C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ is a parable about the economy.
.Listener 2 January 1999.
Keywords: Literature and Culture;
A hundred years ago, scholar, critic, novelist, C.S. (Clive Stapleton) Lewis was born. Like his close Oxford friend, J.R.R. Tolkien (of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), Lewis was an Oxford professor. He is best known for his religious writings (notably The Screwtape Letters and The Four Loves), a science-fiction trilogy, his autobiography A Grief Observed, which became a film Shadowlands, and his Chronicles of Narnia for children, especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which was turned into a film. Lewis’s greatest work of scholarship was The Allegory of Love, about the courtly love tradition of medieval times.
The tradition of allegory in a religious context, so fundamental to medieval writing, was carried into the Narnian fables I enjoyed as a child. Years later, reading them to my nine year old, I realised that each was concerned with a theological problem. Some are trivial, but The Silver Chair, with that marvellous marsh-wiggle, Puddleglum, explores the existentialist basis of religious belief. My favourite Narnia story is A Horse and His Boy, for the sheer pleasure of the narrative, but I found the first and last of the seven books (The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle) quite pedestrian.
This economics column is about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in which the earth children, Lucy and Edmund Pevensey, and the dreadful Eustace Scrubbs, sail with Narnians such as Prince Caspian (who gives the title of the previous book) and a metre high talking mouse, Reepicheep, to the ends of the world. To a nine year old it is a picaresque tale of adventures in a series of islands. To the economist it is a series of parables about the economy.
Thus they arrive at the Lone Islands, where slavery is rampant, and are temporarily captured. Escaping, Caspian demands that the slaves be freed, and is told by governor Gumpas that the slaves are “necessary, an essential part of the economic development of the islands. Our present burst of prosperity depends upon it.” The slaves are needed for export. “We are a great centre of trade.” Challenged, Gumpas explains that it is not “possible that you should understand the economic problem involved. I have statistics, I have graphs.” To liberate the slaves would be “putting the clock back. Have you no idea of progress, of development?” Caspian tartly answers “I have seen both in an egg, We call it `going bad’. This trade must stop.” It does.
Greedy Eustace becomes a dragon in the next island, to be saved by the grace of Aslan, the mystical lion, who is Lewis’s Narnian symbol for Jesus. Later a lake, which turns everything into gold, causes the companions to quarrel. Again Aslan saves them. On the other hand, when a sea serpent threatens to crush the ship near the Burnt Island, it is the collective effort of the crew which saves the ship.
The loveable duffers (or monopods) of the Island of Voices speak in unison, agreeing with the last speaker even if it contradicted what they had said just before. Perhaps Lewis is warning that collective action, evident in the Burnt Island episode, can also be dangerous. Meanwhile Lucy learns the dangers of various kinds of power in an encounter with a magic book.
The last island, the one at the beginning of the end of the world, provides Lewis’s answer to the economic question. Sadly it is a disappointment, for there is a table covered with food which is magically replenished every day. Lewis seems to be saying “the good lord will provide.” I take it that he does not literally mean that material needs will regularly appear magically. Perhaps he is referring to non-material needs.
Children will read the story for the fantasy narrative. Adults who are not of a religious persuasion may find some of Lewis’s religiosity a bit heavy going. So may some of the more religious. But it is unusual to have a quality children’s writer addressing so explicitly economic issues, albeit at a simple level. Lewis deserves acknowledgement in his centenary year.
AULD LANG SYNE
Lewis’s most cited quotation may be “friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art … It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gives value to survival” (from The Four Loves). An economist might now plunge into Oscar Wilde’s retort about knowing “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Certainly economists puzzled over the distinction between “value” and “price”, and have some understanding of the difference.
Or consider King Lear’s “Oh reason not the need. Our basic beggars are in the poorest things superfluous,” echoed by Bobby Dylan’s she “knows just what you need, but I know what you want.”
So let us, as the year closes, remember friends past, friends present, and friends future. For all the materialist concerns that an economics column inevitably addresses, friendship – and art and philosophy – give a meaning to our life beyond that of economic value.