When I say that Prince Caspian is the best of the Chronicles of Narnia, I say it in the same way that I say I’d rather eat a chopped salad than anything else, or that my favorite pastime is going to church. There are many fine things about church and chopped salads, but the one only has pews to sit on, and the other isn’t a pile of buttered toast. Prince Caspian has a dreariness to it that the other Chronicles only touch occasionally (November on Ettinsmoor comes to mind, or the bother of dealing with Rabadash). Realizing that this is Cair Paravel has the same feeling as taking one’s spouse to the place where one vacationed as a child, and feeling abashed at its smallness. Can anything that falls to ruin ever have been that good?
Prince Caspian has other problems too: Miraz, yuck; Telmarines, no one cares; naiads and dryads, what’s the difference again? Must we have a combat, and all the fussy letter-writing and marshall-picking that goes into it? When I first heard the book as a child, the Trufflehunters and Berunas and Nikabruffins were too much for me to keep straight. I liked them. I just had no idea what was going on, or where my mom learned to bray Euan, euan, eu-oi oi oi! ‘Twas a mystifying experience.
But mystery is a commonplace of Narnia. We have things explained to us there that haven’t made sense back home. In Narnia, we learn that the Trumpkins of the world are among the elect, and their froward piety is no less needed than Blessed Lucy’s. We see the burdens of the High King, who must adjudicate among these eccentrics, and take up his sword for them pages later. We ponder how Caspian’s rescue is built on Cornelius’ cowardice. We stagger when the mice defeat the Lion. We come to understand not only why Peter and Susan may not return, but how they can bear it.
Fine, but this is what we expect from Narnia. A similar treasury of insights is easily assembled for any Chronicle. So why the chopped salad when it’s so much more work and less butter? Why try to sleep on some hard-sounding thing called Aslan’s How when we could be watching Eustace’s regeneration at Aslan’s claws, hear the world framed on his Song, smell a froggy foot stamping out the witch’s lies, or meditate on the sublime martyrdom of the Horses?
Because sometimes we are told that the explanation we got at home is the only one there is. When the Nurse opens her eyes, she confesses,
“Oh, Aslan! I knew it was true. I’ve been waiting for this all my life.”
And your mom stops reading, and you look up and see that her eyes are wet, and you don’t remember it until you’re the mom with a confused kid looking at you, wondering why the story stopped.
Oh, Aslan! I knew it was true. What will it be like, all that? The falling asleep and whatever is next, the end and the wait. The end: will we see it coming? Will it hurt? Will we be brave? The wait: will we perceive it? Will the awakening feel like a morning, with the night’s weight dented into our minds? Or will it be like the jolt out of an anesthesia that has annihilated the intervening hours?
Those aren’t our stories yet, so we don’t get to have them. But we have been given our lines, and of course it falls to the Nurse to teach them to us. Prayers, creeds, and confessions are proper to nurseries, so that in our second childishness we will still be able to use the things we need most. Caspian’s Nurse awakens to the holy realization of all her hope, and her outpouring of worship becomes an icon of the rapture that will be ours. We don’t know what it will be like, but we know what we will say.
We also need some dreariness. There will be cold nights with nothing to eat but apples. We will live through times of little love with people who would happily do without us. We will grasp for allies who turn out to be worse than our enemies. We will look for our old fords and find new bridges; we will take teaching jobs and find ourselves tormented by nasty little pigs. We’d better learn that history sometimes calls for kings and queens to schlep and make do, and remember that we’re not even kings and queens.
So we’ll go to church instead of visiting whatever paradise of warm lie-ins or Instagrammable trail runs our flesh would contrive. We’ll take the salad, thanks, rather than the rich foods of the royal table. We’re not going to skip Prince Caspian, because headaches and housekeeping are not literary flyover country. Caspian founds the great Narnian dynasty solidly in the kingdom of the left, where most of us spend most of our days. We too must slog through stinky politics, discomfiting ethnic conflicts, human personalities, and all the confounding mysteries of the mundane. We will be tired at the end of the day, at the end of our lives.
At the end of the world, though, we’ve got a plan. If we have the good sense to remember what we learned from our Nurse, we have a few words that carry more comfort than any bed or board at Cair Paravel. One of Narnia’s more curious features is metalepsis. Father Christmas and Bacchus are oddly placed in Aslan’s country. How fitting that the device should work in the other direction as well. The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised, and I don’t think any of us will be changed so much that we might not find on our tongues the words of the Nurse.
Oh, Jesus! I knew it was true.