The Utter East: #Narniathon21

Illustration by Pauline Baynes

“Where sky and water meet, | Where the waves grow sweet … | There is the utter East.”

Chapter Two

I promised I’d discuss some of the possible influences on C S Lewis’s conception of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. You may remember that this instalment in The Chronicles of Narnia featured a journey by sea eastwards, ostensibly on a quest to locate seven missing Telmarine lords but which stopped at the World’s End before reaching Aslan’s country.

It is generally accepted that Lewis’s own Christianity played a large part in the symbolic import of the story: with Aslan as a parallel to Christ where else would he be found than in an Eden-like place to the east? That this would require some form of pilgrimage towards the dawn seems to be implied in Matthew’s gospel:

For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

Matthew 24:27, King James Version

But Lewis framed his Narnian pilgrimage to the east not as a trek but as a journey by sea; and he drew on a variety of exemplars from mythology, literature and history for the form and detail of his children’s fantasy. In this extended essay I want to mention a few of the concepts that fed into Lewis’s fictional odyssey.

Lion doorknob at St Mark’s rectory, Dundela, Belfast

A note about Lewis in the Puffin Books edition of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader reminds us that as a boy “his favourites were E Nesbit and Gulliver’s Travels; but as he grew older the Norse myths and sagas became his dearest literary loves, only to be rivalled later by Homer and the wonderful world of Greek legend and literature as soon as he was able to read it in the original.” So let’s begin with classical myth and legend, for Homer’s Odyssey is an obvious place to start.

Though Odysseus’s journey goes from Troy in the eastern Mediterranean by devious routes westwards to Ithaca, as with the Dawn Treader his ship’s route takes in many shores and islands: the land of the Lotus eaters, the island of the Cyclopes, and the land of the cannibal Laestrygones; then it’s onwards to Circe’s island Aeaea, and after reaching the World’s End, sailing past perils like the sirens and Scylla to Thrinacia, to Calypso’s island of Ogygia and to the Utopian island of Scherie, the penultimate landfall before homecoming. In other words, discounting revisits that’s seven ports of call.

Another influence must surely be the story of the hero Jason who, in Apollonius of Rhodes’ Jason and the Golden Fleece, captained Argo, the ship crewed by the Argonauts. That journey, like Caspian’s, began on an east coast — for Jason, in the port of Iolcus in Greece — and headed further east. The Argo thus sailed from the East Mediterranean through the Dardanelles and ended on the east coast of the Black Sea. Here was Jason’s prize, the Golden Fleece, which clearly invokes the Lamb that the party from the Dawn Treader meet after passing through the Silver Sea. Then let’s consider the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece; this must surely remind us of Eustace after he was turned into a dragon on his heap of gold.

Next, Lewis will have known of medieval Irish voyages known as immrama, the most famous one being the fantastical ninth-century Navigatio Sancti Brendani or The Voyage of St Brendan, which is said to have inspired Columbus’s voyage of exploration in 1492. Though Brendan’s seven-year journey to the Promised Land of Saints was to the west, supposedly seeing icebergs and volcanoes and landing on a whale’s back, he also visited the Island of Sheep, the Paradise of Birds, and the Island of Grapes on his way to what would likely have been North America. As when the Dawn Treader picks up Lucy, Edmund and Eustace, Brendan’s skin boat also picks up three latecomers en route

Septentrionalium Regionum Descriptio, by Abraham Ortelius (ca 1570)

A 1570s map by Abraham Ortelius, Septentrionalium Regionum Descriptio, shows an island labelled Sancti Brendani Insula in the bottom left, above a Triton and to the west of a ship in full sail. Incidentally,Tim Severin’s The Brendan Voyage attempts to identify the saint’s landfalls, following his expedition in the 1970s using a replica skin boat.

The Irish weren’t the only insular Celts to have seafaring tales. The Second Branch of the Mabinogi includes a return boat journey by the giant Brân, one of seven survivors from a battle in Ireland, to the Island of Britain via Harlech and the Welsh island of Gwales — where, like Ramandu’s Isle, a feast was always on offer for the seven warriors. A related story is found in the Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwfn (‘The Spoils of Annwn’):  the warrior Arthur travels to Annwn with three boat-loads of men, but only seven returned in his ship Prydwen:

‘Tri lloneit prytwen yt aetham ni idi.
Nam seith ny dyrreith o gaer sidi.’
(Three loads for Prydwen, we went there,
but for seven, none returned from the Otherworld Fort.)

