Prince Caspian, Chapter 2: The Ancient Treasure House
Last week we talked about an ongoing world-building problem with Narnia: namely, how much the children remember about their adventures therein. This is not a trivial point to me, since it's on this question that hinges a great deal in terms of the Problem of Susan. After all, if some magic muddles the children's memories of Narnia, she can hardly be blamed for thinking of the whole experience as a child's dream game. And if magic doesn't muddle their perceptions and memories, then we are justified in asking how all this zig-zagging between Narnia and England and all this living of two lives concurrently is affecting the children emotionally and mentally.
The problem with "Prince Caspian" is that the whole book is a bit of a mess. And yet it's a mess that was written second in the series -- it's a little early to be jumping the shark but a little late to be struggling to hit one's stride. So it's a mess that, by gum, we're going to have to deal with, and I'm going to ask you to help me out by telling me what you think of my theory. It's my theory that the children remember Narnia only vaguely and in small pieces when they're outside Narnia, and that their memories return to them slowly when they're inside.
I will base that theory on a few things so far and then more yet to come:
- The children are mentioned in the introduction of being sad at parting and sad at the prospect of school, but no mention in made in either narrative or dialogue about being sad at losing Narnia possibly forever (by leaving the Kirke house, which contains the one known portal to Narnia).
- Within the first few minutes of their return to Narnia, the children mention the possibility that the land is Narnia, but they don't use their memories of Narnia to navigate this new and confusing world, even though they are highly motivated by hunger and thirst (indicating limited recollection).
- Though the children vaguely hope that the land is Narnia, they feel no sense of urgency to find someone immediately so that they can assess the state of their kingdom and review any damage done since their unexpected leave (indicating they've forgotten their duties as monarchs).
- The children remember nothing of basic navigation and food foraging, despite living and hunting in a forest for over a decade, and instead rely on classical literature to guide their actions (indicating they've forgotten basic skills acquired in Narnia).
I think that's everything so far. Now we find the children standing in Cair Paravel, munching on apples from the orchard they planted, and glancing about themselves in curiosity.
"THIS WASN'T A GARDEN," SAID SUSAN presently. "It was a castle and this must have been the courtyard."
"I see what you mean," said Peter. "Yes. That is the remains of a tower. And there is what used to be a flight of steps going up to the top of the walls. And look at those other steps—the broad, shallow ones -- going up to that doorway. It must have been the door into the great hall."
"Ages ago, by the look of it," said Edmund.
"Yes, ages ago," said Peter. "I wish we could find out who the people were that lived in this castle; and how long ago."
"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?"
As a child, I suppose this all seemed very natural to me; as an adult, it utterly baffles me. How can the children not recognize their home, the castle they've spent most of their lives in?
Yes, it's been 1,300 years and the years can be hard on a castle. Yes, there have been other kings and queens (legitimate and otherwise) in Narnia in the intervening years and they may have made alterations to the castle. Yes, Narnia has suffered an invasion from hostile foreign forces and this perhaps led to some damage to Cair Paravel. And yet, the basic outline is still there, even if it's covered in ivy and vines and crumbling stone. The castle should still be shaped the same.
But maybe it's one of those square, boxy castles which all castles invariably look like? Except that Cair Paravel is on a cliff overlooking the sea, and has an eastern door that faces the sea, and in the Disney movie looks like this:
That's not the sort of castle that you can mistake for just any castle. And it's not the sort of location that you're just going to forget. Maybe it makes sense that the children don't acclimate to the location; the coastline has changed so much in the last 1,300 years that the peninsula of Cair Paravel has become a full island. And yet... surely the cliff is still there? Surely it overlooks the sea, and they can hear the sound of the waves? And surely they remember -- have they not talked about it? -- how time goes so differently in Narnia than in the real world. Are they forgetting or in denial?
"I wonder, was it really the hall," said Susan. "What is that terrace kind of thing?"
"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 singsong voice, "at the mouth of the great river of Narnia. How could I forget?"
"How it all comes back!" said Lucy. "We could pretend we were in Cair Paravel now. This hall must have been very like the great hall we feasted in."
