The Soul of Prince Caspian
By Gene Veith
David C. Cook Publishing
I wonder where we are and what it all means?
—Peter, upon the children’s arrival in Narnia, chapter 2
Just as in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian begins realistically enough. The four Pevensie children—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—are waiting for a train. A year has passed since their adventure in the wardrobe. They are in a melancholy mood at the train station because the holidays are over and they are headed back to school. That is, they are headed back to that peculiarly British institution of the boarding school, in which very young children of well-to-do families live away from their parents for most of the year—an institution celebrated in Harry Potter but hated by the young C. S. Lewis, who had to endure the experience himself.
Suddenly, the children feel themselves pulled off the platform. They hold on to each other, but something is yanking them into the air. The train station fades from their view, and the next thing they know they are in a dense forest. They do not quite realize it yet, but they are in Narnia, this time without the benefit of a wardrobe.
Lewis once said that various mental images provided the catalyst for his Narnia stories, and the one that got him started with Prince Caspian was that of a conjuring trick told from a different point of view.1 In the standard magic act, a magician waves his wand, and, in a cloud of smoke, a person suddenly appears. Lewis wondered what this experience would have been like for the conjured person. He must have come from somewhere, right? So Lewis imagined someone going about his daily business, only to get pulled away suddenly in a cloud of smoke. This image is how Lewis came up with the idea of having the children, in the words of the original title, “drawn into Narnia.”2
Similar uses of “point of view” take place throughout the novel. For instance, just as any child would do, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy soon begin exploring their new surroundings. They find a stream, apple trees, collapsed walls, and various ruins. Eventually it dawns on them that they have been exploring Cair Paravel, their old home in Narnia, only now it is in shambles, as if it had been neglected for a very long time. What they at first saw as undistinguished mounds and stones, they begin to see as familiar territory, charged with good memories. They had been looking at the same things all along, but a subtle shift in point of view allows them to really see.
Later in the story, the title character, Prince Caspian, bumps his head and is terrified to be awakened by a strange hairy face peering down on him.When it talks, this bestial apparition is even more unsettling. But what Caspian first experiences as a horrifying monster, he soon comes to know as a friendly talking badger. The creature is frightening to Caspian at first because he is unfamiliar with it, but these feelings quickly change once Caspian gains a better understanding of the situation. Again, this subtle shift in point of view helps one of Lewis’s characters see things a little differently.
Perhaps the most important distinction Lewis makes in the novel is between the points of view of the “Old Narnians” versus the “New Narnians” (the Telmarines). Throughout the novel, Old Narnians and New Narnians see the same things—the woods, the sea, the lion—but come to completely different conclusions. Whether a character believes the lion is just another animal or the Lord of Narnia depends on his point of view. This is most evident in the differences between the young Prince Caspian and his evil uncle Miraz, king of the Telmarines. Miraz believes in a narrow, materialistic world that he can control. Caspian believes in a bigger world—one that includes both the seen and the unseen—even to the point that he tries to teach his pet dogs and cats to talk! Miraz doesn’t believe in lions; Caspian believes in the lion.
Fiction, by its very nature, operates through point of view. When we read a story, we enter the mind of a fictional character— we see what he sees, feel what he feels, and vicariously share his experience. The imaginative experience of assuming different characters’ points of view is part of what makes reading fiction so pleasurable, so the fact that Lewis’s characters have different points of view in and of itself is not very profound. But Lewis is trying to do much more than simply differentiate between the points of view of his characters or show how they change throughout the novel— he is trying to illuminate our points of view as readers. He is using a fantastic story to help us as readers experience biblical truth—to see with new eyes what we might now take for granted.
