The Last Battle holds a special place in my life: it is one of only three books (and the only novel) ever hurled at me. I had lent the series to a friend who had been, I thought, enjoying the series, when she rushed in my room and sent the book flying at me.
“How could you make me read this thing?”
I couldn’t possibly repeat all of her following invective, even if I tried.
Suffice it to say that The Last Battle is like that: emotional, problematic, inspiring, infuriating, compulsively readable, and, if you aren’t tempted to throw the book across the room at (mostly) innocent friends, probably the most fascinating of the Narnia books, if not necessarily (well, probably definitely not) the most enjoyable.
C.S. Lewis, of course, was not the first to tire of writing a popular series and seek for ways to end it. But he may be among the few to decide to destroy his created world in a final apocalypse that also works as an allegory of the Book of Revelation (itself a rather heavy allegory) and a discussion of Platonic thought as mediated through St. Paul. Not surprisingly, this decision has not been uniformly popular. (My deeply distressed reaction, at the age of eight: Narnia’s GONE?)
Also not surprisingly, given its subject matter, the book begins on a grim note, immediately stating that this tale happens in the days of the last king of Narnia. Any hopes that this is about to lead to the establishment of a Narnian democracy are almost immediately dismissed when the book introduces the unfortunate Puzzle, a donkey of little brain, about to become the accidental Anti-Christ—I mean, false Aslan—and his nasty, manipulative friend Shift the Ape, who, unhappy with the state of international trade in Narnia, figures that the best way to handle this is to enslave the Narnians with false religion. (Lewis, unlike me, was apparently not a fan of chimpanzees or giant apes, but turning the ape into an alcoholic—seriously?—was perhaps overdoing this hatred a bit too much.)
Yes, this is going to be a fun, fun read.
Hearing of “Aslan’s” false return, the young king of Narnia is first delighted, then distressed when he hears what “Aslan” is doing to the country—enslaving talking animals, cutting down trees, and so on. He murders two Calormenes in a rage (but feels sorry for it), is tied to a tree in an annoyingly symbolic gesture, and calls upon Aslan and the friends of Narnia for help. Jill and Eustace arrive—thanks to a little bump from a train.
An interval lets us know that all of the visitors to Narnia, with one exception, continue to hang out and chat on a regular basis—a nice touch. Then it’s off to despair, the final battle, more despair, getting tossed into a Stable, really excellent fruit, and then, apocalypse.
The apocalypse is both one of the most beautiful, and most heartbreaking, sequences in the entire series, starting as it does with falling stars, who, in that world, are people, if people filled with glittering light who are happy enough to stand right behind the doorway and illuminate the apocalypse. (If our universe ends with the same consideration, we can all feel grateful.) Next, the various folk from that world come rushing to the door, either to fall into the nothingness of Aslan’s shadow, or appear in the new world behind Aslan’s shadow. Dragons eat everything. Peter is asked to shut the door to Narnia.
And everyone is now very, very dead, and surprisingly happy about this, despite the slight problem that they are about to be inflicted with quite a lot of Platonic philosophy.
(Quibble: it bothered me then, and it bothers me now, that Lucy was not the one to shut the door to Narnia. After all, she had been the one to open it, and I can see no particular reason why Peter is the one to shut the door. However. This book has much larger problems, so let’s not dwell on this one.)
The remainder of the book—an exhilarating description of the afterlife, interspersed with some discussions on religious practices and Plato and railway accidents, is either inspiring or infuriating or both, depending upon how you feel about it.
And ah, yes, the problems.
The first, and perhaps for some people, the worst, centers on Lewis’s decision to have the false Aslan and his prophet, Shift the Ape, supported by the Calormenes, Lewis’s quasi-Muslim culture. In their last appearance, the Calormenes had seemed nice enough, if you ignored their tendency to keep slaves, marry off their preteen daughters to vastly older men, and arrange for their ambitious sons to be murdered. Hmm. Perhaps not always the kindliest, nicest folk. But although Lewis noted that they worshipped three different deities (Tash, Azaroth and Zardeenah) who all seemed to enjoy sacrifices, nothing in their brief descriptions suggested that these deities were real or inherently evil.
