It might seem that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (reread post here) needed no sequel, but the last few sentences had left that possibility open, and Lewis was apparently fond enough of Narnia to make a second visit there. And so, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy found themselves yanked from a very ordinary train station back to Narnia, where things are not going at all well, and into a tale of restoring magic to a world that has almost entirely forgotten it.
Prince Caspian is, in some ways, a rather traditional fairy tale of a prince winning his kingdom, only complicated by the arrival of visitors who are literally out of his world, and by the problem that it’s not at all clear how he can win his throne. The young prince learns from his only friend, a half dwarf (we should perhaps try to not focus too hard on the biology of this) that magic is real, that talking animals exist, and that he, not his evil uncle Miraz, is the rightful ruler of Narnia—but winning his kingdom might be a bit difficult.
(At the same time, given that we later learn that many of the human nobles of Narnia are none too thrilled with Miraz or his rule, I have to wonder if regaining the throne would really have been as difficult as all that. Restoring the old Narnia of the talking animals—that would seem to be the considerably harder task.)
Caspian flees, only to find that his route to the throne is not at all clear: unlike in many tales of this sort, he has no set tasks to accomplish, no quest for the throne. (At this, it even contrasts with the first book of the series, which had a nice if questionable prophecy to go by.) Muddled, he and his companions decide to call for help—summoning Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. Caspian also gets some assistance from Aslan, because, of course, and Bacchus and Silenus, because, well, why wouldn’t a young, drunken resurrected pagan god help out a Christian religious symbol? Well. He is drunk. And, to further help along the plot, Lewis rather neatly slides in two traitors to the throne to ensure that none of his child protagonists need to become murderers.
My retelling here is considerably more straightforward than the one in the book, which relies on lengthy flashback techniques to tell its story. This creates pacing problems: the plot with the Pevensie children is just getting going when we stop dead to hear the story of Prince Caspian, which in turn is just getting going when it stops dead to return to the Pevensie children. It’s awkward, not just with the pacing, but also because Trumpkin, the supposed narrator of the story, is relaying details he couldn’t possibly know—details that the book’s narrator engagingly if unconvincingly tells us the Pevensies learned later. And Lewis tries to pull the trick a second time later in the book, to explain just what Peter, Caspian and Edmund are seeing. It robs the narrative of suspense, and makes following along more tricky.
Also gone is the moral depth. (Which may be a relief to those not looking for deep morality in their fantasy.) Prince Caspian touches on matters of faith and belief, but never as deeply as in the other books. In this book, the worst consequence of disbelief is a day’s delay and exile to a tropical island. Contrast to other books, where disbelief means getting transformed, nearly eaten by giants, and so on. Those objecting to reading books filled with Christian symbolism, but still wanting to give Narnia a try, should note that the Christian symbolism is weakest here, but then again, this is also probably the weakest or second weakest of the Narnia books. Perhaps all of that Christian symbolism was necessary to make Narnia work.
I was, however, glad to see someone other than me objecting to the concept that humans are the rightful rulers of sentient animals, even if those voicing objections were evil characters. This was a tricky enough concept in the first book. Here, asking me to believe that after years of brutal war and genocide, sentient animals will be delighted to accept a human ruler again just because he’s about ten and says he likes them is…well, to say it’s stretching belief is an understatement. (Even when I was ten.) I can’t even excuse this on the basis that the Oxford don would have no knowledge of how captured and conquered people often respond to their oppressors: Lewis grew up, after all, in Ireland, which had experienced a rather similar conquest/political situation. I can, however, accept that perhaps the animals are just hoping that young Caspian can’t be any worse, mostly because this is a belief outright stated by many of the dwarfs. (Lewis, whatever his friendship with Tolkien, and no philologist, uses this spelling.)
And I’m equally glad to see someone expressing doubt that four children, summoned by however magical means, can actually save anything. (No matter if this doubt is soon proven wrong.) Yes, as a child reader, I was of course convinced that kids could solve anything; as an adult, I am considerably more skeptical, and it’s good to see adults sharing my skepticism, whatever the powers of Narnian air, and however much we may be proven wrong.
A few other things strike me: the way, in this book, Susan has turned into a decided wet-blanket, hardly enjoying any of this trip at all, in another foreshadowing of her eventual fate. The way nobody, even Susan, really seems to learn anything in the book—in strong contrast to the other six books, filled with young protagonists learning often painful moral lessons and truths about themselves. (I suppose Caspian learning that he is the true king of Narnia counts as a lesson of sorts, but contrast to Edmund and Eustace learning that they are not, deep down, actually nice people, or Jill and Lucy learning how easily they can be tempted, and so on.)
And above all, it's interesting just how short this trip to Narnia is. I rechecked, and the Pevensies are there for only a little more than a week: the day they arrive; the day they meet Trumpkin; the following day, when, failing to follow Aslan’s instructions, they get lost and waste a day, before trekking through the night to Aslan’s How; and the day of the battle. Five days of (presumably) parties later, they are sent back. Only one trip—that of The Magician’s Nephew, which is not, as we’ll see, a completely authorized one—is shorter.
But the part that I found wrenching, even now, was reading that Susan and Peter would not be able to return to Narnia. They tell us that Aslan believes they are too old, part of that too old for fairy tales theme that Lewis will return to (and summarily reject) in later books. I didn’t buy it then, and I don’t buy it now: Narnia is a land peopled with adults and children, and I see no reason why adults can’t return—especially since Lewis himself said, in that initial dedication, that at some point an adult will be old enough to read fairy tales again. At which point that adult should be able to return to Narnia.
My guess, in rereading the text, is that in this particular case, Peter and Susan are exiled from Narnia (well, in Peter’s case, kinda exiled, as we’ll see) not merely because of their age, but because of their growing doubt. It’s the younger children who see Aslan or who are at least willing to believe the Lion is there; the older children doubt and choose the seemingly safer route. I mentioned earlier that the only (seeming) consequence for this disbelief is a day’s delay in their journey, which has no effect on the happy outcome. But perhaps the real consequence is this: they are exiled from Narnia, setting a pattern that will soon kick Edmund and Lucy out, too.
Like its predecessor, this book shows several signs of being written in a hurry, and although Narnia still bursts with magic, Prince Caspian lacks the unexpected and the wonder of the first book. It’s enjoyable enough, but it’s probably the weakest of the series, and where many people stopped reading the series altogether (whether they started with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or with The Magician’s Nephew.) I can’t entirely blame them, but I will say that if you stop here, you’re missing some of the real glories of the series: Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair and even portions of the deeply problematic The Last Battle.
Mari Ness has to admit she rather wishes she could invite Bacchus to a party or two, if only to taste those magical grapes. She previously expressed her thoughts on sending children to save magical kingdoms in rather snarky fashion here.