Point of View and Worldview
In fiction that deals with ideas, such as the Narnia stories, points of view often embody and give us entry into different belief systems and ways of looking at the world. This is why reading imaginative fiction—not just The Chronicles of Narnia, but also other novels from a wide range of authors—can be so informative. It is one reason why, to quote Lewis again, “sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.”3
Christians today talk quite a bit about “worldview.” In books, sermons, and classrooms, Christians have been exploring what the Bible teaches about reality and how biblical paradigms are in conflict with the views of life projected by other ideologies and religions.4
Worldviews are not, however, just sets of theoretical concepts or abstract ideas. They are, if you will excuse the literalism, ways of viewing the world.Two people can stand in the same forest and stare at the same wildlife. One will pick up on nature’s intricate design and marvel at the order evident at every level of creation. The other will see a purely random chain of events. Two people can experience the same tragedy, like the death of a loved one. One will mourn at the sadness of our fallen, sin-wracked condition, but have hope in Christ’s promise of everlasting life. The other will mourn at the absurdity of a life that has no meaning. In each case, the difference is not in the evidence or in the experience, but in the worldview each person brings to that evidence or experience.
Worldviews are the glasses through which people peer out at the world. Some people, as we say, look at the world through rosecolored glasses. Others keep their shades on all the time and never see the light. With that idea in mind, John Calvin compared the Bible to a different set of glasses, one through which we can see the world more clearly:
For by the Scripture as our guide and teacher, [the Lord] not only makes those things plain which would otherwise escape our notice, but almost compels us to behold them; as if he had assisted our dull sight with spectacles.5
Clearly religious beliefs shape a person’s worldview, but so does culture. Even people who do not think much about such big issues operate within a specific worldview, which they have simply absorbed through their social surroundings. Worldviews are not just taught; we might say, they are caught. Family, friends, the entertainment industry, and the social set we want to belong to all shape our innermost assumptions. Some professed Christians operate with a worldview shaped by their culture rather than by the Bible. If their peers accept extramarital sex and abortion, then they will as well. Christians who take their faith more seriously struggle with the disconnect between what they know of Scripture and what they see in the world today. They probably feel like Caspian trying in vain to teach his dogs and cats how to talk.
Furthermore, worldviews are very resistant. Counterarguments, facts, and even experiences are not enough to dislodge them. A person’s worldview is the world his mind inhabits, an explanatory paradigm that accounts for everything he takes in. A materialistic atheist who believes that human beings are only animals and that existence is purely random can explain everything he sees in terms of his worldview. So can a New Age mystic, for whom the universe is an illusion and who believes that he is a god. So can a Christian, who believes that the universe is God’s creation and that we are all sinful at heart and in need of God’s redemption.
Some theologians, such as Abraham Kuyper and Cornelius Van Til, believe that everyone is imprisoned, so to speak, in his or her presuppositions—that is, his or her worldview. To have a Christian worldview requires an act of God’s grace. Apologists who try to use rational arguments and evidence to prove the case of Christianity are fighting a losing battle. According to this view, since people’s minds are self-contained, blocking out God’s truth and inhabiting their own fallen ideologies, persuading them through rational means is impossible.
Ironically, these conservative Christians agree with today’s secular postmodernists who believe that everyone is trapped in his or her own prison of mental and cultural constructions. Postmodernists believe that we can therefore never access any objective truth, since we cannot escape our own subjective frameworks and perspectives. Because everyone has his or her own worldview, and we have no way of proving that any of them is more valid than any other, truth is relative. Christian presuppositionalists are not relativists, though, and believe that the Bible offers the one true worldview. In fact, they deserve credit for anticipating decades ago what postmodernists are just now articulating.
Francis Schaeffer agreed with Van Til and the presuppositional apologists, but he, like some of them, argued that non-Christian worldviews are so incomplete that no one can consistently live by them. Our materialistic atheist friend, for instance, probably regards his children as more than animals and loves them with a transcendent commitment that completely contradicts his worldview, which cannot account for transcendent values. Schaeffer’s approach to evangelism was to uncover the internal contradictions of an unbeliever’s worldview, “taking the roof off,” so to speak, as a way to open him to God’s Word.6
C. S. Lewis, as an apologist, was not a presuppositionalist. In Mere Christianity, for example, he uses rational argument to make the case for Christianity, which he believes is objectively true and more or less accessible to a reasonable mind despite one’s worldview. And yet, Lewis was well aware of the different worldviews people inhabit. In his scholarly book The Discarded Image, Lewis explores the Ptolomaic model of the universe—the view that the earth is the center around which the planets and the stars rotate— as the backdrop for Greek, Roman, medieval, and Renaissance literature.
