Editor's note: S. Michael Wilcox, a Deseret Book author and retired Church Educational System instructor, spent three years studying C.S. Lewis' work for his dissertation at the University of Colorado. Wilcox's favorite Narnia book is "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," the film adaptation of which debuts Dec. 10.
In 2008, Deseret Book released a talk where Wilcox examines Lewis' work and its relevance to Latter-day Saints. The following are lessons about Christ from "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," abridged from the text provided by Wilcox for the CD, "Of Lions, Dragons and Turkish Delight."
Everything we read and learn and hear about (the lion), Aslan we are to apply and to think: "This is really the Savior that Lewis is teaching me about."
In "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," the (natural man) is represented by a dragon. We are introduced to a young boy named Eustace. He's a very nasty little kid. He complains about everything. He's Lewis' symbol for all of us who need the change Christ offers.
The Dawn Treader is a ship sailing from island to island, reminiscent of Homer's "Odyssey." There is a shipwreck, and the Dawn Treader needs repairs. However, Eustace doesn't want to help fix it, so he wanders off on his own in order to get out of work and from associating with the other characters in the story for whom he has developed a certain dislike. As he climbs down the slope of a mountain, he sees a little opening in the trees. There is a cave and a pool of water and evidence of fire. He freezes when he hears a noise, and at that moment a great dragon comes out of the cave, obviously in pain. The dragon walks over to the pool, gets a little drink and then collapses.
Eustace doesn't know if he's dead or alive because, as Lewis said, he'd read all the wrong books and didn't know anything about dragons. But finally, timidly, carefully walking out, he realizes the dragon is dead. It then begins to rain, and he rushes into the cave. There he finds what is in all dragons' caves. If you have read the right books, you will know what is in a dragon's cave: treasure, mounds of treasure. He revels in it, and he thinks of how he can get it back to Narnia and how he will live with such wealth. They are selfish and mean thoughts. He can live like a king! These and other types of evil thoughts dominate his mind and eventually make him tired. He makes a bed in the treasure and goes to sleep. Just before he goes to sleep, however, he places a golden ring upon his arm.
When he awakes, the sun has set. It is dark, and the moon is shining at the front of the cave. He sees ahead of him two jets of steam puffing up in the regular pattern of breathing. "Oh, no!" he thinks, "the dragon has a mate and it's returned." He holds his breath. But as he holds his breath, the steam stops. When he lets it out again, slowly, trying not to draw attention to himself, the steam issues forth in a straight steady jet. He reaches to the left, feeling for the wall to sneak out that way. Yet as he reaches out his hand, he sees a great dragon claw come into view. He freezes. It freezes. He lowers it. It lowers. The dragon is on the left side of him. He reaches his right out, and as he does so another great claw comes into view. He freezes. It freezes. He drops it. It drops. The dragon must be over him with its paws around him, and it is mimicking his every move.
He decides his only possible way to escape is to jump up and make a run for it. Maybe he can get in the pool. He jumps up and runs! But as he does so, he notices a number of things. He feels a biting, pinching pain on his arm where he put the gold ring earlier. Strange that it would feel so tight now. He also notices he's running on all fours. A great noise is erupting from the cave as gold and jewels are scattered. When he arrives at the reflection pool and reaches his head over the water, he sees the ugly face of a dragon looking up at him. What a horrible discovery. The jets of steam were his own breath. The claw on the right was his claw. The claw on the left was his claw. He had become a dragon.
Lewis now writes, "Sleeping on a dragon's hoard with greedy dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself. That explained everything." We might paraphrase that lesson by saying, "Sitting in the world's cave on worldly treasure, thinking worldly thoughts, we become like the world." By opposition, "Sitting in God's cave, on God's treasure, thinking Godly thoughts, we become like God."
Yet, there is always hope. Aslan will not let him remain a dragon. Eustace goes through a period of internal change, a type of repentance. He lets the other children know in certain ways that he is really Eustace, and with his great strength he begins to help in the repairs to the ship. After a certain time of penitence and sorrow, one night he sees a great lion pacing in the moonlight, calling to him. Though he feels a sense of fear, the beckoning Lion is impossible to resist, and he begins to follow. In time, they arrive at the top of a mountain where a garden is located, and in the garden there is a beautiful pool of water. Eustace had never been able to remove the golden ring from his arm. It pinches and bites and cuts him, but he thinks if he could bathe it down in the water, maybe it would help. Perhaps, the ring can symbolize one's conscience which fits very well when you're a little boy, but it hurts and bites and cuts when you're a dragon.
