Rereading The Last Battle, our final Narnia volume in the Narniathon hosted by Calmgrove, was a peculiar experience. I loved this book as a child; I was a melancholic, disgruntled sort of girl, who felt at odds with my time and social setting, and it seems I found Lewis’s picture of a civilization in decay being swept aside for a purer, brighter “real world” deeply comforting and reassuring. The forlorn, hopeless battle didn’t dismay me, but inspired me with its upholding of noble ideals even when all was truly lost. And I reveled in the final images of a world that was more essential, more vivid, more full and meaningful than our everyday shadow-land, which satisfied something in me that believed such a world must exist, must indeed be our true home. I was a Platonist from the beginning, it seems.
Now, however, although I still do believe in that world, I find so much that is problematic in Lewis’s portrayal of it and the road to getting there that I am not even sure where to start. Many have protested at his callous dismissal of Susan, who is no longer a friend of Narnia since she has developed ordinary, worldly, adult interests. He did say in a letter to a child reader that Susan had a further story which he was not able to tell, and I will leave this topic at that, only adding that a worthy teller of Susan’s tale would be a great gift to the world.
There is also the strange little episode of Emeth, a Calormene who worships the god Tash with such fervor that Aslan says he’s really been worshipping him, Aslan, all along. Uh, what? Devotion to a cruel, foul devourer of sentient beings, if strong and single-minded enough, can be taken as devotion to a creative being of love? Lewis seems to be trying to make a point about the essence beneath the superficial cultural trappings of religion, but I don’t think it works. Plus it smacks of tokenism, with one good Calormene hardly outweighing the rest who are uniformly depicted as evil invaders.
Lewis’s strongest disapprobation appears to be reserved for those do not believe in anything, like the Talking Beasts and Calormenes who cynically deceive the other Narnians with their false “Tashlan,” and the Dwarfs who blind themselves to the beauty and spaciousness of the real (inner) world, shutting themselves up in a prison of the mind. These are grievous handicaps indeed, but also need more of a process to address what is really behind them.
Then there are the logical questions. Such as, when Eustace and Jill are in the train accident, why do they go to the shadow Narnia instead of the “real” Narnia, and why are they not ghosts there? Other characters seem to enter the real, non-shadow world without actually dying, including Tirian, who finds himself there when he simply walks through the stable door. This line is very fuzzily drawn, and while Lewis might contend that Aslan can transcend the limits of logic, I find it a weakness in the narrative.
Overall, it would take another whole post to address my thoughts about Lewis’s picture of the spiritual journey and its end, to take up questions of the real nature of faith, discipleship, and belief. Narnia was a very important starting place for me in this regard, but now appears quite limited and unsatisfactory in many ways. At some point I might want to post some detailed discussion of this, or I might continue to just mull it over in my own head.
In general, I would say that for me, in The Last Battle the immensity of what Lewis is trying to say through a children’s story finally overwhelms the framework he has chosen to deal with it. Topics that are complex and multifaceted are given a cursory, black-and-white sort of treatment that does not do them justice. This need not be the case in a fairy tale, which is perfectly capable of conveying great and complex truths through simple, powerful images, but when moralizing and personal vendettas begin to poke through the sheath of the story, it deals death to its inner, spiritual life.
I noticed this time that The Last Battle is the only one of the Narnia books that actually has an adult protagonist. The central figure is really Tirian, who, we are explicitly told when introduced to him, is the last king of Narnia. It is the story of his disillusionment, of how he has to come to terms with the evil that has crept into the heart of his land, not this time from without, through evil witches from other worlds, but instigated by his own Narnian subjects. The foreign invaders in the shape of the Calormenes could not have entered, without this treachery.
And what response does Tirian make? At first, with a hotheaded bloodletting, then by submitting to being imprisoned as a penance for his dishonorable act. In this helpless position, tied to a tree, he reaches out to Aslan, calling for help from the children who have saved Narnia in the past. He receives this help, in the form of Eustace and Jill, but unlike in the mirror-story of Prince Caspian, even they cannot help him to save Narnia. They can only be instructed in his code of honor and chivalry, given tips as to how to behave when your cause is hopeless, how to treat even your enemies with respect, how to keep your blade clean and your arrow string dry.
Then comes the eucatastrope, the defeat that turns out to be a gateway to a truer, richer life. Fighting with honor in this life leads to reward in the next, with love for Aslan as the deciding factor. Lewis, who called himself the Last Western Man, no doubt felt embattled in a way similar to Tirian, fending off the evils of unbelief, cynicism, materialism, and so-called “progress” that were creeping into his beloved Oxford and the world. The book was completed in 1953, when he was in the midst of a troublesome time in his career, as factions that did not appreciate his popular writing and open Christian stance were working to keep him from advancement and the financial security he still lacked. This led to him leaving Oxford for a position at Cambridge in 1954, perhaps the result of his own “last battle.”
I wonder whether Lewis killed off his characters so firmly in Battle not so much to make a theological point as to ensure he could stop writing Narnia stories. Writing the series had accompanied him through quite a rough period in his life, and now he wanted to move on.
