Even more so than The Horse and His Boy, my memory of Prince Caspian was essentially blank. That doesn’t count the 2008 film, of course. I saw that one in the theater, and realized as I watched that I remembered nothing about the story and had no clue whether what I was seeing was faithful to the book. Which isn’t to slam the movie. I like the movie. But having finally reread the book, I can safely say the two aren’t interchangeable. (They never are, anyway.)
After the “midquel” detour of The Horse and His Boy, Prince Caspian picks up a year after the events of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It is the end of summer and the Pevensie children are waiting for a train to take them to school. Suddenly, right there on the platform, they are transported to Narnia without warning – specifically, to Cair Paravel where they used to be Kings and Queens. Except it no longer looks much like Cair Paravel, because while only a year has passed for them, hundreds of years have passed in Narnia, and the palace is in ruins.
While the children were away, a race of humans called the Telmarines conquered Narnia, abandoned Cair Paravel and set up a new capital further inland. The Telmarines have repressed the stories of “old Narnia” – Narnia under Aslan with talking beasts, living trees, dwarves and giants – and the “old Narnians” have been driven into hiding deep in the forest. The Kings and Queens of Narnia are mostly seen as a myth. The current “king” Miraz, who usurped his position by murder and trickery, is especially eager to suppress the stories. He is also reluctantly keeping his teenage nephew Caspian, the true heir to throne, around – but only because he has no heir of his own. Shortly before the children’s arrival, however, Miraz’s wife finally gave him a son. Caspian flees the palace in fear of his life. Before he goes, his tutor gives him a magic horn – Susan’s horn, given to her by Father Christmas hundreds of years ago, which will reportedly bring help in great need.
Hiding out in the forest, Caspian stumbles across the old Narnians – two dwarves, Trumpkin and Nikabrik, and Trufflehunter, a talking badger. Caspian has always been curious about old Narnia, and ends up at the head of a resistance against his uncle. Caspian and his ragtag army hide out in a hill called Aslan’s How (built over the Stone Table from the first book). Outmatched and out of ideas, they decide to blow the horn – which is what called the children back to Narnia in the first place.
You can probably tell already that Prince Caspian is a bit more of a traditional adventure story than the previous books – especially compared to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which the allegory verges on too obvious. There is some kind of allegory, however – or at least a “message” – but it’s pretty subtle. Lewis seems, by my reading, to be aiming at materialists (and/or atheists, naturalists, etc.), and essentially accusing their vision of being sterile, colorless and boring, while his Christian viewpoint is vibrant, interesting and imaginative. Let me explain.
Much is made of the Telmarines (Miraz especially) not believing in “old Narnia.” Animals can’t talk, trees are just trees, Aslan is a myth, and the Kings and Queens of Narnia never existed. Since it’s already been established that Aslan = Jesus, we can logically infer that this is a metaphor for atheism, and by extension the philosophies that logically follow from it. In this telling, there is no supernatural element to the world; what you see is what you get, and that’s it. And at least some Telmarines don’t only disbelieve, they actively suppress disagreement, and their ancestors actively drove the “old Narnians” into hiding.
(There’s also another, less direct way to tell the Telmarines represent atheists. The villains in The Horse and His Boy are the Calormenes, who are clearly religious and apparently polytheistic, with Tash at the head of the pantheon. In contrast, there is no mention anywhere in Prince Caspian of the Telmarines’ religion. I doubt this was accidental.)
Lewis counters this with, well, its exact opposite. We already know what’s going to happen on this front, because we know from the previous books that everything the Telmarines deny – Aslan, talking animals, dryads, etc. – is actually real. Aslan returns, and yes, Miraz and his army are defeated. But more to the point, Aslan leads Susan and Lucy through the Narnian countryside – along with Bacchus, Silenus and the Maenads (!) – livening things up again. (I think you can’t help but liven things up if you literally have Bacchus tagging along…) As he goes along, the majority of the Telmarines run away from him, except for a few who have secretly felt all along that the old stories must really be true. Along the way everyday Telmarine life is portrayed as dull and predictable.
Now I am Christian, and I will freely admit that I don’t agree with atheism/materialism or find it appealing at all. So on one level, I get where Lewis is coming from. That said, there’s also more than a whiff here of the apologetics I was taught growing up in evangelicalism. Most of it was extremely dishonest when it came to describing the lived experiences of atheists: it essentially portrays them as rebellious, nihilistic people with no values. Now I’m sure there are some atheists like this, because people are people and there are jerks in every group. But this has not been my general experience of atheists as people. The atheists I know also don’t automatically see the world as dull and clinical, even if they do believe that it’s all there is.
Lewis’ metaphor also reminds me of evangelicals theories that “secularists” are engaged in a conspiracy to destroy Christianity and/or religion in general. This probably encapsulates well some Christians’ feelings at seeing their religion currently in decline, but beyond that it basically isn’t true – especially in the case of things like creationism, which are declining not because of a vast atheist plot, but because of the straightforward application of science. This is an anachronistic aside, however, as Lewis was not a modern American evangelical.
