Spoilers for The Last Battle, other books in the Chronicles of Narnia, A Game of Thrones.
C. S. Lewis is one of my favourite authors. He’s so good that I’ll read anything he’s written, even if it’s something I normally wouldn’t- such as numerous Christian books and his adaptation of an undergraduate lecture course on Mediaeval worldview and imagery. His imagination, writing ability and clarity of thought stand out as a giant of his generation.
Of all that he’s written, the Chronicles of Narnia remain my favourite (very closely followed by The Screwtape Letters). Reading them recently to my five year old son, it’s struck me again how vividly imagined the world is, the depth of emotion and vocabulary and tightness of plot which make the books still tremendously enjoyable as an adult, while keeping all of their appeal to a child – as well as deploying a pitch-perfect ‘supposition’ (Lewis disliked the word allegory) that is richly and deeply present throughout all the books, without ever spoiling the narrative. And all relatively succinctly (the total length of the Chronicles is about 1/3 that of the Harry Potter series).
Yet the final book in the Chronicles, The Last Battle, doesn’t quite live up to the others. It is by many liked less and, for a number of reasons, contains flaws that prevent it reaching the pinnacle achieved by the rest of the series.
1. The problem of enjoyment
At one level the flaw in The Last Battle is simple: many people don’t like it. I certainly didn’t when I first read it and I know many Narnia fans who either didn’t or still don’t. In a work of fiction, particularly children’s fiction, that is a fundamental problem, no matter what else the book has going for it.
Some might say that the book is more suitable to an older audience. This is probably true, but there is no clue or indication in the way the book is positioned. Unlike, say, Harry Potter, where the books increase in maturity as the characters do, The Last Battle stands alone.
In any case, I think the problem may be more fundamental and is connected to Lewis’s skill as a writer. The book is, objectively, deeply depressing for roughly the first two thirds. A large number of main characters die (at odds with what happens in the other Chronicles) and Lewis repeatedly sets up our hopes only to dash them again and again. Roonwit’s army doesn’t exist (because Roonwit is slain), the dwarfs close their minds and slay the horses come to rescue them and even the fates of the enemies are disturbing, such as when Ginger ceases to be a Talking Cat. Lewis was writing about the apocalypse, the end of the world, and in his Saturnine supposition of Revelation it is meant to be neither pleasant nor comfortable. Truly, the reader who perseveres to that point can empathise with Tirian when Aslan says to him:
‘Well done, last of the kings of Narnia, who stood firm at the darkest hour.’
But is this necessarily a problem? Plenty of literature deals with unpleasant subjects. There are a number of points:
- Other children’s books that deal with bad things – for example Ian Serrailier’s The Silver Sword – tend to have a sense of moving forward and progress, despite obstacles, rather than the relentless destruction of hope.
- 2/3 of the book is a very large proportion to spend in the hopeless section.
- The dramatic change in tone from former books, which is introduced suddenly and is not expected.
- The lack of a satisfying ending which makes the suffering worthwhile.
Of course, Lewis does intend for there to be a satisfying ending in the form his Narnia-inside-Narnia – but as we’ll see in the next section, it doesn’t quite work. As it stands, even for the adult reader who can appreciate what Lewis is doing, it is hard to find The Last Battle an enjoyable book (though it may be rewarding in other ways).