This passage is incredibly interesting to me. Peter is describing the dais, and describing it with increasing excited and agitation as he recalls what their dais looked like. Susan joins in the memory with a "dreamy" and "singsong" voice, as though she's only now recollecting the memory herself. Even her wording seems suspect; it's not "At Cair Paravel!" it's "In our castle of Cair Paravel" and it's not "at the river mouth" it's "at the mouth of the great river of Narnia." Her words are formal and stilted, describing things as though a stranger would describe them. This is probably for the benefit of the reader, but it gives the impression that Susan doesn't know these things intimately, but is more reciting the words as they come to her.
And Lucy puts the cherry on it with her statement that the memories are coming back, and the suggestion that they "pretend" they're in Cair Paravel, as if she only remembers their Narnian lives as a game, and as if she doesn't consider this adventure to be any more pressing or any more meaningful than yet another grand game.
I have to wonder at this, though. In between LWW and PC, the children apparently went on with their lives and when they spoke of Narnia at all, they did so in terms of dreamy fun-times. Apparently there wasn't a lot of weeping over what was lost, nor was there a lot of gnashing of teeth over them being unable to help the Narnians in their time of need (as they most certainly would be, given that the true rulers unexpectedly disappeared). And I think that sort of response to being magically tossed out of a magical land that one cannot re-enter at will is probably... well, I don't want to say healthy since it almost certainly involved magically mucking with the children's memories in order to get to that point, but certainly less emotionally fraught than the alternatives. So it seems like a good thing?
But then we see the Pevensies all grown up in "The Last Battle" and suddenly Narnia is Serious Business. There are meetings, and the meetings are important and serious and people who treat the whole thing as a half-remembered dream -- even though they all used to do that at one time -- are not held in high esteem by the larger group. And there are visits to go dig up magic rings and take them by railway to Narnian sympathizers who have not been explicitly forbidden to use the rings and it's all very exciting and action-packed and tense, and... it seems like such a huge paradigm shift. What happened? Why did Peter and Lucy and Edmund grow up to start caring about something that previously they'd not cared about -- either because magic robbed them of the capability to do so, or because they didn't believe in fretting over a world they could never visit or directly influence again? Did Eustace or Polly or Kirke or Jill fan the flames of... of what? Devotion? Extremism? Fanaticism?
And now I've veered way off course.
"We shall need a camp-fire if we've got to spend the night here," said Peter. "I've got matches. Let's go and see if we can collect some dry wood."
Everyone saw the sense of this, and for the next half-hour they were busy. The orchard through which they had first come into the ruins turned out not to be a good place for firewood. [...] They went to and fro with bundles until they had a good pile on the dais. At the fifth journey they found the well, just outside the hall, hidden in weeds, but clean and fresh and deep when they had cleared these away. [...] They tried roasting some of the apples on the ends of sticks. But roast apples are not much good without sugar, and they are too hot to eat with your fingers till they are too cold to be worth eating. So they had to content themselves with raw apples, which, as Edmund said, made one realize that school suppers weren't so bad after all—"I shouldn't mind a good thick slice of bread and margarine this minute," he added. But the spirit of adventure was rising in them all, and no one really wanted to be back at school.
Not a lot here to note. Basic needs are satisfied: apples for food, well-water for drink, matches (they were carrying matches with them to school? On their person, and not in their left-behind luggage?) for fire. And yet again we have that odd tone permeating the narrative and dialogue, a tone that would be perfectly appropriate if this were the first book in a Journey To A Magical Land series, and yet seems wildly out of place here. It almost feels like Lewis is cribbing off of someone like Nesbit and forgetting that his established characters are going to react to things a great deal differently than new characters would.
Shortly after the last apple had been eaten, Susan went out to the well to get another drink. When she came back she was carrying something in her hand.
"Look," she said in a rather choking kind of voice. "I found it by the well." She handed it to Peter and sat down. The others thought she looked and sounded as if she might be going to cry. Edmund and Lucy eagerly bent forward to see what was in Peter's hand -- a little, bright thing that gleamed in the firelight. [...]
All now saw what it was -- a little chess-knight, ordinary in size but extraordinarily heavy because it was made of pure gold; and the eyes in the horse's head were two tiny little rubies -- or rather one was, for the other had been knocked out.
