In Chapter 12, "The Dark Island", of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the ship reaches a patch of mysterious blackness in the ocean. Nobody wants to enter it, but after a speech from the ever-heroic Reepicheep, they begin sailing into the blackness. After a period of nothing happening, they pick up the Lord Rhoop who tells them they're approaching the land where dreams (nightmares) come true. They immediately turn around and try to get out, but after rowing for a long time they appear to be making no progress out of the blackness. At this point, Lucy prays to Aslan, and a light and an albatross appear to guide them on the correct path to safety. When they look back, they realise that the blackness has disappeared, and Lucy comments that "I don't think it was us" responsible for its disappearance.

As many things in the Narnia series have some Christian allegorical significance, does this episode represent anything in particular? Obviously, there is the fact that praying to Aslan (a.k.a. Jesus) leads directly to a miraculous salvation, but beyond that? Does the blackness itself correspond to any particular biblical evil, perhaps? Or the albatross to an angel?

  • 1
    Note that in some editions, Lewis rewrote this scene so that the blackness does not disappear when the Dawn Treader leaves it. That change might affect the symbolism (or might not).
    – DLosc
    Commented Jan 8 at 19:32
  • @DLosc Interesting! I never knew there were such differences between editions of the Narnia books.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jan 8 at 19:33

1 Answer 1


The religious symbolism and iconography in Lewis's writing has been analysed by many; one useful examination is Salwa Khoddam's 2001 paper "'Where Sky and Water Meet''": Christian Iconography in C. S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It offers an excellent explanation of how religion underscores the various motifs, symbols, and themes in the book, and I think it's useful to quote at length. It doesn't quite answer your question, but it does help contextualize the matter:

Like the foils for the true icons, light and darkness are also necessary to construct the tableaux. We will find that Lewis uses light in two ways: 1) as a traditional symbol of the spirit always present in his iconic presentations of Aslan and his good forces; and 2) as a tool for drama and suspense. Like a spotlight on the stage, the moon or the sun follow the moving good and evil forces, isolating them for the reader to savor and reflect upon, and in the case of the evil forces, for Aslan to see and destroy.

The contest of light (as good) and dark (as evil) endows the landscape of Narnia with Christian meaning and mystery; Lewis follows a long tradition that views light as a symbol of the spirit (Cirlot 187-88) and, in the case of Christianity, an image of Christ or God. His non-fictional writings reflect the significance that he attaches to this symbol which becomes a part of his Christian iconography. In Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he states that light is a natural symbol of God, for “God is, or is like, light [. ..] for every devotional, philosophical, and theological purpose imaginable within a Christian, or indeed, a monotheistic frame of reference" (71). In Miracles, he describes God as light that illuminates nature from beyond (124). In The Four Loves, he compares light to the ultimate reality that remains a mystery while giving meaning to everything else: “We cannot see light, though by light we can see things” (175). As for Christ, Lewis describes Him as “always [. . .] streaming forth from the Father, like light from a lamp or heat from a fire, or thoughts from a mind” (Mere Christianity 51). In The Great Divorce, the regenerate spirits who choose to stay in Heaven are light-bearers (Lewis refers to them as “bright spirits” [119]). And in the landscape of East of Narnia, Aslan clearly is the “light-bearer.” Aslan makes his first appearance in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to the suffering Eustace, who has been transformed into a dragon, an image of his greed. Eustace describes the scene in the following haunting passage:

I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming slowly towards me. And one queer thing was that there was no moon last night, but there was a moonlight where the lion was. So it came nearer and nearer. I was terribly afraid of it. You may think that, being a dragon, I could have knocked any lion out easily enough. But it wasn’t that kind of fear. I wasn’t afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it—if you can understand. (113)

Aslan's purpose is to lead Eustace to a garden, on top of a green mountain, in order to transform him back to a human. Inspired by the Lion, whom he thought was just an ordinary lion—although suspiciously surrounded with light and possessing awe-inspiring majesty and the gift of speech—Eustace follows him obediently. He had never seen Aslan before. Aslan's iconic role is obvious in Eustace's acceptance and recognition of him as his savior. This openness to Aslan is Eustace's first step towards regeneration, as will be discussed later.

If in Lewis's landscape light is associated with Aslan as a Christ figure, a transformative force, then the darkness which engulfs the ship later in the plot signifies Satan's dominance. This contest of light and dark ending in the defeat of the latter is described dramatically in the Dark Island in a stark monochromatic scene. Aslan appears to rid the ship of darkness as soon as Lucy prays for his aid.
Appearing as a speck of light at first, then a beam of light, then a cross, an aeroplane, and an albatross, Aslan floods the ship— but not the surrounding water— with light. As an albatross (a Coleridgean symbol of a Christian soul), Aslan guides Drinian, who “steered after it not doubting that it offered good guidance” (201). But the iconic image speaks literally and imaginatively only to Lucy, for she is the only one to hear Aslan’s words of comfort: “‘Courage, dear heart’” (201).

