On The Chronicles of Narnia
Reading the Right Books
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
By Ned Vizzini
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was always my favorite Narnia book, and the wonder of being a kid is that you don’t have to question why things are your favorites. That’s for psychoanalysis later on. If you had come along and asked me why Dawn Treader beat out The Silver Chair, which has some really creepy parts, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (which I always got annoyed by because, in terms of the chronological events of the book, it should have been called The Wardrobe, the Witch and the Lion), I would have said that it was because it had cool monsters and lots of amazing islands and various killer enchantments that were really awesome.
But when you grow up you start to understand why you liked these things, and it can be quite sobering. In some cases the only explanation is that you were retarded (see Duck Tales, Barney and Friends); sometimes you realize with dark horror that the thing played a part in your sexual development (for me, Ghost Busters). Sometimes, though, like with Dawn Treader, you have a clear and vindicating insight that lets you enjoy the tale as two readers at once–the kid who’s wrapped up in it and the adult who sees why they got so wrapped up in it in the first place–and it’s this sort of rediscovery and enthusiasm that I heard in my parents’ and grand-mother’s voices when they read Narnia to me.
(I should say my mother’s and grandmother’s voices. My father read to me too, but it was a different kind of reading; he found this great strategy for putting us all to sleep by reading from The History of the Persian Empire, which was, as far as I could tell, the real Neverending Story. As soon as my dad started in on the land holdings of Xerxes I was knocked right out.
Later I named my pet lizard Xerxes.)
I mention this to–well, The History of the Persian Empire I mention mainly as a suggestion to parents whose kids won’t fall asleep–but the rest of it I mention to bring forth the adult insight as to why I liked The Voyage of the Dawn Treader so much: it’s got a great logline.
A logline is a Hollywood beast: a one-sentence description of a movie that draws you in. For example, Jurassic Park: “It’s about dinosaurs coming back to life and eating people.” Being John Malkovich: “It’s about people who find a tunnel that goes into John Malkovich’s brain.” Jurassic Park 2: “It’s like Jurassic Park, with different dinosaurs.”
What sets a logline apart from a simple one-sentence description of a work is the intended purpose of making you need to know more. The one-sentence government-sanctioned summary of Dawn Treader at the start of my edition reads, “Lucy and Edmund, accompanied by their peevish cousin Eustace, sail to the land of Narnia. . . .”Blah blah blah. That’s not the logline. The logline is:
It’s About a Bunch of People Who Get In a Boat and Try to Sail to the End of the World
The brave journey into the unknown is the basis of much of chil-dren’s literature, from Huckleberry Finn to The Phantom Tollbooth.Nei-ther of those books, however, would elicit much interest or even be recognized by the most important character in Dawn Treader: Eustace Clarence Scrubb.
Eustace, one of C. S. Lewis’s most satisfying creations, is the consummate boy skeptic. He’s so annoying and dour that he “almost deserved” his name, we’re told at the start of the book, and in addition to taking special pleasure in the misery of his cousins, Eustace (one of many characters who put Lewis in the continuum of great character-name generators, from Charles Dickens to J. K. Rowling) collects dead beetles and reads “books of information [with] pictures of grain elevators.”
Naturally, when he travels to Narnia, Eustace isn’t very well-prepared for the adventures that await him. These are loglines that he hasn’t seen–especially Reepicheep, the Talking Mouse. (Here I always felt that Lewis overplayed it with the names: we’re really supposed to accept a Talking Mouse named Reepicheep? And at the end of the tale, when he bravely relinquishes his leadership, he does it to a guy named Peepicheek?)
Eustace’s sudden lack of salient knowledge is an irony that Lewis takes great pleasure in. In the midst of the adventure that transforms him about halfway through Dawn Treader, Lewis reminds us three times that Eustace had “read none of the right books” (perhaps he’d been reading The History of the Persian Empire), and therefore has no idea what a dragon’s treasure hoard is supposed to look like or even–a stretch, but telling–a dragon itself.
Thus, as the Dawn Treader travels through the unknown seas east of the Lone Islands, she isn’t sailing so much into foreign lands as into foreign stories–places where a knowledge of the everyday is irrelevant, or even encumbering, and the more involved you are with fantasy, folklore, and children’s tales, the more likely you are to survive.
