Or, The Last Lesson to Fortify Children with Chests
Here are my notes for the talk I gave at the recent Raggant Fiction Festival. The video of my talk is here, and the audio will be available soon.
My dear Wormwood,
Many demons have done well, nephew, but you excel them all. It has been quite some time since I’ve written to you and, as you yourself know, I do not usually give such high and blameworthy compliments. But progress for our Father Below has been delightfully dark and your patient is helping us more than he could imagine in our deceptive work.
We cannot entirely stop the Enemy from giving His so-called blessings. He comforts and helps His creatures because it is His despicable nature. The parties thrown in His name are gross, and I would spit in all their wine glasses if alcohol didn’t also turn some humans to our brand of misery. But even as your patient enjoys some of these blessings he is restricting other blessings to his students, and doing so in the Enemy’s name. What I mean is that he is keeping his Fifth Grade Class from dealing with anything that smells grave. He looks for books with sunny stories about safe things. He’s committed himself, as far as he’s able as a teacher, not to let the kids think about DEATH.
Of course you have encouraged this censorship, and gotten your patient to call it righteous. As you know, DEATH is actually the Enemy’s tool, not our idea; He uses it for punishment and for warning (and in one awful case, atonement). It is our specialty to distract from DEATH. We don’t want humans to deal with it. That will only make them consider what comes after, about what it would be like to see the Enemy’s Son face to face, and perhaps about how to please the Enemy now. Entertainment is your offering and the screen your altar. These numb their fears and sooth any sick feelings that might get them searching, let alone fighting, for what human poets foolishly call noble.
Your efforts to provide a virtually endless stream of vapid comics and cartoons, along with your program to keep the adults too tired to push the off button, will earn you a glorious cup of lukewarm coffee with your praise in gates of hell. I am so impressed with your use of technology that I may write you again via email (another tool, I’m told, which our side has almost entirely claimed for its own).
Your affectionate uncle,
The Burdens of the Battle
For the first three fiction festivals I was the first speaker of the day. In my leadoff position I just needed to get a walk and then depend on the other speakers to do the heavy hitting, not stranding me (and my thoughts about fiction) on base. I am in the fourth spot today not because I’ve become a heavy hitter but because my topic is more heavy. I’m going to talk about The Last Battle, the seventh of the seven Chronicles. Some people find this book harder to digest than a talk immediately following lunch.
How many of you have read The Last Battle? As a kid under 10? As an adult? How many of you love it? How many of you hate it? How many of you tolerate it?
I aim to convince you that, at the least, the series would not be complete without it, and not merely because “Last” is in the title. But I also aim to persuade you that it is the most needed of the seven books for our day. While not sufficient all by itself, it is the crucial consummation of the series.
A number of people don’t like this book at all and they have their reasons. I’ve talked to some of them, I’ve read some of their reviews. They don’t think that TLB is consistent with the previous books, either in its tone or its message of salvation or even how it is that a talking animal in Narnia has become so bad so quickly. They don’t think it is enjoyable to read even if they end up liking Lewis’ picture of heaven. A few readers name it as their favorite, but those people are usually weird, and they’re usually adults.
Admittedly I often prefer things that aren’t as popular. When I told Mo a couple months ago that I was considering talking about why this is the best Chronicle, I unexpectedly launched us into a multi-hour back and forth. I had only read it once before that conversation, but since then I’ve read it a couple more times and I am even more excited to consider it’s weaknesses and it’s strategy with you.
What I am most burdened to answer about The Last Battle are these two questions: 1) Why did Lewis write this book? In other words, what agenda did he have? 2) Is this book really a children’s book? Should we accept it in the series, but only give it to our kids when they are older?
Who in Heaven’s Name?
Before answering those, let’s admit that there are a few bona fide problems in the book. Two of them relate to presence and absence in the afterlife, and one is about whether the afterlife should be part of the plot at all.
Emeth, the Calormene, is in heaven. Susan, one of the two Queens of Narnia, is not.
I hope to post something more detailed in the future about Emeth in particular. Emeth believed in Tash, not Aslan. He knew of Aslan, and hated him. He worshiped Tash, served Tash faithfully, and was willing to die in order to see Tash. But at the end Emeth is in heaven, and Aslan explains that Emeth’s faithful service was really for Aslan because Tash doesn’t do faithfulness. I recently read a lengthy argument that this corresponds to a biblical truth, that there could be true believers in God who are ignorant about God’s name. That is bologna. Lewis confirmed in this-world letters that he personally believed in the category of “ignorant Christian,” those who were ignorant that what they believed made them Christians. Lewis had been giving an otherwise orthodox view of salvation through atonement by grace in the previous six Chronicles. Emeth’s salvation is wrong, not only soteriologically but also in terms of the plot, as I’ll mention below. The sympathy the royal Narnians feel for Emeth is part of Lewis’ own sentimental leftovers, something he usually destroys.
