Thursday, July 31, 2014
Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
One thing that C.S. Lewis is to be commended on is that he never told the same story twice. It’s odd to think it, but only three of the seven Narnia books take place predominantly in Narnia. The others involve other countries across different time periods, with protagonists who had vastly different goals, motivations, and reasons for being there. Adventure stories, quest narratives, rescue missions, fairytales – each book is vastly different in its structure and content, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is possibly the most different of all.
With Peter studying with Professor Kirke and Susan in America with the Pevensie parents (this, by the way, is the first time the last names of Pevensie and Kirke are mentioned), Edmund and Lucy are stuck with Uncle Harold and Aunt Alberta in Cambridge – which wouldn’t be so bad except that they’re also saddled with their cousin Eustace Scubb.
Still, we’re only six pages in before the painting on the wall of a ship at sea comes to life and drags all three children into Narnia – or at least the ocean that lies to the east of Narnia.
Hauled aboard the Dawn Treader, they are reunited with Caspian (now three years older) and learn of his mission to seek out the seven lords that were in turn sent on a voyage across the easternmost seas by his Uncle Miraz. None of them ever returned, and now the Dawn Treader’s objective is to discover what really happened to them.
Among them is Reepicheep, probably the closest thing The Chronicles of Narnia has to an Ensemble Darkhorse, who has come not solely to unravel the mystery of the missing lords, but to fulfil a prophecy that was told over his cradle as a baby: that he will seek out the Utter East.
The skies are blue, the wind is strong, they’re back in Narnia – according to Lucy: “she was almost too happy to speak.” There’s only one sour note, and that’s Eustace, who hasn’t the slightest understanding of what’s happening to him, and is determined to complain about everything. (Lewis is determined to make Eustace as vile as possible, but you can tell that he’s thoroughly enjoying writing about this little toe-rag. In fact, the character is so entertaining that it’s almost a pity when he repents of his attitude problem and becomes a much nicer little boy).
Of all the books in The Chronicles, it’s Dawn Treader that most feels like a sequel to its predecessor. The time jump and tonal shift between The Lion and Prince Caspian is rather jarring, and the books that follow The Silver Chair leap significantly backwards in time, but Dawn Treader feels like a natural continuation of Prince Caspian. Not only is it the second of what I call “the Caspian trilogy”, in which the passage of time is marked out by that character’s growth from boy to man to senior citizen, but the plot itself was set up nicely (by design or accident) in the last book, where Doctor Cornelius first mentioned the seven missing lords.
But what makes Dawn Treader so unique is its plot. It takes its time, it explores its characters, and it presents the reader with a series of literary wonders that (arguably) no other book in the series does – at least not with the same quantity and with the same level of deliberateness. There is no evil creature to defeat, no rightful heir to place upon the throne, no immediate goals to achieve – just what could be called (for the most part) a leisure cruise of discovery. In fact, when Aslan speaks to Lucy and Edmund at the conclusion of the book, having informed them that he goes by another name in their own world, he says that the reason for their coming was simply that “by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” It’s a statement which seems just as much directed at the reader as it does the children.
Unlike the other books, the story is episodic in nature, with a range of mini-adventures accumulating in the discovery of the very edge of the world. And perhaps it’s just me, but each episode feels more numinous than the one before, from dealing with the human evils of slavery in the Lone Islands, to facing the enchantment and temptation inherent on Coriakin’s Island, to experiencing the mystery and hallowed atmosphere of Ramandu’s Island, surely the most haunting location Lewis ever wrote of:
Something seemed to be flying at them out of the very centre of the rising sun: but of course one couldn’t look steadily in that direction to make sure. But presently the air became full of voices – voices which took up the same song that the Lady and her Father were singing, but in far wilder tones and in a language which no one knew. And soon after that the owners of these voices could be seen. They were birds, large and white, and they came by hundreds and thousands and alighted on everything; on the grass and on the pavement, on the table, on your shoulders, your hands and your head, till it looked as though heavy snow had fallen.
For Dawn Treader is also Lewis’s most spiritually-minded book, as despite the discovery of the missing lords along the way, this is essentially a voyage of spiritual enlightenment. The imagery and symbolism is at its most evident: seven lords on seven islands, an emphasis on the eastern sun, a semi-painful baptismal transformation, an albatross that is initially described as looking like a cross, and a lamb that offers a meal of fish. Of course, the story also owes a lot to Homer’s The Odyssey (in fact, Ulysses is namedropped at one point) and Lewis’s own imagination: boys turned into dragons, invisible one-legged dwarfs, dark mists that make your dreams come true, de-aging stars that are fed berries from the sun, a sea covered in acres of pure-white lilies – the whole thing is a tour de force of imaginative power, and probably the reason why so many cite Dawn Treader as their favourite Narnia story.
