Worldbuilding Wednesday
9/2/20: Narnia XIV

The Last Battle first edition cover, artwork by Pauline Baynes

Original hardback edition, 1956. The more traumatic aspects of the plot were passed over in favor of this cover featuring Mr. Tumnus and Lucy conversing in Aslan’s Country.

So, with The Last Battle, we come to the end of the Narnia series, and of Narnia. There’s not much to say, except “Everybody dies.”

Or sort of. Really, it’s not as bad as all that.

The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis

A more recent cover depicting a pensive yet bloodied unicorn, alluding to the book’s theme of a childhood innocence lost. And does that unicorn have a penis?

I actually started to read Battle immediately after LW&W, and was rather confused, as you can imagine. I wanted to read about Jill’s character and it seemed she hadn’t been properly introduced in that book, so I gave up and picked up the series with The Silver Chair. Back then I had no idea the Chronicles were sequential. I thought they were like Nancy Drew in that the events of the previous book didn’t carry over and influence the next. When I picked up Battle again it was after I had finished The Magician’s Nephew  so I had a better idea of who all the characters were.

As for the plot… well. As an adult, it’s still painful for me to read how the Antichrist arrives in the person of Puzzle/Switch, how the Calormenes invade and despoil and kill the dryads, how even the Talking Animals turn on each other. It also had the most overt violence I can remember — Jill being pulled along by the hair and thrown into the stable.

Ah, that stable. It only occurred to me a few weeks ago that it’s an allusion to Jesus Christ turned inside out — death in a stable, rather than birth. Still, in the book they spend way too much damn time there and around there. It’s like that overgrown forest in Prince Caspian. In fact, structurally, Battle shares the most similarities with that book than all the others: there is no physical journey like the other five, the journey is that of endurance and faith. In that, it’s a downer. It lacks the exoticism we expect of fantasy. For that reason, I suspect, it’s not rated among the most loved books of the series by most fans.

I do like, however, the apocalyptic nature of Narnia’s end, beginning with the stars falling from the sky, turning into people, and walking through a makeshift doorway into a larger land:

Stars began falling all round them. But stars in that world are not the great flaming globes they are in ours. They are people (Edmund and Lucy had once met one). So now they found showers of glittering people, all with long hair like burning silver and spears like white-hot metal, rushing down to them out of the black air, swifter than falling stones. They made a hissing noise as they landed and burnt the grass.

Then, over the next few chapters, the Earth humans in Narnia realize that, though Narnia is destroyed, they’re actually in a richer, truer, larger Narnia, and the reason for that is… they’re all dead. On Earth, in a terrible railway accident, on trains in which they were traveling to meet, having sensed something was amiss in Narnia.

As a child, my face went WTF when I read this, because, while not being arbitrary for the purposes of the book — which was about death and endings —  seemed an awfully convenient way for everyone to die at once. As a child of the 1970s living in the US, train accidents on that scale were unimaginable, and smacked of author contrivance. But in doing the research for this series, I found that this part of the book was in fact based in reality: the Harrow and Wealdstone rail disaster of 1952. This lends Battle a new poignancy, as its possible whole families may have been wiped out in the wreck. Even asserting this, however, that plot twist is just too damn convenient and skims over what has happened to those who were left to pick up the pieces.

Like Susan. Queen Susan, Susan Pevensie, who wasn’t on that fateful train trip because she was trying too hard to be grown-up and and had dismissed her Narnia experiences as childhood make-believe. Three of the other characters even sneer at her for it.

One might be shocked (as I was on my first read) that a such beloved character could so easily lose her faith, and wind up missing out on all the niftiness of Narnian Heaven. There are plenty of other readers and even  writers who were outraged, from J. K. Rowling to Phillip Pullman, at the notion that Susan went to Hell for being interested in being an adult and dating boys. (Girls were not an option.) I’ll write more about that later; but I will say, that as a Catholic, I felt the message wasn’t that Narnia abandoned her because she grew up. It was because she dismissed her faith as silly and childish, and the “she’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations” comment of Jill’s was supposed to convey shallowness, not SEX!!! in giant flashing capital letters.

Lewis wrote Battle at a time when England was still recovering from WWII.  Austerity rations (food rations) existed well into the 1950s, and it follows that cosmetics would have been expensive as well and highly prized by young women. (Battle was set in the Earth year 1949 according to Lewis’s timeline of the series.) Nylons, too, were an expensive indulgence, not something to be bought at the local five and dime. Though Lewis wrote the book in the early 1950s, his mindset was still that of wartime, when nylons and lipstick would have been unthinkable vanities for those struggling to eat, keep the economy going, and avoiding Hitler’s V-bombs.

As for invitations, I assume that’s for coming-out parties where one might meet the “right” people and make a good marriage, as the Pevensies were presented as middle upper-class sorts. Which raises the question of how complicit Susan’s parents were in encouraging her to make a good match. Or it may have been for frivolous parties where young adults listened to jazz and smoked newfangled reefer cigarettes, which would have probably outraged Lewis. We don’t know.

At the end of it, Susan was shallow and self-delusional, and she was “punished” for it by staying alive while the rest of her family dies. The book doesn’t go into the horrible part: SHE JUST LOST HER WHOLE FRIGGIN’ FAMILY.

(To Lewis’s credit as a writer, it takes a lifetime with the books and some hard thinking to reach that realization.)

After the Susan business, we discover that the walled mountain garden where the silver apples grow is actually another Narnia in miniature scale, going about its own business independent of the larger one. I still don’t know what Lewis meant by this. I think it was to illustrate “farther up and further in” but in reverse. For child-me it was creepy to think of a mini-world that could be easily destroyed by someone stomping all over it.  The epic last paragraphs of the book make up for it though.

And soon they found themselves all walking together—and a great, bright procession it was—up towards mountains higher than you could see in this world even if they were there to be seen. But there was no snow on those mountains: there were forests and green slopes and sweet orchards and flashing waterfalls, one above the other, going up for ever. And the land they were walking on grew narrower all the time, with a deep valley on each side … Lucy saw that a great series of many-coloured cliffs led up in front of them like a giant’s staircase. And then she forgot everything else, because Aslan himself was coming, leaping down from cliff to cliff like a living cataract of power and beauty.

I’ve looked and looked and have yet to find any artist who has taken it on himself or herself to illustrate these concepts.

What other books like The Last Battle might have been written?


Variations on The Last Battle

The Last Sign

The Last Prophecy

The Last Victory

The Final Challenge

The Long Vengeance

The First Curse

The False Mask

The Darkness Calls

The True World

The Realm of Chaos

The First Age of Man

The Blood Feud

The Seeking of the Great Beast

The Eternal Bond

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