Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Short of the Standard

In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” C.S. Lewis suggests that the only reason you should write a children’s story is if the “children’s story is the best art form for something you have to say.” When reading the stories in the Narnia series, I sometimes try to put myself in the place of a child who is reading the story for the first time. I find it necessary because at times in these stories the allegory seems too obvious or a plot line comes off as too contrived; and, I think, as an adult reader I may be a bit jaded.

Perhaps an inexperienced reader—a child—would not have the same opinion. A child might enjoy sorting out the convolutions of certain story lines or thrill at explicitly associating a situation in the story to an incident in “real” life. In discussing these stories, one of my friends commented how important and powerful discovering and understanding stories on that level can be for a young reader. But Lewis states in the same essay that he is “almost inclined to set it up as canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad story.” Given this assertion and also the importance of the child’s process of discovery, I’m sorry to say that Prince Caspian seems to fail Lewis’ own test. What happens in the story is too often based on coincidence and convenience. Characters move and act not by a well-developed sequence of events but more because Lewis is able to conveniently explain something that has taken or is about to take place.

Before I go too far down the road describing what bothers me about this story, I want to mention the parts that I did enjoy, particularly the characters and the setting. Trumpkin’s storytelling, for instance, satisfyingly brought the entire story up to date (if it failed to explain how he came to be with the children in the first place—but more on that later). The main characters, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, who we first met in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, are people that we all can relate to. Through their adventures they have acquired admirable amounts of bravery, honesty and intelligence, but as people, moreover young people, they can also be stubborn, cranky, and impulsive. I enjoyed watching Lucy, in spite of her uncertainty and reluctance to contradict her older siblings, determine to follow Aslan—as He says she must do even if it means she must leave them.

I also enjoyed the wise Doctor Cornelius, his animal counterpart the badger, Trufflehunter, the practical Trumpkin, the friendly Bulgy Bears, the slow-witted giant, Wimbleweather, and the overly compensating mouse, Reepicheep (although I hate his name!). Even the villains—such as Nikabrik, King Miraz and his plotting lords—are interesting to watch and listen to. And all are placed in the woods, castles, rivers, hills, and meadows of Narnia, which Lewis does a wonderful job of describing.

But then these characters are required to participate in the action. While most of the ordinary occurrences (and many of the not-so-ordinary) are logical and I can follow them without overtly slapping my forehead, it only takes a few instances of foggy logic and contrivance for the story to run off its rails. One such example, as mentioned above, is the appearance of Trumpkin at the island where the children find themselves after being magically yanked away from a British train station. Though I enjoy his bit of story telling after they rescue him, even in that are seeds of convenient occurrences that weigh on the story later; and when I come to find out the coincidences that had to occur in order for him to meet the children at the island, I only wish his story could have continued on in some other direction. Alas, on we go anyway.

In chapter five, Caspian’s aunt, Queen Prunaprismia, seems ill—but it turns out she is actually about to give birth. When a boy is born, Caspian’s life is suddenly in danger because he is no longer needed by his uncle, King Miraz, to succeed the throne. This pregnancy is a cheap surprise sprung on the reader. Isn’t Caspian old enough and smart enough to have noticed that the Queen was pregnant? Wouldn’t wise Doctor Cornelius, who must have known she was pregnant, have previously considered that a male heir might be produced? He would have immediately known the danger to Caspian and would have had months to prepare and plan for that eventuality. Instead, at the birth of the Miraz’s son, Doctor Cornelius tells Caspian he must flee for his life in the middle of the night—also dropping the bombshell that Caspian is the true King of Narnia. Doctor Cornelius explains that Miraz murdered his brother, Caspian’s father, the previous King Caspian of Narnia. (I also find it curious that King Miraz’s son is never mentioned again. Though it turns out Caspian is the rightful king and Miraz is dealt with, I think the Queen and their son merit some mention in order to tie off that loose end.)

Before Caspian leaves, Doctor Cornelius gives him Susan’s Magic Horn. This is foreshadowed earlier in the book when the children discover it missing from the treasure room at the now ancient, island-bound castle of Cair Paravel. Doctor Cornelius has oh-so-conveniently acquired it by enduring terrors and uttering spells because it just so happens that Caspian will need it later in order to summon the children into Narnia and into the story. Perhaps if Lewis had given more time to explain how Cornelius would come into possession of such an important talisman (and plot device) it would make more of the rest of the story easier to believe; instead, it is just one of several rabbits he pulls out of a hat.

