Lewis, compelled by his mission to bring modern readers out of the Ironic culture in which they were immersed, and to show them a different world, was exploring what could be done with symbolism in the Narnia books.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis had reimagined things in the form of a new universe, one which could ‘only be reached by magic’, which was centred not around the subjective world of human beings but around an actual living God. To represent this God, Lewis used the symbol of a Lion.
Some readers, stuck in an Ironic framework, saw Aslan not as a symbol but as an allegory - not as an image representing a deeper truth about the nature of reality, in other words, but as a simple projection of Lewis’s Christian beliefs. It would have been hard for any critic in the mid-Twentieth Century to avoid coming to the conclusion that Lewis was merely proselytising, ‘preying’ upon the minds of his child readers before the Ironic culture had had a chance to teach them about the ‘real world’. To interpret the Narnia stories in any other way would have been to move in the direction of becoming a Christian oneself. But Lewis, already a Christian, was in fact attempting something quite different: he was trying to break the spell of the Ironic culture itself. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is about the thawing of a Hundred Years’ Winter; its symbolic intention is to thaw the century of materialist decline with which Lewis was confronted in the 1940s and 50s.
The plot of the first Narnia book, and the development of the characters within it, had all fitted together to forward this purpose: the Pevensies lose their brother to the forces of darkness but he is reclaimed once they are able to reach Aslan, who sacrifices himself to save the boy. The Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time lies outside the mere power-based magic of the Witch and is able to shatter her control and restore a proper order based on a completely different kind of cosmos. Irony is destroyed; an external, real God is ascendant: the universe ‘flips’.
Prince Caspian, as we have seen earlier, is not quite so satisfactory. It basically re-works the symbology of the first book, using the Pevensies again, Susan’s horn, and Aslan, as less-than-symbols. They are shadows of their former selves, and Lucy’s frustration in trying to speak to the trees in Narnia touches upon the reader’s frustration in sensing the lack of real spiritual power which imbued the first book. To solve this, Lewis had to go ‘back to basics’. He needed to re-visit Narnia as a symbol or set of symbols, and to rework both plot and character so that readers would again have some chance of experiencing the original intention: the lifting of the enchantment of their current culture, so that they could see the wider Dantean universe beyond.
Though Lucy and Edmund feature as characters, we have a new protagonist: Eustace Scrubb. He is the epitome of the ‘modern child’. His introduction by Lewis has been interpreted as a list of Lewis’s own prejudices, but the things stressed here are not so much what the author disliked but features of the culture that he was trying to defeat:
THERE was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can't tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none. He didn't call his Father and Mother "Father" and "Mother", but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotallers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on beds and the windows were always open.
Eustace Clarence liked animals, especially beetles, if they were dead and pinned on a card. He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools.
Eustace’s parents re the real target here: as ‘up-to-date and advanced people’, they represent what Lewis saw as the worst of the self-righteous bourgeois culture of the Twentieth Century. It was not so much vegetarianism or teetotalism Lewis objected to - it was the delusion of moral superiority which could accompany both. Eustace’s materialism and lack of compassion for living things are of the same kind - these are new trends in human culture, even in the 50s when Lewis wrote the book. The old world kind of friendship that he valued, the practice of humility and common sense,the healthy eating of meat and moderate partaking of pleasures like smoking and drinking, all of these things Lewis saw as under threat, but underlying them as specific practices was the very modern notion that they were intellectually and morally ‘wrong’ and that the generation to which Eustace’s parents belonged were of a higher moral calibre than their predecessors.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we see an author regaining confidence in his symbolic vision. The Pevensies and Eustace are not mechanically ‘ripped’ into another world, but enter through the more fitting portal of a painting on a wall. In Narnia, they meet Caspian again but this time he is not embroiled in an introverted battle to regain his realm as he had been in the preceding book (itself symbolic of Lewis’s own struggle to regain the truth of Narnia) - now the King is on a quest, to find missing lords but also to sail, if possible, to the edge of the world. This is symbolic too, and much more satisfactory: Lewis intends to explore and re-invigorate Narnia.
The quest could easily have been about finding Aslan, as was the underlying plot of Prince Caspian, but Lewis does not blunder into that narrative trap - rather, more confidently, Aslan does not appear for some time in the story and is more distant. Things do not have to begin nor end with the Lion for the bulk of the plot; his appearances, if you like, are much more successfully ‘symbolic’ by being more remote. The quest itself, the movement of the ship to the East and the various adventures had on the way, are symbol enough to suggest what Lewis needs to suggest: that we are approaching a new vision of the cosmos.