In The Last Battle, however, Lewis turns the quasi-Muslim Calormenes into demon worshippers, and their chief deity, Tash, into a demon: a cold grey bird projecting terror and a horrific stench. My immediate, practical question: how exactly did this demon show up, given that the evil introduced into Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew was a witch dragged there mostly by accident, and the other evils seen in Narnia were generally all too human?
Such practical concerns outside, the decision to turn the quasi-Muslim culture into demon-worshippers supporting the anti-Christ, and constantly working to overturn the good (and Christian) supporters of Aslan into slaves and destroy the ecosystem in the bargain is troubling. The presence of the one unequivocally good Calormene, Emeth, only worsens the situation, since Lewis uses Emeth’s tale to explain that anyone doing anything good in Calormen was actually doing so on behalf of Aslan, not Tash, and to quickly convert a Tash worshipper into a devoted Aslan disciple.
On the one hand, I rather like the inclusive thought that all good prayers reach the same, benevolent diety, and that all good gods (or god) are essentially the same. On the other hand, the implication that Muslims and pagans are actually worshiping Christ whenever they are praying benevolently, however reassuring it may appear on the surface, is something that may be offensive to Muslims, pagans and even some Christians. (With Christians, this thought may be mitigated by Lewis’ argument that the Narnian heaven can only be reached through Aslan/Christ, but I am not certain.)
(It also probably doesn’t help that the actual Anti-Christ—er, anti-Aslan— turns out to be nothing but a tool, and presented as one of the good guys, better than the Calormenes, even though he’s been the one impersonating Aslan and causing all this.)
Making matters worse, Shift the Ape doesn’t need to be helped by Calormenes: the Narnian world offers plenty of other evil doers along the sidelines who might be happy to help out an Anti-Christ—er, anti-Aslan—disaffected Telmars, those witches and giants in the north, the Hags and Werewolves hiding in the caves and dark forests, whatever was on that nightmare island in Dawn Treader, and so on. Instead, this is now a quasi-Islamphobic text suggesting that Muslims will be the first to help out the Anti-Christ. Not a happy thought.
In the comments for The Horse and His Boy, one person made the excellent suggestion that the Calormene culture reaches more back to a Chaldean/Babylonian inspiration, a thought that makes particular sense given some of the references in the Book of Revelations. The Calormenes still seem more vaguely Turkish to me, but, regardless, given that these geographical areas eventually became centerpieces of Islamic culture, I think the Islamic reading still applies.
A related unhappy thought: even as a child, I found it terribly unfair that the entire Narnian world—which, according to later books, Narnia was only a small part of—had to be destroyed just because some talking animals in one small part of that world couldn’t tell the difference between a donkey in a lionskin and an actual lion. A related objection: I’ve seen donkeys, and I’ve seen lions, and I don’t care how bad the light is, or how long it’s been since anyone’s seen an actual lion: no one is going to confuse a donkey wearing a lion skin with a real lion. No one. Particularly when the fake lion is behaving so uncharacteristically. Also, animals should be able to smell the difference.
This immediately kills my suspension of disbelief, and it gets worse from here. Remember that previous books have emphasized just how small Narnia is, so how exactly is Tirian kept so uninformed about people ripping up his forests for so long? Sure, Tirian begins the book apparently on some sort of vacation in a hunting lodge, but he’s still connected enough to the rest of the country to hear that Aslan has returned; it beggars disbelief that he would not have heard about the problems earlier—the additional Calormene soldiers and merchants milling around, all of the saws and ropes and carts needed to cut down the trees, and so on. It takes time to set something like this up. Even Lewis, while presenting a situation that boiled up in only a few days, at the end of the book admits that the Ape must have been planning this for a long time. I cannot believe both that Tirian is a concerned king of Narnia and that he didn’t notice a thing. I realize that this is a fable, and that worldbuilding has never been the strong part of these books. But up until now, I was able to believe: in talking animals, woods between worlds, giants sleeping beneath mountains, drinking seawater that tastes like light, and so on. This time I couldn’t.
