The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is about our spiritual journey, and the transformation we experience along the way—nowhere is this clearer than in the changes in Eustace Scrubb. As we learn in the first sentence: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” And in the last, “…back in our own world everyone soon started saying how Eustace had improved, and how ‘You’d never know him for the same boy’.”
Lewis believed that humans could continue to improve spiritually until they became something “like God” or could devolve spiritually until they ceased to be human at all. In Dawn Treader we see both the potential pitfalls of the spiritual life and the potential victories. And all of them, it turns out, have one thing in common: Aslan.
Aslan, as we know, is not an ordinary lion but is actually Jesus Christ in Narnian clothing. In Dawn Treader, Lewis goes out of his way to make sure we know that he may be a lion but he is not only a lion. Lewis believes that movement forward in the spiritual life comes in large part because of the loving intervention of the Divine.
Someone in the Tor.com community, Jonathan Bronico, wisely points out that in this novel of gold and base metals being transformed, Lewis is showing us something similar: the transformation of human beings into something purer and better through a process that requires the presence and intervention of Aslan. As Jonathan put it so well, “In this book, it seems like Aslan is in the business of taking ‘base material’ and converting it into treasure.”
Now. Do we have to know Aslan to be changed by Aslan? Not at all. In a favorite scene for many of us, poor Eustace is accidentally transformed into a dragon. He has devolved from human to something much worse. Lewis tells us it’s because Eustace fell asleep on the dragon’s hoard with “greedy, dragonish thoughts” in his heart. He had been thinking poorly of his cousins and his companions, and wishing to be away from them.
He doesn’t even realize he’s a dragon at first. Once he does, he goes through the first step of spiritual transformation: he embraces the truth of his own brokenness. Eustace suddenly realizes that he wants to be friends with his cousins. He realized “that he was a monster and cut off from the whole human race.” The others “weren’t fiends at all” (he had simply been blaming all his troubles on them). “He began to wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he always supposed.” He begins to weep.
Eustace isn’t immediately transformed just by realizing his own monstrousness, but then again it was clear to all his companions that “Eustace’s character had been rather improved by becoming a dragon.” He suddenly wanted to be someone better and was, in fact, “anxious to help.” He started doing reconnaissance missions. On cold nights everyone leaned against him for warmth.
Eustace discovers, we are told, the novel sensation not only of being liked, but of liking other people, too. All of this comes, quite simply, from embracing the reality of being a dragon. It’s not that he has become a dragon, it’s that he was a dragon all along. The physical transformation revealed to him the “dragonish thoughts” that had already been central in his heart. And when he embraced that, when he mourned that, when he desired change, his internal transformation began. Which is when Aslan stepped in to bring him into a new world.
Make no mistake, the transformation/skinning/baptism of Eustace is not only about making him human, but also about bringing him into Narnia. Up until this point in the book, Eustace is constantly acting as if Narnia is somehow part of the “real” world. He’s threating to “lodge a disposition” with the British Consul and rather than accepting his position on the Narnian ship keeps “boasting about liners and motor-boats and aeroplanes and submarines.” It might be a dream or a trick, he thinks.
All of that changes after he meets the great lion. Aslan never even tells Eustace his name. He simply says “follow me” and takes him to a spring of living water. He tells Eustace to undress, and after the poor boy has done all that he can, Aslan tears him out of the rest of the layers. From that moment on, Eustace is fully present in Narnia. It’s Edmund who explains that the lion was Aslan, and Eustace is a true Narnian from then on. No more talk about “back home” or disbelieving comments about the fantastic lands he finds himself in. From then on, Eustace is working hard to be brave, to help out, to be a better person.
There are a few important things that spring from this seed in the future, whether it’s a conversation that’s coming up in the seventh book about how you can follow Aslan without knowing him, or the fact that Eustace’s true transformation takes place here: everything from here on is growth, but the biggest and most important change for Eustace was simply meeting Aslan.
