I admit it. I struggle with The Chronicles of Narnia. I know they are supposed to be enchanting stories that speak of deeper realities, but all I find are shallow narratives that leave my imagination in lurch. I want to believe in Narnia; I want to believe in Aslan — yet, C.S. Lewis does a poor job of making either believable.
My latest journey into Narnia was through The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In Voyage, we find the Pevensies once again in Narnia, but not alone. They are accompanied by their priggish cousin, Eustace. The threesome find themselves thrust onto the deck of the Dawn Treader in mid-voyage. King Caspian is sailing the far seas in search of his long-lost uncles, while Reepicheep, the head-mouse of Narnia, cares only of reaching the Far East and Aslan’s country. What ensues is an island-hopping adventure story.
As we read Voyage, we travel from one encounter to the next — all of which are predictable. Why are they predictable? Because Lewis does a poor job of creating tension. In each instance, the reader never questions the outcome. The Pevensies will be safe and successful. King Caspian will find his Uncles. Reepicheep will have his wildest hopes fulfilled. Even Eustace, the priggish pill, will be transformed into a model citizen. Without any real tension, Voyage is smooth sailing on a clam sea.
I found myself wondering if this was Lewis’ attempt at a Narnian Odyssey. The difference being, in the Odyssey, we do feel real tension. We find ourselves asking, along with Odysseus: “Will the hero return to Ithaca?” Because Odysseus’ fate is in the balance, the narrative is driven by the winds of tension. The lax tension in Voyage, however, is due to Aslan’s gracious appearance at every turn. Follow the formula of Voyage: 1) The Voyagers find themselves on a mysterious island. 2) The Voyagers back themselves into a pretty gnarly corner. 3) Aslan appears and saves the day. 4) Repeat. This continues until the Voyagers find themselves in the East, where the story ends with happiness and joy.
A good story does not need to end in despair. A good story — whether a children’s story or not — is in need of both tension and complexity. Twice in Voyage we find these dual necessities, but both are tertiary. The first is found on the Island of the Dufflepuds. It is there that the Voyagers find a magician who, they later find out, is a fallen star in exile. Why? Lewis chooses not to reveal the “why” of the exile, therefore creating a small amount of narrative tension. He does this once again towards the end of the book when he has one of the Dawn Treader’s sailors refuse to carry on with the voyage. The sailor is left behind, but not before Lewis provides a short glimpse into the rest of this sailor’s life — a life that is infused with loss and regret after his decision to leave his shipmates. This is complex. This is tension building. This is what is needed in both The Chronicles of Narnia and children’s literature in general.
If The Chronicles of Narnia are good for anything, then they are good for the nuggets of philosophical truth that are riddled throughout for the careful reader. In Voyage, we find one such truth. Near the end of Voyage, we meet Ramandu, a tired star. When told that stars in the Pevensies’ world are but flaming balls of gas, he responds, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” Yes, this is Lewis at his best. I had to read this twice over; stew on it; and ask myself, “What is a star?” My imagination was let free to soar across the galaxy. Unfortunately, this is a rarity in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.Powered by Sidelines