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Tag: The Last Battle

Ranking The Chronicles of Narnia, Part 8: Concluding Thoughts

Way back in April, I mentioned that I had begun reading The Chronicles of Narnia during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was a great choice for several reasons. The familiar stories provided comfort in a time of anxiety, the imaginative world of Narnia provided helpful distraction from reality, and the series’s central focus on Aslan helped to re-orient me from fear to trust.

As I read through the books, I enjoyed them so much that I decided to write about them. I had actually wanted to do so for years, and I thought it would be a lot of fun to rank the different books and write a post or two to summarize my thoughts.

It turned into a much larger project than I first intended.

The first post was about 1,500 words, but each subsequent post grew longer and longer, like the books in the Harry Potter series. The post reviewing The Last Battle was over 4,000 words long, and the entire series is some 22,000 words. The posts got longer because I began to focus more on details of the books, and especially on the theology presented in each one. That also meant that to took me much longer to write the different posts: while there was a gap of about a week between Part 1 and Part 2, Part 7 came about six weeks after Part 6 (which was ridiculous).

Summarizing all of those posts, my rankings basically break the Narnia books down into three tiers:

The Masterpieces

For my money, LWWVDTand HHB represent the top three Narnia books, in that order. But, they are so close that I have a hard time being dogmatic about that. The next time I read through the series, they could easily shuffle places.

LWW is so good, and has no real weaknesses; it had the highest or tied-for-highest sub-score in three of the four rubric categories (Story, Characters, Theology). VDT didn’t peak as highly, but similarly had no weaknesses. HHB was the best book in the series for the first three categories (Story, Characters, Worldcraft), but was a notch below in Theology, which moved it from first to third.

Solidly Great

LB is really good as well. It doesn’t have any real weak points, but its highs are not quite as high as the top tier, and the lows are a little lower. I would disagree with anyone who argued that it is the best book of the series, but still, it represents a fitting and satisfying end to the Narnia chronicles.

Good But Flawed

According to my rubric, PC and SC scored very similarly, with only a half-point separating the two. Both books have good elements, but are also flawed. The stories are somewhat slow, the theology is not as good as several of the other books, and neither book is truly excellent in any category.

But again, these books suffer from being compared unfavorably to some truly brilliant books; they are still worth reading.

The Unnecessary Prequel

There’s no way around it: I am not a big fan of MNThe story really drags, the characters aren’t very compelling, and even though the creation account prompts some good theological reflection, overall, this book is a big step below all others in the series.

It’s not a terrible book, but as I said in the review for MN:

It is a classic prequel in the negative sense: you care about the story because you are already invested in the world in which it exists; if you actually read the prequel first, you wouldn’t understand what was so great about the series and may not even be inclined to continue.”

Thankfully, Lewis didn’t write this one first.

Here are the scores for all the books; highest scores in a given category are in yellow.


This concludes our Ranking Narnia series; I hope you have enjoyed it! Although I had not originally planned to review the books at this level, this series turned out to be a lot of fun to write, and the theological reflection it prompted for me was meaningful and encouraging.

These reviews have helped me develop an even deeper fondness for the Narnia series; I expect that I will be reading them again!


Check out the full series of posts:

Ranking The Chronicles of Narnia, Part 7: The Last Battle

For a few months now, I have been ranking the different volumes of C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia. So far, I have covered The Magician’s NephewThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy, Prince CaspianThe Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair.

To evaluate each book, I am using a rubric with four different categories: story, characters, worldcraft, and theology. For each category, I will provide a subscore of 1-10, yielding a cumulative maximum score of 40 points.

I have been following the chronological order of the books (even though I don’t consider that to be the best order in which to read the books), which means that this week, I will be ranking the final Narnia book, The Last Battle (LB). I plan to write one additional post to conclude the series.

The Last Battle

This is from a series of brilliant Narnia cover designs by Jeffrey Nguyen

Story

LB is the story of a coup d’état against Tirian, the last king of Narnia. Shift, a clever but wicked ape, comes across a lion skin floating in the water, and has his well-intentioned-but-dim-witted donkey companion Puzzle wear it and pretend to be Aslan, the Great Lion. “Aslan” is kept hidden away in a stable, Shift serves as his mouthpiece, and, in league with the Calormene warlord Rishda Tarkaan and the Talking Cat Ginger, deceives many of the Narnians into serving the Calormenes and cutting down Talking Trees for lumber.

Tirian and his friend Jewel, a unicorn, learn of the death of the Talking Trees and rush to intervene, ending up captured in the process. Shift and his compadres are now proclaiming the false message that Aslan and the Calormene god Tash are really one and the same (they begin referring to this syncretistic deity as “Tashlan”), and Tirian, seeing through the plot, calls out to Aslan for help. In response, Eustace and Jill (from VDT and SC) arrive in Narnia and, in quick succession, free the king and Jewel, and also find the hapless Aslan-impersonator Puzzle in the stable and allow him to join their company.

