The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Narnia Dawn TreaderOf all the Narnia books, this was my favorite. No battle scenes, no uncomfortable journeys on foot through the wilderness, just a voyage on a dragon-headed boat to a series of fantastical isles.

I often don’t like episodic story lines — I have too much trouble shifting my attention every chapter. But in Dawn Treader Lewis made each adventure intriguing in its own right, avoiding that wearying sense of one-damn-thing-after-another. There is Eustace’s experience with being an inconvenient dragon; the island where the water turns things to gold, and the corrosive effect it starts to have on everyone’s personalities; the sea serpent that tries to squeeze the boat to pieces and must be pushed backward off the stern; the island where Lucy must go alone to read the magician’s book; the dark island (not my favorite episode but it contributes to the overall richness of variety); and the island of the feast and the singing birds.

Hating early Eustace is of course fun, though many people have pointed out Lewis’s judgemental conservatism: “He didn’t call his father and mother ‘Father’ and ‘Mother,’ but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotallers and wore a special kind of underclothes.” This is funny, but also deeply stupid. Less often noticed, though, is Lewis’s nastiness towards a child who prefers non-fiction to fantasy adventure, and is interested in ocean liners and motor-boats and aeroplanes and submarines. When Edmund sneers, “As if he knew anything about them,” Edmund is wrong. Do I even need to say it to a modern audience? Eustace is an Aspie.

The framework of Dawn Treader comes from a long tradition of such stories, including Greco-Roman myth (the Odyssey, Jason and the Argonauts, the Aeneid), writings of the Spanish Arab scholar al-Idrisi, and some of the Norse legends, although Lewis’s most immediate inspiration was probably the Irish immram tales. These tell of voyagers sailing west into the Atlantic in search of the Otherworld, encountering strange islands along the way. A number of specific details in Dawn Treader seem to be plucked from these.

(But while we’re on the topic, let’s do away with the idea that Lewis and Tolkien were these intrepid genius scholars of ancient manuscripts. Digging up European and Middle-Eastern folklore was hugely popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with translations and “retellings for children” pouring off of the presses. Lewis and Tolkien were late to the party. Several English-language translations of the immrama, including one for children, would have been available to Lewis.)

You may have noticed I left one adventure off my list above. This is their encounter with the slave traders on the Lone Islands. I find this episode so distasteful that I skipped it when reading to my daughter. Caspian’s encounter with Lord Bern is Lewis at his crypto-homoerotic, dominance-and-submission peak. (Lord Bern, by the way, may decry “vile traffic in man’s flesh,” but apparently has no problem owning a slave himself.) This sort of thing would be all good fun in, say, an episode of Outlander. But in a children’s book it is faintly horrifying. Then there’s also the matter of Caspian’s might-makes-right takeover of the Lone Islands, made palatable by his gang having prettier costumes and flags.


Prince Caspian

Prince CaspianThis is arguably the weakest of the Narnia books. (I don’t mean the worst, merely the weakest.) Lewis didn’t seem have any new ideas yet for what to do with Narnia, so he essentially reworked the first book. The children come to save Narnia from the grip of a foreign power that is hostile to “real Narnia,” “old Narnia.” There is a gearing up for battle and then the children separate, the boys staying to show their manliness in combat, the girls riding with Aslan on a joyous Bacchanalia to awaken allies.

This is not, from the point of view of a child devotee, neccessarily a bad thing. In the wise words of my friend Susie (regarding a different series), “it’s like getting to read your favorite book over again for the first time.”

But in virtue of it being a re-tread we do spend most of the book in Narnia, and for the last time. Remarkably, the Narnia books are not primarily set in Narnia. They take place mostly beyond its borders: to the East or North or South or West; before it begins or after it ends. Narnia is the anchor, the thing we are always trying to get back to, but it is not the main event.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book of essays called Surprised by Joy, about his conversion to Christianity, but it turns out his definition of “joy” was a terribly warped and sad one. According to Miller’s invaluable book, he was talking about the sudden, piercing longing that can strike a person, when a sound or sight conjours up a vision of something you desperately want and can never have. For some reason, for Lewis, this was “joy.” And this is why we can’t spend prolonged time in Narnia. To do so would be to replace longing with ordinary happiness.


Narnia: How to tell kids about symbolism

Narnia King Lune

I guess it’s Narnia Season! If you don’t like Narnia, maybe skip my blog for the next month or two. (Or, come on in and tell us why you don’t like Narnia.)

