After a long break, I am writing another post for my series “Finding God in Children’s Literature.” The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis has been one of my favorite children’s books since I first read it in fourth grade. Recently I found myself pondering its profundity during Mass. Not the worst way to be distracted from the liturgy. Let me share what your kids can learn about the spiritual life by sailing along with King Caspian and his companions.
To understand Dawn Treader you must understand where it gets its name. C. S. Lewis loved to make references to the Psalms in his works. Here is the first part of Psalm 139 from the New American Bible:
LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.
You sift through my travels and my rest;
with all my ways you are familiar.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
LORD, you know it all.
Behind and before you encircle me
and rest your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
far too lofty for me to reach
Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I take the wings of dawn
and dwell beyond the sea,
Even there your hand guides me,
your right hand holds me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light’
Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day.
Darkness and light are but one.”
For a lengthy discussion about symbolism and analogy, challenge your kids to find as many themes from this psalm as they can in the novel.
Where is God?
Aslan does not appear as much in this novel as he does in some of the other Narnia books. However, he is always in the background. His reach is everywhere–even into a non-believing household in England. He appears on the Island of Voices after Lucy recites the spell. He speaks to her through the albatross. He is the Lamb that meets the children at the end of their trip.
The journey–obstensibly to find the lost lords–becomes a journey towards Aslan’s country, continuing even after the last lords have been found. We could say it shows a longing for the Beatific Vision. Can the soul reach union with God without dying? Reepicheep’s poem holds the answer:
Where sky and water meet,
Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek,
There is the utter East.”
From meditation to contemplation
But if the journey ends in divine union, it begins with much more mundane things. In fact, it begins with an ugly painting in an extra bedroom. Here again we see God’s omnipotence. He is everywhere and can use anything to accomplish his purpose.
I like to see a more specific meaning in the painting too. Spiritual writers have long suggested using images (paintings, holy cards, icons, or statues) to help them to pray. Even Solomon’s temple was covered with pictures of the cherubim.
In Christian prayer, the soul must act. She [the soul] must do all within her power to think about and love God. She uses what is available. She meditates on creation or gazes at a holy picture. Or perhaps, like Lucy and Edmund at the beginning of the novel, she reminds herself of all the wonders God has done in the past. She repeats God’s promises of future joy. She talks about him whenever she can.
In the end, only God can draw a soul to himself. He must step in to do the work the soul cannot do. He reaches out, takes hold of the soul, and immerses her in his own life. Three children get a dunking, and only two of them like it.
At first, everything seems magical and beautiful (to Lucy and Edmund, anyway). But soon the ship meets with danger. There are dragons, storms, and temptations. The children are nearly sold into slavery. They encounter terrible darkness. And they eat a feast from the heavens.
Doesn’t this remind you of the spiritual life?
They persevere. The water becomes sweet. The sun now acts as another symbol of God. It grows bigger and brighter. The travelers no longer need much food or drink as they are bathed in its light. They drink only the sweet water which is like liquid sunlight. They are becoming detached from everything they left behind. Caspian almost abdicates because he does not want to go back to the life he lived before.
Now they can look at the sun without hurting their eyes. They are beginning to experience union with God. Reepicheep enters his coracle and sails to Aslan’s country.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader is an excellent resource for teaching your children about the spiritual life.