A thought about Prince Caspian's odd story structure

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A thought about Prince Caspian's odd story structure

Postby The Rose-Tree Dryad » Mar 24, 2020 11:18 am

Oh look, Rose is here with a thread about Prince Caspian. How unexpected. ;))

Prince Caspian is my favorite of the Chronicles, but that wasn't always the case and a big reason for that was the story's peculiar structure. Suddenly being pulled away from the Pevensies and spending four chapters with a new character before dropping him and returning to the Kings and Queens of old made the story harder to get into as a reader, particularly a new reader of Narnia who had never encountered this way of arranging a story before.

Years later, I've grown to quite like the structure and would not change it, but even so, I've always been a little mystified that Lewis made this storytelling choice.

I've been reading a lot of George MacDonald (a 19th century author who might be described as C.S. Lewis's personal hero, as far as mortal men go) over the past several years and I had a bit of an epiphany while cooking dinner a couple nights ago. Something that's very common in several of MacDonald's books is a story-within-a-story. Phantastes, the novel that Lewis says baptized his imagination at the age of 16, contains a 8k+ word short story in the middle of it. (The Caspian chapters in PC are about 12k in total by comparison.) The Light Princess, The Shadows, and other fairy tales were published nested inside the novel Adela Cathcart, a story about an ill woman who regains her health by starting a story club in her home. At the Back of the North Wind contains the fairy tale Little Daylight.

So I'm starting to theorize that the curious story structure in Prince Caspian may have been a nod to Lewis's literary mentor, or at the very least may be a reason why Lewis was comfortable with arranging the story in a way that many modern readers find puzzling and off-kilter. In my eyes, Caspian's mid-book adventures are a fairy tale in their own right, albeit an unfinished one.

Did you struggle with the structure of PC when you first read the book? Are there any other stories or authors that might have influenced Lewis's decision to include a "flashback" that comprises more than a quarter of the book's length? Do you have any other theories?
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Re: A thought about Prince Caspian's odd story structure

Postby Reepicheep775 » Mar 24, 2020 4:38 pm

Interesting idea, Rose! I've been wanting to read Phantastes for years, but never have mainly because none of my local libraries have it. One of these days I'll break down and buy it.

I honestly can't remember what my first reaction to PC's story structure was when I first read it since it's been nearly a decade and a half now. Unfortunately, most of my earliest experiences with the books seem to be forgotten.

However, I can say that, while VDT is my favourite of the series, the four chapter flashback in PC has probably become my favourite section of writing in the Chronicles. When I reach the point in the story when Trumpkin begins his tale, I'm not annoyed that the plot is taking a large detour, I'm thrilled because I'm about to enter what is, in my opinion, some of the best stuff Narnia has to offer.
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Re: A thought about Prince Caspian's odd story structure

Postby Wanderer Between Worlds » Mar 24, 2020 6:07 pm

That is a very interesting theory! I haven’t read much of George MacDonald’s work except for The Princess and the Goblin. :) As for Prince Caspian, I don’t remember exactly when I read it; I read it once and then moved on. Oddly enough, the thing that I remembered with the most clarity was the scene with the Pevensies roasting apples around a fire. The narrator comments that eating roast apples without anything to go on them is not very good, as they are too hot to eat without burning oneself, and when they are cooled enough to handle, they end up being too cold. I thought that passage was really funny as a child. ;))

In a storytelling sense, the structure of Prince Caspian perhaps has a twofold purpose. Because it begins with the Pevensies, it may serve to ground the reader in a sense of familiarity. If, for example, Prince Caspian had begun with Caspian’s childhood, the reader would feel a sense of displacement without any context with which to get their bearings. Lewis uses the Pevensies as a sort of framing device through which he is able to care about Prince Caspian. In publication order, if Prince Caspian is only the second book about Narnia and it begins with no familiar characters, I as a reader would feel alienated and perhaps be inclined not to care about Caspian because it would seem to have no relevance to what I read before. (Lewis later uses this device to great effect in The Horse and His Boy, but I think it works there because we know more of Narnia, and it has already been established as taking place during the Golden Age in The Silver Chair, a detail which gives it a place in an already-established order of events).

Another reason Lewis might have started Prince Caspian with the Pevensies instead of Caspian has to do with preserving the mystery of why the children were called to Narnia in the first place. The mystery of where they are, why they are in Narnia, and how Narnia deteriorated is quite captivating. I think that the emotional impact is greater because the reader is kept in the dark, which may not have been possible if Lewis had cut back and forth between Capsian and the Pevensies. Perhaps he even wanted to concentrate the character development in one section so it was free of distraction from other plot elements.

