There are two things that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader does not have that the other Narnia books do: a Big Bad (i.e, a prominent villain) and an apocalyptic event that threatens the existence of the world. What this Odyssey-like instalment of the series have a-plenty is magic and wonder as King Caspian and his friends go on a rescue mission to find the seven missing lords of Narnia. It is revealed in the previous book, Prince Caspian, that these seven lords are friends and allies of Caspian’s father who are banished by his evil Uncle Miraz to make it easier for him to seize the throne from Caspian, the rightful heir. At his coronation, Caspian promises to find find the seven lords as soon as his reign is established and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the keeping of that promise.
The two youngest Pevensie children from the previous books, Edmund and Lucy, return to Narnia and once again aid Caspian. They are unwillingly accompanied by their spoilt cousin, the aptly named Eustace Scrubb. The three children are magically whisked into a painting of a sailing ship that hangs in a spare room in the Scrubb house. They find themselves swimming for their lives and are rescued by the ship’s crew. The Pevensies are delighted to discover that the ship is led by none other than their old friend Caspian who explains to them that he is on a mission to find Narnia’s seven missing lords.
And so the voyage begins as Caspian and his crew boldly go through uncharted oceans, going from island to island to locate his father’s friends. They succeed in finding them, or at least in discovering their fates, but not before they get to do great feats and witness strange and fascinating events. Among other things, they put an end to a slavery ring, help a community of invisible one-legged dwarfs become visible again, overcome the lure of a lake whose water can turn anything into gold, defeat a sea serpent and even manage to reach the End of the World.
Instead of a major villain like the White Witch, King Miraz or the Green Lady, the characters must battle with the evils inside them. This is one of the book’s strengths: it reminds us that there are things within us that we will have to face and overcome. Caspian must overcome regal pride and desire for wealth, while Lucy must overcome her insecurities and jealousy of elder sister Susan.
But it is Eustace who has the biggest internal evils to defeat. Faced with the many discomforts of life on board the Dawn Treader and exposed to the dangers presented by the islands they visit, we see Eustace grow from a completely obnoxious teenager to a young man of integrity. We see him acknowledge and deal with his lack of charity, selfishness, laziness and self-centredness. Lewis excels in turning Eustace’s transformation into a meaningful and fruitful voyage in itself as Eustace must experience pain, both physical and emotional, before he can find his true self.
Caspian the King
In my review of Prince Caspian, I said that the title character is somewhat sidelined by the Pevensies and that he does not become a fully rounded character until this book. Caspian does indeed play a more pivotal role in Voyage. He provides kingly leadership to his crew and his friends, and perhaps even serves as an older brother figure to the three children from Earth. Reepicheep the valiant mouse also takes on a more central role here: his courage is as big as his stature is small. I also like how his relationship with Eustace develops: from mutual dislike to friendship and respect.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a book of several voyages. It is a voyage through uncharted waters and mysterious islands, a voyage of self-discovery and a voyage to the ultimate truths. The novel reasserts that it is the journey and not the destination that ultimately matters, that it’s the experience that makes us wiser and not the goal. Though episodic and slow going at times, this instalment of the Narnia epic deserves its status as the second most popular (after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). It has adventure, drama and comedy. A reader couldn’t ask for more.