But to me, Dawn Treader is also the book which really begins to expand the breadth and depth of Lewis’s created world, not simply in plotting a course over uncharted seas, but in peppering the text with short passages and tiny asides that enrich the world and its characters. When the Dawn Treader enters the mists of the Dark Island, we get a glimpse into the darkest corners of the minds that experience it – just a glimpse, without any further context, but in doing so the simple sounds of each character’s nightmares becomes the most chilling part of the book.
“Do you hear a noise like...like a shut pair of scissors opening and shutting...over there?” Eustace asked Rynelf.
“Hush!” said Rynelf. “I can hear them crawling up the sides of the ship.”
“It’s just going to settle on the mast,” said Caspian.
“Ugh!” said a sailor. “There are the gongs beginning. I knew they would.”
Immediately prior to this, the crew misinterpret the true nature of the island (believing it to manifest as their daydreams), at which point we get two throwaway comments from the crewmen: one that he’ll be married to Nancy, the other that he’ll see Tom alive again. Who are Tom and Nancy? It’s never explained, and we learn as much about them as we do the nameless, faceless men that speak their names.
As it happens, the novel is full of these quiet moments of characterization or world-building, and most of them are rendered mysterious in regards to what Lewis doesn’t divulge about them. The portrait that pulls the children into Narnia is never given an origin story beyond the fact that it was given to Aunt Alberta as a wedding present (raising the question as to how an artist managed to portray the Dawn Treader so accurately), and remains the only portal into Narnia that is never fully explained. Lewis never fully resolves the fate of Lord Octesian, who is judged to have either been transformed into the dragon that Eustace stumbles upon, or killed by it, with his armband as the only evidence that he was on the island at all.
Then there are the sad remains of Burnt Island, where the crew can only infer that the inhabitants were killed by pirates or the dragon, and that they may have been dwarfs by the size of the coracle they find on the beach. Finally, there’s the tantalizing backstory of Coriakin, first introduced as a magician, but eventually revealed to be an ex-star like Ramandu, though his time on earth is a punishment for some transgression that we learn nothing about: “it is not for you, a Son of Adam, to know what faults a star can commit.”
Even the eventual fate of Reepicheep is left ambiguous.
So although the voyage of the Dawn Treader is one of discovery, we are far from understanding everything that the book presents to us. The ship’s objective in resolving the enigma of the missing lords is achieved, but the story remains permeated with mystery, with unanswered questions, with thought-provoking glimpses of a world that is far deeper than what the text can convey. The appeal of these “slivers of intrigue” is summed up nicely in Tolkien’s quote on world-building:
"Part of the attraction is due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed."
At first glance they all seem to exist for fun, or because Lewis enjoyed writing them (there are plenty of others in the rest of the books). But in the context of Dawn Treader they serve another purpose, one that adds to the numinous atmosphere. A constant message throughout all seven Narnia books is that some things are not meant to be known by humans, with Aslan often reiterating variations of: “no one is ever told what would have happened” and “I can tell no one any story but his own” (a sentiment that’s echoed by Ramandu’s above quote, in which he tells Caspian that it’s not for him to know the reason for Coriakin’s punishment, and a lesson which Lucy finds out the hard way when she eavesdrops on her friends with magic).
These silvers of unspoken things serve to imbue the story with a deliberate sense of mystery, one which is reminiscent of the idea of Sacred Mysteries; a somewhat nebulous concept used to describe phenomena which (by its very nature) is not meant to be explained or disclosed, or beliefs that are withheld from non-believers due to the assumption that they’re not yet ready to comprehend them. To put it in Narnian terms, sometimes the water will be clear all the way to the bottom, other times it will be covered in lilies – or even rising up in a barrier that none can return from once it’s been crossed. Lewis whets our spiritual appetite by providing explanations to some mysteries: the fate of the seven missing lords, the true nature of the invisible voices and their strange hopping movements, and the purpose of the white birds feeding the aged man – but just as many remain unresolved.
Soaked into Dawn Treader is the promise of greater, truer, more beautiful things to come; a series of mysteries we desperately want to unravel but are yet not ready for. The purpose of the story, besides the reader “getting to know [Aslan] better in your own world,” is in accepting you can’t ever fully know him; you can never understand his world completely. What remains is the power and wonder of it while it lasts: things like lily-covered seas, the sensation of drinking light, water so clear you can see to the bottom, and a friendship formed in the space of a few seconds:
And just as the girl, gliding in the shallow water, and Lucy, leaning over the bulwark, came opposite to one another, the girl looked up and stared straight into Lucy’s face. Neither could speak to the other and in a moment the Sea Girl dropped astern. But Lucy will never forget her face. It did not look frightened or angry like those of the other Sea People. Lucy had liked that girl and she felt certain the girl had liked her. In that one moment they had somehow become friends. There does not seem to be much chance of their meeting again in that world or any other. But if they ever do they will rush together with their hands held out.
