just before sunset, he sees the approach of two horses being led by a man… no Aravis in sight.
Meanwhile… Back in Tashbaan
After seeing Shasta grabbed by the Narnians, Aravis grabs the ropes of both horses and proceeds through Tashbaan. Alas, she is apprehended by an old childhood friend, Tarkheena Lasaraleen, who has married well and who whisks her away for a visit, telling her that her father is in town to visit Ahosta and his new bride as Aravis’ letter had suggested. Aravis demands that Lasaraleen help her escape and sends Bree and Hwin ahead with a servant. As the two girls sneak through the Tisroc’s palace to access a boat in which Aravis may cross the river they are forced to hide behind a couch in a room off the stairs as the Tisroc, the Grand Vizier and Ahosta himself enter and plot to invade Narnia, force Queen Susan to marry Rabadash, and thus extend Calormene rule over all the northern lands. Eventually the three leave and Aravis is able to complete the passage to the boat, cross the river, traverse the same road as Shasta had earlier, and finally meet her three companions at the Tombs. The group begins the arduous trip across the desert, Shasta leading because he has been told where the narrow valley is located at the foot of Mount Pire. The valley is found and, true to the tale told by Sallowpad the Raven, it continues widening until opening into a pleasant valley from which can be seen the pass that leads from Archenland into Narnia. They realize that they are in Archenland, across the river called the Winding Arrow, and everyone is so relieved that all want to sit down and relax and revel in their freedom. But that is not to be. Rabadash’s army is moving quickly and is already at the river. King Lune must be warned. Anvard must be reached. Another mad gallop is the order of the day and though both horses are sure they are running as fast as they can (well, at least Bree is sure!), they find even more speed when suddenly they are once again chased by a huge, snarling, roaring lion. As they run, Shasta sees a great green wall ahead, with an open gate framing a long-bearded, tall man. Looking back, Shasta sees that the lion is almost upon Hwin and he jumps from Bree to go back and help Aravis—but before he can get to her the lion rakes her shoulders with his claws. The four pound through the gate into a circular turf enclosure and meet the Hermit of the Southern March, who tells Shasta to run on and warn King Lune. Shasta leaves and the Hermit cares for Aravis and the horses. Bree descends into a pity party because he was too afraid to go back and save Hwin from the lion, but the Hermit helps him to see that he has only been humbled and made to lose the high-flown opinion he held of himself.
Meanwhile… Shasta is running!
As he runs, Shasta runs right into King Lune’s hunting party. King Lune mistakes him for Corin, but Shasta tells him he is not the prince and explains that Rabadash and two hundred cavalry are on the way so he had better get to Anvard and shut the gates! Shasta is put on a horse to ride with the party, but since he never learned to ride a “dumb” horse he has no equestrian skills and quickly finds himself separated from the others. A dense fog has descended and soon the road divides into two directions. Shasta has no idea which way to go, but is forced to make a choice to the right when he hears Rabadash’s army coming up behind him. He overhears the plan to lay waste to Archenland, killing every male in the land and leaving nothing between the wasteland and Cair Paravel in Narnia. Rabadash’s troops move on and Shasta realizes that even though he now knows how to get to Anvard, he can’t go that way safely so he continues on the path he has chosen. Now it is time for Shasta to mount his own pity party, and while he is crying he realizes that someone or something is walking beside him. This is the great and real meeting between Shasta and Aslan, who explains that he has been with Shasta throughout his journey: forcing him to join with Aravis, comforting him as the cat among the Tombs, driving the jackals away, giving the horses new incentive to run harder—even long ago pushing the boat of a child near death to shore where a fisherman could find him. The Lion names himself as “Myself” and displays his glory in a shining, beautiful light that causes Shasta to fall at the lion’s feet. Their eyes meet and then Aslan is gone. Shasta is inclined to pass the whole encounter off as a dream until he notices that a large lion print fills with water and becomes a stream flowing down the hill. He drinks and is completely refreshed. As the sun rises, Shasta realizes that he has traversed the mountains between Archenland and Narnia and has arrived in that northern land of which he has dreamed so long. He quickly meets a talking hedgehog and a rabbit, a Red Dwarf named Duffle, and a stag named Chervy who is picked to take the news of the attack on Anvard to Queen Lucy at Cair Paravel while Shasta is taken to the home of Duffle to eat, rest, and recuperate. After sleeping all day, Shasta awakens to the sound of trumpets and the army of Narnia, led by Lord Peridan and accompanied by King Edmund, Queen Lucy, and Corin. Everyone is amazed to see the similarity between Shasta and Corin but time is short and the march to Anvard must continue. Corin and Shasta are told they will not be in the fight but Corin causes the Dwarf Thornbut to be injured and unable to participate. In the hubbub, Corin gets Shasta into Thornbut’s armor and onto his pony. They both hang back on the end of the column and proceed with the army to Anvard.
