Once again, we are pleased to publish a Narnia essay by Daniel Whyte IV. Daniel is a fantasy and speculative fiction writer whose essays on culture and faith have been published in Relevant, Fathom Magazine, Arc Digital, Tor.com, Speculative Faith, and Church Leaders. A former web developer and podcast producer, he holds a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology: Web and Mobile Programming. When he’s not writing about superheroes, time travel, fantasy, or Narnia, he’s tweeting about those things @dmarkwiv.
Daniel’s Pilgrim piece last year was “There Are No Cruel Narnians: What The Horse and His Boy Can Tell Us About Racism, Cultural Superiority, Beauty Standards, and Inclusiveness.” I was impressed with Daniel’s careful conversation about the questions of race, culture, and beauty–hard questions that allowed the text to live. I was able to use this essay to inform my approach to teaching in my local course on leadership, culture, and communication in The Chronicles of Narnia–with an internationally diverse group of students. The piece was shared by Mike Glyer in his popular e-zine/list for SF fandom, File 770, and remains the top new post of the last year.
Taking a different approach entirely, Daniel returns to The Horse and His Boy with a personal and philosophical reflection that considers the oft-forgotten Prince Corin, Thunder-Fist.
Wherever I Go, That’s Where the Party’s At: Prince Corin as C.S. Lewis’ Harbinger of Joy
by Daniel Whyte IV
My favorite character in all the Narnia stories has only a small space devoted to him within the Chronicles’ pages. He is not a great hero, nor does he play any particularly significant role. He is more comic relief and caricature than anything else. Yet, he captures the essence of the feeling that Lewis found himself seeking throughout his life.
Prince Corin jumps into the narrative of The Horse and His Boy with a “loud crash” as he sneaks into the house in Tashbaan where two of Narnia’s royals and their companions are staying. He immediately comes face-to-face with Shasta whom the Narnians have mistaken for him.
“Are you Prince Corin?” Shasta asks (ch. 5).
Corin’s reply is: “Yes, of course.” (As if to say, “Who else would I be?”)
When Corin asks, “Who are you?” Shasta’s reply is the complete opposite and terribly heart-breaking:
“I’m nobody, nobody in particular…” (ch. 5).
Corin’s confident self-possession is striking. He is a vigorous figure, almost larger-than-life. A character too big for the small space the story devotes to him. Unlike Shasta, Bree, Aravis, and Hwin, Corin is secure in himself and his relationships with the people around him and the world he inhabits. He is free, happy, and joyful. He is passionate and brave and courageous.
His flaw might be that he is too free and ridiculously happy. Reckless even. But that recklessness is the result of deep-seated security about his place in the world. He loves and knows that he is loved. He feels no pressure to be like others or pretend to be something he is not. He is honest, even about his flaws.
I envy his freedom. I strive to emulate it. And even when the expression is fake, the desire is nonetheless real.
Afraid of being discovered as a royal imposter, Shasta urges Corin to take his place so that neither will get in trouble. Then he remembers that Corin’s black eye, missing tooth, and general dirty appearance make this boyhood subterfuge impossible. Resigned to being caught, Shasta allows that Corin will just have “to tell them the truth”–but only once he himself has slipped away.
Corin’s scornful response is powerful:
“What else did you think I’d be telling them?” Corin asks, with “a rather angry look” (ch. 5).
The Corin Trifecta
Three things stand out about Corin’s character in this brief encounter.
Inner Circles and Inside Jokes
The first is Corin’s friendliness, which is demonstrated primarily in his interactions with Shasta. When Shasta expresses his desperation to get away as soon as possible, Corin says,
“Why are you in such a hurry? I say: we ought to be able to get some fun out of this being mistaken for one another” (ch. 5).
This may seem like Corin simply trying to give life to an elaborate prank and put the Narnian royals under further anxiety for his own entertainment. But even in his miscreancy, Corin desires to draw Shasta into his world–to share in the joke.
