The Odd Geography of the Utter East

Of all the places in Narnia, I’m most fascinated by the Utter East, that area of Narnia-the-World that lies over the Eastern Sea. It’s one of the most transcendent of Lewis’s creations – full of so much rich, mystical bizarreness that those passages remain one of my favorite pieces of writing, any writing, to this day.

First off, though, here’s the Lewis-sanctioned map of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, drawn by Pauline Baynes of course.

The “About here they joined the ship” refers to the novel’s beginning when Eustace, Edmund, and Lucy travel through the magic picture and are fished out of the sea by King Caspian. (I was going to call him a Prince, then remembered the events of the previous book.) Try as I might I couldn’t find Baynes’s map of the second part of the journey, though I’m sure one existed, and probably was printed on the endpapers of the hardcover edition of Voyage, as this one was inside of the front cover. It’s OK, even though it seems Caspian dilly-dallied a bit before getting down to the business of finding the lost lords.

Click to see larger

This map is not correct according to Lewis’s canon above; but the journey is closer to how I imagined it,  at least up until the Land of the Duffers. The track then changes to the southeast, which seems wrong. Frankly, I think whoever drew it was hampered by the fact it had to fit across two pages, and they took the lines about the sun getting hotter and brighter to mean the ship was going southward.

This map, by a fan, is how I always envisioned the whole trip, a meandering but straighter progression from west to east. The map also handles Narnia’s size in relation to Calormen well.

Click to see larger

After the ship leaves Ramadu’s island, the sun becomes more intense, the sea changes from salt to freshwater and becomes sweet in taste: they are approaching a sacrosanct area.

… there had been too much light ever since they left the island of Ramandu—the sun too large (though not too hot), the sea too bright, the air too shining. Now, the light grew no less—if anything, it increased—but they could bear it. They could look straight up at the sun without blinking. They could see more light than they had ever seen before. And the deck and the sail and their own faces and bodies became brighter and brighter and every rope shone. And next morning, when the sun rose, now five or six times its old size, they stared hard into it and could see the very feathers of the birds that came flying from it.

I am pretty sure Lewis took the bit about the sun appearing larger and brighter, not to mention hotter, from the accounts of early European explorers as they approached Earth’s equator. The sun was not really bigger, it only seemed to be. But in Narnia, is really is bigger and hotter (and we’ll get to why, later.) Adding to those early explorer’s feelings of awe and displacement were the appearance of new Southern hemisphere stars in the sky and changes in the ecliptic, making the moon seem to change position. I think Lewis does a great job of evoking the same feelings of awe and strangeness.

Then they reach a sea of water lilies, all along the horizon from north to south as far as the eye can see. At this point the sea still has some depth so they deduce these are not ordinary water lilies, or lotuses, which need to be rooted in the mud. In Buddhism, the lotus symbolizes the state of Enlightenment, and the white lotus, purity – an interesting choice of flora on Lewis’s part. But he refers to the flowers as lilies throughout, bringing to mind Easter Sundays and Bible quotes.

All this time the ship has been sailing along briskly without wind in a strong current. At the Silver Sea, as they call it, they discover the current is only 40 feet wide, as if Aslan has prepared it as a highway for them.

Very soon the open sea which they were leaving was only a thin rim of blue on the western horizon. Whiteness, shot with faintest colour of gold, spread round them on every side, except just astern where their passage had thrust the lilies apart and left an open lane of water that shone like dark green glass. To look at, this last sea was very like the Arctic; and if their eyes had not by now grown as strong as eagles’ the sun on all that whiteness—especially at early morning when the sun was hugest—would have been unbearable. And every evening the same whiteness made the daylight last longer. There seemed no end to the lilies. Day after day from all those miles and leagues of flowers there rose a smell which Lucy found it very hard to describe; sweet—yes, but not at all sleepy or overpowering, a fresh, wild, lonely smell that seemed to get into your brain and make you feel that you could go up mountains at a run or wrestle with an elephant. She and Caspian said to one another, “I feel that I can’t stand much more of this, yet I don’t want it to stop.”

This is another one of my favorite passages from the series and I can’t resist showing it off. The reason why the sun looks so huge  [ SPOILER! ]  is that the ship is getting closer to its rising point.

Onward the current takes them; Lewis is coy about the exact number of days. But finally the water becomes so shallow the ship scrapes the bottom and can go no further. After some dull bickering about Caspian’s kingly duty and Reepicheep’s prophecy and whatnot it’s decided (or rather Aslan decides) that only Reepicheep and the kids can go on to the world’s end. Caspian must return to Ramandu’s island and his bride-to-be, and then on to Narnia.

The kids and Reepicheep take the ship’s rowboat and continue on in the current. On the third day, shortly before dawn, they see a marvel, a 30-foot high (this was before the metric system hit the UK, obviously) wall of water right in front of them.

This is the part of the book I struggled mightily with for years and years. Lewis calls the wall of water “a wave endlessly fixed in one place as you may often see at the edge of a waterfall.”  But this isn’t a good way to put it at all. Those waves are formed when swift-flowing water hits an obstacle in its path, like a rock just below the surface, so it skips up and over it. It’s not really a wave like ocean waves are. Stationary wave might have been a better: a flowing wave that has reached its full height, yet does not crash. Some waves in Hawaii and Chile can get very large, up to 100 feet. Thirty feet doesn’t seem that epic for the end of Narnia-the-World, but that’s another story.

Then, the sun rises behind the wave, and at that moment, behind the sun, they catch a glimpse of the paradisical mountains of Aslan’s country.