In the post before last, I mentioned that Laura Miller, author of The Magician’s Book, came to feel betrayed by Narnia in different way than I did. Miller was raised in a Christian tradition of guilt and tedium, and what (she thought) she found in Narnia as a child was a glorious escape from all that. When she realized the truth she was horrified.

I, on the other hand, was still a believer when my 5th grade teacher laid out the allegory for us point by point. I was never fooled into thinking Narnia was secular or pagan. And I personally thought it was awesome. I felt like I was being initiated into some kind of Masonic-like secret. (My own later sense of betrayal came when I realized how, despite all the fauns and fountains, C.S. Lewis’s world view was rotten to the core. More on that in a later post.)

What strikes me now, looking back, is how naturally we all took to the idea of allegory (or metaphor, or symbolism, or whatever you want to call what Lewis was doing). Whatever else one might say about Lewis, he did symbolism right, in a way that enhanced the emotional impact of the story, and in a story that had its own inherent appeal.

So it came about that I was shocked to my core by the high school death-march through Bartleby the Scrivener. This probably had something to do with me not taking a single literature course in college. As far as I was concerned, the experts were doing it wrong.

Even as a post-college adult, trying to take a more nuanced look at the issue, I have been disappointed. For a time I was an Isak Dinesen fan, and after the movie Babette’s Feast came out I made a point of tracking down the original story. The writing is masterful, and the allegory — briefly, Babette gives up everything she has to provide a feast for twelve people who at first do not know how to appreciate it, but by the end are transformed — is delicately handled and holds one’s attention.

But the problem is, the story entirely fails to work at a literal level. TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, BABETTE!

The literary world was so taken with this feat of extended metaphor that they seemed not to notice that such devices should be there to serve the story, not the other way around.

So that is the tale of how Narnia spoiled me forever for Serious Literature. Join us next week for a look at Prince Caspian.

The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe

Lion Witch WardrobeIt is a terrible thing that Lewis’s publishers posthumously decided to issue the Narnia books in chronological order of the events, rather than in the original publication order. They claim it was Lewis’s wish, but the evidence for that is extremely flimsy — a letter he wrote to a child fan, apparently answering a question about the order of the events in the books.

The fact is, nothing else but The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe could be the beginning of Narnia. It is the well-spring, the source; and only the most tone-deaf of editors could think otherwise.

Two things set LWW apart from the other books. First, it is the only one in which Narnia is not populated with humans. It is a world that belongs to the animals and tree spirits and mythological creatures. I think, at some level, many readers continue to believe they are in this Narnia throughout the books, despite all evidence to the contrary. But starting immediately with Prince Caspian, we are in a world where humans not only live but dominate. There is Telmar, Archenland, Calormen, Terebinthia, the Seven Isles, and the Lone Isles, all populated by humans.

A hand is waved, in Prince Caspian, at the idea that all humans in this world must have come from Earth (hence the Telmarines are descended from people who stumbled through a portal), but essentially, all the countries of the Narnian world except Narnia itself have an indigenous human population. (The earth couple that become the first queen and king in Magician’s Nephew? Apparently their offspring populated every country except Narnia!) And even Narnia proper falls into human hands, with the Telmarines who choose to remain forming a large percentage of the Narnian population thereafter. It’s hard to say whether this makes Narnia lose part of its charm, or whether it takes on a different kind of charm. (Certainly for fans of medieval European culture, it’s a win.)

Narnia Beaver's houseThe second way in which LWW stands out is in its lack of internal consistency, which might seem to be a flaw but instead is arguably the heart of the book. This is a land where Nordic dwarfs rub shoulders with Greek fauns, where Father Christmas makes an appearance defying all logic, and where the beavers eat ham and onions and potatoes and bread and butter and marmalade and tea, with (as Laura Miller points out in The Magician’s Book) no pigs, no cow, no plowed fields, and no climate for growing oranges or tea. None of that matters, in the first book. It is all sheer imagery, evoking a magical world that suits one’s heart’s desire. The beavers represent snug, industrious, thriving rural folk; of course Mrs. Beaver has a sewing machine and Mr. Beaver has tobacco.

It is later, when Lewis tries to develop a consistent history, geography, economy, and cosmology for Narnia, that he gets into trouble, and the inconsistencies become a problem instead of part of the charm.