Interestingly, Lewis does cut back and forth between Edmund and his siblings in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (and also cuts beteeen the siblings later in Prince Caspian). In The Horse and His Boy, however, he only focuses on one character at a time (Shasta and then Aravis). I would be curious to know what his reasons were for writing the way he did. Was it for the structure of the story, character development, or some other reason? :-\

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Re: A thought about Prince Caspian's odd story structure

Postby Glenwit » Mar 24, 2020 6:46 pm

Wanderer Between Worlds wrote:
In a storytelling sense, the structure of Prince Caspian perhaps has a twofold purpose. Because it begins with the Pevensies, it may serve to ground the reader in a sense of familiarity. If, for example, Prince Caspian had begun with Caspian’s childhood, the reader would feel a sense of displacement without any context with which to get their bearings. Lewis uses the Pevensies as a sort of framing device through which he is able to care about Prince Caspian. In publication order, if Prince Caspian is only the second book about Narnia and it begins with no familiar characters, I as a reader would feel alienated and perhaps be inclined not to care about Caspian because it would seem to have no relevance to what I read before. (Lewis later uses this device to great effect in The Horse and His Boy, but I think it works there because we know more of Narnia, and it has already been established as taking place during the Golden Age in The Silver Chair, a detail which gives it a place in an already-established order of events).


You read my mind, Wanderer! I have wondered the same thing - especially if it was perhaps affected by being the first sequel. I think early editions were even subtitled 'The Return to Narnia'. I bet the plot of PC would have been more linear if Lewis had written the series in chronological order, and more background context, as well as the sense of an ensemble cast, would already have been established. This would have made an extended introduction to an unfamiliar character less out of place as the opener.
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Re: A thought about Prince Caspian's odd story structure

Postby narnia fan 7 » Mar 25, 2020 6:09 am

While Prince Caspian is my least favorite book in the series, the structure has never really been any huge problem for me. It definitely bothers me more as an adult then when I was a kid and it dose make the book feel just a bit wonky and disjointed, but for the most part I think it works.

Wanderer Between Worlds wrote:Another reason Lewis might have started Prince Caspian with the Pevensies instead of Caspian has to do with preserving the mystery of why the children were called to Narnia in the first place. The mystery of where they are, why they are in Narnia, and how Narnia deteriorated is quite captivating. I think that the emotional impact is greater because the reader is kept in the dark, which may not have been possible if Lewis had cut back and forth between Capsian and the Pevensies.

My thoughts exactly. Because of how the book opens with the mystery of where the Pevensies are, the only way to fit in Caspian's backstory is through flashbacks.
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Re: A thought about Prince Caspian's odd story structure

Postby Col Klink » Mar 25, 2020 3:45 pm

My thoughts on Prince Caspian's structure are very similar to Narnia fan 7's. It's far from being my favorite book, but I don't really have a problem with the lengthy "flashback." To be honest, I think I'd be more annoyed if Lewis had told the story chronologically or intercut the Pevensies' story with Caspian's somehow. If we already knew why the Pevensies had randomly appeared in another world when they didn't, the readers would probably have been impatient waiting for the characters to catch up with them. (We'd even probably figure out that they're near Cair Paravel since Dr. Cornelius mentions it as a possibility.)

And if the Caspian chapters were intercut with the Pevensie chapters, I personally wouldn't like it because I find it tiresome when there are alternating chapters with different storylines in a novel. (I don't like the way the Edmund chapters are intercut with the Pevensie chapters in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for example. Though that's hardly the most annoying example in literature.) I prefer an author to just stick with one storyline. Multiple ones at once work better in film and television IMO.
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Re: A thought about Prince Caspian's odd story structure

Postby Courtenay » Mar 25, 2020 5:23 pm

Wanderer Between Worlds wrote:In a storytelling sense, the structure of Prince Caspian perhaps has a twofold purpose. Because it begins with the Pevensies, it may serve to ground the reader in a sense of familiarity. If, for example, Prince Caspian had begun with Caspian’s childhood, the reader would feel a sense of displacement without any context with which to get their bearings. Lewis uses the Pevensies as a sort of framing device through which he is able to care about Prince Caspian. In publication order, if Prince Caspian is only the second book about Narnia and it begins with no familiar characters, I as a reader would feel alienated and perhaps be inclined not to care about Caspian because it would seem to have no relevance to what I read before. (Lewis later uses this device to great effect in The Horse and His Boy, but I think it works there because we know more of Narnia, and it has already been established as taking place during the Golden Age in The Silver Chair, a detail which gives it a place in an already-established order of events).

Another reason Lewis might have started Prince Caspian with the Pevensies instead of Caspian has to do with preserving the mystery of why the children were called to Narnia in the first place. The mystery of where they are, why they are in Narnia, and how Narnia deteriorated is quite captivating. I think that the emotional impact is greater because the reader is kept in the dark, which may not have been possible if Lewis had cut back and forth between Capsian and the Pevensies. Perhaps he even wanted to concentrate the character development in one section so it was free of distraction from other plot elements.


I was just planning to write an answer that make pretty much exactly these two points, but you've beaten me to it and written it much more clearly than I'd yet managed to think it out, Wanderer! Thank you! :)

My own experience of first reading Prince Caspian (at 7 years old) was just like what you say about the mystery of where the Pevensies are and, when they realise they're in the ruins of Cair Paravel itself... well, what's happened? How did everything in Narnia go so horribly wrong??? I was captivated and raring to find out more, so when the narrative switches to Caspian's story, I didn't at all mind leaving the Pevensies for a few chapters — especially as Caspian's story is exciting and intriguing too!