But in his imaginative works, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis attempts another kind of Christian apologetics. He does something similar to Francis Schaeffer—he exploits the imagination in an attempt to simultaneously expose false worldviews and show how the Christian worldview is so much bigger, more wonderful, and true. This is especially evident in Prince Caspian.
Which brings us back to my earlier point that Lewis is not trying simply to differentiate between different points of view, but rather to use the convention of “story” to illuminate our points of view as readers, to give us a new appreciation for the Christian faith and the worldview it makes possible. But how exactly does he do this? And to what end? He does this through a literary technique known as “defamiliarizing.”
Many people, non-Christian and Christian alike, have come to see biblical doctrine as boring at best and oppressively burdensome at worst. Lewis explodes these misconceptions, showing how wonderful, liberating, and deeply satisfying the Christian worldview is by defamiliarizing biblical truth. That is, he takes something so familiar as to be taken for granted and presents it from an unusual angle, causing the reader to see it in a new light and experience it as if for the first time.
The opening of Prince Caspian, when the children arrive in a strange new world only to discover that it is their old home, is reminiscent of a story G. K. Chesterton once told: “I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.” Chesterton imagines a “man who landed (armed to the teeth and talking by signs) to plant the British flag on that barbaric temple which turned out to be the Pavilion at Brighton.” Though such an ironic scenario is comical, Chesterton draws from it a serious point: “What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”7
Chesterton, who was one of Lewis’s favorite writers and whose books were instrumental in his coming to Christianity, then relates the hypothetical tale to his own life and to his faith:
I have a peculiar reason for mentioning the man in a yacht, who discovered England. For I am that man in a yacht. I discovered England.…When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom. It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion. The man from the yacht thought he was the first to find England; I thought I was the first to find Europe. I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.8
Chesterton had scorned the Christianity of his childhood, but in his search for truth, he discovered an amazing new world, which turned out to be the Christianity of his childhood! The man in the story was looking at his homeland from a new angle. He did not see it as he used to. It was no longer ordinary, but seen from this fresh perspective, it was exciting and exotic. Chesterton was making a joke about the Brighton Pavilion, a grandiose Taj Mahal–like palace and a British tourist trap. But while the British are so familiar with it that they consider it old hat, I suspect that we Americans would find the Brighton Pavilion exciting and exotic.
This is a clue to how all literature works—indeed, how all art forms work—and how literature and art can enrich our lives. Most of us know the old saying that “familiarity breeds contempt.” The Russian literary critic Victor Shklovsky takes this one step further, showing how familiarity decreases perception; that is, familiarity makes us stop noticing things, makes us literally see less. A work of art, though, whether a painting or a novel, can take a subject so familiar that we have stopped paying attention to it and cause us to contemplate it again. “Art,” Shklovsky said, “increases our perception, our ability to see something, whereas habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.”9
A job may start out stimulating, enjoyable, and fulfilling. But once it becomes a habit, the worker goes on autopilot and the joy disappears. A woman may buy a new dress but will soon grow tired of it. A new sofa at first dominates the room but then fades into the background. More tragically, marriages go bad when spouses take each other for granted. Even horrible experiences—like the fear of war—can become mundane. “And so,” Shklovsky said, “life is reckoned as nothing.”10
The same deadening effect of habit can happen to a person’s faith. The thrill of belief can fade. Christianity can come to seem ho-hum. Going to church week after week can become routine. The Bible can lose its edge. Many once-zealous Christians begin to think sermons and worship and theology are boring. Boredom has been called the characteristic spiritual problem of our age. In our current media environment, we are hyperstimulated. With our TVs constantly on at home, our iPods blaring when we get in our cars, and our computers deluging us with information at work, our minds are constantly bombarded. That bombardment is designed to give us pleasure, to keep us entertained. But ironically, it increases boredom. Just as drug addicts have to keep taking bigger doses to get high, we must have more and more stimulation to keep us interested. (This is also why our popular entertainment has to keep getting more extreme—more shocking, more gruesome, more pornographic—to break through our growing insensibility.) And when the bombardment slows—when we have to endure silence, when we have to do something that is not fun but necessary, when we have to attend to someone other than ourselves—we can hardly handle that at all.
