Jonathan Usher
(Edinburgh University)
12 March 2001


A NARNIAN ULYSSES

To generations of English-speaking students of Dante and the Middle Ages, two elegantly written books by Clive Staples Lewis (d.1963) have offered inspirational introductions to the poet's world. The Allegory of Love (1936) offered a way into the values and imagery of medieval love-poetry, seen as fundamentally innovative compared with its classical and late antique predecessors, whilst The Discarded Image (1964) explained the intricacies of the geocentric cosmos which underpins the Comedy. But, beyond his considerable output as a classicist, medievalist and renaissance scholar, Lewis also wrote science-fiction, was a religious broadcaster, and became a children's author of some note. His seven 'chronicles of Narnia', beginning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), fired young imaginations with their powerful mix of adventure, heavy Christian symbolism (he had returned to belief under the influence of another don and children's writer, J. R. R. Tolkien) and middle-class whimsy.

The third chronicle is a nautical tale recounting the quest, by prince Caspian of Narnia, to find the whereabouts of seven exiles sent beyond the known world. The Voyage of the Dawntreader (1952) details the incident-rich wandering of Caspian's ship, its crew stiffened by an exaggeratedly 'magnanimous' talking mouse, Reepicheep, and accidentally augmented by the somewhat arch (and very 'English') Pevensie children and their unappealing rationalist cousin Eustace. The account of the expedition to find the exiles is generously, indeed playfully, laced with material Lewis borrows from his principal profession as literary historian.

Quest formulae are common currency in children's literature, but it goes without saying that they are also a staple of the epic. One epic quest specifically mentioned by the educationally privileged Pevensie children, when commenting on the crew of the Dawntreader's threat to tie Caspian up, is that of Ulysses trussed to the mast 'when he wanted to go near the Sirens' (p. 182). C. S. Lewis is here systematically dropping clues about one of his most important sub-texts, but it will turn out to be more Dante's Ulysses than Homer's.

This Ulyssean hint comes near the end of the book, as if the author has deliberately challenged alert parents reading aloud, if not the children being read to, to retrospectively recognise already-used sources. The adventure ends as the ship's boat is lowered, and the Pevensies and a now improved Eustace, accompanied by Reepicheep, row through a sea of dazzlingly white, sun-lit lilies towards the 'World's End'. Fortunately they can bear this brightness, for their eyesight has already 'grown as strong as eagles' (p. 180), a clear borrowing from Paradiso 1.47-48. Suddenly:

What they saw - eastward, beyond the sun - was a range of mountains. It was so high that either they never saw the top of it or they forgot it. None of them remembers seeing any sky in that direction. And the mountains must really have been outside the world. For any mountains even a quarter of a twentieth of that height ought to have had ice and snow on them. But these were warm and green and full of forests. (p. 184-85)
Though slyly defamiliarized, this is very like the mountain of Purgatory briefly glimpsed by Ulysses in Inferno 26, and properly explored, as far as the 'divina foresta', in the second cantica by Dante-character and Virgil. If, as alert readers, we were already in Ulysses mode we would now be bracing ourselves for a violent squall, a 'turbo' from the strange land, and sure enough:
... suddenly there came a breeze from the east, tossing the top of the wave into foamy shapes and ruffling the smooth water all around them. It lasted only a second or two. (p. 185)
The punctual narrative coincidence only serves to underline a fundamental difference between the situations of Dante's Ulysses and the Pevensies. Struck by the 'turbo', the Greek's ship will founder and the waters will close over him. Conversely, the children's boat, amidst the balmy waft from the mountain, will safely beach on the shore, where they will encounter the lamb-lion, a symbol of the godhead. The reason for the contrast in fortunes lies in the direction of sailing. Ulysses in canto 26 pursues a perilous course westwards, 'di retro al sol' (viz. the setting sun), whereas the Pevensies travel eastwards, towards the rising sun. Even with this inversion, however, the original textual pattern leaches through, for the mountain is described as being 'behind the sun' (p. 184). The east-west reversal is a clear piece of Lewis' Christian symbolism coming through, and is almost certainly the reason for the ship's otherwise unexplained name, the Dawntreader.

