Fiction Friction: “Prince Caspian” and How to Write Time Travel Well

By Tom Anderson



I wrote ‘time travel’ in the title of this article, but really it could apply to any sort of circumstance in which a protagonist is transported into an unfamiliar land, but one which has some sort of connection with his or her memories. It could be someone seeing their home town in the past or future, or an alternate timeline where history went differently; it could be someone actually from another world, but who grew up here, seeing it for the first time as an adult and reawakening memories. If that sounds imprecise, you’ll see what I mean as we go on.


When writing this sort of ‘stranger in a half-familiar land’ scenario, what periodically annoys me is when authors don’t have a reflective element to it. One stereotypically sees this sort of thing with crossover fiction, especially fanfiction: the author is so eager to throw two groups of characters together that we never get any kind of self-aware inner monologue from our characters on the fascinating implications of seeing this different universe and setting. That reduces what could have been an interesting concept to something no deeper than me and my mate as children combining toys from different settings in a crossover fight (and for the record, Brad, the lasers on Red Venom from Manta Force could totally have penetrated the pod doors on Thunderbird 2!)


For a compare-and-contrast example for reflection vs lack of reflection, I’ll use a case which involves questions of identity rather than of connections to setting. Of course, this involves plot twists, so I warn you that this will spoil the ending of two works of fiction: “The Marvellous Land of Oz” by L. Frank Baum (1904) and “The Mystery of Angelina Frood” by R. Austin Freeman (1924). With that warning in mind, now read on!


Those two books broadly share a plot twist, though the framing and conceit is different. “The Marvellous Land of Oz”, sequel to the much better known “The Wizard of Oz”, features an orphan boy named Tip going on a quest to rescue the rightful ruler of Oz, Princess Ozma, who was hidden away in secrecy when the Wizard took the throne. The plot twist is that it turns out that Tip himself is Ozma, transformed into a boy as the ultimate means of hiding him/her, and at the end of the book is returned to a female form. Now, there is a little bit of reflection in the few paragraphs in between the plot twist being revealed and the transformation actually happening (Tip being alarmed at this revelation, but very briefly) and Ozma’s first words to Tip’s old companions being I hope none of you will care less for me than you did before. I'm just the same Tip, you know; only…” “Different?” However, crucially, this is the last time Ozma’s origins are ever mentioned, even though she becomes a major recurring character in subsequent books (and is even the title character of the next book). There are plenty of times where it would make sense to bring up the fact that Ozma had grown up as an orphan boy, had gone on adventures, etc. but it’s never mentioned again. As one critic observed, the transformation might as well have killed Tip and replaced him with a new character. In later books, partly due to Baum’s rather casual approach to continuity, it’s even stated that either Ozma was always just a regular human princess or even a fairy one. About the only adaptation of the source material that actually dwells on the plot twist is Japan’s “Ozu no Mahōtsukai, which (perhaps realistically) portrays the transformed Ozma as being a tomboy with boyish interests for a while in the subsequent stories, and is initially reluctant to take on the feminine role of a princess.


Compare this to the aforementioned “The Mystery of Angelina Frood”, one of R. Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke detective novels. Our protagonist, a doctor named John Strangeways, is concerned when a patient (the titular Angelina Frood) mysteriously disappears, while her abusive estranged husband is also on the loose. While helping to search for her, he befriends a young man named Peter Bundy. After Thorndyke’s usual forensic genius proves that the supposed death and internment of Frood was faked, it comes out that Bundy is actually Frood in an elaborate cross-dressing disguise (Frood is an actress, which helps). The real difference is that this is not the end of the book, but that the characters then have a discussion about the implications of it. Strangeways reflects that he interpreted his subconscious attraction to Frood-as-Bundy as platonic friendship, and then was confused why he was so ready to confide in someone who should have been practically a stranger; Frood herself compares the experience of living as a man vs as a woman. (At this point Freeman belatedly remembered his own conservative views and hastily inserts a spiel about how this means suffragists are evil, or something). Mrs Dunk, the housekeeper who had a rivalry with Bundy, refuses to believe they are the same person until Frood demonstrates, and so on. This is a far more realistic take on how such a revelation might emotionally impact the characters, and the fact that Freeman does not finish the book on the big revelation in the courtroom makes it considerably more compelling.


