Spiritual Lessons from 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' Movie

Michael Apted's motion picture version of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a movie that deserves to be seen at least twice -- especially by fans of the book.

After I saw the film once, I deemed it "okay," lamenting every instance in which the screenplay departed from C. S. Lewis's original story. As someone who loves the Narnia novels, and 'Dawn Treader' in particular, perhaps it was inevitable that I would feel disappointed about all the ways in which the movie failed to live up to my expectations. Perhaps I had so much emotionally invested in the contemplative beauty of the written story that I was blind to the possibility that the film could stand on its own as a cinematic work of art. Thankfully, I saw it a second time, when, no longer trammeled by my need for it to be just like the source material, ironically I was finally able to enjoy it on its own terms.

I've upgraded my assessment of the film from merely "okay" to actually "pretty good." It's not a great movie, but in all honesty, the Narnia novels are not great books. They're perfectly good books, designed to entertain and to convey spiritual truths in a charming and child-friendly manner. The motion picture does pretty much the same thing. And while it can never replace the book, I'm happy to commend the movie for offering its own unique perspective on C. S. Lewis's grand allegory of the spiritual life.

Think of it this way: the 'Dawn Treader' book is like the Gospel of John, encoded with mystical theology and concerned largely with the inner experience of spirituality. The film version, by contrast, is more akin to the Gospel of Mark, faster-paced, more visceral, focused more on external action than on internal meaning. As much as I love and prefer the lyrical poetry of John, I would never presume to discount the earthy immediacy of Mark; on the contrary, it's good for someone as spiritually-minded as myself to have Mark remind me how down-to-earth Jesus really was.

In the 14th century, an anonymous English mystic wrote a book called The Cloud of Unknowing, in which he argued that the contemplative life (that of a monk or nun, given fully to prayer and meditation) is "higher" than the so-called active life (that of a layperson, concerned with worldly affairs, even religious concerns such as care for the poor). Such an hierarchical understanding of spirituality is suspect today. A better model comes from another medieval English mystic, Walter Hilton, who wrote an essay called "The Mixed Life" for laypersons who sought to deepen their life of prayer, while continuing to fulfill their family and work responsibilities. Even monastics must be concerned with worldly matters like paying the bills -- so the mixed life really applies to everyone. How do we balance the inner call to love God more deeply, while simultaneously remaining true to the Christian vocation to love our neighbors as ourselves? The mixed life is all about balancing those two equal, but complementary demands.

Here's my point: C. S. Lewis's 'Dawn Treader' is a deeply contemplative book, concerned with inner transformation throughout the spiritual life. Michael Apted's 'Dawn Treader', constrained by the limitations of his cinematic art, necessarily downplays the contemplative dimension and instead emphasizes how the characters relate to one another and their shared struggle against evil or injustice. The book gives a lengthy description of the sheer beauty to be found in the last sea, as the Dawn Treader nears Aslan's Country (heaven), whereas the film (rightly so, I believe) offers only a hint of that profoundly contemplative experience. But if we dismiss the movie because of these kinds of changes, we risk missing treasures found in the film alone. For example, the delightful and nuanced friendship that develops between Reepicheep, the valiant talking Mouse (and the only character in either book or film to complete the journey to Aslan's Country) and Eustace, the spoiled and naughty British school boy who undergoes a dramatic conversion experience in Narnia, all the way down to his reptilian brain. C. S. Lewis only hints at how Reep and Eustace interact, but in the film their blossoming relationship serves as the benchmark by which Eustace's spiritual growth can be measured. The movie also expands the Dark Island, which in the book functions as a sort of dark night of the soul -- a harrowing rite of passage for those who seek to take their spiritual journey all the way to the heart of God (er, Aslan). The film depicts a green mist emanating from this place of doubt, despair and shadow nightmares, suggesting (but never saying) that it signifies sin, or temptation, or doubt. While Aslan's guidance throughout the story serves as a subtle reminder that grace is always necessary in the struggle against evil, the action-oriented message of the movie -- that we are called to fight against the forces that would harm us -- is, I believe, a point that Lewis himself would approve of.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a book of mystical wisdom encoded in the tropes of a child's fantasy story. Now it has been turned into a satisfying, if imperfect, action film with a few hints of spiritual wisdom sprinkled through the adventure. I think they complement each other beautifully. But if I may indulge just a little bit of the bias from The Cloud of Unknowing: the book remains the more important work of art. See the movie, and enjoy it on its own terms. If you know the book, just let the movie be different. But if you don't know the book, then by all means get it and read it.