Missing from heaven is Susan Pevensie. In this case I think that there is no need throw the lamppost. TLB ends when Susan is not yet dead. Peter, Edmund, and Lucy are dead, and Peter does say that Susan is “no longer a friend of Narnia,” and Jill says that Susan is distracted with the things of this world. If we take Peter’s words finally, it’s not good. If we liken Susan’s concerns to the cares of this world choking out the growth of the gospel seed (Matthew 13:22), it’s also not good. But Aslan himself crowned Peter, Susan, Edmond, and Lucy and said, “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen,” (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 167) and so I’m satisfied leaving time for Susan to repent.
But isn’t this really quite something, to be talking about so much death? In his book Planet Narnia Michael Ward observes that this is a bold move on Lewis’ part for a “children’s book” because [SPOILER!:] every character who starts the story in The Last Battle Lewis kills (Planet Narnia, 198). The verbs “to die, to kill, and to murder (and cognate nouns and adjectives)” appear once every 2.67 pages (ibid., 202). This is a story about the last battle, and for every key person (except Susan) it concerns their last breath, whether in England or Narnia.
How does all this fit Lewis’ agenda? There are three ways it fits his agenda.
First, and this is my opinion based on considering Lewis as a character, I think Lewis liked to mess with the church ladies. I can picture him in the back room of The Bird and Baby talking to Tolkien and responding to a hysterical woman: “Oh, you like to have your neat Bible categories? You’d like for your kids to never say the word ‘ass’? You don’t want your kids to have think about what it would be like if terrible things happened to them? Hold my beer.” Lewis is an old-school contrarian, and I at least wonder if he wasn’t going out of his way to make some of it scary for those who like their theological underpants too tidy and boring white (e.g. including Bacchus). The Chronicles are good, not tame.
Second, I buy Michael Ward’s thesis that Lewis wrote seven books in the series around the seven planets known in medieval cosmology. I went to a Wordsmithy conference a few summers ago and Ward was the guest speaker. I wasn’t going because of him, but I figured I’d read his book beforehand. I read it, and then heard him speak about it, and then made Maggie read it, and bought a copy for Jonathan, and still take opportunity to poke at Leila about it as much as possible. Friends of Narnia, get and read Planet Narnia. Analyze Ward’s case, and note how the “feel” of the seventh Chronicle fits the “feel” of the seventh planet.
Saturn is not only the seventh planet, it is the furthest from earth and the final threshold into heaven. Saturn is death. Saturn is cold and bitter and dark like December. Saturn was known to bring about disastrous events, even fatal events. How many times does Tirian’s band make a plan only to have it ruined at the last minute? Dis-aster (aster is the Greek word for star), de-staring, is exactly what happens in the sky, and before that, one bad thing after another happens to our crew of heroes. Saturn is usually associated with Father Time, the great giant who awakens to end the Narnian world (TLB, 83).
Lewis loved pre-Copernican cosmology and lamented the loss of its worldview so much so that he wrote a scholarly treatment of it in his book The Discarded Image. Each of the previous six Chronicles fits with the characteristics of a planet, not to mention how the planets fill the Space Trilogy and much of Lewis’ poetry. It’s not even well hidden that Roonwit says “The stars never lie,” and “I know there are liars on earth; there are none among the stars” (TLB, 8). If you wonder why this book feels different, it’s because Saturn is called Infortuna Major - the greatest unfortunate-maker. The influence of Saturn gives TLB the bad feels.
The Last Lesson for Fortifying Chests
But I’m convinced there is still another reason beyond messin’ with the church ladies and rounding off his cosmology. This is what the cosmology was good for, not just a convenient orbit for the plot.
What was Lewis trying to do in this book? All of the previous books have a central lesson:
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: atonement
- Prince Caspian: authority
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: repentance and redemption
- The Silver Chair: Aslan’s word, spiritual disciplines
- The Horse and His Boy: providence
- The Magician’s Nephew: creation and fall
The last lesson is given in order to finish fortifying children with chests. The well-known ”men without chests” line comes from Lewis’ strain in The Abolition of Man. In that book Lewis attacks modern education that makes men who have no loves, no affections, no will to fight. They have no chests.
He specifically attributes the problem to a children’s book (with his own made-up title): “The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests” (Abolition, 26). A few paragraphs later he says,
In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (ibid., 27)
In The Last Battle Shift, the ape, admits that he has a “weak chest.” Shift is the not-quite-evolved-man who acts like the boss by manipulating others until someone stronger than him comes along. Shift has no backbone, no virtue, no manliness.
