We are now halfway through a series of posts in which I am ranking the different volumes of C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia. So far, I have covered The Magician’s NephewThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boyand Prince Caspian.

To evaluate each book, I am using a rubric with four different categories: story, characters, worldcraft, and theology. For each category, I will provide a subscore of 1-10, yielding a cumulative maximum score of 40 points.

I have been following the chronological order of the books (even though I don’t consider that to be the best order in which to read the books), which means that this week, I will be ranking The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (VDT). I think this was my third time to read VDT, and it remains one of my favorites of the Narnia series.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

This is from a series of brilliant Narnia cover designs by Jeffrey Nguyen

Story

Some may feel differently, but I have always enjoyed the narrative flow of VDT. It is a story of exploration in the form of a sea voyage to remote and undiscovered lands, and of course, this voyage is paralleled by the spiritual journeys of the characters themselves.

As the book begins, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie are staying with their cousin Eustace.[1] The three children are suddenly taken up into Narnia through a painting of a ship at sea hanging on the wall of a bedroom. The three children find themselves in the ocean near the Dawn Treader, a Narnian ship upon which they are quickly taken aboard, and where they find King Caspian, Reepicheep, and other Narnians. The Dawn Treader is in the midst of a sea voyage with two goals. First and foremost, the mission is to locate the seven lost Lords of Narnia (who had been friends and supporters of Caspian’s father, but exiled or encouraged to leave by his uncle Miraz). But in addition to that mission (and ultimately, more important than it) is Reepicheep’s goal of finding Aslan’s Country beyond the seas, in the “utter East.”

The narrative arc of VDT is somewhat repetitive, as Caspian, his friends, and his crew sail from one island to another, gradually meeting (or finding the remains of) all of the lost lords and experiencing significant trials and transformative experiences along the way. However, the variety of the places they visit, the characters they meet, and the trials they face combine in such a way that the story doesn’t seem repetitive at all: it is interesting and gripping throughout, and also cultivates a building anticipation as the Dawn Treader grows increasingly closer to Aslan’s Country.

Story: 9/10

Characters

As is always the case in The Chronicles of Narnia, human children from our world feature prominently in VDT; in this instance, it is Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, along with their cousin, Eustace Scrubb.

Eustace is a major character in VDT, especially early in the book, so we will start with him. The opening line of the book is an all-time great:

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” (1)

Lewis then goes on to explain just why this Eustace fellow is so unlikeable:

“His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none. He didn’t call his Father and Mother “Father” and “Mother,” but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on beds and the windows were always open.

Eustace Clarence liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card. He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools.

Eustace Clarence disliked his cousins the four Pevensies, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.” (1-2)

In addition to clueing us in to some character traits that Lewis himself apparently didn’t think too highly of, he gives us the impression of an annoying little boy, but one who largely seems to be so due to the influence of his annoying parents. Perhaps this is unsurprising, because adults can be pragmatic and unimaginative in a way that can be a barrier to faith, but there may be a glimmer of hope in this description as well: if freed from the influence of his parents, perhaps there is hope for Eustace.

His time in Narnia doesn’t begin well. He insults the honor of Reepicheep, complains about everything, and is constantly seasick. He refuses (or is unable) to acknowledge the reality of Narnia, and keeps asking to see the British consulate. Finally, everything comes to a head when they reach Dragon Island, where, upon discovering the hoard of a dead dragon, Eustace greedily stuffs his pockets with treasure before falling asleep. He awakens to discover that he has become a dragon. In his dragonish state, Eustace begins to reevaluate things. He realizes that his cousins and shipmates weren’t so bad after all, and that it was really he himself who had been acting beastly all along. Eustace begins to change his behavior, and now seeks to help his friends. But it is not until he encounters Aslan that he is able to return to human form, and this only occurs when Aslan uses his claws to cut through his dragon skin in painful fashion, throws him into a pool of water, and then dresses him in new clothes. Later, Eustace describes his experience with the Lion to his cousin Edmund:

“What do you think it was, then?” asked Eustace.

“I think you’ve seen Aslan,” said Edmund.

“Aslan!” said Eustace. “I’ve heard that name mentioned several times since we joined the Dawn Treader. And I felt—I don’t know what—I hated it. But I was hating everything then. And by the way, I’d like to apologize. I’m afraid I’ve been pretty beastly.”