Of course, one might argue that I am being unfair with this comparison. Baum’s Oz books are, mainly, aimed at children (though with plenty of parental-bonus references) while Freeman’s are aimed at adults. But, as I have previously discussed in these articles, it would be a mistake to assume that children’s fiction is somehow inherently more limited or less nuanced than that written for adults. For instance, I’ve observed that Colin Dann’s Animals of Farthing Wood series balances the construction of sequels (threading the needle between ‘undermining previous happy ending’ and ‘feeling pointlessly undramatic or far removed’) far better than, say, certain Disney-owned film franchises that cost billions of dollars. Despite what I said about Baum’s approach to continuity above, some children’s authors similarly have far more rigorous approaches to continuity and consistent characterisation than their adult fiction counterparts. And, indeed, some of them are also better at reflection. This brings us to the title topic of this article – C. S. Lewis’ “Prince Caspian” (1951).


Originally published with the subtitle “Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia”, this is a sequel to the better-known “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (1950). It is interesting to reflect how our childhood ideas of how books are written can be way off – due to how the first book has several examples of what TVTropes calls ‘early instalment weirdness’ and these then stabilise after “Prince Caspian”, I always assumed there had been a significant time gap between them being written, and no sequel was originally planned. In fact, Lewis was writing “Caspian” before “Wardrobe” was even published!


The Narnia books today are well known for their Christian allegory, something that was completely invisible to me as a kid despite being (then and now) a Christian believer in a Christian household; these things aren’t always as obvious as critics seem to think. I just thought of them as good stories for the most part. They (especially “Wardrobe”) have been adapted a number of times over the years, with the best-known examples being the BBC’s television version in 1988-1990 (adapting “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, “Prince Caspian”, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” and “The Silver Chair), and the Walden/Disney film adaptations of 2005-2010 (adapting the first three of those before the rights expired). C. S. Lewis himself was sceptical of ever adapting them to a visual medium due to the appearance of humanised ‘Talking Beasts’, which (according to him) can’t be presented to the eye without being either ‘hideous or ridiculous’. Indeed, both of these adaptations struggled, the first using a mixture of costumes, animatronics and even superimposed 2D animation, while the second used typical questionable 2000s CGI.



“Prince Caspian” is often regarded as one of the more underwhelming Narnia books, and certainly has the least interesting title. It has also tended to get the short shrift in adaptations. The BBC TV series, otherwise excellent, crams it into just two episodes at the start of a serial otherwise devoted to “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”, which follows on soon after it. As a kid I saw all of these serials except the Caspian two-parter. As I always felt the book was a bit rushed in pace and didn’t live up to its potential (mostly the ending being very rushed) I actually had high hopes for the Walden/Disney film in 2008, despite those films having a reputation for (as Private Eye put it ‘taking out all the Christian parts such as characters, plot and motivation’). They did expand the story, but not in a good way, which I’ll come back to.


Before I go on, I’ll summarise the plot of “Prince Caspian”. At the end of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, the Pevensie children – Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy – had become Kings and Queens of Narnia after the defeat of the White Witch and the triumph of Aslan. Having lived many years in the palace of Cair Paravel in Narnia, they had almost forgotten their own origins – but while hunting a white stag, they found the original lamppost of Lantern Waste, near which they had entered into Narnia. They accidentally found themselves back in our world, transformed back into children, retaining their memories in a distant way, and found that no time had passed. Now, “Prince Caspian” begins at a railway station in England. A year after their wardrobe adventure, the children find themselves pulled into another world. They suspect from the start that it’s Narnia again, but initially don’t recognise the overgrown island they try to survive on. With a shock, they eventually realise that this is where Cair Paravel stood, but countless years have passed (they speculate several hundred to a thousand; Lewis stated elsewhere that it was 1,300).


Soon afterwards, they rescue a Dwarf held captive by two men in armour, who panic and escape. The Dwarf, Trumpkin, then tells his story – about half of the book is told in flashback, in fact! The titular Prince Caspian is the rightful King Caspian X of Narnia, son of the deceased Caspian IX, who was murdered and usurped by his brother Miraz. Caspian is a scion of the Telmarines or ‘New Narnians’, who invaded and settled Narnia many years before under Caspian I, Caspian the Conqueror. Since that time, they have suppressed all knowledge of ‘Old Narnia’, with its walking trees and talking beasts; they fear the sea because Aslan is said to come over it from his own country in the east, and so they allowed the woods to grow up to the edge (including Cair Paravel, whose peninsula is now an island). The young Caspian learned of Old Narnia from his nurse, who was then sacked by Miraz and replaced with a tutor, Dr Cornelius. Cornelius, it turns out, is a half-Dwarf, one of many products of marriages from Dwarfs who managed to pass by ‘shaving their beards and wearing high-heeled shoes and pretending to be men’, and are now as despised by many pure-blood Dwarfs as they would be by the Telmarines if they knew. Cornelius gives Caspian more knowledge of Old Narnia, then smuggles him out of the castle when Miraz’s Queen finally gives birth to an heir, and Miraz plots to murder Caspian as he did his father.