Logline: It’s About That “Other” Story
If Dawn Treader is a story of stories, we have to first address that big one: Christ. C. S. Lewis’s importance as a twentieth-century Christian thinker continues to grow as critical support for his scholarship (notably his introduction to Paradise Lost) and his arguments for Jesus’s divinity outstrip for many what he accomplished with Narnia. It’s taken as a given, then, that the Narnia books are Christian allegories.
Lewis hated this. He held that the Narnia series wasn’t an allegory at all: instead of representing Jesus, Lewis viewed Aslan as a supposition of the form Christ might take if he were sent to redeem citizens of a fantasy realm. He explains in a letter from May 29, 1954, to a group of fifth graders (collected in Letters to Children):
You are mistaken when you think that everything in the books “represents” something in this world. . . . Idid not say to myself “Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia”: I said “Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would have happened.” If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing.
It is arguable that the supposition of an event into a fantasy setting is exactly the same as an allegory, so long as the results turn out the same. (For example, let us suppose that a group of pigs had to respond to a power vacuum in their farm by enacting Communism.) But in any case, if the Narnia books were just Christian allegories, they wouldn’t have sold 100 million copies and influenced all the children’s fantasy that has come since. What makes them great are the parts that aren’t Christian.
Aslan is a drag, really. He’s always showing up to tell people what not to do and get them out of tough situations that they really should have been able to get through themselves. (Or he’s dying, which is very grave.) The best parts of Narnia, and especially The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, are the non-Christian tales that Lewis grabbed from Roman and Greek folklore and, predominantly, from the lore of the European explorers of the North Atlantic. It is their stories, mostly, that Lewis took and strung out across a group of islands stretching east of Narnia.
Logline: It’s About a Mouse Who Wants to Find God
Why east? Why not east is what the explorers and mythmakers of Medieval and Renaissance Europe wanted to know. They began charting the North Atlantic as early as the sixth century A.D., and while much was made of the gold-seekers, it was the missionaries who both began earliest (the sixth-century explorers were Irish monks) and had the most success establishing and maintaining colonies.
But the monks wondered why the ocean stretched west when clearly, according to Genesis, paradise lay to the east. East was sort of problematic in Europe: that was where the Goths, Persians, Huns, and all sorts of nasty terrain were. So was there a directional mistake somewhere? Did God forget a road sign?
Perhaps you had to go west first and then to turn around and go east. This is what the monks ascribed to St. Brendan, the real-life explorer whose travels they turned into legend: he had to sail west for seven years before he could turn east to the Promised Land. Bren-dan’s adventures figure in large part in Dawn Treader and give C. S. Lewis a perfect supposition: suppose the Atlantic were to the east of Europe, and the explorers weren’t going for land or even to convert people but to find the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the book, Edmund, Lucy, Eustace, and King Caspian X aren’t going explicitly to find paradise. They are going to find and return to Narnia seven noble lords that were exiled by Caspian’s evil Uncle Miraz. But the lords’ names are Lord Revilian, Lord Bern, Lord Argoz, Lord Mavramorn, Lord Octesian, Lord Restimar, and Lord Rhoop–in other words, an absolute mishmash of nonsense that shows off Lewis’s nomenclature abilities (Lord Restimar?) more than it adds to the story. The lords’ true purpose is to get the plot on its way and add some side tales; none of the lords turn out to be all that interesting, and Caspian can’t even remember the name of the unfortunate Lord Rhoop.
REEPICHEEP: Why should we not come to the eastern end of the world? And what might we find there? I expect to find Aslan’s own country.
This is not a journey to find gold or convert unbelievers or establish civilization. As much as Lewis argues that his stories are not allegories, this is a tale of a spiritual journey to God’s Kingdom. Lewis says so himself, in a Narnia series outline in one of his letters, March 5, 1961: “The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ the spiritual life (especially in Reepicheep).”
Logline: It’s About Life, Death, and Resurrection
To reach the Promised Land, naturally, the first thing one must do is believe. That isn’t going to be easy for Eustace, whose skepticism and bad behavior aren’t lessened in the slightest by his first month in
Narnia. But then, when Eustace leaves the group and ends up in a dragon’s lair, he gets involved in one of Lewis’s more obvious non-allegory allegories: “Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.” In this moment Eustace becomes more than a bratty boy. He becomes a sin-ner–he takes on the shape of Satan–and immediately wants to repent and return to the people who he now realizes are his friends.