Which is not to say that other parts of the book do not ring true—very true, particularly the reaction of the dwarfs to the news of a false Aslan (although I don’t like to think of them having to spend eternity in a dark stable because of this. I’m hoping they will eventually get up and try a bit of exploring.) The battle scene before the stable, with all of its confusion, also feels very real (and in a further change from the first book, yes, Jill does fully participate in the battle, with no nonsense about wars being ugly when women fight.) The assumption by the Talking Animals that they must have done something (other than assume a donkey in a lion skin was a donkey) to deserve Aslan’s anger, also works.
And the typical Narnia humor is still around, although Lewis’s sarcasm is deeper here, more bitter, and I doubt readers will be laughing much, what with all of the death and destruction. (It’s all very well to know that the cute little talking animals and the friendly dogs and the beautiful trees will end up in the perfect afterlife, but this sense is not all that strongly conveyed during a first reading of their deaths.) And Lewis has not lost his ability to create delightful animal characters, from the little mice and rabbits who help Tirian, to Farsight the Eagle, to the splendid Jewel the Unicorn. (I refuse to put that annoying Centaur into this category, however. You’ve been watching the not exactly swiftly moving stars for how long and you wait until the last minute to tell the king something’s up, and we’re supposed to take your words of wisdom?)
The book has other oddities. I have no idea why anyone would need armor in the afterlife, but The Last Battle is clear: all of the kings (and Eustace and Digory) are wearing fine mail and glittering swords. Dudes. You’re already dead. What is this? And while yes, some mythologies have a strong tradition of a warrior afterlife, that is not really what Lewis appears to be going for here. (Although I suppose for some people heaven would be constant swordfighting, so, er, maybe I should hush up.) And I can’t help wondering just how the narrator, who up until now has used the conceit that he heard the Narnia stories from the children themselves, managed to hear about this part of the story. And I’m not entirely sure I like the idea of an afterlife where after hanging about for awhile watching a beloved world you have to start doing a lot of running.
But if you can tolerate the issue with the Calormenes, and watching a beloved imaginary world consumed into slow nothingness and cold as its sun dies, this may well be a beloved book. If you can tolerate one remaining bit.
In a series filled with unfair events, Susan’s exile from Paradise stands out. Ask many people about what they remember of Narnia, and along with the talking animals, the food, the lamppost and Father Christmas handing out rather militant presents and a fine sewing machine in a pre-industrial society, and they will say, Susan not getting to go back to Narnia. It certainly was the main image I took away from the series.
Oh, certainly, Lewis presents this as at least partially Susan’s decision to turn away and pretend that Narnia is nothing but a childhood fantasy—the same sort of childhood fantasy that he had defended so strongly in The Silver Chair. But he also says that Susan doesn’t get to return to Narnia because, as Polly explains, she’s gotten too interested in lipsticks and nylons, or in other words, has decided to embrace her femininity.
How can I put this kindly? Ugh.
It’s not just Narnia, which, since she’s mostly forgotten it in any case, is perhaps not as a great a loss as I’m making it out to be. Susan also loses her three siblings and parents in a single train accident. She’s not the only one punished: Peter’s taut response, and the absolute silence of Edmund and Lucy on the subject, show that this separation has hurt them as well. (Also, I must say that I felt an inward shudder at the thought that just maybe the British Railways accident was contrived to bring Jill, Eustace and the others over to witness the end of Narnia. Which is all very well, but what about the other passengers, and the Pevensie parents?)