"Why!" said Lucy, "it's exactly like one of the golden chessmen we used to play with when we were Kings and Queens at Cair Paravel."
"Cheer up, Su," said Peter to his other sister.
"I can't help it," said Susan. "It brought back -- oh, such lovely times. And I remembered playing chess with fauns and good giants, and the mer-people singing in the sea, and my beautiful horse -- and -- and -- "
Susan, it will be noted, is the only one to be moved to tears by this discovery. Peter goes from flummoxed to barely comforting to logician in three sentences total. Edmund argues eloquently with Peter, while the two of them have a genial battle of wits. Lucy hangs on every word and interjects with excitement and barely restrained glee as she literally claps her hands at Peter's description of "that funny old [mole]" who planted their orchard for them. Susan alone is the sad one.
Susan is the one who knelt on the ground and ran her hands through the dirt and weeds and grass by the freshly-cleared well to find the chess-piece. Susan is the one who is moved to tears by the memories of the things she has lost. Susan is the one, out of all the Pevensie children, who really truly mourns the Narnia that she can never return to -- the one where she was a happy queen surrounded by the people she loved.
It should also be noted that the Pevensie monarchs were so rich and so cossetted that they apparently thought nothing of playing chess with solid gold pieces set with precious gemstones. Hey, you know what some of that wealth could have been invested in? Defenses against foreign invaders, for a start. I'm pretty sure that the folks in Archenland and Calormen and wherever else could have been convinced to work up some nice gates, walls, signal towers, and so forth in exchange for some chess-pieces. I guess that shows a lack of faith in Aslan, though.
"Now," said Peter in a quite different voice, "it's about time we four started using our brains."
"What about?" asked Edmund.
"Have none of you guessed where we are?" said Peter.
"Go on, go on," said Lucy. "I've felt for hours that there was some wonderful mystery hanging over this place."
There isn't a cut there, by the way -- Peter's interjection comes right after Susan's last line. Either he interrupted her or she was too overcome by emotion to continue speaking. In either case, this means that her siblings are effectively ignoring her for the next two dozen paragraphs (literally! I counted!) while she either cries or struggles to keep from crying.
I don't think this is meant to show Peter, Edmund, and Lucy as callous. I think that if we're to notice this at all, we're to see it as them discreetly letting Susan pull herself together while they attend to important business. I think that, if we're to notice at all, the crying is to be seen as understandable but slightly shameful -- a natural body function that shouldn't be indulged in public.
Of course, it's more likely that we're not to notice. This is a children's book of adventure, not an adult's book of the emotional ramifications of losing one's entire life and complete identity. To dwell on Susan's sorrow would be to point out the elephant in the Narnian wardrobe: that a series of such adventures would probably be deeply traumatic for at least some children. And that if children are being herded or pulled in without consideration for that fact, someone is eventually going to lose the Narnian emotional-breakdown lottery.
And yet, it's here. We have this strange, teasing presentation of emotion without being shown the full extent of it. Susan isn't joyous and happy and excited like Lucy, nor is she logical and rational and thoughtful like Edmund and Peter. These are characters in a novel, whose actions and personalities are defined by the author; Susan very easily could have been just as joyous and logical as her siblings. But she wasn't. (Narrative consistency has been trod upon so thoroughly at this point that I can't imagine making Susan as cheerful as Lucy would muddle the narrative any further.)
So why not? Why make Susan deeply and emotionally affected by her memories of her lost life and then immediately yank the focus away? What is the narrative gain, the character development, the lesson to be imparted? Doesn't this just make the narrative more muddled (what do they remember, and when, and how?), the characterization more confusing (why aren't the others as emotional as Susan, and why do they not comfort her?), and the lessons imparted more upsetting (how can Susan possibly be blamed for leaving behind a place that causes her so much emotional pain?)? I honestly don't understand the authorial choices here.
"There's one thing," said Lucy. "If this is Cair Paravel there ought to be a door at this end of the dais. In fact we ought to be sitting with our backs against it at this moment. You know -- the door that led down to the treasure chamber."
"I suppose there isn't a door," said Peter, getting up.
The wall behind them was a mass of ivy. [...]
"We must clear this ivy away," said Peter.
