I hope you’re the sort of person who reads the right kinds of books. If so, you’ve probably read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third-published and chronologically fifth installment of The Chronicles of Narnia. With King Caspian X setting out to find what became of the seven lords who were loyal to his father before Miraz usurped the throne (and Reepicheep hitching a ride to the end of the world and beyond), Voyage of the Dawn Treader seems to be a pretty straight-forward mission-quest. But with the addition of Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace to the crew of the Treader, the story becomes more of a study in character transformation than anything else. The seemingly disconnected adventures of the Dawn Treader serve to tell us more about the characters on the ship than the lords they set out to rescue. In fact, I would daresay that the finding of the lords — two alive, two dead, and three under an enchanted sleep — become background matter to the journeys of the main characters.
Personal discovery is the theme of VODT. While there is plenty of discovery of new waters and new lands, mysterious enchantments and dangerous environments, the real discoveries are personal and spiritual in the lives of Lucy, Eustace, and Caspian.
Lucy, Helen of Narnia and Daughter of Eve
Lucy has always been considered the heart, hero, and spiritual compass of the Narnia chronicles. She is the first to visit the land beyond the Wardrobe. She believes in Narnia when no one else does. She sees Aslan when others don’t, and spends more time with him than others do. Though she is not often in battle, she is known as Lucy the Valiant. She becomes a lioness, and carries the heart of Aslan more closely than any other.
When she arrives on the Dawn Treader, she is very pleased to see the golden face of Aslan “on the forward wall above the door” of Caspian’s cabin. Soon thereafter, however, she, Edmund, Caspian, Eustace, and Reepicheep are kidnapped by slave traders in the Lone Islands. I have often wondered why C.S. Lewis would submit his royals to the indignity of being chained and put on the auction block. A satisfactory explanation escapes me, except that it is in keeping with Lewis never portraying Narnian royals as high, mighty, and untouchable. While other kings and queens might have sent members of the ship’s crew as an advance party upon each landing, Caspian, Edmund, and Lucy are always in the first boat out from the Treader, leading their people into whatever unknown dangers lie ahead.
Perhaps the kidnapping in the Lone Islands is a dark foreshadowing of what happens later for some of the characters: internal chains are exposed, showing the more dangerous spiritual and moral bondage that lies in wait for Lucy and the others.
Lucy’s great (or awful) personal discovery comes in the House of the Magician on the Island of the Voices. She is sent to look at the Magician’s Book for the purpose of freeing the Dufflepuds (or Monopods, if you prefer) from the spell of invisibility. But, of course, if you ever get your hands on a book of incantations, you can’t help but take a look through it — and maybe even try out some of the spells. What fun!
Lucy considers the “infallible spell to make beautiful her that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals.” (And who wouldn’t want to be more beautiful than all others if it were this easy to come by?) It’s suggested in the first chapter that Edmund and Lucy were a bit miffed that Susan got to be the one to go to America with the Pevensie parents. It’s also said that Susan had “always been the beauty of the family.” The opportunity to seize that beauty for herself is startlingly attractive to Lucy.
“I will say the spell,” said Lucy. “I don’t care. I will.”
She said “I don’t care” because she had a strong feeling that she mustn’t.
Despite seeing what would become of it — Narnia, Archenland, Calormen, and the islands overturned, Illiad-like, in war and bloodshed — she is determined to take this dazzling beauty for herself. Only when she sees, or thinks she sees, Aslan’s “growling” face on the page of the Book does she abstain.
But, Lucy! How dare you even consider it? Aren’t you content being beloved of Aslan and beloved of the Narnians for your faith, kindness, wisdom, and valiance?
