My argument begins in the most cliché of fashion, I grew up a Christian home-schooler reading the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time at a pretty young age. It was a rainy November day and my mom had built a fire in the fireplace. We were only supposed to read one chapter of The Last Battle, just one, and then I needed to do my math lesson. But this book started off so differently than the others, the little foolish Donkey, Puzzle, and the manipulative Gorilla, Shift, were weaving a strange web that felt unfamiliar in Narnia, it was darker and bleaker than the others, I couldn’t stop until I knew how it ended. My mom relented and we spent the entire day reading the book. I think it was the first book I cried over, and it remains to be one of those few books that I still cry over today.
Most people have an opinion on which book they love the most out of the Chronicles and I earnestly believe there is a strong case for each of them. Some of us are drawn to the Resurrection story so clearly seen in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the episodic nature of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the creation story of the Magician’s Nephew, there is something for everyone in these tales. Again, I really believe a case can be made for any of them but there is something about the Last Battle, the way this series ends that portrays the darkness we as Christians face, and the hope that is to come.
There is no quest in this book, the characters all react to a chain of dismal events. What’s more, the entire book you are waiting for Aslan. He has always shown up and saved the day. But where is he when the Dryads fall? Where is he when Tirian is tied to a tree by the Calormenes? Jill and Eustace are no match for the level of evil the Narnians are facing, the world needs Aslan. Why doesn’t he show himself next to poor little Puzzle to prove to the Dwarves and all those falling under the deception of Tashlan, that he is the one true Aslan? None of the other books felt quite so… hopeless.
I remember my heart racing as everything seems to go wrong. “No, this isn’t how it should be. Aslan would never treat his people like that. Why are they spinning everything He says?” I wanted to shout while reading it. This is a question that I have often asked in the midst of my own struggles or when I look at the world around me. Where is he? Why doesn’t he reveal himself to people who are questioning him? Lewis doesn’t sugarcoat the darkness or terror we often feel in this world, even in a children’s book.
Of course, there are moments of hope here and there, when the mice feed Tirian and tend his wound, when Jill and arrive, Jill rescuing Puzzle, the loyal dwarf Poggin, Emeth the Calormene’s faith, when the Narnians fight before the stable. In spite of the glimmers though, the book is undoubtedly dark. The fictional Tash arrives, the dwarves turn their backs, and Tirian watches as all the Narnians are either killed or sent into the stable as a sacrifice to Tash. Whatever you feel about Michael Ward’s interpretation on the Chronicles, I think his chapter on The Last Battle is spot on. The book is dark and mournful, a picture of lament. And yet amidst this darkness there is “divine presence in human loneliness and suffering.”
The Last Battle is probably the only children’s book that ends with death for the heroes and heroines. But, and not to be too morbid, isn’t that the ending for all of us? Lewis held unflinchingly that death was not the worst thing could happen to us, and he so clearly demonstrates this in The Last Battle. The worst is not to die, but to not have faith in Aslan. The sweet, naïve bear who mutters “I don’t understand” before he is killed in battle captures the faith God requires of us. Isn’t that so often how we feel looking at the world around us? We don’t understand what He is doing or why He doesn’t come charging into battle, and yet, we stay in the battle. We continue to fight what often can feel like a losing battle because, even though we don’t know the full plan, we trust the one who does.
The book is a picture of unflinching faith in the face of darkness and hopelessness. Tirian who has never met Aslan is still crying out to him in his fear, Jill and Eustace soldier on clinging to the Narnia they love, and in the end Aslan is there waiting for them. He watched it all unfold because it was all according to his plan. It is the end of Narnia as we all know it, and there is a somberness and mourning one feels reading about Father Time squeezing out the sun. But it isn’t the end… All of Narnia is returned to the children who have come to love this beautiful country and great lion. It’s the reunion I dream of. The loyal and true throughout the years reunited by that common faith, rejoicing in what he has done. The term is over, the holidays have begun. Everything is just as it should be, only more real. I know so many readers mourn Susan turning away from Narnia. I am of the optimistic variety that there is still hope for her to find her way back. But as a child reading about Susan who turned her back on the Narnia she loved for the idol of “growing up” it reminded me to keep the earnestness of Lucy. I’m always a child stumbling through a wardrobe seeking Him in a tumultuous world.
The book is about the end times, it is a reminder that this life is but the journey to an ending so wonderful we can’t even begin to imagine it. The Last Battle is one that explains to children what it is to go through moments of doubt, it is a book that shows us a “dark night of the soul”, but the ending is a reminder that no good thing does He withhold. At the end of it all we are brought home, into forever rest and adventure, being called “come further up and further in!” The ending of The Last Battle is a clear echo of Revelation “The Spirit and the bride say, “come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirst come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life”s world.”