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Centaurs in Narnia are half-horse, half-human, just as they are in Greek mythology. The Narnian centaurs are always seen positively, unlike the centaurs of Greek mythology. In all their Narnia appearances they are seen as wise prophets or sages, loyal courtiers and majestic, powerful warriors. They are highly skilled in astronomy and divination, being able to read the stars and tell of future events. They are also proficient warriors and healers. It is said in Narnia that no one ever laughed at a centaur and that no one who valued his life would ever saddle a one (if offered the opportunity). They also have two stomachs— one human and a one equine— which means they eat quantities of both human and equine food.
In contrast, the centaurs of Greek tales were nearly always a wild race who were violent, womanizing, and usually intoxicated. The centaurs of Narnia are based on a unique and well known Greek centaur, Chiron, who, unlike all the other centaurs, was a noble, wise, and powerful being. Many centaurs in modern fiction are likewise based on Chiron.
Through the Narnia series, only three centaurs are named: Glenstorm in Prince Caspian, Cloudbirth in The Silver Chair, and Roonwit in The Last Battle. Unnamed centaurs appear in The Horse and His Boy (the centaur who makes the prophecy about the baby Cor growing up to save Archenland from danger) and in the final chapter of The Silver Chair (where Jill and Eustace ride across Narnia on two unnamed centaurs). Centaurs are also mentioned in The Horse and His Boy in the battle at Anvard. The centaur Oreius is named in the 2005 Narnia film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but the centaurs in the book are not named.
The unnamed centaur at Cor’s birth
In chapter 14 of The Horse and His Boy, Shasta (having discovered that he is in fact Prince Cor of Archenland) relates to Aravis, Bree and Hwin the story of his birth and of his kidnap as a baby. After he and his brother Corin were born, they were taken to “a wise old Centaur in Narnia to be blessed”. Cor says that “this Centaur was a prophet as a good many Centaurs are.” The Centaur predicted that a day would come when Cor would save Archenland from the deadliest danger in which ever she lay. In order to prevent this prophecy from coming true, one of the King’s courtiers had kidnapped the baby Cor and taken him to Calormen, but by this very action he set up the circumstances for the prophecy to be fulfilled. In this episode, then, centaurs are once again seen as wise prophets.
Glenstorm is a significant character in Prince Caspian, although he only plays a fairly small part in the story. We see him in four contexts: firstly, counselling Caspian to war when he first meets him; secondly, advising on war strategy at the council; thirdly, he is selected as one of the bearers of Peter’s challenge to Miraz; and fourthly, he is selected as one of the marshals in the combat between Peter and Miraz. In these latter two appearances he does not speak, but he is selected because he is a grave, powerful and impressive warrior. “Send Glenstorm, Sire. No-one ever laughed at a centaur,” is Trufflehunter’s advice to Peter (chapter 13).
When Caspian first meets Glenstorm in chapter 6 he is seen as a powerful, serious and noble warrior. The valley trembles at the sound of his galloping hoofs. He has a broad chest and a full, flowing, golden beard. “He was a prophet and star-gazer and knew what they had come about,” showing his wisdom and foresight. His first words to Caspian, who has just fled from his uncle Miraz and is in no way established as king, are, “Long live the King! I and my sons are ready for war. When is the battle to be joined?” Caspian had not been intending on going to war, but the gravity and urgency of his tone sets the course of events. Although the others had no intention of going to war, Glenstorm shows his wisdom in saying, “The time is ripe. I watch the skies, for it is mine to watch. Tarva and Alambil have met in the high halls of heaven [Tarva and Alambil are Narnian planets representing victory and peace] and on earth a son of Adam has once more arisen to rule and name the creatures. The hour has struck. Our council at the Dancing Lawn must be a council of War.” In this speech, Glenstorm demonstrates several of the noblest features of centaurs. Firstly, he is wise and has an understanding of events and of what needs to be done in response. Secondly, he has a sense of order and propriety: he is not advocating war just because he wants to go to war or because of injustice in the land; the injustice has long been there, but Glenstorm has been waiting patiently for the time to be right. He also sees that each creature and person has his place: Glenstorm has no thought of trying to rule or lead the campaign himself (although he would clearly be well capable of it); rather he is loyal to Caspian and seeks to appoint him as the true King, because that is his place, and Glenstorm sees himself as prophet and servant. Thirdly, he shows courage and determination and an ability to motivate others. At this point in the story, Caspian’s followers are disorganised and in no way resemble an army, let alone a victorious one. Most observers would not even suggest moving towards war, but Glenstorm knows that the time for war is right and therefore moves to organise the campaign accordingly. Glenstorm’s thinking is that the time is right and therefore we must organise for war, whereas the thinking of others would be that once we are organised then the time would be right.