Coe & Young 1995:136-139
The Ash Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1886)

The fact that the Dawn Treader, with its dragon prow, single square sail and ranks of oars, vaguely resembles a Viking longboat, may now lead us to consider how Norse cosmology influenced the novel. The world centred on Narnia resembles aspects of Midgard — the Middle Enclosure inhabited by men — with Jötunheimr, the Nordic realm of the giants (as represented in The Silver Chair) duplicated on Narnia’s borders. Midgard is also surrounded by the ocean, round which curls the sea serpent Jörmungandr, the ‘Great Beast’: is this one of the inspirations for the episode in which the Dawn Treader — after it leaves Dragon Island — is nearly crushed by the coils of the Sea Serpent? And a model of a serpent-headed boat from the Late Bronze or Early Iron Age was found at Roos Carr in East Yorkshire (associated with figures which had detachable phalluses!) which suggests a long prehistory for such concepts right across North Sea cultures.

Yew figures with quartzite eyes on a serpent-headed longboat, Hull Museum.

Lewis will also have been familiar with The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor in various retellings. Sinbad’s journeys involve many incidents from other ancient tales of voyages: here too is the landing on a sleeping whale, encounters with cannibals and a one-eyed giant, meetings with bird-people and an adventure with a giant bird called a Roc. Though few if any of these correspond directly with events in Lewis’s tale there are visits from birds on Ramandu’s island and the appearance of a solitary albatross (doubtless taken from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner).

Maps from ‘Gulliver’s Travels’

You will have been noticing the recurrence of the number seven in many of these tales — seven years, seven survivors, seven landfalls, seven voyages — and after the Narnian ship leaves the Seven Isles and picks up the three cousins it too arrives at seven islands, island groups and lands: the Lone Islands, Dragon Island, Burnt Island, the Land of the Duffers, Dark Island, Ramandu’s Island and World’s End. The original goal of the expedition was to locate seven Telmarine lords who had gone overseas; and the most frequently named individuals on the Dawn Treader also number seven: King Caspian, Reepicheep, Captain Drinian, Rince the mate, and of course the three children.

Meanwhile, Gulliver’s Travels was notably among the books Lewis adored as a child, and this account also featured seven principal islands: Lilliput, its neighbour Blefuscu, Brobdingnag, Balnibaribi with its floating island Laputa, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and the Land of the Houyhnhnms. Perhaps Lewis owed much more to his compatriot Jonathan Swift than he owned up to.

My map of the various lands visited by Tom the Water-Baby at the Other End of Nowhere, using ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ as an inspiration.

Another title which I surmise Lewis knew was Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, in which the former climbing boy Tom embarks on a fantastical journey from St Brendan’s Island to the Other-End-of-Nowhere, visiting islands like Polupragmosyne, the Island of the Golden Asses, the Land of Hearsay, Laputa and OldWivesFabledom. Tom’s pilgrimage to the book’s equivalent of a paradise has a moral purpose, however, which may have appealed to Lewis’s religious sensibilities:

‘Those who go there must go first where they do not like, and do what they do not like, and help somebody they do not like.’

Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid

It’s worth mentioning here that the water-babies of Kingsley’s novel also have a counterpart in Lewis’s tale, when Lucy on the Dawn Treader sees sea-people riding seahorses; later she exchanges glances with a girl herding a shoal of fishes. Because this incident takes place a little before the ship arrives at the Silver Sea with its carpet of lilies, I fancy Lewis is remembering St Brendan’s Isle in The Water-Babies which is where the babies have their home: St Brendan’s Isle of course is the Promised Land of the Saints in the medieval Navigatio.

Illustration of Princess Irene, by Arthur Hughes, 1872

It’d be remiss of me to omit another literary island that Lewis would’ve drawn on, Prospero’s Isle from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Lewis specifically references the isle when he mentions that the Isle of the Duffers (who are invisible at this point) is “full of noises” if not also “sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.” Coriakin the magician (who is also a fallen star) resembles the magician Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan; Lucy is a bit like Prospero’s daughter Miranda, an innocent maid much like the Pevensie girl.