“That’s all right,” said Edmund. “Between ourselves, you haven’t been as bad as I was on my first trip to Narnia. You were only an ass, but I was a traitor.” (117)

The whole experience transforms Eustace, and he is dramatically different for the rest of the book. In fact, the book closes with this description:

“…Back in our own world everyone soon started saying how Eustace had improved, and how “You’d never know him for the same boy”: everyone except Aunt Alberta, who said he had become very commonplace and tiresome and it must have been the influence of those Pevensie children.” (270-71)[2]

Lucy shows some familiar character traits from previous novels. Moved by compassion, she uses her vial of magical healing liquid on two occasions to bring relief to Eustace. She also shows her spunk and courage when she gets in between Edmund and Caspian when they quarrel at Deathwater Island.

But Lucy also struggles. On the Magician’s Island, she is tempted to use a spell to make herself beautiful, and is only prevented from doing so by the image of an unhappy Aslan. She gives in to a lesser temptation to spy on her classmates at school, and damages a relationship with a friend in the process. And like everyone else (except, perhaps, Reepicheep) she is plagued by terror at the Dark Island.

Edmund takes somewhat of a backseat in VDT, but does show up in key moments. It is Edmund to whom Eustace reveals his transformation, and Edmund responds with comfort and understanding. Later, Edmund opposes the foolish behavior of Caspian on two occasions, but it is unclear how pure his motives are: both times, he ruffles at the implication that he is subject to Caspian, and we are left realizing that Edmund still has some growing to do.

Caspian is now three years older than he was in PC, is a confident king rather than an inexperienced youth, and is possessed with the spirit of adventure and obligation as he leads the expedition to explore the Great Eastern Ocean in search of the seven lost lords of Narnia. On the whole, he shows wisdom and courage, but he struggles as well in VDT. First, at Deathwater Island, he is tempted by greed and desires to seize the magic pool that turns everything to gold. Ultimately, Aslan appears and Caspian comes to his senses. Later, Caspian is tempted to go to Aslan’s Country with Reepicheep and to shirk his duties as king in order to do so. Again, it is an appearance from Aslan that sets him straight.

Reepicheep was previously introduced in PC, but is a much more central character in VDT. All of his previous characteristics are on display again—his bravery, daring, keen sense of honor—but most prominent is his devotion to Aslan, and his desire to travel to Aslan’s Country:

“My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise and Peepiceek will be head of the talking mice in Narnia.” (231)

All of the other events of the book—dragons, gold, sea serpents, lost Narnian lords, and the rest—cannot distract Reepicheep from his singled-minded goal: to reach Aslan’s Country and forever dwell in the presence of the Lion.

Aslan appears more frequently in VDT than in the other books, but for brief periods each time, and generally, at a time of crisis or a moment of transformation for the various characters. He appears to Eustace and frees him of his dragon skin. He appears to Caspian, Edmund, and company on Deathwater and brings an end to their argument. He appears to Lucy on the Magician’s Island, helping her to overcome one temptation and to understand the consequences of her actions in giving into another. In response to a prayer from Lucy on the Dark Island, he encourages her. When Caspian seeks to abdicate the throne, he offers correction. And when it is time for Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace to leave Narnia (and for Edmund and Lucy to never return), he gives them spiritual guidance in their own country. In short, in a book about the journey of faith (see Theology section below), Aslan is a co-traveler and guide who shows up in the journeys of various characters, granting what is needed in the moment. It is a typically apt characterization.

Characters: 9/10

Worldcraft

Although I consider VDT to be all-around excellent, I think this is its strongest area. It significantly expands the world of Narnia by taking is us into the Great Eastern Ocean, to never-before-discovered places and then even beyond the world of Narnia itself, giving us glimpses of Aslan’s Country.

The Lone Islands are intriguing. Unlike the other places the Dawn Treader will visit, these islands are not totally new. They were the previously-known “ends of the earth” and were technically under the authority of Narnia. But Miraz feared Aslan, the sea, and everything from the East, and it had been a long time since Narnia had exercised jurisdiction over the Lone Islands. In the meantime, the Islands have come under the influence of Calormen and now practice the slave trade (really, these are the only villains in VDT). Caspian and his forces stage a coup and insert Lord Bern as the Duke of the Long Islands.

After leaving the Lone Islands, though, everything is totally new: it is now a voyage of discovery. Dragons, sea serpents, and water that turns everything submerged in it to gold add to the mystery and enchantment of the journey. On another island, we discover the delightful Dufflepuds, and are introduced to the notion of a former star who now rules them as punishment. The Dawn Treader then stumbles upon the Dark Island, where dreams actually come true (which means that nightmares come true), and then encounter another former star, Ramandu, who lives with his daughter on the Island of the Star, where they sing the sunrise each morning.