"Oh, do let's leave it alone," said Susan. "We can try it in the morning. If we've got to spend the night here I don't want an open door at my back and a great big black hole that anything might come out of, besides the draft and the damp. And it'll soon be dark."
"Susan! How can you?" said Lucy with a reproachful glance. But both the boys were too much excited to take any notice of Susan's advice.
And it is interesting that Lucy is chosen to be the one to put Susan in her place. Lucy the also-female, Lucy the female Pevensie who is younger and more favored in Narnia than her sister. And I can't help but come back to how often the two girls are positioned as rivals as the books.
Lucy is the discoverer of Narnia, and the one allowed to come back the most times. Lucy is the specially beloved of Aslan, though both girls were present at his death. Lucy is the younger sister, less pretty and sophisticated than Susan, for Lucy is jealous of Susan's beauty in "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" and even as early as LWW, Adult!Susan is the one sought by ardent kings while Adult!Lucy is merely sought by playful princes. Lucy, the Valiant, is "as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy", but Susan, the Gentle, is a "lady" in Narnia and "interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations" and "being grown-up" in England.
But though the girls are positioned against each other as eager tomboy and vapid teenybopper in the dialogue and narrative, it's astonishing how much of what we're actually shown conflicts with those descriptions. Lucy, the valiant one who rides into war as a worthwhile man-boy-girl, is the one who is most excitable, most easily distracted, most willing to turn her head to a new adventure despite the costs she might inflict on others. In VDT, Lucy was willing to work dark magic in order to be prettier than Susan, and only the magical appearance of the growling face of Aslan changed her mind -- who here is the one more vapid and shallow? Susan, the gentle lady who is unduly interested in being grown-up, is the one who wisely counseled against continuing past the lamppost, the one who is pierced deeply enough by the loss of Narnia to weep, and is the best archer among all the children, though she dutifully obeys the commands of He Who Gave Her The Bow and stays out of war. And, once again, we see that Susan is damned and sneered at despite her following the rules.
And this is why Twilight is so insidiously misogynistic and yet grudgingly feminist at the same time: Bella wins at Patriarchy by following the rules better than anyone else. It's misogynistic because it props up the Patriarchy and insists that those rules can and should and must be followed. It's feminist (or, depending on how charitable you want to be, a Bait-and-Switch misrepresentation) because she is, ultimately, able to win by virtue of her own steadfast willpower. In the real world, in Susan's world, following the rules doesn't damn you any less than not following the rules. The only factor in winning is whether or not those in control let you win.
It took them longer than they expected and, before they had done, the great hall had grown dusky and the first star or two had come out overhead. Susan was not the only one who felt a slight shudder as the boys stood above the pile of splintered wood, rubbing the dirt off their hands and staring into the cold, dark opening they had made.
"Now for a torch," said Peter.
"Oh, what is the good?" said Susan. "And as Edmund said -- "
"I'm not saying it now," Edmund interrupted. "I still don't understand, but we can settle that later. I suppose you're coming down, Peter?"
"We must," said Peter. "Cheer up, Susan. It's no good behaving like kids now that we are back in Narnia. You're a Queen here. And anyway no one could go to sleep with a mystery like this on their minds."
It's hard to escape the impression that Susan doesn't want this to be Cair Paravel, and it's interesting that none of the other children share her view. I think it's meant to look insular and willfully ignorant for Susan to try to avoid the truth, but this is a truth that is going to be incredibly painful.
When the children left Narnia, they left without any means of ever knowing what was happening there. That could almost certainly be stressful and worrisome, but it could also be freeing to a certain extent. If you couldn't get back to your kingdom, it might be easier not knowing what was happening there. Then you could at least imagine that things were going well. You would have still suffered a great personal loss, but you could believe that your kingdom was flourishing in spite of your absence.
If Peter can prove to the others that this is Cair Paravel, then that comforting fantasy is shattered. Something has almost certainly gone horribly wrong for Cair Paravel to be abandoned in this way -- war, famine, plague, or maybe the Emperor just woke up on the wrong side of the bed one day, but whatever has caused the castle and the surrounding country to be abandoned and left to rot cannot possibly be a good thing. Then, too, the current state of the castle implies a tremendous amount of time passing since their exodus, as Edmund has already noted. That means that if this is Cair Paravel, Susan and the others have to grapple with the fact that everyone they ever loved in Narnia is now dead. They have to say goodbye forever, and give up the fantasy that they'll ever see their friends and loved ones again.
