Light… and Darkness
There is something about the basic concept of light vs. darkness that nearly always stops me in my tracks. Perhaps my pupils just have extra difficulty constricting, but it goes much deeper than that.
I spent twelve years (half of a lifetime to that point) in a darkness so bleak and devastating that I could not remember what light looked like. Just recently, due to a severe medication reaction, I spent a few weeks back in that dungeon—in agitation, panic, utter darkness.
Having corrected the medication crisis, I am once again thrust into light—and the purest enjoyment of light one can possibly imagine.
So when I read of the unfortunate man who was picked up off of the Dark Island by the Dawn Treader, my soul paid attention. Only a mere few hours removed from my own mental night, I could empathize with the madness, the wild-wide-eyed trauma-ridden expression on his face as he desperately clung to the light and equally desperately abandoned the darkness. Likewise, my thirst for the light seems to steadily increase the further I get from the darkness. But why? What it is about the nature of light and darkness that can simultaneously elicit fear and relief? Light and darkness are paradoxically and inextricably related in a way that few extreme opposites can be. One simply cannot exist without the other—darkness is the absence of light; light cannot exist in darkness; thus if you have the one, the other must be somewhere in proximity for the comparison to occur. A marriage of opposites—and, at length, a long separation.
On the verge of light—almost daybreak—awaiting the sunrise… “It’s always darkest before the dawn…” That’s where The Voyage of the Dawn Treader dares to bring the reader (along with the characters)—to the edge of Dawn.
I think the name of His Majesty’s ship (and thus the book) offers significant insight into what comes throughout the story—the quest for Light, treading ever so closely to the Dawn, and yet never quite experiencing the awesome sunrise. On the brink of Dawn—the ultimate Dawn, as it is described—with just a taste of its powerful light.
The stated quest, of course, for King Caspian and his men, is to find the seven men who reluctantly sailed from Narnia years ago to escape the wrath of the usurper Miraz. And in their travels, the crew of the Dawn Treader do find the Seven, or at least evidence of their presence. But they are also driven toward adventure—the truest adventure—of finding the edge of the (flat) world, and in this they are equally successful.
But light—the essence of it, its function, and especially the experience of it—is addressed by Lewis in perceptive detail, leaving enough to the reader’s imagination to perhaps spark a renewed desire for The Light: that is, the Light of Christ.
The Pagan View
The Venerable Bede, a monk from the 7th century, and credited to be the most learned man of his time, described the pagan view of life as a sort of light between two darknesses:
You are sitting feasting with your aldermen and thanes in winter time; the fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of the hall and all inside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging—and a sparrow flies swiftly through the hall. It enters in at one door and quickly flies out the other. For the few moments it is inside, the storm and wintry tempest cannot touch it, but after the briefest moment of calm, it flits from your sight, out of the wintry storm and into it again.
Rather a bleak picture, though one I am certain captures the persuasion of many people. Since we do not know what happens prior to our coming into existence on this earth, and since we have not yet experienced what comes after our leaving this earth, it is perhaps the easiest way to describe the progression of life—the Unknown being darkness, the Known being light.
But while it may be the easiest description, and the most readily accepted, there is a strong possibility that it is flat-out wrong. After all, since we do not know the precise details of what goes on before birth or after death, how can we possibly assume that both are places of darkness? Is it not equally easy to imagine that the light, warm comfort of the feast is actually a regression of sorts, and that the sparrow continues its flight out the other side because there is an innate knowledge (or at least hope) that there is something even better outside the door?
Otherwise, if the sparrow is exiting into darkness, and the feast is so pleasant and warm, why should he not alight on a rafter, soak in the heat, and nip a few crumbs from the table, rather than return to the wintry storm?The Christian View
, Lewis explores a different fulfillment of the coming to the edge of the world, beautifully describing the Christian’s journey out of darkness, sitting at the feast, and then entering the fulfillment of light.
The approach toward the Dark Island reaches an intensity unmatched to this point in the Chronicles
. We are drawn to the darkness, wanting to know what it is, yet we, like the sailors, fear its oppression. Is it necessary to experience the darkness? Why does Lewis place the darkness here? From my perspective, from the time the Dawn Treader
leaves the Dufflepuds and the Magician, the story could be interpreted as Lewis’ description of a journey toward Christ—and starkly in contrast to the flight of Bede’s pagan sparrow.
The approach of the Darkness is, indeed, frightening, but until they experience the darkness itself, the sailors have no way of knowing how deep is the darkness, how all-encompassing, how difficult to navigate, how dangerous to the psyche. They have known light and they have known darkness, but the definition of true darkness is about to be revealed to them.
Naturally, Caspian questions the sensibility of this—should we dare to enter the darkness? Should we voluntarily sail into complete and utter unknown? It is the question every person must ask himself—do I want to know what lies in the darkness—in my own darkness? It is a wise question to ask oneself, and I heartily agree, in matters of salvation, with Reepicheep’s astute observation that, in such matters, it is a creature’s “good fortune not to be a man.”
In choosing to venture forward, they lose themselves in the black. Their worst fears are confirmed by Lord Rhoop’s rescue, as he rants and raves maniacally in a futile attempt to convince them to turn around. Soon direction is lost, hope is lost, fear nearly takes over as they realize they cannot navigate their own way out of the gloom. Yet just as panic and despair threaten to sink the sailors’ psyches, Lucy utters the simplest plea—the first words spoken to Aslan without His visible presence.
And Aslan the Great answers.
Now, it must be noted that just as the plea is the first of its kind, the answer is of a different form from any seen yet. An albatross—a sailor’s good omen of deliverance—circles, Aslan in new form, whispering three words into the hopeless darkness surrounding Lucy and the Dawn Treader: Courage, dear heart. In an instant her heart is strengthened, the black fades to deep grey, then finally they enter the light again, all with a new appreciation for the blue sky and warm sun and simply the ability to see clearly.
Such is the nature of Light.
The End of the World
Throughout the rest of the story, light is a captive theme. When the sailors drink the water (see John chapter 4), their desire for food and water diminish, and their ability to tolerate the growing light increases in parallel with the brightness of the light itself. Likewise, the more “living water” we take in, the more of God’s radiance we can not only bear, but appreciate, enjoy, experience fully.
Finally, at the end of the world, the beginning of that Great Light, we know that there is more to the end of this life than darkness. Naturally, Caspian is devastated to learn that he cannot pass through with the Pevensies, as are we who must only imagine what Aslan’s land truly holds. But there is certainly a Hope, a palpable sense of excitement, rather than dread at what comes beyond.
I think Lewis counterpoints the Venerable Bede’s sparrow image beautifully here—bringing light to the end of the world, rather than the sparrow’s unfortunate flight back into the cold and desolation. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis writes:
The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false. It was rather, 'Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?'... Paganism had been only the childhood of religion, or only a prophetic dream.
I believe that the vision of light at the end, rather than a flitting comfort
bounded by darkness on both ends, is most certainly a more Christ-centered view. We who love this life will lose it (see John 12:25), while those who pursue that greater light—at the cost of leaving this world as the Pevensies (and Reepicheep) did—shall find something greater than they have already experienced, not a regression from their earthly experiences.
The journey of the Dawn Treader
, I believe, is a picture of the pre-Christian’s walk through the recognition of his own sin; the recognition of his need for light; the frantic returning to the light (with a much greater appreciation for it); a thirst which makes increasingly brighter light (and subsequently increasing awareness of the darkness lurking in our humanity); and ultimately reaching Aslan’s land in the brightest light possible, where all is exposed, and none is afraid.
The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (II Corinthians 4:4-6)