Things get worse for Tirian and his allies, as he learns that the Narnian army has been destroyed by invading Calormene troops and Cair Paravel has been taken. Worse still, they see the Calormene god Tash traveling north toward the stable, summoned unintentionally by Shift and Rishda. Driven by desperation, Tirian takes his small band of loyal followers to the stable to confront Shift and his associates and expose their deception. This sets up the climactic battle that gives LB its title: Narnians vs. Calormenes, the rightful king vs. the usurpers, Aslan vs. Tash.

To me, the primary weakness of LB’s storyline is that it just seems unthinkable that Shift’s simplistic plot could deceive so many Narnians and achieve such great success without Tirian having any clue what was going on until it was too late to do something about it. Lewis clearly needed a plot device to bring Narnia to its end, and although this particular one was somewhat unsatisfying, if you look beyond that, what remains is that LB is a poignant story of tragedy, beauty, and finally seeing the true nature of reality.

Story: 8/10

Characters

It seemed to me that there was a greater number of characters with significant roles in LB, and rather than try  to describe them all in detail, I will provide brief sketches of the different characters especially in the context of the groups in which they appear.

Tirian is the last king of Narnia, descendent of Caspian and Rilian. He is loyal to Aslan and loves his country, and although he is somewhat rash and hotheaded in his actions, he is also an excellent leader who shows courage, tactical skill, and concern for his allies. Of course, it should probably be mentioned that virtually the entirety of his subjects were fooled into supporting a coup d’état without his even being aware that it was happening, but there doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that this is due to a character fault on Tirian’s part (which, as pointed out above, is a weakness in the plot). Tirian’s best friend is Jewel the unicorn, a brave and loyal ally and fearsome warrior, who, like Tirian, is faithful to Aslan and willing to fight to the death for Narnia. Farsight the eagle is another member of Tirian’s small band of followers, and provides vital intelligence in the book as a scout as well as useful air support during the climactic battle.

Shift the Ape, Rishda Tarkaan, and Ginger the Talking Cat form a sort of unholy trinity that collaborates to oppress the Narnian population, make possible the Calormene conquest of Narnia, and, as a result, usher in the end of the world. Shift appears first, a clever and ancient ape who, motivated by his greed and lust for power, maneuvers his simple-minded “friend” Puzzle the donkey into impersonating Aslan and then, with the authority gained as “Aslan’s” spokesman, manipulates the talking animals of Narnia into serving himself and the battalion of disguided Calormene troops who have snuck into Narnia. As the farce continues, Shift begins to drink and increasingly becomes less in charge, as he himself is manipulated by Rishda Tarkaan, the captain of the Calormene contingent, and Ginger, the cunning cat. Really, though, it is hard to distinguish between the three characters: all seem to be motivated by greed and self-interest, and have no devotion to speak of, either toward Aslan or Tash. In fact, it is their religious pragmatism that leads to the construction of “Tashlan”, a blasphemous abomination that ultimately brings negative consequences for all three.

It seems worthwhile to also mention the Dwarfs, who play an important role in the story and also illustrate a theme that has been woven throughout the Narnia books: they represent extreme self-interest. When the climactic battle between Tirian and his forces and the Calormene invaders ensues, the Dwarfs don’t take sides (with the notable exception of Poggin, who joins Tirian), and instead attack both parties, saying that “the Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs”. Tirian is disappointed by their lack of support, but again, this is a thread that has been woven throughout the chronicles: in LWWDwarfs aided the White Witch in exchange for power, and in PCNikabrik was willing to ally himself with anyone who would bring about the end the Dwarfs desired. The Dwarfs are not devoted to Aslan, but to their own self-interests.

“Friends of Narnia” is the description given to the humans who entered Narnia as children and rendered great aid to it in times past: Professor Digory Kirke, Polly Plummer, Peter Pevensie, Edmund Pevensie, Eustace Scrubb, and Jill Pole (sadly, Susan Pevensie is no longer a “friend of Narnia” and thus, is not present[1]). These friends appear to Tirian in a vision when he calls out to Aslan for assistance, and then later, Jill and Eustace appear to free Tirian and Jewel and join them in the last battle for Narnia. Ultimately, Tirian gets to meet all of the Friends after he enters the Stable.

As in the other Narnia books, Aslan’s role in LB is limited in page count but of immense significance for the story.  When Aslan does appear late in the narrative, it is to bring about the death of the old Narnia, the birth of the new, and the judgment of all creatures.

