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Why 'Prince Caspian' Fails

June 7, 2017

 

The difference between allegory and symbolism, which Lewis labours in The Allegory of Love, turns out to be central to our argument: the notion that a writer takes a subjective idea and gives it a fictive shape is allegorical and centred on the writer and what is occurring in his or her mind; the opposite notion, that a writer seeks an objective reality and tries to find the earthly form which represents it, symbolism, is not centred in the writer at all but in a ‘more real’ cosmos beyond our own. One way of looking at things (allegory) makes the inner, subjective, psychological world real and the world in which we live a projection; the other (symbolism) places the centre of reality outside our world - we live in its projection. The Ironic Twentieth Century culture surrounding Lewis was of the former kind; his intention was to revive or restore the latter.

 

Through his fiction, Lewis was, in effect, attempting to transform allegory into symbolism - to turn his own thoughts and beliefs from being perceived as projections into being perceived as external realities. Aslan was not supposed to be ‘Lewis’s idea of Christ’, but Christ embodied in a new symbol.

 

The immediate sequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, was an experiment in this.

 

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was clearly the first book Lewis wrote in the Narnia series because of its primitive structure. It’s basically divided into four parts: entrance to Narnia, chase, Aslan’s sacrifice and the battle. (Each part is 'bridged' on either side, with the children’s arrival at the house, the dinner with the Beavers, meeting Aslan, freeing the statues and, at the end, returning to England, but that’s another story.) Lewis himself describes how the story appeared to him through a series of separate images, some of them in dreams, which came suddenly and remarkably together as soon as he ‘imagined’ Aslan, but the story itself is very simple. 

 

Just as this is the children’s first entrance into Narnia, so it is Lewis’s, and we find him tentatively exploring the landscape he has created in much the same way as Lucy and then the rest of the children. Soon, though, the power of the basic ‘chase’ plot pulls the characters along a plotline along with the readers and Lewis himself, all heading towards the story’s resolution in a linear fashion. We are also pulled further into the meaning of the story by the non-linear significance of what happens with Aslan before, during and after his sacrifice. You could also argue that, when the children stay in this other world and grow up to be Kings and Queens, Lewis was also ‘lingering’ in Narnia and not really wanting to come ‘home’ to the world outside the story.

 

Lewis had given himself some advice in the book when it came to trying to return to Narnia through Professor Kirke:

 

'But don't go trying to use the same route twice. Indeed, don't try to get there at all. It'll happen when you're not looking for it. And don't talk too much about it even among yourselves. And don't mention it to anyone else unless you find that they've had adventures of the same sort themselves. What's that? How will you know? Oh, you'll know all right. Odd things, they say-even their looks-will let the secret out. Keep your eyes open.’

 

But with Prince Caspian, Lewis has the children ‘sucked' back into Narnia from a railway platform - the sensation we get as readers is very mechanical and even awkward compared to the enchanting wardrobe of the first story. Lewis explains elsewhere that he wanted to tell the story of a magical intervention from the ' other side'  - what if you were the magical power being summoned? How would that feel from your point of view? This is all very well, but it’s possible to argue that, on a different level, Lewis himself was 'sucked' into Narnia by the unexpected power (and popularity) of the first story - it exerted a 'pull' on his imagination in the same way that Susan’s horn, blown by Caspian in Narnia, exerts a pull on the children. But it seems that he hadn’t ‘kept his eyes open’ and waited for the magic to come to him. The book feels a little forced. 

 

Lewis is coming to grips with the genre of children’s literature to some degree in Caspian. Having established the Pevensies as his primary protagonists, and having had them undergo a considerable degree of character development in the first book, Lewis felt obliged by the nature of his audience to use them again, rather than try to create new lead characters. One of the problems is that the dynamics inside the Pevensie family have largely been explored: Edmund has gone through a whole cycle of betrayal, repentance and salvation; Peter and Susan have grown to respect their younger sibling Lucy; they have all ‘found themselves’ in the course of the first tale, winning their spurs (literally) and maturing into adults before the story is done.

 

Where could Lewis go from there? The reader gets the impression that Lewis has lost patience with his own idea, voiced by Professor Kirke, that he should not ‘try to get there at all’. Narnia has grown attractive to Lewis; the popularity of the first book has perhaps put Lewis into the position of many of his admiring readers, needing to find a way into Narnia. Imaginatively, then, he creates a narrative within Narnia which ‘pulls’ the children (and the reader) back there. Just as the dwarf appears and tells them the story of Caspian’s escape from his uncle Miraz, so Lewis develops the internal necessity which pulls him back there himself: something has happened to Narnia, it has degenerated into a darker place and must be 'redeemed' or rescued. Lewis grabs Susan’s horn as a mechanism to generate the pull: when it is blown ‘help most come’ and in this case it comes from our world, from a railway station platform where the Pevensies are waiting for a train.

 

Whereas in the first book Lewis was able to introduce the reader to a Dantean cosmos gradually, using the magically surprising wardrobe and the device of a group of child protagonists, the transition into Narnia this time is less subtle. As the Pevensies wander around an apparently abandoned country in the beginning of the novel, we feel that we are in a detective story rather than a fantasy: clues like the chess piece and the layout of the ruined castle are pieced together before the children recognise where they must be. They meet Trumpkin the Dwarf and receive the whole back story through a flashback. This lacks the mystical shift of viewpoint which Lewis managed more carefully in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Aware of this on some level, Lewis has his chief protagonist Lucy spend most of the story painfully searching for that communion with the external world which was so tangible in the earlier book. After a very mechanical and uncomfortable struggle to get off the island on which they appeared, the Pevensies and Trumpkin start making their way through a forest towards Caspian, and Lucy longs to re-connect to the land she remembers:

 

Lucy felt that at any moment she would begin to understand what the trees were trying to say. But the moment did not come. The rustling died away. The nightingale resumed its song. Even in the moonlight the wood looked more ordinary again. Yet Lucy had the feeling (as you sometimes have when you are trying to remember a name or a date and almost get it, but it vanishes before you really do) that she had just missed something: as if she had spoken to the trees a split second too soon or a split second too late, or used all the right words except one, or put in one word that was just wrong.

 

It is almost as though Lewis himself is struggling to re-establish the sense of the Dantean universe which he has so successfully managed to conjure up elsewhere. The drawn-out process of trying to find Aslan, so painful in Caspian, is also Lewis’s search for the original 'key' - Aslan - that helped Lewis pull it together in the first place. This is the symbolist’s search for meaning in the outer world - not a projection of one’s own wishes, but a true quest for a deeper reality.

 

Prince Caspian finishes, many think, unsatisfactorily - Aslan eventually appears, creates a doorway in the air and returns the Telmarines whence they came, which some readers might question: Why didn’t he do that earlier and save everyone some grief? It is as though, having invented a narrative rationale for re-entering Narnia - the Telmarine invasion and the need for Narnia to be redeemed or rescued - Lewis is stuck with having to find a way of getting rid of them. The novel feels more like an allegorist’s projection of an inner desire: Lewis, hungering after Narnia, has invented a whole tale to pull him and readers into that world again. Though Aslan and the talking trees carry some resonance of symbolism from the earlier book, Caspian on its own fails to achieve the heights of symbolism and becomes an allegory.

 

What was needed was another attempt, this time aimed at exploring the nature of Narnia itself and its relationship as a symbol. And that’s what we get in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

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