Small wonder that Susan doesn't want to test this hypothesis further.
For now all knew that it was indeed the ancient treasure chamber of Cair Paravel where they had once reigned as Kings and Queens of Narnia. There was a kind of path up the middle (as it might be in a greenhouse), and along each side at intervals stood rich suits of armor, like knights guarding the treasures. In between the suits of armor, and on each side of the path, were shelves covered with precious things -- necklaces and arm rings and finger rings and golden bowls and dishes and long tusks of ivory, brooches and coronets and chains of gold, and heaps of unset stones lying piled anyhow as if they were marbles or potatoes -- diamonds, rubies, carbuncles, emeralds, topazes, and amethysts. Under the shelves stood great chests of oak strengthened with iron bars and heavily padlocked. [...]
Then, of course, they began walking about and picking things up to look at. It was like meeting very old friends. If you had been there you would have heard them saying things like, "Oh look! Our coronation rings -- do you remember first wearing this? -- Why, this is the little brooch we all thought was lost -- I say, isn't that the armor you wore in the great tournament in the Lone Islands? -- do you remember the dwarf making that for me? -- do you remember drinking out of that horn? -- do you remember, do you remember?"
Now I'm wondering why the Pevensie monarchs needed huge oak chests with massive padlocks on them. Apparently they didn't trust their courtiers. And this whole thing makes them seem like greedy, irresponsible hoarders: their treasure room is hidden in a locked room behind their thrones and they've installed even heavier locks within to make absolutely sure that their thieving subjects don't make off with the gold that is rightfully theirs by accident of birth. Ah, yes, these were clearly True Kings and Queens fit to nurture the land and its people.
Occupy Cair Paravel!
And given that the later kings and queens of Narnia apparently didn't take much (or possibly anything!) away from the treasury, despite the war that surely must have needed at least some financing to fight and lose, one wonders if anyone even knew about this treasury other than the Pevensies.
"We must take the gifts," said Peter. For long ago at a Christmas in Narnia he and Susan and Lucy had been given certain presents which they valued more than their whole kingdom. Edmund had had no gift because he was not with them at the time. (This was his own fault, and you can read about it in the other book.)
ARGH. DO NOT DO THIS THING.
Anything that reminds your reader that they are reading a book necessarily hurls them out of the immersive experience and makes them hate you. Don't do it!
They all agreed with Peter and walked up the path to the wall at the far end of the treasure chamber, and there, sure enough, the gifts were still hanging. Lucy's was the smallest for it was only a little bottle. But the bottle was made of diamond instead of glass, and it was still more than half full of the magical cordial which would heal almost every wound and every illness. Lucy said nothing and looked very solemn as she took her gift down from its place and slung the belt over her shoulder and once more felt the bottle at her side where it used to hang in the old days. Susan's gift had been a bow and arrows and a horn. The bow was still there, and the ivory quiver, full of well-feathered arrows, but -- Oh, Susan," said Lucy. "Where's the horn?"
"Oh bother, bother, bother," said Susan after she had thought for a moment. "I remember now. I took it with me the last day of all, the day we went hunting the White Stag. It must have got lost when we blundered back into that other place -- England, I mean."
A very major issue I've always had, even as a child, with the Super Rare Healing Potion is that it seems like such a horrible gift to inflict on a child. I was the sort of child who was deathly afraid of using things up and not having them anymore, and I still fight hoarding tendencies to this day. (One of my first memories of dating Husband was him gazing in awe at the boxes and cans of non-perishable food I'd carefully stacked in my garage after a trip to the bulk grocery warehouse and him saying that he'd know who to hole up with in case of terrorist attack or zombie apocalypse. I took this as the very great compliment that it was.)
Lucy has received a finite gift, unlike Peter and Susan. Peter's sword will never rust or break; Susan's bowstring does not rot with the passage of time. But Lucy's knife is without any value, and her diamond vial is only as valuable as what it contains. And what it contains is a new lease on life for anyone dying of any wound or illness.
