C.S. Lewis's Debt to Dante: The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" and Purgatorio

By Schuknecht, Mattison | Mythlore, Spring-Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

C.S. Lewis's Debt to Dante: The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" and Purgatorio


Schuknecht, Mattison, Mythlore


C.S. LEWIS'S WORK AS A MEDIEVAL SCHOLAR is still a rich subfield for literary critics to explore. Witness Marsha Daigle-Williamson's recent book, Reflecting the Eternal: Dante's Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis, which examines Lewis's fiction in light of Dante's Divine Comedy. (1) Critics have long recognized Lewis's literary debt to the Italian poet, most often pointing out similarities between Dante's Divine Comedy and Lewis's The Great Divorce. For instance, Robert Boenig reads the novel as a dream vision about Hell made in the vein of iconic medieval works (97-98), and Joe R. Christopher argues that Dante's Divine Comedy serves as the novel's primary structural inspiration ("Dantean" 77). While Christopher and other scholars have scouted for traces of Dante in Lewis's works outside of The Great Divorce, Daigle-Williamson's book is the first comprehensive assessment of this relationship across all of Lewis's fictions. (2) Extending this recent study by Daigle-Williamson, and combining it with Thomas Martin's work on the Seven Deadly Sins, I aim to show how deep Lewis's debt is to Dante in The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader."

Daigle-Williamson concludes that traces of Dante's epic poem are most concentrated in two novels of the seven book series. She remarks that The Silver Chair contains elements from Inferno, while Voyage parallels both Purgatorio and Paradiso. (3) Although Daigle-Williamson's contribution to Lewis studies is significant, she misses several important allusions and structural elements adopted from Dante's Purgatorio in Voyage. By focusing solely on these two texts in my analysis, I suggest that a more intricate relationship exists between Purgatorio and Voyage. Moreover, I take into account Martin's recent proposal that the seven missing Narnian lords whom Prince Caspian and his party search for in Voyage are realized on the order of the Seven Deadly Sins. Each of the lords falls victim to a particular vice that prevents him from completing his quest to "explore the unknown Eastern Seas beyond the Lone Islands" (Lewis 20-21). Readers of Purgatorio will recall that Dante structures this middle third of his epic poem around the Seven Deadly Sins: the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory that Dante climbs on his ascent towards Heaven represent the capital vices. (4)

In contrast to Martin, Daigle-Williamson finds that aside from three minor exceptions in Voyage, "Lewis does not duplicate Dante's purgatorial scheme of the seven cardinal sins in this children's book" (164), an assessment challenged in the present essay. I do not intend to repeat Martin's argument in full nor supply additional examples of the Seven Deadly Sins in Voyage; instead, I expand upon the thesis. Lewis borrows more from Dante's Divine Comedy than just the capital vices: he also reinvents the narrative model of Purgatorio in Voyage while simultaneously recycling images, scenes, and themes directly from Dante's original poem. I argue that Lewis consciously derives this pattern of the Seven Deadly Sins from Purgatorio. While Dante's influence could be explored throughout The Chronicles of Narnia, it remains the strongest in Voyage.

That Lewis would structure a narrative based around the Seven Deadly Sins is the strongest point of comparison between Purgatorio and Voyage. Nevertheless, I must qualify that this does not necessitate a clear one-to-one correspondence between all elements of the two stories. Lewis's Voyage is therefore not a direct allegorical retelling of the Purgatorio. For example, Lewis does not maintain the same order of the Seven Deadly Sins that Dante uses in Purgatorio: whereas Dante begins with pride and ends with lust, Lewis begins with lust and ends with gluttony, sloth, and wrath, with the remaining sins in a jumble of their original order. Martin warns in his essay that "it is important to realize that the most direct one-to-one correspondence or diagrammatic precision in such matters of literary analysis is likely never desirable for the critic reading the work--nor for the author fashioning it in the first place" (44). …

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