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Exploring the Return to Narnia

By Devin Brown
Baker Books In my book Inside Prince Caspian, I provide readers with a detailed look at C. S. Lewis’s second Chronicle of Narnia.  Here is a very brief overview of some of the issues in Prince Caspian, one which I hope will be helpful for those going to see the upcoming film or for anyone who will be leading discussions about the book.

In Prince Caspian when the children first arrive in what they later learn is Narnia, there is something missing.  On their earlier journey, when the four children came out from the wardrobe into Narnia, there was a mysterious sense of enchantment.  Yes, Narnia was under the control of the White Witch.  And yes, she had made it always winter and never Christmas.  But somehow despite this, there was an immediate sense of wonder and awe evoked by the snowy woods and the mysterious lamp-post, and by something else as well, something which was simply part of the land itself. 

Now after the four children are whisked off the train platform, the thick, overgrown woods they find themselves in hold no enchantment—they are just woods.

Because there is no special feeling to the place, Lucy has to ask Peter, “Do you think we can possibly have got back to Narnia?”  His answer speaks loudly about the magical quality which has been lost or repressed.  Peter responds, “It might be anywhere,” a comment which could never have been said about the Narnia of the first book.

This ordinariness, this lack of enchantment, is appropriate.  King Miraz, the tyrant who holds power over Narnia, is not a magical creature like the White Witch was.  Instead, he is just a two-bit dictator, the descendent of lowlife pirates, and not particularly bright or imaginative, the type of self-seeking autocrat found in minor institutions and backwater organizations of every world. 

Like his kind everywhere, after he usurps the crown through cowardly, underhanded means, he does away with his opposition by way of hunting accidents, trumped-up charges, and hopeless quests.  He will pretend to be fond of his nephew only until he has an heir of his own.  Unlike the Witch, who is killed by Aslan in a dramatic battle scene, Miraz will meet his end, very appropriately, by the hand of one of his own henchmen after tripping on a “tussock.” 

The repression Miraz has imposed on Narnia, while harsh, is as dull and joyless as he is, and so as Prince Caspian opens, Lewis gives the landscape a mundane feel, not a magical one.  If one part of the children’s quest will be to help Caspian ascend his rightful throne, an equally important second part is that they must assist in returning the land to its rightful condition.

Later the children will learn the story of how Caspian was driven into hiding by his evil uncle.  When the young Prince discovers the Old Narnians who have been forced underground—the dwarves, talking animals, and mythical creatures he has been looking for all his life—he will have an experience which is the opposite of theirs.  While the four Pevensies return to a land which has lost its enchantment, Caspian, for the first time in his life, will be living in a world filled with it.

In “The Weight of Glory,” one of Lewis’s most famous essays, he writes: “Do you think I am trying to weave a spell?  Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales.  Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them.  And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.”  Lewis sees modern civilization, like the Narnia we find at the start of Prince Caspian, as a culture under the “spell” of secular materialism.  Our once-enchanted world has, like Narnia, become disenchanted, and we, like the four children, have been summoned to help break the spell of worldliness.

Gradually the four children come to realize that they have returned to Narnia, where hundreds of years have passed and Cair Paravel is in ruins.  Down in the treasure chamber, they hunt through riches which are buried in dust so thick that it is hard to know they are treasures.  As Lucy, Susan, and Peter retrieve their Christmas gifts, Lewis’s narrator interrupts the story to explain that Edmund was not with them when the gifts were given out, and because of this he does not have one.  The narrator then further points out, “This was his own fault.”

Throughout the Chronicles, Lewis takes a very firm stance on choice, free will, responsibility, and consequences.  A writer with more indulgent sensibilities would never have let Edmund go through life without a special Christmas present like the others have—what would happen to his self-esteem?

Here in the second Chronicle, Lewis wants to make sure that readers remember that Edmund chose to leave his siblings and chose to betray them to the White Witch, and for this reason he was not with them when Father Christmas appeared.  It is true that Edmund repented of his mistakes and apologized.  It is true he then did everything he could do to make up for his error, nearly sacrificing his life to destroy the Witch’s wand during the battle.  However, Edmund still will go through the rest of the Chronicles without a gift, and in Prince Caspian will not even be outfitted with an ordinary sword until chapter eight.

The next day, the four children meet one of Lewis’s most delightful creations—Trumpkin, the dwarf.  Within a page after he is released from the bonds Miraz’s soldiers tied him in, we are told that Trumpkin “at once took charge,” a comment which says as much about Peter at this point as it does Trumpkin.  Chapter thirteen will be called “The High King in Command,” a title which suggests that at this earlier point in the story Peter is not quite the High King and not quite in command.  Peter still has more growing and maturing to do.  And this growth and maturation will come about realistically, not despite but—as it does in real life—through the difficult decisions and hardships that he will face.

In real life, no one turns into a great leader overnight.  When Peter finally meets Aslan in chapter eleven, the young high king will exclaim, “I’m so sorry.  I’ve been leading them wrong ever since we started,” a statement which Aslan does not dispute.  Becoming a leader is a difficult and a gradual process, one which Lewis took great interest in and sought to portray realistically.  Thus, Peter and the leaders-in-training from later books will struggle on their way to assuming leadership, sometimes doing nothing, sometimes doing the wrong thing—just as we do in our world.

Next, Trumpkin tells the rather lengthy story of the young Prince Caspian, astory which can be summed up in two words: learning and longing.  Gradually the young protagonist comes to learn the truth about Narnia—both the bad truth about his Uncle Miraz and the good truth about the existence of the Old Narnians.  The more Caspian learns about the old days, the more he dreams of them and longs for their return.

In the opening chapter of his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes this powerful longing he himself experienced as a young person, and cautions that anyone who has no interest in this kind of episode need read no further, for, Lewis asserts: “The central story of my life is about nothing else.”  Lewis found this yearning hard to put into words and hard to categorize.  He ultimately gave this sensation the title of joy, defining it in a special way that distinguished it from mere happiness or pleasure, and made it the focus in the title of the story of his early life.

In his book Companion to Narnia, Paul Ford has observed that longing is “one of the most important themes in Lewis’s life and thought” and the term Lewis uses “to express the sort of experience within life that opens us up beyond appearances to the transcendent.”  In the longing to return to Narnia which the four Pevensie children have, Lewis evokes a similar longing on the part of readers, the feeling that this world is not my home.  Lewis reflects on this yearning in Mere Christianity, where he makes his famous declaration, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

In Prince Caspian Lewis continues to illustrate two great truths which are at the heart of the Christian faith.  First, that the life lived only for self—despite what it may seem to promise on the surface—is not glamorous, fun, or exciting, but instead, is petty, spiteful, dominating, and devouring.  We saw this in the way that the White Witch lived in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, all alone in her castle with no friends, no laughter, and never any good times.  In Prince Caspian, Lewis shows Miraz as leading a similar joyless existence. 

The second great truth, also seen in both stories, is that, despite what the other side says, the virtuous life is a real adventure, one with hardship that must be taken seriously, but an adventure not to be missed because it is the only path that leads to genuine happiness, real fulfillment, and true community.

People have asked the question of why Prince Caspian and the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia have remained so widely popular throughout the half century since their original publication.  One answer is because they are so widely needed—needed to remind us of deep and enduring truths about life in our world.

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Devin BrownDevin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and Professor of English at Asbury College.  He is the author of Inside Narnia: A Guide to Exploring The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Inside Prince Caspian: A Guide to Exploring the Return to Narnia

© 2008 Devin Brown. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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