There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the third Narnia book in original publication order (see my review of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for more about reading order). You could arguably start reading here; there are a lot of references to the previous books, but mostly as background material, and I don't think any of it is vital. If you wanted to sample a single Narnia book to see if you'd get along with the series, this is the one I'd recommend.
Since I was a kid, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has held the spot of my favorite of the series. I'm happy to report that it still holds up. Apart from one bit that didn't age well (more on that below), this is the book where the story and the world-building come together, in part because Lewis picks a plot shape that works with what he wants to write about.
The younger two Pevensie children, Edmund and Lucy, are spending the summer with Uncle Harold and Aunt Alberta because their parents are in America. That means spending the summer with their cousin Eustace. C.S. Lewis had strong opinions about child-raising that crop up here and there in his books, and Harold and Alberta are his example of everything he dislikes: caricatured progressive, "scientific" parents who don't believe in fiction or mess or vices. Eustace therefore starts the book as a terror, a whiny bully who has only read boring practical books and is constantly scoffing at the Pevensies and making fun of their stories of Narnia. He is therefore entirely unprepared when the painting of a ship in the guest bedroom turns into a portal to the Narnia and dumps the three children into the middle of the ocean.
Thankfully, they're in the middle of the ocean near the ship in the painting. That ship is the Dawn Treader, and onboard is Caspian from the previous book, now king of Narnia. He has (improbably) sorted things out in his kingdom and is now on a sea voyage to find seven honorable Telmarine lords who left Narnia while his uncle was usurping the throne. They're already days away from land, headed towards the Lone Islands and, beyond that, into uncharted seas.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW.
Obviously, Eustace gets a redemption arc, which is roughly the first half of this book. It's not a bad arc, but I am always happy when it's over. Lewis tries so hard to make Eustace insufferable that it becomes tedious. As an indoor kid who would not consider being dumped on a primitive sailing ship to be a grand adventure, I wanted to have more sympathy for him than the book would allow.
The other problem with Eustace's initial character is that Lewis wants it to stem from "modern" parenting and not reading the right sort of books, but I don't buy it. I've known kids whose parents didn't believe in fiction, and they didn't act anything like this (and kids pick up a lot more via osmosis regardless of parenting than Lewis seems to realize). What Eustace acts like instead is an entitled, arrogant rich kid who is used to the world revolving around him, and it's fascinating to me how Lewis ignores class to focus on educational philosophy.
The best part of Eustace's story is Reepicheep, which is just setup for Reepicheep becoming the best part of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Reepicheep, the leader of Narnia's talking mice, first appears in Prince Caspian, but there he's mostly played for laughs: the absurdly brave and dashing mouse who rushes into every fight he sees. In this book, he comes into his own as the courage and occasionally the moral conscience of the party. Caspian wants to explore and to find the lords of his past, the Pevensie kids want to have a sea adventure, and Eustace is in this book to have a redemption arc, but Reepicheep is the driving force at the heart of the voyage. He's going to Aslan's country beyond the sea, armed with a nursemaid's song about his destiny and a determination to be his best and most honorable self every step of the way, and nothing is going to stop him.
Eustace, of course, takes an immediate dislike to a talking rodent. Reepicheep, in return, is the least interested of anyone on the ship in tolerating Eustace's obnoxious behavior and would be quite happy to duel him. But when Eustace is turned into a dragon, Reepicheep is the one who spends hours with him, telling him stories and ensuring he's not alone. It's beautifully handled, and my only complaint is that Lewis doesn't do enough with the Eustace and Reepicheep friendship (or indeed with Eustace at all) for the rest of the book.
After Eustace's restoration and a few other relatively short incidents comes the second long section of the book and the part that didn't age well: the island of the Dufflepuds. It's a shame because the setup is wonderful: a cultivated island in the middle of nowhere with no one in sight, mysterious pounding sounds and voices, the fun of trying to figure out just what these invisible creatures could possibly be, and of course Lucy's foray into the second floor of a house, braving the lair of a magician to find and read one of the best books of magic in fantasy.
Everything about how Lewis sets this scene is so well done. The kids are coming from an encounter with a sea serpent and a horrifically dangerous magic island and land on this scene of eerily normal domesticity. The most dangerous excursion is Lucy going upstairs in a brightly lit house with soft carpet in the middle of the day. And yet it's incredibly tense because Lewis knows exactly how to put you in Lucy's head, right down to having to stand with her back to an open door to read the book.
And that book! The pages only turn forward, the spells are beautifully illustrated, and the sense of temptation is palpable. Lucy reading the eavesdropping spell is one of the more memorable bits in this series, at least for me, and makes a surprisingly subtle moral point about the practical reasons why invading other people's privacy is unwise and can just make you miserable. And then, when Lucy reads the visibility spell that was her goal, there's this exchange, which is pure C.S. Lewis:
"Oh Aslan," said she, "it was kind of you to come."
