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The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the third book of The Chronicles of Narnia.  Together with other books of The Chronicles it represents a sample of classic children’s literature. The author uses an uncomplicated vocabulary and syntax intended for the child reader and also omits any particularly violent or steamy elements in the desire to be more child-friendly. Besides being an example of children’s fiction, this novel is also an archetypal quest narrative. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader describes a small group of noble companions bound together in a companionship to pursue adventure, accomplish a noble mission, and arrive at a certain destination. The novel is also considered a typical fantasy because it contains supernatural elements, including dragons, sea monsters, magic enchantments, and talking animals.

The Audience

In the article “Three Ways to Write for Children” Lewis follows the idea of another fantasy writer—John Ronald Reuel Tolkien:

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the appeal of the fairy story lies in the fact that man there most fully exercises his function as a “subcreator”; not, as they love to say now, making a ‘comment upon life’ but making, so far as possible, a subordinate world of his own (Lewis 46).

By the definition of Carl Jung, a fairy tale releases the archetypes, which are stored in the collective unconscious, and when someone reads a good fairy tale, he follows the principle “know thyself”, which, according to Lewis, is one of the most important goals of its functions. Lewis was extremely attentive to his audience and took care that his words would influence both the mind and heart of a reader. In this case the aim of the writer was to entertain and teach not only the young audience, since

he wrote stories aimed at children not so much because he wanted to write for children tout court, but because he had in mind certain generic configurations and images that were appropriate for that genre (Nicholson 41).

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The author also chose the young audience because

the children are naive and do not doubt the fantastic wonders they get to witness. Adults, on the other hand, are skeptics, whose cynical thirst for power and status make them blind to the deepest good which, by Lewis’ idea of the world, is God (Dandenell 1).

The Quest

As it was stated above, the plot represents an archetypal quest. Edmund, Lucy and their cousin Eustace fall through a picture to England and discover themselves sailing aboard the Dawn Treader in the Great Eastern Ocean off the coast of Narnia. Three years in Narnian time have passed since their last adventure. There has been a long peaceful period in the life of the country and King Caspian decided to begin a quest to find the Seven Lords who vanished from Narnia during his evil uncle’s reign.

As far as the structure of this novel goes, it adheres to the ancient tradition of the quest story. The examples of such perilous quests can be traced back to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, or, for instance, to some Icelandic sagas. The most obvious example is, however, the saga by Lewis’s contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings.  This book about Narnia is an exceptional combination of fantastical adventure, bizarre settings, and character development and growth.

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In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader a group of seafarers travel—like Odyssey’s ship—from island to island. They are captured by ravenous bureaucratic idiots, who turn them into slaves, they encounter a powerful wizard who runs an island inhabited by strange one-legged people, they discover an island with a pool ideal for King Midas, and they come across an island of frightening darkness that can make anyone mad. They also begin finding the missing Telmarine lords, one by one, either alive or no longer so. Moreover, they have an interesting meeting with a submarine society.

The last island they come to is populated by a strange, gentle, wise, and powerful being and his lovely daughter. The adventurers find the last of the missing Telmarine lords, but they have to accomplish a mission in order to save them. This mission costs them a cherished friend, though sometimes irritating. The story ends with that mission into exceptionally strange waters, and brings two sad episodes with it.

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The Source

The main source for Lewis was, of course, the Gospels. No wonder this book is sometimes called a Christian children’s catechism. On March 5, 1961 in the letter to a child fan Lewis explained: “The whole Narnia story is about Christ.” In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Aslan appears as a lamb, which is a direct borrowing from the Gospels. Lewis writes about the “regal and peaceful, and at the same time sad” look of Aslan, and that he was “good and terrible” at the same time. Golden shining of Aslan’s mane, which is constantly mentioned by the author, is associated with a gold halo. In Narnia the characters used to say: “In the name of Aslan”. Aslan’s behavior and character has clear parallels with Christ. The great lion does not try to please anyone; his actions are often beyond the scope of justice in the usual sense of the word. Aslan tries the characters without certain need, deliberately provoking them. The characters very often have to make the right choice:

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What the children of Narnia discover, to their dismay, is that everyone has a choice... to see and respond to that light or to sit in self-imposed darkness unwilling to see the beauty which surrounds them, to smell the violets held under their nose or eat of delights of God’s table set before them (Hall 1).

 The characters of the book are tormented by doubts in choosing the right path – the exterior is often deceptive, and not all actions can be clearly assessed, but Aslan rarely helps the heroes resolve these issues. He rarely appears on the pages of the book, often chooses not to show up in his true form, and prefers to speak in riddles, like the Son of God. Because only the few can hear God’s word: “But blessed are your eyes that see and ears that hear” (Mathew 13:16). To put it bluntly, not every young reader may be imbued with sympathy for Aslan, because only his supernatural entity can explain this strange behavior. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, however, “the adventures of the heroes and heroines are more contingent than providential, less dependent on Aslan’s miraculous interventions” (Bell 12).