Given such textual survival, albeit subject to Lewis' unashamedly interventionist symbolic manipulations, we should be on the lookout for much earlier clues to the Ulyssean source. That the Greek wanderer was the subject of a consciously programmatic referential strategy can be seen in the chapter entitled 'The Dark Island'. On the numerologically significant thirteenth day of sailing, the Dawntreader comes within sight of what looks like 'a great dark mountain, rising out of the sea on their port bow' (p. 135). It was 'very dim, so that some thought it was a long way off' (p. 135). Intertextually, we are obviously still with Dante's mountain 'bruna per la distanza' of Inferno 26.133-34 (cleverly, 'port' equals 'mancino'). Here, however, the dark mass reveals itself as a menacing concentration of dreams (combining Virgil, Aeneid 6.282, with Lucan, Pharsalia 5.434ff.). As the ship sails through this distressing darkness, a bedraggled figure is fished from the water. It is one of the seven missing exiles, Lord Rhoop. His pleas to be rescued and his advice to the crew to flee 'this accursed shore' (p. 140) cleverly combine Macareus, Ulysses' shipmate, in Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.244ff. and Achaemenides, Aeneid 3.590ff.. Through these Ulyssean intertexts, Dante, Virgil and Ovid, Lewis the classicist joins hands with Lewis the medievalist.

But the real heart of Dante's portrayal of Ulysses resides in the 'orazion picciola', and, unsurprisingly, substantial traces of the famous speech survive in this chronicle of Narnia. In the chapter entitled 'The Three Sleepers', Caspian and the Pevensies come across a table mysteriously laden with unconsumed feasting, around which slumber three figures, their hair grotesquely overgrown. Caspian shakes them in turn, hoping to stir them from their sleep. One mutters that he is unwilling to sail further eastwards, wishing to return west to Narnia, but the second murmurs elliptically:

'Weren't born to live like animals. Get to the east while you've a chance - lands behind the sun' (p. 149).
The third merely says 'Mustard, please'. This last throwaway line is an attempt to conceal or subvert the direct, but now re-ordered Dante quotations: ' fatti non foste a viver come bruti' and 'di retro al sol' (Inferno 26.119 and 117). The systematic inversion of east and west is even lexical, for Ulysses expressly mentions the 'occidente' (26.113), whereas the sleeper murmurs 'east'. Lewis' personal belief in an active, adventurous search for god prompts him to appropriate bold Ulysses, but only by divesting him of residual negativity.

Ulysses' speech reappears with variations a few pages later. Caspian and the Pevensies are told by Ramandu's daughter how the sleepers came to be sleeping:

"Seven years ago," said the girl, "they came here in a ship whose sails were rags and her timbers ready to fall apart. There were a few others with them, sailors, and when they came to this table one said, 'Here is the good place. Let us set sail and reef sail and row no longer but sit down and end our days in peace!' And the second said, 'No, let us re-embark and sail for Narnia and the west; it may be that Miraz is dead.' But the third, who was a very masterful man, leaped up and said, 'No, by heaven. We are men and Telmarines, not brutes. What should we do but seek adventure after adventure? We have not long to live in any event. Let us spend what is left in seeking the unpeopled world behind the sunrise'"(p. 152-53).
Here, unmistakably, is the tiny 'compagna' of 'vecchi e tardi'. Here too is Ulysses' Sallustian maxim 'fatti non foste a viver come bruti'. Here likewise is the 'vigilia de' sensi ch' del rimanente', and here also is the 'mondo sanza gente'. But again, predictably, Lewis inverts Dante's 'occidente' and 'di retro al sol' into this Telmarine's 'behind the sunrise'.

Dante's Ulysses, then, is a key model for C. S. Lewis. In The Voyage of the Dawntreader, the wanderer surfaces frequently, but only at the cost of a consistent reversal of the symbolism of his actions. He becomes positive, despite himself. What remains to be assessed, and it is an important question, given Lewis' role as an influential critic and outspoken Christian apologist, is how he viewed Ulysses specifically in Dante's poem, as opposed to in his Narnian chronicle.


C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawntreader (London, Fontana Lions), 1980.