After Caspian flees to the mountains to the south, he meets and helps organize the true citizens of Narnia on the slopes of Archenland—the dwarves, talking animals, and mythic creatures who have fled and gone into hiding. With the counsel of the Centaur, Glenstorm, they determine that they must go to war. In a short couple of paragraphs (and without much trouble or muster) they move to Aslan’s How and are soon engaged with Miraz’s troops; and these battles go badly. This quickly brings us to one of the main aspects of the plot that bothers me—how Trumpkin and the children come to meet at Cair Paravel.

A council decides that Caspian will blow Susan’s horn in the hope that Aslan or the fabled Kings Peter and Edmund and Queens Susan and Lucy will come to help them defeat Miraz’s army. Trumpkin is sent to the coast in case help arrives there. At this point we know what happens when he gets there. He is captured and then rescued by the children. But in order for him to get captured he had to do something that even Lewis (by way of Trumpkin himself) has to explain and apologize for. The practical and careful dwarf says, “As if I’d no more sense than a Giant, I risked a short cut across open country to cut off a big loop of the river, and was caught.” Trumpkin adds, “Anyone else would have run me through there and then.”

But Trumpkin has been “fortunate” enough to be caught by one of Miraz’s lords, a “pompous fool” who intends a grand execution by sending Trumpkin “down ‘to the ghosts’ in the full ceremonial way.” He is placed in a boat with two of the lord’s soldiers who are interrupted in their mission to drown the dwarf by Susan’s well-aimed arrows. So by this series of convenient events Trumpkin is able to meet Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy and the saving of Narnia and the rest of the story is able to proceed. But why is this pompous lord off in the wild in the first place, instead of helping engage Caspian’s army? Why, in the heat of a pitched battle, can two soldiers be spared for days disposing of a spy in such a convoluted way? Why the ceremonious effort? Ah, because Trumpkin needs to “meet cute” with the children.

The children and Trumpkin eventually meet up with Aslan, as well as Silenus, Bacchus and the Maenads—“his fierce, madcap girls”—and together they find their way to Aslan’s How. Peter challenges King Miraz to single combat to avoid risking further bloodying of Caspian’s army. By the treachery of a couple of Miraz’s own lords, Miraz is defeated and killed. By the help of the Awakened Trees of the Narnian Woods, the Telmarine army is routed and run off to Beruna where the Telmarines hope to make their escape over the bridge that now spans the ford. But the bridge is gone and so they surrender.

Here begins one of the most curious scenes in the book, where Lewis explains the convenient necessity of the missing bridge. While Lewis likely has his purposes for this scene, and it may be important to his overall purpose for this story and for its place in the Narnia series, from a purely literary standpoint it feels like he opens the back door of the whole production and moves it to the burlesque theater next door.


And so he starts the explanation by rightly asking, “But what happened to the bridge?” Silenus, Bacchus, and the Maenads are still with Aslan, Susan, and Lucy. The girls wake up and Aslan tells them they will make a holiday. Everyone is up laughing and playing instruments. The girls climb on to Aslan and they are off. With the help of Bacchus’ magic vines the bridge is pulled down—but why?—and the revelers wade across the river and into the town. They scare away a shrewish schoolmarm and most of her class except one girl, Gwendolyn, who joins them. Then the Maenads help her “take off some of the unnecessary and uncomfortable clothes that she was wearing.” From there on to the rest of the chapter, the party winds through the nearby countryside scaring off most people, but they are joined by various animals and a few free-spirited locals. Except for taking down the bridge, little of this seems to have much to do with the story. It feels like a superfluous song and dance number in a staged musical. Eventually the revelers find their way to where Miraz’s army is being held at bay by Peter’s victorious army.

