Fifty years ago today (November 22, 1963) C. S. Lewis died. In the week leading up to this anniversary, I’ve written a series of posts related to what I consider (if I may be permitted to characterize seven volumes as a single work) his magnum opus, the inimitable Chronicles of Narnia. In these seven posts, I have commemorated his life and work.
The final volume in Lewis’s stories for children, The Last Battle, begins in the land of Narnia with two characters. The first one Lewis introduces is Shift, an ape who disavows his species, insisting instead: “I’m a Man.”
Shift’s “friend” (who was “more like Shift’s servant”) is a dull but well-meaning donkey named Puzzle. The author’s choice in naming these two characters portends the ominous shift occurring in Narnia itself, a shift that confounds (puzzles) true Narnians.In one of the online reviews available at goodreads.com, a reader comments that this story was “difficult” to read and quickly becomes “utterly depressing.” I think the reader expresses the exact emotions Lewis wished to convey. This is no longer the Narnia of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The semi-idyllic world into which the Pevensie children were whisked at a time of crisis (and subsequently whisked away) has descended into unalterable chaos. The markers are everywhere: Fauns no longer dance, Dwarves have become Aslan skeptics, and “gloom and fear reigned over Narnia.”
Subtle references in this volume suggest (to me anyway) that Lewis was describing parallels he observed on the political landscape of his time (and ours?). Shift condemns the Talking Beasts for their eagerness to complete their tasks in order to “be free again.” Rather, he claims Aslan has ordered them to go to work for the Calormenes. “Everybody who can work is going to be made to work in the future.” Wages will “be paid in to Aslan’s treasury and he will use it all for everybody’s good.” When the Talking Beasts again reference freedom, Shift redefines the term: “True freedom means doing what I tell you.”
Lewis served in World War I and was wounded. He lived in England during World War II. The Cold War was at its fiercest in the years Lewis was writing the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis wasn’t a politician, nor ignorant of this era, nor did he write in a vacuum.
When Puzzle admits he’s been duped, he echoes a convenient war-time excuse, “I only did what I was told.” When Shift asserts “Tash and Aslan are only two different names for you know Who” and others quickly concur, the statement foreshadows a subsequent conversation in which a conspiring Narnian says “what we both meant today … there’s no such person as either,” and the Calormene responds, “All who are enlightened know that.” Antagonism of Cold War regimes toward religious belief is hardly more evident than these fictional characters describe.
These statements have barely escaped the speakers’ lips before Tash actually appears! This creature of unbelievable stench with the head of a bird, four arms, twenty fingers tipped with long “pointed bird-like claws,” and “a cruel, curved beak” has come to claim his followers. Presciently, Farsight the Eagle (a true Narnian Talking Beast) suggests mockers of Tash will be terribly surprised to have “called on gods [they don’t] believe in. How will it be … if they have really come?”
I think it’s important to at least mention Philip Pullman‘s criticism that Lewis’s Narnia series “celebrates death.” (In the end of The Last Battle, the human characters have all died and been welcomed as citizens of Aslan’s country.) Certainly, in children’s literature portraying death is a gamble (though not completely verboten); children generally cherish their fictional characters and grieve when one dies. An author who risks bringing his characters’ demise may indeed alienate young readers.
As I understand Pullman’s complaint (from a 1998 article of The Guardian), he vigorously faults Lewis (in essence) for laziness, that is, for “killing off” the Narnia characters to resolve a “narrative problem.” Pullman describes this as “propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology.” (These quotes come from the footnotes in Michael Ward’s superb book, Planet Narnia. I was unable to source the original comments on The Guardian website.)
From some authors, I’d be more likely to listen to this kind of criticism, but Pullman’s hostility to all things Narnia and all things Lewis convince me otherwise.
Furthermore, based on my many readings of the Narniad, I vehemently disagree with Pullman’s assessment. In my view, the deaths of the human Narnia characters … as well as the “death” of Narnia itself … wholly validate the Lewis vision. The congruency − based in Lewis’s creative conception, start to finish, for this fictional work − demands this conclusion over all others. Because Lewis’s vision has theological implications, Pullman objects. Objection duly noted and dismissed.
I’ve already referenced the death of Narnia. Farsight the Eagle says, “noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.” Even with that epitaph, Lewis devotes almost a hundred pages to bid Narnia a proper adieu. That goodbye proceeds in a solemn, but purposeful destruction of Narnia and continues when the Lion escorts the humans and Talking Beasts into Aslan’s country. Lucy mourns. Tirian considers it would be a “great discourtesy if we did not mourn.”
As they enter Aslan’s country (the new Narnia), they move from mourning to rejoicing. The Unicorn sums up what everyone feels: “I have come home at last! … This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”
On the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death, he himself has completed the journey “further up and further in” to where “every chapter is better than the one before.”
Home at last.