Universal Sirens (Tread the Dawn Series)

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader there is a scene in which Caspian is determined to go to the world’s end, but the others are trying to reason with him that it is not proper for him to go, for he must return to Narnia to rule justly over his people. Edmund makes the suggestion that they tie and bind Caspian to force him to return back to Narnia. For those who have read Homer’s Odyssey, the reference is clear, and Edmund says to the others, “Like they did with Ulysses when he wanted to go near the Sirens.”[1]

What surprised me about what Edmund said was that he was making a reference to something that no one would have recognized, as Homer’s Odyssey is a story in our world but would not be a story in Narnia. So why did he make this reference?

It is easy for us to reduce the stories and books we read to their “practical application”. In the same way that many people argue that you should learn Latin so that you can recognize more vocabulary words on your SAT, people often view the reading of literature with the same soulless pragmatism. But the truth is that we read the Great Books—we read the enduring stories of old—not for their practicality nor for relatable illustrations to our culture. We read them because they shape who we are.

The Odyssey had shaped Edmund. It changed the way he viewed his own world, and therefore changed the way he viewed all worlds (e.g. Narnia). Indeed, the very reason that we journey into these fantasy worlds, Lewis and Tolkien would argue, is to see our own world aright. In fact, we are only drawn to fantastic worlds with strong correlations to our own. This might seem counter-intuitive, but the reality is that very few people want to read about a world where murder is lovely, where friendship is appalling, and where heroes are considered cowards. No. While we might want to envision worlds where oxygen is not needed, various species and races of intelligent beings coexist, and animals talk, we still want the basic truths about our world to endure. We want those things to endure because these are the universals—not only in our own world, but in all worlds. Therefore, what we learn and experience in the worlds we enter through fiction are actually mirrors to our own existence in this one. Stories do not exist to enrich our lives. They, in fact, change the way we live.

[1] Voyage of the Dawn Treader, pp. 537-8.

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