"I have been here all the time," said he, "but you have just made me visible."
"Aslan!" said Lucy almost a little reproachfully. "Don't make fun of me. As if anything I could do would make you visible!"
"It did," said Aslan. "Did you think I wouldn't obey my own rules?"
I love the subtlety of what's happening here: the way that Lucy is much more powerful than she thinks she is, but only because Aslan decided to make the rules that way and chooses to follow his own rules, making himself vulnerable in a fascinating way. The best part is that Lewis never belabors points like this; the characters immediately move on to talk about other things, and no one feels obligated to explain.
But, unfortunately, along with the explanation of the thumping and the magician, we learn that the Dufflepuds are (remarkably dim-witted) dwarfs, the magician is their guardian (put there by Aslan, no less!), he transformed them into rather absurd shapes that they hate, and all of this is played for laughs. Once you notice that these are sentient creatures being treated essentially like pets (and physically transformed against their will), the level of paternalistic colonialism going on here is very off-putting. It's even worse that the Dufflepuds are memorably funny (washing dishes before dinner to save time afterwards!) and are arguably too dim to manage on their own, because Lewis made the authorial choice to write them that way. The "white man's burden" feeling is very strong.
And Lewis could have made other choices! Coriakin the magician is a fascinating and somewhat morally ambiguous character. We learn later in the book that he's a star and his presence on the island is a punishment of sorts, leading to one of my other favorite bits of theology in this book:
"My son," said Ramandu, "it is not for you, a son of Adam, to know what faults a star can commit."
Lewis could have kept most of the setup, kept the delightfully silly things the Dufflepuds believe, changed who was responsible for their transformation, and given Coriakin a less authoritarian role, and the story would have been so much stronger for it.
After this, the story gets stranger and wilder, and it's in the last part that I think the true magic of this book lies. The entirety of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a progression from a relatively mundane sea voyage to something more awe-inspiring. The last few chapters are a tour de force of wonder: rejuvenating stars, sunbirds, the Witch's stone knife, undersea kingdoms, a sea of lilies, a wall of water, the cliffs of Aslan's country, and the literal end of the world. Lewis does it without much conflict, with sparse description in a very few pages, and with beautifully memorable touches like the quality of the light and the hush that falls over the ship.
This is the part of Narnia that I point to and wonder why I don't see more emulation (although I should note that it is arguably an immram). Tolkien-style fantasy, with dwarfs and elves and magic rings and great battles, is everywhere, but I can't think of many examples of this sense of awe and discovery without great battles and detailed explanations. Or of characters like Reepicheep, who gets one of the best lines of the series:
"My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan's country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise and Peepiceek shall be the head of the talking mice in Narnia."
The last section of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is one of my favorite endings of any book precisely because it's so different than the typical ending of a novel. The final return to England is always a bit disappointing in this series, but it's very short and is preceded by so much wonder that I don't mind. Aslan does appear to the kids as a lamb at the very end of the world, making Lewis's intended Christian context a bit more obvious, but even that isn't belabored, just left there for those who recognize the symbolism to notice.
I was curious during this re-read to understand why The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is so much better than the first two books in the series. I think it's primarily due to two things: pacing, and a story structure that's better aligned with what Lewis wants to write about.
For pacing, both The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian have surprisingly long setups for short books. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by contrast, it takes only 35 pages to get the kids in Narnia, introduce all the characters, tour the ship, learn why Caspian is off on a sea voyage, establish where this book fits in the Narnian timeline, and have the kids be captured by slavers. None of the Narnia books are exactly slow, but Dawn Treader is the first book of the series that feels like it knows exactly where it's going and isn't wasting time getting there.
The other structural success of this book is that it's a semi-episodic adventure, which means Lewis can stop trying to write about battles and political changes whose details he's clearly not interested in and instead focus wholeheartedly on sense-of-wonder exploration. The island-hopping structure lets Lewis play with ideas and drop them before they wear out their welcome. And the lack of major historical events also means that Aslan doesn't have to come in to resolve everything and instead can play the role of guardian angel.
I think The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has the most compelling portrayal of Aslan in the series. He doesn't make decisions for the kids or tell them directly what to do the way he did in the previous two books. Instead, he shows up whenever they're about to make a dreadful mistake and does just enough to get them to make a better decision. Some readers may find this takes too much of the tension out of the book, but I have always appreciated it. It lets nervous child readers enjoy the adventures while knowing that Aslan will keep anything too bad from happening. He plays the role of a protective but non-interfering parent in a genre that usually doesn't have parents because they would intervene to prevent adventures.
I enjoyed this book just as much as I remembered enjoying it during my childhood re-reads. Still the best book of the series.
This, as with both The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, was originally intended to be the last book of the series. That, of course, turned out to not be the case, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is followed (in both chronological and original publication order) by The Silver Chair.