Lost at Sea
Robin Phillips on the Dawn Treader’s Voyage of Self-Discovery
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is probably the slowest of all of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, yet it is the richest and the most subtle. Unfortunately, the attempt to generate a blockbuster movie out of the story has resulted in a jerky succession of disconnected adventures.
To his credit, director Michael Apted has tried to bring continuity to the various adventures, yet he does this by introducing a storyline completely alien to Lewis’s book. The ship’s voyage is transformed into an apocalyptic struggle of good against evil, as the company on board the Dawn Treader must find seven swords and lay them on Aslan’s table to prevent an evil green gas from destroying all of Narnia.
Because of the book’s episodic nature, I knew it would be hard to convert The Voyage of the Dawn Treader into a movie. Yet it could have been accomplished. The pilgrimage themewhich combines a Homeric-type quest with elements of Augustinian restlessnessadds a powerful substratum of depth to the narrative. The various adventures the company experiences are given thematic unity by being rooted in this spiritual quest for the Utter East and Aslan’s country. As the travelers approach the end of the world, the tension builds like a Wagnerian overture approaching its climax.
We know that cinema can capture this type of aesthetic richness because we saw it happen with The Lord of the Rings.
Lewis’s Themes Subverted
I am not a purist. I realize that the move from a textual medium to a cinematographic one does sometimes require structural changes. But I do think we have grounds to object when primary themes are either reversed or subverted. Sad to say, this is exactly what the three Narnia films to date have done with a number of important thematic motifs.
Take the example of kingship. In an article in the November/December 2010 Touchstone (“Narnia Invaded”) Steven D. Boyer discusses Hollywood’s handling of this theme in the first two Narnia movies. He observes that Lewis’s notion of kingship was rooted in a hierarchical view of creation, which was itself grounded in his Christian outlook. Relationships, Lewis taught, reflect the hierarchical ordering that is imbedded in the created order. The Chronicles of Narnia are infused with this understanding, not least because they draw upon the rich tapestry of medievalism, being saturated with Spenserian imagery, lordly kings, submissive laborers, knightly virtue, and a complementarian rather than egalitarian approach to gender. In Narnia, everyone accepts his appointed position (everyone, that is, except grasping villains like the witch or Miraz), and not everyone’s role is the same.
Hollywood has tried everything it can to flatten out this dynamic from Lewis’s stories. In the movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, director Andrew Adamson commented that Lewis’s belief that females shouldn’t fight was “a sexist thing” and had to be changed because it “was very disempowering to girls.” Yet it wasn’t just the female characters who were “liberated” into Hollywood’s egalitarian utopia. As Boyer points out, the first movie presents maturity as Peter and Edmund learning to think independently even when it means going against orders from those higher in the chain of command.
This theme is accentuated in Prince Caspian, where kingship is reduced to the exercise of raw power. Boyer explains that when Peter starts a fight in the subway station, it is because he still wants to be treated like a king and his ego suffers when he isn’t. And the power struggle between Peter and Caspian shows that even when Peter is back in Narnia, he hasn’t learned his lesson and still thinks of authority in terms of the enlargement of his personal ambit.
In short, the movies have engaged in what Boyer terms a “quiet, unobtrusive devaluation of humble submission to rightful authority.”
Boyer’s review was written before the Dawn Treader movie came out, but unfortunately, the latest film continues this trend of distorting the theme of kingship. At the beginning of the movie, when Edmund is called a “squirt” for lying about his age, his rejoinder is, “I’m a king.” Even when he returns to Narnia and is once again a king, his sense of entitlement is not satisfied, since he must play second fiddle to Caspian. The tension culminates with the nearly deadly conflict that Caspian and Edmund get into at Goldwater.
By contrast, in the book, there is a momentary tension between the two kings at Goldwater, but it is not a defining theme in their relationship, nor is it the climax of growing frustrations Edmund has had because of the ship’s chain of command. But because Hollywood’s Edmund yearns for a kingship rooted in power, he is susceptible to temptation from the White Witch (resurrected by the vaporous green gas) when she offers to give him control over all of Narnia.
Believe in Yourself
I wish I could say the distortion stops there, but it doesn’t. Having removed the delight in hierarchy and flattened the narrative into a clunky succession of disconnected adventures, Apted has apparently tried to reinsert depth into the story through occasional references to the children’s “destiny,” together with a recurring theme about self-acceptance. The latter is annoying at best and verges on psychobabble at worst.