We see this again later in the story when he eagerly introduces Shasta–who then is even more dirty, tired, beggarly, and bedraggled than he was in Tashbaan–to the Narnian royals. And then he seizes the opportunity to have Shasta join him in battle, not for a moment assuming that the poor ex-slave is incapable in such matters.
Corin holds the door open and says, “Come in! Come in! Let’s be friends.” He wants Shasta to get the inside jokes, to be part of the inner circle.
Those familiar with C.S. Lewis’ essays might feel a sudden caution with the phrase “inner circle.” In a lecture at King’s College in London in 1944, he advised young people against desiring to gain entrance into what he referred to as “Inner Rings.” Not all inner rings are bad, he said, but the desire to be on the inside of seemingly closed circles often leads people to act against their consciences. In the lecture, later printed in The Weight of Glory, Lewis says,
“Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
We could easily assume that Lewis is against cliques and in-groups altogether, but friendship—as demonstrated by Lewis’ life—is really an inner ring experience. Such a ring may consist of two people or several. And while the desire to be in such a ring might lead a person astray, there is nothing untoward about those within the ring (if it is a good ring) inviting outsiders into its joys. Lewis said:
…if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.
The Inklings, the famous literary club that Lewis was part of at Oxford for over fifteen years, is a prime example of a (good) Inner Ring, defined by friendship, camaraderie, and shared interest. Lewis, Tolkien, Hugo Dyson, Roger Lancelyn Green, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others were all in on the joke: the joke being a not-so-secret club for people who loved stories and telling them. Perhaps Lewis would frown on this desire, but I’d certainly want to be on the inside of that ring.
The Narnians sojourning in Calormen are a vivid picture of an Inner Ring. (Except most of the Calormenes didn’t want to join that ring. They wanted to see it wiped out.) We read,
“Instead of being grave and mysterious like most Calormenes, [the Narnians] walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling” (The Horse and His Boy, ch. 4).
“You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly and didn’t give a fig for anyone who wasn’t” (ch. 4).
Shasta, observing the clique of Narnians,
“thought he had never seen anything so lovely in his life” (ch. 4).
If only he could be on the inside of that Inner Ring! Luckily for him—and us—Prince Corin serves as an ambassador for that ring. He is an inclusivist—desiring to bring people in rather than keep them out, no matter the risk to himself. And that leads to the second thing that stands out about Corin: he is at peace with himself and the people around him.
Fearless in Truancy
The fact that he doesn’t feel the need to lie to Susan and Edmund about his truancy speaks volumes about his standing within the circle of Narnians. The idea that he would do anything other than tell them the truth repulses him. Why would he? The fear of rejection is strange to him. It appears he even shrugs off the potential of disapproval.
Imagine being free to live and speak without fretting over the approval or acceptance of others. We criticise politicians for policing their actions and words to keep their approval ratings high. But we are all politicians in a way. We worry about our approval ratings in the eyes of various constituents: family, friends, church members, classmates—even total strangers who we assume are judging us based on how we dress or talk. We modify and adapt and code-switch. We are chameleons, desperately trying to blend into our environments because we assume—we know—that is the only way to be accepted.
We are familiar with the emotional and psychological pain of fearing rejection. But psychologists have found that such fears and desires also inflict physical pain—at least as far as our brains can tell. When three people hooked up to an fMRI scanner are playing catch, and one of them is suddenly excluded from the game because the other two decide to only throw the ball to each other, the excluded person experiences increased activity in two of the regions of the brain that react to physical pain. “As far as your brain is concerned, a broken heart is not so different from a broken arm,” psychologists say.
“Social rejection increases anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy and sadness. It reduces performance on difficult intellectual tasks, and can also contribute to aggression and poor impulse control… Physically, too, rejection takes a toll. People who routinely feel excluded have poorer sleep quality, and their immune systems don’t function as well as those of people with strong social connections.”
Perhaps Lewis’ advice about Inner Rings should be taken with a grain of salt. Such rings have their benefits, and perhaps our desire to be included in one (or several) is not so misguided. As even Lewis would argue, our desires suggest that there exists fulfilment for those desires. If we find that fulfilment in this life, however fleeting it may be, we should embrace it with gratitude. And, like Corin, we should invite others into our circles.