But it isn’t necessarily the fault of a person’s job that he no longer sees the significance of his employment as a divine calling and a means of loving and serving God and one’s neighbor.11 It isn’t the fault of a set of clothes or a piece of furniture that the owner gets tired of it. And it is seldom the fault of the wife when her husband no longer appreciates her. If we become calloused toward war, or to other people’s suffering, or to our blessings, or to love, this is just more evidence for what the Bible calls our hardness of heart.
Nor is it the fault of the church that our hearts are dulled to the point that we are oblivious to the presence of Christ. (Many churches, ironically, try to play the same game of hyperstimulation with action-packed services and numerous activities, oblivious to how they are contributing to the problem.) “There is no such thing as an uninteresting subject,” observed Chesterton. “The only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”12
This dull insensitivity to life and to God is a moral and spiritual problem. The old Christian theologians identified it as a species of the sin “sloth,” a form of laziness. A person who expects the universe to keep him entertained and is indignant when it doesn’t is lazy. But his is also a failure of imagination.
Shklovsky believed that art, by presenting its subject from an unusual point of view, defamiliarizes the routine. The formal structures of art and the different contexts it creates increase our perception. Most people never take a second look at the bowl of fruit in their kitchen, but take that bowl of fruit out of the kitchen, put it into a painting, and hang it on a museum wall—as in a Dutch Master still life—and people will marvel at its beauty. They will appreciate the texture of the orange peel, the bruises on the apple, and the light reflecting off the bowl. Ironically, the beauty in the painting is the same beauty as in the kitchen. But we never notice the fruit in the kitchen, because it is so familiar. The painting, though, causes us to pay attention to these forms and colors, appreciating their aesthetic impact. If we are wise, we will carry the lesson from the museum back into our ordinary lives, so that we might pay attention and appreciate what we have in the “kitchen,” whatever that might be.
For instance, a man might, through many years of familiarity, take his wife for granted. But if he reads a novel about love and marriage, and the novel’s point of view causes him to identify with the characters, he might see his own marriage reflected in the plot of the novel. As he reads and contemplates this imaginary relationship, he might learn to notice and appreciate his own wife once again.
So What’s the Catch?
Art and literature can enrich our daily routines, and they can help us become more sensitive to the subtle beauties of our own lives by defamiliarizing what we might otherwise overlook. But art and literature do not always have this effect. Some people today take this too far and find meaning only by losing themselves in books or other “art forms” such as TV and movies and video games. A disturbing trend has grown in the world of virtual gaming in which people are now able to create online alternate realities where they can live out their lives as completely different people. In theory this might sound like fun, but in actuality things like this only serve to increase dissatisfaction and magnify boredom. Similarly, the married man above could read a novel that promotes an escapist sexual fantasy in his mind, motivating him to divorce his real wife in search of an idealized storybook woman who does not exist. The path toward a greater appreciation for the things in your life does not include forgetting them entirely.
Shklovsky said that the way art defamiliarizes is by its aesthetic form, which makes perception more difficult. It takes work of the imagination to decipher, interpret, and contemplate a good novel, drama, or painting. Some works of art, however, have little aesthetic form. They are immediately accessible, make no demands, and do not cause the reader to think. These works of poor aesthetic quality seldom defamiliarize their subjects. Instead of possessing their own aesthetic forms, they tend to be conventional, following the same plots and employing the same character types as every other example of their genre. They are, in short, familiar, works of mere entertainment that end up contributing to boredom.