Which is all to say, I suppose, that this is hardly a slam-dunk argument for the supernatural. It will probably resonate with most religious people. But it also probably won’t persuade many non-religious people. In either viewpoint, the heavy philosophical lifting happens elsewhere. Then again, Narnia (both the world itself and the series) isn’t really intended to persuade – it’s more like a stage for Lewis’ various allegories. So maybe this is all missing the point.
Speaking of Narnia as a world, the worldbuilding in Prince Caspian is fascinating – because of what it leaves out. To begin with, the Telmarines. At the end of the book, Aslan tells us that the Telmarines were originally pirates from Earth, who accidentally came through a portal into Narnia’s world. Which leads to some interesting questions.
First, talking beasts throughout the series insist that Narnia must be governed by a “son of Adam.” Trufflehunter does the same in this book.
“Don’t you go talking about things you don’t understand, Nikabrik,” said Trufflehunter. “You Dwarfs are as forgetful and changeable as the Humans themselves. I’m a beast, I am, and a Badger what’s more. We don’t change. We hold on. I say great good will come of it. This is the true King of Narnia we’ve got here: a true King, coming back to true Narnia. And we beasts remember, even if Dwarfs forget, that Narnia was never right except when a son of Adam was King.”
“Whistles and whirligigs! Trufflehunter,” said Trumpkin. “You don’t mean you want to give the country to Humans?”
“I said nothing about that,” answered the Badger. “It’s not Men’s country (who should know that better than me?) but it’s a country for a man to be King of. We badgers have long enough memories to know that. Why, bless us all, wasn’t the High King Peter a Man?”
In the first book, the “sons of Adam” are obviously the Pevensies. (The White Witch’s origin story comes in another book, so I won’t address that here.) Now, however, we learn that there were other Earth humans in the same world, though not in Narnia. They are thus, logically, also “sons of Adam,” and therefore Narnia under Miraz is, in fact, rule by a “son of Adam” – even as Trufflehunter calls Caspian the true king of Narnia. Strictly speaking, Trufflehunter doesn’t say that Narnia can’t go wrong under human rule. But this still complicates the picture from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe quite a bit.
Also, how does this relate back to The Horse and His Boy? Maybe this information is in a future book, but right now I am wondering where the Archenlanders and Calormenes come from. Are they also “sons of Adam” who wandered into the world accidentally from Earth? Is this why the Calormenes are so suspiciously Islamic? Or are “sons of Adam” only Earth humans, and the Calormenes and Archenlanders aren’t human at all, but some kind of human lookalikes native to Narnia’s world?
Or how about the biggest unexamined assumption in the entire series: Why do humans have primacy over the talking animals in the first place? There’s no apparent reason the beasts couldn’t rule themselves. They don’t appear to be any less capable or sentient, and they can clearly keep a society together without human help. In fact they’ve been keeping up a parallel secret society for centuries under the Telmarines. So why is Narnia only “right” when a species from an entirely separate dimension arrives to rule over the native inhabitants?
The answer is obvious, of course: Genesis. Which is all well and good in terms of Lewis’ theology. But unless this is eventually explained in a future book, it’s terrible worldbuilding. Genesis is simply imposed from the outside, without explanation, onto a completely different world where Genesis itself doesn’t even exist. Which is why I said above that Narnia is not a world meant to persuade. Holes like this make it utterly unconvincing as a believable society; it’s only a stage for Lewis’ theology. A well done stage, for its purpose (allegory for children). But not a plausible independent world.
(Also, as fun as Bacchus is, can we please talk about how the hell there are literally Greek gods in this world? And how this caused exactly zero seizures in the evangelical church when I was growing up? Thanks.)
Continuing topics from past posts, there is still no movement on the Susan front. She is still utterly normal and in character from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Had a few doubtful episodes this book, but no worse than anyone else. She is, however, not coming back to Narnia, and that came directly from Aslan so you better believe it.
Meanwhile, dwarves play a far bigger role in Prince Caspian than in previous books. Lewis introduces a contrast between Red Dwarves (usually good) and Black Dwarves (usually bad). The two main dwarves in the book are one of each. Trumpkin, the Red Dwarf, initially disbelieves in Aslan but is basically a good guy. The Black Dwarf, Nikabrik, is an obvious traitor-waiting-to-happen from the beginning and eventually tries calls the White Witch back from the dead. (The theory being that if Aslan can’t help, try someone else who can – a fairly traditional, Old Testament, my-deity-is-stronger-than-yours moment.)
Depsite Nikabrik, there are still consistently more good dwarves in the series than bad. Knowing what’s coming in The Last Battle, where the dwarves completely self-destruct, this is a weird approach for Lewis to take (assuming he knew where the series was going from the beginning). Maybe there will be more foreshadowing later. But right now, Mr. Beaver still looks like a bit of a bigot.