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.)