Synopsis: Lucy sees a sea-girl. The ship sails through part of the sea which is covered with lilies. Caspian says he will abdicate and continue to the world’s end, but is persuaded not to. Reepicheep, Eustace, Edmund and Lucy leave the ship in a small boat and sail onwards through the Last Sea, They reach a wave at the world’s end, which Reepicheep sails over in his coracle. The children leave the boat and walk across land, where they meet Aslan, who returns them to their world.
The passage where Lucy sees the sea-girl is totally superfluous to the book’s plot. It doesn’t tell us anything we need to know. But I always loved it. Lewis must have too, to have written it. It doesn’t seem to have a specific religious or spiritual subtext. Lucy observes the mer-world, trying to work out how it works. For a fleeting moment, she finds herself face to face with a Sea Girl around the same age as her. In that moment, without communicating, the girls become friends. Lewis viewed friendship as one of life’s great joys. He wrote about it at length in ‘The Four Loves’. We are told here that if Lucy ever sees the girl again they will rush towards each other. Maybe it’s just the quality of the prose, but I always found this to be a memorable, moving passage. When I read ‘The Last Battle’ one of the thoughts which its ending prompted was, ‘I hope they meet again!’
As they near the edge of the world, the crew are in a dreamlike state of ‘wonder’ and quiet excitement, prompted by the light, the calm and the sweet water. Older sailors grow younger. Flexibility in age is mentioned a few times in the Chronicles. Jadis doesn’t age. For different reasons, neither does Aslan. In Aslan’s Country, age is impossible to tell. The Pevensies become adults and then revert to childhood. Lewis warns of the folly of being either too grown up or too childish. Did the sailors ‘re-age’ upon their return? Or did their older wives and children get a surprise?
Lilies, especially white ones, carry various associations. They represent purity and innocence. They are a symbol of the Virgin Mary, and sometimes of Jesus. They also represent rebirth, due to their flowering in spring from a seemingly-lifeless bulb.
Just as sounds often trigger powerful emotions in the Narniad, smells do too. Here, the lilies smell sweet, fresh, wild and lonely, and the scent affects Lucy emotionally. She loves it, but it is so intense she almost can’t bear it.
Caspian tries to abdicate in order to sail to the world’s end. I wonder what Lewis made of the real abdication of the British monarch in December 1936. I imagine he was unimpressed with the King’s desertion of duty. Edmund mentions Ulysses being bound to the mast of his ship in order to hear the sirens without succumbing to them. (Naturally, Lewis had read the Odyssey in its original language.) However, Ulysses was bound voluntarily. We are reminded of Caspian’s youth as opposition to his abdication leads to a teenage-style ‘strop’. He reappears, tearful, after being chastened by Aslan.
The glimpses of Aslan’s country in this chapter remind me very much of this passage from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:
“And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
Both are describing a beautiful shore of a heavenly country beyond the sea. Although their friendship faded in the later years of their lives, their interests, beliefs and works were interconnected in many ways. These two passages feel like the closest connection between the stories of Middle Earth and Narnia, for me anyway.
When the children leave the ship, and then watch Reepicheep leave, the story changes.They feel that they are fated to act in the way they do. They become childlike once again. They are filled with wonder, and the Lewis staple, sehnsucht, is everywhere around them.
When Reepicheep casts away his sword it shows him to be a knight in the mould of the honourable knights who sought the grail, like Sir Galahad. He doesn’t want to fight for the fun of it – he counts this as a more important goal. The sword lands upright in the sea and doesn’t sink. It reminds me of Excalibur rising from the lake.
A lamb offers a breakfast of fish to the children, in an echo of Jesus’ actions in John, Chapter 21. Both lambs and fish are traditional symbols of Jesus. The lamb becomes Aslan, and tells the children he exists in our world, but is called something different. He calls himself the bridge builder; ‘Pontifex Maximus’ in Latin. Early Christians called Jesus the Pontifex, building a bridge between the physical and spiritual world. He tells them they must cross a river – maybe an echo of the Styx, which had to be crossed to reach the Ancient Greek afterlife.
Although I didn’t read the Christian symbolism in this section as a young child, by the time I was in double figures it was impossible for me not to spot it. And I wasn’t sure how I felt about this part of the book. It felt like Narnia was changing. I was unnerved by the lamb – why didn’t Aslan just show himself as Aslan? It felt strange. I also felt sad on behalf of Lucy and Edmund (two of my very favourite characters) on being told they could not visit Narnia again. Fortunately the last sentence in the book ends on a lighter note, with Eustace’s parents being disappointed in the wonderful changes in their now pleasant son.