The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is this month’s Narniathon read. I was looking forward to it as I remember it as my favorite of the seven books. And I still greatly enjoyed this journey through lands full of enchantment and danger, an adventure of the spirit that stirs me to this day.
We start with Lucy and Edmund, along with their irritating young cousin Eustace, being plunged into the sea through a magic picture. The Narnian ship Dawn Treader picks them up, and they meet their old friends Caspian and Reepicheep, who are on a voyage of discovery. They hope to find out what happened to the seven noble lords who were sent away by Caspian’s usurping uncle, but beyond that, to glimpse what lies past the borders of ordinary reality, the end of the world and Aslan’s country.
This is an episodic tale by nature, and some readers find that a weakness, though it never bothered me. I loved the sense of journeying into the unknown, the inner and outer trials that were encountered there, and the gradual opening up of new ways of sensing and experiencing the world, that made possible a glimpse of the numinous beyond. Setting out upon a sea voyage is a picture of the soul’s journey into the spirit world, where the firm ground of physical reality becomes shaky and we must find new grounds for trust and certainty, out of ourselves and our experience of spiritual truth.
The first adventure involves escaping from and vanquishing the slavers who have infiltrated the last outpost of Narnia, the Lone Islands — a relatively worldly task, yet one that sets the tone for the rest. This is to be a journey that can only be entered upon in freedom, and that leads the participants into challenges that test their commitment to that freedom. The paradox of the free ego is that recognizing and claiming it can only bring one into a sense of responsibility for the whole and service of others. In various ways, this is played out in the smaller episodes of the story.
There are encounters with the forces of greed on an island with a magic spring that turns things to gold, and a battle with the surging forces of the unconscious in the form of the Sea Serpent. There is a chilling reminder of the dangers of unwary toying with the spirit realm in the form of an island where dreams come true (“not daydreams — dreams“). The little band comes through these trials, both stronger and more humble as they venture on.
Three episodes involve a more individual testing and personal transformation. The first, and perhaps the most memorable of the book, is the “dragoning” of Eustace. A materialist who is full of contempt at all sources of wonder, habitually puffing himself up at the expense of others, he is sorely challenged when his greedy dreams upon finding a dragon’s hoard turn him into a dragon himself. As the inner becomes outer, he is forced to behold the ugliness of his soul and the way he has distanced himself from the people who would embrace him if he allowed them to do so. Now that it seems too late, he realizes that he cares more about being friends than anything else.
Eustace cannot “undragon” himself, but through an encounter with Aslan he sheds his dragon skin and is able to rejoin the community. He has in fact done the real work of wanting to change and of accepting the healing that is offered. It’s a powerful image, one that reminds me to look beneath the encrusted, hardened skins of each person I meet, and to seek to be softened and opened up myself, however painful that may be.
The next trial belongs to Lucy, who agrees to enter a magician’s house and disenchant a band of comical yet dangerous invisible people. This is a noble and courageous act of service, yet like so many who have entered upon the path of higher knowledge, she finds it extremely tempting to use the power she finds in the magician’s book to serve her own desires. After coming close to great danger a couple of times, once stopped by a vision of Aslan and once by her own better judgment, she is able to say the spell that reveals the hidden people, the magician, and Aslan himself. The threatening unknown can turn kindly and nourishing, when one has mastered the invisible forces that work inside us.
Finally, Caspian is challenged at the last island before the sea of the world’s end, with a powerful desire to sail into the sunrise and never return to Narnia. Here, outer appearances have already become charged with the grandeur and beauty of what lies beyond, and it is tempting to want to keep going and not to return to the ordinary world. But Caspian is a king, and that means not only great power, but great responsibility. Again, it is in remembering that we find our true humanity through serving others, that the adventure is completed and the danger conquered.
Only the mouse Reepicheep is allowed to go on and enter Aslan’s Country, seemingly in confirmation of the valor that can persist through all obstacles no matter how small and feeble its efforts might seem. The others, after a heartbreaking glimpse of an immeasurably great mystery, must return to their homes — whether in Narnia, or in our world.
And as I close the book this time, I have to remember myself not to be sad that I must once more leave the land of my heart’s desire. I carry it inside me, and I can make the inner journey any time.
What did you find on your own voyage? What is most memorable about the story for you?