The plot begins with the relatively mundane freeing of the Lone Islands from a bureaucracy meant to suggest the modern world:
Behind a table at the far end with various secretaries about him sat his Sufficiency, the Governor of the Lone Islands. Gumpas was a bilious-looking man with hair that had once been red and was now mostly grey. He glanced up as the strangers entered and then looked down at his papers saying automatically, "No interviews without appointments except between nine and ten p.m. on second Saturdays."
But as the ship proceeds East, we encounter more and more strictly mythical creatures including a Sea Serpent. Our viewpoint as readers has also been carefully nudged into that of Eustace rather than the Pevensie siblings: at first through the mechanism of diary entries and then simply by telling the story from Eustace’s point of view, we are encouraged to see his character development. This becomes completely symbolic when he is magically transformed into a dragon. In this way, when he begins to change but is finally rescued and retired by Aslan, we as readers must take some share in that transformation.
On the island they later call Deathwater, Lewis ties in our journey with further moral questions, Aslan appearing briefly in the background to underline the right track; on the Island of Voices, we see Aslan at work, but again behind the scenes, cultivating moral change in a star by having him mentor the foolish Dufflepuds.
As we get to the Dark Island, things have become almost purely symbolic: the darkness in which they are enveloped is that of nightmares, and each crew member is subjected to psychological terrors:
Everyone knew it would be better not to listen, not to strain his ears for any sound from the darkness. But no one could help listening. And soon everyone was hearing things. Each one heard something different.
"Do you hear a noise like . . . like a huge pair of scissors opening and shutting .. . over there?" Eustace asked Rynelf.
"Hush!" said Rynelf. "I can hear them crawling up the sides of the ship."
"It's just going to settle on the mast," said Caspian.
"Ugh!" said a sailor. "There are the gongs beginning. I knew they would.”
Aslan rescues them again, this time in the even more symbolic form of an albtaross, guiding them out of the darkness and back into the light.
These images are confidently wrought; Lewis has tapped into the spiritual well-spring from which Narnia first sprang and comes up with symbol after symbol, all of which work effectively. An unfriendly critic might attempt to convert these symbols into allegories, mere projections of an author’s emotional dispositions, but their effectiveness is so universal that it would be a struggle.
The climactic scenes of the book are laden with imagery. The crew comes upon sleepers at a dining table, which is full of food, eaten and refreshed by magic; a bird brings a burning ember to the mouth of an old man; the Stone Knife which killed Aslan in the first book lies upon the table. We hardly know what to make of each symbol individually; cumulatively they have the tinge of Biblical renewal and rebirth about them. By the time we get to the End of the World, we, like the children and the rest of the crew, have ‘drunk of the light’:
After that for many days, without wind in her shrouds or foam at her bows, across a waveless sea, the Dawn Treader glided smoothly east. Every day and every hour the light became more brilliant and still they could bear it. No one ate or slept and no one wanted to, but they drew buckets of dazzling water from the sea, stronger than wine and somehow wetter, more liquid, than ordinary water, and pledged one another silently in deep draughts of it. And one or two of the sailors who had been oldish men when the voyage began now grew younger every day. Everyone on board was filled with joy and excitement, but not an excitement that made one talk. The further they sailed the less they spoke, and then almost in a whisper. The stillness of that last sea laid hold on them.
So immersed are we in the world of symbols by the final chapter that it comes as hardly any surprise that here we meet Aslan not at first as a Lion, Lewis’s reimagined God, but as the Biblical lamb. Indeed, we are ready for Lewis to make explicit what has so far only been suggested through symbols:
But between them and the foot of the sky there was something so white on the green grass that even with their eagles' eyes they could hardly look at it. They came on and saw that it was a Lamb.
"Come and have breakfast," said the Lamb in its sweet milky voice.
Then they noticed for the first time that there was a fire lit on the grass and fish roasting on it. They sat down and ate the fish, hungry now for the first time for many days. And it was the most delicious food they had ever tasted.
"Please, Lamb," said Lucy, "is this the way to Aslan's country?"
"Not for you," said the Lamb. "For you the door into Aslan's country is from your own world."
"What!" said Edmund. "Is there a way into Aslan's country from our world too?"
"There is a way into my country from all the worlds," said the Lamb; but as he spoke his snowy white flushed into tawny gold and his size changed and he was Aslan himself, towering above them and scattering light from his mane.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis successfully re-establishes Narnia as a symbol of a deeper truth. No longer can it be reduced to simple allegory, its imagery is rich and resonating with confidence. Aslan has been revitalised and shown to be the Providence which acts behind the visible events of the plot. And Lewis has openly connected for the reader this fictional creation and the Christian one he hopes to introduce the reader to through the story.
Building on this now, Lewis explores further how he can bring about the visionary transformation of his readers in the other Narnia tales.