Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books 1962 (1951)
It is a year after the events in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter are waiting at a train station to go to their respective boarding schools for the summer term. Suddenly they find themselves in a thicket, and after extricating themselves from that they discover that they’re on an island amid some castle ruins.
Clearly they’re back in the magical world of Narnia — but why and, in particular, when? Because they soon work out that this is Cair Paravel where they reigned as sovereign queens and kings, but the castle’s ruinous state suggests that much time has passed, certainly more than the year since they’d been evacuated to the Professor’s house back (we may assume) in 1940, or even 1944.
And then they see a boat with two soldiers in chainmail about to drown a dwarf, and by rescuing him they are precipitated into a sequence of actions when they hear the story of Prince Caspian and the dire straits he and the Old Narnians are in.
These then are then two strands in this novel which finally come together — the story of the young prince and that of the Pevensie children. It is Caspian’s sounding of Susan’s old horn which has called the Pevensies to Narnia, but a good half of the narrative is concerned with Caspian’s backstory and his relationship with his wicked uncle Miraz. Lewis has doubtless drawn on tropes that have had a long currency, whether Hamlet and his uncle Claudius, Jason the Argonaut and Peleas, or Aladdin and his magician uncle; and the conflict inherent in that relationship is the main driver of the events in the novel.
But it is the reappearance of the Pevensies — Peter the oldest and natural leader, Susan who can be wayward, Edmund who is now a reformed character, and Lucy who has a particular affinity with Aslan — which provides the entry point to the story, and it is the Pevensies who close it, with Edmund’s reference to his lost electric torch reminding us of the lamppost signalling the entrance to Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That the adventure begins and ends in a railway station not only anticipates what is to come in The Last Battle but also recalls elements in John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) when a schoolboy’s railway journey introduces him to a magician, a witch, pirates, talking animals, and knights.
Included for the first time in Prince Caspian, with its already distinctive line drawings by Pauline Baynes, is a map, allowing the reader to orientate their view of journeys and events. However, off the map to the west is Telmar, from where the Telmarines migrated centuries ago to take over Narnia and banish non-humans. These peoples are actually descended from pirates in our world — an echo of Masefield’s pirates perhaps — though they seem to have adopted names that may remind us of the world of the Arabian Nights, as illustrated by the Persian-looking name Miraz and, indeed, that of the Caspian Sea.
Lewis introduces us to a host of delightful new personages, from Doctor Cornelius to Pattertwig the squirrel, from Trumpkin the dwarf to Reepicheep the mouse, and Trufflehunter the badger to Caspian himself. The villains will in turn get short shrift, but notably we re-encounter Aslan as deus ex machina, demonstrating a variation on the old adage ‘God helps those who help themselves’. This is also definitely a very masculine narrative: Peter and Edmund have especially active roles towards the end while Susan becomes more and more passive and Lucy is reduced to being a nurse administering a palliative cordial.
Despite the fresh elements that have entered the picture, Prince Caspian feels to me strangely muted after the emotional ride we experienced from its predecessor. The constant threat of conflict, which storywise can become tiring, seems aimed at reflecting the influence of Mars, not only the god of war but also the red planet. The early description of the Narnian planetary equivalents of Mars and Venus in near conjunction prefigure the novel’s main theme, and the colour red is given significance in various ways — for example, Trumpkin is given red hair while his more argumentative colleague Nikibrik has hair as black as night, presumably to indicate his character. By this kind of detail Lewis seems to be saying that there may be such a thing as a just war if the enemy is evil enough.
Curiously, the contribution made by tree spirits in the conflict was to anticipate that of Fangorn’s trees in the battle of Helm’s Deep from Tolkien’s The Two Towers, which wasn’t to appear in print for another three years after Prince Caspian was published. However (and this is a late afterthought) the reawakening of nature through dryads, naiads, Silenus and Bacchus very possibly reflects the other aspect of Mars the god, as a Roman agricultural deity — mentioned once as Mars Silvanus, “of the woods”.
Although I appreciated the many colourful touches in this iteration of good overcoming evil, the actual achieving of a happy ending — what Lewis’s friend Tolkien called a eucatastrophe — feels to me a mite unsatisfying and even underwhelming. But that’s just me.