Here’s the problem. In 1933, Walt Disney adapted the classic tale of the Three Little Pigs into an animated short. It was an unexpected crossover success. Audiences loved the pigs, and loathed the wolf, who they saw as a symbol of the Depression. “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” became a national rallying cry. Disney made some other shorts starring these characters, but somehow they didn’t make the impact the original did. His verdict: “you can’t follow pigs with pigs.”
CS Lewis follows pigs with pigs here – or to be more exact, he follows pigs with a single half-sized runt of a pig that has mange, watery eyes, and a cracked hoof.
Why does this book exist? It’s not bad. It just doesn’t make a case that it ever needed to be written. Narnia is again under the yoke of oppression, and the Pevensie children have to save it. Usually when writers re-tell the same story, they up the stakes, often to the point where it becomes ridiculous (the Rocky series eventually had Sylvester Stallone going twelve rounds against international communism). Prince Caspian does the reverse, lower the stakes. Why?
This is a 5% milk version of TLTWATW . Queen Jadis was evil incarnate, King Miraz is a unmemorable fop. Once the fate of the world hung in the balance, now we’re resolving an dispute of Narnian regency. Exciting! Caspian never seems heroic or kingly – he does nothing except blow a horn and invite the Pevensies back to Narnia, where they immediately take over and virtually evict him from his own book. Even Lewis’s imagination fails to find cruise control mode: there’s no bits of whimsical imagery like the lamppost in the forest, or the faun with the umbrella.
It didn’t have to be this way. Prince Caspian could have been its own book, like the later Narnia titles. The hooks are all there. For example, we know the Pevensie children grew to adulthood in Narnia, before returning to their own world and their childhood bodies. How did this affect them? Apparently it didn’t. They still talk and act like upper middle class British schoolchildren. Why weren’t they transformed and left alien by their experiences? Why wasn’t their return to the human world marked by misbehavior and disassociation as they struggled to adapt? There’s so much material for a story here, so why did Lewis run a repeat?
There’s two great scenes in this book. The first is the early scenes between Caspian and Dr Cornelius – it’s exciting and well-paced, the way the conspiracy unfolds little by little. The second is the chapter “Sorcery and Sudden Vengeance”, where a disgruntled dwarf tries to overthrow Miraz by bringing the spirit of Jadis back. Unusually intense and almost diabolical – moments like this are why not all Christians are comfortable with Lewis’s subject matter. “No one hates better than me.”
Two exciting moments, that hint at Lewis stretching himself as a storyteller and a thinker. The rest of the book is like a musician working the scales. In a way, the title seems to refer to the book’s own stature. It’s a Prince, but TLTWATW remains the king, and it has no enchanted horn to blow.