The character of Odysseus, or Ulysses, has been capturing the imagination of artists for centuries. He has inspired children’s books and television shows, numerous films, the poetry of greats like Dante and Tennyson, and reimaginings by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf among others.
At the end of his third chronicle of Narnia, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis reveals that King Caspian, remembered by his own people as Caspian the Seafarer, recalls this most famed mariner.
The clue is put in the mouth of Edmund after Reepicheep threatens to rally the crew in “disarming and binding [Caspian] till [he] come[s] to [his] senses” to show his disapproval of the young king’s orders. “Quite right,” said Edmund. “Like they did with Ulysses when he wanted to go near the Sirens.”
Of all the versions of Ulysses, Caspian has the most in common with Dante’s. Both left their kingdoms “with but a single ship and that small band of shipmates.” Both tried to sail all the way to the end of the world.
When Lewis describes a glimpse of Aslan’s country, he invokes Dante’s picture of the mountain of Purgatory that signaled to Ulysses he had passed the borders of the mortal world:
“What they saw – eastward, beyond the sun – was a range of mountains. It was so high that either they never saw the top of it or they forgot it. None of them remembers seeing any sky in that direction. And the mountains must really have been outside the world.” (Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
Compare this passage with the description of Mount Purgatory from Dante’s Inferno:
“when we could see a mountain, distant,
dark and dim. In my sight it seemed
higher than any I had ever seen.”
There is a critical difference between Dante’s Ulysses and Caspian, however. Dante places Ulysses in the eighth circle of Hell, with the false counselors. At the end of the Silver Chair, Caspian dies and awakes to be welcomed into Aslan’s country.
The difference in Caspian’s and Ulysses’ eternal destinies when their earthly lives share so many parallels is no accident. Lewis knew Dante well and loved his Commedia. The disparity suggests that he created Caspian to be a redeemed Ulysses.
Dante highlights three great sins of Ulysses in his account: abandoning his duties to kingdom and family, misleading his men at the edge of the world, and finally rebelling against God.
Lewis uses the Telmarine lords that Caspian was searching for as reminders of the consequences of those sins. During Caspian’s journey on the Dawn Treader, the king either avoids or repents of all three sins to display his redeemed character.
Ulysses desires adventure and knowledge of the very edges of the world, enough to abandon his duty to wife, son, and father. He sails from island to island for years with no thought for his responsibilities. In the end, Ulysses dies at sea. The seven Telmarine lords also had a duty to Caspian’s father and the true heir.
It is a stretch to say they abandoned it as cavalierly as Ulysses did his since the evil usurper Miraz forced them to leave Narnia to explore unknown islands, but they too sailed away from a kingdom that needed them. They never returned, all of them caught in snares of their own temptations.
At the beginning of the Dawn Treader, Caspian provides a contrasting model of the good lord who is faithful to his duties. He ensures that Narnia is at peace and under the government of a good and trusted regent before setting sail.
Furthermore, the goal of Caspian’s journey is to seek out his loyal subjects and bring them safely home to Narnia or deliver justice to those who harmed them. He swears to this end with Aslan’s approval. His decision is not the insatiable hunger for adventure of Ulysses nor the fear of the Telmarine lords.
Ulysses, the lords, and Caspian all face a moment where their companions refuse to continue. The speech Ulysses makes to urge his men onward contains one of the most oft-quoted lines from the Divine Comedy:
‘”O brothers,” [Ulysses] said, “who, in the course
of a hundred thousand perils, at last
have reached the west, to such brief wakefulness
of our senses as remains to us,
do not deny yourselves the chance to know —
following the sun — the world where no one lives.
Consider how your souls were sown:
you were not made to live like brutes or beasts,
but to pursue virtue and knowledge.”
Ulysses’ speech has his crew “so ardent for the journey / [he] could scarce have held them back.” Lewis does not put a similar speech into the mouth of Caspian, however, but rather into that of a lord, who was found in an enchanted sleep on the last island:
“But the third, who was a very masterful man, leaped up and said, `No, by heaven. We are men and Telmarines, not brutes. What should we do but seek adventure after adventure? We have not long to live in any event. Let us spend what is left in seeking the unpeopled world behind the sunrise.’”
The speeches inspire by playing on the men’s pride and urging them to seek out forbidden knowledge in defiance of God’s established order of the world. Ulysses’ rebellious spirit leads him to breach the border of the world “where Hercules marked off the limits, / warning all men to go no farther.”
Ulysses’ flippant dismissal of the boundaries set by Hercules, who was both man and god, suggests his rebellion against God Himself. He tries to reach the mountain of Purgatory, essentially the gateway to Heaven, by his own power and for his own reasons. Instead, his ship capsizes, drowning him and all the men who listened to his lying tongue before he gets close enough for more than a glimpse.
Lewis shows the fruit of Ulysses’ defiance with the fate of the Telmarine lords. The lord’s version of Ulysses’ speech does not sway his companions but incites him to murderous disagreement with them, dooming them and himself to an enchanted sleep.
The lords are left looking more like beasts than humans, with overgrown hair and beards, completely helpless and needing someone else to undertake that very journey that the Telmarine lord sought as adventure. In the works of both Lewis and Dante, succumbing to sinful counsel leads to defiance of God’s order.
Caspian avoids the temptation to exhort his crew with manipulation and distortion. The wise star Ramandu tells Caspian that “it would be no use, even though you wished it, to sail for the World’s End with men unwilling or men deceived.” Caspian rejects Ulysses’ methods in his quest to save the Telmarine lords. Instead, the young king “laid the whole situation before” his men.
Despite his wisdom and honesty in dealing with his crew, Caspian displays a temptation to Ulysses’ and the lords’ final great vice at the end of the Dawn Treader’s journey. When the ship runs aground and they know that the Aslan’s country is near, Caspian announces that he will be the man to go all the way to Aslan’s country, leaving his crew to return to Narnia without him.
The Narnians are aghast at his orders, which prompts Edmund’s comparison to Ulysses. Caspian’s companions appeal to the duties of kingship that Caspian proved himself to prize at the beginning of the book, but Caspian is rebellious and petulant. He is determined that he should see Aslan’s country for himself.
Under pressure from his crew, Caspian at last admits that the voyage is forbidden to him at this time, but he refuses to let anyone go in his stead to rescue the last three lords from sleeping until the end of time.
Caspian is only saved from his disregard of his duties and defiance of the voyage’s ordained purpose by a vision of Aslan. The king stays aboard the Dawn Treader and returns to Narnia in obedience, submitting to both his duty and the government of his True Lord.
Why does C.S. Lewis spend three books out of seven on a character that ultimately redeems the archetype of Ulysses? Together these seafarers represent the two paths that lie before man in his spiritual journey: arrogant contempt or humble obedience to God.
Ulysses the false counselor tempts men to seize what is forbidden and destroy themselves just as the serpent beguiled Eve to disobey. Aslan guides Caspian away from that path, and Caspian learns to listen and obey.
In the end, Prince Caspian arrives at Aslan’s country the only way most men can.