Originally published as the third of C. S. Lewis's seminal Narnia series, a new chronological resequencing now places The Voyage of the Dawn Treader fifth. If Prince Caspian left you a little on the dissatisfied side, Voyage energetically restores Lewis's saga to its high adventure aspirations. The story is one of seafaring exploration and wonder that, among other things, gives King Caspian the heroic role he's deserved (and which was kind of subsumed by Peter in Prince Caspian), and introduces readers to glorious new lands and creatures and exciting, old-fashioned feats of derring-do as our heroes venture boldly into uncharted oceans. True, it rambles, and often feels less like a story than a collection of imaginative scenes. But there's no denying the sense of wonder alive in its best moments.
In this volume, Edmund and Lucy, the two youngest Pevensie siblings, are sent to visit the home of their spoiled, petulant cousin Eustace Scrubb. Eustace can't resist making fun of the children's stories of adventure in the magical land of Narnia. But Edmund and Lucy are the ones who have the last laugh when all three children are whisked through a painting of a sailing ship hanging forgotten in Eustace's house, and into Narnia itself. They are rescued from the sea and hauled aboard the ship, the Dawn Treader, manned by no less than King Caspian himself. Caspian is on a voyage to the uncharted east to find out what became of seven exiled lords loyal to his father, before he was usurped from his throne by Caspian's evil uncle Miraz. There is also some hope that the explorers might find the fabled land beyond the sea from which Aslan comes.
The picaresque adventures begin immediately, as the Dawn Treader and its crew — among other exciting things — thwart a slavery ring, disenchant a race of one-legged dwarfs who have been made invisible, discover a lake whose waters turn anything to gold, fight a big ol' sea serpent, rescue a man from a dark and foreboding island where dreams (real ones, not wishes) come true, and finally reach the End of the World. Several of the Narnia books feel as loosely structured as the average children's bedtime story, and this one is no different. Much of it feels as if Lewis was just making it all up as he went, but as that was largely the approach Tolkien took to The Lord of the Rings I can't really begrudge him.
What we do have is a glorious display of Lewis's fertile imagination at work, cooking up one dazzling encounter after another for our young heroes to experience. Eustace has a rather embarrassing episode involving a dragon that teaches him how wrong it is to be such a spoiled brat — though sadly, after this character arc is complete, he fades far into the story's background. As you can see, Lewis was fairly indifferent to concepts like narrative consistency. And he never explains such plot trifles as why there's a magical painting leading into Narnia hanging in Eustace's mother's house. Lewis needed a device to get the children back to Narnia, and so he contrived one, and that was that. But hey, it's a fun little bedtime story — and if your kids are savvy enough to ask any of these plot logic questions while they're reading the book or having it read to them, consider yourself a lucky parent.
Naturally, Aslan pops up here and there and figures in the climax. While I know Lewis meant the Narnia novels to be Christian allegories to one degree or another, I found Aslan really came across as fairly useless here. His role, ultimately, seems to be that of a affectionate, stern but distant parent, steering the children the right direction when they need a nudge or two, but never really seeming to be an essential ingredient to their developing maturity. After all, Caspian doesn't need Aslan's guidance to end the slave trade on the islands, and there are other episodes in the book when the Pevensies know the right decision to make without help from their leonine diety. The ending of the book is its most predictable and underwhelming part (though there is some remarkable imagery). But I suppose that makes a kind of sense in keeping with the tradition of "odyssey" stories: they are always more about the journey than the destination.
And there is much to remember about that journey. The children's traveling companions, such as Reepicheep the mouse, who makes up for his small stature with a courage that is more often than not impetuous foolhardiness. And the occasional quiet moments, such as the one shared between Lucy and a young girl of the seafolk she watches from the Dawn Treader's deck. Lewis notes, with utmost warmth and sensitivity to character, how the two of them share only a single look and will never see each other again, but in that moment, something very much like a friendship is formed, and one that will never be forgotten. In heartfelt moments like this, The Chronicles of Narnia transcend children's literature and become something truly magical.