Lewis thus has us set up for a conversion story not dissimilar to his own at the age of thirty. Eustace, as a dragon, is visited by Aslan, who comes to him in a dream and tells him to take off his skin and be born again. Eustace tries, but it doesn’t work until Aslan himself rips the skin, digging deep into him with more pain than he has ever known. Then he is transformed back into a boy. Here Lewis makes two points: salvation cannot be attained by works alone (otherwise, Eustace could have pulled off the skin just fine), and the pain of submitting to God is the most difficult pain of all. Lewis said of his own conversion in Surprised by Joy: “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in . . . the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Logline: It’s About a Guy Who Everything He Touches Turns to Gold
Strange that Lewis would identify The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as the story of Reepicheep’s spiritual journey when it is Eustace, certainly, who is most changed as the ship begins encountering more islands. He immediately becomes useful to his travel mates as an Aslan-ian, helping fend off a sea serpent (no slouch with his Milton,
C. S. Lewis takes advantage of Paradise Lost’s equation of Satan’s size with that of Leviathan). He then comes to the island of Deathwater, which has a pool that turns everything that touches it into gold.
Lewis mentions The Odyssey in a brief preliminary outline for Dawn Treader, but aside from the fact that both take place on a ship there isn’t a whole lot of correlation. Odysseus, a grizzled man, is trying to get home; Caspian, a bright youth, has just left it. Battle with singular personalities like Polyphemous (or, for that matter, the White Witch) takes a back seat to smaller struggles against natural phenomena and difficult puzzles. Indeed, with all the chances for Dryads and Fauns to appear, Lewis stays clear of them in this book in favor of the Northern European myths, the result being very few Greek references. But we do get a nice retelling of the Midas tale on the island of Deathwater.
King Midas was not a manslaughter case. It wasn’t as if he stumbled upon the idea of touching things and turning them into gold. He used to spend all his time thinking about it–about how he would redecorate his place if only he could do just that–a little gold here, a little gold there, gold feng shui. When he met Dionysus and was told by the god that he could have one wish, he didn’t waste a breath. Dionysus laughed at him before granting it.
C. S. Lewis inverts the Midas story, creating a clear but deadly pool that turns you into gold. Midas begs to have his “power” taken away from him only a few days after receiving it, for the simple reason that he can’t eat and drink–everything that touches his lips turns to gold. Lewis serves up this nasty image in reverse: were a person to crouch and drink from the pool, they would tip over and fall in, quite heavy and dead.
An island of retribution for those who covet gold is only fair in a book about exploration. It’s satisfying to see the stuff get some retribution for all the people who died in search of it, and in this regard
C. S. Lewis had other precedents. In The Travels of Marco Polo,we hear of a king who loved his treasure so much that Genghis Kahn trapped him in his tower with it, telling him, “If you love it so much, eat it!”
(A similar scene takes place at the end of the 1999 Brendan Frasier film The Mummy. Just as important.)
Logline: It’s About These Invisible Guys with One Foot and How They Get Visible Again
C. S. Lewis never neglected humor in his novels, usually in the formof casual, dry English asides (often in parentheses, directly addressed to the reader, like this, except funny), but he hits a high note in Dawn Treader on the island of the initially invisible one-footed Dufflepuds. Their inability to get anything done due to constant yes-manning and babbling makes them hugely entertaining, but when they first appear as disembodied voices, they are quite scary indeed, and they’re not without precedent.
In the sixteenth century it was widely known among European seafarers that an island called the Isle of Demons lay north of Newfoundland, from which could be heard (according to a book called Phantom Islands of the Atlantic, by Donald Johnson), “a great clamor of men’s voices, confused and inarticulate.” As it turned out, the island was home to immense quantities of sea birds: gannets, great awks, murres, and frigates. The inhuman noise they created would make anyone think it held demons. (The smell of the guano wasn’t great, either, and nowadays the island is called Funk Island.)
Lewis understood the irony here–a bunch of men afraid of a bunch of birds–and took it for his story. When he reveals the Dufflepuds, he reveals them to be monopods, absurd and innocuous one-footed men, who are likewise taken from a legend. Monopods were described as far back as Pliny the Elder, who portrayed them in Natural History almost exactly as Lewis does:
[They] have only one leg, but are able to leap with surprising agility . . . [T]hey are in the habit of lying on their backs during extreme heat and protecting themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet.
