Prince Caspian is the second book of the Chronicles of Narnia in
the original publication order (the fourth in the new publication order)
and a direct sequel to The Lion, the Witch
and the Wardrobe
. As much as I would like to say you could start here
if you wanted less of Lewis’s exploration of secondary-world Christianity
and more children’s adventure, I’m not sure it would be a good reading
experience. Prince Caspian rests heavily on the events of
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

If you haven’t already, you may also want to read
my review of that book for some introductory
material about my past relationship with the series and why I follow the
original publication order.

Prince Caspian always feels like the real beginning of a re-read.
Re-reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is okay but a bit
of a chore: it’s very random, the business with Edmund drags on, and it’s
very concerned with hitting the mandatory theological notes. Prince
Caspian
is more similar to the following books and feels like Narnia
proper. That said, I have always found the ending of Prince
Caspian
oddly forgettable. This re-read helped me see why: one of the
worst bits of the series is in the middle of this book, and then the
dramatic shape of the ending is very strange.

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW for both this book and The Lion, the
Witch and the Wardrobe
.

Prince Caspian opens with the Pevensie kids heading to school by
rail at the end of the summer holidays. They’re saying their goodbyes to
each other at a train station when they are first pulled and then dumped
into the middle of a wood. After a bit of exploration and the discovery
of a seashore, they find an overgrown and partly ruined castle.

They have, of course, been pulled back into Narnia, and the castle is Cair
Paravel, their great capital when they ruled as kings and queens. The
twist is that it’s over a thousand years later, long enough that Cair
Paravel is now on an island and has been abandoned to the forest. They
discover parts of how that happened when they rescue a dwarf named
Trumpkin from two soldiers who are trying to drown him near the supposedly
haunted woods.

Most of the books in this series have good hooks, but Prince
Caspian
has one of the best. I adored everything about the start of this
book as a kid: the initial delight at being by the sea when they were on
their way to boarding school, the realization that getting food was not
going to be easy, the abandoned castle, the dawning understanding of where
they are, the treasure room, and the extended story about Prince Caspian,
his discovery of the Old Narnia, and his flight from his usurper uncle.
It becomes clear from Trumpkin’s story that the children were pulled back
into Narnia by Susan’s horn (the best artifact in these books), but
Caspian’s forces were expecting the great kings and queens of legend from
Narnia’s Golden Age. Trumpkin is delightfully nonplussed at four
school-age kids who are determined to join up with Prince Caspian and
help.

That’s the first half of Prince Caspian, and it’s a solid magical
adventure story with lots of potential. The ending, alas, doesn’t
entirely work. And between that, we get the business with Aslan and Lucy
in the woods, or as I thought of it even as a kid, the bit where Aslan is
awful to everyone for no reason.

For those who have forgotten, or who don’t care about spoilers, the kids
plus Trumpkin are trying to make their way to Aslan’s How (formerly the
Stone Table) where Prince Caspian and his forces were gathered, when they
hit an unexpected deep gorge. Lucy sees Aslan and thinks he’s calling for
them to go up the gorge, but none of the other kids or Trumpkin can see
him and only Edmund believes her. They go down instead, which almost gets
them killed by archers. Then, that night, Lucy wakes up and finds Aslan
again, who tells her to wake the others and follow him, but warns she may
have to follow him alone if she can’t convince the others to go along.
She wakes them up (which does not go over well), Aslan continues to be
invisible to everyone else despite being right there, Susan is
particularly upset at Lucy, and everything is awful. But this time they
do follow her (with lots of grumbling and over Susan’s objections). This,
of course, is the right decision: Aslan leads them to a hidden path that
takes them over the river they’re trying to cross, and becomes visible to
everyone when they reach the other side.

This is a mess. It made me angry as a kid, and it still makes me angry
now. No one has ever had trouble seeing Aslan before, so the kids are
rightfully skeptical. By intentionally deceiving them, Aslan puts the
other kids in an awful position: they either have to believe Lucy is
telling the truth and Aslan is being weirdly malicious, or Lucy is
mistaken even though she’s certain. It not only leads directly to
conflict among the kids, it makes Lucy (the one who does all the right
things all along) utterly miserable. It’s just cruel and mean, for no
purpose.