I wish I could argue that Lewis took this portrayal of Lucy beyond what would be considered realistic for her character. But it’s more likely that Lucy’s stumble rings truer to us than we’d like to admit. Often, our flaws are not exposed until we are tested. We don’t know the danger we face until we are in the middle of it. As Scripture says, “Let she that thinks she stands take heed lest she fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). Aslan’s dire warning to Rabadash seems appropriate for Lucy here:
“Take heed. Your doom is very near, but you may still avoid it… The doom is nearer now: it is at the door: it has lifted the latch…”
Lucy isn’t out of danger yet. Despite narrowly avoiding becoming Helen of Narnia, she isn’t successful in resisting the temptation to utter the spell which would let her know what her friends really thought about her. (And who could resist that?) She says the spell “all in a hurry,” possibly because she thinks Aslan will show up again and make her change her mind. After reciting the spell, she overhears one girl, whom she was friends with the previous school term, disavowing their friendship to another girl on a train. Lucy has some particularly harsh words for her presumed friend — the “two-faced little beast” — though she can’t be heard by either of the girls back in our world.
“I wonder are all my friends the same? There are lots of other pictures. No. I won’t look at any more. I won’t, I won’t.” And with a great effort she turned over the page, but not before a large, angry tear had splashed on it.
If Lucy is one of your favorite Narnian characters, it hurts to see her this way — vulnerable, envious, bitter, weak, tempted. Her experience in the magician’s library makes her out to be a second Eve or, worse yet, a second Jadis. Both her mother in her own world and the witch she helped defeat in Narnia were presented with the opportunity to possess or use mystical knowledge for selfish purposes. Eve ate the fruit so her eyes would be enlightened, so she would possess the knowledge of good and evil. Jadis ate the apple so she would receive her heart’s desire and gain undying strength and unending days. (Before that, of course, she underwent great pains to obtain the knowledge of the Deplorable Word.)
Lucy, too, was tempted by mystical knowledge to obtain that which was not prudent for her to have. The things in themselves — great beauty, knowledge of her true friends — were not evil. But when one obtains the right things in the wrong way, it begets only despair and tragedy. And aren’t we all tempted to obtain that which we think we ought to have, but don’t? Haven’t we all experience the strong desire for that which we did not know we wanted until it was dangled in front of us?
The tempting of Lucy serves to humble a valiant character. She is truly a daughter of Eve. We admire her for her courage and her loyalty to Aslan, but we identify with her in her temptations — and her loneliness in the midst of her temptations. It cannot be lost on us that Lucy, like Christ in the wilderness, is utterly alone in the hour of temptation. She is separated from her shipmates and trapped on an island inhabited by (presumably) hostile unseen giants. It seems, even, that Aslan is distant. In her isolation, Lucy’s flaws are revealed, her weaknesses laid bare.
I can’t help but think of Edmund and his first trip through the Wardrobe. How much better would things have turned out for him if he had caught up with Lucy in time to visit Tumnus together? In the absence of community, in the absence of family, in the coldness of solitude, Edmund found not a friend, but a treacherous queen and the temptation of Turkish delight.
At risk of sounding dogmatic, I’d say being in community tends to bring out our best, and when left to our heart’s devices, the worst of us is called forth.
Unlike Eve and Jadis, Lucy trips, but does not fall. The face and voice of Aslan call to her in her dark hour. She is wounded, no doubt. She cannot unhear or unsee the things she has heard and seen. Once back in our world, she probably could not look at her schoolmates or her sister the same. In the lonely darkness, sin casts its spell, and its effects linger even in the light.
It seemed that Aslan had abandoned Lucy as she flirted with enticing possibilities. In the aftermath of temptation, haven’t we all felt the same? Either we abandon God when we decide to chase that which we think we desire; or, in moments of darkness, we feel as if he has abandoned us. And when temptation looms large, we wonder why, suddenly, God seems so far away.
How wonderful it is that when Lucy utters the spell to make invisible things visible, she finds that Aslan has been near all along. Of course, she couldn’t sense him before. And she didn’t think about him except when his face appeared on the page in the Magician’s Book. (What a mercy that turned out to be!) Lucy realizes that she is never truly alone. Aslan is always near, always observing — sometimes, even, with sadness or anger. As his beloved are tempted to turn from him, his great golden eyes, like searchlights in the gloom, quietly call his own back to himself.
