On my coronation day, with Aslan's approval, I swore an oath that, if once I established peace in Narnia, I would sail east myself for a year and a day to find my father's friends or to learn of their deaths and avenge them if I could. (2.15)
Caspian's vow to seek out the seven missing lords has a specific time frame: he will explore for a year and a day, and if he hasn't found them by then, he'll give up. It's interesting to think of exploration as having limitations, parameters, and timing.
"Why should we not come to the very eastern end of the world? And what might we find there? I expect to find Aslan's own country. It is always from the east, across the sea, that the great Lion comes to us."
"I say, that is an idea," said Edmund in an awed voice.
"But do you think," said Lucy, "Aslan's country would be that sort of country – I mean, the sort you could ever sail to?" (2.18-20)
As Lucy suggests, nobody on the Dawn Treader is really sure how to get to Aslan's country. Can they sail physically to it? Do they need to approach it in a more metaphorical, emotional way? Time will tell!
Where sky and water meet, Where the waves grow sweet, Doubt not, Reepicheep, To find all you seek, There is the utter East. (2.22)
We're especially interested in the word "is" in the final line of the prophecy spoken over Reepicheep's cradle. He's not going to find what he seeks "in" the east –what he seeks is the east. What is Aslan's country? If you find what you're looking for, that is Aslan's country.
The name of the ship was Dawn Treader. She was only a little bit of a thing compared with one of our ships, or even with the cogs, dromonds, carracks, and galleons which Narnia had owned when Lucy and Edmund had reigned there under Peter as the High King, for nearly all navigation had died out in the reigns of Caspian's ancestors. When his uncle, Miraz the usurper, had sent the seven lords to sea, they had had to buy a Galmian ship and man it with hired Galmian sailors. But now Caspian had begun to teach the Narnians to be once more sea-faring folk, and the Dawn Treader was the finest ship he had built yet. (2.53)
One of the signs that Caspian's uncle Miraz was a bad king is that he squelched exploration of the seas. A good king, like Caspian, encourages his people to learn arts and sciences, like maritime skills and cartography, and also supports meeting other countries and peoples and getting to know them. A bad king, like Miraz, is narrow-minded and fearful, suppressing knowledge and cutting off diplomatic relations with other nations.
While all this was being done Caspian missed no chance of questioning all the oldest sea captains whom he could find in Narrowhaven to learn if they had any knowledge or even any rumors of land further to the east. He poured out many a flagon of the castle ale to weather-beaten men with short grey beards and clear blue eyes, and many a tall yarn he heard in return. But those who seemed the most truthful could tell of no lands beyond the Lone Islands, and many thought that if you sailed too far east you would come into the surges of a sea without lands that swirled perpetually round the rim of the world – "And that, I reckon, is where your Majesty's friends went to the bottom." The rest had only wild stories of islands inhabited by headless men, floating islands, waterspouts, and a fire that burned along the water. Only one, to Reepicheep's delight, said, "And beyond that, Aslan's country. But that's beyond the end of the world and you can't get there." But when they questioned him he could only say that he'd heard it from his father. (4.48)
Years before Star Trek, the Dawn Treader seems to be going where no man has gone before. Caspian and his crew are exploring the seas beyond the Lone Islands for the first time. We're a little curious as to why nobody's ever tried to do this before – didn't the people who live on the Lone Islands wonder what was just down the sea from them?
Bern could only tell them that he had seen his six companions sail away eastward and that nothing had ever been heard of them again. He said this when he and Caspian were standing on the highest point of Avra looking down on the eastern ocean. "I've often been up here of a morning," said the Duke, "and seen the sun come up out of the sea, and sometimes it looked as if it were only a couple of miles away. And I've wondered about my friends and wondered what there really is beyond that horizon. Nothing, most likely, yet I am always half ashamed that I stayed behind." (4.49)
Bern confesses to feeling "half ashamed" that he opted for a pleasant, comfortable life in the Lone Islands instead of accepting the challenge of exploring the edges of the known world. This gives us a clue to the attitude behind the novel: curiosity is highly valued by our narrator, and probably the author as well. Notice that people rarely get into serious trouble in the world of Narnia for poking their noses into things. When Lucy looks into a wardrobe, she finds a magic country; when Reepicheep insists on sailing into an evil-looking darkness, the Dawn Treader is able to rescue Lord Rhoop. What great deeds might Bern have accomplished if he'd continued voyaging?
The others all voted for going on in the hope of finding land. I felt it my duty to point out that we didn't know there was any land ahead and tried to get them to see the dangers of wishful thinking. (5.9)
Eustace's dislike of adventure and the unknown indicates his moral inferiority to his companions. Once he connects with his true nature, with Aslan's help, he will be just as excited to explore the eastern end of the world as everyone else. Fear is a sign of a blemished soul in the world of the novel.
"I hope it will never be told in Narnia that a company of noble and royal persons in the flower of their age turned tail because they were afraid of the dark."
"But what manner of use would it be ploughing through that blackness?" asked Drinian.
"Use?" replied Reepicheep. "Use, Captain? If by use you mean filling our bellies or our purses, I confess it would be no use at all. So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventures. And here is as great an adventure as ever I heard of, and here, if we turn back, no little impeachment of all our honours." (12.12-14)
Reepicheep admits that exploration isn't always useful but rather it's an end in itself. The crew of the Dawn Treader aren't just trying to survive; they're going out on a limb, pushing the boundaries of the known world.
"I myself will sit at this table till sunrise."
"Why on earth?" said Eustace.
"Because," said the Mouse, "this is a very great adventure, and no danger seems to me so great as that of knowing when I get back to Narnia that I left a mystery behind me through fear." (13.40-42)
Sometimes Reepicheep takes his drive to explore to extremes. Is it really necessary to sit all night at every table where you find some mysteriously enchanted people? Maybe not, but that's how it goes in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
"You shall not please yourself with adventures as if you were a private person." (16.38)
Caspian's thirst for exploration is limited by his responsibilities as King of Narnia.