The flashback continues as Caspian is captured/rescued by more Old Narnians, including the Dwarfs Nikabrik and Trumpkin. Despite the Telmarines being alien rulers, the Old Narnians are willing to support Caspian’s claim to the throne because ‘It's not Men's country … but it's a country for a man to be King of’, an idea that would be built on in later books. Caspian is able to rally an army of Old Narnians at the fortress of Aslan’s How, but ends up surrounded by Miraz’s Telmarine army. In the last resort, he uses the ancient artefact of Queen Susan’s horn to call for aid – which is what drew the Pevensies from our world, with Trumpkin being sent to look for them. Now up to date, they travel to Aslan’s How, meeting Aslan himself on the way (with Lucy initially being the only one to see him, leading to a story about faith and trust). Peter and Edmund help Caspian stop an attempt by Nikabrik to revive the White Witch instead as a source of help, and then Peter delays Miraz via challenging him to single combat, while Susan and Lucy help Aslan raise the land against the Telmarines – literally, such as reawakening the River-god and destroying the bridge that holds him in chains.


At the end, with Miraz dead and the Telmarines defeated, Aslan offers them a choice to either remain here as part of a pluralistic Narnia, or else to return to where they originally came into the Land of Telmar – through a portal from a Pacific island on our world, being descended from shipwrecked pirates. The Pevensies also return to our world, Peter and Susan being told this will be their last time here.


That’s the short synopsis. I always felt the book was too short, with a lot being crammed into the last few chapters. Having said that, Lewis also pulls off the classic conciseness of the children’s author, getting through a plot of plot via directness of dialogue, a style I personally have never been good at. For example, both Lewis in this book and, more recently, Brandon Sanderson have basically done the plot concept of ‘What if your evil, Machiavellian court nobles think they’re living in a miserable and hopeless setting like Game of Thrones that rewards gutless conniving over loyalty and courage, but are actually living in a more realistic setting, and come a cropper as a consequence’? But Sanderson takes a couple of long books’ worth of material in his Stormlight Archive series to show this with his character Torol Sadeas, whereas Lewis manages to pull it off in less than a chapter here. Peter’s idea to challenge Miraz to single combat is recognised as a vain hope by his own side, as Miraz holds the advantage in numbers; but Lords Glozelle and Sopespian, who helped put Miraz on the throne and have benefited little from it, successfully manipulate him via reverse psychology into saying yes. As soon as Miraz falls due to a trip, they then shout that Peter has stabbed him deceitfully and rush to intercede. However, because Miraz called Glozelle a coward in their earlier discussion, Glozelle pauses to take revenge by stabbing the perfectly-alive Miraz dead where he lies, which means Peter faces Sopespian alone and is able to decapitate him with a sword-stroke. One could spend pages describing the intrigue, but it somehow feels so much more fitting to show how irrelevant their evil and self-destructive little political schemes are by having them disposed of in a couple of paragraphs, with Peter never even knowing there was a plot.


Ultimately, children’s authors and fantasy authors alike (with some overlap) frequently suffer from the problem of shifting tone. The classic example of this is works where earlier instalments are more comic and childish in tone, and then become more grave and serious later, leading to dissonance. Perhaps the best-known example is “The Hobbit” versus “The Lord of the Rings”. This is partly deliberate, as in Tolkien bringing home the horrors of war in “The Scouring of the Shire” by having the comfortable Shire and its homely hobbits subject to a brutal industrial regime; but there are also plenty of examples of “The Hobbit” and the early part of LOTR being dissonantly more comic in tone than the rest. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a more recent example; again, partly deliberate, with the intention of the tone ‘growing up’ alongside Harry the protagonist and the readers themselves, but it still leads to all sorts of awkward moments. It’s hard to reconcile Albus Dumbledore and his scar shaped like the London Underground, from the opening paragraphs of the first book, with a setting that feels it can bring up the Holocaust in the Fantastic Beasts films.