The characterization in LB is solid. Because of the sheer number of characters, we do not get to know them in as much depth as some of the characters from the other stories, but viewing them as groups with various responses to Aslan as I have tried to do above is, I think, a helpful way to reflect on their roles in the narrative.

Characters: 8.5/10

Worldcraft

In one respect, LB does not significantly expand the map of Narnia at all. The majority of the story takes place in the Northwest of Narnia, and while this is a new area, we are told so little about it that it is somewhat disappointing.

But the strength of LB is its depiction of the end of Narnia as it currently exists, and the transition to the fuller and realer Narnia. Repeatedly the characters are urged to go “further up and further in!” and as they do so, they find an exponentially increasing level of depth and beauty:

“Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden at all, but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the Stable door! I see…world within world, Narnia within Narnia…”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you go in and in, each cirlce is larger than the last.” (765)[2]

Really, the last five chapters of LB are an account of this great process of uncreation and recreation, and in terms of worldcraft, this is the high point of the book.

Worldcraft: 9/10

Theology

Fundamentally, LB is a book about eschatology; Lewis once summarized it as being about “the coming of the Antichrist (the Ape), the end of the world and the Last Judgement,”[3] and we will use those categories to reflect on the theology of LB.

Antichrist(s)

A great amount of ink has been spilt over the centuries seeking to interpret the Book of Revelation, and one particular interpretive method has been to suggest that a literal battle between the forces of good and evil  will precede the return of Jesus and the judgment of the world, and heading up the forces of evil will be the Antichrist. Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t actually teach this in Revelation at all, and the use of the word antichrist (always in 1-2 John) is probably better understood in a lowercase sense: those who deny the Father and the Son or who refuse to confess that Jesus came in the flesh are antichrists. 

I am not certain what Lewis believed about the Antichrist and futuristic cosmic battles, but I still think that LB captures an element of biblical truth when he portrays Shift’s plot to have Puzzle impersonate Aslan and deceive his followers. In the apocalyptic Matthew 24, Jesus warns of “false Christs” who will perform great signs and wonders and claim to be the Christ, and in Revelation 13, John warns of a beast that looked like Jesus (“he had two horns like a lamb”), but spoke like a dragon (Satan). Here is the message, clear to both LB and biblical witness: there is great danger when forces of evil speak for Jesus and His followers cannot tell the difference.

Late in LB, Jill reflects to herself:

“And then she understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.” (723)

This is devilish because, indeed, it is how the Devil operates: a mixture of truth with falsehood to make the lie more believable and more dangerous. Earlier in the story, when Tirian and Jewel learn of the horrible things that Shift is commanding in the name of Aslan, they are torn: surely this is not what they would expect from Aslan, but haven’t they always heard that He is “not a tame lion” (677, 679, 682)? Does that not mean that he is unpredictable and may do things they don’t understand? Shift seizes upon this same language to force compliance from the Narnians who feel that “Aslan’s” demands are harsh and who wish that they could see him for themselves rather than always having to take Shift’s word for it:

“But why can’t we see Aslan properly and talk to him?” it said. “When he used to appear in Narnia in the old days everyone could talk to him face to face.”

“Don’t you believe it,” said the Ape. “And even if it was true, times have changed. Aslan says he’s been far too soft with you before, do you see? Well, he isn’t going to be soft any more. He’s going to lick you into shape this time. He’ll teach you to think he’s a tame lion!” (684)

To say that Aslan is “not tame” is to say that he is powerful, he is sovereign, and, ultimately, that he is free—free to act in keeping with his own will and character. It does not mean, as Shift suggests and as Tirian and Jewel fear, that he is wildly unpredictable and free to act in ways that are inconsistent with his character. But when truth is mixed in, the lie is made far stronger.

The End of the World(?)

As LB reaches its climax, Tirian and his followers lament what they see as the ending of Narnia and also dread what awaits them through the door of the Stable. What they discover, however, is that the ending of the old Narnia was necessary, and that it has ushered in Aslan’s judgment and, ultimately, their own entrance into the new Narnia, which is in some ways like the Narnia they previously knew, but is richer and fuller in every way:

“And yet they’re not like,” said Lucy. “They’re different. They have more colours on them and they look further away than I remembered and they’re more…more…oh, I don’t know…”

More like the real thing,” said the Lord Digory softly. (759)

“But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as in our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as the real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” (759)

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Come further up, come further in!” (760)

To be clear, this is not some sort of eastern philosophy that suggests that the present world in which we live and operate is all an illusion; rather, it is that this present world is temporary, but is made to point us to that which is eternal. In describing that world, John describes it as “a new heaven and a new earth,” a world where God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21.1-5a). When all things are made new, it may signify the end of this world as it presently is, but it is truly just the beginning of the life that God intends for the faithful:

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. 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. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.  (767)

The Last Judgement: Was C.S. Lewis a Universalist?

