At the start of Prince Caspian as the four Pevensie children hunt through the dust-covered treasure chamber deep in the ruins of what was once Cair Paravel, Susan finds her bow and arrows magically preserved, but the enchanted horn that will always bring help is nowhere to be seen. Susan concludes that it must have gotten lost as they blundered through the underbrush on their way back through the wardrobe at the end of the previous adventure.
Edmund whistles, and then someone, perhaps Edmund, but perhaps the narrator, concludes the missing horn to be “a shattering loss.” It is significant that Lewis structures the paragraph to leave it vague exactly whose conclusion this is, for, as will be seen later, the horn has not been lost, in fact quite the opposite—it is the gifts in the treasure chamber which have been lost to Narnia until the children’s return. Susan’s horn, precisely because she took it on the trip and then accidentally dropped it somewhere, was in a position to be recovered by Doctor Cornelius, as readers later discover in chapter five. Rather than a shattering loss, Susan’s misplacing the horn becomes an amazing stroke of good fortune.
In The Silver Chair one of the important lessons Jill and Eustace will learn is, as Puddleglum states, “There are no accidents.” Here what seems to have been an accident with Susan’s horn will providentially make it possible for Caspian to call for help hundreds of years later. This seeming calamity will lead to the saving of Narnia. And so what actually happened to Susan’s horn is the opposite of a shattering loss. Looking back on it, the incident has a feel not of misfortune, but of Providence.
Like most of the lessons learned in Narnia, Lewis intends this incident with Susan’s horn to have an application to the real world. We all have experienced times when we think that something was the worst thing that could have happened, only to have it, in retrospect, turn out to be the best thing that could have happened.
Later in chapter five, just before Caspian’s departure, Doctor Cornelius reveals that in his youth he was able to find “the greatest and most sacred treasure of Narnia … the magic horn of Queen Susan herself.” The Doctor presents the horn to the Prince with the declaration, “It is said that whoever blows it shall have strange help—no one can say how strange.”
Lewis reports just two uses of Susan’s horn in the Chronicles. Both times it may be said to have brought strange help, assistance which does not look like what was expected or hoped for, but which turns out to be exactly what was needed. When Maugrim, the White Witch’s great wolf, attacked Susan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the horn’s call brought her slightly older brother Peter, someone who had never used a sword before. However, with Peter’s coming, not only was Susan saved, but the new high king had his first exposure to battle, experience which was needed the next day in his encounter with the forces of the Witch.
The only other recorded use of the horn occurs in chapter eight of Prince Caspian. When the Prince blows the magic horn, his call for help will be answered not by the great warriors he and his army are hoping for, but by the four children—strange help, indeed.
It could be argued that a great deal of the aid in Prince Caspian, especially when viewed in hindsight, is this same kind of strange assistance. The exile of Caspian’s Nurse, though it initially appears to Caspian as misfortune, leads directly to the arrival of Doctor Cornelius. The violent thunderstorm which arrives during Caspian’s flight from the castle will not seem much like assistance, nor will his subsequent riding accident, but without these events he would never have been rescued by Trumpkin and Trufflehunter. In chapter ten the children and Trumpkin travel to Aslan’s How by rowing up Glasswater Creek. At one point this route appears to have been a huge mistake, but after they narrowly avoid being shot by Miraz’s sentries at the Bridge of Beruna, Susan concludes it was truly “a blessing in disguise,” another way of describing this strange type of help.
This sort of strange help appears not only in Prince Caspian but throughout the Narnia stories. Perhaps the best illustration of this unconventional kind of assistance will be Eustace’s transformation into a dragon in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a painful ordeal but the only way he will be able to achieve his much needed character transformation.
Lewis had much to say about this kind of help in his other writings, and about our initial reluctance to see it as help. In Letters to Malcolm he writes, “It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good.” This same lesson, about accepting the good that is sent to us, however strange or unexpected it may be, becomes a central theme in Perelandra, the second volume of Lewis’s Space Trilogy. In the unfallen world of Perelandra, the native name for Venus, the Queen of that world explains how clinging too tightly to our expectations can diminish our gratitude. She tells Ransom,
“One goes in the forest to pick food and already the thought of one fruit rather than another has grown up in one’s mind. Then, it may be, one finds a different fruit and not the fruit one thought of. One joy was expected and another is given…. If you wished… you could send your soul after the good you had expected, instead of turning it to the good you had got. You could refuse the real good; you could make the real fruit taste insipid by thinking of the other.”
In chapter eight of Prince Caspian, Trumpkin will be guilty of this very thing, of initially rejecting the help which was sent because he and the Old Narnians had been anticipating a very different kind of assistance. He will tell the children: “The King and Trufflehunter and Doctor Cornelius were expecting—well, if you see what I mean, help. To put it another way, I think they’d been imagining you as great warriors. As it is—we’re awfully fond of children and all that, but just at the moment, in the middle of a war—but I’m sure you understand.”
Lucy, too, will fall prey to limiting help to the kind she has been expecting, instead of being open to the help which is sent. After their meeting in the forest, she will complain to Aslan, “I thought you’d come roaring in and frighten all the enemies away—like last time.”
In literature a theme may be defined as a generalization about life which is stated or implied by a story. In the Narnia stories we can find a number of themes, or truths about life, which Lewis sought to convey. At first glance, it might seem odd to claim that Lewis hoped to present truths about life in the real world through the events and characters of an imaginary land. But in fact, Lewis’s insights about life are powerful and deeply moving, not despite, but because they occur in the make-believe world of Narnia. We are able to see the truth of Lewis’s statements about the human condition with greater clarity and poignancy due to the fact that they are conveyed in a fairytale realm. The theme which Lewis introduces here could be stated as Help sometimes comes in an unanticipated form, in a manner so strange and unexpected that often we may recognize it as help only in looking back on it.
Every family with a younger brother or sister also has a small arsenal of stories about them. My younger brother and I grew up in a church that had a tradition of singing “We Gather Together” every year around Thanksgiving. The first verse begins with these words: “Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness, sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve. Waiting for the harvest and the time of reaping. We shall come rejoicing….”
And then the story we like to tell about my brother is that when he was little, he thought the next words were: “Bringing in the cheese. Bringing in the cheese. Bringing in the cheese. We shall come rejoicing bringing in the cheese.”
The correct word, of course, is sheaves, but in a way my brother’s version made sense. The cheese our family ate was orange and round, like most of the food associated with this time of year. And we grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. We had no more idea of how cheese was harvested than what a sheave was. We could picture some Wisconsin farmer coming in from his fields, rejoicing, and carrying this huge cheese to put down on the Thanksgiving table next to the turkey and the pumpkin pie.
My brother never knew that I had a similar instance of hymn misreading. There was a song in our hymnal that our church actually never sang but which I was intrigued by because of its opening line. The first line, as I now know, is “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” But for years, I thought the line went “There’s a wildness in God’s mercy like the wildness of the sea.”
To this day, I still prefer my rendition to the original because there is a wildness to the mercy we are sent, a wildness that might sink the plans that we have made and blow our expectations right off the map.
During the Christmas season, a special time of giving and receiving, we might pause to reflect on all the gifts we have been given, and particularly on those that can be seen as gifts only as we look back on them. The next time we are the recipients of this strange help which Lewis writes about, this kind of reflection may help us to be more open to it.
Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and Professor of English at Asbury College, where, among other duties, he teaches a class on Lewis. He is the author of Inside Narnia: A Guide to Exploring The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Baker 2005) and Inside Prince Caspian: A Guide to Exploring the Return to Narnia (Baker 2008).