The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the story of King Caspian's journey through the Eastern Seas to find the seven missing lords of Narnia and seek out Aslan's country. Published in 1952, it was the third of C.S. Lewis's Narnia chronicles to be issued, following The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 1950 and Prince Caspian in 1951. In the internal chronology of the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is placed fifth, because the events of The Magician's Nephew and The Horse and His Boy also predate the story of Caspian's eastern voyage.
Like the other Narnia chronicles, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader combines Christian symbolism with elements of fantasy stories, but this particular book also introduces motifs from great travel literature and adventure stories. Experienced and attentive readers may be reminded of Homer's Odyssey or Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels as well as of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Like Odysseus and his crew, Caspian and his friends embark on a sea voyage and encounter a variety of fantastic places and dangers that hinder their progress; unlike Odysseus, Caspian is not trying to get home, but to find the end of the world. Like Gulliver, Caspian discovers a variety of strange people and social structures that throw his own country into sharp relief; but the lighthearted and innocent tone of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is extremely different from the sharp satire of Gulliver's Travels. And like Christian in The Pilgrim's Progress, Caspian and his friends – especially Eustace and Reepicheep – undertake a physical journey that corresponds to a spiritual one. Other great books that come to mind when we're reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader include Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Charles Darwin's nonfiction account of The Voyage of the Beagle.
As you may have guessed from all these literary correspondences, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is only one of the many recent fantasy stories that recounts a great quest, and it hearkens back to many of its predecessors. C.S. Lewis, in addition to being a prominent Christian theologian, was an Oxford professor of language and literature who had an extensive command of literary history and motifs. Yet Lewis does not allow his allusions to other great texts to obscure what he considers the central message of the Narnia chronicles: the principles of Christianity. Although The Voyage of the Dawn Treader doesn't obviously reference the crucifixion (as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe does) or the apocalypse (as The Last Battle does), it dramatizes the processes of baptism, rebirth, and pilgrimage. For more of our thoughts on the Christian symbols in the book, see the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has not gripped the public imagination as thoroughly as the first Narnia chronicle, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the characters of Lord Drinian, Reepicheep the Talking Mouse, and Ramandu the retired star are not as well-known as the lion Aslan or the evil White Witch. However, the novel has been adapted to other forms several times, including a British TV serial version in 1989 and, most recently, a big-budget film version in 2010. We're excited to see interest in the novel surge following this film – there's a lot in these pages if you're ready to delve into them!
Hands up everyone who has been on a magical sea voyage to seek out missing lords and a secret way into heaven. Anyone? Nope, we didn't think so. Although you might enjoy reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader simply because it's an awesome adventure tale, you probably won't relate to the actual events in the story. The only time we've ever even touched a sword was at last year's Renaissance Faire, and there definitely weren't any dragons or sea monsters in sight. We've never not-seen any invisible one-footed dwarfs, and we definitely haven't sailed into a freshwater ocean. So if we've never done any of these things, what can we get out of this book besides a little easy entertainment?
Let's take a quick poll again. Hands up everyone who has started a long project without much hope of finishing it. Most of you have your hands up now. And hands up anyone who has felt insecure and gone into their shell (metaphorically speaking) to stay protected from the nastiness of the world. Uh-huh, raise those hands nice and high. And hands up everybody who struggles to feel like they really know what matters in the world. Well there you go. If your hand is up now, and we think it is, then The Voyage of the Dawn Treader might be the book for you.
Allow us to explain. Although C.S. Lewis dresses it up with all kinds of fantasy, supernatural, and mythological elements, at its heart this book is a quest story – a quest not just to find the seven missing lords but to lead a good life. That's an adventure we're all embarked on. As Aslan says to Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace, they're sent to Narnia in order to learn about him (Aslan) there so that they can find him in their own world. He might as well be speaking directly to us as we're reading the book: the whole point of teaching us about courage, steadfastness, and friendship in Narnia is so we'll be able to transfer those values over to our own mundane lives.
Most of us also have more in common with the annoying Eustace Scrubb than we'd like to admit. Oh sure, we may not have vegetarian parents who wear strange underwear, but we tend to think we know best, we're better at offering criticism than constructive suggestions, and when we're afraid other people don't love us we act like jerks. Eustace's transformation is not just a reminder that we should be kinder, friendlier, and more helpful; it's an acknowledgement that the process isn't going to be easy. But it's also an encouragement that, if we start trying to shed our hard shells, someone will be there to help us. We think that's something worth caring about.