There Be Dragons

[Editor’s Note: Welcome to the next title in the HogPro Book Club: C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. To get things started, Professor Pazdziora offers some reflections on literary and spiritual themes in the book. So, grab your copy and your reading memories, and get ready for a great series of challenging discussions on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.]

There Be Dragons

A Reader Remembers
The Voyage of the
Dawn Treader

I know nothing about cartography. So maybe that’s why it’s always seemed to me like a strange and mystical science. There’s poetry in maps. I stare at those squiggled lines and neat text—geological tortures reduced to splotches of ink—the Sahara to Yellow 5 and the Nile to Blue 47—and wonder: have the mapmakers really been there? Did they sketch this from memory? From travellers’ tales?
From dreams?

It’s no surprise, really, that maps are central to modern fantasy literature. Tolkien began it, of course, perhaps following the example of Rider Haggard and the researches of (ahem) Allan Quartermain, or the legendary map that sent Squire Trelawney and the good doctor on their ill-fated adventure.

Any edition of The Lord of the Rings is incomplete without a large foldout of Christopher Tolkien’s painstaking and perfect maps of the Shire, Middle-Earth, and Mordor. Bilbo Baggins began his adventure with a map, of course. A map that showed where the treasure was hidden, a map with a secret door. And on the edge of the map—at the end of the journey—was the dragon.

And so the mapmakers gave us the warning:

Here there be dragons.

That was the legend on the edges of maps, the signifier that admitted fear of the unknown. The ancient cartographers drew dragons around the boundaries of the world. The quarters inaccessible to human voyagers were realms of deathly peril. Sea Serpents. Giant Squid. Sirens. Kraken. And dragons.

We do not know, the maps admit, what lies outside squiggled lines and dream sketches. There are no charts of those seas. We know only that there is terror, there is darkness, there is fear—the downward draw of the limitless void. Here there be dragons. Here, on the edges of knowledge and the borders of possibility, lie the most fearsome creatures to haunt the nightmares of men.

Is it any wonder, then, that the Vikings put dragonhead prows on their ships, to cow the spirits of the water into granting safe passage? And that they had to take down the dragonhead prow when they sighted land, for fear the spirits of the earth would drown their ship from terror? The dragon is the sign of unbounded seas, unguarded and unknown, the untrammelled ferocity of creatures older and more powerful than mankind.

Dawn Treader, of course, bears a dragonhead prow. And it sails beyond the Lone Islands into uncharted lands, toward the eternal East. The way to Aslan’s country lies through the realms of dragons.

In the great tradition of seafaring stories, they’re beset by a Sea Serpent. Like any large serpent, it’s mode of attack is to wind around its prey, and crush it. Swords and arrows are useless against it, knightly valour of little account. This is not a dragon who can be slain—only avoided.

There’s an odd winsomeness to this serpent. It’s an absent-minded, witless creature. There is no malevolence behind its threat. It is simply a large, stupid animal preying on smaller animals. The terror of it is its mindless, predatory impulse combined with its unfathomable size—as long and as large as a chain of islands. It plods through the rhythms of its kill, blissful in its invulnerability. One can imagine it doing the same to a struggling whale, or giant squid. The sea serpent confronts us with the horror of a diffident universe, an uncaring vastness before which the frailty of humankind, of talking animals and food and cheer, dwindles away, and the only recourse is to flee.

This is not the only dragon the voyagers meet. The other dragon is Eustace Clarence Scrubb.

Eustace is, by any standards, a swotty little blighter. He gripes. He swaggers. He bullies. He sulks. He whines. One of the most delightfully infuriating chapters in the book is when Lewis—again, in the great tradition of seafaring stories and the adventure novel—lets us read extracts from Eustace’s sea journal. It’s a shrewd lesson in how someone so selfish and obnoxious can be, in their own opinion, straightforward and reasonable.

In the unknown islands, Eustace finds a dragon.