2. The problem of Narnia
As we’ve seen, one challenge of The Last Battle is that the last part of the book, where the characters enter the Narnia-within-a-Narnia, does not, for many people, satisfy. This world is meant to represent heaven, yet the problem is that Lewis has made Narnia itself too good. Consider this passage:
That ride was perhaps the most wonderful thing that happened to them in Narnia. Have you ever had a gallop on a horse? Think of that; and then take away the heavy noise of the hoofs and the jingle of the bit and imagine instead the almost noiseless padding of the great paws. Then imagine instead of the black or grey or chestnut back of the horse the soft roughness of golden fur, and the mane flying back in the wind. And then imagine you are going about twice as fast as the fastest racehorse. But this is a mount that doesn’t need to be guided and never grows tired. He rushes on and on, never missing his footing, never hesitating, threading his way with perfect skill between tree trunks, jumping over bush and briar and the smaller streams, wading the larger, swimming the largest of all. And you are riding not on a road nor in a park nor even on the downs, but right across Narnia, in spring, down solemn avenues of beech and across sunny glades of oak, through wild orchards of snow-white cherry trees, past roaring waterfalls and mossy rocks and echoing caverns, up windy slopes alight with gorse bushes, and across the shoulders of heathery mountains and along giddy ridges and down, down, down again into wild valleys and out into acres of blue flowers.”CS Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The imagery continues in this vein, from the yearnings of the Pevensies to return to Narnia, the descriptions of it by Bree in The Horse and his Boy or the descriptions of the Dancing Lawn in Prince Caspian or the snowball circle, after, Jill and Eustace emerge from Underland, in The Silver Chair. Narnia is already the magical land, the wondrous destination, that we all wish we could be in and is frequently described in ways that emphasise it is better, more beautiful, more amazing than our own world (it’s interesting here to note the similarity of this to the arguments made by Puddleglum and the children for the existence of real world objects, such as the sun, that are mocked by the Lady of the Green Kirtle). But while this type of ‘above and beyond’ description can work effectively once, to then go one and say ‘like Narnia, but even more’ lacks emotional punch or resonance.
Even worse, the reader may, like I did, feel aggrieved and angry at the destruction of Narnia. I’d had seven books to fall in love with this land and desperately did not want to see it end. The new Narnia, to me, felt like a fake or copy – an artificial imitation of the ‘real’ Narnia, no matter what Lewis said about it being better or more real. A few statements to the contrary couldn’t overcome seven books of what I felt was righht.
The lack of a satisfying climax hinders the book in many ways. It robs the ending of what Lewis no doubt hoped would be one of the more powerful pieces of the series. And it means the reader gets no payoff for the depressing events and crushed hopes of the first two thirds of the book. The problem of Narnia means that The Last Battle is a depressing book with no happy ending.
3. The problem of Susan
To begin with, let’s discard the lazy objections that in writing Susan out of The Last Battle Lewis was in some ways being sexist. As others have pointed out, there are plenty of positive depictions of adult femininity in the book, from Queen Helen to Ramandu’s Daughter, including of course Susan herself in The Horse and His Boy. It’s also worth noting that on previous occurrences in the series when one of the children fell from grace it was one of the boys (Edmund and Eustace). As is confirmed by his other writings, Lewis doesn’t object to adulthood, or to femininity, but to worldliness; what is described in the book as ‘silliness’, a turning away from what were (for Lewis) the important things in life to focus on instead on shallow fripperies. The description of worldliness may be somewhat stereotyped (it was 1956, after all), but it seems obvious that had Lewis chosen to make Edmund the one who fell away, he could have as easily described him as ‘interested in nothing nowadays except fast cars, women and making money’ as he did Susan as “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations” – and it would have been equally damning.
Nevertheless, the problem of Susan remains, and it has two components: narrative and theological.
Narratively nearly everyone who reads it simply doesn’t like it. They get to it and think, ‘What?’ and are baffled or dismayed. Many people I speak to, myself included, feel annoyed that such a major character – one of the four original children – has been written out of the final book.
The level of surprise and dismay is in part because of the lack of foreshadowing and short, dismissive, explanation. Now, it is correct to argue that if any one of the children were not to return, it would be Susan: she has been most doubtful in the past (in both The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian) and none of the other original four could credibly do so (Peter is High King, Edmund has been redeemed, Lucy is clearly most in tune with Aslan). But thaat is beside the point: the reader does not expect – and usually does not wish – any of the children to be written out.
Of course, authors can remove characters that readers like suddenly, and sometimes very effectively. Very few Game of Thrones readers (or watchers) will have expected the Red Wedding, in which many of the leading characters were killed. But this was dealt with in a highly emotional and dramatic scene; in hindsight made sense (it was shown how various factors that the reader was aware of, from the Freys’ ambition to Robb’s naive insult, combined to deliver the circumstance) and, critically, the scene had a dramatic effect on the narrative and the rest of the book. This is perhaps the most damning point of all about the Problem of Susan: not only is her non-return dismissed in half a page, not only do the other characters appear entirely unbothered by it for the rest of the book, sheering it of any emotional import (save that felt, vicariously, by the reader) but her absence has absolutely no effect on the plot.
