Ovid in Narnia

“He thought for a second that yet another dragon was staring at him out of the pool.”[1] Eustace’s double-take provoked one from me. Although I was reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with my wife, I recognized a scene that I had gone over that afternoon in a Latin class, reading selections from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Metamorphoses is a text that Lewis knew very well;[2] very quirky for an Epic, it catalogues stories about change and transformation from the beginning of the world down to the poet’s own times. Many of the stories are still well known: Arachne is turned into a spider, Hyacinthus becomes a flower, Echo becomes… an echo, and Actaeon becomes a deer. Actaeon may not be so well known today, but it is his grizzly fate that surfaces in Lewis’ text. As it turns out, Lewis was a very good reader of Ovid. In realizing that, I became a better reader of Lewis.

Ovid’s Actaeon

Actaeon is a descendent of Cadmus, the founding king of Thebes, and—like many royal youths—is an avid hunter. But one noon, as he returns home from the hunt, he stumbles into divine wrath. More specifically, he stumbles into a beautiful grotto where grass rims a spring-fed pool. Unfortunately for Actaeon, that grotto is sacred to the goddess Diana, who happens to be bathing in the pool.

Diana is the virgin goddess of the hunt, and her virginity is sacred. So, when she sees that a man has wandered into her privacy, (“what crime is it to wander?” asks the poet[3]) she can’t have that. The goddess then bends down to hurl water at Actaeon’s face with a cry: “Now you can say that you saw me unclothed—if you can speak at all!”[4]

Actaeon runs away, naturally. But as he dashes through the woods, he marvels at his speed. Then suddenly, he “saw his true face and antlers in water.”[5] This is the scene that I think Lewis re-wrote. At the very least, it’s the same sort of story and should be read as its background. It served, as Classicists say, as Lewis’ “code model,” providing the structure for the new story and giving an added layer of meaning through its changes and variations.[6]

Lewis’ Eustace

Lewis’ changes to Ovid’s story begin even before the moment of self-recognition. Actaeon’s problem is his encounter with the goddess, his transgression of the boundaries between the sacred and profane and between the domains of male hunting and of female privacy. If we make Lewis proud by stripping the paganism off of the truth, we can see in this myth the problem that every man faces when he encounters the Holy. While there is no chance for poor Actaeon, Eustace will have a very different encounter with the Holy at the end of the story. At its outset, he meets an old, sad dragon. The dragon comes straight out of myth (it is modeled after the Norse dragon, Fafnir, in fact) but Eustace “had read none of the right books” and does not realize the danger.[7] In this barren valley, quite different from Diana’s grotto, the curse that latches onto Eustace through a stolen bracelet is caused by his own isolation and greed.

This sort of peril is typical for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Time and again our Narnian crew arrive at a new location and encounter some sort of trouble that takes advantage of one of the hero’s characters: Reepicheep’s valor undoes him at the Island of False Dreams, Lucy’s curiosity nearly causes disaster on the Island of Strange Noises, and in this sad cave Eustace’s outsides finally catch up to his dragonish insides.

After seeing himself in the pool, Actaeon catches up to his hunting friends and their dogs. Unfortunately for all involved, he is still a deer and, as deer cannot plead their humanity, it goes as well for Actaeon as it does any deer come face-to-face with a hunting party. Lewis’ story, naturally, ends differently. When we come to the story as readers, bringing the background knowledge that Eustace lacked, we can see that Lewis splices in another episode of Ovid’s and writes our dragon-friend against the background of Io, a nymph unlucky enough to have caught Jupiter’s eye. After the misbehaving god has his way with Io, he turns her into a cow so that Juno (his sister and wife) will be kept in the dark. But when Io returns to the river where her father dwells, it is her turn to see herself in the waves (a not uncommon motif). She mourns, of course, but is in a safe place for the time being and makes use of her hoof to scratch her fate in the sandy riverbank, thus alerting her father and friends.[8]

Eustace’s tale blends Io and Actaeon. At first, once Eustace has made his way back to the campsite, his friends are afraid and, like Actaeon’s, they prepare to attack him. But they see him “cry dragon-tears just to prove [he’s] a man” and relent. Then, like Io, he scratches out his story to win their pity and care. The scenes that follow are lovely: in them Eustace learns how to live in a dragon’s body while humility, fostered by friendship, begins to make him less dragon-ish. These scenes lack a fruitful code model, but when the change of heart drives Eustace to the top of the nearby mountain, it again helps us to go with him as readers.

