All at sea: #Narniathon21

The Dark Island by Pauline Baynes

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books 1965 (1952)

When an author takes many of their childhood obsessions — and not a few of their adult ones too — and stirs them around in the cauldron of their imagination they may well produce a dish similar to that which Lewis has concocted for us here. Some may consider it a mess of pottage, others a culinary triumph, but there’s no doubting that there is richness here, drawing on many different and mostly complementary flavours.

As he did in Prince Caspian Lewis plunges us in medias res with a call to adventure, the context for which we are told in a backstory. The fact that, after a brief preamble, that call requires three youngsters to be summarily thrust into the middle of an ocean is daring enough; that there is a ship conveniently passing by proves fortunate; and that from the start there is conflict to be resolved is sufficient to entice us to join the youngsters in their unexpected dunking.

If what follows may at first be seen as a series of random episodes, it soon becomes clear that there are patterns to be discerned and processes to be revealed as the voyage of many weeks and leagues wends its way towards a final goal. And we may be sure that, as this is Narnia, Aslan will be coming back into the picture.

Detail from Everhardus Koster’s ‘Viking ships on the river Thames’ (1847)

The very disagreeable Eustace Scrubbs, who delights in taunting his visiting cousins Edmund and Lucy Pevensie about Narnia, is to his surprise drawn with them into a painting of a sailing ship at sea. In great danger of drowning the trio are rescued by the crew of the Dawn Treader which, Lucy and Edmund are delighted to discover, has their friend King Caspian X of Narnia on board. He is on a quest to discover the whereabouts of seven Telmarine nobles who’d been dispatched to the End of the World by his wicked uncle; and with him is Reepicheep, the Mouse who’s as brave as a lion and who wants to travel to Aslan’s Country beyond the World’s End.

To Eustace’s dismay the world of Narnia is not only lacking in modern comforts but there also are no British consuls for him to complain bitterly to about his situation! But the Dawn Treader is resolutely heading towards the rising sun — the Orient — and Eustace will have to redeem himself before he can return to the parental home.

It is often forgotten that C S Lewis was from what is now Northern Ireland, and that on his paternal side he had Welsh blood, so it’s unsurprising that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader demonstrates not only his professional literary interests but also his Celtic affiliations. For example, the novel draws on the tradition of medieval Irish immrama or sea journeys undertaken by the likes of Bran, Máel Dúin and St Brendan, but also hints at Welsh lore such as Preiddeu Annwfn or ‘The Spoils of Annwn’; his youthful delight in Norse mythology is also reflected in the appearance of the Narnian vessel with its dragon prow. There’s much else too, if one cares to search.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by Pauline Baynes

Unlike these Northern European tales, or the wandering journeys of Odysseus in the Odyssey, the Dawn Treader‘s voyage takes it eastwards, alluding to Christian traditions of the Garden of Eden being located in that direction. The seven islands the vessel visits (after the children join it) become places to test the crew members — their greed, their steadfastness, their capacity for compassion, and so on. Not until they reach journey’s end and meet Aslan will there be a parting of the ways.

After some slight disappointment with Prince Caspian (which, after the emotional ups and downs of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, felt oddly anticlimactic) I found this third instalment much more satisfying: there was a sense of purpose and direction here, and characters were more developed as they responded to the islands they encountered and the perils they had to cope with. Caspian — already three years older in Narnian chronology — evinced a more mature nature, Reepicheep looked like achieving his heart’s desire, Eustace had his selfish viewpoint reoriented, and the two Pevensies had their sterling qualities confirmed (even if Lucy, when tempted, succumbed to a natural curiosity).

All in all, I’m willing to forgive Lewis his usual tendency towards preachiness and overly overt symbolism, as when Aslan appears in the guise of a Lamb; whether as a pilgrimage or an odyssey, an immran or a quest, this story proves as exciting as any voyage of exploration or trip towards the unknown, confirming Lewis’s talents as a storyteller.

This instalment of the Narniad, by Belfast native C S Lewis, is my first read for Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month in 2022 as well as being a review for #Narniathon21. I aim to expand on some of the ideas mentioned here in related posts.

#Narniathon21 image after Pauline Baynes

23 thoughts on “All at sea: #Narniathon21

  1. JJ Lothin

    That’s an excellent account of my favourite of the Narnia books, Chris, and the Everhardus Koster detail makes for a perfect Dawn Treader!

    I suspect that, if I were to read the books again today, I would have more sympathy than I did with the ‘very disagreeable’ Eustace, guilty of such cardinal sins as addressing his parents by their Christian names …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Or being vegetarian, or wearing suitable underclothes… 😄 I have to admit our kids have always addressed us by our forenames and I can’t see that we’re all any more peculiar or weird than the next person!