The thing about Narnia, however, is that rather than shifting over time, the tone cheerfully jumps back and forth over the line with every paragraph. A classic example is when Peter is dictating the letter offering single combat with Miraz, which is mostly jokes about flowery language, and then one of the ‘Bulgy Bears’ points out that ancient law states that his kindred have the right of first refusal to be marshals at such a combat, followed by a debate about whether he’s up to it and whether it would be politically unwise to refuse, given the stock that the Old Narnians place in such tradition (and Peter admits it was a genuine law in his own time). Thus we end up with the grim George R. R. Martin character of Miraz (Lucy even compares the Telmarines’ bloody intrigues to the Wars of the Roses) facing off against Peter, while beside him sits a brown bear forgetting he’s not meant to suck his paw in public. Again, partly this contrast is clearly deliberate, and the sense of real peril doesn’t even solely come from the Telmarines – when Aslan reawakens Bacchus and his maenads as part of his rousing of the land, Susan reflects to Lucy afterwards that ‘I wouldn't have felt very safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we'd met them without Aslan’. Some of Aslan’s actions also involve things like rescuing a bullied Telmarine schoolteacher from her vile class, and the descriptions of Telmarine schools feel more like incongruous satire on our world than something from Narnia. It’s this same mixing and matching that, as I discussed in a previous article on fantasy counterpart cultures, causes problems with Calormen, which is both a comedic Arabian Nights-esque exaggerated country, but also the setting for an incongruously serious story later on. At the end of the day, this is a book which feels it can both throw words like ‘seneschal’ and ‘dais’ at us, and feature characters called things like Hogglestock the Hedgehog and Wimbleweather the Giant. That’s Narnia for you.


I should briefly mention how the aforementioned film adaptation chose to expand the story. They did so by adding an entire section in the middle where the Pevensies help Caspian stage a pre-emptive strike on Miraz’s castle to seize power, which fails when Caspian can’t bring himself to kill Miraz. It was such a bizarre choice, given that it effectively gives Miraz at least a slice of the moral high ground in his attack on the Old Narnians, but oh well. They also decided to imply that Nikabrik and his friends really could bring back the White Witch and was on the verge of doing so, just so they could briefly feature Tilda Swinton in it again. Memorable scene but a bit daft. Incidentally, Nikabrik’s subplot does mean this book (briefly) examines the problem of ‘if the oppressors are against all magical beings regardless, does that mean it’s OK to team up with the evil ones against them’. This idea frequently comes up in the X-Men comics and films (with mutants rather than magic) and in Star Wars’ New Jedi Order books, where the Yuuzhan Vong do not see any distinction between Jedi and Sith as they hunt them down. This may be the earliest example of it in fiction, at least to my knowledge.



So much for “Prince Caspian”. But what I really want to discuss in this article has nothing to do with all that, and everything to do with the first few chapters (and a brief moment in Chapter 12). To get back to what I started with, many authors really do not allow their characters to reflect properly when confronted with an event like the one that affects the Pevensies at the start of this book: to be sent to a place where they lived for years, but centuries later, when everyone they knew there has died and the place is in overgrown ruins. This is especially true because they do not know this at first, but it’s a creeping realisation. A lot of authors, including those writing for adults, would not bother to spend more than a sentence or two on this; you’ve got your characters back, time has passed, well, time to move on. But Lewis, using not too many words, doesn’t let us forget this – or the fact that our children remember being adult Kings and Queens, and the effect of being back in Narnia bringing those memories to the forefront and making them stronger.


The first chapter is devoted to them discovering they have been transported to an island from the station and making practical plans about how to feed themselves and survive there – these being the days when all kids read “Robinson Crusoe” at school. It ends with them discovering a series of apple trees in the wood, which they speculate to be the remains of an old overgrown orchard, and from that find a ruined wall. Inside the castle courtyard, they correctly identify the layout as that of a castle, and already begin to feel uneasy: "It gives me a queer feeling," said Lucy. "Does it, Lu?" said Peter, turning and looking hard at her. "Because it does the same to me. It is the queerest thing that has happened this queer day. I wonder where we are and what it all means?"


The uneasiness continues to grow as they reminisce about their own past: "Why, you silly," said Peter (who had become strangely excited), "don't you see? That was the dais where the High Table was, where the King and the great lords sat. Anyone would think you had forgotten that we ourselves were once Kings and Queens and sat on a dais just like that, in our great hall."


"In our castle of Cair Paravel," continued Susan in a dreamy and rather sing-song voice, "at the mouth of the great river of Narnia. How could I forget?"