Following this party (and then another to celebrate the victory), Aslan is prepared to grant the Telmarines mercy. And it is here in one long paragraph that Lewis, through Aslan, strings together a number of wild coincidences that explains how the Telmarines came to be in Narnia. They are descended from pirates from Earth. These pirates were shipwrecked on an island. Several of the pirates and their women fled from the others to a mountain where they discovered a cave. In the cave was a magical place that connected Earth and the world of Narnia. They were transported to Telmar, which happened to be uninhabited at the time. They lived there for many generations until there was a famine and they invaded Narnia and conquered it. So not only is Caspian king by his Telmar lineage, but also because he is actually a descendant of Earth and thereby a son of Adam he can truly join the King Club of Narnia.


I have to admit; I was feeling a little woozy after wading through Aslan’s “explanation.” Is this because I’m an adult? Or is it just my personal taste?

While all that is a fanciful yarn and some readers might be pleased with it, I can’t help thinking that with more time spent considering the possibilities, a mind as brilliant as Lewis’ could have come up with something more interesting, exciting and, above all, plausible.

15 Comments:

Blogger Kathy Bledsoe said...

Way to go, George! I thoroughly applaud your taking Jack to task for so sorrily abandoning his own standard in Prince Caspian. It seems especially egregious since the tale is preceded by The Horse and His Boy, which is just a really great story, and followed by Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is the epitome of quest literature. I really think you would have set Lewis back a bit and he would have really enjoyed talking with you about it. Well done!

6/09/2005 5:03 PM  
Blogger George Rosok said...

Thanks, Kathy. It's a bit intimidating taking on Lewis who has more literay knowledge and understanding than I can imagine. It would be fascinating to hear how he would respond to my comments.

6/12/2005 8:58 PM  
Blogger sloWriter said...

I'm sorry that you don't enjoy it as much as I do. Of course, I first read it as a kid, so I realize that my judgement of the book is clouded by affection and nostalgia.

A few things.

1) Just FYI. Publishing wise, "Prince Caspian" does not follow "The Horse and His Boy". Originally, LWW was published first, followed by "Prince Caspian" then "Voyage of the Dawn Treader", "The Silver Chair", "The Horse and His Boy", "The Magician's Nephew", and finally, "The Last Battle". Lewis wrote some of the later books concurrently, but not LWW & PC. Those were the first & second books that he wrote.

2) I always understood that Aslan pulled the Pevensie kids back to Narnia at Cair Paravel BECAUSE that's where Trumpkin would end up, and that's where their gifts were stored. Aslan could have pulled them back into Narnia at any place of his choosing. Given the circumstances, this seems just as plausible to me as it did to the Council when they were deciding where to send the two lookouts.

3) It's interesting that you don't think much of the story and yet think Lewis "does a wonderful job of describing" the "woods, castles, rivers, hills, and meadows of Narnia." I always thought it was a weak point in the stories and not detailed (or big) enough. I wish he'd written more, but it would probably bore the very kids for whom he wrote.

4) Your point on Caspian's aunt is well-noted, and I heartily agree. I had not thought of that before. Both in regard to her pregnancy, as well as what to do about her and her son, Caspian's cousin. I can understand that Cornelius might wait until the birth, so as to confirm the baby was a boy (and therefore, an actual threat), but you'd think he'd at least put together a more thought-out plan.

5) The point of getting Susan's horn is also well-made. The tale DOES merit some real specifics, but in fairness to Lewis, would likely have required an entire book in itself. Also, there's no reason why the horn couldn't have been kept by the animals and entered the story only AFTER Caspian meets them. So either way, I can see why it would be blown at that time and place. But you're right. Cornelius isn't the appropriate vehicle of delivery.

6) Are you saying that Trumpkin's meeting the children is contingent upon being caught by the soldiers? Either way, he would meet them at Cair Paravel, so I have to disagree that this is somehow contrived.

7) Regarding the Bridge of Beruna, you're probably right. I never fully understood that part anyway. However, as for the rest of the "song and dance number", Aslan is clearly undoing not just the Telmarine governance of Narnia, but the dominance of Telmarine culture itself, thus restoring Narnia for the Narnians (i.e., the talking beasts). Of course, sometimes you do get the impression that there couldn't be more than a thousand living (talking) beings in all of Narnia, which makes it seem way too small.