I was also thinking of what you said about starting with the Pevensies as familiar characters — I'm pretty sure I, too, wouldn't have cared as much about Caspian the first time I read the book if we hadn't already been set up with the four characters we already know. In any case, the overall story that Lewis is trying to tell needs those two narratives that start out separate and eventually come together. If he'd alternated them, or started with Caspian and only later (re-)introduced the Pevensies, I don't think the story as a whole would have worked nearly as well as it does.
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Re: A thought about Prince Caspian's odd story structure

Postby The Rose-Tree Dryad » Mar 26, 2020 4:29 pm

Thanks for all the feedback on this, everyone! :D

Reepicheep775 wrote:Interesting idea, Rose! I've been wanting to read Phantastes for years, but never have mainly because none of my local libraries have it. One of these days I'll break down and buy it.


FWIW, I've gotten most of the MacDonald stories I've read through the free ebook site Project Gutenberg (a site that makes owning an eReader well worth it, imo) or the free audiobook site Librivox. Of course, an ebook isn't quite the same as curling up with a real book and some of Librivox's audio recordings aren't the best, but I'm a huge fan of both of these virtual libraries (especially right now when everything is closed down) and very grateful that they make authors like MacDonald so accessible to everyone (but mostly me :P).

Wanderer Between Worlds wrote:If, for example, Prince Caspian had begun with Caspian’s childhood, the reader would feel a sense of displacement without any context with which to get their bearings. Lewis uses the Pevensies as a sort of framing device through which he is able to care about Prince Caspian. In publication order, if Prince Caspian is only the second book about Narnia and it begins with no familiar characters, I as a reader would feel alienated and perhaps be inclined not to care about Caspian because it would seem to have no relevance to what I read before.


I think you're on to something here. It reminds me — it was actually a few years before I got around to reading Prince Caspian after reading The Magician's Nephew and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (yes, I originally read them in chronological order :ymsigh:) and this was essentially the reason why. I can remember being in a bookstore when I was about 11 and looking at the title/cover of PC and thinking it was going to be about a new set of characters, a new era, maybe even a new world — we had already only spent one book with Polly and Digory before moving on to the Pevensies, and then the next book was about some Prince Caspian person I'd never heard of — and I deliberated and waffled and I never actually got around to reading it until quite a long time later. So I think that's definitely a valid concern when writing a book, especially for a book for children.

Wanderer Between Worlds wrote:Interestingly, Lewis does cut back and forth between Edmund and his siblings in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (and also cuts beteeen the siblings later in Prince Caspian). In The Horse and His Boy, however, he only focuses on one character at a time (Shasta and then Aravis). I would be curious to know what his reasons were for writing the way he did. Was it for the structure of the story, character development, or some other reason?


It's also interesting that with Aravis's backstory, it's communicated through actual storytelling instead of a flashback. It makes me wonder what it would have been like if Aravis's tale had been given the same treatment as Caspian's adventures! I really enjoy Aravis's Calormene style of storytelling, but I must say I'm glad we got to enjoy Caspian's POV for four chapters instead of Trumpkin's SparkNotes version. ;))
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Re: A thought about Prince Caspian's odd story structure

Postby waggawerewolf27 » Mar 30, 2020 8:15 pm

While Prince Caspian is my least favorite book in the series, the structure has never really been any huge problem for me. It definitely bothers me more as an adult then when I was a kid and it dose make the book feel just a bit wonky and disjointed, but for the most part I think it works.


I think the main problem with the structure of the book, was felt by those trying to depict Prince Caspian in filming it, to be honest. The Walden version starts with Prince Caspian fleeing the castle, a visually more dramatic way to film that story, rather than the Pevensies suddenly being pulled off a railway station. Whether it is Trumpkin filling in for Prince Caspian, himself, or whether it is Aravis telling her own story in storytelling style, the reader has to have some exposition somewhere, to find out what is happening, why they are there, & the when, who, & where of the story, let alone what they are supposed to do with all that information. Most successful stories start with a rather dramatic or eye catching beginning anyway. Think of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, JK Rowling's start to Harry Potter & the Philosopher's Stone, with Aunt Petunia stating that they are very normal people , thank you very much, & then finding out in the rest of the story why they weren't really.

One of the themes of Prince Caspian is of gradual discovery. Arriving on a holiday beach which they don't remember, of finding the apple orchard, the ruined castle, the chess piece & the treasure chamber. It isn't until Susan shoots an arrow at soldiers in a boat that the Pevensies start realising there is a lot more going on in the present they have been landed in, than an old ruined castle dating from how long ago. It is echoed in Trumpkin's "spark notes", & then later in the gradual discovery of Aslan's presence. Then there is Caspian, himself, & the situation he finds himself in, when Trumpkin, Peter & Edmund arrive, which is a darn sight better in the book than in the film, the surprise utterly ruined there, by the way the events were twisted around.
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