If you haven’t read the “Chronicles of Narnia” books, perhaps you’ve seen the movie or at least heard of the magical storybook land. Sung into existence by Aslan the Lion, and under his powerful and faithful protection, Narnia is a place unlike any other – and especially unlike its neighbor to the south – Calormen.
Which is where the third chronological book of the series, “The Horse and His Boy,” (which Ada and I are currently reading) begins. Calormen is a country ruled by a monarch called the “Tisroc” (whose name, when spoken, must be followed by the phrase “May he live forever”) and a ruling class called the “Tarkaans”. But more than the monarch himself, the forces of rank, entitlement, and therefore, strife, preside over Calormene society.
The main character is a boy named Shasta who, as we are introduced to him, is about to be purchased by a Tarkaan to become his slave. But while the transaction is being finalized, Shasta meets the Tarkaan’s horse – who just happens to be a talking horse from Narnia. Shasta listens as the horse, whose name is Bree, describes his homeland:
“Narnia,” answered the Horse. “The happy land of Narnia—Narnia of the heathery mountains and the thymy downs, Narnia of the many rivers, the plashing glens, the mossy caverns and the deep forests ringing with the hammers of the Dwarfs. Oh the sweet air of Narnia! An hour’s life there is better than a thousand years in Calormen.”*
It turns out that Bree, who had been kidnapped and brought to Calormen, was waiting for an opportunity to escape and return to Narnia, but needed a rider in order to not be captured for being a ‘stray’ horse. Shasta, also eager to escape, agrees to be his rider. Bree is slightly concerned, though, as young Shasta has never ridden a horse – which leads to this very important part of the conversation:
“Poor little beast,” said the Horse in a gentler tone. “I forget you’re only a foal. We’ll make a fine rider of you in time. And now—we mustn’t start until those two in the hut are asleep. Meantime we can make our plans. My Tarkaan is on his way north to the great city, to Tashbaan itself and the court of the Tisroc——”
“I say,” put in Shasta in rather a shocked voice, “oughtn’t you to say May he live forever?”
“Why?” asked the Horse. “I’m a free Narnian. And why should I talk slaves’ and fools’ talk? 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. And I can see you’re from the free north too. No more of this southern jargon between you and me! And now, back to our plans.”*
Being a “free Narnian” meant that Bree had no obligation to bow to the Calormen monarch. Even though he existed in Calormen and even though he could have faced consequences for not saying “May he live forever,” he didn’t because he knew he didn’t have to. Bree knew something greater, Narnia, existed and he knew he was securely a citizen of Narnia, and so he was able to exist within Calormen, but not be enslaved to its forces.
The “Calormen” that we live in isn’t much different. Instead of the Tisroc, though, it’s our own fragile egos that we hold up and bow down to in worship, “May they live forever!”. Balanced on the pedestal of our own moral or personal superiority, we can’t help but criticize (and panic at the slightest criticism of ourselves). Obsessed with getting what we believe we’re owed, we walk in entitlement (and then can’t.handle.life. when we don’t get what we think we should get). Turning all of our energy toward the uplifting of the “self,” we’ve become angry, stressed, and depressed.
In his gospel, John tells us that Jesus knew “that he had come from God and was going back to God” (John 13:3). Jesus existed in this land of rank, entitlement, and strife, but because He knew something so much greater existed and that He was securely part of that and returning to that, He did not ever, even for a second, bow down to those forces. Rather than pulling rank, demanding what was rightly his, or striving in competition, He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7).
And contrary to our instincts, the result of this emptying and service was not anger, stress, or depression – it was freedom. Because Jesus did not exert all of His energy in the grasping and lifting up of His human ego, He was released from slavery to it.
As a follower of Jesus and a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, I have a secret! I know about “Narnia”. I know there is something greater than all this rank, entitlement, and strife, and I know I’m securely a part of it. As a “free Narnian,” I don’t have to bow down to my own fragile ego. I don’t have to worry that someone’s going to push me off my pedestal – because I know I don’t belong there anyway. I don’t have to be disappointed when people don’t give me what I want – because I already have everything I’ve ever needed in Jesus. I don’t have to be offended when someone doesn’t lift me up – because I’ve already been given the greatest uplifting ever as a child of God.
Liberated from the burden of having to hold my “self” up, I’m free to follow Jesus’ example. If I’m not busy making a big deal about me, then I’m free to “count others more significant than [myself]” (Philippians 2:3). If my mental space isn’t consumed by figuring out how to get what I’m owed, I’m free to look “to the interests of others” (2:4). Without carrying the weight of a heavy shield of defense, I’m free to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” (2:14).
Although Bree the talking horse was born in Narnia, he had lived the majority of his life in Calormen. So though he knew about Narnia, he had some anxiety about returning there.
Near the end of the journey, Bree encounters a friendly Hermit who gives him some advice:
“It doesn’t follow that you’ll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you’re nobody very special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse, on the whole, and taking one thing with another.”*
Contrary to our instincts, freedom comes from the surrender of self rather than the exalting of it. Holding my ego up is an exhausting, 24/7/365, full-time job that Jesus has released me from!
*”The Horse and His Boy” by C.S. Lewis