The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis
[Disclaimer: I will be discussing theology and Christian beliefs in this review, I can’t not given the content of the book and my background in studying theology.]
Despite the listing being for The Chronicles of Narnia I am only going to review The Last Battle (TLB) as I read the previous six Narnia books in 2007. Therefore for the purposes of crossing items off my list I only had to read TLB. The others are not as fresh in my mind and one Narnia book is worth a review all on its own!
I was particularly appalled at the blatant racism right from the beginning. Actually, upon looking for the first instance of racism I realise the first thing I hated about this book was the Ape, Shift, but I had done a good job of forgetting him (I read the book a couple of weeks ago)!
The first three instances of Calormenes are basically as such:
Then came that dark Man with the beard, the merchant from Calormen. The Calormenes care nothing for Aslan as we do.
Two Calormenes were driving a horse which was harnessed to a log. Just as the King reached them the log had got stuck in a bad muddy place.
‘Get on, son of sloth! Pull, you lazy pig!’ cried the Calormenes, cracking their whips. The horse was already straining himself as hard as he could; his eyes were red and he was covered with foam.
‘Work, lazy brute,’ shouted one of the Calormenes: and as he spoke he struck the horse savagely with his whip*.
One of the Calormenes, who had a helmet instead of a turban and seemed to be in command, snatched the gold circlet off Tirian’s head and hastily put it away somewhere among his clothes.
So what we know about Calormenes is they are dark bearded people with turbans (everyone think of a people group that fits that description), they are cruel, and they are greedy. This blatant racism continues throughout the book and I really struggled with it. I don’t recall being as shocked with the racism in the previous six books and I suspect that may be because I was living in the USA and was daily experiencing culture shock so a little bit of time-travel shock didn’t seem as bad!
I think the thing that I found most confronting was that this was written by an adult intellectual and it basically came down to ‘dark = bad’ and was very simplistic. I remember having a hard time with how simplified the series is the first time I read it, especially as I read it as an adult and had heard the books talked up my whole life!
Which brings me to my next point: given all I have heard about the Chronicles of Narnia, I would have expected to have heard an intelligent discourse on the racism within the books and I really don’t think I have. There is lots of praise about the allegory and Christian messages, I’ve also read a bit of criticism of the blatant evangelical nature of the series, but I’ve never heard a Christian criticise the flaws in a way that doesn’t dismiss the whole series or create an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ scenario where one side argues that C.S. Lewis can do no wrong and everything he writes is fantasmagorical and the other side dismisses him as a racist sexist privileged man who should be discarded. Surely the truth lies somewhere inbetween?
And now, to show that I do not belong in camp #2, I will praise Lewis’ theology and how he makes it accessible to children (and theological students – me).
[There are spoilers ahead that give away how the whole series ends, but seriously, who hasn’t read the whole series by now?]
I have had many discussions with people about God and Allah. There is an idea that Allah and God are one and the same, but Muslims have just misunderstood the nature of Allah, so their religion does things wrongly. This is not a universal Christian belief, and I find it ridiculously offensive. When a Muslim tells me that I really worship Allah, but am doing it wrong, it jars against my very being. Why would as Muslim feel any different if I told them the same thing?
Which is my preamble to the following section of the book…
Emeth is a Calormene who has gone through the door and found himself face to face with Aslan, who welcomes him:
But I said, ‘Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.’ [Aslan] answered, ‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me… Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites – I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.’
I have had discussions with Christians and Muslims alike about whether God and Allah are the same god or are different gods entirely (one true and one false, depending on who you ask). I don’t like to link Allah to Tash, but I don’t imagine Lewis would have had any trouble doing so. In which case there is some interesting theology going on here. Given orthodox Christian belief is that Jesus is the only way to God, but that is not really what Lewis is saying here.
There is also an interesting twist, if we move away from ‘Tash as Allah’ to ‘Tash as satan’ then I think of the surprise that a whole bunch of Christians will get when they ‘arrive at the pearly gates’ and discover that a whole lot of bad stuff they did in ‘God’s’ name was actually done in satan’s name and see what that does to their chances of getting in!**
Talking about heaven, “Farther in and farther up!” is the cry that is given as the Narnians stream through the door into heaven. I am so glad I read this book to the end as I found Lewis’ description of Aslan’s Land (which is obviously heaven) to be immensely helpful in my own understanding of heaven.
Recently someone asked me what I thought heaven is. I struggled in my response as my answer was ‘eternal closeness with God – nothing to separate us’ but as an atheist that didn’t really resonate with her, and for me I didn’t think it really covered it as I am not Gnostic and believe that God redeems our whole selves, not just our minds. ‘Eternal closeness’ seems too Gnostic for me.
This is where Lewis comes in. Because after a while the characters work out that Aslan’s land is Narnia, but better, and England, but better. As they go ‘farther in and farther up’ they find an even better version and so on.
But that was not the real Narnia. That has a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that matter, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.
Coupled with eternal closeness with God, that sounds like as good a description of heaven as we can achieve on earth.
*The horses being whipped are Talking Horses, making this behaviour equivalent to whipping a human in our world.
**This is not a particularly theologically sound image; it is just the one that came into my head after reading this section of TLB.