As the journey continues, they encounter merpeople, water that is now sweet rather than salty, and an increasing shallowness to the sea. Eventually, only the three children and Reepicheep are allowed to continue in the ship’s small boat, and they move ahead through a sea of lilies until they reach a wave of water that extends into the sky like a waterfall. Beyond that, they catch glimpses of impossibly-high green mountains: Aslan’s Country.

The nature of the journey means that we don’t get to dwell long and fully explore any one location, but the sheer number of novel places, the wondrous discoveries, and the expansion of the world of Narnia that we experience renders a high score in this category.

Worldcraft: 9.5/10

Theology

I have mentioned this multiple times in this series, but late in his life, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter in which he provided a brief overview of The Chronicles from a spiritual perspective. Describing VDT, he said it was about the spiritual journey, and that this was especially seen in the character of Reepicheep.[3] While the valiant mouse is doggedly determined in his quest for Aslan, the other significant characters are on spiritual journeys of their own, and must repeatedly face their own flaws and overcome them with the assistance of the Great Lion:

“In contrast to other Narnia books, Dawn Treader has virtually no overt villains, other than the slavers in the very beginning who are quickly overcome and disposed of. Rather, the plot confronts the protagonists again and again with the flaws of their own character. Eustace’s greediness and general bad behavior cause him to turn into a dragon, and he must work hard to show himself worthy of becoming human again; Caspian is tempted to seize the magic pool which turns everything to gold—which would have turned Caspian himself into a greedy tyrant ready to kill in order to preserve his power and wealth; later, Caspian faces the nobler but still wrong-headed temptation to go off to Aslan’s Country and abandon his responsibilities as a King; Lucy is tempted to make herself magically beautiful, which would have led to her becoming the focus of terrible wars devastating Narnia and all its neighbors; and having resisted this temptation, she succumbs to a lesser temptation to magically spy on her schoolmates—and is punished by hearing malicious things and destroying what could have developed into an enduring nice friendship.…Edmund, who had undergone a very severe test of his character on his first arrival in Narnia, is spared such an experience in the present book, and acts as the most mature and grown-up member of the group.”[4]

Through the various characters, Lewis highlights different aspects of the spiritual journey.

In Reepicheep, we see the ideal: despite everything that surrounds him, he “seeks first the kingdom of God.” Above all else, he wants to dwell in the presence of Aslan. It is his greatest goal, ever present at the forefront of his mind.

In Eustace, we see the cost of spiritual transformation and rebirth. As Aslan cuts through Eustace’s dragon skin, I have always thought of the image of Jesus pruning branches in John 15, and the inherent pain of that metaphor. Then, in a clear baptismal scene, Aslan “kills” Eustace’s old, dragonish self, buries him in water, and then dresses him as a new creation.

In Lucy, we see the importance of gracious judgment. Through magic, Lucy spied on her classmates and heard one of her friends make hurtful statements about her. Lucy calls her a “two-faced little beast”, but is later chastened by Aslan:

“‘Spying on people by magic is the same as spying on them in any other way. And you have misjudged your friend. She is weak, but she loves you. She was afraid of the older girl and said what she doesn’t mean.’” (170)

In Caspian, we also see the unfortunate reality that part of the spiritual journey is saying goodbye to fellow travelers with whom we would prefer to travel longer. Caspian is determined to travel with his friends to the end of the world and into Aslan’s Country, even if it means deserting his duties as king. Aslan appears to Caspian to gently correct him, and we see Caspian’s motivations more clearly when he describes the encounter to his friends:

“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. No—I don’t mean he was actually here. He wouldn’t fit into the cabin, for one thing. But that gold lion’s head on the wall came to life and spoke to me. It was terrible—his eyes. Not that he was at all rough with me—only a bit stern at first. But it was terrible all the same. And he said—he said—oh, I can’t bear it. The worst thing he could have said. You’re to go on—Reep and Edmund, and Lucy, and Eustace; and I’m to go back. Alone. And at once. And what is the good of anything?”

“Caspian, dear,” said Lucy. “You knew we’d have to go back to our own world sooner or later.”

“Yes,” said Caspian with a sob, “but this is sooner.” (262-63)

In a fallen world marked by the painful realities of sin and death, it is a sad fact that a significant part of life is saying goodbye to some of the people we most care about.