When Lucy creeps up the stairs of the magician’s mansion not only is she like the chaste virgin knight Britomart in The Faërie Queene (as Katherine Langrish notes) but she also I think resembles Princess Irene in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin: Irene (as beautifully illustrated by Arthur Hughes) also trepidantly creeps upstairs, in the princess’s case to eventually discover her great-great-grandmother, who’s a kind of fairy godmother.

Hereford’s Mappa Mundi (public domain)

Finally, I want to draw attention to medieval cartography, a subject not unfamiliar to Lewis the academic as holder of a Chair in Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. As a once reluctant schoolboy in the Malvern Hills he might well have visited Hereford Cathedral with its now world-famous Mappa Mundi. Here is the world laid out as a flat disc, its margin surrounded by Ocean, Jerusalem at its centre, and in the ‘utter East’ (at the top of the map) the Garden of Eden on an island guarded by an angel with a flaming sword. Islands fringe the Mappa and distant lands are inhabited by mythical beasts and strange peoples — including skiapods or monopods, humans with just one leg like the Dufflepuds in Lewis’s novel.

Monopod or skiapod

More tenuous details link the Mappa Mundi with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in effect if not in fact. On the Hereford world map we can see the Golden Fleece depicted by the Black Sea, a parallel to the Lamb that then reveals itself to be Aslan; here too is shown near the Nile a winged salamander, labelled in Latin as a ‘venomous dragon’, a counterpart perhaps of Eustace’s dragon. And off on the western rim by the entrance to the Mediterranean are marked the Fortunate Isles, long associated with the lands visited on St Brendan’s legendary voyage. And placed in roundels around the circumference are four letters spelling MORS, Latin for Death.

These then are some of the literary and legendary influences I detect in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Of course I’m not suggesting that Lewis was necessarily alluding to them all, merely that his wide and voracious reading will naturally have supplied him with striking details which look as though they have found their way into this part of the Narniad. But, for the moment, only Reepicheep the Mouse on his coracle has gone beyond the great wave which, similar to those created for the Israelites during the parting of the Red Sea, separates a land of bondage from freedom.

Only a brave talking rodent is able, for now at least, to see beyond the veil that divides Narnia from Aslan’s country, to cross over the boundary from worldly existence to death — and what may be, after.

“A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…” Camille Flammarion, L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888)

  • Apollonius of Rhodes. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Richard Hunter. 1993. Jason and the Golden Fleece (The Argonautica). Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Jon B Coe and Simon Young. 1995. The Celtic Sources for the Arthurian Legend. Llanerch Publishers.
  • Sioned Davies. 2007. The Mabinogion. Oxford University Press.
  • P D A Harvey. 1996. Mappa Mundi. The Hereford World Map. Hereford Cathedral & The British Library.
  • Homer. Translated by E V Rieu. 1946. The Odyssey. Penguin Classics, 1970.
  • Charles Kingsley. 1862. The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby. Macmillan and Co, 1889.
  • Katherine Langrish. 2021. From Spare Oom to War Drobe. Darton, Longman and Todd.
  • C S Lewis. 1952. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Puffin Books, 1965.
  • George MacDonald. 1872. The Princess and the Goblin. Puffin Books, 1996.
  • Tim Severin. 1978. The Brendan Voyage. Book Club Associates / Hutchinson.
  • Jonathan Swift. 1726. Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World,in four parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon and then a captain of several ships, 2 vols. J M Dent, 1906.
  • J F Webb, translator. Lives of the Saints. Penguin Classics, 1965.

12 thoughts on “The Utter East: #Narniathon21

  1. JJ Lothin

    What a fascinating piece of scholarship, Chris! I can’t imagine there can be many people alive today who are familiar with all the influences Lewis must have imbibed, and who would therefore be capable of coming up with an equivalent rich work of the imagination …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s very kind of you to say so, JJ, but I’m no scholar and certainly not one familiar with Lewis’s influences! The possible and probable connections I see are just from my own scattergun reading, and true scholars will know the scholastic and theological sources from which Lewis’s imagination took flight…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Jenni, I was aiming to show how rich the background to Lewis’s novel was, which of course doesn’t detract from his originality and innovative use of the source material.


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