Analogously, God’s grace in our world is not offered equally but by degrees. This transformation of Aslan from abstract to concrete, from inanimate to animate in Lucy’s imagination (and the witnessing reader’s) suggests the Incarnation. The focus of this image is on Aslan as a transforming and transformative force.
There is one scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader which is a clear analogue to Christ’s Transfiguration. Again, light is the operating force in this iconic scene. In the penultimate chapter, after the children taste the sweet water, light increases: “They could see more light than they had ever seen before. And the deck and the sail and their own faces and bodies became brighter and brighter and every rope shone” (249-250). Aslan’s light shines more intensely on the children as they approach the destination o f their pilgrimage. This scene parallels St. Paul’s description of the transformation of Jesus’s followers when the light of the Gospel should shine on their faces (2 Cor. 4, 6). As the British children approach Aslan, his glory shines on them because they are entering into his country.

That established, a more direct answer to your questions can be found in a 2016 paper by Thomas L. Martin, "Seven for Seven: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the Literary Tradition". I think the evaluation here nicely complements the broader context offered by Khoddam. First, he discusses the albatross:

They have crossed over the border into this strange land. They strain at the oars at first, until they realize they are sailing in circles. In her fright, Lucy calls out to Aslan to save them. A beam of light opens up in the darkness above them and falls directly on the ship. In the light a shape appears: "it looked like a cross, then it looked like an aeroplane, then it looked like a kite" (200). The shape turns out to be an albatross. The albatross is a familiar omen to sailors of good weather and safe passage, though that this one for a moment "looked like a cross" is no accident in Lewis's story. Aslan comes to their aid in yet another hour of need, as he does at other critical times in this story. The albatross allusion to Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" brings gravity and import to the scene, making a brief appearance in Lewis's rich narrative. The allusions to Coleridge's monitory mariner work well here. The terrified figure that boards Caspian's ship and urges his party away from the place is the fourth lord of Narnia they have been seeking, Rhoop.

He then argues that the evil embodied in this scene is envy. (His whole thesis is that each of the seven sins is somehow represented in the book.) He writes:

How does this scene relate to another of the deadly sins? The next up is envy, and while the unbounded, untethered desires conjured in this scene are not quite the invidia of envy, they are deeply related. Whereas several of the deadly sins spring from desire exceeding its proper bounds, it is in envy that desire exceeds those bounds in the direction of others. In envy, human desire desires to have for its own what is owned by others. Invidia is thus a shadow desire: it shadows the desires of others and what they have. Invidia, of course, is the Latin word that literally means 'looking upon,' and the emphasis in envy is clearly on the eyes. Desire begins in the eyes as they alight here and there and behold all they might possess as their own. While the Lord Rhoop first appears in tattered rags-consistent with the image of Invidia throughout the iconographical tradition-it is his near lidless eyes that most identify him with the figure of Envy. As Lewis's narrator relates, "what one mainly noticed were his eyes, which were so widely opened that he seemed to have no eyelids at all [...]" (196). This is the impoverished character who cannot look away but is lost in desire for, or mastered by, all it sees. Invidia lacks all ocular discrimination: that is likely why in Dante's Purgatorio the eyes of the envious are laced shut until they be chastened and learn to see others aright and the good due them." And while iron sutures binding eyes shut in Dante are one way to limit invidious desire, Lewis takes a decidedly different tack. His voyagers are lost in a dark where a nightmare of inner eyes, the image-maker within, cannot be cured by the dark itself but rather is perpetuated by it. The void of the dark only gives their inner sight an expanse to write large their fears and conjure yet more terrors. Lewis's cure is the light. After Lucy calls for help in their desperate hour, Lewis's cure is the light of God shining in a dark place. Out of the light descends the cruciform albatross, and the Dawn Treader crew are saved.

Finally, in "The Way to Aslan's Country: Allusions in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a 2003 paper by Marvin D. Hinten, there's one last kernel of explication to be extracted:

The albatross circles three times, in fine Trinitarian fashion, then leads the ship in a starboard direction, which means toward the right-hand side. The right side is always the favored one in both Christian culture (the parable of the sheep and the goats, where the saved go to the right and the lost to the left), and pagan culture (as with the Romans, in whose language right was "dexter" and left was "sinister").

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