My seven-year-old thought The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was “awesome,” and I agreed. We discussed dragons all the way home, and the first thing I did when I got there was to telephone a friend who designs and builds yachts, and who had been looking for ways to make boat-building more creative, to tell him to see it at once. The ship as well as the effects, I told him, were, well… “awesome.” The storm scenes are wonderful.
The good Minotaur in the Dawn Treader‘s crew, and of course that murine D’Artagnan, Reepicheep, are completely convincing. The moment when the Eustace-dragon fights the monstrous sea-serpent — the first brave thing he has ever done — is genuinely thrilling. As Casablanca and countless other tales show us, there is something in everyone who is not completely spiritually dead which answers, if it is properly done, to the spectacle of the cynic or the bad guy coming good in a crisis.
Further, the story kept pretty close to the spirit of C. S. Lewis’s book. This is true even though a few things were put in and a few were left out: in the book the corrupt Governor of the Lone Islands is thrown out by the good King Caspian and replaced by a Duke. Perhaps this was thought too feudal for an American audience, although the success of the preceding Narnia films, as well as The Lord of the Rings, shows that there is market for tales of good kings and nobles among modern children as well as, apparently, among adults.
My main quibble with the film might strike some people as minor, but I think it goes fairly deep: when Eustace Scrubb, who at that time is a spoilt, objectionable brat (he later reforms), is wandering away from the others on an apparently deserted island, he comes upon a valley — actually the slot leading to a dragon’s den — littered with treasure. There is also a human skeleton, wearing an arm-ring, apparently the remains of one of the missing lords the king has set out to find. One would think Eustace, who seems to be about 12, would be frightened on the skeleton. However, he simply pushes it away and takes the arm-ring for himself. Well, we need not be surprised at Eustace’s selfishness and callousness at this stage, but when the good people come looking for him and find the skeleton, they also simply push it out of the way.
This is not Narnian. There is no such incident in the book, but if there were, I venture to suggest the bones would be reverently collected and decently buried, not for any particular reason, except that that is how noble people behave. It would never occur to kings, knights, and nobles of Narnia to do anything else.
Certainly, Lewis would not have approved of idealization of a dead body for its own sake. In his splendid autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he wrote of his experiences in the First World War: “Familiarity with both the very old and the very recent dead confirmed that view of corpses which had been formed the moment I saw my dead mother.… To this day I do not know what they mean when they call dead bodies beautiful. The ugliest man alive is an angel of beauty compared to the loveliest of the dead.” He would, I think, have found it as odd as I did to see the skulls and skeletons of saints guilded and on display in a German Catholic church (though I would not mock the practice if it is an aid to faith). But revering corpses and leaving them under the open sky like rubbish are not the only, or even the obviously right, courses of action.
Further, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader King Caspian was seeking seven lords his wicked uncle had banished lest they support his rightful claim to the throne, and he was seeking them because he felt under a obligation to them. If the only way he could have discharged that obligation was to give one of them a reverent and decent burial, he would have done it.
It may be thought that I am making far too much about a minor aspect of a children’s film, but I think this particular context justifies it. The seven chronicles of Narnia were written to introduce children to Christian ideas, with the lion Aslan representing Christ, but also to introduce them to the whole penumbra of chivalry and knighthood. In the essays “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” and “The Necessity of Chivalry,” Lewis said that since children were growing up in a world of secret police and nuclear weapons, let them at least know of knightliness. The knight was an artificial creation: the brave warrior with ideals who did the right thing.
Otherwise, well, I am off to see it again as soon as I decently can.