I like to think that Lucy’s discovery about herself, about her weakness, informed the rest of her life. She would have been distressed knowing she had come close to breaking Aslan’s heart. But in the end, her solitary struggle against sin made her stronger. Being made aware of her own danger, she was better able to avoid it in the future.
Eustace and the Death of Two Dragons
The boy Eustace Clarence Scrubb embodies much of what C.S. Lewis disliked about his own times, especially progressive education and the rejection of myths and fairy tales in favor of science and “practical” knowledge. Eustace is one of those “very up-to-date” and “advanced” people who knows he’s right about almost everything by virtue of his upbringing and education. He embraces only the utilitarian aspect of the world around him. He prides himself on knowing things for knowledge’s sake — or for the sake of showing off his knowledge to prove he’s smarter than others. He is also very stubborn and unwilling to change. He thinks of himself as altruistic but is proven otherwise the moment he is thrust into inconvenient circumstances.
Eustace’s great discovery (or the beginning of a series of discoveries) about himself begins, like Lucy’s did, with him alone. After the Dawn Treader casts anchor at what was soon to become known as Dragon Island, Eustace, fed up with the stuck-up and inhospitable Caspian (and the rest), decides to strike out on his own. He, of course, gets lost, falls down a rocky slope, and find himself in a valley with a river — and a dragon.
This dragon is uncharacteristic of most of the dragons you’ve read about. (I assume you, unlike Eustace, have read lots about dragons.) This dragon is old and weak. He isn’t flying about and breathing fire. He drags himself across the ground, collapsing and dying as he seeks a drink of water.
The dragon, this fantastical, mystical creature, is a foreshadowing of Eustace’s demise — and the demise of the type of people Eustace represents: people who reject magic and mystery in favor of self-advancement and real-world knowledge. (Knowledge is wonderful in its place. But knowledge by itself cannot touch the heart and the soul, the well-spring of life.)
With the dragon dead, Eustace no longer considers himself in danger. Self-concerned man that he is, his mind immediately turns to practical matters: finding shelter from the rain, discovering the dragon’s hoard, and (quite reasonably) filling his pockets with gold and coins. (I feel I would have done the same.) Even before he becomes a physical dragon, Eustace exhibits the heart of a dragon — hoarding material treasure and dreaming only of how he can profit from it. All the while, he continues with his high opinion of himself. He considers the Narnians to be “phonies” and decides he’d be better off making his way to Calormen.
Dreaming of such selfish goals, Eustace falls asleep. And, “sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart,” Eustace is transformed into a dragon, becoming the epitome of the biblical maxim, “as a man thinks in his heart so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).
When he awakes and realizes that something is awry, his mind jumps immediately to the conclusion that the old, dead dragon has a mate, and that — as silly as it sounds — the dragon-spouse is mimicking his actions in the darkness of the cave. Then, horror of horrors, Eustace decides there are two dragons, one on either side of him, both mocking him silently. Only when he catches his reflection in the river does he grasp the truth.
Eustace’s eating of the dead dragon seems to be Lewis’ way of representing what happens when unregenerate people are left to themselves — “these civilized people,” as the Joker tells Batman, “eat each other.” (Unfortunately, regenerate people sometimes eat each other too.) Similarly, in Lewis’ Space Trilogy, Weston sees the inhabitants and resources of other planets only as food and fuel for Earth’s advanced and enlightened Man. If you’d asked Eustace before now, he would probably have vehemently denounced cannibalism and all manner of preying on fellow creatures, even animals. (His parents, after all, were vegetarians.) But here he is, eating his kind.
Eustace’s transformation began with him separating himself from his community — albeit, a community that he didn’t want to be part of and that he hadn’t chosen for himself. As a dragon, separated from his companions by much more than physical space and petty misunderstandings, he realizes the tragedy of such a choice:
…he [realized] he didn’t want to [get even with Caspian and Edmund]. He wanted to be friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realized that he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him. He began to see that the others had not really been fiends at all. He began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed. He longed for their voices. He would have been grateful for a kind word even from Reepicheep.
