The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has perhaps the greatest starting sentence to any of the Narnia books:
There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
My pity is immediately roused, however much that pity is about to get tried in the next couple of chapters.
Eustace Scrubb is the child of decidedly modern parents that C.S. Lewis thoroughly disapproved of. (They don’t sound as bad to me, except for the whole not drinking alcohol part and the weird underwear, but tastes differ.) Convinced that such childrearing would invariably produce awful children, Lewis in turn inflicted Eustace upon young readers: arrogant, whiny, cowardly, and fond of dead beetles, he is atrocious even by the standards of British children’s literature, skilled at creating portraits of atrocious children. (I don’t know why the British tend to be better at this than other nationalities, but they do seem to have a gift for it.)
And yet, he features in one of the most delightful of the Narnia books, a glorious tale of sailing into the (literally) sweet unknown, however much it may be marred or perfected (depending upon your tastes) by the ending.
(By the way, if any person reading this post is coming to it with knowledge only of the recent film, I can only say… liberties were taken. Vast liberties. So try to put much of the film aside for now.)
When Dawn Treader opens, Edmund and Lucy are facing a terrible time living with their annoying cousin and desperate to get back to Narnia, even if it means only losing a few minutes of time in England (that wacky time difference between magical worlds and our world again). Making matters worse, they even have a Narnian ship in a painting to look at, but not get to—until, that is, the painting sorta comes alive and drags them and Eustace into Narnia.
This time, they are not in Narnia to rescue the land or restore the proper king to his throne, but rather, to go on a cruise. Now, this is fantasy, even if said cruise gets interrupted by hurricanes, invisible bouncing dwarfs, nightmares, and water that kindly turns things into gold but will also easily kill you.
This is also a tale of temptation and self knowledge—not a new theme for the Narnia stories, which began with a child willing to turn over his siblings to a witch for the chance to eat more candy, but here handled more subtly. Nearly every island is some sort of test for someone: leadership and strategy for Caspian on the Lone Islands with the slave dealers; vanity and self-esteem for Lucy on the island of the invisible one-legged dwarfs; shame and self-knowledge for Eustace on the Dragon Island.
To digress about Lucy’s test for a moment. She is first tempted by a spell to make her beautiful beyond the lot of mortals, which apparently would lead to automatic war (or a suspicion that in preparing to write this book Lewis spent far too much time reading Homer, whichever) but, moving past that, does give in to the temptation to listen to what her friends say about her behind her back. As is the typical literary fate of eavesdroppers, she doesn’t like what she hears. And here’s where I part ways with Lewis: Aslan tells Lucy that she has misjudged the friend, who is only weak, suggesting that had Lucy not overheard the conversation, they could have remained friends, and she was wrong to eavesdrop. She might have been wrong (okay, yes, she was wrong). But isn’t it better for Lucy to know the truth? (I even seem to recall a Biblical quote or two on the subject.) Does she really want to have the sort of friend that will betray her so easily? After all, a similar betrayal nearly got her and her siblings killed just a couple of books ago.
The more interesting story is probably that of Eustace and his transformation into a greedy dragon, and his very painful transformation via skin removal and baptism into a regular boy again. But I find I don’t have much to say about it except to say that Lewis does seem to have a very real idea of what it is like to find that you are a burden and a nuisance no matter how hard you are trying, and how very hard it is to try to be likeable when you really don’t know how. As difficult as it probably is to identify with Eustace in the first chapters of this book (and particularly through his diary, which although amusing has a very adult tone—I didn’t know any kid who talked like that), here, he becomes someone all too easy for many children to identify with.
Which is good, because, alas, other than that adorable mouse of chivalry, Reepicheep, most of the other characters are fairly bland. Caspian, in particular, is even more bland than he was in his eponymous book, with only a few unexpected moments of pouting to distinguish him from anyone else. Unfortunately, these moments occur in a book filled with pouting, making them, well, undistinguishable. But if the characters are unusually bland for a Narnia book, Dawn Treader held me spellbound—even in the end.
Here, Lewis tries to abandon the book’s implicit Christianity for a more explicit one, having Aslan appear to the children in the form of a Lamb, with a nice capital letter for emphasis, and Aslan explaining to the children that he also lives in our world, only under a different name. I say, “tries,” because as a child reader who had completely understood the implications of Aslan’s sacrifice in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, here, I assumed that he meant that our world also had talking lions. I was tremendously excited (and terribly disappointed afterwards). As an adult, I find this more explicable, but also more intrusive: a jolt of our world into Narnia, rather than allowing the delight of that final fantastical voyage to linger.
Aslan’s next statement, though, is the truly problematic one: that Lucy, Edmund and Eustace have been summoned to Narnia solely for the purpose of getting to know him there, so they will know him a little better here. To which I can only say, what? Even if we are going with my (severely incorrect) idea that our world is filled with magical talking lions, surely these kids could have found easier ways to find them?
But more to the point, this statement seems to contradict the entire point of the earlier two books: that the children have been brought into Narnia to help save Narnia. (Admittedly, in Dawn Treader none of the three kids seem to do a lot of saving, unless you count Lucy turning the Dufflepods visible and Edmund explaining to Caspian just why a pool of water that turns things to gold and deserting your country are kinda bad things.) Why exactly should Narnia be used as a spiritual testing ground? And why these kids, instead of others? So that they could become evangelicals back on our world? And if that was the plan, how exactly was that supposed to work, given what is going to happen to them in four short books before they have the chance to convert anyone?
I suppose, if we stretch the point, we could argue that they were chosen since they knew the narrator of the books, who could then be trusted—despite being an adult—to spread the message, to allow other children to get to know Christ through Aslan. But this is a stretch. Aslan’s statement seems breathlessly unfair to the Narnians (Hi, cute little talking animals! I could have rescued you guys much sooner, but I needed to introduce some kids to Christianity! Sorry for all that old and missing Christmas stuff!) and not all that fair to the children, either.
And as much as I disliked hearing that the older children could not return to Narnia in Prince Caspian, I like it even less here, mostly because that injunction does not include Eustace, who throughout the book has come across as older as his cousins. His transformation into a dragon appears to have restored some of his childhood, but not all: he is still cautious, questioning, and, well, not all that young. (In fact the dragon transformation seems to have considerably matured him.) Indeed, if Lewis’ timeline is to believed, he is only one year younger than Lucy, who is about ten in this tale.
But perhaps that is part of the underlying point: Lewis, as literary critic and religious apologist, was well aware that the world is not fair, or at the very least does not seem fair. This was a point he would later touch on in later Narnian books, particularly The Horse and His Boy, about the nature of perceived and very real misfortune.
And none of this takes away from the very real fun of the voyage itself, or of Lewis’ abilities to sketch out a plausible underwater culture of mermaids and sea-peoples in a few sentences, or of the sheer poetry in his descriptions of the last chapters. Not to mention the joy of dragons and talking stars, of drinking water that is almost light, of sailing into the very ends of the world.
Mari Ness previously discussed some of her concerns with using Narnia as an instructional and testing ground for British children. She lives in central Florida.