Study Guide

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By C.S. Lewis

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Christian Symbolism

It would be almost impossible for us to list every single Biblical allusion in this book. As a devoted theologian, C.S. Lewis was well-versed in Christian symbolism, and even his simplest books are densely packed with religious references. So let's focus on two categories of Christian symbols that provide structure for the plot of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: metaphorical versions of the sacraments and allusions to God or Christ.

Baptism, Rebirth, and Pilgrimage, oh my!

OK, we realize that, depending on whom you ask, only the first one of these three things is technically considered a "sacrament." But all three have been sacred processes in the life of believers throughout the history of the Christian church. Baptism you might already know about: whether it involves sprinkling, splashing, or dunking, it's about using water to symbolically purify the individual believer. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace goes through something that looks a lot like baptism when he meets the great Lion, Aslan. Eustace tells Edmund:

Then he caught hold of me – I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. (7.44)

Aslan's immersion of Eustace in the pool is an obvious-if-you're-looking-for-it, hit-you-over-the-head reference to the kind of baptisms that John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth perform in the New Testament.

Eustace also goes through a process of self-confrontation and rebirth that reminds us of contemporary Christian ideas about being "born again." His transformation into a dragon seems to simply show on the outside what has already happened to him spiritually: he's hideous, buried in layers of rough nastiness. Before Eustace can be tossed into the pool (i.e. baptized), he must peel off his outer shell of meanness and selfishness and get back to his true self. One of the particularly Christian-sounding points that the book makes about this process is that Eustace can't do it alone. Whenever Eustace tries to peel off his outer shell himself, he only gets a thin layer, leaving lots more behind. Aslan has to do it for him in the end, and it's far from a painless process. This is not unlike the Christian idea that Jesus steps in and transforms the believer, because the believer can't avoid sin or become pure on his own.

And Eustace isn't the only character in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader undergoing a spiritual process. The ship's voyage to the extreme eastern end of the word in search of Aslan's country is much like a pilgrimage to a sacred site – or like the metaphorical "pilgrimage" that every Christian believer goes through while trying to reach heaven. Although everyone on the ship takes part in this pilgrimage, it's Reepicheep who devotes himself to it most fully and who gets to travel the last leg of the journey alone. Our last sight of Reepicheep is of him disappearing at the top of a strange wave:

The coracle went more and more quickly, and beautifully it rushed up the wave's side. For one split second they saw its shape and Reepicheep's on the very top. Then it vanished, and since that moment no one can truly claim to have seen Reepicheep the Mouse. But my belief is that he came safe to Aslan's country and is alive there to this day. (16.56)

Reepicheep, who sails straight into Aslan's country, is reminiscent of Elijah, the great Christian prophet who didn't die but instead was "translated" in bodily form into heaven.

Allusions to Christ and "Another Name"

If you've read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, you've already gotten the whole Aslan-is-like-Jesus thing. But if the first Narnia book didn't hammer it home enough, C.S. Lewis definitely spells it out for us at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Aslan tells Edmund and Lucy that he exists in their world, too:

"But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there." (16.76)

In effect, Aslan is revealing to Edmund and Lucy that all their adventures have been part of his grand plan for their lives, educating them spiritually and preparing them for development as good Christians. Yes, the other name that Aslan is talking about is "Jesus Christ."

Aslan also appears in the book in several other symbolic animal forms that are connected with Christ and the Christian trinity. In the final chapter, Aslan begins by taking the form of a lamb, a reference to Christ as the "Lamb of God," and offers the children a meal of fish, something Jesus and his followers eat frequently (and that Jesus is able to perform miracles with) in the New Testament. During the episode of the Dark Island, Aslan leads the Dawn Treader away from harm in the form of an albatross that at first "looked like a cross," reminding readers not only that the albatross is a bird that leads sailors to safety in maritime legends, but also that the Holy Spirit is sometimes represented as a white dove. Don't make us explain what's symbolically Christian about it looking like a cross…we think you can figure out that one on your own!

Irish-Celtic Symbolism

It may surprise you to learn that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader draws not only on Christian theology but also on Celtic, especially Irish, mythology. As a professor of languages and literature, C.S. Lewis was well-versed in early British myths and legends, and both the voyage across the sea and the importance of sunrise have Celtic associations.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Caspian and his friends sail through the Eastern seas, braving storms and monsters as they visit a series of magical islands, eventually arriving at Aslan's country, a place "outside the world" (16.53) that seems a bit like heaven and a bit like fairyland. Similarly, there are many ancient Irish myths in which great heroes (and sometimes ordinary guys) sail across the seas, endure raging storms, visit strange islands, and in the end make it to the Otherworld, a creepy and intimidating fairy land where you definitely do not want to get stuck.

If you start reading some of these legends, you might be shocked at how many plot elements they share with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. One good example is the story of Mael Duin, the oldest known Celtic travel myth. Mael Duin is a hero who swears to avenge his father's death and sets out on a sea voyage to find the killers – just like Caspian, who swears to find his father's exiled allies. When Mael Duin sets sail, his three foster brothers jump into the sea and he has to take them on board the ship and let them join him so they won't drown – which sounds a lot like the way that Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace arrive on the Dawn Treader. Mael Duin also visits a lot of strange magical islands (although the details are different from the islands in the seas of Narnia). At the end of his voyage, Mael Duin, like Caspian, marries a mystical queen whom he meets on the last island he visits. Other elements that the two stories share include a rebellion of the crew, being guided by magical birds, and finding an intimidating fantasy world at the end of the voyage. If you're interested in C.S. Lewis's use of Irish mythology, we suggest you head to your favorite bookstore or library and pick up a book of Celtic legends.

Oh, and just to make it clear: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader definitely alludes to other, non-Celtic myths and legends about great voyages, too. The most obvious is Homer's Odyssey. So don't go away thinking that this book is just Christian symbols meet Celtic ones – there's also some Greek mythology in the mix, plus a lot of other things. We're just taking some time to explain the Celtic allusions because they might be unfamiliar to you.

The Dawn, the East, and the Sun

As we've mentioned in the "What's Up With the Title?" section, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has a lot to do, symbolically speaking, with the dawn. Caspian's voyage is specifically a journey to the extreme eastern end of the world – which, in the flat world of Narnia, not only means in the direction of the sunrise, but also actually getting closer to the sun. Many different ancient cultures worshipped the sun and considered events like the sunrise to be sacred, but the Celts took this to an extreme. Many of their holidays were related to solar events like eclipses, solstices, and equinoxes; they had several gods of the sun; and they put a lot of effort into tracking the sun's position in the sky. The scene at the beginning of Chapter 14, in which Ramandu and his daughter face the sunrise and sing while surrounded by stone pillars and an enormous feast, is extremely reminiscent of a Celtic festival. Just imagine druids in the middle of Stonehenge with an offering of harvest fruits, worshipping the sun as it comes up, and you can see the allusion.

Sight and Invisibility

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.

Now You See Us, Now You Don't: The Dufflepuds

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!

Who's Afraid of the Dark? Everybody.

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.

If Eating Carrots Doesn't Improve Your Vision, Try This: The Sweet Water

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.

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