Eustace moves toward the pool, and Aslan tells him he can bathe in his pool, but he must first undress. Eustace does not understand what that means, but finally realizing that dragons are like snakes, maybe he is being asked to remove a layer of outer skin. He claws and scratches and pulls a layer down and throws it into the moonlight. Then he steps toward the pool for his bath. But when he sees his ugly dragon foot he realizes he is not yet ready for the pool. He scratches and pulls off another layer of dragon skin. He does this a third time, but he senses he is still unfit for Aslan's beautiful pool and that the great Lion is still waiting.
Finally, Eustace is in despair. Aslan says, "You will have to let me undress you." He lies on his back, and Aslan claws begin to tear and cut through the dragon skins to the little boy inside. The tearing and pulling was so deep that it goes right into his heart. Eustace explains the experience with these words: "And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feelings the stuff peel off. … Well he pulled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobly looking than the others had been. And there was I, as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been." Then with velvet paws, Aslan picks him up and placed him in the water, healing him, breathing on him, clothing him and finally sending him back to the other characters in the story.
That comment of Eustace about the layers of dragon skin he had peeled off not hurting is an important idea for Lewis. Sometimes we go to the Savior, and we want to get healed or helped in some little thing that is troubling us. We feel the pinch of the conscience. Something in our lives no longer fits comfortably. Maybe we are watching the wrong kind of movies. We scratch and peel and throw that bad habit at the Lord's feet and say, "Is that enough?" But we know in our hearts it is not. Maybe we're irritable. Maybe we get angry. Maybe we gossip. Maybe we have a little problem with the Word of Wisdom or tithing. Maybe we waste time. We continue to peel off the layers and lay them down. But the whole dragon skin has got to come off.
(Also) in "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," Lucy discovers a magician's book of spells. While turning its pages one of the spells reads, "For the refreshment of the spirit." Captivated, Lucy begins to read the story contained in the spell. As she reads, she feels an intense homesickness, but not for a place, but for a being, and the story of that being's life and sacrifice. Notice how Lewis weaves into this the great elements of the story of Christ including our hunger for a renewed association with him.
"On the next page she came to a spell 'for the refreshment of the spirit.' The pictures were fewer here but very beautiful. And what Lucy found herself reading was more like a story than a spell. It went on for three pages and before she had read to the bottom of the page she had forgotten that she was reading at all. She was living in the story as if it were real, and all the pictures were real too. When she had got to the third page and come to the end, she said, 'That is the loveliest story I've ever read or ever shall read in my whole life. Oh, I wish I could have gone on reading it for 10 years. At least I'll read it over again.'" But the book wouldn't let her turn back the pages, so Lucy tried to lock it in her memory. "'I must remember it. Let's see … it was about … about … oh dear, it's all fading away again. … It was about a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill, I know that much. But I can't remember and what shall I do?' And she never could remember; and ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician's Book."
Lewis created Aslan for the purpose of touching the love already in us. And you know, you do love that Lion as you read about him. With each new Chronicle the love and appreciation increase. You love him for his dignity, his wisdom, his pure goodness, his gentleness. Perhaps most of all you love him because he wants us to receive his love and to know him and to share his happiness.
In the last chapter, the children are afraid that it is going to be quite a while before they can come back into Narnia. They wish that return to be soon. In their final conversation with Aslan they hear distressing news. Lucy says, "Will you tell us how to get into your country from our world?"
"I shall be telling you all the time," said Aslan. "But I will not tell you how long or short the way will be; only that it lies across a river. But do not fear that, for I am the great Bridge Builder. And now come; I will open the door in the sky and send you to your own land."
"'Please, Aslan,' said Lucy. 'Before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do make it soon.' 'Dearest,' said Aslan very gently, 'you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.' 'Oh, Aslan!' said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices. 'You are too old, children,' said Aslan, 'and you must begin to come close to your own world now.' 'It isn't Narnia, you know,' sobbed Lucy. 'It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?' 'But you shall meet me, dear one,' said Aslan. 'Are — are you there too, Sir?' said Edmund. 'I am,' said Aslan, 'But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.'"