When he thought of this the poor dragon that had been Eustace lifted up its voice and wept. A powerful dragon crying its eyes out under the moon in a deserted valley is a sight and a sound hardly to be imagined.
After lamenting his condition, Eustace becomes quite a reformed and helpful character. He brings back wild game for the Dawn Treader‘s crew, takes some of the sailors for rides on his back, lights their fires, and plucks up a fine tree trunk to replace the ship’s damaged mast. To their credit, Caspian, Edmund, Lucy, and the rest treat Eustace-the-dragon with great kindness. As the time draws near for the Dawn Treader to depart, they despair over how they can possibly accommodate a dragon on the remainder of their journey.
I shudder to consider what sort of dragon Eustace would have become if the Narnians had treated him as he had treated them all along. If they had shunned and abandoned him, I suspect he would have returned to isolation and become the fire-breathing monster of many nightmares. But, it seems, Lewis makes the point again: being in community has a tendency to make us better people all around. Eustace discovers that he likes being liked, where previously he was only interested in being right.
But all the good he does doesn’t undragon him. And in a cruel twist, though Lewis doesn’t dwell on it, it appears that the practical thing for the Dawn Treader to do would be to leave the dragon behind. Sensing this, Eustace is on the verge of withdrawing into solitude once again. However, he has had a true change of heart. As a dragon, he has become most undragon-like.
As Eustace despairs of being saved, Aslan appears to help him make his most important discovery: that he cannot save himself. Lewis attacks this last vestige of progressive humanism — that man can ascend, breaking his shackles, transforming himself, all on his own. Eustace tries and tries and tries to shed his dragon skin. But he doesn’t realize how strongly the dragon nature has taken hold. Only when Aslan tears him deeply, laying him open with his claws, is he finally free — free from his dragon skin and his old dragonish nature.
As Jesus did with the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8:26-39), Aslan clothes Eustace and sends him back to his community where he testifies, to Edmund first, and then the rest of the crew, of how he became a dragon and how Aslan saved him.
(It’s also pretty obvious that Aslan transports Eustace to his own land to carry out the undragoning.
So at last we came to the top of a mountain I’d never seen before and on the top of this mountain there was a garden — trees and fruit and everything. In the middle of it there was a well.
Isn’t it interesting that the worst sinner in this story is the first to visit Aslan’s Country in all the stories?)
Caspian: What it Means to be King
Caspian’s discovery about himself comes close to the end of the adventure, though it’s foreshadowed by his near-spat with Edmund on Deathwater Island. The new royal has only had the bad example of Miraz to show him what it means to be king. Despite the blessing of Aslan and High King Peter, the young king has to contend with the weight of centuries of Telmarine influence. It would probably be easier than most for him to resort to tyrannical and selfish ways.
Caspian doesn’t realize this, of course. After all, he is the deliverer of Narnia and a lover of old Narnia since childhood. Still, as the Dawn Treader nears the end of the world, and Aslan’s Country beyond, vainglory infects Caspian’s mind.
Having accomplished his mission to discover what became of the seven lords — and traveled further east than anyone else to boot — Caspian reaches for something that is not his to have, something that would have drawn him away from his sworn duty as king. Caspian’s desire to see Aslan’s Country, even if it means departing the terrestrial realm completely, is not bad in itself. (After all, Reepicheep is going to do it.) It is, however, like the knowledge Lucy obtained by magic, not prudent for him to fulfill that desire.
Caspian doesn’t see this at first. He slips into tyrant-think, considering that if he wants it, it must be right for him to have. When he is opposed by his crew, he rages and sulks, locking himself in his cabin — separating himself from his community.
He flung down the ladder in a temper and went into the cabin, slamming the door.
But in his solitude, Caspian is visited by Aslan. We don’t know what Aslan says, but we might think of it as a stern talking-to. When Caspian rejoins his crew (that theme of community, again!), he is humbled and repentant.
