Posts Tagged ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’

In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis makes quite a point in describing Eustace, that he had read all the wrong books.  From the first page of the story we learn that Eustace liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools.  Then, after Eustace ran off by himself and then ran into the dragon’s cave, this special note:  Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books.  They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.

A similar plot scenario comes up in the sequel, The Silver Chair, though implied rather than directly stated.  Since that adventure only happened within 2-3 months of Eustace’s return from Narnia, and he still lived with his parents and still had to attend that progressive school, it could not be reasonably expected that Eustace would have had the time to acquire and read enough of the right books to prepare him for his second visit to Narnia.  Jill, likewise, by the fact of attending the Experiment House, no doubt had parents similar to Harold and Alberta, who had not allowed her to read the right type of books.  Thus we find that both Eustace and Jill think it would be a great idea to visit the “gentle giants” and apparently had no clue of the possible danger of being eaten by giants.

All of this raises an interesting point: what books should Eustace have been reading, to have been prepared for entering a dragon’s lair?  Voyage of the Dawn Treader was published in 1952 (and The Silver Chair a year later), but the England side of the story is set during World War II, the summer and fall of 1942.  On an Amon Sul podcast that I listened to recently  (episode #022), the guest Richard Rohlin mentioned Eustace not having read about dragons.  He then said that a few people he knew had looked at this question and concluded that the only book of that type that was around, that the children in Lewis’ day could have been reading that would have told them about dragons, was The Hobbit.  Thus, Rohlin saw this mention in Lewis’ book as a coded reference to his friend Tolkien’s writing; and then to follow the chain, Tolkien himself of course, in The Hobbit, had allusions to Beowulf.  (In this previous post I mentioned one interesting allusion to Beowulf, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.)

That is an interesting idea, and could be true to a point.  Certainly elsewhere C.S. Lewis included references to Tolkien’s works, and much more direct ones.  The main character in his Space Trilogy, Ransom, after all, was a philologist.  And C.S. Lewis mentioned “Numinor” in his Space Trilogy — a reference which Tolkien said (in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien) came from the audible sound of the word as Lewis had heard Tolkien’s writings, when Tolkien would read aloud to the Inklings — and thus a misspelled version of Numenor.  But in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis mentions Eustace reading “the wrong books” and that is “books” (plural), which would indicate that Lewis knew of many other books that Eustace could (and should) have been reading.

Certainly the general books of pagan mythology have been around, though school children in mid-20th century England may not have been reading those.  A look at Goodreads and its lists of popular children’s fantasy books, by decade, gives us additional possibilities from the 1930s list.    Yes, The Hobbit is on that list, along with familiar titles including Mary Poppins, and a King Arthur collection, T.H. White’s Sword in the Stone; this Arthurian legends book includes one reference to dragons, the legend of “St. George and the Dragon.”  Earlier that decade, though, another book was published, The Book of Dragons: Tales and Legends from Many Lands.  Since this book was an anthology of existing tales, it may not have become as popular over the years, but no doubt it served its purpose for that generation of children: retelling the existing dragon lore, to the next generation of English-speaking children.

So, while it’s nice to think that C.S. Lewis intended a reference to The Hobbit in his description of Eustace not reading the “right” books, it seems that in this case C.S. Lewis was thinking in more general category terms.  Certainly The Hobbit would be included, as a book published just 5 years before Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace had their adventure.  But a school boy in that era would have had at least a few other choices of books, so that he could have learned something about dragons.  Sadly, though, Eustace’s parents had kept such books away from him, and also thoroughly brainwashed the kid so that he did not even have the desire to read them.

Readers, are there any other fantasy books that you are familiar with, published in the 20th century, to add to the list of books that Eustace should have been reading?  Any further comments about the books that Eustace and Jill ought to have read?


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