8) Also, I wouldn't consider it to be a convenient "coincidence" that Telmarines are human. What else would they be? They're not like the giants of Carn. In LWW, the Professor said that there were MANY doors between our world and theirs. I suspect the Calormen people are probably human as well who entered from yet another portal from Earth.

The REAL question is that since the pirates came to Telmar AFTER Digory and Polly witnessed the creation of Narnia's world in "The Magician's Nephew", how could they (the pirates who didn't enter Narnia) have died out from the original island? Now that does seem to be a plot hole.

6/15/2005 8:31 PM  
Blogger Greg Wright said...

slowriter,

George can speak for himself, so I'll just throw in a few editorial comments...

There's no doubt that childhood "affection and nostalgia" come into play when judging these books. I thought George did justice to that factor, acknowledging that his first exposure to this story was as an adult. It's tough to gauge, critically, how much weight to give that factor when judging the book against Lewis' own standards for effective "children's" lit.

Regarding the publishing order, we consciously chose to review the books in the "Narnia chronology" order rather than the order they were written (or published) because it's easy to track the development of the overall story that way. Lewis also commented once that he wished they'd been published in this order, too.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting!

6/16/2005 3:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would disagree with it being "easier to track the development of the story". He wrote them in an order, so the story developed that way. Hence some of the seeming differences in the way "The Horse and His Boy" and Caspian strike you.

On the other notes, if you read the source material for the Chronicles (the Christian Bible) it is full of seeming coincidences, things that are set up long before the events they impact. The lineage of Jesus for instance, dealing with the curse of Jeconiah and the blessing to David.

So, though I think you have a good point, I also think that Lewis did a brilliant job.

6/16/2005 3:21 PM  
Blogger Kathy Bledsoe said...

Anonymous -
In all my study of Lewis, I have never read that he used or intended to use the Bible as his source material for the Chronicles of Narnia. In fact, he was pretty emphatic that these children's books were not to be taken as theological works. There is a tremendous amount of Christian spiritual allegory and metaphor in the books because being the deeply reflective and theological thinker that he was, his "voice" as a Christian spills over into everything that he writes. This is no different than the influence of Scripture on all aspects of any believer's life.

The Chronicles overall are the brilliant accomplishement of a man with an amazing mind. However, Lewis would be first to point out that he wrote them as a man and therefore his work could very well exhibit some imperfections. For instance, if you read the afterward in The Pilgrim's Regress, Lewis begins by naming two faults he found with this work upon reading it 10 years later - "needless obscruity, and an uncharitable temper." I don't hate Prince Caspian, but I do still find that it doesn't resonate within itself and it doesn't harmonize tunefully with the rest of the series.

6/18/2005 9:11 PM  
Anonymous John Settatree said...

I loved it as a kid and I loved it as an adult. The fact is that coincidences do happen in real life all the time. Many of these would seem implausibe if written as ficition. The fact is that many of the 'coincidences' in the Narnia stories are not supposed to be coincidences but part of Aslan's purpose. I think the criticisms are petty. All the Narnia books are undisputed classics.

6/20/2005 9:07 AM  
Blogger Greg Wright said...

John,

Sind you "loved [Prince Caspian] as a kid and ... as an adult," I can safely say that, for you, Lewis succeeded in his goals quite admirably. The fact that Lewis did not succeed as well for George doesn't change the story's effect on you one bit.

As the same time, the fact that the story works so well for you doesn't mean that it has to for everyone. Your enjoyment negates George's dissatisfaction no more than his dissatisfaction negates your enjoyment.

Your point "that many of the 'coincidences' in the Narnia stories are not supposed to be coincidences but part of Aslan's purpose" is well taken. However, in the case of Prince Caspian, I don't that that what's "supposed to be" works as cleanly as in other of Lewis' Narnia stories.

I'm sorry that you find that George's "criticisms are petty." Our intent is to provide both serious literary criticism as well as serious spiritual analysis. The two are simply not the same thing.

But I disagree heartily with your observation that "all the Narnia books are undisputed classics." Even Shakespeare has had serious detractors. Nothing is undisputable.

Whether the disputation has merits, of course, is an entirely different issue! And we appreciate your input.

6/20/2005 5:58 PM  
Blogger George Rosok said...

