There are many Arthurian elements in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but what is at the heart of it all is Reepicheep’s quest to reach Aslan’s country, an even better place than the Avalon Arthur travels to. Geoffrey of Monmouth is the first to mention Arthur going to Avalon for healing of his grave, perhaps mortal, wounds. Malory has Arthur tell Sir Bedivere he leaves for healing, but if Bedivere hears nothing more from him, to pray for his soul (792).
C. S. Lewis adapts the Avalon and knighthood elements but makes some great changes. Reepicheep’s reason for going to Aslan’s country is totally different than Arthur’s reason to travel to Avalon. The desire to enter Aslan’s country has filled Reepicheep with great longing his entire life. In his infancy, a Dryad spoke over his cradle,
Where sky and water meet,
Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek,
There is the utter East. (21)
Rather than gravely wounded and grieved like Arthur, Reepicheep will enter Aslan’s country healthy and whole and “quivering with happiness” (244).
The other element Lewis altered greatly is while Reepicheep belongs to the Knighthood of the Order of the Lion, he is a mouse, not a man. His smallness and adventurous, I say Tookish, spirit would appeal to children who, little themselves, read about someone else doing brave things and empower them to believe it is not the size of one’s body that counts but the size of the heart.
But outside of the fact of mousehood, Lewis models Reepicheep’s knighthood as a virtuous man’s would be. The mouse does not forget who he is, even in the games of chess he plays with Lucy. He does not usually lose, but sometimes he does because he gets so caught up in the game he forgets it is just a game and plays as if it were an actual battle and so sacrifices his knight in an effort to save queen and castle. “For his mind was full of forlorn hopes, death-or-glory charges, and last stands” (67).
A second element of his noble knighthood is his courtesy to Eustace after the boy becomes a dragon.
A third element is Reepicheep’s valor as revealed in his determination to brave the unknown and not to flinch from any of the perils that beset him and the crew of the Dawn Treader. My favorite instance is after the men depart double quick from the Dark Island. Reepicheep is undaunted by its terrors and wonders if Caspain is going to put up with lack of courage from his crew. Caspain says “There are some things no man can face.” Reepicheep replies, “It is, then, my good fortune not to be a man…” (184). This really turns the saying “Are you a man or a mouse?” on its head.
A fourth element of Reepicheep’s knighthood is his self-sacrificial response to Ramandu about the cure for the sleeping lords. A one-way trip to the utter East the mouse says, “is my heart’s desire” (208). More proof his mind is full of “death-or-glory charges” are what I consider the most beautiful and moving words in the tale: “My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise . . .” (213). This is like to Arthur’s grand determination to unite Britain under one king and strong enough to repel its many enemies.
A fifth Arthurian element is after the mouse reaches the end of the world and the towering wave that separates Narnia from Aslan’s country. Reepicheep tosses his sword into the sea, gets into his coracle, crests the wave and is seen no more, leaving the world for another reality.
I agree with Brenton Dickieson’s observation Dawn Treader is the Narian tale “most influenced by the Matter of Britain” (86). He considers the greatest link to the Arthurian legends is the compassionate care Reepicheep gives to the “bedragoned” Eustace in his attempts to cheer him up by mentioning other people who had fallen into dire straits but still turned out well in the end. “No other quotation, perhaps, captures the breadth of the Narnian Arthurian narrative landscape better than this one” (86). He also observes Reepicheep’s grand quest is “evocative of the search for the Holy Grail, especially when Reepicheep tosses away his superfluous sword at the end of the quest: it lands upright in the sea, a moment that evokes the bookends of King Arthur’s career” (86).
Jon Hooper also notes the importance of Reepicheep casting aside his sword. “Reepicheep, the ideal of knighthood, knows that the end of the quest lies in Aslan’s Country. Reepicheep is the Chronicles’ maiden knight, its Galahad, and when he reaches the lilied sea at the edge of the world, he throws his sword into the water, an action symbolic of his recognition of the limits of chivalry and earthly struggle. The scene is evocative of Excalibur being returned to the lake” (295).