Then there’s the movie. Argh, the movie.
It starts out well enough. Edmund and Lucy have been foisted onto their aunt and uncle while their parents and older siblings are in America. Eustace is as boorish as might be expected, and it’s with longing that the two of them stare at a picture of a ship at sea on the wall of Lucy’s bedroom. Eustace pokes fun at what he thinks are their strange little games, but is quickly silenced (figuratively speaking) when water starts to gush from the portrait’s frame, flooding the bedroom in a matter of seconds and leaving them floating in a blue expanse of ocean.
The ship in the painting turns out to be very real, and the trio are rescued by Caspian (whose accent has mysteriously vanished), Reepicheep (who now sounds like Simon Pegg instead of Eddie Izzard) and a number of other Narnian crewmen. Eustace faints dead away at the sight of a minotaur, but the Pevensie siblings are delighted at being back in Narnia – even if there’s no sign of the trouble that usually marks their passage between worlds.
And here’s where the book and film part ways.
Look, I can understand why it would be difficult in adapting Dawn Treader to the big screen. There is no rising action, no clear antagonist, no obvious climax – just an extremely exotic cruise through uncharted waters. Inevitably the film-makers would feel that they had to try to unify things, to conjoin the series of adventures into a singular whole, and to create a climax that is a tad more exciting than rowing through a sea of lilies.
Unfortunately, they chose to do it in the most banal way possible. Deciding that the closest thing the book has to a villain is the Dark Island, this concept is modified into a sinister green mist that swallows people whole, preys on their fears, and tempts our heroes with their darkest dreams. It’s with this last point that the writers can tweak the variety of adventures (such as the gold water, the spell to beautify a person, the dragon’s treasure and even the end of the world itself) into challenges that test the fortitude of the protagonists. As such, Edmund fights his desire to come out of older brother Peter’s shadow, Lucy deals with her envy of Susan’s beauty, Eustace succumbs to his own greed for treasure, and Caspian considers abandoning his kingdom to seek out his father in Aslan’s country.
Okay, none of that is strictly a bad idea. But portraying the spooky green mist as a tempter (and a plot device) introduces other problems. According to Coriakin, it seeks to corrupt everything and steal all light from the world, for reasons never explained. It also accepts boatloads of sacrifices from the Lone Isles, though what it does with them remains a mystery. It also has the power to manifest as inner fears and/or desires, allowing for yet another cameo from Tilda Swinton. (At this point I’m fairly certain that The Magician’s Nephew adaptation was green-lit before The Silver Chair simply because the film-makers are obsessed with the White Witch).
Yet aside from this, the mist has no personality, no discernable motivation, and no end goal beyond some vague attempt at world domination. In short, it’s flat-out boring. So is the film’s treatment of how it is to be defeated. Apparently the seven missing lords had seven swords gifted to them by Aslan, all magical in nature, which have to be placed on Aslan’s Table in order to disperse the mist’s power. How? Why? Video game quests usually have more justification than this.
Both the Sea Serpent and Eustace’s transformation back into a boy held off until the climax, in a sequence which is (I kid you not) lifted straight out of Ghostbusters. On learning that the mist takes the form of your deepest fears, everyone on board the Dawn Treader is cautioned not to think of anything, only for Edmund to look horrified and admit that something inadvertently popped into his head. Without any indication that such a thing was ever his greatest fear (or even a mild fear) a Sea Serpent appears and attacks the ship.
The crew then spend a lot of time futilely trying to fight it off, while Aslan gets rid of Eustace’s awfully-rendered CGI dragon body and transports him back to Ramandu’s Island so that he can put the last of the McGuffins with the others already on the table. As a decisive final move in a massive conflict between good and evil, it’s pretty trite.
The film also cuts down on meaningful character interactions between the core cast, though the expansion and exploration of these dynamics is why I enjoyed Prince Caspian so much. Here Edmund and Caspian get camaraderie tinged with a little rivalry, but there’s little of the sibling bond between the Pevensies, leading to Lucy being paired with the entirely original character of Gael, a little girl who stows away on board after her mother is swallowed by the green mist. This leads to some valuable lessons on self-esteem and believing in yourself, surely the most banal of all movie morals (there’s a reason Angel made fun of it on Smile Time: “self-esteem is for everybody...”)
