The Great Narnia Re-read of 2019: “The Last Battle”

The Great Narnia Re-read of 2019: “The Last Battle”

The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia

I love apocalypses. I love world-ending, sky-shattering, history-breaking stories. And I applaud C.S. Lewis for delivering the creation of his Narnian universe, and its end, not as tales told second-hand or as something to be puzzled out based on clues, but in actual volumes of story — something I haven’t encountered very often in other fantasy works. So let’s talk about the Narnian apocalypse, shall we?

The Beginning of the End of Narnia

Shift instructs Puzzle to retrieve a donkey skin.
Shift instructs Puzzle to retrieve a donkey skin.

Unlike the rest of the Chronicles, The Last Battle starts out in Narnia itself. Its opening chapter focuses on the oddball couple, Shift the Ape and Puzzle the Donkey. Shift is mentally abusive toward Puzzle, repeatedly convincing him that he, the Ape, is smarter, and that Puzzle’s value comes only in doing what he’s told. Even after a thunderclap and small earthquake, Puzzle knows they’re “doing something dreadfully wicked,” and demands that Shift “take this wretched skin off me at once.”

“You know you don’t understand these things,” Shift tells him. “What could a donkey know about signs?”

The opening acts of Narnia’s apocalypse seem to lack oomph, at least when compared with what one would expect for an end of the world tale. The major conflicts — the sacking of Cair Paravel, the infiltration of the Calormenes — all happen off screen. Instead, we are introduced to King Tirian and his beloved friend, the unicorn Jewel, who are off on a hunting trip in the west of Narnia. I suppose Lewis intended to highlight how the End hardly comes when one is prepared for it. It comes when one least expects it, when all around people are saying “peace and safety,” yet they’re a hair’s breadth from destruction. If so, then Lewis did his job a bit too well. Tirian and Jewel are sidelined almost immediately and forced to call on help from the Friends of Narnia.

The Last Battle has been called the least of the Narnia chronicles. But, I think we must consider that maybe the story itself isn’t bad as much as the supposedly heroic Narnian characters seem to be, well, meh (at least starting out). And maybe that was Lewis’ point: perhaps he wanted to show how the Narnians had grown complacent and how the villains of the story could get over on them so easily. For all the nobleness and beauty of Tirian and Jewel, they were away from their post in a time of crisis. I don’t begrudge a king his vacation. But how might things have turned out differently if Tirian had been at Cair? Or if Narnia’s spycraft had so improved that they could detect something was up with the Calormenes a bit sooner?

Tirian, Jewel, and Roonwit
Tirian, Jewel, and Roonwit

I’ve always been troubled by the chapter, “The Rashness of the King.” It seems Lewis condemns his protagonist for thinking, rash as it may be, that he and Jewel make haste to Lantern Waste and start setting things aright after hearing the dreadful news that the talking trees are being murdered by Calormenes. When they arrive and witness the Calormenes beating a Talking Horse, they fly into a rage and kill two of the Calormenes only to hear for the second time that all this is being done by Aslan’s orders. In the next chapter, after fleeing the Calormenes, Tirian confesses to his friend, “We have done a dreadful deed… To leap on them unawares — without defying them while they were unarmed. We are two murderers, Jewel. I am dishonoured forever.”

Tirian, oh, Tirian. Poor, sweet-hearted king. It appears Tirian, despite his rage and rashness, does not recognize the hard times that have come upon him. While I admire his heart and nobleness, I feel things would have come out better for the Narnians if Tirian and Jewel had made their escape, signaled to their allies that awful deeds were afoot, and called out their armies in preparation for war. Or, better yet, he should have heeded Roonwit’s advice and not immediately run to Lantern Waste at all. *Sigh.* If Narnia were Westeros, Tirian would long ago have been put out of the running for the Iron Throne.

Theme and Spiritual Motifs

Recovery/restoration is the theme of The Last Battle. As Shift’s deception perpetuates, the Narnian creatures must come to grips with the idea that the Aslan they have believed in is either non-existent or is greatly different from what the history books say. All of the Narnians want to get back to the way things were — or the way they thought things were. They want the old Aslan.

The Narnian creatures find it all hard to take in.
The Narnian creatures find it all hard to take in.

Unfortunately, many of the Narnians fall prey to Shift’s scheme. After seeing the blasphemous concoction of Puzzle in a lion skin and hearing the pronouncements of Shift and Rishda Tarkaan, they are led to believe that they have done something to offend Aslan and that the injustices happening in their land are Aslan’s way of expressing his displeasure.

Others, like those annoying dwarves, decide to leave the faith altogether. They want nothing more to do with Aslan, Tashlan, Calormene overlords, or their own Narnian king. “The dwarves are for the dwarves.”

Those who remain — Tirian, Jewel, Eustace, Polly, and their few allies — hold fast to a set of internal values (as there’s nothing external to confirm them at the moment) and decide to accept whatever adventure Aslan sends them. Once they find out that Shift’s Aslan is just a donkey in a skin, they know that their faith is not misplaced and decide that, unless further evidence turns up, they will live under the shadow of the Aslan they know and love though the stars fall. (And, friend, the stars do fall.)

“Here stand I, Tirian of Narnia, in Aslan’s name, to prove with my body that Tash is a foul fiend, the Ape a manifold traitor, and these Calormenes worthy of death. To my side, all true Narnians. Would you wait till your new masters have killed you all one by one?”

