The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: A Reflection and Review
In the Beginning was a Word…
C.S. Lewis' epic series of seven books, The Chronicles of Narnia, began their publication in the 1950's, with a succeeding volume nearly every year until 1956. Like his contemporary, and close friend for decades, J.R.R. Tolkien (author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), the germination for this wildly successful series began quite simply with a word... or an image to be exact.
“It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn't anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.” (C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds)
Both Lewis and Tolkien were deep and committed Christians, (Tolkien a Catholic) and this faith of theirs breathed its life into their work – for Lewis in a slightly more obvious way, like a road marked with lettered signs. For Tolkien the gospel was so deeply embedded in it, the signs are in the very leaves, trees, language, and longing of Middle-Earth. He said afterwards that The Lord of the Rings was a “profoundly religious and Catholic work” though not intentionally in the writing.
So where does Lewis’s sea journey on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader take us this time? Well, back into the Mystery of course. The mystery of myth, and the fantastical freedom of fantasy. For many, however, this journey is not an easy one. So often it’s called a tale for children. But buried in the pages (and now the celluloid) of the Narnian stories is something meant to wake up us adults too. There’s something essential for all of us to hear in Aslan’s whispers. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said it best: “There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
C. S. Lewis used myth-making as a tool to slip certain realities in past our more “adult” logic and reason, when we aren’t quite expecting it. He called it “smuggling theology.”
When Lewis was asked what The Dawn Treader was all about, he simply said “the spiritual life.” I’d like to highlight a few scenes from the film version in this review that capture this inner journey, and let it be known, in the language of the blogosphere, there are spoiler alerts!
The first page of Lewis’s Dawn Treader introduces us to just one of the characters who needs to work on his spiritual life, and the first line of the book says it all: "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."
Eustace is a boy who acts like a stuffy adult. I think Lewis’ point here is to take us stuffy adults and get us to act as little children by the end of our reading! For Eustace, the greatest annoyance of having his Pevensie cousins stay at his home is their nonsensical talk of this “make believe” land of Narnia. Reality for Master Scrubb is that which can be weighed, categorized, dissected, and stuck with a pin upon his insect board. It lies, essentially, in what he can control. Sound familiar?
In Eustace, Lewis is highlighting the arrogance of modern reductionism that says a thing is simply that which is quantifiable. Is it efficient, productive, does it contribute to the collective? This modern philosophy hates superfluous exuberance and above all mystery. Strip it down to its essential use! Don’t look any further! After gazing upon a rather life-like painting of the sea (that Eustace hates and the Pevensies love) and having it actually come to life and draw Eustace and his cousins into its watery mystery, Eustace starts to come undone. Talk about a baptism of fire!
In Narnia, however, Eustace continues to be his own self-absorbed problem, and this reaches a climax when he abandons his shipmates and gathers a pile of tempting gold into his pockets. He is still thinking quantifiably! But he has a qualifiable change after turning into the very thing his hoarding thoughts have imaged: Eustace becomes a dragon.
Here is one of the films finest renditions of Lewis’s classic tale, and it strikes a powerful chord for the viewer - we who have our own struggle with pride, self-sufficiency, and greed. Eustace cannot rid himself of this hardened shell of dragon skin, only Aslan can. I believe the Great Lion only appears three times in the film, and this is one of them. With glowing slashes, Eustace the Dragon is struck again and again by the Lion, until he is stripped of the old scales of sin and replenished with a new heart, in a stunning return to his own skin; a mortal boy again. The book has him plunged in water to make clear the baptism Eustace undergoes to change his heart. The film has him reformed on the edge of the sea.
Lucy, played with pristine innocence and charm once again by British actress Georgie Henley, has grown up a bit. The struggle in her “spiritual life” is in owning her own dignity and self-worth. She struggles with the desire to be as beautiful as her older sister, Susan, to the point of nearly losing herself in the process. It’s a powerful lesson, and watching the film, my wife and I were so grateful knowing that there were countless young girls watching and hearing the truth that they are beautiful, not by comparison with their older sisters but in being who they are. A candid scene shows Lucy beside a young troubled refugee girl, who is inspired by Lucy’s bravery. “When I grow up, I want to be just like you,” she says. Ah, Lucy’s response sets her heart aright, and Lucy’s own trajectory towards wholeness as well! “When you grow up,” she tells the child “you should be just like you!”
Edmund, played by actor Skandar Keynes, first appeared in The Lion , the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He was a dark and conniving youth, now he’s come of age. He is valiant and fearless, though still a bit unsteady under the weight of his older brother Peter (who also only appears briefly in the film).
In a climatic showdown with a massive sea-serpent (parents, the movie has some dark moments for smaller children), Edmund confronts his old weakness again. The director has the White Witch return in the form of temptation, which is an innovation that really does add a connecting thread to the films. The Witch promises to make him a man, even a king to rule beside her. In one swift stroke, Edmund Pevensie dismisses that empty promise and shows that he already is a man in risking his life defending his friends.
There are some alterations and omissions in moving from book to film, and some of them lose some of the hints and homage made to Christ so clear in Lewis’s words. Aside from that, I just missed Aslan. But truth be told, in the spiritual life, as in the Dawn Treader, there is not always the consolation of His Presence.
A good friend of mine, pointed out that this story is not so much about the enemy on the outside as in the previous books/films. Now it is the enemy on the inside. In those interior struggles, when we feel most alone in the castle of the heart, the Great Lion still walks those halls. Patiently He waits for our yes to His invitation. And the journey begins anew!