For many readers The Last Battle in C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is either a triumph or a letdown. I’ve already given some of my thoughts on its successes and failures in a review, and intend later to look at Lewis’s vision of the world of Narnia as depicted in the previous six chronicles, before going on to that final Narnia which is further up and further in.
Lewis as usual draws his imagery and his themes from several sources: the Bible – of course – but also from myth and medieval cosmology, from history and archaeology, and from his favourite reading in childhood as well as academia.
In this post I intend discussing the aspects that naturally interest me, leaving those points that interest readers with a theological bent for them to expound on. In a future post, along with the several Narnias I’d like to examine the issue of the Pevensie child who never returned to Narnia and hopefully come to some conclusions regarding Susan; but now I want to consider Puzzle, Tash, and the end of Narnia.
Puzzle and Tash
First I want to draw attention to two images I think may have influenced Lewis when writing The Last Battle. The first is a famous graffito from the early Christian centuries discovered in Rome in the 19th century scratched on plaster: it depicts a crucified figure with a donkey’s head being acknowledged by a male figure. An accompanying Greek caption can be translated as ‘Alexamenos worships (his) god’ and is usually interpreted as expressing a parody of Christian beliefs.
It’s very tempting to speculate that Lewis knew of this graffito (or, rather, sgraffito) when he has Shift the ape clothe Puzzle the donkey in a lion’s skin for the latter to impersonate Aslan. For in both scenarios we have a demiurge (Jesus as Son of God, and Aslan as son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea) misrepresented as an animal in disguise (a crucified victim with an ass’s head, and a talking donkey sewn into a lion skin). Is it possible that Lewis not only knew of Alexamenos and his god but then deliberately made a connection between that ass’s head and Puzzle clothed in the likeness of another creator of worlds?
The second image I want to consider is of one of the several apkallū (‘wise men’ or ‘sages’), demigods often characterised as demons, whose bas-reliefs on gypsum panels adorned the walls of the palace of Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud in Mesopotamia. Several of these were removed by archaeologists and placed in various museums around the world, including the Brooklyn Museum, the British Museum and Bristol Museum.
One of the reliefs in Bristol Museum shows what’s there called a griffin-demon, a winged being with the head of a bird of prey. This apkalle holds a pinecone to sprinkle or asperge a magical substance from a bucket. The demon forcefully reminds me of Lewis’s Calormene god Tash, called into existence by the Calormene invaders of Narnia. Granted, there are several differences: Tash has four arms, not two, and his legs as well as arms aren’t human-like but end in claws. Interestingly, though, Tash’s head has the same curved beak and crest as the Assyrian apkalle, a crest often found on representations of griffins (and thus probably the justification for Bristol calling their apkalle figure a griffin-demon).
And here it might be as well to recall the ancient concept of the griffin or gryphon. Traditionally this mythical creature s depicted with the head, wings and talons of an eagle, with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; it’s thus a chimaeric figure, half bird of prey, half lion, a visualisation perhaps of the abomination Shift calls Tashlan. The griffin, I speculate, is Lewis’s model for Tashlan, in the same way as the griffin-demon apkalle is the inspiration for Tash. (The Narnian eagle who spies and fights for Tirian, by the way, is called Farsight; not I suspect just because of every eagle’s keen vision but probably because it serves as a learned reference to Prometheus, whose name means ‘foresight’.)
Now I come to the climax of The Last Battle, in which the aftermath of conflict and destruction is also the crux of Lewis’s conception of Narnia. Aftermath originally meant a second crop sown after harvesting the first (‘after’ + math, ‘mowing’); but unlike consecutive sowings the new Narnia beyond the stable door is of an infinitely different order to the Narnia we’ve known through seven books.
Now, there is no doubt that Lewis drew much of his imagery for the destruction of Narnia and what led up to it from the New Testament. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus, speaking on Mount of Olives, prophesies
“For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers place. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken…”Matthew 24
Luke (chapter 21) describes something similar. Revelations meanwhile has the expected apocalyptic vision:
And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring. […] And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.
For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty. […] And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.
These biblical images fed into Chapter 14 of The Last Battle, ‘ Night falls in Narnia’: after the false Aslan and the fight between the Calormenes and those loyal to Narnia come first blackness seen through the Doorway, then falling stars, creatures like dragons and lizards and leathery winged birds crawling into the doomed landscape, a roaring tidal wave then covering the face of the land, the death throes of the moon and sun. The giant called Saturn or Cronus (Time, as he’s called here, properly Chronos) brings all that pertained to Narnia to an end before the stable door is closed against its utter desolation.
But this is not the end of the story, nor of Lewis’s magpie tendencies. As a child “the Norse myths and sagas became his dearest literary loves,” so it’s natural that Ragnarök, the myth of the Twilight of the Gods, also finds its echo in Narnia’s destruction. As a modern epitome describes it,
War was abroad through the world. […] Sun and moon are each swallowed by two wolves[…]; the foundations of the earth and the world-tree tremble, the stars fall, the mountains come crashing down; the Midhgardh-serpent rises from the raging sea and spreads over the earth[…]. In Voluspa it further states that a supreme god, above the Aesir, will reveal himself and rule for all eternity, and the blessed shall dwell in Gimlé, a hall fairer than the sun, the highest abode of light, and the dragon of darkness will be for ever sunk in the abyss.Edwardes and Spence, 1912:146-7
And of course after the Door to the old destroyed Narnia is closed, the way is open for all the saved to go to the smooth green hill that turns out to be, as the prayer goes, the “world without end.” This English phrase is a rough rendering of the Latin in saecula saeculorum – there’s an equivalent phrase in Greek -– which literally means “unto the eons of eons.” In English it’s commonly rendered as “world without end” maybe because the word “secular”, which derives from the Latin saeculum, “an age”, has instead come to mean worldly, or of this world, or even irreligious.
Lewis I think plays heavily on the new and ‘real’ Narnia being a conflation of Time as well as Space and thus transcending both. “Time there is not like time here,” writes Lewis; and when those who are saved look down at what seems a miniature world (almost as when we regard a reflected image in a camera obscura) Lucy marvels at seeing “world within world, Narnia within Narnia” – and this time I’m reminded of mirrors reflecting mirrors forever, into infinity.
It’s a bold, imaginative vision which Lewis thus offers us at the conclusion of the Narniad, although it doesn’t and won’t ever satisfy everyone.
And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.
Shanna Caughey. 2005. Revisiting Narnia. Fantasy, Myth and Religion in C S Lewis’ Chronicles. Benbella Books, Inc.
Marian Edwardes and Lewis Spence. 1912. A Dictionary of Non-Classical Mythology. Everyman’s Library, J M Dent & Sons and E P Dutton & Co.
C S Lewis. 1956. The Last Battle. Puffin Books, 1965.
Mary Frances Zambreno. 2005. ‘A Reconstructed Image: Medieval Time and Space in The Chronicles of Narnia,’ in Caughey 2005:253-266.
I will have more to say about this instalment in a future #Narniathon21 post, including my thoughts on the so-called ‘problem of Susan’