The Boy Who Really Lives
In hand with Corin’s friendliness and peacefulness is his ease with his place in life. His is a soul at rest. He’s a prince! Of course he has it easy, we might argue. But being rich and famous with a comfortable lifestyle does not make for a soul at ease. As one rapper puts it:
You know the rich and famous,
kill themselves to stay rich and famous
Those who are born into the elite are no less susceptible to interior discomfort than the rest of us. Depression and dissatisfaction run rampant among the wealthy and well-to-do. But Corin shows no sign of this. He is a cozy character in an uncozy world.
Perhaps his comfort with his place in life partly fuels his recklessness and overconfidence. He jumps into fights and rebels against the wishes of those who are committed to looking after him. He has a brash belief in his own rightness, especially regarding whether he should be in a battle. (In his defence, he seems to be good at fighting.)
How would it be if every one of us lived out of a comfort zone such as Corin’s? Being fully ourselves, the good and bad of us, without worrying that our communities will shun us? Being at such ease will allow us to live with the spirit of commitment that Corin shows to those around him. Hearing Queen Susan insulted by a boy in the street, Corin launches into a day-long fighting spree. Clearly, he’s misguided in his feeble attempt at justice, but his loyalty to his companions is the casual reciprocation of their commitment to him. Later, he is eager to challenge Rabadash after the embittered and imprisoned Calormene prince rails against the graciousness of the Narnian and Archenlandish royals.
I’m not so foolish to assume that everyone shares my affinity for Prince Corin. I, myself, am unlike him. I certainly have no prowess in fighting to speak of. And I can’t stand on pretence and say that Corin, as he’s portrayed in The Horse and His Boy, is the sort of child any parent would want or any girl would want to marry. He certainly has a lot of growing up to do.
Slate co-founder and editor Laura Miller criticizes Corin in her book about the Narnia stories’ impact on her childhood. She calls my favorite character the novel’s “least appealing” and “a boy made more disagreeable by being offered to readers as one of the good guys.” Miller takes Corin–and Lewis–to task for elitism and a sense of cultural superiority that she sees as endemic to the Chronicles.
Corin…is an unadulterated upper-class alpha boy: cocky, insensitive to others, easily riled, and always up for a fight… There’s more than a touch of the bully in Corin, yet the narrator clearly expects us to like him, to shake our heads fondly at his excesses just as the adults around him do, with the conviction that at heart he is all right, and he is all right because he is one of us.
While Miller uses Corin to accuse Lewis of endorsing bullying and snobbery, we find that Lewis condemns such behavior in his real-life accounts of his experiences as a schoolboy in England. He attributes to one of his tutors the fault of instilling within him and his fellow students
“the desire for glitter, swagger, distinction, the desire to be in the know.”
At the time, he
“began to labour very hard to make [himself] into a fop, a cad, and a snob.”
However, as he grew older, Lewis did not like what he saw himself and his schoolmates becoming. He decried England’s public (boarding) school communities as
“competitive…full of snobbery and flunkeyism, a ruling class so selfish and so class-conscious…a proletariat so fawning, so lacking in all solidarity and sense of corporate honour.”
It stands to reason that he would not intend to glorify such behavior in his casting of Corin.
The desire to be on top of others, to be ahead, to be advanced does not beset the prince of Archenland. Corin, I think, does not want to lead things as much as he wants to be a part of things. He likes being surrounded by the people he loves and who love him. His greatest tragedy would be alienation from his community: a tragedy that is explicated in Shasta’s story. When his father, King Lune, announces that Shasta (his twin) had, in fact, been born twenty minutes earlier than him and was first in line for the throne, Corin doesn’t feel cheated. He is relieved and exhilarated.
“Hurrah! Hurrah! I shan’t have to be King. I shan’t have to be King. I’ll always be a prince. It’s princes have all the fun.”