“It’s no good,” he said. “I might as well have behaved decently for all the good I did with my temper and swagger. Aslan has spoken to me… Not that he was at all rough with me — only a bit stern at first. But it was terrible all the same…”
The object of Caspian’s desire isn’t sinful. It simply wasn’t right for him to obtain at that time and in the manner in which he wished to obtain it. In The SIlver Chair, we see Caspian young, happy, and free in Aslan’s Country. Before then, however, Caspain had learned that to lead is to serve, that to be king is to be subject, that selfish desires must be set aside for the good of others.
The Talking Mouse Reepicheep is the most steadfast of the Narnian creatures. He never wavers in his faithfulness to Narnia’s royals or his willingness to risk his tail in defense of Narnian values. He is a romantic at heart. A warrior-mouse, his little brain is filled with thoughts of chivalry and glory, dramatic duels, and stirring quests. The voyage of the Dawn Treader is more personal for him than for anyone else.
Reepicheep has no major transformation in this story. Instead, Reep is held up as the Narnian ideal. He is the best of beasts, someone who has an eye ever on Aslan even when darkness and gloom rest on the horizon. If Lucy is a lioness, then Reepicheep is a lion cub.
Reep’s faithfulness is rewarded when he sails beyond the end of the world and into Aslan’s Country. Significantly, he leaves his ever-present sword behind, letting us know that his fight is over. It’s strange to consider the battle-ready mouse without his weapon. But Reep knows that the place for war and fighting and striving is in this world, not Aslan’s Country. The Lion needs no heroes in his own land. And, like every wise warrior, Reepicheep knows there is a time for peace as well.
Then he took off his sword (“I shall need it no more,” he said) and flung it far away across the Idled sea. Where it fell it stood upright with the hilt above the surface. Then he bade them goodbye trying to be sad for their sakes but he was quivering with happiness.
Mirroring Reep’s life is a worthy goal for us. We ought to give this life all we’ve got, but keep ever before us the desire for the end of the journey where we can lay our weapons — and our burdens — down.
If The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Narnia’s gospel, I like to think of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair as its companion series of epistles. Taken together, these mission-quest stories serve to show how Narnians live when not in Narnia. Both VODT and TSC feature a group of characters traveling through unfamiliar territory and ending their journeys in Aslan’s Country (or on the very edge of it). Along the way, they meet with danger, distraction, and temptation. At times, they are not sure what to believe or think. Aslan often seems distant. The path is often unclear.
Isn’t that how it commonly is on this road which we believe will end in Heaven? We stumble and fret and fall. We find it hard to grasp the truth of it all. Sometimes, we find ourselves not acting very much like Aslan’s children. We forget the signs that he has given or miss them because they don’t look the way we expect them to look.
Yet, it’s this road — this road of confusion and twisted spells — that brings us to Aslan’s Country, that brings us home to Heaven. No matter how convoluted the path, the destination never changes.
The saving grace of our voyage is that, through our struggles, we get to know our Creator and Savior better. Although, by the time we reach our destination, we will be wise enough to realize we have only scratched the surface. For it is in Aslan’s Country that we can see Aslan as he really is. Yet, we get to know him a little here in preparation for knowing him better there.
I did not watch 2010’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader adaptation until this year. Going in, I suspected that the filmmakers wouldn’t quite know how to handle the story’s seemingly disparate elements. But I won’t harp on that; it is a challenging book to interpret for film.
I appreciate the filmmakers’ attempt to provide their adaptation with an overarching plot beyond the finding of seven lords who most moviegoers would have little reason to care about. The green Mist coming from a dark island in the far eastern sea that could only be abated by human sacrifice was sufficiently mysterious — but not as terrifying as it could have been, seeing that none of the people who were captured and “sacrificed” actually died. (And, apparently, they stayed in the boats the whole time? For weeks? Months? Years? What did they do for food and water?)