But there was to be a further, very surprising development in the remaining decade of Lewis’s life, transformed by love and marriage to a woman some of his acquaintance demonized as a sort of witch, while others sentimentalized their story to suit popular tastes (as in the play and film Shadowlands). I would look for the real effects of this relationship in his work. From the shallowness of The Last Battle, Lewis progressed to the much more profound and complex treatment of love, death, and faith, Till We Have Faces — his own favorite of his novels, and mine too. If the end of the Narniathon has left you with a feeling of disappointment or letdown, this might restore some of the magic.
There is also a readalong of Katherine Langrish’s From Spare Oom To War Drobe to look forward to. I will eagerly anticipate revisiting all of the books once more, from the point of view of another fan and fantasy writer.
How were you struck by the end of Narnia? (Well, the end of the books at any rate.)
17 thoughts on “#Narniathon21: The Last King of Narnia”
I don’t recall ever being that fond of this book – and in fact looking back now I think it was probably my least favourite. I suspect Lewis had painted himself into a corner a bit and had to get his message across and finalise the saga in one book. So not my favourite…
You are not alone!
I love your reasoned post, I had loads of problems with TLB, as I’ve detailed a bit in my own post on it. I’ve ordered a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Susan story to see what he does with her. While she did get treated unfairly by the others – I can remember the day that I came home, took down all my David Cassidy posters and gave them and the albums to a friend – replacing them with David Bowie, which was my own way of losing faith in a way. Ziggy rather than make-up for me!
I was not wild about Gaiman’s take, though well-written of course it was too dark and gritty for me. What I want to know is how Susan could come back to the joy and wonder of Narnia following her adventures in the adult world, which is what keeps us all coming back to the books after all, isn’t it? I’ve not come across anything like that so far.
One does go through phases in adolescence, tries out enthusiasms to later be discarded … that should not be seen as a bad thing!
I always wanted to know the opposite – how the Pevensies reacclimatized on their return from Narnia to being children again after becoming adults in Narnia.
Also a good question!
What a fantastically detailed, thoughtful, critical but balanced post, Lory, in which you voice many of my own feelings (and more!) while expressing them so much better than I could.
Going off at a slight tangent, at your urging and others’ too I’ve ordered a copy of Till We Have Faces from the bookshop which should arrive soon, and with luck I’ll get to it before too long!
I too love how well you expressed your thoughts here. I did read this title aloud to the girlies, but I admit I don’t remember much. Oh, we listened to it during car trips. I am not as versed on the YA Lewis titles or British classic fantasy (I picked it later in life, as a homeschooling mom and adopted American adult), so I was pulled in 100 worthy different directions, LOL, trying to read classics, American, British, worldwide classics…but in the process I became a fun of Lewis, and specially his Christian bent titles like the memorable Screwtape letters, The Great Divorce, his essays, and since I have friends who absolutely adore his Perelandra trilogy AND Till We Have Faces, I read the last one of Perelandra, -what’s that title?, and Till we… and I must say I enjoyed Till we… the most but I am curious to see if what a reread will offer. I am glad you will read it because your review of it, is something I look forward to for sure.
A fan. Sorry for the mistake, you can edit it if you want.
I actually reread it last year but didn’t write a full post … here’s my Goodreads review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4054242499
Thanks for linking to your review, Lory, I’m even more intrigued now. My copy has just arrived at the bookshop, so I hope it has the same cover as yours as it’s in the same style as some of the Robertson Davies covers I’ve seen!
I do hope it lives up to my praise after I’ve been plugging it for so long! But I’m pretty confident you will find it worthwhile.
So glad my musings have resonated with you. I am so grateful for the readalong and all you’ve shared yourself this half year, it’s been an absolute delight. Glad there is still one more month to go before we have to say goodbye to Narnia.
I loved what you said here: “the immensity of what Lewis is trying to say through a children’s story finally overwhelms the framework he has chosen to deal with it.” – I think that’s very right and why it doesn’t work. I’ve always been frightened by this one since I was a lonely child wanting the good things in books to stay the same way forever … !
Yes, it was quite a brutal way to wrap things up in the end, wasn’t it? I do understand the trajectory of the whole series better if I look at it in the order of writing and consider what was going on in Lewis’s life at the time. 1953 was not an easy year for him! And next time I would like to end with the life-giving fruit of Magician’s Nephew, the last book that he completed.
As a child, I found this disturbing, although more for (and I don’t have my book nearby) “The holidays are over” and the end of Narnia than for the brutal treatment of other characters. However, your review reminds me of a lot that I *should* have found disturbing. I am afraid Lewis’ condescension to other religions/beliefs re Emeth is his attempt to be gracious and broadminded so that is also disturbing.
I did not feel as bad about Susan as I should have because I thought giving up on Narnia meant she deserved to be left out. There were other books (Katie John) where becoming boy crazy too young was also portrayed as bad, so it did not seem unreasonable to me then, but now I am more indignant on her behalf.
I was away from my books in June but catching up now.
As a child reading I confess that I wasn’t that bothered about Susan either. The girls my age who became preoccupied with boys and lipstick were unpleasant to be around, and I didn’t particularly want them in Narnia. I also didn’t see Lewis as condemning Susan utterly and forever, and figured she could always have a chance to change her priorities and come back. What now disturbs me most is her siblings’ callous reaction; they don’t seem to care about her at all!
I was intrigued by the idea of the real Narnia and didn’t see it as the end, although it was a pity that there would be no further stories to read. Probably set me looking harder for more ways to enter that world — and fortunately there are lots of other books with their own gateways into it.