Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader : critical analysis

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is one of the more engaging books of C.S Lewis's seven book series, mainly because of the theme of an epic journey. It raises many interesting issues that were not seen in the previous written books. Many literary analysts over time have attempted to address or interpret these themes and issues. Colin Manlove is one of these, a renowned literary critic on numerous fantasy works including those of J.R.R Tolkien, a friend and mentor of Lewis's. Manlove makes a statement about this particular book, which is the third book in the series when taken in order of publication, and the fifth book in chronological order. When referring to the books here, publication order will be considered to lessen any confusionAlso, only the books that relate directly to the Pevensie children will be mentioned in depth. Magician's Nephew and Horse and His Boy are not as relevant to the topics being discussed. Colin Manlove makes many notable observations in his statement about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and also a few debatable claims. These will all be addressed in the order stated.

Firstly, Manlove states that growth and expansion is a structural pattern in each of the books. This is undeniably true. Each book delves more deeply into important issues in life. If the publication order of reading is to be considered, this is definitely true. Starting with The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, the focus begins with introducing Narnia and Aslan. This enables the Pevensie children and the readers to widen their minds to other realities and possibilities, as a staring point to prepare them for the rest of their adventures. Then in Prince Caspian, a more subtle plot of belief without seeing is introduced, which requires further proof of their faith – and not all of them succeed. Peter and Susan take the longest to believe that Aslan is with them without seeing him, and act more grown up than they are. This new development in their characters insinuates that they are getting too old for Narnia, so when Aslan confirms this at the end of the book it is not that much of a surprise. Then with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the monumental task of facing temptations growing into adults is required. The characters have to discover themselves and decide what kind of people they want to grow to be. In the following books the new characters (because the Pevensie's are no longer part of the immediate story line until the end in The Last Battle) must face even larger problems, and grow and expand their capabilities much more to achieve their goals. In The Silver Chair must undertake the impossible task of rescuing Prince Rillian with only a few clues and Jill is tested more than any other charcter while on their first trip to Narnia. Then in The Last Battle she and Eustace go through the worst ordeal ever seen in the books – they must watch their friends and comrades die around them in battle and the destruction of all that is good in the old Narnia. The readers go through the stages together with all the characters, which is key to the whole Narnian experience. So, there is in fact a clear structure of growth and expansion in each of the books.*
Next, Colin briefly summarizes that the point of the book is that it is a “journey out from Narnia to discover Aslan's far country”. This is a very general description and it slightly takes away from the real point of the story. Yes, the primary reason for the physical 'journey' is to indeed seek Aslan's country (and the seven lost Lords), but a more subtext and far more important reason is the journey of maturing, and growing up. That also is a very generalized notion, so each character's personal journey to maturity needs to be addressed separately. For Caspian, the journey is about accepting his leadership role as king, and understand that personal needs, like his desire to travel to the end of the world and forfeit his crown, must come second to his duty to Narnia. This physical journey quenches some of his thirst for adventure and glory so that he can return to Narnia and be king without any unfulfilled needs. For Edmund and Lucy the journey is more about coming to terms that they need to be able to live in their world without Aslan and Narnia, and creating a sense of self and identity on their own. For Lucy in particular, it is about discovering what kind of woman she wants to become; she faces unresolved issues like her jealousy of Susan and how she sees herself. Edmund's journey is about facing deep personal issues he has had since his first encounter in Narnia – namely, his problems with always being 'second in command'. This comes to light on Deathwater island in his duel with Caspian. For Eustace, the journey has quite a different effect. It prepares him for his future encounters with Narnia, and simultaneously sparks his need for more of it. This is seen in the beginning of The Silver Chair where at the first sign of trouble or difficulty he calls on Aslan. The school semester had barely begun and he was so changed that he couldn't stand it even for a brief time. The only character for whom finding Aslan's country is a primary goal is Reepicheep and he achieves that goal, most probably because of that reason. Therefore, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is about much more than a “long sea jouney”, and more about each characters personal journey.

Another questionable claim of Manlove's is that previous books in the series display Aslan's 'nearness' more than in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This is simply not true, in Prince Caspian Aslan is far more distant and unreachable. Aslan does make more physical appearances inPrice Caspian than in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but he is much more present in spirit and more supportive in the latter. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader he appears at will when characters need him (with Eustace at Dragon Island) or temptation (with Lucy in Coriakin's house, and Caspian at the end of the world), but also when he is called. There is a clear example of this when Lucy calls him for help when all hope is lost in Dark Island. In Price Caspian he does not come when called, in fact he does quite the opposite, which is part of the theme of needing to believe in him whithout seeing him. It goes without saying that in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan is undoubtedly shown to be the 'nearest' in comparison with all the other books. He gives physical support in the battle, emotional support to each character, and most importantly, shows his vunerability to Lucy and Susan. So The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is not the book which explores Aslan's 'distance' the most. However, the second part of Manlove's statement is quite accurate; he says that the book is about going from “the known world to the wholly 'other' ”. This applies to all the characters as well as the readers, for none of them have ever been to that part of Narnia before.*
The next issue that is addressed is the significance of the seven islands that the Dawn Treader sails to. Manlove's opinion that each island is an “image of the cut-off self and of evil or delusion” is perhaps too harsh an analysis. It does not correctly describe all the islands, except perhaps for Dark Island and Deathwater Island. There are islands where the characters go through both positive and negetive experiances. The negetive ones are more about facing temptaions and conquering fears than 'evill or delusion'. The first one that is travelled to is The Lone Islands, and perhaps here is the only emphasis on the 'cut-off' self. The inhabitants are under Narnian law, but are not currently following their rules and customs, so they need to be brought back to it. Dragon Island is primarily about facing the temptaion of greed, for Eusctace. It also brings about a change in him that is needed for the rest of the journey, and his future journeys in Narnia. Burnt Island has the illusion of being about nothing, because there is nothing there, but it could be argued that the mystery represents the unknown part of life, or the part that is yet to be written. None of these first islands are even remotely to do with the black-and-white concpet of 'evil'. In Deathwater Island there is some presence of evil, but mostly it is the darkness within Caspian and Edmund that creates the problem. There is greed and hunger for power within all of us, and these characters are no exception. The next island is the Land of the Duffers, and this explores temptations for Lucy. This is the part of her journey where she is presented with a scenario where she has to decide what kind of person she wants to be. She is tempted twice, and fails once. This is part of the recurrent theme of maturing and growing that is seen repetitively in the book. In Dark Island, there is a definite presence of 'evil', which is ultimately conquered, but has no obvious source. The last island is Ramandu's Island, which is merely a resting place and a crossroads. Then as they draw near to the end of the world, there is no evil or delusion, but simply more temptations. Caspian is tempted to break his vow to the crew, to his country and even to Ramandu's daughter. The only thing that can shake him out of it, is Aslan himself. So, the islands are not merely an image of all that is bad, but once again about maturing and moving onto the next stages of life.

The last thing Manlove mentions is that the Dawn Treader is “moving ever image of the growing spirit”, which is the perfect description of it. The ship does represent life, and the growing spirit in many ways. It goes through storms and trials, adventures and achievements. But it keeps moving forwards regardless of all this. As the characters grew and matured through their voyage, so does the human spirit through its voyage through life.
         Colin Manlove's description of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader may not have been completely accurate or precise on a few accounts, but it does give a general picture of what the book is about. Analyzing a work of fantasy is not an easy feat, especially when it is set in a world so different from our own. Narnia is a world where epic journeys occur, and characters grow, mature, and discover themselves far better than they could in their own world. As C.S. Lewis himself aptly stated, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”