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. For any mountains even a quarter or a twentieth of that height ought to have had ice and snow on them. But these were warm and green and full of forests and waterfalls however high you looked. And suddenly there came a breeze from the east, tossing the top of the wave into foamy shapes and ruffling the smooth water all round them. It lasted only a second or so but what it brought them in that second none of those three children will ever forget. It brought both a smell and a sound, a musical sound. Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterwards. Lucy could only say, “It would break your heart.” “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.

After this sight the boat suddenly runs aground, and here is where things get confusing, at least for me.

The children got out of the boat and waded—not towards the wave but southward with the wall of water on their left. [ … ] The water was warm and all the time it got shallower. At last they were on dry sand, and then on grass—a huge plain of very fine short grass, almost level with the Silver Sea and spreading in every direction without so much as a molehill. And of course, as it always does in a perfectly flat place without trees, it looked as if the sky came down to meet the grass in front of them. But as they went on they got the strangest impression that here at last the sky did really come down and join the earth—a blue wall, very bright, but real and solid: more like glass than anything else. And soon they were quite sure of it. It was very near now.

As the sea of lilies ran along the horizon north to south, the reader must assume this wave does as well, correct? Yet it has a fixed width. Or… is the piece of land to the front of the wave, as in the movie?

It seems the producers were just as confused as I was. They went with a sandy spit of land stretching away to the north and south, with the normal sea on one side, a wave-about-to-break on the other. But it’s facing the wrong direction — about to break into Narnia, not into Aslan’s country! Nevertheless, the film made the best of a very unclear text.

At any rate, there’s a kind of watery passage out of the world, and a solid wall both. Narnia is a flat world that both spills its sea over the edge, and contains both it and the land within a hollow sphere.

Whenever I read this passage I’m reminded of the Flammarion engraving.

The man is crawling through a rent in the sky of what he thinks is the real world, only to discover heaven, or a realer world, beyond. (This was a theme for The Last Battle as well.) It’s always been a favorite image of mine.

We can came to a few conclusions about Narnia’s odd cosmology here. Narnia-the-world is inside a sphere, with sea level at the globe’s equator. When the edge of the world is reached, the rocky walls of the bottom hemisphere rise up to meet the blue-glass wall of the sky hemisphere – that is why the sea has gradually become shallower. The sky hemisphere is thinner than the earth hemisphere so when they meet, an inside rim forms to provide a place for a sandy beach and grass plain. The wave functions as a drain for the waters of the Eastern Sea, the current passing up and over the wave, and then into wherever. Aslan’s Country is visible through this wave when the sun hits it at the right angle – from behind it — so there must be an opening in the Narnian sky there as well.

The questions then are: How long is the stationary wave? How big is the cleft in the sky? And what is the size of the Narnian Sun, because it must pass through this cleft and into the sky from wherever it comes from?

Since the width of the ocean current is 40 feet, logic might say the wave must be 40 feet wide as well, and so must the opening in the sky through which the sun enters, shining through the wave as it does so.

These measurements are… a little less than epic, I guess. For one thing, the sun has valleys and an ecosystem on it. Surely it must be more than 40 feet wide? OTOH, if the size of the Narnian Sun is less than epic, the stars are as well—they’re the size and shape of humans.

(Personally, I’d say the Narnian Sun is at least 10 miles in diameter, and should be more.)

Still, the sun rising behind the wave doesn’t mean it’s right there up against the wave. It could be many miles off.

The text doesn’t tell us one way or the other. The Chronicles are, after all, partly allegory, and Lewis as a writer was a pantster as opposed to Tolkien’s plotter, which means Lewis threw in anything that sounded good for his story, whether or not it all hung together.

But for me, longtime fan of Narnia and SF/Fantasy writer, I am going to figure out a way this all makes sense going by what we are told and filling on what we haven’t been told, without the interference of an author who is long dead.

Narnia resides within a great globe perhaps a few thousand miles in diameter. This globe rests on a spur of the mountains of Aslan’s Country. The sea level of the world is at approximately halfway up the globe. Bism, and perhaps other lands, lie in the buried bottom half of the globe. The stars dance every night across the solid sky, forming constellations. They, and the sun and moon, rise in the east, in the area of the stationary wave which hides a great hole, cleft, or cavern from which they emerge. Because the sun is its own minor world and many miles in diameter, the stationary wave matches its size. The kids’ rowboat just happened to hit it at its southern point, and southern current. There are other currents, spaced evenly across its length, that also provide access and drainage.

It’s too cruel to think that the current and wave carried Reepicheep over some titanic waterfall crashing down over the rocks that form the outside of the Narnian world-sphere; so I’ll say the wave empties out into a huge lake on Narnia’s crag of Aslan’s mountains, and out of that lake, each morning, comes the sun, rejuvenated by its waters and catching fire as it meets the air. It rises along some invisible track through the opening in the Narnia’s sky, and follows that same track along the top of its curved shell-sky. The sky of Aslan’s Country and the sky of Narnia look the same, which is why the opening can’t be seen. Alternately, it’s hidden by magic, or closes each morning after the sun’s rising is done.

Though the sun follows the curve of the solid sky as it travels, I imagine there are still many miles between it and the sky itself, creating a sort of troposphere for Narnia.

Here’s some unused concept art from the movie, showing, in the background, Aslan’s Country of crags and waterfalls, the rising sun in front of it, and the Dawn Treader on some great precipice that hangs over, mired on the lily-filled waters. A pity this wasn’t realized!

As for what lies in Narnia’s north, south, and west… that’s for another post.


3 pings

  1. […] The Odd Geography of the Utter East […]

  2. […] The Odd Geography of the Utter East […]

  3. […] The Odd Geography of the Utter East […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.