Based on his characterization of the end of the world and the last judgement in LB, C.S. Lewis is sometimes accused of being a universalist, someone who holds that all people will ultimately be saved.

Specifically, this point is argued because of the character of Emeth, the loyal Calormene servant of Tash who finds himself in the real Narnia. Emeth recounts his meeting with Aslan, whose very name had always been hateful to him:

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, “Son, thou art welcome.” But I said, “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.” He answered, “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, “Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?”

The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, “It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites—I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and no which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Does thou understand, Child?” I said, “Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.” But I also (for the truth constrained me), “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved,” said the Glorious One, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.” (756-57)

In other words, the service that the good and virtuous Emeth had rendered for (he thought) Tash, was actually service to Aslan and, as a result, he was rewarded as if it had been Aslan that he had been seeking all his life.

This perspective is not actually universalist, however; it is inclusivist. Inclusivists believe that salvation is found only in Jesus (or in Aslan!), but:

“Those who die before they learn of Jesus or who are faithful to “God” as they understand him will be saved by Jesus in the end…[t]he Muslim who dies a Muslim will not be surprised to find Jesus at the gates of Heaven; the Qur’an teaches that Jesus will be there. They will be surprised to learn that he is, in fact, the Son of God and not merely a prophet. But Jesus will welcome them in based on their faithfulness to what they thought they knew.”[4]

Indeed, there is ample evidence in LB that Lewis believes that not all will be saved. Shift is devoured by Tash, and Rishda is carried away by him. Ginger is terrified in his presence, and loses the ability to speak, which is very similar to the Talking Beasts who approach Aslan in the judgment, and look at him with fear and hatred for just a moment. Then, something happens to them:

“You could see that they suddenly ceased to be Talking Beasts. They were just ordinary animals. And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, his left, and disappeared into his huge black shadow, which (as you have heard) streamed away to the left of the doorway. The children never saw them again. I don’t know what became of them.” (751)

This is hardly a picture of salvation.

There are also the Dwarfs, who find themselves inside the Stable in the same glorious location as Tirian and the Friends of Narnia but who are totally blind to their surroundings and just see a dark and smelly stable. They certainly don’t appear to be saved and, indeed, Aslan says that he can do nothing for them:

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” (748)

Lewis shares a similar idea in his classic, The Great Divorce:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.”[5]

The Dwarfs are emblematic of those to whom Aslan sadly says, “Thy will be done.”

Lewis’s inclusivism may be unacceptable to some Christians, but he clearly is not a universalist. At least from the perspective of LB, there are some who will be saved who may not actually know Christ, but there are many who, tragically, will not be saved at all.

Theology: 9/10

With a score of 34.5/40, LB holds the median position for me of the seven Narnia books. It is a notch below the top-tier books (LWWHHB, and VDT) but solidly above PC and SC, and way above MNOn Amazon, it would garner a 4 or 5-star rating.


Check out the full series of posts:


[1]  We probably have to mention here that Lewis receives a lot of criticism for his portrayal of Susan in LB, which is, supposedly, sexist. Jill says of Susan: “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” That Susan is described as embracing womanhood in this way and that Lewis writes her out of the “friends of Narnia” as a result is considered to be damning evidence.

It is beyond the purview of what I am doing in this series to address that criticism in detail, but I would suggest that, similar to the allegations of racism in HHBthis is off-base. In addition to the fact that Lewis repeatedly portrays female characters positively (Lucy is arguably the most admirable of all the human characters, Aravis is awesome, Polly and Jill are both likable, etc.), the clear emphasis of the criticism against Susan in the surrounding context is not on her sex but on her grown-upness. This has always been a problem for Susan, and in the world of Narnia, being “old” or “grown-up” is presented as a barrier to having faith in Aslan, as we discussed in the post on PCIn other words, Susan’s problem is not that she is now a woman; it is that she has decided that being a woman means chasing after shallow and frivolous things and distancing herself from the childlike faith that Aslan requires.

[2]  I did not have my regular edition of The Last Battle as I wrote this post, and so the page numbers come from the Barnes & Noble edition. I apologize for the inconsistency with the other posts in the series.

[3]  Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia: Revised Edition (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 2005): 6.

[4] Monte Cox, Significant Others: Understanding Our Non-Christian Neighbors (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2017): 24. Cox, himself an exclusivist, provides a helpful discussion on “Exclusivists, Inclusivists, and Pluralists” on pages 22-28.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins, 2001): 75.

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