Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

by C.S. Lewis

And he was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.

(Matthew 17:1)

There is a genre, in Old Irsih literature, known as the Immran or 'Wonder Voyage'. A mythological hero or, in later variants, a Christian saint, sets sail for the West, often in a tiny coracle without oars, seeking out the Otherworld and undergoing a radical one-on-one encounter with the Divine. The controlling ego is abandoned. The saint says 'Goodbye to All That' and relaxes, with faith and trust, into the arms of God.

Lewis's story resonates strongly with this tradition, though this is a voyage to the East as opposed to the West, into the rising sun rather than the sunset more usually associated with the Celtic imagination. Though not without dramatic punch, the narrative lacks the clear-cut tussles with evil that marked earlier Narnian forays, such as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and Prince Caspian. There is no sign either, as yet, of the existential clash of worldviews - spiritual versus material - that will dominate The Silver Chair, nor the socio-political tensions played out to such combustible effect in The Last Battle. The essential exists on a more intangible level here - an indefinable, yet utterly compelling quality that propels the ship onwards. The reader becomes a co-participant in the voyage, en route to a richer, fuller experience of life, and an expansive, transfigured sense of what reality could, should and maybe one day will feel like:

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 ... And one or two of the sailors who had been oldish men when the voyage began now grew younger every day. Everyone on board was filled with joy and excitement, but not an excitement that made one talk. The further they sailed the less they spoke, and then almost in a whisper. The stillness of that last sea laid hold on them.


The 'ropes' shine for us too. Sometimes. When we meet and recognise the one we love. When a great tune hits us and makes us want to live. When a stranger smiles at us on a bustling boulevard.

What's happening here? What's making our heart sing? Turning us on? Deep down. At the still point of our turning worlds.

Which way lies the sun? What or whom or where do we seek?

I've come to Paris to find out. I'm at the Bouffes du Nord theatre, watching Peter Brook's Hamlet. The play is over. The prince is dead. So is everyone else. Save Horatio. He surveys the scene. Waste and void.

The audience starts to stir. Light arrows in from somewhere, stealing a march on the theatre - spreading, deepening - like the sun at the end of Dawn Treader, five or six times its normal size, so bright we can barely look. The dead - Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia and the rest - shake off their sleep and stand, washed and renewed in the communal glow, eyes focused on the East. Horatio steps forward, pointing behind our heads. 'But look,' he implores. 'But look. The morn in russet manle clad walks o'er the dew of yon high Eastern hill.'

He walks on, into the light, throwing open his arms - gazing at, through and beyond us. We turn our heads and look. Then he speaks:

'Who's there?'


At 6 June 2013 at 04:53 , Anonymous Dermot Finn said...

“Reflecting upon your opening paragraph, immediately brings to mind Nicholas Refns disturbingly profound saga "Valhalla rising". If you can stomach the eruptions of medieval guttural violence splattered throughout this film, you will be treated to a truly mythical story that is both terrible and beautifully haunting.

Setting sail in search of communion with the divine, through re-conquest of the holy land, is the spiritual objective of a band of Christian warriors, who are the "wondrous voyagers" of this film. They are joined by an ex slave, pagan, mute named "one-eye", who the party are unsure off, unsure as to whether he has been sent by God or the Devil.

I would love to know if director Refn has purposefully twisted the mythic "wonder voyage" that you refer to in your post. Cursed by a terrible mist that descends upon them, the sailors are stranded in still waters for an interminable time, until finally, the fog lifts and they are met by fresh water and therefore by land fall.

Thinking that they have arrived in the Holy land, they embark eager to both plunder and spread the word of the Lord. As an audience, we sense that "One Eye", is the only one among them that understands the savagery and wildness that awaits them through the discovery of the "America's", and though the hellish progress of this desperate crew grows to a nightmarish climax, we also sense that this mute fully realises the fated spiritual resolution, with the divine, that awaits all.”

Thanks, Dermot.

At 6 June 2013 at 05:44 , Blogger John Fitzgerald said...

Cheers Dermot :-) Very interesting indeed.


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