It seems clear to me that this is C.S. Lewis trying to make a theological
point about faith, and in a way that makes it even worse because I think
he’s making a different point than he intended to make. Why is religious
faith necessary; why doesn’t God simply make himself apparent to everyone
and remove the doubt? This is one of the major problems in Christian
apologetics, Lewis chooses to raise it here, and the answer he gives is
that God only shows himself to his special favorites and hides from
everyone else as a test. It’s clearly not even a question of intention to
have faith; Edmund has way more faith here than Lucy does (since Lucy
doesn’t need it) and still doesn’t get to see Aslan properly until
everyone else does. Pah.

The worst part of this is that it’s effectively the last we see of Susan.

Prince Caspian is otherwise the book in which Susan comes into her
own. The sibling relationship between the kids is great here in general,
but Susan is particularly good. She is the one who takes bold action to
rescue Trumpkin, risking herself by firing an arrow into the helmet of one
of the soldiers despite being the most cautious of the kids. (And then
gets a little defensive about her shot because she doesn’t want anyone to
think she would miss that badly at short range, a detail I just love.) I
identified so much with her not wanting to beat Trumpkin at an archery
contest because she felt bad for him (but then doing it anyway). She is,
in short, awesome.

I was fine with her being the most grumpy and frustrated with the argument
over picking a direction. They’re all kids, and sometimes one gets grumpy
and frustrated and awful to the people around you. Once everyone sees
Aslan again, Susan offers a truly excellent apology to Lucy, so it seemed
like Lewis was setting up a redemption arc for her the way that he did for
Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (although I maintain
that nearly all of this mess was Aslan’s fault). But then we never see
Susan’s conversation with Aslan, Peter later says he and Susan are now too
old to return to Narnia, and that’s it for Susan. Argh.

I’ll have more to say about this later (and it’s not an original opinion),
but the way Lewis treats Susan is the worst part of this series, and it
adds insult to injury that it happens immediately after she has a chance
to shine.

The rest of the book suffers from the same problem that The Lion,
the Witch and the Wardrobe
did, namely that Aslan fixes everything in a
somewhat surreal wild party and it’s unclear why the kids needed to be
there. (This is the book where Bacchus and Silenus show up, there is a
staggering quantity of wine for a children’s book, and Aslan turns a bunch
of obnoxious school kids into pigs.) The kids do have more of a role to
play this time: Peter and Edmund help save Caspian, and there’s a
(somewhat poorly motivated) duel that sends up the ending. But other than
the brief battle in the How, the battle is won by Aslan waking the trees,
and it’s not clear why he didn’t do that earlier. The ending is, at best,
rushed and not worthy of its excellent setup. I was also disappointed
that the “wait, why are you all kids?” moment was hand-waved away by
Narnia giving the kids magical gravitas.

Lewis never felt in control of either The Lion, the Witch and the
Wardrobe
or Prince Caspian. In both cases, he had a great hook
and some ideas of what he wanted to hit along the way, but the endings are
more sense of wonder and random Aslan set pieces than anything that
follows naturally from the setup. This is part of why I’m not commenting
too much on the sour notes, such as the red dwarves being the good and
loyal ones but the black dwarves being suspicious and only out for
themselves. If I thought bits like that were deliberate, I’d complain
more, but instead it feels like Lewis threw random things he liked about
children’s books and animal stories into the book and gave it a good stir,
and some of his subconscious prejudices fell into the story along the way.

That said, resolving your civil war children’s book by gathering all the
people who hate talking animals (but who have lived in Narnia for
generations) and exiling them through a magical gateway to a conveniently
uninhabited country is certainly a choice, particularly when you wrote the
book only two years after the
Partition of
India
. Good lord.

Prince Caspian is a much better book than The Lion, the Witch
and the Wardrobe
for the first half, and then it mostly falls apart. The
first half is so good, though. I want to read the book that this could
have become, but I’m not sure anyone else writes quite like Lewis at his
best.

Followed by The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is my absolute
favorite of the series.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-04-03



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