Breathtakingly beautiful, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is another in a series of thought-provoking adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. For book purists, there will always be the shock of seeing changes to a beloved storyline (for me, the second viewing is always better than the first because I can now watch the film on its own merits). But none of the films have shied away from confronting important moral and spiritual issues present in the books.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is no exception – fear is the target of temptation, and easy solutions are both alluring and damning, but there is always a way out, if we will only seek it. How many modern books or films deal with these kinds of dilemmas that both children and adults daily face? That is the wonder of Lewis – his stories hold rich meaning at whatever level you encounter them. Whether you are a child, or a parent sharing the stories with your children, you will be challenged.
The Lust of the Flesh, The Lust of the Eyes, and the Boastful Pride of Life
Though set in the magical land of Narnia, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is chiefly concerned with its three human characters: Edmund and Lucy Pevensie (who have come to Narnia for the third time), and their priggish cousin, Eustace Scrubb.
Edmund, like Peter before him, is a little put out that while he is a king in Narnia, he is a kid at home in England. World War II threatens his homeland, and Edmund is impatient, fearing that the fighting will be over before he gets his chance to earn his spurs. He is also angered by his own powerlessness. While Peter and Susan are away in America with his parents, he has been forced to remain in England with his aunt and uncle. Everyone is telling him what to do and where to go. And once he arrives in Narnia – King Edmund once again – he is forced to submit to the will of King Caspian, who captains the Dawn Treader on which Edmund sails.
Lucy epitomized child-like faith in the first two adaptations. She was the first to discover Narnia in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and she is the first to recognize Aslan in Prince Caspian. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy is maturing, but she is afraid that she will never grow up. And though she still is drawn to Narnia, her loyalties are slowly becoming divided. She notices boys for the first time, and haltingly tries to mimic the flirtatious behavior of older girls. She is aware of her adolescent appearance, and covetous of her sister Susan’s womanliness. Lucy is coming to a point where she is willing to trade nearly anything to become desirable in the eyes of the world.
Eustace is the unwilling passenger on the journey. A boy who read all the wrong books – books of facts and information – he is singularly unprepared for his initiation into Narnia. When he arrives, sopping wet, on the deck of the Dawn Treader, his first response is to be put ashore where he will inform the British Consulate of the entire sordid affair. Eustace is afraid of what he does not understand – which, in Narnia, means that he is afraid of everything. But in response to his fear, he simply refuses to believe that he is in Narnia, and boastfully proclaims as true things which obviously are not.
Director Michael Apted has set the stage for a story in which the three major characters embody what the Apostle John identified as the key temptations of the world: the preeminence of human strength, the allure of temporal beauty, and the prideful attitudes that accompany arrogance. (1 John 2:15-16) Who hasn’t longed to be more powerful, to have one’s way? In a world obsessed with physical beauty, how many have been tempted to do anything to meet that cultural standard? Georgie Henley, the real-life girl who plays Lucy, said, “I think we are surrounded by quite a suffocating media culture, nowadays, with the whole view of the word ‘celebrity.’ I think it is very difficult to break out of feeling governed by celebrities and what they’re wearing and how they look. Self-image seems much more important than it used to because of the celebrity culture.” The fears that these fictional children live with: that they will never be sufficiently strong, pretty enough, or have their way, represent the struggles we all face in the contemporary west. And fear is the prime target for temptation.
The Easy, Wide Way
It might be easy to saddle The White Witch with all of the blame for the problems in this film. While not appearing in Lewis’ book, Apted chose to incorporate her to provide a focal point for evil in the story. However, as the Apostle James explains, “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). The seeds of temptation come not from without, but from within. Still, each child must face the outworkings of his or her inner thoughts, and make decisions about whether to give in to them. As Lewis’ senior tempter notes in The Screwtape Letters: “The act of cowardice is all that matters; the emotion of fear is, in itself, no sin.” The purpose of the White Witch is to take the children’s fears and provide a way to move them from emotion to action.
It would spoil the film to go into much detail about how the children face and overcome their own temptations. Each is offered an easy path to obtaining what they want – though always with disastrous consequences obvious to the detached viewer. Still, these temptations would be strong and very alluring if they were staring you directly in the face. Many have sold out for much less than what is offered to Edmund, Lucy, or Eustace. And there are so many temptations.
The world is a dark place. As Apted notes, “So much of what we hear and see, and look at, and read, is so vicious and vile. It’s a tough world these kids have been brought up in.” He shares Lewis’ vision that there is another world, an alternative to this dark place, though accessible to us here and now. Ultimately each of us must choose to take the wide, easy path that places us firmly in the grasp of darkness, or choose the narrow, difficult way that leads us into the light. But we need not struggle on alone. In fact, as Lewis notes in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory”: “All day long we are in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations.”
The Difficult, Narrow Way
The power of temptation is temporary and avoidable. The Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians,
“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). Many might counter that good people simply do not fully understand how overwhelming temptation can be, but Lewis argued that this kind of thinking is false. In Mere Christianity, Lewis explained: “Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is...a man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it...”
What is important to note in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is that, in every instance of temptation, the children have help available to them. Edmund is given a word of wisdom from Lucy. Lucy is provided a vision of what would happen to her if she lost herself to her quest for external beauty. And Eustace requires more direct, divine intervention to overcome his evil, unbelieving heart. And ultimately, in the thick of things, it is Lucy’s cry to Aslan that provides deliverance for them all.
This good end provided by God is an important aspect of the book that Apted does not shy away from incorporating into his adaptation. It is a difficult thing for most people to rely fully upon God. In Letters to An American Lady, Lewis describes the dilemma: “...it is a dreadful truth that the state of (as you say ‘having to depend solely on God’ is what we all dread most. And of course that just shows how very much, how almost exclusively, we have been depending on things. But trouble goes so far back in our lives and is now so deeply ingrained, we will not turn to him as long as He leaves us anything else to turn to. ...Perhaps when those moments come, they will feel happiest who have been forced (however unwittingly), to begin practicing it here on earth. It is good of Him to force us, but dear me, how hard to feel that it is good at the time.”
This forced reliance extends to the end of the book and film. Despite Lucy’s longing to stay, Aslan insists that she and Edmund must leave, and never return to Narnia. But even in their parting, there comes a comforting revelation. Aslan tells Lucy that he will be near her. She is in Narnia so that, by knowing Aslan a little here, she will know him better in her own land, where he goes by another name. It is that name that provides the power to quiet our fears and to overcome temptation. It is that name that opens the door to a meaningful life now, and an eternal life to come.
The Rest of the Story
The most important cultural aspect of film is its ability to open people up to exploring ideas. Some argue that it accomplishes this goal by making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. By transporting us to Narnia, along with the children, Lewis and Apted create opportunities for us to look at ourselves from a different angle. While we do not share the characters’ surroundings, we often share their moral circumstances. Seeing ways of acting presented to us as viable options: listening to the words of a beloved sister, imagining the dire consequences of a tempting action, or submitting one’s self to God for a peeling away of a pride as hard as dragon’s scales, are all available to us in this world.
No movie fills in all the gaps. We interact with fictional stories, and the results help us to make sense of, and find our way in, the actual world in which we live. In turn, we can help others to find their way. Films such as The Voyage of the Dawn Treader can be just the conversation starter we need to help ourselves, and others, navigate the perilous waters of our world, and to seek out the beacon of light that can guide us safely home.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org