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The Chronicles of Narnia: A Loveable Yawn-Fest

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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.

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About Benjamin John Peters

Benjamin John Peters is the author of Through All The Plain. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Religious and Theological Studies at the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. He lives in Denver with his wife and three children.
  • Kelley, it is you that is disturbing. We should not distort anything in life by applying a false religious dimension to it. God – or the Tooth Fairy – doesn’t exist.

  • I find your conclusion disturbing. Shouldn’t we run EVERYTHING we experience on this planet through a Christian lens? Shouldn’t we view the world and its cultures through our Bible glasses? Jesus has to be the center of our worldview, of our daily existence. He has to be the sun to our personal universe. That includes what we take in with our senses: books, movies, rituals, etc. Otherwise, we’re saying God doesn’t have sovereignty over that stuff. But he does, if we’ll let him.

  • I have no desire to start either a slanderous campaign or a fiery debate. That being said, I still find it strange that in order to reach those interpretations, you have to run them first through a Christian lens. In contrast, I would suggest both Martin’s “The Ice Dragon” and MacDonald’s “The Golden Key.”

  • Dr. Dreadful: hello! I’m not sure who you are but thanks for the comment.

    Ben: I apologize for the slander. I guess I couldn’t resist. It’s just that your thoughts on VDT sounded naive. I don’t think VDT lacks complexity or tension. It’s the beautiful tale of various characters learning about more about themselves on the archetypal setting of a sea voyage and it works because there are no external enemies – just internal ones. The complexity comes from the characters discovering their motives, ‘working out their own salvation’ in a sense, in the context of a journey to Aslan’s country – the home of their desires and of their king. VDT is also the story of Eustace’s conversion, his submission to Aslan as he discovers the evil in his heart without Aslan in the shape of a dragon. I think VDT is an excellent example of sea voyage and journey literature ‘coming home’ again – post-Odyssey, Ulysses, etc. And where did this archetypal journey begin? When Adam and Eve left Eden. Have you studied much archetypal literature? VDT is the MOST archetypal of the Narnia books, more so than LWW or LB!

  • Kelley, Melinda, and Dr. Dreadful, I apologize if anything I said came off as arrogant. That was not my inanition. I did, however, feel a need to defend myself against Kelley’s statement, “When it comes to all things Narnia, spiritual and otherwise, you’re incredibly naive!” I’m not sure why you are singling me out here, but, as you are, I apologize for any offense. A few responses/thoughts: I truly believe that a story, any story, isn’t a good story unless it stands on its own. That being said, Lewis maintained that the Narnia books were not allegorical. In a sense, he wanted them to be read as a story in which the reader (per my previous quote) could find his or her own meaning. If one finds Christian meaning in Narnia, then that is well and good, but it certainly doesn’t detract from other, legitimate, readings. In my post, I provide numerous reasons why I think the The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is not a classically good story. To summarize: I think it lacks both complexity and tension. This has nothing to do with it being a children’s story–even children’s stories have conventions that make them either good or bad.

  • It’s well known that Lewis intended the Narnia series as a Christian allegory as well as a fantasy adventure story.

    I’m not sure he succeeded all that well with the former aim, as we never paid much attention to the allegorical element even though it was impressed on us from the outset when we were first introduced to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at primary school. The idea of a whole new world hidden at the back of a closet was captivating enough without having to know that Aslan = Christ.

    Apart from Wardrobe, Dawn Treader is probably my favourite of the series (perhaps because I like sea stories anyway), so I’m not sure what Benjamin’s problem is. Possibly he’s failing to read through the eyes of Lewis’s intended audience.

  • Melinda

    Hmm. Benjamin, I am troubled by the arrogant tone not only in your blog but in your comment to Kelley (I have left this note as a comment on her blog as well). I don’t believe Lewis felt an urgent need while writing the Narnia books to impress those with an M.A. in any field. He wrote them for the enjoyment of children, and they have certainly proved over the decades since they were published that they have staying power. Like Kelley, I also see a meaning within them that you seem to miss. Perhaps all your lofty knowledge is obscuring the truth that shines through to those who come to the books with a childlike heart. But what do I know… I only have a B.A. I suppose that makes my opinion meaningless to you. Oh… but since we are flinging degrees around, I will mention that my husband has a PhD, loves the Chronicles of Narnia, and has told me that Voyage is his favourite book of the series (my favourite is The Last Battle, but that’s beside the point).

    Kelley, I enjoyed reading your blog. I’d like to read Voyage again (it has been a few years now) and then read through your blog a second time before I form an opinion on your theory. I appreciate that you have presented your views in a manner that shows respect to the author and your readers and that lacks the arrogance Benjamin displays. Well done!

  • You have made my point. A good story stands on its own. A good story does not need an imported quasi-allegory in order to give it meaning. You have hijacked The Chronicles of Narnia for your own Christian purposes, and have forgotten to first read it as a story. As a story, The Dawn Treader cannot hold water. And before you sling more ignorant mud my way (I have an M.A. in both Biblical Studies and English Literature, the second of which was concentrated on Lewisian studies), I will remind you of another Lewis quote, “It is the author who intends; the book means.”

  • When it comes to all things Narnia, spiritual and otherwise, you’re incredibly naive! Please read my blog post if you want to know what “Dawn Treader” is really about!