      I’m pleased you liked the Koster painting, JJ — I was keen to see what Lewis might been influenced by for his vision of a medievalised version of a Viking longboat, and lo! this picture popped up. Anyway, glad my account passed muster!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jjlothin

        … oh I forgot about the vegetarianism and the underclothes! Though I do seem to remember that Eustace was into some kind of strange calisthenic exercises?!?


  2. I need to learn more about those medieval Irish sea journeys. I knew of Brendan’s but the others somehow passed me by. I’m glad you enjoyed this one!

    I think that Eustace and his parents are so disagreeable not so much because of their odd habits as because they think these practices make them superior to everyone else. Not unlike the general notion of Christians, an irony I don’t know if Lewis appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I only have synopses of the Máel Dúin and Bran immrama, Lory, but I’ve previously read the St Brendan navigatio and hope to review it in a week or two, and also talk about Lewis’s possible influences for VDT. The sense of this novel being part of a long tradition played a large part of my enjoyment of it!

      And yes, a ‘holier than thou’ attitude is common to many of those with beliefs, many with none, and quite a few who think their philosophy renders them more virtuous than their neighbour! (Mind you, I suspect I usually fall into the last category so I’m not one to talk…)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The Celtic and Nordic influences were not something I caught onto; and something I’d like to look into further for sure.

    From the comment above on Eustace, I am also reminded of a thought that came to me when I was reading; about this notion of the ideal child or at least a way a child should be which reflects in both the Narnias and Blyton’s books. Another aspect that needs looking into perhaps also in terms of popular ideas or mores in their day vis-a-vis how we understand them today.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I shall in due course be looking at some of those Celtic and Nordic influences, and a few others, so your curiosity may soon be in part satisfied!

      I don’t know about you, but I’m of a generation who were told as children that we should be seen and not heard, and I know my parents always insisted they were not only older and therefore wiser than me but that there was nothing worthwhile I could tell them that they didn’t already know. I think that authors like Lewis and Blyton, however much they dressed it up with humour in their fiction, probably shared this or a similar attitude.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That is one aspect of course, but also other elements I find like Blyton’s negative view of children who are not sporty or weak or who cry–all seen as very negative qualities to have. This comes through both in her mysteries and school stories. In some cases, one also sees contradictions like Pip pointing at Ern Goon for being a coward since he’s terrified of Goon when he is himself equally terrified of his father.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yes, that is one reason I rapidly moved on from Blyton — as one whose school reports frequently levelled the criticism at me of being too ‘sensitive’ all that bullish ‘play up, play the game’ attitude that children’s literature of the period often espoused put me right off; and though Blyton’s fiction wasn’t uniformly like that I had by that time moved on. I remember very little of her work now except for Noddy, the Famous Five and, for a brief while, the Secret Seven.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. jjlothin

            There was something very sinister indeed about some of the Blyton books: I seem to remember that in one Noddy ‘adventure, he was captured by a gang of golliwogs who stripped him naked, tied him to a tree and stole his car. I can’t imagine that one particular story’s allowed to see the light of day in 2022 …


  4. Really interesting post, Chris, particularly for someone like me who’s not particularly well versed in mythology. I loved this particular instalment – some marvellous verbal imagery from Lewis, and the end section is particularly strong I think. And Baynes’s drawings are always spot on for me. As for Eustace, although his peculiarities are not that peculiar and reflect Lewis’s own prejudices, the description of him still makes me laugh!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you found my comments interesting and insightful about some aspects of mythology, on which more later, I hope! I agree about the way Lewis describes the Silver Sea covered in white lilies (rather like a warm Arctic scene) and how lyrically he waxes about it, how he heightens its effectiveness with layer of symbolism (lilies, even water lilies, of course suggesting both peace and purity).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I didn’t know Lewis was from Northern Ireland. I also liked learning that he used so much mythology in this story. I recognized the Norse mythology, but not the others. I agree that the characters and story were much more developed in VDT than in Prince Caspian. I really enjoyed reading your review. Thank you for your insights!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, though he’s often thought to be a quintessentially English writer he was born in Belfast; both he and Tolkien (who was born in South Africa) were essentially outsiders or at least outliers who are now intimately identified with an Oxbridge-based English literary tradition. After VDT I’m very much looking forward to The Silver Chair which is highly rated by those more familiar with the Narniad than me!


  6. This is a fascinating and enjoyable post, Chris. Like you I do think that the Narnia adventure picked up in this story. Caspian is less ‘bland’ than I found him in the previous episode and there is more excitement and drama. I have shamefully limited knowledge of Celtic and Norse mythology so had missed out on those links. I do find the influences on his work intriguing and thank you making me aware of them. I now have lots more reading to do!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Appreciate this, Anne, thank you! I have planned at least two follow-up posts, one of which will include more detail about what I think are clear mythological and literary influences on VDT, so your curiosity may possibly be satisfied in this area. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: It’s Reading Ireland Month 2022!

  8. Pingback: Reading Ireland Month: Week One Round Up!

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