The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a book that appeals to our sense of sight. Our readerly "eyes" are constantly dazzled, from our first view of the brightly colored Dawn Treader, with its rich purple sail and its green gilded sides made to look like a dragon's wings (1.7), to our last view of the "blue wall, very bright, but real and solid" of the sky in the world of Narnia (16.59). The book also uses vision as a theme and symbol, particularly in the adventure with the Dufflepuds, during the visit to the Dark Island, and in the final quest to find the eastern edge of the world.
When the adventurers arrive at the "Island of the Voices," they are confronted with invisible enemies who threaten to kill them if they don't cooperate. When the adventurers agree to help, they hear the story of the invisible people, who call themselves the Duffers. As the Chief of the Duffers explains, when the local magician changed their appearance, they decided to become invisible rather than continue to appear in the form he gave them. He tells Lucy and the other Narnians, "we thought we'd rather be invisible than go on being as ugly as all that. And why? Because we'd like it better" (9.54). But now they have grown tired of their invisibility and they need Lucy's help to reverse the spell. Lucy does everything they ask, but in the end she gets another side of the story: the magician, Coriarkin, explains that he didn't necessarily make the Duffers ugly:
"[…] it's only they who think they were so nice to look at before. They say they've been uglified, but that isn't what I called it. Many people might say the change was for the better." (11.21)
We're picking up on several different ways in which appearances matter to the Duffers. First, it matters to them that the way they look matches the way they see themselves. They want to appear in what they consider their "true" form, not the form Coriarkin imposed on them, and at first they don't want to be seen at all if they can't be seen for who they really are. When we learn that they weren't necessarily good-looking to begin with, and that the magician sees their new appearance as an improvement, we realize how arbitrary the standards of beauty really are. But what's really interesting is that in all three forms – Duffers, invisible people, and Monopods – the Duffers have the same character. They're just as gullible and foolish when they're dwarfs as they are when they're invisible people and one-footed hopping creatures. So no matter how they are seen (or not seen), their fundamental nature is unchanged.
It seems like C.S. Lewis is telling us that what we look like is less important than what we do. The one change in their behavior is their desire to be visible, even if they don't like what they see. It may be only a small thing, but they're making progress!
We also want to point out the moment at which Aslan becomes visible in Coriarkin's study after the anti-invisibility spell. Lucy is surprised that she seems to have some power over Aslan, but he gently reminds her that he always plays by his own rules. Aslan's appearance reminds us that we're supposed to consider him a constant invisible presence throughout the book, observing most things that happen. But unlike the Duffers, Aslan isn't invisible because he can't bear to look at himself; he's invisible to give everyone else a chance to make personal decisions. Free will, baby!
In the adventure at the Dark Island, the Dawn Treader, against pretty much everyone's better judgment, sails into a creepy cloud of blackness. Nothing really happens to them there, but they're completely freaked out by the way nothing is visible beyond the edges of the ship and the way they start to hear – or maybe just hallucinate – noises from their nightmares. Aslan leads them out of this darkness using an albatross and a beam of light. Symbolism! We love it.
The interesting thing about this adventure is that the danger is extremely unclear. They're told by Lord Rhoop that this is the island where dreams, bad ones, come to life, but their fear begins before they're actually attacked or harmed in any way. So what makes them so scared? We think it's the threat of non-existence, of not seeing the world and almost not existing in the world. The narrator describes Lucy watching the ship moving into a black void:
The bows had already disappeared before the sunlight had left the stern. She saw it go. At one minute the gilded stern, the blue sea, and the sky, were all in broad daylight: next minute the sea and sky had vanished. (12.22)
Here's our pet theory: in a book that focuses on what amounts to a pilgrimage from the earthly world to a heavenly world, this is the moment that the characters have to face, symbolically, the idea of nihilism. OK, we dropped a big word there, but basically "nihilism" just means a freaky philosophical nothing – in this case, nothing to see, and maybe nothing to believe in. Of course, just when you think that there's no escape from this cloud and our adventurers won't see the sun again, Aslan shines a beam of light into the blackness. In the context of this book, the beam of light is like spiritual truth, breaking through the black fog of nihilism. Sight and faith are linked metaphorically: just when you think you won't be able to see – or have faith – Aslan makes it possible.
The final chapters, in which the crew of the Dawn Treader gains the ability to bear the brightness of the eastern sun by drinking the sweet seawater, function as a complementary adventure to the events on the Island of the Voices and the Dark Island. Instead of not being able to see the people they meet, or not being able to see where they're going, the adventurers are suddenly able to see more than they've ever seen before. We learn that:
They could look straight up at the sun without blinking. They could see more light than they had ever seen before. [...] And next morning, when the sun rose, now five or six times its old size, they stared hard into it and could see the very feathers of the birds that came flying from it. (15.47)
Just when the sight of the water and light is about to become too much, Aslan's sweet ocean water makes their eyes stronger and their vision sharper.
What does this mean? Well, there's definitely a religious aspect here: Aslan and his country are glorious and awe-inspiring, so much so that they would be overwhelming for mere mortals unless he strengthened their senses. But we're also reminded, as we were at the Dark Island, that vision is dependent on light. We can only sense things because light rays bounce off stuff at different frequencies that hit our retinas (in our eyes). In the same way, this book is suggesting that the very nature of the travelers is dependent on Aslan, a.k.a. God. They can only see because of light, and the more light they're able to take in, the better their vision gets. Similarly, they can only embark on their quest because Aslan allowed and encouraged it, and the more he supports them, the more they can succeed.