Glenstorm’s second appearance (and only other speech) in Prince Caspian is seen at the council at the Dancing Lawn in chapter 7. Here again we see his loyalty to Caspian as well as his ability to take command. While the majority at the council wanted to feast or dance, Glenstorm supports Caspian in overruling this majority and holding a council of war at once. When Doctor Cornelius appears and reveals that Miraz’s army is on Caspian’s trail, Glenstorm also advises on strategy. Nikabrik asks whether Caspian’s plan is battle or flight, and Caspian says, “I don’t like the idea of running away.” However, Glenstorm shows his wisdom in not wishing to rush precipitately into battle. He is a brave and powerful warrior, but he is not rash. “Those who run first do not always run last,” he says. “And why should we let the enemy choose our position instead of choosing it ourselves? Let us find a strong place.” Here Glenstorm demonstrates the centaurs’ wisdom and their ability to see the big picture and to think ahead, which makes them such valuable counsellors.
Cloudbirth appears only in a single line in the final chapter of The Silver Chair. He is reputed to be “a famous healer” and is coming to examine Puddleglum’s injured foot. Cloudbirth is not therefore portrayed as a prophet (although he may have been this too, Lewis doesn’t tell us), but in keeping with the characteristics of other centaurs he is wise and knowledgeable as a philosopher – although, in this case, a philosopher of medicine rather than of astronomy.
The unnamed centaurs on which Jill and Eustace ride
In the final chapter of The Silver Chair, two centaurs offer to let Jill and Eustace ride on them for their journey across Narnia. This is “a most special and unheard-of honour”. Centaurs are grand and magnificent creatures that no-one would dream of riding on. Even on this unique occasion, there is no suggestion of putting a saddle of the centaurs, for “no one who valued his life” would suggest this, and so Jill and Eustace have to ride bareback.
These centaurs are “very polite in a grave, gracious, grown-up kind of way”. They are also knowledgeable on philosophy of all kinds, and on their journey through Narnia they tell the children “about the properties of herbs and roots, the influences of the planets, the nine names of Aslan with their meanings, and things of that sort.” They are portrayed, therefore, as being like classical scholars who are educated in all kinds of learning.
Roonwit appears in chapter 2 of The Last Battle. Like Glenstorm, Roonwit is a star-gazer and prophet. While Narnia is celebrating the return of Aslan, Roonwit tells King Tirian that Aslan has not in fact returned but that something very sinister is afoot. “Never in all my days have I seen such terrible things written in the skies as there have been nightly since this year began,” he tells Tirian. “The stars say nothing of the coming of Aslan, nor of peace, nor of joy. I know by my art that there have not been such disastrous conjunctions of the planets for five hundred years. It was already in my mind to come and warn your Majesty that some great evil hangs over Narnia. But last night the rumour reached me that Aslan is abroad in Narnia. Sire, do not believe this tale. It cannot be. The stars never lie, but Men and Beasts do. If Aslan were really coming to Narnia the sky would have foretold it. If he were really come, all the most gracious stars would be assembled in his honour. It is all a lie.”
In this speech, Roonwit demonstrates several key characteristics of the centaurs. He is wise and insightful. He is a philosopher, and he stands by truth even when all around him are believing lies. He is discerning, able to distinguish truth from falsehood because of his careful thought and his study of the skies. He is constant and consistent in his beliefs: he trusts the stars, which do not lie, rather than believing the words of men and animals, who may be liars or may be mistaken. He does not know what is going on, but he has faith in the stars as a source of wisdom.
Despite this worrying turn of events, Roonwit is not thrown into panic or rash activity as others (including the King) are prone to do. Tirian wants to act immediately in his anger, but Roonwit warns, “Sire, be wary in your just wrath. There are strange doings on foot. If there should be rebels in arms further up the valley, we three are too few to meet them. If it would please you to wait a while –” Roonwit is wise and patient. However, he is also loyal and obedient. Having given his advice, Tirian chooses to ignore it. Roonwit does not contradict him, but follows Tirian’s orders. Loyally, he takes Tirian’s request for reinforcements to Cair Paravel – a venture in which Roonwit ends up being killed. Even in his last breath he is not anxious, angry or bitter, but offers wise counsel. At the end of chapter 8, as he lies dying, he tells Farsight the Eagle to remind the King “that all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no-one is too poor to buy.” Roonwit stands for truth and justice above his own welfare or any other consideration, as is the role of any true prophet and philosopher.