An adventure! Such a romp of the first order! C. S. Lewis’s third book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, ushers readers into an exciting (and sometimes perilous) sea voyage. Pevensie siblings Peter and Susan aren’t present in this volume, having been told in Prince Caspian they will not return to Narnia. Lucy and Edmund are joined in this adventure by their insufferable cousin, Eustace Clarence Scrubb.
The adventure commences almost immediately as Lucy, Edmund and Eustace gaze at a picture hung on the wall of the bedroom, while Eustace insists “it’s a rotten picture.” Suddenly the wind picks up, blowing objects around the room, and quickly, the sea spray has drenched them from head to toe, sweeping them off their feet and down into the sea!
This Narnia installment brings the return of an older, more seasoned Caspian (from the previous volume Prince Caspian). Within a few paragraphs, we’re also introduced to “the most valiant of all the Talking Beasts of Narnia,” the Chief Mouse Reepicheep. Of course, finicky Eustace thinks this “performing animal” is disgusting (“silly and vulgar” he says). He wants nothing to do with the mouse. Ever the valiant beast (and loyal knight), Reepicheep will somehow tolerate − for the sake of this “glorious venture” − the far more beastly, though human, Eustace.
Throughout Dawn Treader, Lewis uses delightful images of ever-increasing light, both in the world of Narnia and in the character enlightenment that takes place. The ship is sailing east on a quest to find seven Lords, friends of Caspian’s deceased father. (The seven men were sent out beyond the Eastern Seas by the usurper Miraz.) Caspian seeks to determine if they’re still alive or dead.Reepicheep has joined the voyage for a higher purpose: his wish is to sail “to the very eastern end of the world … to find Aslan’s own country.” Set for adventure, the knightly mouse carries his sharpened rapier as defense and a buoyant spirit that carries him and his mates through dangerous waters and stormy experiences.
Every fairy story has to have a dragon, of course, and Dawn Treader doesn’t disappoint in that regard! (I won’t spoil it for you; if you haven’t read the tale, why not? Do it now!) This is absolutely one of the best parts of the story.
There’s a layer of sadness in the tale; some of the Lords whom Caspian hunts have met their deaths under cruel and unusual circumstances. Like any sea voyage, Caspian and his friends on the Dawn Treader encounter similar unusual circumstances and their fate is uncertain in many of the harbors they enter.
Perhaps the severest challenge these wayfarers experience is a Darkness that overtakes their ship at the Dark Island. Fear of cold, black darkness is a powerful image … no light … just a Darkness, with its palpable oppressiveness. Their eyes are anxious for even a splinter of light when a tiny beam of light falls upon the ship. Lucy looks along the beam, seeing first the image of a cross, then an image of an airplane and finally, the whirring wings of an albatross. Is it an omen of good luck? Perhaps, but as the bird circles the mast, Lucy hears a voice, the voice of Aslan, tell her “Courage, dear heart.” Soon enough, they emerge from this horror.
Two other passages in this volume deserve special mention, particularly as they relate to the images of increasing illumination that Lewis uses so well. The first passage sheds immense light on the character of Eustace, who embarks on this journey beyond the Eastern Seas as a whiny, self-absorbed know-it-all. Through significant trials and horrifying self-discovery (illumination), Eustace finally comes face to face with Aslan. In a narrative that seems to Eustace almost like a dream, the son of the Emperor over Sea touches him with a touch “so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart.” And as Aslan touched the boy’s flesh and heart, Eustace “began to be a different boy.”
The second passage relates to Queen Lucy, kind-hearted and sweet, whose resolve doesn’t flag even when she’s losing courage. She seeks a Magician’s Book on someone else’s behalf, knowing only that she must bring back a remedy for invisibility. There are other spells and remedies in the book, one of which catches Lucy’s attention: An infallible spell to make beautiful her that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals.
What girl in the world could possibly ignore this spell? In something like a fairy tale magic book with a PIP (picture-in-picture), Lucy views the potential of her dazzling beauty, Lucy (for once) perceives that her beauty surpasses that of her sister Susan, and Lucy decides to speak the spell. Before she can say the words, though, she sees Aslan appear in the next frame staring into her eyes and growling. She quickly turns the page.
Before Lucy can locate the invisibility remedy, she reads about another spell — this one “would let you know what your friends thought about you.” Harmless, she thinks, and as she didn’t succumb to speaking the previous spell, she feels justified in speaking this spell. Another PIP appears in the magic book and Lucy watches to hear her school mates talking unkindly about her. Naturally, she’s angry and hurt.
At last, she finds the spell she needs, and as she reads it aloud, she can see immediately that it’s working!
Once done, she heads back to her friends, but as she goes, Aslan appears to her. (Lucy is usually the one who sees Aslan first.) As only Aslan can, he scolds her for eavesdropping on her friends’ conversation. Being faced with her transgression, Lucy’s conscience is properly stung. She begins to understand something about the allure of outward beauty. Then occurs an encounter with the Magician before Aslan promises he and Lucy will meet again soon and he vanishes from sight.
Through every adventure and every nautical mile, the Dawn Treader has moved closer to the “utter east” bringing their quest to its end. The final chapters give hint of the foreboding that lies there: The Beginning of the End of the World (XIV), The Wonders of the Last Sea (XV) and The Very End of the World (XVI). As with all voyages, the end can be bittersweet and this one is no different, yet it overflows with the numinous! Drinkable light! The Sea People! A retired star! The oceans that “endlessly pour over the edge.” And in the far, far-off distance, a range of mountains so high, they knew “they were seeing beyond the end of the world into Aslan’s country.”
When Lucy, Edmund and Eustace reach the end of their journey, Caspian and the crew of the Dawn Treader have already steered westward on their trip back to Narnia. Reepicheep has taken his small craft and slipped into Aslan’s country. The three children encounter the Lamb who feeds them and before their eyes becomes again the Lion. Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund they will not return to Narnia, but when they’re in their own world, they will know Aslan there “by another name.”
Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” Lucy, Edmund and Eustace found that to be utterly and delightfully true.