Meanwhile… At Anvard’s Gates
Rabadash and his army have made a battering ram from a tree and are attempting to break down the gates. The Narnian army arrives and charges down on the Calormenes. Shasta finds himself completely inept at fighting.
Meanwhile… Back at the Southern March
The Hermit sits by his pool under a beautiful tree and watches the battle reflected in the water, giving a play-by-play of the conflict to Bree, Hwin and Aravis, who can see only vague shapes in the water. The might of the Narnians—great cats, giants, centaurs, fighting men—prevails over the army of the Calormenes until so many of Rabadash’s great warriors are dead or captured that the rest surrender.
Meanwhile… Back at Anvard
Every citizen of Archenland and Narnia is laughing at Rabadash who has managed to get caught by his hauberk on a hook in the wall and is thrashing around like an angry puppet because he can’t get down. He is taken down, bound, and carried into the castle. Corin brings Shasta to King Lune, who astounds Shasta by hugging him and kissing him on both cheeks.
Meanwhile… Bree, Aravis, and Hwin Meet Aslan
With the battle over, Bree, Aravis, and Hwin find themselves pondering their future, a contemplation which is interrupted by the arrival of a huge lion leaping over the wall. Bree bolts and must be coaxed back by Aslan, Hwin comes to Aslan readily, and Aravis is told that it was Aslan who wounded her—she learns that her “stripes” are the consequences of her choice to run away and leave her maid to be whipped by her father. As Aslan bounds away back over the hedge, Prince Cor of Archenland is announced—and in walks Shasta to see Aravis! Long story short, Shasta and Prince Corin were born twins and, when they were but a few days old, a Centaur prophesied that Cor would one day save Archenland. King Lune’s chancellor, who was a spy for the Tisroc in Tashbaan, kidnapped Cor, and put to sea with him. King Lune followed but by the time the chancellor was defeated, Cor and a knight had been put in a small boat—the same boat that Aslan had guided to shore for Arsheesh to find. Cor extends the invitation of King Lune to Aravis to come and live with them, an invitation which she happily accepts.
Cor (Shasta), Bree, Aravis and Hwin travel back to Anvard and are present when justice is dealt to Rabadash. The prisoner is brought before the court in chains and proceeds to curse his captors. As he is spewing his hatred, suddenly Aslan appears and offers mercy to Rabadash. Rabadash responds by calling Aslan a demon and continuing to revile everyone in sight. Aslan warns Rabadash twice and then turns him into a donkey, telling him that he will be returned to Tashbaan where he will turn back into a man. However, if he travels more than ten miles from the Temple of Tash, he will turn back into a donkey finally and forever. Rabadash returns to Tashbaan where the transformation takes place in front of his father’s subjects. When he becomes Tisroc, he is known as Rabadash the Peacemaker because he could never again go to war.
There is a great celebration at Anvard. Cor learns that he was the firstborn twin and so the heir to the throne of Archenland—which suits Corin just fine because he would rather have fun than be bound to kingly duties. Aravis and Cor eventually grow up and marry and become a very good king and queen and parents of the most famous of all Archenland kings… Ram the Great. Bree and Hwin marry too, though not to each other, and visit Archenland regularly.
And they all live happily ever after.