Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis
Being a Historical Exploration of the Creation and Reception of the
Third Book of the Chronicles of Narnia

Biography of C. S. Lewis | Bibliographic Description of Original Text | Publication History
Contemporaneous Reception of Text | Critical Evaluative Essay | Home Page

Young C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis
Photo c. 1920s by Lewis's brother Warren
Photo c. 1960 by Burt Glinn


Clive Staples Lewis

b. November 29, 1898 in Belfast, Ireland

d. November 22, 1963 in Oxford, England


C. S. Lewis was the second son of Albert Lewis, a successful solicitor, and Florence Hamilton Lewis, the daughter of a rector in the Church of Ireland (Downing 2). His childhood home in Belfast, Little Lea, was “a place of ‘long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences [and] attics explored in solitude” (Lewis quoted in Downing 3). The home also featured a “large, ornately carved oak wardrobe” in which C. S. (known to his family as Jack) and his older brother Warren played—a furnishing recognizable to readers of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Lewis children also grew up hearing Irish folktales from their nurse Lizzie Endicott (Downing 5). Reportedly, since the age of 16 Lewis had the image of “a faun carrying parcels and an umbrella in a snowy forest” in his mind; this image would manifest itself in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Sayer 188).

Lewis was a good student. He went to boarding school at the age of nine, following his mother’s death. In 1916 he won a classical scholarship to Oxford College. However, in April 1917 he entered Officer Training and fought in the First World War in France. On April 15 of 1918 he was wounded in the Battle of Arras and was evacuated back to England. In 1919 he returned to his studies at Oxford, where he earned degrees in classics, ancient philosophy, and English literature. Throughout the course of his studies he was interested in philosophy and spiritual matters, dabbling in the occult, Spiritualism, and atheism before becoming a theist Christian at the age of 30 (Downing 18). After years of grappling with abstract philosophy, he began to seek a more personal faith. He wrote to his friend Owen Barfield, "Terrible things are happening to me. The 'Spirit' or 'Real I' is showing an alarming tendency to become much more personal and is taking the offensive, and behaving just like God. You'd better come on Monday at the latest or I may have entered a monastery" (quoted in Downing 18).
            Lewis was a very popular lecturer and fellow at Oxford College, but in addition to his academic career he wrote many successful essays, academic works, and works of fiction—though none would be as popular as the Narnia books. In 1929, after his conversion, he wrote the allegory The Pilgrim’s Regress, based on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. George Sayer describes The Pilgrim’s Regress as “a serious book—primarily an attack on spurious satisfactions, false philosophies, and physical and spiritual temptations” that nonetheless “has a captivating freshness” (136). The Pilgrim's Regress is rarely written about by academics today, but remains in print and popular with Christians. Throughout his career he would show a similar knack for handling serious matters with a relatively light hand. Lewis certainly put this ability to good use in writing the seven Narnia books, which were published between 1950 and 1956. Lewis won the Carnegie medal for outstanding children's literature for The Last Battle, the final Narnia book.

In writing the Narnia books, Lewis drew upon his own childhood memories and his religious beliefs. Another inspiration for the story was the children who were evacuated to his country home at the beginning of World War II. (Many children who lived in London were sent to live with rural families to escape the heavy air raids.) Lewis, who had no children of his own, said the evacuated children “gave him a newfound appreciation for children” (Downing 29). A. N. Wilson suggested that “Lewis wrote them for the child who was within himself” (221). Wilson and other biographers believe that losing a religious debate with the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in 1945 “was the single greatest factor which drove him into the form of literature for which he is today most popular: children’s stories” (Wilson 211). However, David Downing notes, “Philosopher Richard L. Purtill has countered this thesis, showing that the famous debate was not the one-sided pummeling Wilson makes it out to be and that Anscombe herself didn’t think Lewis was particularly traumatized by the encounter” (30). The debate with Anscombe was regarding the claim Lewis made in his book Miracles that " naturalism is self-refuting for it says that all our thoughts are ultimately traceable to the blind working of chance and that no thought is valid if it can be fully explained as the result of irrational causes" (Purtill). Lewis later revised the chapter to address Anscombe's objections.
            Lewis was certainly inspired by the works of children’s fiction written by his friends Owen Barfield and J. R. R. Tolkien. Barfield and Tolkien were both members of the informal literary circle Lewis dubbed the Inklings, which also included Lewis's brother Warren, the novelist Charles Williams, and other Oxford-based friends. The Inklings met weekly in Lewis's rooms and in a local pub and shared their works in progress and offered critiques to each other.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which was published as the third of seven Narnia books (but is the fifth in the series chronologically), was written between December 1949 and February 1950. Lewis drew inspiration for Dawn Treader, which he called “a very green and pearly story,” from Homer’s Odyssey and the medieval legend of St. Brendan (Downing 43). St. Brendan is an Irish saint who set sail from Ireland in search of the Land of Promise. After seven years, his crew finds the Land of Promise, but an angel tells them that it cannot be inhabited until it is given to the Blessed at the end of time (Downing 44). This parallels the journey of Reepicheep and the three British children to the Utter East, the land of Aslan.

Like all of the Narnia books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has parallels to Christian theology. However, Lewis “almost certainly did not want his readers to notice the resemblance of the Narnian theology to the Christian story” (Sayer 192). Rather, Lewis said he was “aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination” (quoted in Sayer 192). J. A. W. Bennett also observes that the novels

give amusing insight into Lewis's prejudices—the initially odious behaviour of Eustace Scrubb, who first appears in The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’, is explained by the fact that his parents are ‘up to date and advanced people … vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotallers’, three things Lewis emphatically was not.

In a letter to a child, Lewis wrote that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was about “the spiritual life (especially in Reepicheep)” (Downing 47). The Dawn Treader’s voyage is both a physical adventure story and a metaphysical exploration.

One final note: when discussing Lewis’s personal history, it should also be noted that Lewis distrusted source criticism. Critics read his friend Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as an allegorical warning about nuclear warfare, but the story was written well before Tolkien could have learned about such weapons. Lewis “warned that source critics may expend so much ingenuity in ‘getting behind the source text’ that they lose sight of the text itself” (Downing 32).

Works Cited and Additional Resources