The climactic sea battle with the giant sea serpent was incredible — and a great chance for making Eustace-the-dragon useful. I wonder if anyone else thought of the Lady of the Green Kirtle and her smaller green serpent alter-ego during the sea battle. What if the Green Witch was behind the green Mist? With The Silver Chair on tap as the next movie to be made in that adaptive franchise, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Green Witch, finding herself defeated by Caspian at sea, had settled on other means of attempting to conquer Narnia.
I wasn’t entirely sold on the whole swords business, however. Maybe I’m misunderstanding something, but it sounded like Aslan informed Caspian that the seven swords of the lost lords would be key to delivering Narnia from an evil threat. It seems odd that these MacGuffins would be Telmarine swords used by the oppressors of Old Narnia. *Sigh.* I suppose Aslan works in mysterious ways.
I was, however, sold on Will Poulter as Eustace Scrubb. I hadn’t heard of him until I first saw his face in casting photos. (This was back when I spent all my free time on the internet haunting Narnia fan sites.) I said to myself, “Yep, he’s perfect.” And he was. I only wish we could have spent more time with him and Alberta and Harold on this side of the picture.
One thing I did not like was the movie’s fixation on Lucy’s presumed insecurities about her looks. I refuse to believe that Queen Lucy the Valiant, who reigned from Cair Paravel for fifteen years in Narnia’s Golden Age, would compare herself to the young woman kissing her soldierman before he ships out for war. (Or, maybe, he was coming back from the war? It seemed more like a happy i’m-glad-you’re back kiss, not a sad goodbye-you-might-die one.)
Every time Georgie Henley touched her cheek self-consciously, I cringed. I know they were building up to that temptation in the Magician’s House, but I feel they took the whole idea and made it central to Lucy’s journey in the film. (Which makes me afraid of what they would have done with Susan should the same hands have adapted The Last Battle.)
I don’t know. Maybe I’m tired of naturally complex female characters
— and who among us isn’t complex? — being reduced to worries over whether they measure up to an arbitrary standard of beauty when there are many other interesting developments that could be explored. I thought we were safe from the nonsense in Narnia, at least!
I know it’s been said already — and I’m not denying it’s a common issue, and one that needs to be addressed consistently, carefully, and compassionately — but, maybe, so much of the fiction meant for young people shouldn’t feature protagonists comparing themselves physically to other characters who are presumed to be more beautiful, handsome, desirable, etc. Isn’t that just reinforcing the problem in the mind of readers and viewers?
(I read a fair amount of YA fiction, and the frequency with which character development revolves around the protagonist’s insecurities about their appearance is often banal and nauseating.)
A while back, I read actress Emilia Clarke’s essay on surviving two brain aneurysms. She revealed that she, too, often felt as if she did not meet the theater and film industries’ standard of beauty. She, too, bucked up against casting calls for “tall, willowy, impossibly blond girls” and ‘otherworldly women of mystery.’ Because of that, she often felt as if she couldn’t make the cut.
Emilia Clarke? I could hardly believe it.
Emilia Clarke is her own damn standard of beauty. As is Lucy Pevensie. As is every daughter of Eve or son of Adam. (Emilia, dear, show me those people who made you feel insecure, and I will show them the sharp edge of a sword… Oh, never mind, you’ve got that handled.)
Instead of wasting time on Lucy’s manufactured concern about her appearance, the movie should have spent more time with Gael and her father. After these two join the crew of the Dawn Treader, they get lost in the shuffle. Seeing all those poor souls delivered from the Mist didn’t carry the payoff that it should have (at least for me). I think the impact would have been greater if Gael and her father had been more than window dressing; they could have been the real emotional anchor for the central quest of the movie.
I also would have liked to see more of the Old Narnian creatures on board the Dawn Treader. Besides Reepicheep, there was only one faun and one minotaur. Thanks to the Telmarines, there are plenty of humans living in Narnia, and I know Reep is the only Talking Animal mentioned as a crewmember in the book, but I would have assumed there would be more animals, satyrs, dwarves, maybe even a gryphon on this voyage. Although, I don’t think it would be practical to bring a centaur on board; they are quite large and can be cumbersome in small spaces.