Three of my all time favourite travel books are by C.S Lewis: The Magician’s Nephew, Silver Chair and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Nowadays, now that I notice these things, the bilious conservatism and the cruelty of Lewis’ religious views make it harder for me to enjoy the Narnia Chronicles, but as a kid – like most of his youthful readers, I suspect – I missed all that, caught up in the stories and the magic. For me, much of that magic came in the unfurling of new worlds. Literal creation in the Magician’s Nephew, especially the scene where Digby and Polly watch from the back of a Pegasus as the world takes shape, and discovery in Silver Chair and Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Reading them now it’s hard to shake the feeling that in the latter two books Lewis, once he’d gotten his obligatory attacks on liberals out of the way, was simply enjoying filling in some of the blanks in the maps of his creation.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader doesn’t have much of a story to it at all really above and beyond travel adventure. Sure there’s the search for the lords but that’s nothing like the existential challenges that the Narnians face in most of the rest of the Chronicles. This was always fine with me — adventures strung together by journey across the sea. It’s pretty much how my own surf travels played out years later.
Unfortunately, the absence of a single evil, or single climatic contest, containing a story was obviously too much for the producers of the movie “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”. And so they mangled Lewis’ original tale in the name of creating an overarching foe (the Mist!). I’m aware that movies are never (or only very,very rarely) going to be adequate when weighed up against the internal images and excitement of one’s favourite childhood books, so I had low expectations, but even coming from a low base I struggled to enjoy the film — the travel tale had been replaced by a Story and that didn’t work.
Another favourite travel book of mine is Comet in Moomanland. Once again there’s imagination, and a journey, and big adventure for little people. An added bonus is that I can still read this book as an adult and not feel repelled by the author’s worldview.
In addition to stoking my childhood desire to travel, I’m pretty sure Comet in Moomanland also helped feed my fascination with observatories. A few weeks back we went out to Mount Stromlo to attend an open night of the Canberra astronomy society. Astronomy society members brought their telescopes and the public got to gaze through them. People patiently explained to us what we were looking at but, other than the Moon, the details didn’t stick. Stars galaxies, nebula: pretty distant dots.
We went to a talk too and, as is always the case when I’m reminded of it, the sheer size and age of the universe (or, to put it another way, our own infinite brevity and tininess) left me awed. Best of all though was to learn that all the elements that make up our bodies were themselves born in stars.
If you’ve read Voyage of the Dawn Treader, you’ll remember that in the end Caspian wins the heart of, and gets to marry, Ramandu’s daughter — the daughter of a star. I always thought that — marrying a the daughter of a celestial body — was pretty darn cool in a romantic kindof way.
Cooler still to learn though, that we ourselves have our origins in the stars. Forget about marrying the daughter of a star; we’re all, each and every one of us, our own special, tiny little dot of star dust.