How do you cope with that? How do you deal with the knowledge that you're not constantly touring the kingdom, healing the sick and wounded and tending to their needs? How do you reconcile the fact that you were told to use the cordial wisely and you have the impression that it's meant to be used on Main Characters and at Plot Relevant moments, so you can't "waste" it or you'll be in trouble, yet at the same time there are people dying and you could help them and you're not.
As a child, reading these books, I couldn't deal with that. It made me so anxious and upset and unhappy. I seriously wished Lucy would just use up the dang vial, or that Aslan would bring the flowers over in a pot and the forest-people could set up a whole production line, or something. It seriously bothered me. It still does. I don't know what to do with it, but I'm frustrated that the books never even acknowledge the problem. The Pevensies treat health exactly like they treat wealth: something to hoard for themselves and their subjects be damned.
Another interesting thing here is that Susan calls England "that other place", which supports my theory that they have their English memories when in England and their Narnian memories when in Narnia, but there's something else here too: Susan doesn't call England "home". And it's worth pointing out once again that Susan embraced Narnia as her home at least as much, if not more, than any of her siblings.
"Never mind," said Susan, "I've still got the bow." And she took it.
"Won't the string be perished, Su?" said Peter.
But whether by some magic in the air of the treasure chamber or not, the bow was still in working order. Archery and swimming were the things Susan was good at. In a moment she had bent the bow and then she gave one little pluck to the string. It twanged: a chirruping twang that vibrated through the whole room. And that one small noise brought back the old days to the children's minds more than anything that had happened yet. All the battles and hunts and feasts came rushing into their heads together.
Then she unstrung the bow again and slung the quiver at her side.
Narratively, Susan had to lose the horn so that it could be found and used to call them into Narnia, and she had to keep the bow so that she can prove that she's Queen Susan the Renowned Archer and not some random kid. And yet it seems strange that she'd take a horn on a hunt against a single stag and yet leave her bow at home. ('Course, they weren't looking to kill the stag, but what were they going to catch it with? Harsh language? And what were they hunting and eating on the way there and back?)
Couple more things before we move on: Susan is good at archery and swimming. They're not "some" of the things she is good at; they are "the" things she is good at. Not embroidery or dance or clothes-making or your standard shorthand for Frivolous Girly Pursuits. And yet Susan doesn't go into war -- we have that for a fact from one of her contemporaries in "The Horse and His Boy". She hunts for pleasure and she swims for pleasure; neither of these things are used in service to her kingdom. And I feel a certain pang for this girl who enjoys tomboyish things and yet has taken to heart the warning from Father Christmas that she's not to be useful with them.
And so deeply has she taken this advice to heart that though they are in a strange and abandoned place with night upon them and possibly enemies all round, she hastily unstrings her bow before they go back upstairs and emerge into the dangerous night. This despite the fact that bows should (apparently) only be unstrung during periods of long non-use, the only benefit is to lengthen the bow and string lifespan (which at this point have both been demonstrated to be magically preserved), and restringing the bow takes both time and forces the archer to recalibrate the bow for accuracy.
So basically Susan has just taken a perfectly working, magically preserved bow and rendered it completely useless as a weapon even though she is in a potentially extremely dangerous situation for no reason whatsoever despite being one of the most skilled archers in Narnia and thus presumably knowing the implications of her actions. That's how committed she is to never using the bow for anything other than pleasure hunts.
Next, Peter took down his gift -- the shield with the great red lion on it, and the royal sword. He blew, and rapped them on the floor, to get off the dust. He fitted the shield on his arm and slung the sword by his side. He was afraid at first that it might be rusty and stick to the sheath. But it was not so. With one swift motion he drew it and held it up, shining in the torchlight.
"It is my sword Rhindon," he said; "with it I killed the Wolf." There was a new tone in his voice, and the others all felt that he was really Peter the High King again. [...]
They climbed the stair again and made up a good fire and lay down close together for warmth. The ground was very hard and uncomfortable, but they fell asleep in the end.
...and then Peter unscrewed the blade from the hilt and unhooked the shield strap from the metal bit and stuck the strap in his pocket for safe keeping.
Haha, just kidding!