During the Age of Discovery, the declaration ‘here be monsters’ often labelled unchartered waters of nautical maps, suggesting that unmapped regions were full of malevolent creatures lying in wait for wayward seafarers. Long over, however, is that era when the shape of the earth was still undefined: these days, anyone with a rudimentary internet connection can use Google Earth to see their home from God’s eye view.
In a world where there is seemingly nothing new to discover, belief in monsters of the deep feels impossibly quaint. Or, perhaps we’ve shifted our attention from this world to the universe beyond. Now, if we believe in monsters from regions unknown, they’re likely to hail from outer space. Films like War of the Worlds, the Alien films, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Signs, Independence Day, and Battle Los Angeles (due for release in 2011) all assume that evil, monstrous types populate the great beyond—and that they’re coming to get us.
Less common is the idea that the great unknown is the ultimate source of pleasure, beauty, fulfilment, and goodness. That rather than ‘here be monsters’, the tag ‘here be heaven itself’ might be more appropriate. This latter belief is suggested by Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the latest adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series to be released in cinemas.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader follows the sea voyage of King Caspian as he and his crew venture into the great, unchartered waters of the East. At first, they seek after seven Narnian lords lost at sea but they’re soon tasked with a more pressing matter: discovering the origin of a great evil that threatens Narnia. Caspian is joined on this mission by Lucy and Edmund Pevensie as well as their bore of a cousin, Eustace Scrubb, who makes a nuisance out of himself until he gets turned into a dragon and learns to be nice. Aslan the Lion, the saviour of Narnia and the valiant talking Mouse, Reepicheep round out the cast.
The original novel is without a significant villain, hence the film supplies one in the form of a sentient mist that bears more than a passing resemblance to the mysterious black smoke monster of the television series Lost. The green puff of smoke of Voyage of the Dawn Treader abducts innocent Narnians, inhabits a dark island, and makes all your worst fears come true—which Edmund learns when he conjures into being his old foe, the White Witch, as well as a vicious sea serpent—the kind of mythical monster feared to inhabit those unchartered waters.
From this multi-purpose villain, the film is able to set up moral lessons about resisting temptation, the power of courage and belief, and learning to be and love yourself. These messages are all very well and good, and age-appropriate for the intended audience of kids and young teens but for me, the villain is a macguffin that obscures a more interesting theme going on: the search for heaven. It’s this aspect of the film that the Christians in the audience may be most captivated by—for they too are certain that the source of all that is great, beautiful and good emerges not from this world itself, but beyond it.
Early on in both novel and film, Reepicheep voices his deepest wish: to venture into the utter East to find Aslan’s country—the Narnian equivalent of heaven. The spirit of discovery is key to Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Lewis doesn’t set the bar low in shooting for the shores of heaven. In the film, after the evil mist has been destroyed and our heroes have prevailed (particularly Eustace who has overcome his chronic brattiness), the children venture further east until the waves grow sweet—a marvel that, according to a prophecy spoken over Reepicheep as a baby, heralds the discovery of Aslan’s country.
The spirit of discovery is key to Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Lewis doesn’t set the bar low in shooting for the shores of heaven
Voyage of the Dawn Treader marks a turning point in the Narnia Chronicles. It’s the first of the stories in the series to so explicitly whet the reader’s appetite for eternity with its descriptions of the wonders on the edge of heaven: the sweet waters of the last sea, the endless carpet of lilies through which the children sail, the vertical wave over which the Mouse Reepicheep gladly disappears to make his way into Aslan’s country. If these wonders pave the way to paradise, they also suggest that they will be surpassed by heaven itself. Particularly as before Reepicheep sets out for heaven, this formerly martial Mouse flings away his sword for he will need it no longer in that longed-for country.
This foretaste of Aslan’s country continues in The Silver Chair, where Jill encounters Aslan atop a high cliff of the Lion’s country, and deep underground Eustace spies a slumbering Father Time, whom he is told will arise at the end of all things. Furthermore, Voyage of the Dawn Treader’s preview of heaven is fulfilled in The Last Battle, a stunning vision of the end of Narnia when Father Time awakens to end the world, and Aslan’s country is unveiled as the real Narnia.
However, from the vantage point of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, all that is left to come. Though Reepicheep, ever keen for adventure and discovery, leaves to find his way into Aslan’s country, the children are not to follow and Lucy and Edmund are further disappointed to be told by Aslan that they will not return to Narnia. Still, if the children aren’t to reach Aslan’s country through Narnia, Aslan restores an element of discovery to their own world.
Aslan suggests that there is a door from Lucy’s world into his country, and that it is his hope that by knowing him in Narnia, she will come to know him in her world—that is to say, ours. Voyage of the Dawn Treader ends, then, with the suggestion that even though our world is mapped and known, it still has its treasures worth finding and that possibly, heaven might be the greatest discovery of all.
Dr Justine Toh is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She also teaches cultural studies at Macquarie University.