The World, the Flesh, and the Devil: Finding the Narrow Way in Prince Caspian

The great desire of sin is to kill you. It begins by trying to kill you spiritually, and once it does so, it will try to physically kill you as well. This law applies to Christians and non-Christians alike. Depending on your theological bent, you might argue that sin in the life of a Christian seeks to kill your effectiveness for the kingdom — but the result in terms of the heavenly war is the same: you are taken out of the fray. If life is a spiritual battle, then sin is the enemy relentlessly seeking your death.

The deadly peril of sin may seem a pretty dark theme for a PG-rated fantasy adventure film, and it surely goes beyond the intent of the author from whose book the film is adapted. But The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian would receive C.S. Lewis’ approval, I think, because even though it diverges mightily from the plot of his well-loved children’s book, it tackles what Lewis believed to be among the deadliest of sins: Pride.

The basics of the story remain. The Pevensie children: Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, have been away from Narnia for a year in earth time, but 1,300 years have passed in Narnian time. While they have been absent, Narnia has fallen under the control of the Telmarines — a superstitious people who have systematically attempted to exterminate the true Narnians. The kingdom is ruled by Miraz, the Lord Protector and brother to the now dead King Caspian the Ninth. When Miraz’s wife gives birth to a son, Miraz plots to murder his nephew, Prince Caspian, so that his own son may take the throne. Caspian escapes from the castle and falls in with the Narnians. The Pevensies arrive on the scene, and together they seek to restore Caspian to his rightful throne.

In Lewis’ novel, pride does make an early appearance, as Peter follows the wrong path instead of submitting himself to the spiritual insight of his littlest sister, Lucy. But Peter is quickly sorry for his misstep, little harm comes of it, and all is made right early in the book. In the screen adaptation by Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, Peter does not escape the consequences of his choices so easily. Peter literally struggles with the world, the flesh, and the Devil. By starting with a very real-world presupposition, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian delivers a startlingly mature exploration of sin, while still managing to be a crowd-pleasing film.

 

Lewis on Spiritual Sin

In writing on sexual chastity in Mere Christianity, Lewis makes the point that those who think that sexual immorality is the worst of sins have it all wrong. Certainly any sin will separate us from God, but some sins are much more difficult than others to overcome because of the level of pleasure that indulging in them provides. The pleasures of sexuality can be had without sin in the context of marriage. But Lewis notes, “All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred.” There is no pure circumstance in which to enjoy self-righteousness or pride. Such sins must be rooted out. The costs are often terrible, and in the film version of Prince Caspian, they are not sugar-coated.

Struggling with the World

The film adaptation of Prince Caspian begins with a reasonable presupposition that Lewis ignores in his book. Imagine that you are Peter. You are crowned High King of Narnia. You rule over the land with your brother and two sisters for many years. You sign treaties, you command armies, defeat enemies, you make and receive visits of state, and you have the love and respect of your subjects. Well into adulthood, during a hunt for a white stag, you cross back through the doors of a wardrobe, and suddenly find yourself a child again. You retain all of the memories of your sojourn in Narnia, but you are now subject to all of the difficulties of an English boarding school. In all likelihood, you would find your circumstances intolerable and unfair. It might make you a bit edgy.

When we first meet Peter, he is in a fight with some bullies in an underground railway station. Peter is miffed that a boy bumped him and then wanted Peter to make apologies. It is unfair. But as parents throughout the ages have taught their children: the world is not fair. Peter hates his world, because returning to it from Narnia has robbed him of something that had become precious to him (the Lord of the Rings allusion to Gollum is on purpose): Peter misses being the High King.

When the children are magically pulled back into Narnia, they find the ruins of Cair Paravel, the great castle from which they ruled. Miraculously the hidden treasure room of the castle is still intact, complete with all their most prized possessions. As the children descend the stairs, they see statues of their older selves standing silent guard over their personal troves. As Lucy pulls out a dress, she lightheartedly remarks that she had been taller.

052308_lead_new.jpgPeter first picks up a dust-covered shield bearing the image of Aslan — the Christ figure in the series. But Peter sets that aside, and as he approaches the alcove containing his treasure chest, his eyes fix on his statue — representing an older version of Peter which is taller, stronger, and regal — capped with the crown representing his former glory. Everything in Peter’s demeanor communicates his intense desire to regain the power and majesty that he mistakenly believes to be rightfully his.

When the children encounter their first Narnian, the dwarf Trumpkin, Peter introduces himself as “High King Peter, the Magnificent.” Told by nearly everyone they meet that these legendary kings and queens of Narnia are not quite what they expected, Peter makes it his point to reassert his own preeminence. In doing so, he demonstrates that he has been co-opted by the world’s philosophy that encourages self-promotion, arrogant disdain of those who do not share our station in life, and expressions of our own will. Peter is being entrapped by the oldest sin in the Book: pride.

Struggling with the Flesh.

Peter preens and postures, and glowers a lot. He is manifestly unhappy that his return to Narnia did not immediately result in his return to glory. Peter has forgotten the true source of his kingship. He is trying to regain, in his own strength, the power that actually had been bestowed upon him by another. Peter wants to do things his own way. When Peter asks Lucy why Aslan appeared to her, but not to him, Lucy rightly responds, “Maybe you weren’t looking.” Trying to determine their next step, and reminded of their need for Aslan, Peter replies, “I think this time it’s up to us.” As he plans a foolhardy attack on Miraz’s castle, he designates himself the arbiter of divine appointments, telling Lucy, “I think we have waited for Aslan long enough.” After his Narnian army suffers defeat, Peter blames the loss on everyone but himself. He even tries to lay fault at Aslan’s feet, arguing that Aslan did not provide him with sufficient proof that the Great Lion would involve himself in their mission. Peter is reminiscent of King Saul, who would not wait on God, or obey His commands, and so was stripped of his kingdom (1 Samuel 13:4-14; 15:10-23).

