Academic journal article Mythlore

The Child's Voyage and the Immram Tradition in Lewis, Tolkien and Pullman

Academic journal article Mythlore

The Child's Voyage and the Immram Tradition in Lewis, Tolkien and Pullman

Article excerpt

C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and philip pullman have all written children's fantasies which involve voyages by water. In Lewis's The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" (1952), the Pevensie children, Lucy and Edmund, are joined by their ill-mannered cousin Eustace Scrubb on a voyage to a number of islands in the Narnian ocean. In Tolkien's Roverandom (1998), an ill-mannered puppy named Rover is sent on a voyage to a number of locations on the moon and in the Deep Blue Sea. In Pullman's The Book of Dust: Volume One, La Belle Sauvage (2017), two children, Malcolm and Alice, embark on a dangerous river voyage to save the baby Lyra from those who wish to control her. In the process, they encounter a number of strange "islands": hilltops cresting above the flooded River Thames.

Readers of modern children's fantasy literature are familiar with the parameters of the epic quest, derived from medieval romance. Verlyn Flieger defines the quest as "a journey as perilous for soul as for body--with a fixed purpose, a goal beyond itself" (210). Arguably, the most famous modern fantasy quest is the expedition to destroy the One Ring in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). Other fantasy quests include Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) and Pullman's Northern Lights/The Golden Compass (1995). Another tale-type Flieger analyzes is the aventure, a French term referring to "adventures" or "dangerous escapades" in a magical otherworld, "exciting for their own sake, ending in peace and prosperity" (210). This is more descriptive of the episodic adventures of Bilbo Baggins in Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937), Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper in Lloyd Alexander's Taran Wanderer (1967), and Alanna of Trebond in Tamora Pierce's The Woman Who Rides Like a Man (1986). In aventures, there is a goal, of sorts, but the narrative focus is on the protagonist's episodic adventures and, particularly in narratives featuring young protagonists, the lessons learned from each episode. As Flieger writes, both the quest and aventure "follow the traditional romance trajectory--a hero's journey and return," but the quest is more focused upon the goal, while the aventure is more focused upon the escapades (Flieger 210).

There are numerous examples of both tale-types; thus readers of modern fantasy may be accustomed to thinking in terms of the quest or episodic adventures in strange lands. Yet, there is a third type in modern fantasy literature derived from medieval literature which may be less familiar as a discrete class. Exemplified by the water voyages of Lewis, Tolkien, and Pullman, it is the Irish immram. (1) William Flint Thrall defined the immram as "a sea-voyage tale in which a hero, accompanied by a few companions, wanders about from island to island, meets Otherworld wonders everywhere, and finally returns to his native land" (quoted in Mac Mathuna 276). The immram protagonist is frequently a penitent or a pilgrim, and the voyage is a metaphor for spiritual growth and redemption. The island episodes, including a glimpse of, or visit to, a paradisiacal sanctuary, provide valuable lessons before the protagonist is instructed to return home and practice the lessons learned.

The best-known medieval examples include the vernacular Irish Immram curaig Maile Duin ("The Voyage of Mael Duin's Boat") in which the warrior Mael Duin seeks vengeance on the marauders who killed his father. A great storm propels his ship into a region of otherworldly islands which he must negotiate before returning home. A related text is the Latin Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis ("The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot"), one of the most popular texts in the Middle Ages. In this story, the Christian Saint Brendan of Clonfert embarks on a sea-voyage with several of his brethren to seek the Promised Land of the Saints, where the blessed await God's final judgement. The voyage lasts seven years and encompasses several marvelous islands before the monks finally reach the Promised Land. …

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