“We have nothing if not belief,” says Reepicheep, and the movie is pretty clear that the type of belief that is required is belief in ourselves. When Lucy is tempted by vanity and uses the spell in the magician’s book to make herself beautiful beyond the lot of mortals, the lesson Aslan teaches her is to accept herself exactly as she is. Nor is this any trivial matter: Aslan says to Lucy that the entire reality of Narnia for the other Pevensies depends on Lucy learning this lesson.
When she does, she is then able to pass on what she has learned to the stowaway girl (that’s righta little girl sneaked on board the ship after her mother was destroyed by the vaporous gas). When the girl says to Lucy that she wants to be like her, Lucy replies, “No, you want to be like yourself.”
This theme of being yourself can become painfully sententious at times, and just when you think you’ve heard enough, you have to endure Carrie Underwood punctuating it all by singing:
Okay, okay. The only problem is that in Lewis’s Christian vision, “exactly who we are” is never just enough. Every Narnia story has a sub-theme about sanctification, with one or more characters having to grow into the type of maturity that involves not accepting who they are, but becoming something better.
Self-Focus the Key
The theme of self-acceptance in the movie is relatively innocuous, since it really only finds concrete focus in Lucy’s struggle with her desire to be as beautiful as Susan. Yet the subtext is not that Lucy’s vanity should be overcome because it is wrong, but because Lucy isn’t being true to herself.
The Dawn Treader movie thus perfectly reflects a society that has made self-actualization the summum bonum. Within this inversion of Christian ethics, redemption is achieved through shedding the expectations generated by all external standards. The solution is to ignore those standards and learn to focus on oneself instead. As Carrie Underwood explained in an interview about the theme song she co-wrote for the production:
Just focus on ourselves? The only problem here is that this is not Lewis’s vision. In his essay “The Sermon and the Lunch,” Lewis wrote powerfully against the lie that we just need to be ourselves. He concludes the essay with the forceful assertion, “It will never be lawful simply to ‘be ourselves’ until ‘ourselves’ have become sons of God.”
A Mere Motivator
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader joins a pantheon of other films whose central motif is that redemption is found within ourselves. Within such a schema, man is placed at the center, and Godin this case Aslanbecomes an irrelevant fixture. The Aslan of the recent movie is little more than a motivator, certainly not the savior he is in Lewis’s series.
In Lewis’s book, Aslan is terrifying. When Lucy is tempted to vanity, her sin is overcome by fear of Aslan’s wrath, and Lewis doesn’t hesitate to say that Lucy “became horribly afraid.” By contrast, Hollywood’s Aslan helps Lucy find her source of strength within herself.
Or again, in the book, the salvation of Eustacewhen he is transformed from a dragon back into a human beingoccurs through an excruciating application of Aslan’s claws, an experience that Eustace describes as having hurt more than anything else in his entire life. By contrast, Hollywood’s Aslan is too tame even to touch Eustace. He does not strike fear into sinners, nor does he use suffering to restore them to health. Though Eustace does apparently repent, it happens after he is pumped up with motivational psychology from Reepicheep about being an extraordinary person.
In the book, when the ship’s company are caught in the grip of the Dark Island’s curse, Lucy prays to Aslan, and he comes to them in the form of an albatross and breaks the spell. Though an albatross does make a brief appearance in the movie, it is not as savior; the escape happens because Eustace lays the seventh sword on the table. Aslan does not bring deliverance as an external force, just as he does not bring conviction by pointing to a transcendent standard.
A Self-Centered Paradigm
In his book Losing Our Virtue, David Wells describes the paradigm shift that occurred when morality lost its transcendent reference point and relocated itself in the world of the internal and psychological. Within the new paradigm, the self becomes one’s only means of understanding the world, with the consequence that the ultimate crime one can commit is to be false to the self. Salvation thus becomes a matter of self-actualizationachieving that state wherein we are free to be comfortable with ourselves.
Again, this ethic of the self is described well by Carrie Underwood, who commented on the song she composed for the movie,
In a good way? Unfortunately, when the self is our only standard, there is no way to tell what is actually good.
Robin Phillips is the author of the book Saints and Scoundrels (Canon Press) and is currently working on a Ph.D. in historical theology through King's College, London. He is a contributing editor for Salvo magazine and operates a blog at http://robinphillips.blogspot.com.
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“Lost at Sea” first appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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