Monday, April 14, 2008

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I read somewhere on the net that C. S. Lewis was “a first rate literary critic, a second rate fantasy writer and a third rate theologian.” In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Theology starts moving up the rail. Theology recedes further in to the background in Lewis’ third volume. More’s the pity. Another commenter has posited that Lewis had missed the previous 100 years of biblical criticism when he started his apologetic career. As evidenced by his Narnia series, he didn’t keep up with modern literary technique either.

By the fifth outing in the series (they were, of course, written out of order), I have become somewhat accustomed to the patronizing quality of Lewis’ writing. Perhaps I am not as familiar with children’s literature from the 1950’s (outside of Dick and Jane) but his way of addressing the reader seems to be archaic by at least a generation. Even the Hobbit, published in 1937 and noticeably written as a children’s book, does not wallow in the syrupy nostalgia as do the Narnia books. The closest analog with which I am familiar is Winnie the Pooh (1926). Furthermore, Lewis seems trapped between the nursery and Oxford. On the one hand he harps on about how familiar the good reader is with stories about dragons and dwarves but juxtaposes this against the Eustace character who serves as a caricature of everything that Lewis finds foolishly modern. Kind of awkward to explain to a young Winnie the Pooh fan.

All this was present in the previous Narnia books but The Voyage of the Dawn Treader introduces yet another archaicism. When I think of some of the books I read as a young person, some (i.e. Isaac Asimov and Tolkien) written in the 1950’s or before, I remember stories with overarching story lines and well crafted plots. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader we get a series of unconnected events, each one trying to dazzle us with bizarreness alone: the one-legged Dufflepods. Ramandu, the vacationing star (think astronomy, not Hollywood), the pool that turns objects to gold. Perhaps Lewis is consciously or unconsciously casting the story in the style of Danté’s Inferno. In any case, it made for dreary reading in this context.

As to the Theology of this book, I was not so surprised. Perhaps I have become as accustomed to thoughts on faith as to his style. Leaving aside Aslan’s Land which has no real theological content of interest, I groaned at the very end when a Lamb appeared to the children and offered them fish cooked over a fire and then appeared as their beloved Aslan! This story is weird enough in the Gospel of John. What is a child supposed to make of it? The claim that Lucy and Edmund have become too old for Narnia and must learn to find Aslan in their own world was pretty mild stuff. It came across as an acknowledgment that the nursery must be left behind. I can take that, may be even apply it to my own midlife wanderings. The most interesting theological motif, one that has appeared before in Lewis’ stories, is Aslan’s statement to Lucy when she causes him to appear via a magical spell, “Surely you think I would obey my own laws.” (paraphrased). If God/Christ is to be constrained by his own laws, then miracles such as the Virgin Birth become impossible. This is a whopper of a theological blunder and should be unsustainable by a serious religious thinker, at least one touted as the greatest Christian Apologist of the 20th Century. Alas.

I intended this post as a micro-review but apparently I had more to say than I had at first thought. As stated before, I intend to see Narnia through to the bitter end, or Last Battle. The later written volumes (The Horse and His Boy, The Magicians Nephew) were better than the earlier efforts so The Silver Chair may not be such a disappointment.

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