The beginning of the end of the world
Over the last several months, we’ve been shadowing the Dawn Treader as it adventures eastward. We’ve let C.S. Lewis entertain us with a rollicking story, but we’ve also let him sow seeds of theological truth in our imaginations as we unpack some of the symbols he uses to tell this story.
In this final episode, we want to look at the end of the world. But, “end” here doesn’t mean the destruction of the world. “End” is not just “conclusion” – it’s also “goal,” “destination,” as in the famous question: “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Narnia’s “end of the world” is its eastern edge, that which is closest to Aslan’s Country. This is the goal of the ship (a figure of the Christian church). Aslan himself has been an elusive figure in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (VDT), appearing a total of seven times, but often indirectly or wordlessly.
If Lewis’s first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, reminds us of the gospel, VDT carries the scent of the book of Acts: the maiden voyage of the church, taking on a reluctant convert (remember: Paul also had scales removed from him at his baptism, Acts 9:18), battling various inner and outer enemies of the soul, announcing the arrival of the kingdom. (Acts even has its own thrilling accounts of storm and shipwreck at sea!) As the Dawn Treader approaches its appointed end, Lewis gives us two ways of encountering the end of the world.
The Lord’s Table
The first is a mysterious banquet. The location is Ramandu’s Island, but it is Aslan’s Table. It’s hard to read this rich description without thinking of the Lord’s Table. Potent biblical symbolism converges as we approach the scene of this banquet. Even before we see anything, we catch a whiff of an “attractive smell… what Lucy called ‘a dim, purple kind of smell.’” Purple: the rich colour of wine, the garb of royalty (for the table proclaims a kingdom); and a colour of sorrow, since it also proclaims a death.
The banquet is set amid ancient pillars, ruins almost, as though it has been there for ages and ages, ready to nourish any who chanced upon it. The church, too, is ancient, yet despite its age and often apparent decay, remains God’s inn for the hungry and searching.
The mystery of the meal is palpable: “the whole place smells of magic – and danger.” In the same way, the Bible points to the mystery of Christian worship in general, and the meal at its heart, as a place where heaven and earth touch (see Hebrews 12:18–24). Like the abundant fare of Aslan’s Table, which comes from beyond this world and is daily renewed by birds like angelic winged servants, so too the food which Jesus offers is called “bread of heaven” (John 6:32) and “bread of angels” (from Psalm 78:25).
Two more features of this banquet draw us to the Lord’s Table: first is the knife of stone lying on the table. It is a sharp reminder of the death of Aslan, in the same way that “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The strangest sight at this table, however, is the presence of the three sleepers. These Rip van Winkle-like characters are here chiefly for the story’s plot development, and yet there is a biblical truth to be found as well. They are in an enchanted sleep because they had quarrelled, and one had mishandled the stone knife. The Bible also warns against disunity at the Lord’s Table, saying, “that is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 11:30). The Lord’s Table calls us to come and eat: we are the poorer when we ignore its nourishment – but we must come humbly, or at our peril.
There are greater glories in store for the Dawn Treader as it approaches the end of the world. We can only close with its one last memorable glimpse of Aslan, on the eastern shore of the Narnian world. Two key sets of imagery converge here: Easter and second coming, resurrection and return of Christ.
Easter and the second coming
Easter is communicated by the sea of lilies, and most clearly by a scene that comes straight from John 21: a seaside fire, with fish roasting on it, and the offer of food: “Come and have breakfast” – the simple invitation of the risen Lord. Imagery from Revelation deepens the scene: the Lamb who is also a Lion (5:5–6), and the “door in the sky” (4:1).
With the mingling of resurrection and return, we are reminded of the connection between present reality and future hope. With his generous hand, God feeds us along the way; but soon (“I call all times soon”!) the time will come when we too will “cross the river” of our mortality and meet him face to face. One day, the Lord will return, and the end of our journey, he who is now the object of our unsighted faith, will be revealed. The “sun of righteousness” will arise (Malachi 4:2), and the dawn – the goal of the church’s voyage through the ages – will turn to glorious and everlasting day.