Like Peter, when we internalize the world’s prideful view, it causes us to think more highly of ourselves than we should. We want to ignore God, call our own shots, and achieve personal glory. Lewis notes this persistent human failing. In describing the Fall in The Problem of Pain, Lewis explains that people “wanted, as we say, to ‘call their souls their own.’ But that means to live a lie, for our souls are not, in fact, our own. They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, ‘This is our business, not yours.’ But there is no such corner.”

Life is inherently spiritual. It is no good to merely operate under our own power and authority — what the Bible calls “in the flesh” — as if our own efforts were sufficient. The end of such actions is always sadness and ruin. The significant accomplishments of life come from relying on God, and obeying His commands. But recognition that we cannot make it through life’s difficulties on our own is no guarantee that we will turn to God, particularly when other powers vie for our allegiance, offering results without the need to subjugate our will to God’s.

Struggling with the Devil

Peter’s ill-conceived attempt to overthrow Miraz in his own castle results in a hasty retreat, but not before Miraz’s army traps and slaughters many Narnians. Peter and Prince Caspian return to their camp depressed and defeated. Nikabrik, a malcontented dwarf, tells Caspian that just because the legendary Narnian kings and queens, magically drawn from the ancient past, could not deliver victory, that doesn’t mean that Caspian has exhausted his supernatural options.

Nikabrik leads Caspian back into Aslan’s How: the place where, 1,300 years ago, Aslan was slain on the great Stone Table. Among the pillars of this sacred space, a werewolf and a hag appear. Caspian is initially repulsed, but when they promise to deliver the throne of Narnia, Caspian’s only concern is with the probability of success. Even when it is clear that these occultists intend to conjure up the evil White Witch as an ally, Caspian is drawn in. But Peter, knowing the danger the White Witch represents, knocks Caspian aside, breaking the spell holding Caspian captive. But, within moments, Peter simply takes his place. From her frozen enclosure, the White Witch implores Peter for a single drop of his blood. That is all it will take to set her free, and then she can deliver to Peter his wildest hopes. Her power seductively calls to Peter, and she tells him, “You know you can’t do this on your own.” Only the intervention of Edmund saves Peter from making a self-serving mistake that would have doomed Narnia for centuries, and possibly cost Peter his soul.

While few in the west are tempted to barter their eternal destinies with pagan demons, many of us routinely make deals with the devil in other guises to get what we want. We bow the knee to the gods of materialism to get for us the status symbols we crave, and then pay for them in crushing debt and ruined relationships. We bargain with modern-day versions of Baal and Molech — speaking to us through the scriptures of popular culture such as Maxim or Cosmopolitan — for the promise of sexuality without responsibility, and we reap abortion, ravaged reputations, and broken marriages. The rejection of belief in God has led not to a belief in nothing, but, as G.K. Chesterton noted, “to a belief in almost anything,” as long as such beliefs serve our wills.

Pointing the Finger Forward and Back

Before we are tempted to judge the film version of Peter too harshly, we should ask ourselves: “How well would we fare under similar circumstances?” When my own boys were young, we would read together the early chapters of Genesis, and they would complain about Adam and how his stupid choices ruined things for everyone. The boys were certain that they would not have made the same blunder. But how often do we commit the same sins we see in Peter? How many of us have talked down to people in the grades below us, or poorly treated a subordinate at work? How often have we refused compassion or help from others, arguing, like a two-year-old, that we can do it all by ourselves? With what regularity do we trade in our consciences on the promise of pleasure, or to avoid well-deserved punishment? And, most significantly, how many of us have shunted God aside in order to have our own way? Peter makes us uncomfortable because he looks, surprisingly, just like us.

Fortunately, the same hope that turns Peter around is available to all of us. When Lucy tells Peter that instead of waiting for Aslan to (once again) prove himself, perhaps the time had come for the children to prove themselves to Aslan, Peter has an epiphany. The world, he recognizes, does not revolve around him. He turns from fighting for his own kingdom to fighting in the name of Aslan. He refuses to take advantage of a beaten man, showing mercy instead. He relinquishes his power and his throne so that they can pass to Caspian. When Aslan finally reveals himself, Peter bends his knee, acknowledging the True King. Peter gains wisdom, and, as a result, gains stature.

The Way Out

Prince Caspian may be filled with adventure, excitement, and warfare, but the most significant battle occurs on the inside. By pointing viewers to Peter’s internal struggles with sin, the movie shines a light on our own battles. If we are willing to look, it can help to reveal our limits. If we are willing to look even deeper, it can reveal our longings for significance and for salvation. These can be ours, but like the throne of Narnia, they can only be bestowed. We can live worthy of the gift, but we cannot attain our victories solely by our own power.

The good news is that Aslan is not a fairy tale. He is the fictional incarnation of a very real Savior; a God who loves us, sacrificed Himself for us, and wants to bring us into a relationship with Himself. He is the Great Counselor, who gives us His word to guide our way. And He is the Rewarder of those who seek Him.

At the end of the third book in the series — The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the next Lewis tale in line for film adaptation — Aslan prepares to send Lucy and Edmund back to their own world — our world. Aslan tells them, “There I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” For all those who, in these films, encounter Jesus for the first time in the character of Aslan, may the same sentiment hold true.

[Editors Note: “Will You Follow?” is MovieMinistry’s latest downloadable Bible Study based off of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. The study includes a leader’s guide and student study guides. MovieMinistry is not a Catholic resource, but Catholics may find judicious use of their material helpful in opening dialogue stimulated by the viewing of certain films. For more information on “Will You Follow?” just go to this link.]

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