The mythical monopod was likely taken from secondhand stories of Indian yogis who spent hours standing on foot. Peaceful in life, peaceful in legend.
Logline: It’s About a Table of Everlasting Food That You’re (Not?) Supposed to Eat
The myth of St. Brendan, the monk who had to sail west to come east, is most referenced toward the end of Dawn Treader. Fifty-five days into his journey, the saint encountered a rocky island with an abandoned town and an empty great hall; when he went inside, lo and behold, the table was filled with a feast for him and his men! Now, we all know what’s going to happen here, right? Brendan ordered his men not to take anything from the room, but apparently no one saw Indiana Jones, and somebody got killed.
Similarly, when Eustace and the others reach an island with a table full of food, Caspian orders that nobody even think of going near it. And then Lewis pulls up another vivid image from the explorers of the North Atlantic: birds. Thousands of them, blinding white, come to the table and pick it dry.
Birds feature heavily in the St. Brendan myth. After a year of traveling, Brendan encounters enough of them on a tree to completely cover its leaves and branches, making it ash-white. One of them flies to him and advises that he will need to travel for six more years before reaching Paradise. Thus birds act as angels, a nice marriage of Christian and Irish beliefs; in Celtic myth it is birds who serve as supernatural receptacles of worthy human souls.
But Lewis does one nifty twist on the birds and the tables. (Turns the tables on the tables? No. Sorry.) When these birds come and pick the table clean, the food comes right back the next day, so it’s entirely acceptable for Caspian’s crew to eat it. Like Christ, it is constantly renewed.
Logline: It’s About What Happens When You Die
The end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a bit woozy. Lit up by an increasingly bright sun, the characters stop sleeping or even talking very much. It was generally believed by all European explorers that the further east one traveled, the brighter the sun would become, but there is another parallel here: the journey into the extreme east is a journey into death. People who have near-death experiences don’t say that they saw “a great darkness.” It’s always a light that is sucking them in.
The final chapters see Lucy encountering a race of sea people who, due to the extreme clarity of the ocean, appear to be just beneath the surface of the water. This too has precedent in the secondhand stories and myths of the exploration of the North Atlantic. Many places that were thought to be “islands” were in fact ridges or sandbars very close to the surface, and ships sailing over them would assume that they were islands that had recently sunk, complete with their own civilizations. St. Brendan encounters a visible sea floor on his long journey, and it is important to remember that behind his mythical voyage was a real voyage which had real visible sea floors. In 1976 Irish explorer Tim Severin reconstructed St. Brendan’s purported journey to Newfoundland and found, along the way, just such island ridges, as well as the birds, walruses, leaping porpoises, and icebergs that informed much of the St. Brendan myth–and Narnia.
Logline: It’s About All Having Universal Peace Forever
When they finally reach the end of the world, the explorers in Dawn Treader encounter a great wave that stays in place. One of the mythical islands of the North Atlantic, Hy-Brazil, was called “The Land Under the Wave”; its placid nature suggests the complete majesty over the earth that Aslan exhibits in his realm. In order to return home, Eustace and his cousins encounter Aslan (in the form of a lamb) and cross a river to get back to England. Here one might be tempted to think about the river Styx. But Lewis has other ideas in mind. From Revelations:
Then the angel showed me the river of life-giving water. . . . On either side of the river grew the tree of life.
A river was said to bisect the legendary island of Hy-Brazil, which European explorers at the time recognized as St. Brendan’s “Paradise.” With paradise on both sides, Eustace and Lucy are going to be fine whether in our world or in Narnia.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader shows us that there’s a lot of good in useless fantasy books, in case you actually do end up in a magical world. If you know about Midas, about St. Brendan, about not getting fooled by strange voices, and about always, always not touching things, you should do very well. If you don’t, you’re going to be screwed. Everybody understands this, even Aslan, who asks Lucy, when she accidentally makes him invisible, “Do you think I wouldn’t obey my own rules?”
And Eustace, far from just being a good Christian, is by the end of the book a mythology expert. When Reepicheep suggests tying King Caspian to the mast, he says, “Like they did with Ulysses when he wanted to go near the Sirens.”
That’s reading the right books.