The Last Battle: A Story for Children
by C S Lewis,
Illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books, 1964 (1956)
Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.16: ‘Farewell to Shadowlands’
A bitter disappointment or a valedictory farewell? A heavy-handed religious allegory or an exciting yarn embellished by an array of symbols and motifs? A betrayal of the reader’s innocent trust or a fitting conclusion to a saga that could only end one way after much signposting? The Last Battle is all these and more, though depending on the reader’s point of view they may lean more towards the former assessments than the latter.
What’s clear to me though is that my second read of this final instalment of the Narniad has adjusted my previous attitude to both it and the entire sequence, leading to a more charitable judgement; that’s not to say that there aren’t infelicities and missteps – the prejudicial racial stereotypes being the most obvious – but any fair review would also point out the positives, of which there are many.
The upshot of this re-evaluation is that The Last Battle can be seen as not just an amalgam of the Apocalypse, Ragnarök, Götterdämmerung, Armageddon and the end of the Golden Age ruled by Cronos or Saturn: it also reflects the attributes of the twins Epimetheus and Prometheus (“Hindsight” and “Foresight”) in that it looks back to all that had gone before as well as anticipating what is to come.
Like Prince Caspian and The Horse and His Boy this story begins in Narnia, not on Earth. Shift is an ape, his name belying his shifty nature, Puzzle is a donkey who’s easily bamboozled by Shift. The crafty ape has been secretly treating with the Calormenes to infiltrate Narnia before conquering it, and sees Puzzle as a stooge to advance his own plans. Clothing the donkey in a discarded lion skin he declares Aslan the Lion has returned and appointed Shift as his mouthpiece.
Meanwhile young King Tirian and the unicorn Jewel, who are travelling in the West of Narnia, hear rumours of Aslan’s return and, more worryingly, of the mistreatment of Narnian talking beasts and others. After rashly intervening the pair are captured and badly treated; when he then calls on Aslan Tirian gets a vision of seven figures around a table.
The seven, we soon realise, are all individuals we’ve met before – Polly, Digory, Jill, Eustace, Peter, Edmund and Lucy – and with Tirian, Jewel and sundry others they become involved in that final conflict that will result in a great flood that destroys the Narnia they’ve always known. But all is not lost: our author Lewis is a demiurge and thus able to write a new world into existence, just as Aslan sang one into being in The Magician’s Nephew.
Lewis is utterly transparent about his Christian symbolism and underlying meaning, but even if he wasn’t we soon recognise his handiwork with, for example, the centrality of a stable in the narrative, covert allusions to the Good Thief and the Prodigal Son in the person of the Calormene who acknowledges Aslan, or the Caldron Pool which serves as baptismal font for those who enter it.
But more powerful for me than these admittedly puissant symbols is the poetic way Lewis invites us to observe the celestial nature of the real Narnia “within”, the one which questers can attain by travelling further up and further in, the walled garden where, as Tumnus the Faun says, “The inside is bigger than the outside.” Lewis’s visionary evocation of this real Narnia is, I think, the true core of this story, more than the petty dealing of Shift, the duplicity of Narnia’s enemies, the blindness of those like the dwarfs who chose not to see.
For in truth this is the eternal magic of Narnia, outshining the gloom of the Shadowlands we inhabit, the birthright of every person who possesses a boundless imagination and allows their spirit free rein to go where it will.
“The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”Aslan
As before, I will have much more to say about this chronicle than can be contained in a short review, though I’ve already alluded to a lot of the themes and motifs I hope to explore.