Theologically, Susan’s absence is problematic because it flies in the face of the doctrine of Perseverance, that those who are true Christians remain Christians. Now, not all Christians subscribe to this doctrine and it’s unclear whether or not Lewis himself did (the evidence suggests that he at least had doubts). But enough Christians do that, if Lewis was wishing to make a strong stand against it, it deserved more working and exploration than the short-shrift Susan is giving. Certainly, an illustration showing ‘falling away’ is in no sense theologically necessary, in the same way that one could argue the depictions of the resurrection, or even baptism, serve core roles. Furthermore, regardless of Lewis’s own personal views, Perseverance is strongly implied to exist in Narnia: “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen in Narnia” as both Aslan and the Professor say. One can argue, correctly, that Susan’s final fate is not determined at the time of The Last Battle – but at the time it occurs, she is described, unambiguously, as “No longer a friend of Narnia.“
There are defences, such as the fact that Susan’s defection balances the acceptance of Emeth (the good Calormene), demonstrating that no-one can be sure who, and who will not, be saved. But to my mind these do not make up for the narratively unsatisfying and theologically dubious decision to write her out of the plot.
Do these flaws imply that Lewis failed with The Last Battle? I would strongly argue not. Just as the saying goes that a person can’t be a great sailor unless they’ve capsised their boat, so I’d suggest a great writer who never has a flaw has not pushed themselves to the utmost. Lewis attempts stupendously difficult tasks and, when he succeeds, he succeeds beyond all measure: The Screwtape Letters, for example, or the Chronicles themselves. And even where he falls short – as in The Last Battle or, I would suggest, in That Hideous Strength, a work with many great, but overcrowded and squashed together ideas – he still produces books that contain much of value.
At the most basic level, the imagery and description in The Last Battle is vividly evocative. Take, for example:
It is as if the sun rose one day and were a black sun.Tirian, last king of Narnia
There is the frustration as time after time the heroes hope’s are dashed, or where they fail to win over potential allies – “The dwarfs are for the dwarfs” leading to the the bitter despair when the glorious, beautiful charge of the talking horses is cut down in its stride by the dwarfs’ cruel bows. Or this passage, below, when all hope dies:
“Two sights have I seen,” said Farsight [the Eagle]. “One was Cair Paravel filled with dead Narnians and living Calormenes: The Tisroc’s banner advanced upon your royal battlements: and your subjects flying from the city – this way and that, into the woods. Cair Paravel was taken from the sea. Twenty great ships of Calormen put in there in the dark of the night before last night.”
No one could speak.
“And the other sight, five leagues nearer than Cair Paravel, was Roonwit the Centaur lying dead with a Calormene arrow in his side. I was with him in his last hour and he gave me this message to your Majesty: to remember that all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.”
The Last Battle – C. S. Lewis
“So,” said the King, after a long silence, “Narnia is no more.”
This alone would not elevate it to greatness. But when one reflects that Lewis has managed to write a powerful, theologically accurate account of the apocalypse, conveying in some small way the emotions of the tribulations of those involved – and to do so in a way that is suitable, and directly relatable to children (if not, perhaps, five-year olds): well, that is an achievement. The Last Battle contains more punch than I imagine most adult books would, while remaining strictly PG rated.
More importantly, the Chronicles of Narnia would be incomplete without it. As Digory says, “I saw this world begin. I did not think I would live to see it die.” As with Digory, so with us: in a series which includes the world’s creation, the world’s ending is an essential component, both narratively and theologically. Similarly, if one excepts Michael Ward’s theory, The Last Battle is also essential to complete the correspondence with the Mediaevval planets, its Saturnine atmosphere illuminating a key aspect of both Narnia and Aslan himself. The admitted flaws of The Last Battle pale beside the flaw that would be created in the series if it did not exist.
As a Christian, Lewis believed that no person is perfect, or without sin. This is shown carefully in the series: even Lucy, who is the closest of the protagonists to Aslan and to being purely good, is not perfect: more notably in Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but also in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe:
“Daughter of Eve,” said Aslan in a graver voice, “others also are at the point of death. Must more people die for Edmund?”The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis
In similar vein, while at a human level Lewis would no doubt have wished each of his books to be as good as it could be, one can perhaps imagine that he could also take some measure of satisfaction in reflecting that his greatest work, The Chronicles of Narnia, also contained a flaw. And so The Last Battle stands: a great but flawed work.