In the end, Reepicheep dies.
That’s something I didn’t understand when I read Voyage of the Dawn Treader as a kid. Lewis wouldn’t—indeed, didn’t—say it that way. In fact, he says the opposite, right in the text of the novel: While no one can claim to have seen Reepicheep from the moment he crested the great wave at the end of the world, Lewis says, “my belief is that he came safe to Aslan’s country and is alive there to this day.”
This particular article was originally meant to be the last in our series on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, rather than the second, but in the unique space we find ourselves at this moment, I decided to write it early. This novel is, in many ways, about the preparations we make for the moment when we reach world’s end, and Lewis’s ideas and thoughts about it may be helpful for us.
From the time he was a pup, Reepicheep was told that he would reach the utter East and come to Aslan’s Country. Is it, as Lucy asks, the sort of country one could sail to? Reepicheep doesn’t know, but a dryad prophesied these words over him:
Where sky and water meet,
Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek,
There is the utter East.
During all their adventures in this novel, Reepicheep stays focused on his eventual goal which, unlike the others, is not to find the seven missing lords, but rather to find Aslan’s Country. He wants to live with Aslan, in his presence. That’s it. That’s really the core of the book. Every other thing in life—gold or riches, power, quests—means very little in the face of leaving this world and entering the next. There’s not a lot of mystery in Lewis’s intended metaphor of Aslan’s Country and what it is, but Lewis explained it at least once in a letter, when he said, “…of course anyone in our world who devotes his whole life to seeking Heaven will be like Reepicheep.”
Reepicheep is seeking Heaven in his daily life, and it changes the way he treats the people around him. Mostly for good (he’s the first to make friends with the poor endragoned Eustace) though sometimes he’s hard-headed, unable to compromise, or jumps too quickly into unnecessary adventures.
As our adventurers move toward the very end of the world, Reepicheep grows more excited. He leaps into the sea and discovers the water is sweet (as was prophesied) and that it is more like liquid light than water. Other problems and concerns begin to fall away, and there is a stillness that comes over the party. They don’t need to eat anymore, or even to sleep, and though the water is still they are moving with incredible speed, caught in a narrow current.
King Caspian eventually realizes he won’t be allowed to follow this journey to its end. He has responsibilities in Narnia. Reepicheep must go on without him, and Caspian will never see him again. The king is angry and grieving. He says they will all have to return home then. Reepicheep reminds him that not all would return from the journey and Caspian shouted, “Will no one silence that Mouse?”
Aslan gently confronts Caspian about this. Caspian tells the others about his interaction with Aslan: “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?”
Alone. The resounding loneliness of losing a loved one can’t be exaggerated. “And at once.” There’s nothing to be done, no way to change the schedule or control it. When the time has come, it has come. What is the good of anything?
Lucy tries to comfort him: “Caspian, dear. You knew we’d have to go back to our own world sooner or later.”
Caspian, sobbing, replies, “Yes, but this is sooner.”
They had come to a strange line of white in the water: lilies. Lilies as far as they can see. Lilies of various kinds are used as metaphors in different religious traditions. These appear to be water lilies, which in Hinduism and Buddhism are often symbolic of purity, resurrection, and enlightenment. In Christian tradition, lilies (though usually not water lilies) are likewise symbols of purity, the virgin Mary and the Annunciation in Catholic tradition, and of course, the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, there is a tradition that says when Jesus began to sweat blood while praying to be released from torment on the cross, that lilies grew wherever his blood fell. Calla lilies are often used to represent the same sentiments at funerals—both the hope of resurrection and the restored purity and innocence of those who have passed.
Reepicheep throws away his sword. He won’t need it any longer. He is on his final adventure and there is no need for violence in the land he will soon enter.
As they come closer to world’s end they see the land beyond: so beautiful it would break your heart, as Lucy says. Edmund and Eustace can never even speak again of what they saw. But we are told there are high green mountains that are warm and full of trees. It’s a gorgeous world, and they glimpse it for just a handful of seconds. Reepicheep says his farewells, but even now his attention has turned away from his friends. He allows them to say their goodbyes, even to hug him, but he’s struggling trying to contain his excitement. He leaps into his little coracle as soon as he can and the last they see of him is his silhouette against the green wave as he journeys on his last great adventure, full of joy.
For Lewis, to enter into Aslan’s Country after a life well lived is a thing to be eagerly anticipated. There is grief and pain for those left behind, but for one like Reepicheep, who has been living his whole life seeking Aslan’s Country, there’s a joyous pleasure to that final journey. And, indeed, Lewis avoids even speaking of death in these scenes. Reepicheep is leaving this world, but so are the Pevensies. So is Eustace. Reep has gone on to be in Aslan’s Country, and it is a place far more beautiful and wonderful than Britain or Narnia, or any other place in our respective worlds.
The children immediately want to know how they can get to Aslan’s Country. Aslan tells them that they must enter through their own world and in their own time. “I will not tell you how long or short the way will be; only that it lies across a river. But do not fear that, for I am the great Bridge Builder.”