While he has no desire to lead, Corin is the person you want to follow. At least I do. Having all the fun he can is Corin’s way of life. To borrow from a Newsboys song, wherever he goes, that’s where the party’s at. But he isn’t incapable of sobering when things get serious. At the prelude of the fight that he isn’t supposed to be in, he gravely points out the eagles circling overhead:
“They smell battle. They know we’re preparing a feed for them” (The Horse and His Boy, ch. 13).
The Avatar of Joy
With Corin, Lewis gives us an avatar for his pursuit of capital-j Joy. Not mere happiness or pleasure, but the untouchable essence that he’d sought since childhood.
For Corin, the problems of his world are mere playthings—not inconsequential, but shadows and not ultimate realities. What’s real to Corin is the comfortable circle to which he belongs. His clique is a little taste of what we would recognize as heaven. A place impenetrable, elevated, and high with Northernness. A place where happiness and peace and comfort are found. A place where problems are made minuscule by the overwhelming massiveness of belonging.
“we yearn, rightly, for that unity which we can never reach except by ceasing to be the separate phenomenal beings called ‘we.’”
We ache for an “impossible reunion” with the Absolute. And that ache is assuaged by the joy we experience within our circles of friends and family.
In the realm of Joy, fun isn’t frowned upon. Fun—the unbridled enjoyment of everything—is the point of existence. In the Joy-realm, it is always playtime. Not because there is nothing to be serious about, but because we have passed beyond all that the physical, temporal world demands that we take seriously. Even Death itself starts working backwards–as we discover in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as an enlivened Aslan leads Lucy and Susan in
“such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia” (ch. 15).
“whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten” (ch. 15).
We are not meant to be “perpetually solemn,” after all. We must play. But, as Lewis says,
“our merriment must be of that kind–and it is, in fact, the merriest kind–which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”
It is ironic that Ecclesiastes, the second-most depressing book in the Bible (behind Job) and the one that most seriously considers the stark realities of life, also most directly advocates for the celebratory existence.
“So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15).
The philosopher behind those words had carefully considered life and declared that it was all “utterly meaningless.” People come and go and the poor, battered earth remains. The children of men were eternally engaged in an “unhappy business.” Like Lewis, the philosopher had considered pleasure—sex and marriage, fame and fortune, wealth and the accumulation of goods—but none of it satisfied. None of it brought him Joy. After days of decadence, he even sobered up and committed himself to honest labor and life by the rule of wisdom. But he discovered that the wise man dies just like the fool!
“So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17)
Despite this, the philosopher saw that man’s heart is set on eternity (3:11). The Hebrew word olam is often translated as “everlasting.” It is the vanishing point of humanity’s vision, or time out of mind—the time, either before or after one’s life, that one does not have memory or perception of. If our lives are vanity and vexation, would not the cessation of such pains be our greatest desire? Shouldn’t we be eager to write finis on the last page of our lives? Oddly, no.
Our hearts are set on things beyond what we can perceive with our mortal eye. As Sigmund Freud noted:
“Our unconscious then does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal.”
This immortal impulse of our subconscious is what drives us to seek Joy—which, while Lewis described it as “imageless, unknown, undefined, and undesired,” is brought to us by an imagination that “salutes it with a hundred images.” Every pursuit of pleasure or happiness in this life, even our desire to be part of an Inner Ring, is a chasing after the wind of Joy.
So, it isn’t wrong to live like Prince Corin—squeezing every happiness out of life. Chasing the punchline to every joke. To live as if we are immortal.
The philosopher concludes:
I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13)
Corin has his flaws, but the spirit of his life is enviable. Eat! Drink! Celebrate! Take pleasure in all our labors, whether war or peace or frivolity. Engage fiercely in community. Make Joy itself the goal behind all others that we pursue. Yes, tomorrow we may die. But tomorrow, we shall only continue living.
 Laura Miller, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (Little, Brown & Company, 2008), pages 146-147 (Kindle edition).
 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Geoffrey Bles, 1955).
 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Geoffrey Bles, 1955).
 C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” 1942.
 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Geoffrey Bles, 1955).