We don’t like Shift and that’s an important dislike. Instead, our heroes are those who live for someone other than and bigger than themselves. You don’t have to be an adult to figure this out; the kids know it.
As Scrubb and Pole (which incidentally would be a great name for a detective show) learn about Shift and the Calormenes they want to fight.
In the end Eustace and Jill begged so hard that Tirian said they could come with him and take their chance—or, as he much more sensibly called it, “the adventure that Aslan would send them.” (TLB, 52)
The word adventure 11 occurs times in the story. “Adventure” is what adults call it to kids to make it seem less scary. Perhaps adults should think about it as adventure, too.
Their adventure—Tirian and Jewel, Poggin and Puzzle, Eustace and Jill—is fighting to Make Narnia Great Again (#MNGA). And it is through that battle that they reach their greatest joy. Their fight is not to get to heaven, not initially. They get to heaven through fighting, and in this story, by losing the right fight. They lose everything they were fighting for and gain more than they were fighting for.
The last lesson that fortifies children with chests teaches loyalty to Aslan and longing for Aslan’s ways that is so deep they are willing to die for it. And of course, “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).
This is the report Farsight the Eagle gave Tirian about Roonwit:
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.” (TLB, 50)
Later when Tirian realized they probably could not win, “his only thought now was to sell his life as dearly as he could” (TLB, 72).
Food is good and to be enjoyed, especially in Aslan’s name, but it is not worth stealing from or manipulating other people for it (as Shift did to Puzzle and the squirrels). Castles and commerce are good, but not at the expense of other’s dignity (as the Calormene’s to the Narnians and Talking Horses). And while death is not good in itself, and there are ways to die that are fearful and then damnable, it is possible to fight to the death in a way that Aslan says, “Well done, last of the Kings of Narnia who stood firm at the darkest hour” (TLB, 81)
Lewis makes us sick of selfish economics (Shift’s socialism), sick of selfish religion (the Tarkaan’s “Islam”), and sick of selfish cynicism (the dwarves’ selfishness). He also makes us long for something more desirable than we have ever had satisfying us here in this world, a longing to be really home where we belong. When we are freed from belonging here in a final way we are ready to fight for good for here whether we win it now, or not like we thought.
We don’t know if we will make it better. Maybe our fight will be an example for future fighters. Maybe we are the last generation of fighters. Either way, we fight to win. The battle is not all rousing speeches and shining steel, but also includes gathering wood for a fire, cleaning the blood off swords, stacking chairs, and making another pot of coffee. And when things keep going wrong we can imagine asking, “Aslan, how many more times shall we regroup? Child, regroup until there is no more group.”
Fiction Up and Fiction In
Most people appreciate the last quarter of TLB with its imaginative (and Platonic) view of heaven. Whatever heaven is like, we will love it.
But the main agenda Lewis had for us is to love Aslan and whatever adventure Aslan sends enough to be willing to pay the ultimate cost. We try to protect kids from death, when we should promote love for Aslan and prepare them to fight on his behalf.
This sort of love can’t be stuck on like an “I voted” sticker. This sort of love longs for peace and feasts and work and a kingdom under a good king. This sort of love has hates, recognizes enemies, and is vigilant and bold to defend and fight against those enemies. Emeth was an enemy who would have killed the Pevensies and Eustace and Jill and Tirian in Tash’s name; the children would have fought him, not expected him to be in Aslan’s Country. This sort of love cries at loss, but doesn’t let the tears fall on the bowstrings.
Near his death Lewis wrote a letter to a group of 5th graders: “The only way for us to get to Aslan’s country is through death, as far as I know.” (Omnibus intro essay to The Magician’s Nephew). Lewis lost his mom when he was eight years-old. He wrote to the generation after WWII, those who undoubtedly wondered about battle, about loss and death.
Some adults panic about or pooh-pooh the book and yet modern kids (and adults) need the book. The United States is not Narnia any more than England is, but the lessons of Narnia are for us. Socialism, Islamism, cynicism, abound around us. They are not ways of Christ’s blessing. They bring no peace, no redeemed bacchanalian joy. Regardless of one’s eschatology and millennialistic expectation of the end, it will be better in heaven to the degree we love our place here and now.
We want our kids standing with us in the gates for the last battle. Parents, don’t expect TLB to do your work, but put it to work for you. Like the Narnia air, good fiction such as the Chronicles makes kids stronger, even if they can’t explain it. That’s why we need to get fiction up and fiction in.
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. (TLB, 101)