Story Pile: Narnia, Pt 3 — The Last Battle

With the core books that detail what we will gently refer to as the plot of the Narnia universe already laid out, a steady ramp upwards from dull to decent, it seems only fitting now to discuss the way that the series became actively traumatising.

For those not familiar, The Last Battle, the seventh book and last chronologically, is the next book in a series of honestly fairly inoffensive storybook fantasy stories. These stories have followed the lives of a handful of children, so far; The Pevensies, Lucy, Peter, Backup Peter, and that whore, and Eustace Scrubb and his unassumingly decent friend Jill Pole. There’s also another pair, Digory and Polly, and you’ll be left going ‘wait who?’ because they don’t show up until you read the last (first) book, but I’ve said too much.

Point is, if you were like me, you were reading these adventure stories that teased at the ideas of spaces of Narnia, of cultures and nations and magical powers and interesting questions, and each time you got a new book, you learned something new and had more of this beautiful country spread out before you. So often these stories would reward you not with some great accomplishment or demonstration of physical power, some great or heroic badass fight, but instead a bucolic, Hobbit-style scenario of going home and putting things in a tidy position. This was a world where great travails and missing heirs happened, but where the grand battles were often narrated over rather than experienced, and a late book narrative could divert into a conversation about how much centaurs liked porridge (a lot).

The narrative payout of Narnia was always dialled in to ‘oh, well, that’s alright then.’

This book, which you may as a child have picked up and read with the unassuming idea of oh, I like these, this is another one, I wonder which new human friend will learn about Narnia, kills literally everyone you know and destroys Narnia down to the very base foundations of the whole world, leaving behind nothing but a vast expanse of soulless, empty ice.

Then it tries to act like it’s a happy ending.

It’s interesting for a series that normally struggles to maintain tension (what with that recurrent ‘Aslan fixes it’ plot device they employ so readily), the Last Battle really does a number on how thoroughly it manages to wind its own clockspring tight as it can. While you’re maybe used by this point to a story about Narnia kicking off with humans, then suddenly the humans are in Narnia, and now they need to piece together the res they’ve in media‘d, the Last Battle instead starts off in Narnia itself. It introduces you to Shift the ape and Puzzle the donkey, when they find a lion skin. Shift, who is just a total bastard from day one, starts a cult of Aslan, dressing up Puzzle and making him Lionface for a growing community.

This cult then dooms the world.

I’m not really joking around here; the cult grows in power and influence by somewhat ridiculous stages in preposterous pace, but it goes from ‘control a community’ to ‘influence the position of kings’ to ‘hand the country over to an invading army’ to ‘invite satan into reality’ to ‘the rapture and subsequent end of the world.’ At every stage, you’re introduced to new elements of the Narnia world – or old ones, really – that might save things, might help address this growing problem, like the dryads of the East Forest, or the Talking Horses, or the Dwarves that refused to comply with Shift, but every single step involves giving this ray of hope and then immediately showing it completely failing.

When I say ‘rapture and end of the world,’ I am not kidding: Aslan sets down a doorway to a new reality, stands at one edge of it and then in a process that the narrative does imply must have taken years, individually judges every single character and beast in Narnia, which all die in his shadow or enter his realm, before dragons and beasts of the earth come up and eat all the world, die on the spot, and then the grass dies and the land becomes barren and the sun and moon are destroyed and the ocean drowns what’s left, freezing ocean that is then described as becoming ice as Peter closes the door on Narnia.

We’re then told that all of the Narnia-friend humans we know (not the Telmarines, fuck them), are now here, in Aslan’s country, everything is dead, and now everyone’s going to have even better adventures, forever, in Aslan’s country, which only gets better the more you’re there.

Book end, send tweet.

This book gives a bit of an insight into the Calormene Empire, which if you’re feeling particularly inclined to rehabilitate CS Lewis’ writing, are an ‘arab inspired’ culture with ‘interesting ideas’ about an alternative theology, and if you’re a sensible person who can read the words on the page, they’re ‘racist as shit Narnia-Muslims who worship a death god that eats babies with a beak.’ A single Calormene is represented as a good person, because he was secretly an Aslan worshipper all along, and he was so secretly an Aslan worshipper, even he didn’t know it, and when he pledged his faith to his god, actually, he was pledging it to Aslan.

I cannot begin to have the time required to unpack this particular bullshit, and nor should I. I’m not a Muslim reader, and really, you’d be better off listening to one of them on that topic – so here’s a piece on Huffington Post from a Muslim writer who can more correctly than I explain the ways this sucks.

What I will say is that from my Christian perspective, this idea is one of modern Christianity’s great dodges as part of what we call ‘the Great Commission:’

And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.

Mark 16:15

The Bible demands conversion. It has other demands, but one of the ones that’s stuck with evangelical christianity and its chair-moistened state-sanctioned Anglican cousin, is the idea that it is up to Christians to witness to non-Christians and convince them to become Christians. This works just fine within the diegesis of the fiction, where being a Christian is a straight upgrade to your life and gives you a personal relationship to the creator of the cosmos, but it’s a bit of a harder sell if you notice those things aren’t true. This compulsion is meant to be about extending Jesus’ sacrifice and therefore, God’s mercy to as many people as possible. If they don’t convert, they will be punished with hell.