Sometimes just the awareness of Aslan is enough to prevent devolution or encourage positive growth. Caspian and Edmund discover a pool that turns anything that falls into it to gold. Under the spell of the riches this could mean, they begin to argue about who has the most authority. Lucy tries to intervene to stop them, when they notice something – or rather someone – watching them from the lead-colored hillside: Aslan, of course, golden and “the size of an elephant.” The mere sight of Aslan brings them to their senses. They wake as people from a dream and Caspian asks, “Have I been making rather an ass of myself?” Gold is nothing, it’s unimportant, and it’s a counterfeit of the true value of finding Aslan’s Country, where everything is golden because it is beyond the valleys of the sun.
Lucy, too, faces temptation and is saved by the sight of Aslan’s face. She discovers a spell in a magic book that will make her beautiful “beyond the lot of mortals.” It’s interesting to note that her first thought is that it will make her more beautiful than Susan, especially given that dreaded conversation coming in book seven about the “problem of Susan.” Lucy has a “strong feeling she shouldn’t” say the spell but she doesn’t care. She plans to do it. But just as she goes to read it, she sees Aslan’s face in the book. He is growling, and she is frightened and she turns the page.
Now, as so often happens, having avoided the great temptation she falls for a smaller one. She uses magic to eavesdrop on her friends, and though she’s terribly sorry about it later, there are consequences to be borne as a result. She recognizes what she’s done wrong, and receives forgiveness from Aslan. But here we see that Aslan has intervened to keep her human (to go beyond the lot of mortals would have meant she was not a mortal, of course), and also, most interesting: Lucy speaks a spell to make unseen things visible and discovers that Aslan has been with her all along… Even when we can’t see the great lion, he’s there beside us regardless.
So, off we go to the dark island. Here’s a place where “dreams are made real” and at first everyone is quite excited until they discover this means, of course, that nightmares are real also. Lewis suffered vivid nightmares his entire life, and you can feel the real terror in his heart as he writes these scenes. Lucy is so frightened she prays: “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.”
As if in answer, an albatross appears. The albatross has long been considered the sailor’s friend. It’s a symbol of hope and has been for centuries. Lewis certainly seems to be echoing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in some part here (“at length did cross an Albatross” as Coleridge says, and Lewis says “at first it looked like a cross”… he’s working hard to keep that Christian imagery in there).
The albatross “offered good guidance” and led them from that dreadful darkness. “But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, ‘Courage, dear heart’, and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s….” The sailors follow Aslan to safety not even knowing for sure it is him. He appears in the time and place they need him most, and in the shape that will most speak to them in the moment. They may not even recognize him in that darkness, but he provides them hope and a way out.
I’ve mentioned before the moment when Caspian is angrily insisting that he will join Reepicheep beyond the world’s end. Aslan sends a message by bringing the gold lion’s head on Caspian’s wall to life and telling him the truth: he cannot go with Reepicheep. And the human children are also leaving, and Caspian is to return to Narnia. Caspian learns an important lesson about being king. It’s not just doing whatever he wants. It’s thinking of his subjects and keeping his promises and listening to wise counsel, too. All of this transformation in Caspian boils down to these simple words: “Aslan has spoken to me.”
One last Aslan moment: at world’s end the children meet a Lamb. We certainly could do a whole post or two on this scene and its parallels to scenes of the life of Jesus. But I think we will settle for this. Aslan tells the children the great secret of growth in the spiritual life: “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.”
In Lewis’ universe, the greatest key to spiritual growth is simply learning to recognize Aslan. Whatever world we are in, and whatever shape he takes, and however deep or terrible our temptations, the key to growth is recognizing the loving presence of that great lion.
And thus, the Pevensie children’s journey in Narnia comes to an end, and I think I’ll leave us here for our exploration of Dawn Treader, too. I originally had two more articles planned, but to get to the rather pedestrian insights they would bring would require unraveling too much of the story, and I think trading wonder for knowledge is often a poor bargain.
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.
And on that note, friends, peace to you! Let’s set out the oars and make our way back west from World’s End and back to the blessed lands of Narnia! We’ll meet back here next time to discuss book four in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Silver Chair!