And finally, in multiple characters (Eustace, Lucy, Caspian, even Edmund), we see that often, as we progress through the spiritual journeys of our lives, our greatest opposition comes not from without, but within: our own internal flaws and inclination toward sin must be addressed and overcome, and this can only be done with the help of Aslan. As one author points out in reflecting upon this:

“I will leave us with this: I grew up in religious culture, and so often I was told that I needed to stop being a dragon. It was a sort of moralistic teaching that said something like, “Stop being a dragon and come to Aslan.” But if I could stop being a dragon myself, what need did I have of Aslan? I’ve been a minister for over twenty years and I’ve met a lot of dark places in a lot of broken hearts, including my own. I don’t know where you may be on your journey, whether stuck at sea, or lost in darkness, or in some place better or worse than that. But I do know this: you are not alone. Aslan, whether you see the great lion or not (“I was always here”), and whether you know the great lion or not (“follow me” he said to Eustace, not even saying his own name), and whether you feel hope or despair…there is a lamb, an albatross, a painting, a picture, a lion, or whatever you need Aslan to be. I believe Aslan will take that form to bring us hope. To free us from our dragon skin. To show us the way out of darkness. To give us what we need to know peace.”[5]

Aslan’s final appearance to the three children has strong echoes of John 21.[6] After Reepicheep has paddled into Aslan’s Country, the three children walk to dry land where the heavens seem to meet earth. Aslan appears to them as a Lamb and invites them to breakfast.

He tells the children that it is time for them to return home, and that Lucy and Edmund will never return: they are too old, reminiscent of what Peter and Susan are told at the end of PCEdmund and Lucy have learned all they can in Narnia, and now, it is time for them to come to know Aslan in their own world:

“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” (270)

It is for this reason that Edmund and Lucy were brought to Narnia, and it is the same reason that we, the readers, are taken there by Lewis: that having seen Aslan in Narnia, we can better know in our own lives the Lion who is also a Lamb, and that we, with the determination of Reepicheep, may seek first His kingdom and live eternally with Him Someday.

Theology: 9/10

With a score of 36.5/40, VDT is an excellent book, and in my ranking system, resides as a near neighbor in the stratosphere of LWW and HHBfitting in between those two books. Unlike those two books, VDT did not receive a perfect 10 in any subcategory, but it got consistent high scores all around: no real weaknesses. On Amazon, this would be a clear 5-star rating.


Check out the full series of posts:


[1]  We learned in PC that Peter and Susan would not be returning to Narnia. Here, we are told that Susan is traveling with her parents in America, and that Peter is studying to prepare for an exam with the help of Professor Digory Kirke (of MN fame).

[2] Although several characters receive significant attention in VDT, I would argue that Eustace is the main character, as evidenced by the way that content about him frames the entire novel. Hopefully, that justifies me spending so much time on him here!

[3] Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 2005): 6.

[4] Sue Baines, “Moral and educational themes in the Narnia and Harry Potter books” in Gerald Sumner (ed.) “Round Table on the Development of Twentieth Century Fantasy”.

I do not believe, though, that Edmund comes off as spotless as Baines claims. As I described in the Characters section, in both of the instances where Caspian acts foolishly, Edmund opposes him. He was right to do so, but his opposition is based on his own pride and position: in both instances, Edmund asserts that he is no subject of Caspian’s. This echoes the dark side of Edmund’s character in LWW, and I think should give us caution before fully approving of his behavior here: to do the right thing (oppose Caspian’s foolishness) for the wrong reason (out of a competitive sense of pride) is, ultimately, to do the wrong thing.

[5] Matt Mikalotos, “Eustace Was a Dragon All Along,” in The Great C.S. Lewis RereadI have mentioned this before, but Mikalotos is writing a great series of articles on The Chronicles of Narnia. He covers a lot of stuff that I don’t get into in my own series here.

[6] The parallels with John 21 are numerous and striking. The image of Aslan serving breakfast clearly echoes Jesus serving breakfast to His apostles, and Aslan’s appearance as a Lamb echoes the language Jesus uses with Peter. We see further echoes of Jesus’ conversation with Peter in Aslan telling the children unpleasant news (they will not return to Narnia/Peter will be killed for his faith), giving them a task (to discover Aslan in their own country/to shepherd the flock), and gently refraining from telling them the destiny of others (not speaking of whether or not Eustace will return to Narnia/not telling Peter what will happen to John).