Monday, October 17, 2005

Prince Caspian (The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis)

Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) This was the first book I ever read quickly, and out of personal interest, when I was a kid. However lovely or hokey the Narnia stories might seem, they’re beautifully written. Few wasted adverbs.

2) I remembered only two things about this book from childhood: apples (how it would be to eat nothing else for days at a time), and the children returning to Narnia to answer the call of Susan’s horn. I love it when one story gracefully reincorporates something mentioned in another, suggesting a world bigger than both stories put together.

3) When King Miraz’ wife gives birth to an heir, Prince Caspian suddenly becomes an enemy as a rival to the throne; that’s why he has to leave. I love that. It’s complex yet compelling, like a Shakespeare play. It also suggests the transformation of adolescence, when the parents who had been our only protection from the world become, one way or another, the trap from which every growing child must free him or herself.

4) The mentor in many stories is not merely a teacher who offers knowledge of the larger world, but is, in some hidden way, a part of that world. Ben Kenobi wasn’t just a guy who knew about the Jedi knights; he was Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi knight himself. In this story, Cornelius is another such mentor – not only a guide into the unknown, but a refugee from the larger world the wicked king has banished from existence.

5) I love the re-incorporation of the Stone Table and the castle at Cair Paravel, both aged many hundreds of years while the four children were away. Handy shortcut for creating an epic. I’m probably exaggerating the effect, since I read the second book long after I’d read the first, but this centuries-between-books strategy seems to call up that feeling of remembering something from childhood, even if the reader only experienced it a few days before. Burying the stone table and the treasures of the castle adds to the effect: what had been experienced consciously is now rediscovered deep underground, buried with other hidden treasures in the depths of the dream world.

6) It’s a weirdly structured book. Caspian’s story is very interesting, but he’s a tangential character. Despite the battles they enter, the four kids with whom we begin the story aren’t really challenged or transformed as they are in the first book; for the most part, they’re passive characters. It adds up to a sorta mundane tale with really interesting backstory. I do love that moment when the story-within-a-story meets up with the main narrative, though; we know the new character, yet we’re meeting him for the first time.

7) I’m not sure what to make of Peter and Susan’s departure at the end, except that it feels appropriate. It could be viewed as “they’re getting too old to experience the world of imagination”, which is depressing, because it’s wrong. I prefer to think of it as “they’ve learned the lessons that Narnia had to teach them”. That suggests that the timing of each visit is a facet of the mystery of Aslan, and that Narnia is one of many places a human life may pass through. He often says “each is told only his own story, no one else’s”. The details of how and why visitors come to Narnia is left appropriately unexplained.

8) Narnia is an imaginary world, yet it’s very familiar territory – kings and queens, fauns and centaurs, talking animals, etc. The imagination is reputed to be the land where all the details are made up on the spot, yet most fantasy stories tread very well-established paths. This suggests either that storytellers are lazy, or that imagination consists of one specific world, or that folklore is an accumulation of images and stories that are very useful for exploring psychological, cultural, and even natural territory that may be impossible to explore directly. To discuss the natural world without revering its mystery is to miss half the picture, and a cast of characters to populate and give form to that hidden side has been in wide use for millennia.

9) The division in Narnia is not between animals and humans, but between talking animals and non-talking animals. That makes for convenient storytelling, but still makes for a mealtime full of amusing double-standards, left mostly unexplored.

10) There’s a recurring motif in these books and many others: “the crazy stories you heard as a child are true.” This idea is appealing on a lot of levels, but I think it works best taken literally. Adults develop a great many illusions as we mature; as we learn to focus on our chosen paths, we shut out most of what is going on in the world and in the depths of our own minds. Or so it seems to me.

I’ve heard that Chinese Medicine defines depression as “losing touch with the divine part of oneself” – and I’ve found that definition to be absolutely consistent with my experience and that of everyone I know. A story that suggests simply that “what you believed as a child is true” is more accurate than not, and much more helpful than not. The world – as experienced by humanity, at least - is not a rational place; those who’ve lost touch with the irrational, creative part of themselves will not be equipped to deal with the challenges it presents.


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