The Last Battle (1956)

The Last Battle was written by CS Lewis and illustrated by Pauline Baynes. In fact, Pauline Baynes’ illustrations are so iconic CS Lewis wrote to her: “is it not rather ‘our’ medal? I’m sure the illustrations were taken into account as well as the text.”

The Last Battle is, in every sense of the word, the last in The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Carnegie Medal was given in recognition of the entire series, not just this last work, which many critics consider the weakest of the books (Keith Barker, 1997). I always found the reading order of the Chronicles of Narnia very confusing, but if you want to read them all, it is certain that The Last Battle needs to be read last.

Like all the Narnia stories, the ethos of the book is the struggle between good (symbolised by Aslan) and evil (represented here by the ape Shift and the Calormeness and their god, Tash). The ape, Shift, manipulates his friend Puzzle, a donkey, into wearing a lion skin, thus pretending to be Aslan. This is used for the simple purpose of power, but it quickly spirals out of control. The Calormenes pitch battle against King Tirian and his few Narnian followers and in the process calls their god, Tash, into the world. The ‘friends of Narnia’, Professor Kirke, Polly, Peter, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, Eustace and Jill, all appear in time to see Narnia destroyed and a new world created. All the inhabitants, living and dead, gather outside a barn to be judged by Aslan; the faithful enter Aslan’s Country while those who have opposed or deserted him become ordinary animals and vanish.

All of the books in The Chronicles of Narnia series contain Biblical allusions, but The Last Battle is a direct re-imagining of the Book of Revelation, describing the end of the world as we know it. In The Last Battle, we have allegorical representations of the Antichrist, the false prophet, the fate of non-believers, Heaven, the Final Judgment, the Second Coming and the End of the World. It’s a pretty hefty topic for a children’s novel (aimed at age 9-12) and does in part, account for its mixed reputation. At the best of times, I am not a fan of Biblical allegories. The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe is also pretty heavy-handed, but at least it is an absorbing tale and CS Lewis is skilled at worldbuilding and story-telling. However, in The Last Battle, the biblical allegory takes over, and the writing feels flat and uninspiring. There’s very little dialogue and once Aslan comes on the scene what little story had developed until that point disappears and all other characters are left to stand, literally, on the sidelines to see the world they love vanish in page after page of dreary description. It’s like the characters are sitting there reading the Bible. Sorry, this is just B-O-R-I-N-G.

All the characters from ‘our world’ are a bit flat and one-dimentional. But one thing is for sure; if they are female they don’t get to participate much in the actual action. They can be instigators of the story (for instance Lucy’s entrance through the Wardrobe into Narnia), but as soon as the boys get on the stage, they get to do the real fighting. CS Lewis does seem to have a rather ambiguous relationship to the ‘daugthers of Eve’; adult women in Narnia are far, and few between and usually cast as the villains like The White Witch and the Lady of the Green Kirtle. But in The Last Battle, he excludes Susan from Narnia on the grounds that she’s more interested in ‘nylons and lipstick’ and ‘grown-up things’. This is a beloved major character, who ruled Narnia as ‘Susan the Gentle’ and looked out for her siblings through a number of the bookss! The other children, upon hearing that they have died in our world and are going to live forever in the new Narnia just dismiss her in the blink of the eye “Our sister Susan,” answered Peter, shortly and gravely, “Is no longer a friend of Narnia.” What, because she wanted to be a grown-up and lost ‘faith’? I am not the only one who has a problem with Susan’s dismissal. JK Rowling and Philip Pulman have both objected to this treatment. Neil Gaiman even wrote a short story about Susan as an old woman ‘The Problem of Susan’ in the short story anthology Fragile Things. This is a sad story about the life that Susan is left to lead after the death of her siblings and her parents, aimed at adults, definitely not children. There are other questionable aspects to The Last Battle namely the racist portrayal of the Calormenes which is toe-curling but, unfortunately, of its time.

I do appreciate the universalist sentiments, portrayed by Lewis’ treatment of Emreth, i.e. that anyone who does good deeds, no matter whose name they’re doing them in, is serving God. But I don’t particularly like the notion that Lewis sets forth that there is a one particular true God (in this case, Aslan). I have come across interpretations that, to me, are much more paleatable (but which are unfortunately not quite borne out by the text), namely that it doesn’t matter in whose name we do good or evil, only that the act is good or evil. I am not wild about the echoes of the judgement day either which does not belong in my understanding of the moral codex of modern Christianity.

Of course, for CS Lewis, this was deeply authentic, he did not put in the moral for the sake of a moral. In ‘On three ways of writing for Children’ he says: “Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don’t show you any moral, don’t put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness. It is impertinent to offer the children that”.

Reading through the reviews, it appears that this is a book that is joyful, uplifting and powerful if you are a (certain kind of) Christian and unappealing if you are not. But there’s a different fan base out there too – this is the first book in the Carnegie medal-list that I have encountered that has its own fandom webpage(s) – I think because it’s the first ‘proper’ high-fantasy book on the Carnegie list.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of my favourite children’s stories. As is clear from the above, The Last Battle is not. 3/10

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: