The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Leaving Narnia

When Caspian tells Edmund and Lucy of his task aboard the Dawn Treader, he speaks of Reepicheep’s “higher hope” for their voyage: to find Aslan’s country (p433). As the Dryad verse goes: “Doubt not Reepicheep,/ To find all you seek,/ There is the utter east.” Though C. S. Lewis deliberately wrote flawed characters – allowing for the majesty of Aslan to shine incomparably, as well as conveying fallen human nature – many exhibit redemptive traits. Reepicheep, who we met in Prince Caspian, is one such character: imperfect but increasingly drawn to and transformed by his hope of being with Aslan.

The Magician's NephewIn one of the more peculiar prefaces to an academic commentary (The Prophecy of Isaiah), Alec Motyer notes Reepicheep’s “endearing bumptiousness.” If you were about to look up the word bumptiousness, it means presumptuous and annoying confidence, even pride. We need only cast our minds back to the end of Prince Caspian where Aslan searchingly says to Reepicheep, “I have sometimes wondered, friend, whether you do not think too much about your honour” (p412). This, at times, insufferable decorum is well portrayed in the recent film adaption. Reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader we learn that Reepicheep’s “mind was full of forlorn hopes, death-or-glory charges, and last stands” (p455). Later, approaching the Dark Island, against the uncertainty of the experienced sailors he boldly asserts, “So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventure” (p507). Prodigious in courage despite his unimpressive stature, Reepicheep is both proud and presumptuous; he is not the hero of Lewis’ narrative. Yet, for all his shortcomings, Reepicheep demonstrates a remarkable devotion to his promised homecoming and an unending future with Aslan.

Upon discovering the remaining three lords, murmurs grow amongst the volunteer sailors. They see their task as completed and think they should set sail for Cair Paravel, back in the west, rather than continuing east. Lucy asks Reepicheep what he will do and his answer never fails to move me: “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” (p524). Though decorated with “undying glory” for his exploits in the second battle of Beruna (p430), Reepicheep longs for another world. Caspian and his crew would return from their journey as heroes, immortalised in the history of Narnia, but Reepicheep longed for immortality, beyond Narnia.

The Voyage of the Dawn TreaderWhen Reepicheep says goodbye he attempts sadness, for the sake of the children, “but he was quivering with happiness” (p539). Reepicheep leaves Narnia overwhelmed by joy, at the fruition of his hope and imminent realisation of all he had ever desired. Elsewhere, in Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote this: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Reepicheep was made for another world, and so are we.

Anyone who has read Narnia would have undoubtedly felt the pull of Lewis’ glorious world, brimming with colour, and replete with immense characters. But nothing there outshines Aslan. So Reepicheep points us past Narnia, to Aslan; and this was – as I argued earlier in this series – the hope Lewis wrote into his masterpiece. Narnia is not the world we desire, for there is another beyond it. And merely glimpsing that world, Lucy said, “It would break your heart,” not because it was sad but because it was all she had ever desired (p539). Once Reepicheep disappears over the crest we learn that the children will never return to Narnia. Lucy despairs for Narnia is the only place they have ever encountered Aslan. But he promises they will see him again: “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” (p541).

Prince Caspian: Conflicting Stories

Narnia - C.S. LewisSimilarly to The Horse and His Boy, in Prince Caspian we see the uncertain tension of life between Aslan’s victorious death and his decisive defeat of evil in the future, The Last Battle. For those with ears to hear, Lewis is using narrative to evoke in his readers what it feels like to inhabit the Christian story and encounter the Christian God. However, all is not well when we enter Narnia with the Pevensies: the alluring enchantments of Narnia, talking Beasts, and even Aslan have been forgotten as the Telmarines’ reign strangles the once magical lands. Early on in the novel we see conflicting stories being told about the past, as the Telmarines attempt to change Narnia forever, creating it in their own image. “The sort of History that was taught in Narnia under Miraz’s rule was duller than the truest History you have ever read and less true than the most exciting adventure story” (p408).

When Miraz broaches the topic of Caspian succeeding him on the throne of Narnia, the latter wistfully mentions the Old Days of Narnia, “When everything was quite different. When all the animals could talk, and there were nice people who lived in the streams and the trees” (p335). Miraz is quick to dismiss these “fairy stories”, claiming they are for children and not kings. When Caspian reveals that he has heard much about the Old Days and Aslan, from his nurse, she is promptly sent away (though not from the story entirely, see p409-410). Doctor Cornelius replaces her, becoming Caspian’s tutor. And following a far from insignificant astronomy lesson, Cornelius confirms the stories Caspian heard from his nurse but was kept from believing (p338). We also discover that the Telmarines “silenced the beasts and trees and the fountains…killed and drove away the Dwarfs and Fauns, and are now trying to cover up even the memory of them. The King does not allow them to be spoken of.” The stories of old carry great power, and the Telmarines know this.

Prince CaspianMore than being weary of the old stories, the Telmarines create new ones and distort others to keep people from knowing the truth. When Caspian is told that he must flee the castle through the Black Woods he baulks for fear of what lives there. Cornelius assures him, “Your Highness speaks as you have been taught. But it is all lies. There are no ghosts there. That is a story invented by the Telmarines. Your Kings are in deadly fear of the sea because they can never quite forget that in all stories Aslan comes from over the sea” (p340). We might draw a parallel with the Tarkaans, in The Horse and His Boy, who speak about Narnia as, “Chiefly inhabited by demons in the shape of beasts that talk like men, and monsters that are half man and half beast [and] a demon of hideous aspect and irresistible maleficence who appears in the shape of a lion” (p258). Young Caspian has grown up hearing conflicting stories, as we all have. These stories are fashioned to counter and discredit others, functioning as powerful vehicles of persuasion. But which stories should we believe, which contain the truth?

I have answered that question elsewhere, discussing philosophy, but in the Narnian narrative Lewis’ characters are wrought with uncertainty, embodying a variety of positions. Some abandon hope and selfishly favour evil power instead, such as Nikabrik (see p392-4); others, like Trumpkin, dutifully follow orders though full of disbelief (p360); and still others remember the stories of old rooted in their past and full of effective promise, like Trufflehunter (p352, 359). As readers we are drawn into this milieu of conflicting stories. But we are invited to do much more than merely observe the characters’ struggles to make sense of their own world, for Lewis wants us to consider our own world and the stories we believe.

Narnia - C.S. LewisAs approach the end of Prince Caspian we are meant to hear a note of tragedy amidst the mirth at everything being put right, as a son of Adam is enthroned as the king of Narnia in submission to the High King of Narnia (p411, 416). The poignant note is Aslan permitting the Telmarines to return to their own world (p415-7). They had inhabited Narnia, encountered Aslan, and experienced the old story’s triumph but in the end choose to leave it all behind, suffering the consequences of deeply ingrained stories that kept them from believing another. It is true that some of the younger Telmarines entrust themselves to Aslan and pledge allegiance to Caspian, the new king of Narnia, but the Telmarines that return to our world reveal the dangerous power of stories to keep us from knowing the true story. Listen to Aslan, earlier in the series, full of regret and deep sadness, “Oh, Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good” (p98).

Doodle: “No One is Told Any Story but Their Own”

The Horse and His BoyI concluded my previous post on Narnia by briefly touching on Aslan’s refusal to tell people any story but their own. The characters in The Horse and His Boy need to learn this important truth: Aslan is at the back of all stories (p302), yet he will only tell people their story and not someone else’s. Only Aslan can reveal to us what we really are – both glorious and tragically fallen creatures – but he will tell us no more than this. To borrow Aslan’s words from Prince Caspian: “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve. And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth” (p416). In The Horse and His Boy, it is Aravis who struggles most in seeing her true self by hearing her own story. But before we get to her let us set the scene, as C. S. Lewis did.

When Shasta finally meets Aslan it is a wonderful revelation for he learns that behind his entire life, and even its most painful events, sat an author who longed to meet him. As Shasta learns that there was only ever one lion pursuing them throughout their journey he realises that it was Aslan who inflicted the terrible wounds on Aravis’ back, during their flight to the Southern March (p281). Asking after the reason he is told, “Child, I am telling you your story, not hers, I tell no one any story but his own.” A little later, when Shasta pleads with Edmund and insists he is not a traitor, despite overhearing their council in Tashbaan, the King of Narnia alludes to this truth that everyone must learn: “Try not to hear what’s meant for other ears” (p288). Now we can get to Aravis’ story and Lewis’ point.

The Horse and His BoyRowan Williams believes that this repeated idea reveals every human’s desire to be distracted from their own story, the parts we ignore and find unbearable. He writes, “We need to know what we have done, in all its dimensions.” We need to fully grasp the reality about ourselves, the dark truths we find it easier to forget. When the Hermit explains Aravis’ wounds he says: “Though they smart they are no more serious than if they had been the cuts of a whip. It must have been a very strange lion; for instead of catching you out of the saddle and getting his teeth into you, he has only drawn his claws across your back” (p273). Aravis considers it luck, but the Hermit says that in all his years he has never met any such thing as luck, adding, “There is something about all this that I do not understand: but if ever we need to know it, you may be sure that we shall” (p274). At this point in the narrative, Aravis is yet to meet Aslan and hear her story. And when she does, her wounds help her accept the harm she caused; along with the depths of herself she refused to plumb.

Enter Aslan, whose words are more smarting than Aravis’ wounds: “The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like” (p299). Little mention is made of her stepmother’s servant, but on first meeting Bree and Shasta, Aravis recalls her escape and coolly dismisses the beating that it would result in for the drugged slave, stating that she deserved it (p224). Shasta is sympathetic for the slave, claiming that her suffering was unfair, and Aravis snaps at him, for she does not do anything to please him. However, as we approach the end of Lewis’ narrative it is clear that Aravis has been changed. Not only has her pride softened and her temper waned, but also through her wounds she becomes aware that her actions reach far beyond her own desires. Anxiously, she asks if any more harm will come to the slave and Aslan responds, “I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”

The Horse and His Boy: Having Faith when it is Hard

CS Lewis - NarniaThe Horse and his Boy is my favourite of the series, but also many people’s least. This is due to a few reasons, of which I will highlight just two: most seriously the charge of racism; and, from a literary point of view, its marginal overlap with the rest of the series. But we must remember the metanarrative of Narnia, which Alister McGrath says is set between two great “advents”, the past redemption (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe) and future restoration (The Last Battle). Recalling our point from The Magician’s Nephew, that C. S. Lewis invites readers to inhabit and experience the Christian story, The Horse and his Boy explores the tension of living between Aslan’s first and last coming in a world beset by evil and characters burdened by doubt.

CS Lewis - NarniaThe first character we will explore is the Horse, Breehy-hinny-brinny-hoohy-hah, better known as Bree. Bree grew up in Calormen and lived as an enslaved warhorse. Though he longs for the North and freedom, he has much to learn. His strength, military success, and self-assured confidence make him the natural leader in the journey northward, but also cause him to be full of hubris. Towards the end of the narrative, his pride threatens to keep him from Narnia; Hwin realises Bree is apprehensive about venturing beyond the Southern March because his tail is damaged (p298). After their flight, Bree grieved his cowardice in the pursuit that saw him abandon the party for safety (p275). He concludes that he is disgraced and unfit for Narnia, but the Hermit incisively addresses Bree’s problem, “You’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit…You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think…as long as you know you’re nobody special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse”. Aslan punctures our self-confidence; Bree had to learn that we are all unfit to approach Aslan, and abandon acceptability on his own terms. He needed to hear Aslan’s comforting invitation, full of tenderness, “You poor, proud frightened Horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare” (p299).

CS Lewis - NarniaThe second character I will unpack is the Boy, Shasta. One might call him the unlikely hero for, unlike Bree, he is unimpressive and by far the least imposing of the travelling party. However, there is a lesson to be learnt from this observation. As Shasta plods along the misty and frigid mountain pass, Aslan walks alongside and speaks with him. Shasta is miserable and lost, “Being very tired and having nothing inside him, he felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks” (p280). But Aslan tells Shasta that he was the one behind all of his misfortune and terrible luck (p281). When Shasta returns across the treacherous path, with the Archenlanders, he reflects on his conversation with Aslan, “I was quite safe. That is why the Lion kept on my left. He was between me and the edge all the time” (p290). This realisation, I think, is indicative of Shasta’s entire life, for Aslan was always with him in the confusing cloud, guiding the events in order to bring him back to Narnia, and himself. Reflecting on this brought another of C. S. Lewis’ works to mind, in Perelandra we read, “God can make good use of all that happens. But the loss is real.” Shasta’s life is full of unfortunate happenings, yet he is the unlikely hero, for unknown to him Aslan is mightily at work in his world to make all things right.

A repeated motif in Lewis’ narrative is Aslan’s insistence on telling the characters their story and no one else’s. In To the One who Conquers, Sam Storms reflects on how the biblical story has a remarkable capacity to challenge and overcome our misconceptions about who we are. Bree revealed the common combination of pride and guilt; he needed to learn that belonging to Aslan he could neither earn his place in Narnia nor  jeopordise his security. Shasta, on the other hand, could not believe that the many misfortunes of his life would end in anything but tragedy, because he was unaware of the sovereign and loving presence of Aslan who worked through all things to bring him closer to himself. Aslan is the person in whom all stories connect, but everyone needs to approach him as they are, alone.

Doodle: ‘He’s not Safe, but He’s Good’

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - LewisThe number of times I have heard that line from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the pulpit defies reason. I say this namely because I cannot remember a single sermon where the respective preacher used it to shed any light. It has been, in my own experience, tantamount to invoking the term “social construct” in debates, as if that settled anything. But if that is not reason enough, then its sheer abuse should convince us that it might be time to lay Mr Beaver’s epithet to rest (see Sammy Rhodes’ article on retiring sermon clichés). Lewis’ dangerous but good Aslan is somewhat opaque and seriously overused. Every time I hear it I struggle not to conclude that the only time the preacher reads is when he is trying to put his children to sleep.

This is obviously a theme in Lewis’ magisterial Narnia; when the children first meet Aslan we are told, “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now” (p168). Later, when Mr Beaver is warning the children against pressing Aslan or tying him to their kingdom he says, “He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion” (p194). They are moving words for those familiar with Aslan, and inadvertently the God of Scripture, but used alone and apart from the context of Lewis’ work such sentiments are little more than mere sentimentalism. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is rich narrative that boasts compelling truth, evokes genuine feeling, and draws the reader into another world in a way few novels achieve. But we are fooling ourselves if we think a few quotes about Aslan’s indomitable but inviting nature do any justice to Lewis’ intention, or assist our own.

There is so much more to the novel (and all of Narnia) than these almost common quotes convey. Let me offer an example, which I would love to unpack further in a sermon or writing, touching on John’s Gospel. While the Witch gloats in Aslan’s death, to redeem Edmund and restore Narnia, some of Jesus’ last words before the cross come to mind, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). A little later the Lord says, “The ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me” (John 14:30-31). Before Susan and Lucy the supposed King of Narnia is shamefully shorn and cruelly slain on the Stone Table, and before Jesus’ disciples their supposed Messiah is mocked and executed; both events suggest the triumph of evil and the defeat of good. But hear Aslan’s words when the astonished sisters ask Aslan what (can only be described as) his resurrection means, “Though the Witch knew Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned…She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards” (p185). In his surrender to the evil powers of the world, he overcomes them.

Lord of the Rings - TolkienFinally, if that brief and slightly shoddy unpacking has not excited you to revisit Narnia then, please, for the sake of your congregation, drop Lewis’ overdone words; I will even provide you with a sacrificial substitute, from The Lord of the Rings. After Gandalf retells how he saw, and was indeed spotted by Treebeard, in the forest, Gimli remarks, ‘You speak of him as if he was a friend. I thought Fangorn was dangerous.’ ‘Dangerous!’ cried Gandalf. ‘And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion. Certainly the forest of Fangorn is perilous – not least to those that are too ready with their axes; and Fangorn himself, he is perilous too; yet he is wise and kindly nonetheless’.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: From Death to Life

C.S. Lewis NarniaThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is undoubtedly the most widely read and publically praised of the Narnia series. That makes writing this post harder than the previous one. For many people are familiar with this canonical piece from C.S. Lewis. The axis on which the book turns is both impossible to miss yet ironically, or conveniently, frequently overlooked: the death and resurrection of Aslan. So in this post I am going to concentrate on that central event, while hopefully bringing its surroundings into focus.

Narnia, where it is always winter but never Christmas, barely resembles the young, vibrant and vivid creation we encounter in The Magician’s Nephew. Lucy’s first meeting with Mr Tumnus the faun is awash with reminiscing of summer, when the forests were alive. Narnia is awaiting restoration, an irruption of new life. Signs of this transformation are manifold as the narrative moves towards its climax at the Stone Table. From the appearance of Father Christmas to the early marks of spring, Aslan comes nearer and Narnia anticipates renewal. Even Edmund, travelling in the terrifying presence of the White Witch can sense the change: “All round them though out of sight, there were streams, chattering, murmuring, bubbling, splashing, and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realized that the frost was over” (p164). The servile dwarf knows what they are seeing, “This is no thaw, this is Spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed” (p166).

C.S. Lewis NarniaBut we are getting ahead of ourselves. Another crucial aspect of Lewis’ tale is a theme he reproduced in much of his writing: the impotence of evil and the omnipotence of good. Leaving miserable Edmund with the self-proclaimed Queen of Narnia for a while, we come to the other Pevensies, and another loveable Narnian, Mr Beaver. With the news that Aslan is on the move, the children find in themselves an overpoweringly strange feeling evoked by his name, “like the first signs of spring, like good news” (p146). When they ask about Aslan, they are told that he is the King who will make all things right and rescue those in the Witch’s captivity. Then Mr Beaver recalls an old Narnian rhyme:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bears bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again

Aslan Stone TableWhen asked if the Queen might turn Aslan into stone, as she does all her enemies, Mr Beaver laughs for no power can oppose the King of the wood, son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-sea. Though far from safe, Aslan is fully good. Another old rhyme is the reason the Queen is so interested in Edmund, along with all sons and daughters of Adam who might happen on Narnia: “When two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on those four thrones [at Cair Paravel], then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life” (p148). Thus the danger is not in any way that the Queen might resist Aslan’s unchallengeable sovereignty; she must keep the Pevensies from him, that is her only chance of impeding the promised spring, new life wrought by Aslan himself.

This brings us to Aslan. When the Pevensies meet Aslan, for the first time, we read, “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children ever thought so, they were cured of it now” (p168). Later, we are told that Lucy could not figure out if playing with Aslan was more like playing with a thunderstorm or a kitten. Aslan is at the same time both frighteningly indomitable and invitingly friendly. The children cannot endure his “great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes” without trembling and averting theirs (p169). But Lucy boldly pleads for Aslan to save Edmund, his reply is heavy with anticipation of what is to come, “All shall be done. But it may be harder than you think.” And for the first time, Lucy notices sadness on Aslan’s face. As we skip ahead we can contrast this with the “look of fierce joy” on the face of the Witch, following her discussion of the Deep Magic with Aslan (p176). After issuing battle plans to Peter, Aslan sets off for the Stone Table, with Susan and Lucy following quietly behind, “He looked somehow different from the Aslan they knew. His tail and his head hung low and he walked slowly as if he were very, very tired” (p179). The glorious King heads up the hill towards the Stone Table, to his own death by cruel hands, greatly saddened and alone.

Importantly, the tension here is not between good and evil, for we have already noted that evil has no claim over good in Narnia; what we are invited to witness is how Aslan surrenders his life, better yet, lays it down, to save the one who betrayed him. This heart-breaking scene is not a defeat but the grandest demonstration of both his love and sovereign power. Ironically the Witch asks: “Now, who has won? Fool…you have given me Narnia for ever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die” (p181).

C.S. Lewis NarniaSusan and Lucy approach the dead lion feeling unbearable sadness and utter hopelessness. Aslan lies dead. But the story does not end with death, it heaves into the great newness of life promised by spring. For “though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know…if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned…She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards” (p185). Evil does not triumph over good; Aslan’s absolute love puts all wrongs right and brings all sorrows to an end.