More specifically, he finds a dragon’s hoard, and a dragon dying. He doesn’t know that it is a dragon, since, as Lewis tells us wearily, he’s read all the wrong sorts of books. But he knows unguarded treasure when he sees it. And, like any self-respecting adventurer, he claims the hoard as his own.

Or should I say—like any self-respecting dragon?

Eustace finds a live, flaming dragon when he wakes up to discover he is one.

Interestingly, he’s a much nicer person as a dragon than as a little boy. This isn’t the result of the transformation, not directly. It’s his realization that he is become the outcast, the stranger. He is cut off from the human society he snubbed and scorned. He is severed from his swotty world of posturing and whinging and Proper Thinking, caught in the stuff of legend and nightmare.

Because none of that had gone away. Not really. Not because he didn’t believe in it. He wandered outside of the safe waters, the waters where he knew how to behave and impress, the realms of knowledge that let him pose as a moral, intellectual superior to everyone around him. And in the unknown place, he meets his dragon.

Eustace, you see, really was a dragon all along.

The enchantment of the hoard is not, I think, that it changes people into dragons. It’s that it draws the dragon-like to itself, and breaks them from their pupae. In the unknown lands, on the edges of the map, there are no outward forms, no mental meridians; there are only truths, and the truths have the power to take their own shape. So the dragon, Eustace, sheds his boy-shape, and for the first time recognizes itself.

Eustace, as a boy-dragon seeking after the esoteric, hidden thing—accolade and boasting for the boy, hoard-gold for the dragon—become an outcast. A stranger. A beast. And like the beast, only if it is loved can it be freed.

When the dragon returns to the dragon-headed ship, and the voyagers recognize it, they have—at last—pity on the boy Eustace. He’s not hiding anymore. He’s not pretending that he is somehow ‘In With It’ while they are ‘Out Of It’—whatever It may be. He comes to them as a lost, lonely child in need of affection. They look past the dragon to see the man, and give welcome to the stranger.

It is through their offer of love and the dragon’s acceptance of it that he is, gradually, brought to the place of healing. The dragon, flayed and torn like a crucified thing, enters the baptismal waters and emerges like Adam new born. That, of course, is Aslan’s doing. But the dragon had to be loved first. It had to see itself as an outcast first. The dragon had to realise it was a dragon, before the dragon could be made a child.

Here there be dragons, the mapmakers say, and in many ways they were right. When we enter an adventure, whether a story or a real journey to an unfamiliar place, if we keep our wits open we learn to see dragons. But most importantly, we learn to see that we bring the dragons with us.

When we stray outside the maps we’ve made for ourselves, we lose the structures we’ve built around us to tell us what we are. The enchanted mirrors that sing of our beauty are broken, and the mirror before us shows the face of the beast.

This is the greatness of Story. Not that it exposes our nightmare-consciousness and sub-ego selves (although it can do), but that it helps us look past our facades and games to recognize in ourselves the outcast and the stranger. So Edmund confides in Eustace: you were a beast but I was a traitor. You were the dragon, but I was Judas. Though Edmund never changed form, he recognizes that he, like Eustace, was a monster—that he, like Eustace, was saved and changed through love.

In a letter to a child, C. S. Lewis explained that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was about ‘the spiritual life.’ And perhaps it was partly this transformation that he had in mind—the descent from man to beast, the ascension from beast to child. Any spiritual voyage will bring us eventually to the land of dragons. Any spiritual journey will demand of us that we learn to give hospitality to the stranger. If we will let it transform us, then the story will have done its work.

Here, there were dragons all along.



  1. Very well said. Do you suppose that Lewis is also thematically echoing George MacDonald’s Princess and Curdie? In that story, unpleasant people are also liable to find themselves turned into monsters or animals, but Curdie can tell by touching (thanks to being burned in the rose fire–hello, hermetic symbolism!) what they really are inside–whether the doctor is really a viper or the chimera is really a child.

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