Lewis shows us in this book that the most important thing in life is to be people who are growing in our characters (we’ll have a full post about that idea soon). In fact, Edmund and Lucy are told they are leaving the world of Narnia, never to return, just like Reepicheep has done. It is time, Aslan tells them, for them to grow closer to their own world. He has a name in our world, too. “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.”
They are “too old” but in a different way than Peter and Susan. Edmund is only 12 and Lucy is 10 or 11 in Voyage, both of them still younger than Peter or Susan were old when they first walked through that wardrobe. Edmund and Lucy aren’t “too old” because of the number of birthdays they’ve celebrated. They are “too old” because they have learned all they are able to learn in Narnia, and it is time for the next lesson. They have outgrown Narnia, and they need another world, a different world, to continue to grow.
As an adult rereading Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I couldn’t help but think of the last days of my closest friend. She had cancer, and after a four-year journey she crested that final wave taking her from this world and into the bright mountains beyond the sun. This time when I read Voyage I felt Lewis was describing those final few weeks with my friend and her family, the few of us who were with her at that time. Other problems fell away, and every moment together seemed more precious. There was a stillness, and a sense that time didn’t pass the same way, that we were barely moving but also rushing toward a conclusion. Things like food became less central to our days, both for us as grief and stress settled deeper in, and for her as her body began to shut down.
Like Caspian, I was angry I couldn’t go further on the journey. Not because I wanted to die, but because I wanted more time with my friend. We went to a small park in Portland, me on a bench and she in her wheelchair, and stared at the water lilies in the pond below us. She told me she knew the treatments weren’t working anymore and I wanted to say we don’t know that, maybe there’s something that else that will work…but there wasn’t, everything had been tried. That last wave was looming over us.
We knew. We knew it would happen sooner or later.
“Yes, but this is sooner.” We held hands and I wept.
Right now on my social media and in my friend circles, people are talking about this journey we are on. Whether we have recently lost loved ones, or know someone who is sick, we can’t escape the conversation. In our culture, which generally avoids any serious discussion of death, we’re being reminded of it every day. The stress, the uncertainty, the real loss that we are experiencing, all those things are piling on us and many of us are struggling to cope.
I reached out to a friend you may know, a wonderful person named Susan Palwick. Susan is a gifted author who writes short stories and novels that have the rare ability to both entertain and heal. She has a keen eye for human beings, and writes about the human condition in a way that gives insight and shows paths forward for us. Her work is often heartbreaking, compassionate, and wise, and always beautiful. (Her most recent book is a collection of short stories, All Worlds Are Real. The first book I read of hers was The Necessary Beggar, which I also love.)
Susan is also a hospital chaplain, and has experience walking through end-of-life conversations with families who find themselves, often unexpectedly, at world’s end. I asked her to remind me of something I had seen her share once before: the “five last things” that people need to hear and say before they pass from this world and into the next. Susan says, “These didn’t originate with me; they’re common knowledge in EOL circles, and I can’t remember where I first encountered them.” We both looked for a source but couldn’t find whomever originated these, but I think they are both helpful and wise.
So here they are, the five things that we all want to hear or say before we pass from this world into the next:
- Forgive me.
- I forgive you.
- Thank you.
- I love you.
As we are experiencing this time of forced separation (or forced togetherness!), there is value in remembering these things. I am thinking about these five things, trying to make sure there is no one out there who I need to forgive or ask forgiveness from. Do the people I love know that I love them? Do the people who have changed my life for the better know that I am thankful? Are there people to whom I need to say goodbye?
As for Reepicheep and his friends, they say goodbye well. There are tears and hugs and yes, there is grief. Lewis doesn’t dwell on all that, but as the Dawn Treader leaves the human children and Reepicheep in the sea of lilies and heads for home, the King orders all the flags on the ship to be flown, and every shield to be hung out in their honor:
Tall and big and homelike she looked from their low position with the lilies all round them. And even before she was out of sight they saw her turn and begin rowing slowly westward. Yet though Lucy shed a few tears she could not feel it as much as you might have expected. The light, the silence, the tingling smell of the Silver Sea, even (in some odd way) the loneliness itself, were too exciting.
In time, we all will find the utter East. For some, like Reepicheep, it may be the culmination of everything we have been seeking over the years. For some of us there will be fear, or pain, or surprise. We may not have the same excitement that Reepicheep does. Some of us are looking for Aslan’s Country, others may have questions or doubts, or not believe in Aslan at all. None of us have been there, and even those who hope to see Aslan’s Country may have caught only the barest glimpse of the great green mountains beyond the last wave at world’s end.
We all must say goodbye at some point to people who we love, who are going on a journey where we cannot follow. When those days come I hope to share my love with them honestly, and raise all the flags and hang out all the shields in their honor.
And I hope that on the day when I walk over the bridge from our world into the next, that my friend will be waiting for me, standing at the garden gate in Aslan’s Country, eager to greet me and welcome me to a new world, and a new adventure. I hope that will be true for each of us.
Until that day, my friends, be well. Let us be generous in expressing our love for one another, and until we must part, let’s enjoy this great adventure as fellow travelers.