Soap operas and romance novels might, through their fantasies, tempt a spouse to commit adultery. But a great novel like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, though about adultery, never would, because Anna Karenina is precisely about the foolishness of a woman who succumbs to these romantic escapist fantasies and who learns how futile they are as they destroy her life.What makes good art “good,” among other things, is its honesty, its fidelity to truth presented in all its complexity. A bad use of the imagination can indeed lead us astray, but the good use of the imagination can help us stay on the right path.
Thus our aesthetic taste has a moral dimension. This does not have as much to do with the content (whether or not a work contains violence or sexuality) as it does with how that content is presented—that is, its form. Works of art that are true and good and beautiful can defamiliarize our lives. This entails not just staying in the imaginary realm, but bringing back its lessons to illuminate the real world, as Lewis did in The Chronicles of Narnia.
Bringing theMessage Back to Life
C. S. Lewis began his series of children’s stories in an attempt to defamiliarize Christianity and wrote Prince Caspian in particular in an attempt to defamiliarize the loss of faith. As we discussed elsewhere,13 Lewis, who became a Christian as an adult, marveled at the way the astonishing, breathtaking truths of Christianity—that God became Man, that He bore the sins of the world and paid their penalty, that limitless joy awaits us after death—have somehow, to believers and nonbelievers alike, become humdrum and mundane.
He remembered being taken to church as a child and leaving with little impression made. Lewis blamed this on the fact that adults would tell him how he was supposed to feel about Jesus and the artificial reverence with which he was supposed to approach Bible stories. But surely the problem was not with Christianity itself, but with what Victor Shklovsky described earlier: For young Jack Lewis, the Christianity of his childhood—apparently presented in an inept way—was just another habit. It became so familiar that he never thought about it. And when he wanted to escape his overly familiar, mundane life, such as when he went off to school and university, Christianity was one of the many dull things he left behind.
This is probably true not just for a young C. S. Lewis, but for many of us who were raised in the church. Christianity’s familiarity has helped it fade from our personal and cultural consciousness. The ramifications of our beliefs are still present in our moral assumptions, our laws, and our institutions, but few people notice them anymore. Thankfully Lewis decided not just to give us another set of reasons to believe Christian dogma, but rather he chose to show us how faith in Christ can be exhilarating. He presents Christianity from a fresh point of view, causing us to notice the wonder of what it has always been.
Sometimes his use of logical reasoning is one of these fresh approaches, since our culture has long forgotten the intellectual dimension of Christianity. But he also uses imaginative and artistic devices to open our eyes to what the old-time religion is actually saying. Consider this famous passage from Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of thing Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.14
The argument itself is an old one, a classic defense of the deity of Christ. But Lewis breathes life into his logic with lively language and vivid imagery, going so far as to throw in a poached egg. To most of us raised in a culture in which even believers treat Christianity as something nonrational, this is unfamiliar. And that is precisely the point. Defamiliarizing Christianity was Lewis’s explicit intention for Prince Caspian and The Chronicles of Narnia. By his own admission, Lewis intends to reopen our eyes, to help us see as we have never seen before—or at least as we haven’t seen in a very long time: “Supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their potency?”15 Fitting, then, that these are children’s stories, since it’s apparent that Lewis would have us see as children do: with awe and wonder. And though Prince Caspian reveals the unhappy truth of what can happen to individuals and cultures that lose their faith, more importantly, it reminds us of the joy and excitement that the restoration of those beliefs can bring back into our lives.
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Gene Veith, Ph.D., is the author of 15 books on Christianity and literature, the arts, and culture. Currently the culture editor of World Magazine, Veith is highly respected for his scholarship on Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles. He has taught English literature for 25 years in both Christian and secular colleges. He is currently the director of the Cranach Institute for the study of Christianity and Culture at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
© 2008 Gene Veith. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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