Neither Gael or her father add anything to the narrative, and their reunion with their missing wife/mother has no emotional resonance simply because we know next to nothing about any of them. I think the idea was probably to make the mist more threatening by having it swallow people up, which necessitated the depiction of a grieving family, which required Gael and her father to join the crew of the Dawn Treader in order to portray their eventual reunion – basically it feels like a subplot that got out of hand.
And equally irritating is the fact that Edmund has regressed a little, going from a well-adjusted youth in Prince Caspian who has accepted his role as his older brother’s aide, to someone who bristles against Caspian’s authority, complaining that he’s always second best, and once again being lured by promises of power by the White Witch. Granted, it all only lasts a couple of scenes, and at least one is brought on by the power of the mist, but honestly – characters don’t always have to demonstrate flaws, especially when they’ve been through significant character development in previous instalments. Sometimes it’s okay to let characters act as fully-formed young adults, especially when you have a secondary character all ready and waiting in the wings to take the lead in the next film.
But more than anything, the film is missing a sense of wonder and joy at the prospect of discovery. The comparison is clear enough when the Dawn Treader comes to the Silver Sea – though Lewis takes a few paragraphs to describe the strangeness of scene, the exclamations of wonder and surprise when the crew realize what it is they’re looking at, and what it feels like to actually row through an ocean covered in flowers, the film simply depicts the scene and says no more about it. It’s a lovely visual, but the effect it has on the characters (and by proxy, the audience) is lost.
In short, Prince Caspian took liberties with the source material, but they were largely ones of expansion, not omission or manipulation. Here the overlaying threat of the green mist (it looks even dumber written down) takes the leisurely journey of spiritual enlightenment and makes it your standard good versus badly-defined-evil conflict.
But there are some things I liked. The transition scene from spare bedroom to ocean expanse is gloriously rendered, as is the Dawn Treader itself, from its dragon prow to its purple sail. Peter and Susan’s presence is still felt despite their absence in Narnia itself, largely in Edmund and Lucy trying to live up to their legacies and eventually wielding their older siblings’ sword and bow in battle.
There is focus on Lucy’s burgeoning femininity (noticing the soldier/nurse flirting and tucking her hair behind her ear) without any particular compulsion to mock her for it, and I don’t even mind that they switch the eavesdropping spell for the beautifying spell, which was nicely staged and gave Anna Popplewell and William Mosely the opportunity for cameos that made much more sense than Tilda Swinton’s (though Lucy ripping a page out of Coriakin’s book is a greater offense than any spell casting she does later).
And William Poulter as Eustace Scrubb was a real joy. Not to sound cruel, but this kid has a face that makes him born to play characters that go by the name of Eustace Scrubb, and the gift he brings to the role is to not play the character as a jerk or a bully, but as a boy who genuinely believes he’s in the right. His sword fight with Reepicheep is flat-out better than what Lewis depicted in the book, for here Reepicheep engages him in combat and by doing so forces him to defend himself, encouraging him in rudimentary sword-fighting and even getting a genuine smile out of him well before his dragon transformation.
See, if you’re going to change something in an adaptation, then change it for the better. As it is, Reepicheep and Eustace undoubtedly have the most affecting rapport over the course of the film, and Eustace’s tearful goodbye to the mouse after starting out with so much animosity toward him is only the second time in all three films that I’ve gotten a little misty-eyed (the first being Peter/Edmund’s reconciliation after battle in The Lion).
Okay, so bringing back Edmund’s lost torch was cute, as was the little bit of explanation as to how and why Eustace had a notebook with him on board the Dawn Treader: he was already keeping a journal at home, and had it stuffed in his sock before getting swept into Narnia. The Jill Pole shout-out at the end was a bit much though. Why would she be visiting Eustace anyway?
Blink and you’ll miss it, but not only are the four adult Pevensies depicted in a mural in Caspian’s cabin, but you can see the battle against the White Witch (including Peter on his white unicorn) at the bottom of Coriakin’s map.
Bizarrely, the final island is referred to as Ramandu’s Island, even though there’s no sign of Ramandu himself. Still, at least his daughter finally gets the dignity of a name, even if Liliandil sounds more flowery than celestial.
The film answers the question posed by the book: whether Lord Octesian was killed by the dragon or turned into it. Since Caspian finds his skeleton, it’s safe to say it was the former.
I like that they had a variety of different species serving as crewmen on the Dawn Treader: satyrs, fauns and at least one minotaur. In the book Reepicheep was the only non-human aboard.
For some reason I bristled at Reepicheep’s line to Dragon!Eustace: “extraordinary things happen to extraordinary people.” Er no, the moral of this particular story is that bad things happen to people who indulge their greed and spitefulness.
You may not have noticed, but Caspian’s father (who briefly appears in the green mist) is played by Nathaniel Parker. This is amusing largely because he and Ben Barnes played younger/older versions of the same character in Stardust.