But then the question asks: why the fuck did Jesus appear at the time he did to the tiny population he did and leave entire continents uncontactable for millenia with his message? That seems a problem, and whatever urgency it may impart it does lead to the question now, twenty centuries after this totally really happened, asking just what am I meant to do or feel about the people who died in, oh, say, Africa, without having the opportunity to hear of Christianity. Were there no good people there, before Christianity taught them how to be good?

(Bonus: The more racist answer here is very simply ‘yes.’)

The usual equivocation is that, while they may not be Christians, there were people who were doing good things and still living within Christ’s values. Those people therefore, were still ‘following the word of Christ written on their hearts,’ which meant they could go to Heaven when they died, even if they never had the opportunity to convert. At that point one might ask exactly what the fucking point of the great commission is, but it sort of deliberately runs around in circles at this point.

These days it’s more kind of generally odious. Good people belong to Christianity, they just don’t know it, because they’re too misguided to know the name of their own God. See also: Deathbed conversions.

I bring this up not to give you insight into it per se as much as to share one of the many reasons I think this book is shitty as fuck. And don’t worry, we’ll get to it.

Something about this book that I didn’t understand at the time, is that it was an end. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get the idea that book series were meant to end. Narnia wasn’t going to end, right? It was my own Christian allegory (no, boo, hiss, says Lewis) that I could imagine escaping to and having Jesus-flavoured allegorical retellings of events happen to my fanfic self, right? It seemed like one of many media forms made for a kid like me at the time, where the whole purpose was to endlessly return and learn a new lesson every time. As an adult I have some sympathy to the idea that the Narnia setting was always going to end and it’s okay that it did.

That does not stop the ending of it from being deeply fucked up and fucking with my head, because I need to remind you, this eschatology it’s echoing, the mystic end of the world, is something that I was very literally taught was going to happen and we’d best be prepared for the signs of it. Again, Lewis insisted it wasn’t allegory, but Roland Barthes has assure me he’s dead. We get a very detailed process of how the world ends, and it’s done with a thoroughness that makes it seem like someone’s enjoying it.

There’s stuff in the eschatology of it that’s uh, fucked up. Like Aslan specifically strips away the sentience of Talking Beasts before condeming them to darkness. That’s deeply and profoundly messed up, like, just kill them dude. There’s a dwarf who just recently committed an atrocity (exterminating the talking horses) who gets to come in to Aslan’s country, which goes to show that loving Aslan apparently doesn’t give you any moral character to resist committing bad actions and begs the question: What’s the point of Aslan?

What’s important to me, what lurks in my brain about how this whole arrangement works is that it’s very clear, very specific that Narnia is still there. Narnia is there, it’s just everyone is dead. Narnia is on the other side of that door: A frozen sea over empty land where, I will note, the Giant TIme is still… what? Standing? Did he find someplace else to sleep? It doesn’t matter, the door is closed, it is over, but Narnia, the place, is still there, just different.

At the very least it seems an untidy waste of space.

There’s also the supremely British affordance of it all. Aslan creates a doorway. Why does he create a doorway? He’s a fucking lion. He is not, as they are fond of saying, a tame lion, a phrase that thrills me with pagan ideas that this Anglican-ass weaksauce only uses to justify why Aslan is such an unutterable dick to people. Why does he want a doorway with a key, when he could say, drown the whole world in a tiny puddle, and show everyone the great forest again, or roar and make the world stop, as it was when he started it, or lifted the land up out of the sea and taken it to the east of his father’s empire, or any number of visual and narrative metaphors that aren’t just a doorway that a British child can lock.

And finally, Susan.

There’s a body of thinking that says, hey, CS Lewis didn’t hate Susan. He wasn’t being a misogynist. He wasn’t criticising feminism. After all, Lucy was around, and she had a bow and arrow, and so was Jill, and both of them were combative girls, so clearly it couldn’t be a problem with feminism. I find this argument wholly unsatisfying because it feels a lot like the arguments against the Islamophobia above; you can convince yourself that the narrative isn’t disdainful of and cruel to Susan if you’re willing to write more words in your head than there are on the page.

Apparently, and I say this because I’ve never seen a source, Lewis thought that Susan would make her own way to Narnia, and that this was a sequel hook for a book he did not write. I can’t imagine him writing a book that treated Susan as outlined seriously, as a person with her own wants and identity, because in this fucking book, he didn’t think she was worth more than a footnote who was now too obsessed with lipstick, pantyhose and invitations.

If you write a girl who is seemingly, a fairly standard girl, and then exclude her from heaven and murder all her family and treat it like she’s the asshole, you may have a misogyny problem.

Aslan, like Jesus, works in mysterious, petty, inefficient, and breathtakingly cruel ways.

Attempts are made to rehabilitate this idea, to try and say that the words on the page weren’t clear enough, that they don’t really mean that, that Susan was a feminist icon, actually, and you can write all the fanfic you want about Narnia, I guess. I kind of got the impression that Narnia stories were done for, what with the way this book literally drowned it under a frozen sea forever.

This book sucks and the way it sucks are very Anglican, and they insist that they aren’t being arseholes because what they really mean is, and at that point I stop fucking listening because I’m not here for apologetics for an allegory that’s ashamed of the fucking word. Just admit you’re in a religion that would murder a billion to save a handful and that’s your vision of a reasonable God and stop annoying me with the posturing.