My Covid Year Reading: The Last Battle
“In the Last Days of Narnia, far up to the west.” This is how C.S. Lewis begins the end of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle. I reread this book last year, right in the middle of the pandemic lock-downs, and since doing so I’ve found myself more and more referring to the book to help find the language which describes so much of the cultural confusion we see around us.
The story line is thoroughly eschatological with chapter one beginning “In the Last Days”, chapter two beginning with “the Last of the Kings of Narnia”, and with even a full apocalyptic end to the world of Narnia itself: every character dies! But not without hope. Indeed, as we read in the very last page of the book, “this is the end of all the stories… 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.”
Michael Ward has so helpfully pointed out (really, discovered) Lewis’ use of the planet Saturn as a character and major motif throughout The Last Battle. Saturn, often representative of time and the ending of time, makes key appearances throughout but especially under his alias, Father Time. “Then Jill and Eustace remembered how once long ago, in the deep caves before the moors, they had seen a great giant asleep and been told that his name was Father Time, and that he would wake on the day the world ended.” As Father Time awakens, he immediately crushes the Sun (that ever-faithful marker of time) in order to usher in complete darkness and final judgement. Indeed, as Lewis writes, “All the stars were falling: Aslan had called them home.”
The story then truly is apocalyptic. But what stood out to me upon my most recent reading was the way in which the world of Narnia devolved into confusion and mistrust leading up to The End. From the very beginning of The Last Battle it was evident that Lewis was using the device of half-truths and manipulated stories to drive the rising conflict. Shift, the first character we’re introduced to, is a mischievous Ape who is bent on deceptively manipulating reality to get what he wants. By stirring up fear Shift is able to disguise a weak-willed Donkey to wear a Lion’s skin and parade around as Aslan, the Lord of Narnia. He’s thus the architect of an anti-Aslan.
It’s through Shifts shifty action that the world of Narnia becomes filled with rumors and the rumors turn into instances of “fake news” and the fake news gets turned into propaganda. And all so that Shift can reach his utopian vision of the future. “It’s all arranged. And all for your own good. We’ll be able, with money you earn, to make Narnia a country worth living in. There’ll be oranges and bananas pouring in – and roads and big cities and schools and offices and whips and muzzles and saddles and cages and kennels and prisons – Oh, everything.”
It’s clear Lewis is painting Shift as a kind of Narnian communist, but it’s also fascinating how he places this dystopian political scheme in the mouth of Narnia’s anti-Aslan. A false Messiah who promises a better Narnia but only delivers pain and suffering and warfare. Fear fills the air. So confusing do things get that the Narnians can’t help but tribalize in order to defend themselves and find some cohesion of trust and truth. The Dwarves don’t know who to trust so they end up fighting and killing anyone who’s not a Dwarf. Lewis wouldn’t have used this term, but he does in a way prophetically describe a kind of Narnian intersectionality: the atomizing of what once was a beautifully unified country into warring factions. Every group and sub-group for themselves.
Sadly, it was Shift’s propagandizing misinformation which led to an all-out mistrust of any real good news at all. After the heroic Tirian and his lot defeat Shift and his evil defenders, Tirian turns to the Dwarves to announce their new-found freedom; they can trust in the real Aslan again. But sadly, and out of fear, they respond thus: “Well, I don’t know how all you chaps feel, but I feel I’ve heard as much about Aslan as I want to for the rest of my life… We’ve been taken in once and now you expect us to be taken in again the next minute? We’ve no more use for stories about Aslan, see!”
What becomes evident throughout as the story develops (or more properly, devolves) is the utter societal decay that unfolds because of Shift’s propaganda machine. The collapse of Narnia from the inside is harder to read then when Aslan himself brings that beautiful world to an end. The mistrust, the infighting, the rapidity at which free creatures give themselves to enslavement. Lewis was clearly a student of history and modern political movements and in such an imaginative way works it all into the Last Days of Narnia. Fear so drives each character that the whole story could almost be described as tragedy. Almost.
When Aslan finally does step in there’s a real sense of relief and closure. And this is where hope begins to emerge. What stands out is the glorious lesson that every character who continued to hope in the real Aslan – even amidst real confusion and crippling doubt – was in the end vindicated. No matter the new spin or rampant rumor, the ones who held on to the old, old stories – the stories of Aslan of old – they were welcomed into Aslan’s new world.
It’s a world which is, in the words of Lucy and Lord Digory, “different… more like the real thing.” Here Lewis’ Christian Platonism shines brightly. As Lord Digory explains, “‘All of the old Narnia that mattered, 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’… when he added under his breath ‘It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!’ the older ones laughed.”
It is in this “more real Narnia” where Jewel the Unicorn finally exclaims, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now… Come further up, come further in.”
There it is! In the midst of our own cultural confusion and the everywhere present white-noise of rumors and misleading reporting and propagandizing, is this not what Christians should be looking forward to? Our citizenship in that more real country, that heavenly Kingdom of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Jesus Christ. Lewis has given us a book that feels too much at home in our current world filled as it is with fear. And yet it’s a book which casts our eyes with hope to a better world. “Isn’t it wonderful?” said Lucy as she began to explore the true Narnia. “Have you noticed one can’t feel afraid, even if one wants to? Try it.”
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.
 Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 190-213
 C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (Haper Trophy, 2007), p. 171
 Ibid., p. 173. Throughout the book we see Lewis give hints concerning time and the stars. For instance, as Tirian the Last King is captured and tied up for the night, Lewis writes, “The stars came out and time went slowly on – imagine how slowly – while the last King of Narnia stood stiff and sore and upright against the tree in his bonds”; page 46.
 Ibid., p. 37
 Ibid., p. 82
 Ibid., p. 193
 Ibid., p. 195
 Ibid., p. 196
 Ibid., p. 199