The Intertextual Payoff

To review, Actaeon’s story goes wrong when, at noon one day, he stumbles into a lovely grotto occupied by a petty goddess. Eustace’s is the opposite. He descends to his lowest point, literally and spiritually, when he comes to a barren cave inhabited by a dying dragon. In literary terms, it is his katabasis, his journey to the underworld. But Lewis, in inverting this myth, saves the divine elements for later.

Actaeon’s story is inevitably hopeless. When Diana notices his presence, she begins to blush, reddening with fear and shame. It was only with a curse that she could end the threat, transferring her fear and shame to the metamorphosed intruder. He is unfit to stand in the presence of the divine.

Eustace eventually meets Aslan, who leads him to another pool, this time in the middle of a mountain-top garden.[9] This time it is the Deity who takes the initiative, coming to the hapless mortal with tender affection. By reversing the elements of the story, Lewis inverts the significance of each piece. While Diana throws “avenging waters” in Actaeon’s “masculine face,”[10] thus neutralizing an unintentional threat, Aslan bathes the helpless and pitiful Eustace in water that seems awfully baptismal. He is made a boy again: inside and out.

In reading Dawn Treader, then, we can read Ovid over Lewis’ shoulder. At the end of the Metamorphoses, the poet famously makes himself the last transformation, claiming to have been immortalized through his verse. He did live on, but in Lewis’ hands he meets his maker and is radically changed. The true myths that were refracted in this story—the fearful presence of deity, our inability to encounter the holy and stay the same, the revealing and transforming nature of water—are received and corrected as the story finds its place in the greatest and truest story.[11] At the cross, Christ put Artemis to “open shame” (Col 2:15). And in Lewis’ magnification of Christ, the shame she was so vengeful in hiding is exposed and left between the lines.

Benjamin Phillips is a member of Veto PCA, along with his wife and daughter. He is currently pursuing his MA in History at Ohio University, where he studies the intellectual and literary history of Late Antiquity.

  1. C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, (New York: Harper Collins, 1952) 91.

  2. Its influence is clear in Aslan’s romp at the end of Prince Caspian and in Rabadash’s transformation at the end of Horse and His Boy. On page 29 of The Discarded Image, he calls it essential background knowledge for anyone interested in Medieval or Renaissance literature.

  3. Ovid, Metamorphoses, ed. William Anderson, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) III:142. All translations are my own.

  4. Ovid, Metamorphoses, III:192-93.

  5. Ovid, Metamorphose, III:200.
  6. In this style of reading, I am drawing on the method of Gian Biagio Conte in The Rhetoric of Imitation as well as Stephen Hinds’ Allusion and Intertext and Aaron Peltarri’s The Space That Remains.

  7. Lewis, Dawn Treader, 84.

  8. Ovid, Metamorphoses I:568-746.

  9. Lewis, Dawn Treader, 106. Lewis likes mountain-top gardens, as seen at the end of Perelandra. This is a very biblical motif and in Lewis it is also filtered through Dante’s Purgatorio.

  10. Ovid, Metamorphoses, III:189-90.

  11. Stephen Hinds famously noted that allusion serves to generate a literary history within the text, representing the latest text as renewing, imitating, or surpassing the tradition represented by the text to which it alludes (Allusion and Intertext, 52-98). Or, as TS Elliot put it, “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it” (1919, Tradition and the Individual Talent).


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