Then they discover a well where theirs used to be, and the remains of a jewelled chess-piece they remember using, having survived as it’s made from pure gold. Peter finally states that they should start using their brains, and tots up the points suggesting that this is truly Cair Paravel, even including the memory of when the orchard was first planted. Edmund is the sceptic due to how many years would have had to pass – as this is only the second Narnia book, it takes them a while to realise that the flow of time being inconsistent in the two worlds is a general rule.


Lucy says they can settle it, because if this was Cair Paravel, there should be a door at the end of the dais leading to the treasure-house…a door which, she realises, they should now be sitting with their backs to. They turn to find it overgrown with ivy, but when Edmund tries striking it with a stick, it goes from the tap of stone to the echoing boom of wood over a void. Shocked, he stops arguing, while Susan becomes nervous about breaking down the door when the sun is setting and anything could come out of it – but the others ignore her. After finding the door and demolishing it, they find their own ancestral gifts and armour in the treasure-house, and know for certain this is truly Cair Paravel.


That’s the end of the second chapter, with a brief further discussion at the start of the third. Edmund makes the final realisation about what has happened, and Peter reflects: “In that sense it really was hundreds of years ago that we lived in Cair Paravel. And now we're coming back to Narnia just as if we were Crusaders or Anglo-Saxons or Ancient Britons or someone coming back to modern England!" Then – as I described above – they meet Trumpkin and it goes into the main plot.


This book is elevated so much by Lewis taking a chapter or so to really confront how shocking it would be to the children to realise how much time has passed, almost everyone and everything they knew is gone, and make Peter’s comparison to time travel in our own world. It should be seen as a textbook way to actually describe these things in a reflective way, rather than just shrugging and moving on. In particular, note the subtle psychological horror element in how their speech is described when they slowly, subconsciously make the connection – and when Lucy realises they have their back to a door. Susan’s worry about bats and so on flying out of that door if they break it down can be taken as doubling as fear to confront the reality of what has happened to them.


There is one other, brief reflection worth mentioning. In chapter 7, Dr Cornelius suggest the Old Narnians withdraw from Miraz to the ancient fortress of Aslan’s How: "It lies within the skirts of the Great Woods and it is a huge mound which Narnians raised in very ancient times over a very magical place, where there stood—and perhaps still stands—a very magical Stone. The Mound is all hollowed out within into galleries and caves, and the Stone is in the central cave of all.


Later in the chapter, when Caspian arrives there, it is described as such: It was certainly an awesome place, a round green hill on top of another hill, long since grown over with trees, and one little, low doorway leading into it. The tunnels inside were a perfect maze till you got to know them, and they were lined and roofed with smooth stones, and on the stones, peering in the twilight, Caspian saw strange characters and snaky patterns, and pictures in which the form of a Lion was repeated again and again. It all seemed to belong to an even older Narnia than the Narnia of which his nurse had told him.


The Pevensies realise, long before they arrive there themselves, what Aslan’s How is: it’s the Hill of the Stone Table from “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, and the magical Stone is the Stone Table on which Aslan was bound and murdered by the White Witch. Peter notes this to Trumpkin quite casually, yet when he and Edmund finally arrive there, they see the inscriptions that Caspian had, and are shaken by the implications: "I say, Peter," whispered Edmund. "Look at those carvings on the walls. Don't they look old? And yet we're older than that. When we were last here, they hadn't been made."


That is such a powerful image, and thrown out quite in passing; it’s not a long reflection, but one which enhances the book a great deal by being there. The idea of having what’s essentially an ancient burial mound/Iron Age fortress, with ancient-looking inscriptions of Aslan, and yet it was raised after the Pevensies had lived in Narnia. It is one of the best ways of showing a vast gulf of time I have ever seen in fiction, and it’s not even the main focus of any of this – just a little bit of colour for the setting.


In conclusion: “Prince Caspian” is not the best of the Narnia books, and much of the ending still feels a bit rushed to me; it could have been better-written. Yet at the same time, it contains a perfect example of how one should not write off children’s fiction as a medium when it comes to reflective writing. When you throw characters into an unfamiliar setting – and especially one which has uneasily familiar aspects that suggest a connection – don’t have them boringly and unrealistically land on their feet. Reflect.


Incidentally, if you want to see a recent example of this reflection done well in a modern work children's fiction of the 'Portal fiction' genre that Narnia popularised, why not check out my colleague Andy Cooke's Shadowlands series, the first of which is available here. According to the editor's nephew, he is Nearly As Good as Brandon Sanderson, and you can't argue with that.

 

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Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.