Louis Markos remarks Reepicheep is a Narnian “whose chivalric goodness and valor is equal to that of good King Arthur himself.” In wanting to fulfill what has been on his heart his whole life, Markos observes, “ . . . Lewis’s great warrior mouse is also a great mystic; like Sir Galahad (or Lancelot before his fall), Reepicheep possesses in full the two chivalric virtues of courage and purity” (“Good Guys”).
Kyoto Yuasa speaks of Reepicheep’s virtues also. “His physical smallness represents his spiritual humbleness.” She also beautifully addresses the profound effect the Dryad’s song has on the mouse’s life. “The old song is a source for the spiritual and emotional development of his personality. . . . Here is a woman who sings to a baby a song of death and hope. It is a song of death because she encourages him not to be afraid of risking his life. But it is a song of hope because her song inspires him to devote himself to the East. Her song is the guidepost of his whole life” (“Metamorphosis”).
Charles pronounced Hutter Huttar likens Reepicheep’s entrance into Aslan’s country to Avalon, a place removed from the world. Even though Reepicheep is not wounded like Arthur, he “nonetheless fits so neatly into what we might call the ‘Avalon’ pattern. A moment’s reflection on the shared etymology of health and wholeness will reveal a meaning that applies to spirit as well as body. Aslan’s country, where Reepicheep’s life-long yearning is fulfilled . . . is a house of healing in that sense” (139-40). I like how Hutter ties in spiritual with physical healing.
April Bates remarks about the similarities between the bravery of Reepicheep and Sam Gamgee, qualities which certainly reflect in Arthur as well in his determination to build a strong Britain.
It is this desire to have no regrets in life, to leave nothing undone, which motivates Reepicheep in so many of his actions . . .
. . . Neither [Reepicheep nor Sam] holds anything back, but instead chooses to give fully to the person or cause that he loves and believes in. Also, they are models that anything can be accomplished; size, skill, ability, and anything else that the world holds up as valuable cannot constrain what God has willed to achieve. . . . Neither Sam nor Reepicheep merely state that he believes in something and then sits comfortably as life passes him by. Both make the active choice to fight for what they believe in, and for both this decision nearly results in their death . . . . (10)
I love this quote because anyone can use these two people, so small in body but so mighty in heart, as motivation and inspiration to pursue their dreams. I do not want to have any regrets either or to leave anything undone.
Bates, April E. “‘Valour, That Cannot Be Computed by Stature:’ Unnoticed Courage as a Part of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.” Diana Gyler, dianaglyer.com/wp-content/uploads/Bates-Chapter-6.pdf. Accessed 31 Jul 2019.
Dickieson, Brendon D. G. “Mixed Metaphors and Hyperlinked Worlds: A Study of Intertextuality in C. S. Lewis’ Ransom Cycle.” Higgins, pp. 81-113.
Higgins, Sørina, editor. The Inklings and King Arthur. Apocryphile Press, 2017.
Huttar, Charles A. “Houses of Healing: The Idea of Avalon in Inklings Fiction and Poetry.” Higgins, pp. 115-147.
Hooper, Jon. “Lilacs Out of the Dead Land’: Narnia, The Waste Land, and the World Wars.” Higgins, pp. 279-298.
Lewis, C. S. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. HarperCollins, 1952.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. Wordsworth Editions, 1996.
Markos, Louis. “The Good Guys and the Bad Guys.” The Official Website of C. S. Lewis, cslewis.com/the-good-guys-and-the-bad-guys/, 25 May 2009. Accessed 31 Jul 2019.
Yuasa, Kyoko. “Metamorphosis: C. S. Lewis as a Reader of William Morris.” Sapporo University, sapporo-u.repo.nii.ac.jp?action=pages_view_main&active_action=repository_view_main_item_detail&item_id=4900&item_no=1&page_id=13&block_id=17. Accessed 3 Aug 2019.