Each of the Chronicles of Narnia books address theological issues in a simplistic way that few stories ever attain. But Voyage of the Dawn Treader addresses what is in many ways the Christian theme – redemption – and showcases some of the best character development Lewis has ever accomplished.
After the events of Prince Caspian, Peter and Susan were told that they would not visit Narnia again. Lucy and Edmund would, however. But they never imagined that it would be alongside their dreadful cousin, Eustace. Eustace is stubborn, obstinate, selfish, arrogant, and a bully. He is, from Lewis’s perspective, the exact opposite of everything a child should be. He does not believe in fun and games (least of all in reading fun books), calls his parents by their first names, and goes to a school where they do not believe in discipline (meaning physical discipline – remember, after all, that these books were published in the 1950s). Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace are thrown into Narnia right in the hands of the Dawn Treader, a ship King Caspian, three years older than we left him, is taking to find the seven lords who were friends of his father and had been banished by the evil king. And on the trip, Eustace is about as dreadful as a boy can be.
But here is the interesting thing: he is the point of this entire story. In the hands of most authors, Edmund or Caspian would be the protagonist, with Lucy serving a supporting role and Eustace as an obstacle or antagonist internal to the team. That’s not the case here. In fact, the book opens with Eustace, not the Pevensies: “There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
In the story, Eustace begins with all of these horrible characteristics, but then undergoes a change of heart. One of his most selfish decisions results in a curse, and while he then has a change of heart, he struggles and struggles to lift the curse and yet it cannot be undone (the way in which this is done is a lot of fun, and I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read the book). It’s not until Aslan comes to him in the middle of the night that he is able to go back to his old self again – except not, because at that point he’s really becoming quite a different person.
There are several things about this that make significant points about redemption. The first is that we are Eustace. We’ve been stubborn, obstinate, selfish, and a bully, and the times that we have recognized that have not usually been out of our own great wisdom, but because some circumstance humbles us.
Second, a change of heart is not enough. This might be the most important part of this book – Eustace changes his heart before Aslan rescues him, but that in and of itself wasn’t enough to lift the curse. The power in redemption is not just in our willingness to repent, but in the power of God to save. This can be a very powerful point to impress upon our children, or ourselves as adults. I may be sorry, but that doesn’t make my sins go away – only the blood of Jesus can do that.
Third, the changes that we see in Eustace are not unrealistic. He does change his heart and his attitude, but Lewis says that he had many days where he would slip back into bad behavior. Even in the rest of the story he sometimes says things that are discouraging or reveal a bad attitude. But, as a whole, he is trying to do better and, as Lewis says, “The change had begun.” This sets up a far more realistic image of what redemption looks like. We don’t turn perfect immediately, but we have to work at following God and trusting Him.
As a whole, few books do as terrific a job portraying redemption as Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I could talk far more about the fun aspects of this book, of Caspian casting slave traders out of his islands, of criticizing the love of money through “Deathwater Island,” of Reepicheep’s unwavering bravery and how he is really the example of the hero, of the invisible people, and of many other great parts of this story. But the redemption aspect is the most important here, and makes this book a must-read for any family.