The Last Battle: “Further Up and Further In!”

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review C.S. Lewis The Final Battle The Chronicles of NarniaThe Last Battle by C.S. Lewis

Say what you will about the correct reading order of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, one thing is certain — The Last Battle needs to be read last. It is not simply because it was written and published last in the series, that it clears up all loose ends in the previous installments and leaves no possible room for any sequels, but because it will change your entire understanding and perception of the last six books. Do what you like with the other books’ reading order, but trust me on this one: The Last Battle needs to be read last.

It has been over two hundred years in Narnia after the events in The Silver Chair, when Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole saved Prince Rilian from imprisonment and restored him to his father and the throne. Now Rilian’s descendant King Tirian enjoys the solitude of his hunting lodge with his best friend, Jewel the unicorn. But there is treachery in Narnia like nothing the country has ever faced before…

A dishonest ape named Shift has found a lion-skin and forced Puzzle the donkey to wear it. Now he lords over the Talking Beasts of the forest by pretending to be the mediator between them and the great Lord Aslan, who remains hidden in a stable and only emerges by the dim light of a campfire at night. Soon the game (which began as a way for Shift to obtain food without any effort) has gotten dangerously out of control. Convinced that Puzzle is the real Aslan, the Talking Animals are scared and confused at his changing attitudes toward them, and the Calormenes of the neighbouring empire have taken advantage of the situation by invading Narnia. Once Tirian is captured by his enemies, he remembers the great stories of the past in which children from another world appear to help Narnia in need, and appeals to the true Aslan for another such occurrence. Right on cue, Eustace and Jill appear to free the King and lend their aid to the free Narnians in fighting for their beloved homeland.

All of the books in The Chronicles of Narnia series contain Biblical allusions, but The Last Battle is easily the most allegorical considering it is best described as Narnia’s Armageddon. To put it simply, this is the end of Narnia (and don’t think that’s a spoiler, as the very first sentence of this novel is: “In the last days of Narnia…”) and as such, we have allegorical representations of the Antichrist, the false prophet, the fate of non-believers, Heaven, the Final Judgment, the Second Coming and the End of the World. It’s a pretty hefty topic for a children’s novel, and both the story and style of the book is weightier than any previous book in the series, with plenty of death, violence and tragedy. This creates an interesting paradox overall, considering The Last Battle is the most spiritual, the most controversial, the most disheartening and ultimately the most upbeat book in the series.

The Calormenes are called “darkies” throughout the story, and are indisputably the villains; what with their part to play in the destruction of Narnia and the worship of their pagan-god Tash, an element of one other books in the series (The Horse and His Boy) that has raised accusations of racism. Yet Lewis makes what is perhaps an attempt to compensate late in the novel by introducing a young Calormene named Emeth, who is permitted to enter Aslan’s country based on his virtue, even though he never believed nor followed Aslan in his lifetime; a thought that may appeal to many, though it does not exactly fit into Christian teachings. As always, the author’s dogma is a little muddled, for in all of his books Lewis plays by his own rules, by his own sense of right and wrong — this ranges from previous attacks on vegetarians and co-ed schools to his own opinions on who deserves salvation and who doesn’t.

This leads into the second major point of controversy within the book: the fate of Susan Pevensie, the onetime Queen of Narnia. To put it bluntly, she’s not here and her siblings dismiss her as someone who is no longer a friend of Narnia. Why? What could have possibly caused her abandonment from Narnia and Aslan? Surely something truly terrible! Well, no actually. Lewis pinpoints the cause as Susan’s interest in “nylons and lipstick” and an interest in “grownup things”. A beloved major character is excluded from the final installment of the series on the grounds of puberty? What?! Her fate becomes even more tragic when further information is revealed over the new “situation” of her siblings and parents (readers will know what I`m talking about, and what it must mean for poor Susan). I was very young when I first read The Last Battle, and I recall how upset I was at the treatment of Susan — it stands to reason that other children will feel the same.

Okay, those are my issues and now they’re off my chest. On to better things. The Last Battle makes fantastic use of Lewis’s poetical prose, and the book carries a sense of both bittersweetness and grandeur, particularly in the chapter “Night Falls on Narnia”. Though Tirian is somewhat indistinguishable from Caspian and Rilian before him, his friendship with Jewel is immensely touching, as is his relationship with the children who come to his aid. Far from the squabbling duo in The Silver Chair, Jill and Eustace acquit themselves excellently throughout The Last Battle, reaching hero-status in their efforts to aid the falling Narnia.

The Last Battle is also Lewis at his most philosophical (perhaps it’s no coincidence that Professor Kirke mentions Plato), as he explores metaphysics, the boundaries of belief, the relationship between the real and the unreal, the existence of life after death and the nature of God Himself; in some ways The Last Battle is more akin to Lewis’s apologetic Christian writings, such as Surprised By Joy or Mere Christianity than any of the other Narnian books, in that Lewis uses it as a basis for many of his spiritual concepts and ideas. As mentioned, The Last Battle carries the most obvert Christian messages, particularly in a declaration Lucy makes toward the end of the novel. The stable door, which begins as a convenient holding-pen for the fake Aslan soon takes on new theological meaning, with a surprising symbolic connection to our own world.

Lewis makes excellent use of components introduced in his previous books, calling up the strange creatures and that Jill and Eustace discover in The Silver Chair, the Narnian concept of stars explored in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the magical transporting rings in The Magician’s Nephew, even the use of the phrase Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve that was used so long ago in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It all culminates in a wonderful reunion at the conclusion of the book that may just brings tears to your eyes — especially when Lucy rediscovers her first and best Narnian friend.

Make no mistake, this is a fitting end for the trilogy and if the new movie franchise gets this far I’ll be first in line for a ticket — but I’m removing a star in honour of Susan.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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