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The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis
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[This review includes some spoilers.]

The Last Battle brings the Narnia saga to its tragic and triumphant conclusion. It will not exactly be a spoiler to say that everyone basically ends up inø Heaven at the end. But as that's the culmination of Christian belief, it's no surprise to see it pop up as the grand finale of C. S. Lewis's not-an-allegory-no-really of Christian faith.

What is surprising is the bitter, all-encompassing cynicism Lewis exhibits in his narrative here. While earlier Narnia volumes addressed themes of good-vs.-evil in a classical, mythic sense, this novel's first half jumps into darkness with both feet. The Last Battle is as serious as a heart attack in its early chapters, as Narnia itself succumbs to betrayal and evil. But such an approach is well suited to depicting the end of the world. The book's climax is shallow — after all, this is children's storytelling, so rather than go into an exegesis on the nature of good and evil more suited to graduate students, Lewis just pushes emotional hot buttons by the mile. So the protracted feel-good ending is forcefully uplifting, even if it doesn't mitigate some of the more objectionable content of earlier scenes in the book. The Last Battle is worth reading less for its story, which is both bleak and emotionally manipulative, than for the window it opens into the conflicted mind of its author.

Narnia's downfall begins when a crafty ape named Shift and his sweet but stupid donkey pal Puzzle find a discarded lion skin floating in a river, and Shift gets the bright idea to dress Puzzle up in it and make a killing passing him off as Aslan to Narnia's denizens. As Christians believe that false prophets are one sign of the approaching "end times" and second coming of Jesus, the allegorical intent is clear. Soon Narnia's king, Tirion, learns that the country is falling apart. Narnia's noble talking animals have been enslaved by Calormenes from the south, and have been seduced by a wily ape who claims to be a prophet of Aslan. It seems impossible that Aslan would order the horrible things that have been going on, including the felling of Narnia's magical trees. Soon Tirion and his unicorn friend Jewel end up prisoners of Shift and the Calormenes.

In desperation, Tirion calls out to Aslan for help, and in no time Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole are sent from our world into Narnia, where they free Tirion and even manage to capture poor, confused Puzzle. Soon they all realize not only the depth of the trouble Narnia is in — Shift has struck a Faustian bargain with the Calormenes, who have simply been using him for their own ends all the time — but how difficult it will be for them to defeat this new foe. Even when they reveal the false Aslan to some of Narnia's creatures, they don't end up securing their loyalty as they thought they would. The dwarfs, especially, are so sick and tired of having been tricked and lied to they choose to swear fealty to no one but themselves. Personally, I find their reaction fairly reasonable given the circumstances, but it seems clear Lewis wants us to think otherwise.

This section of the story contains some of the most intense drama in the whole seven-book saga. The sense of loss and despair our heroes feel at the loss of their world is palpable. But these qualities are somewhat muted by the unpleasant prejudice of Lewis's that seeps into the narrative. While the Calormenes were depicted as clownish and absurd in The Horse and His Boy, in this novel, there's no disputing we've got some seriously racist anti-Islam content here. (The Calormenes are unambiguously Arab.) The dwarfs, for instance, mock the Calormenes by calling them "darkies." In another scene, Tirion, Eustace, and Jill sneak into the Calormene camp by using a skin dye to disguise themselves as the enemy. When Tirion removes the dye later on, he says, "That is better. I feel a true man again." Which does not exactly imply something flattering to non-Caucasians. Defenders will immediately leap up from their seats to point out that Lewis did not intend this to be a remark insulting to Arabs or other dark skinned races. I would point out that intent isn't really relevant. Unintended slights are often more hurtful, as they are made so much more thoughtlessly. There's just no way to sugar-coat how ugly Lewis's racism is here.

There's another little bit about Shift trying to convince the Narnians that Aslan and the Calormene god Tash are the same god, and this seems to be Lewis's riposte to folks who (correctly, by the way) insist that the Christian God and Allah are the same. While this is a bit of theological hair-splitting that is, to me as an unbeliever, irrelevant, it certainly leaves you with the impression Lewis had a powerful contempt for Islam and was only too happy to use his children's stories as a platform for expressing that contempt. To be fair, Lewis does give us one good Calormene named Emeth. But you know he's good for the same reason you know who the "good" Jews are in the Left Behind series: they're the ones who convert.

The finale, in which Aslan finally turns up and solves the whole problem by whisking away all those loyal to him to "the real Narnia," is abrupt, and comes across as an excuse to erase all of the preceding tragedy in a series of happy reunions. Dramatically, it's touching, and will certainly have a powerful effect on children who read the series, I have no doubt. Naturally, I'm the kind of guy to wonder why Aslan allowed all of the bad stuff to happen in the first place, let alone why, if this is the "real" Narnia, why he ever bothered creating the other one. (And apparently there's a Calormen to the south of this "real" Narnia, too! Huh? Is this a Calormen where everyone worships Aslan, or Tash?) Strictly speaking, the ending is a cheat, a straight-up deus ex machina that allows all the bad stuff to go away in a puff of smoke.

But you don't look to religion for flawless logic. To go into an in-depth critique of this part of the plot would probably require a dissertation critiquing Christian theology and apologetics, and this website is not the venue for that. Suffice it to say that, by virtue of my own religious upbringing as well as the study of Christianity that I have continued to undertake even as an atheist, I understand Lewis's thematic intent here fully. One thing religion has always been good at — and I think it's a key to the perennial survival of the practice — is that it helps believers manage fundamental insecurities about life, the universe and everything: why am I here, what's it all about, what about evil and death and all the rest of it? As a youth, Lewis fought in WWI and was wounded in the Battle of Arras in 1917. Homesick and bitter, he suffered a temporary lapse of faith. While he rebounded to become one of the century's most widely read Christian apologists and storytellers, there's no question that much of that bitterness lingered; war — especially one as horrific and impersonal in its destruction as WWI was — leaves scars in its surviving veterans that time often can't heal. One can only imagine the mental calesthenics Lewis undertook to reconcile his war experiences with belief in his God.

The finale of The Last Battle is thus breathtakingly simple to understand thematically: yes, it gets very bad here, but you'll go to a better place soon. Depending upon your own beliefs or lack thereof, that may or may not seem like wishful thinking and naive emotionalism. But people don't always look at the horrors of the world rationally, and fear is a fundamental emotion rooted in our innate survival instincts. Does religion exploit that fear? In my opinion, absolutely. But as for this story, all Lewis means to do here is give his young readers reasons to fear the big bad world around them less. While I personally admit to finding most things about all religions, not just Christianity, both morally and intellectually disagreeable, it's easy to sympathize with the avuncular Jack Lewis for trying to shed a little light on a world we know sadly now he saw as a very, very dark place indeed.