First, I'd like to apologize for being so slow to chime in. It's been several days since I checked in--shame on me. Second, I'm very happy to receive comments and I hope we'll continue to hear from you and others. Thank you.

It was somewhat daunting writing a negative article about a book written by literay giant, but I decided to be honest regarding how I felt about the story and dove in.

As I mentioned in the article, many of my thoughts developed after reading Lewis's essay "On Three Ways of Writing for Children." I have no doubt that if I had read Prince Caspian when I was a child my thoughts regarding the story may have been very different. I believe that I would have been more inclined to overlook, perhaps even enjoy, the coincidences and side trips that take place.

I agree that coincidences happen all the time in real life. For example, my sister who lives in the mid-west came to visit a few weeks ago. She mentioned she was trying to hook up with a friend who lives out here now and happens to live in the same city I do. I asked my sister her friend's name--turns out it's my next door neighbor.

Coincidences like this in real life are fun and exciting because they are so random and unbelievable. Of course, coincidences must occur in literature, too. Characters' lives and the stories' events turn on them. The challenge in literature is to make apparently random, unbelievable events believable. And in my (perhaps jaded adult) opinion, I couldn't buy into most of the coincidences in this story.

6/22/2005 5:01 PM  
Blogger Greg Wright said...

my sister who lives in the mid-west came to visit a few weeks ago. She mentioned she was trying to hook up with a friend who lives out here now and happens to live in the same city I do. I asked my sister her friend's name--turns out it's my next door neighbor.

Wow! That's really wild...

6/22/2005 7:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wanted to explain something about the Bridge of Beruna. I believe the question was, why does Aslan have Bachus' vines destroy the bridge? Well there are two reasons. Being Aslan, he of course knows that the Telmarines will try to escape that way (this is if we agree that he is a Christ figure). Also, if you look back into the book, you will notice that a wakened river god asks Aslan to "loose his chains" (or loose his bonds, I'm not sure which). The bridge is described as being like bonds for the river. At the time that it occurs, this is the main reason for the bridge's destruction, though it seems that there was also the reason of preventing the Telmarines' retreat.
I know this is just a small part of your critisism, but I thought I should mention it.

6/27/2005 11:09 AM  
Anonymous peter said...

u made some good points, Prince Caspian isn't my favourite Narnia book...however i thought your criticism of the Queen pregancy bit was off the mark..

in the dictatorship of Miraz in Narnia a queen's pregancy may well have been a matter of secrecy..few public appearances..loose clothing etc.

6/27/2005 5:43 PM  
Blogger George Rosok said...

Thank you both for your comments. That's interesting, Peter, what you say about the possiblity of the queen's pregnancy being secret. I think that's plausible. I wish we didn't have to guess to come up with that, though. If Lewis had mentioned it, even a few sentences, it not only would have immediately eliminated any questions of why Cornelius and Caspian didn't know about the pregnancy, but it would have added a nice dramatic dimension to that section. For example, Cornelius would be understandably angry and frustrated that Miraz had successfully deceived him.

6/29/2005 7:48 PM  
Blogger Andrew Settatree said...

In regards to the coincidences critiscism is unfounded. When reading fiction the reader is required to enter into the world of that fiction and follow its laws. In the case of Narnia, the fact that Aslan was able to call the children into Narnia in the first place through a wardrobe that was not always magical, as well as raise from the dead means that simply organising that trumpkin met the children at the right time and please is surely not beyond him. Accept the story for what it is, an excellant read, rather than looking for weaknesses - what is the point. They ha Itsve stood the test of time.

12/04/2005 10:56 AM  
Blogger Nathan Bayliss said...

HI there,
Interesting reading, but I disagree with you on some points.

If Cornelius had outright told Caspian who he really was, Miraz would have had him killed for treason. Caspian, as a boy, would not have bean seen as a strong ruler, so it was not yet the right time to get him to challenge Miraz for the throne. The birth of the son changed that, so Caspian had to flee. Also No body realized my aunt was pregnant until my cousin was born, so it is possible that nether Caspian or Cornelus would have known.
With regards to the soldiers: we see later on that Miraiz army also had an outpost at Baruna, so not all of his army was at Aslan's How fighting Caspian.

4/29/2009 2:54 AM  

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