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Spiritual Journeys

A series of adventures in The Voyage of The Dawn Treader is, in fact, a story of several spiritual journeys. The adventure is driven by “a spiritual longing for heaven” (Travers 1). According to Schakel,

by having his characters long for Narnia, Lewis incorporates into the plot the effect a fairy tale should have on its readers: the awakening of a desire to be in Fairy-land (here, Narnia) and the satisfying of that desire, at least partially or temporarily (Schakel 61).

It is also a quest for spiritual maturity for Caspian, Edmund, and Lucy. In the context of Christian criticism their mission is to follow the exhortation of Romans 12:9-21:  “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” According to Myers, it is “the paradigmatic journey of the Christian life, in which the original search for Joy is balanced within a larger pattern” (Myers 127).

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For the Chief Mouse, Reepicheep, it is a journey of a higher hope, his greater ambition:  “Why should we not come to the very eastern end of the world? And what might we find there? I expect to find Aslan’s country” (Lewis 18). For him it is the best moment or pinnacle of the course of his life. Reepicheep has “fought the good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7) and now he is strongly concentrated on eternity. In a little while he will see his lifetime dream coming true, to come to Aslan’s country (which is a symbol of Heaven). In many ways Reepicheep becomes the most obvious embodiment of the character, who follows his heart seeking Heaven. He is ready to swim and reach the end of the sea to find the legendary country of Aslan. This is a character, about whom the author wrote: “anyone in our world who devotes his whole life to seeking heaven will be like Reepicheep” (Lewis 45). In the previous book, Prince Caspian, Reepicheep is a gallant, swashbuckling mouse, but not a major character. In The Voyage of The Dawn Treader he is a central member of the group of adventurers. His boldness and loyalty inspires, and sometimes irritates, other team members, but he is a catalyst for the whole journey. At the end of the journey the friends must part with him, knowing that he is going to Aslan’s country. Reepicheep, however, is happy:

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Then it vanished, and since that moment no one can truly claim to have seen Reepicheep the Mouse. But my belief is that he came safe to Aslan’s country and is alive there to this day (Lewis 244).

For Eustace, it’s a journey of conversion. He comes to Narnia as a stingy, egotistical, intolerable child, who irritates every character aboard. But after Eustace had been turned into a dragon, his eyes were opened. He realized what a miserable individual he had been and acknowledged that he longed for a Savior. It is considered a striking example of Christian conversion in the whole series:

Fortunately for Eustace he “sees” the light and is re-transformed, though only through an extremely painful experience. Unable to shed his dragon skin himself, Eustace submits to the fierce claws of Aslan and is reborn a new, whole person (King 16).

Aslan came to Eustace’s rescue and set him free from the curse of his dragon ego: “Then the lion said—but I don’t know if it spoke—‘You will have to let me undress you’” (Lewis 189). The lion helps Eustace to throw off his scales. In fact, clothes convey a “deeper personal transformation” (Schakel 157). Eustace succeeds in freeing himself of several layers of his dragonish nature.  He is to some extent able to free himself, but only to some degree.  The author suggests that people, after they have understood their sins, are able to improve themselves, but not at all to the needed extent. It means that one’s unaided efforts to change oneself can be only partially successful, but cannot eliminate the heart of the problem. Eustace literally changes his nature and becomes a new creature: “You’d never know Eustace for the same boy” (Lewis 199). By the end of the novel, he has grown from minor nuisance to an amiable, prospective hero. This has grown into significant character, since he is an important and central figure in the next novel, The Silver Chair. While Lewis’s initial depiction of Eustace is negative, he is nevertheless an important character:











while most of Narnia’s heroes develop their courage over time, Eustace shows that real heroism is possible even for those who have never been called upon to exercise it (Bassham & Walls 69).

The first and last paragraphs are devoted to him; several pages are narrated completely in his words; and his transformation and redemption outlines the central story (probably even the main idea) of the voyage.

The whole world of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was created by Lewis in order to help children and some adults experience what he considered “the baptism of the imagination” or “the liberation of true feelings” (Lewis 15). A Christian preacher Louis A. Markus, speaking about educating the young generation noted:

Yet for all our passion, knowledge, and love, something in our approach is lacking; something about our vocabulary is deficient. We seem powerless to convict, engage, and transform the secular world (Markus 1).

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It appears that C.S. Lewes indeed had the power “to convict, engage, and transform”. His ability to effectively convey the deeper truths of the Christian religion with clarity, dynamism, and conciseness is unquestionably a significant component of his wide appeal. Lewis’s was sometimes criticized for being too evidently Christian. For example, by J.R.R. Tolkien “feared that Lewis was speaking and writing about theological matters wherein he was not carefully trained and deeply read” (Wood 315). Still, he claimed that his stories came not from the aspiration to make a point or press an argument, but from representations and dreams in his mind that he gathered together into a story. However, it is obvious that his ideas contain embedded denial of secularism and support of theism. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in this respect appears to be a book, which in the form of interesting fantasy novel conveys several main concepts of Christianity: longing for God and conversion to Christian faith.  

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