"There goes one who has called on gods he does not believe in. How will it be with him if they have really come?"
“There goes one who has called on gods he does not believe in. How will it be with him if they have really come?”

The Narnians’ different reactions to the Tashlan business provide an interesting complement to the climax of The Silver Chair. While the Green Witch threatened Eustace, Jill, Puddleglum, and Rillian with the idea that maybe, just maybe, the Aslan they said they believed in wasn’t real, here in The Last Battle, the last Narnians stare into the mirror of that conundrum as they are faced with the actual possibility that what they have believed about Aslan is all wrong.

Can’t you see the parallels to our world today? (Maybe C.S. Lewis saw these parallels in his own time, too.) Suppose that Narnia represents the modern church (primarily in the West). Many believers have fallen prey to oppressive, legalistic doctrine that holds none of the beauty, love, mystery, and freedom of the true Christian faith. Like the Narnian beasts at Stable Hill, many believers have given themselves up to condemnation because of manipulative spiritual leaders who act as gatekeepers to God. Still others — and statistics bear this out, especially among the young — have decided to leave the faith altogether (or at least for a while). Like the dwarves, they want nothing more to do with religious institutions and decide upon self-centered spiritual paths. And then there are those (like Tirian & Co.) who strive to remain committed to Jesus, and walk in the way of love as much as they are able, but they lack the deep well of support and confirmation that comes from an established faith community.

The final, dreadful battle
The final, dreadful battle

We are all Narnians living in the last days it seems. Deep down, we know something’s not quite right. We are seeking the real Jesus, but we live in a time when there are many “false Christs” among us. How much better would The Last Battle have turned out for the Narnians if someone had warned them, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is Aslan!’ or ‘There he is,’ do not believe it. For false Aslans and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders that would deceive even the elect, if that were possible” (Matthew 24:23-24)?

I think what happens to those dwarves in the Stable should serve as a warning to those who abandon all faith when they find that something is wrong with what they have believed. The dwarves’ obstinance renders them unable to see the light once it is shining blatantly in their faces. You see, the dwarves stopped seeking. They closed their eyes and their hearts to the idea of belief. They thought that needing a god, a king, a lion to lead them, made them vulnerable. But it’s only when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable that we are able to embrace our God, our King, our Lion when we meet Him.

And why mustn’t we lose heart? Because the restoration of Narnia is brought about by Aslan himself. All of the creatures who sought the truth, including Emeth, lived through the destruction of the world they knew. They had everything taken away. They faltered in their faith. They were taken in by deceivers. They found themselves doing and thinking that which they thought they would never do or think. They did what they thought was right with the knowledge they had.

But they never stopped thinking. They never stopped wondering. They never stopped trying to understand. They never closed their hearts to the possibility — far-fetched as it seemed at times — that the Narnia they believed in was real and could be saved.

Dare I say it? They wanted the truth — whether it be Aslan, Tashlan, or Tash.

And when the end came, and they had to gaze into Aslan’s eyes, those who never stopped believing found their faith — and their doubts — rewarded. All their seeking, all their struggle was washed away as they entered Narnia — the true and real Narnia that had been their hearts’ desire whether they could articulate it or not. All that they had lost on one side of the Stable door was restored ten-fold on the other.

The Glory of the End of Narnia

He raised his head and roared, “Now it is time!” then louder, “Time!”; then so loud that it could have shaken the stars, “TIME.”

Like I said, I love apocalypses. And chapters like “Night Falls On Narnia” are the reason why. I get chills every time I read it. (And whatever flaws you might find in the beginning of TLB, from chapter ten onward, you’ll find some of C.S. Lewis’ finest writing.)

Aslan calls Narnia to its end.
Aslan calls Narnia to its end.

It is hard to describe the effect “Night Falls” has. But if you are familiar with C.S. Lewis’ writing in general, you will know that he excels at expressing broad complexities in simple, graspable terms, while somehow preserving the denseness of the subject matter. That is what happens in this chapter. The scale and grandeur of the end of the Narnian world is fully expressed without being exhausted. The chapter lacks for nothing but somehow leaves you wanting more.

The wonder and terror of it all! Emptiness pouring out above the sky, vaulting the stars from their lofty positions — all those creatures from lands farther south than Calormen, farther west than Telmar, farther north than Harfang, rushing to meet Aslan and to be judged by him — the sea, loosed from its bonds, gobbling up the earth — the giant Time reaching out and squelching the sun.

And then the wild, wild rush further up and further in. It is too awful and wonderful for words. Somehow, all of the disparate mythologies that C.S. Lewis drew on to build his Narnian world come together in one final, sudden, stunning blow.

Misc.

What happened to "once a king or queen of Narnia..."?
What happened to “once a king or queen of Narnia…”?

One thing I did not discuss above is The Problem of Susan. Like most, I was shocked when I read for the first time that Susan was no longer a Friend of Narnia. But I would have to write a whole other post to deal with that. And others have dealt with it far better than I could here, and here, and here.

I’m also not entirely sure Lewis answered the question: what happens in our world if a human plucked out of it were to die in Narnia? I mean, we know what happens to the Friends of Narnia. But what about the Pevensies’ parents who died in the train crash? They left the shadow earth (our world) and found themselves in the real earth which is connected to Aslsn’s Country as all worlds are. But what if they had been left alive in our shadow world? I’m guessing there wouldn’t have been bodies of their children to bury, and that would have been strange.