It shouldn’t be a surprise. As I previously noted, Susan’s fate was foreshadowed as early as the first book, when delicious things seem to pass her by; in Prince Caspian, where she is the only one not having any fun; and in the third book, where Lewis casually mentions that she is no good at schoolwork—a damning indictment from an Oxford don. And this is the same series where a magical lion was painfully sacrificed just because a kid was enchanted by magical candy; where the entire country of Narnia had to endure years of winter with no Christmas just because Digory felt like showing off, and so on.
But it is a surprise. And worse are the explanations offered, that Susan finds Narnia silly, and that she is now interested only in lipsticks and nylons. Quite apart from my initial reaction that however uncomfortable, nylons really aren’t that bad, I find it entirely possible that Susan turned to these sorts of (to Lewis) silly things precisely because she was told she could not return to Narnia, that she would never have the chance to be a queen of a magical realm again. It’s entirely possible that she has convinced herself that Narnia was only a game to deal with her loss.
Susan would not be the only person who, denied a chance at a dream, plunged into something pointless or self-destructive. And—as Lewis probably knew all too well—those who plunge into self-destructive paths often find themselves enduring still more horrific things as a result. Nor would she be the only person to, after losing something that made her happy, try to convince herself that that her very real happiness wasn’t all that happy after all. (See: many post-breakup moments.)
Which more or less brings me to an issue Lewis has been playing with throughout the series: silliness and imagination.
As I noted, Lewis began the series by dedicating it to a girl who was now too old for fairytales, but would later be old enough to read them again. I objected to this dedication then and now, but, to give him credit, Lewis was addressing the widely held concept that fairy tales are only for children.
As geeks, we are often all too uncomfortably aware that much of the world regards our obsessions as, well, silly. Lewis argues the opposite: an obsession with, or at the very least, a belief in, fairy tales, fantasy and imagination, is precisely what will save us in the end. That the true silliness is, as Polly declares, worrying about appearances and social niceties and clothes and the like.
(My more practical minded self would like to interject at this point that these sorts of things are often critical for women’s survival in the workplace, and Susan, bereft of parents and siblings and, as far as we know, romantically unattached, is going to need any help she can get, especially given that schoolwork problem. But Lewis is not, here, concerned with practicalities, however much the Narnia books may have paid attention to important factors like food and blankets and water and so on while adventuring.)
Certainly, much of this is wrapped in Lewis’s equally strong belief in Christianity—and he was well aware of the mythical aspects of his religion, while declaring that Christianity’s myths are true. (This is something found more in his Christian apologetics, but the theme runs through these books as well.) Christianity requires its adherents to believe the impossible: that a man could come back from the dead, and the unknowable: the existence of a divine Creator. Those beliefs—bolstered by Lucy’s comment about the stable in our world that once held something larger than the entire world, are his chief concern.
But, despite the use of Christian themes and images and that little stable comment, in the end, this series is about a land of spells and enchantments and talking animals and giants and wild adventures on magical seas with talking stars. Believe in this sort of thing, Lewis says, and you’ll find your own Narnia at last, or at least be able to walk there over the tops of Aslan’s mountains. At the very least, as he argues here and in The Silver Chair, imagination can create something better, can envision—or at least approach, Plato’s ideal world. Don’t believe, and, well. The best you can hope for is a mundane existence, closed off from magic, light, and the ideal.
I may not like the way the message is delivered. But it’s a message I can wholeheartedly embrace.
[Peruse the entire Narnia reread series.]
Coming up: I’m pleased to note that Tor.com has kindly agreed to continue indulging my childhood nostalgia with some upcoming rereads of various classic and not so classic authors, including Edith Nesbit, George McDonald, and Susan Cooper (technically not as nostalgic, since I haven’t read all of The Dark is Rising series….yet.)
After completing both rereads, Mari Ness has decidedly chosen Oz, on the basis that no one has to die to get there. She lives in central Florida, and has not yet lost her habit of keeping an eye out for doors to magical worlds.