The final chapter of the story, like the one preceding it, is filled with imagery of beauty and awe, of letting go but also of the peace that passes understanding. Lewis affirms that the Christian life is, finally, not a quest for Aslan's country, but indeed for Aslan himself. Confusing this subtle but important fact has been a perennial concern among the great mystics of the Christian tradition, and Lewis illustrates this final snare with Caspian's temper tantrum. Caspian, well-beloved son of Aslan, forgets the full nature of his calling and momentarily decides that he should accompany Reepicheep to beyond the very edge of the world, for no other reason than that he wants to. But the discernment of his companions immediately reveals that his motivations are narcissistic. Angry, he retreats and sulks; only a graced encounter with Aslan himself snaps him out of his fit. And so, at the end of the mystical journey, like the beginning, only God decides what form each person's experience of heaven (and of him) will take. Some are called to see the wonders of eternity, some are called to touch such wonders and some are called directly into the experience of heaven. This is not our decision to make, and that can be painful to bear if we allow our selfishness (always present, even at his stage) to interfere with our quest for communion with God. We can become so dazzled by the gifts that are offered (especially gifts offered to others) that we take our eyes off the giver. And then, like Caspian, we may have to shed a few tears when we realize we can only be true to our own unique call, which may not always be to our egocentric liking. But just as Lilliandil, the lovely star-daughter, awaits Caspian on his return, so too all who fully embrace their call will find unique blessings intended for them alone.

Meanwhile, Lewis uses Edmund and Lucy and Eustace to point out that even those who do seem to go the distance (for, although they do not enter Aslan's country, they see it, and break bread with Aslan himself) are often called away from the very gifts that have been given to them. Like these three youngsters, many contemplatives find that they are called out of the blissful experience of divine presence and back into the world where they may be of service.

Aslan promises the children that there is a way into his country from their world as well. He says it lies beyond a river, and critics have assumed that Lewis means the river of death, such as the mythological river Styx that one must cross to reach the underworld of Greek mythology. But I am not persuaded that this is what Lewis had in mind. Aslan could just as easily have been referring to the River Jordan -- the waters of baptism. While many of us may not taste the fullest fruits of Aslan's country until after we shed this mortal coil, for an orthodox Christian like Lewis, the waters of baptism would have been the key factor in entering the life that leads to heaven. For whether we experience the fullness of heaven only after we die, or if by God's grace we are given a foretaste of it here, this, indeed, is the destiny, the glory, and the promise of the mystical life.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader brings us, the readers, only within sight of Aslan's country. In the next volume of the Chronicles, The Silver Chair, the reader is invited into Aslan's land, but just briefly. Only one Narnian tale, The Last Battle, takes us fully into a celebration in Aslan's realm (and indeed, in that book, death plays a heart-stopping role).

The Dawn Treader brought its passengers (with the exception of the Mouse) only to the place where glimpses of splendor can be caught, in the midst of the silence and the light and the solitude. From there, all but Reepicheep were sent back to their homes, to their families and loved ones, changed (hopefully for the better) but living their transformed lives in ordinary ways. This, then, is the down-to-earth promise of the Christian life. We can assume that it is not God's intention to bodily assume us into heaven (like Enoch or Elijah or, for that matter, Reepicheep). If God does call us to a place where we can see the wonders of his homeland, it may well only be brief glimmers afforded in an overall life given to love (which, ultimately, is the heart of heaven anyway). And out of such momentary ecstasies, we are sent to serve others, to return from the end of the world (or the mountaintop) to put into practice our never ending quest to love others as ourselves. For it is in love that God is most truly and assuredly known.