I feel sorry for the last book in a collection. While many may enjoy the first, and probably the next couple too, not all readers will complete a series. This was certainly true in my case. It is only now, with my last pair of children, that I have finally cracked open The Last Battle and journeyed back into Narnia one last time. What I discovered felt like a commentary on devilish and despotic democracide. I had to check the publication date. Was this written in 2023? Obviously not, for it treads on far too many sensibilities for our day!
However, The Last Battle, the final chronicle of Narnia, remains eerily relevant. I am sure it was to its own day, a day of reflection on the atrocities of National Socialism (Nazi-ism) in Germany, and a day of growing suspicion of the murderous evil of International Socialism (Communism) in the East. Like all great stories, The Last Battle remains eerily relevant today, too. “Narnia faced its fiercest challenge,” the back cover explains, “not an invader from without but an enemy from within.” Indeed, so often the greatest threat to society lies within its own ranks. And that threat does not always come from the most intelligent enemies of the state. Often the mind behind the evil is devilish, while the actors used are less than impressive. His antagonism to all that is good lies behind the puppet leaders used to enact the sinister effort to transform a safe society into something so much more malevolent.
By the time we reach the third chapter of The Last Battle, we already know that a self-serving Ape and his hapless Donkey have stitched up a lion’s pelt for some nefarious purpose. We also join King Tirian and his Unicorn, Jewel, as they discover that Aslan has returned and ordered the felling of the holy trees and the murder of their dryads. Arriving at the newly cut gash in the Narnian landscape, they discover Calormenes who are mistreating a Narnian talking horse. It is all too much and they kill the two foreigners in a fit of rage.
Struck by their noble consciences, they determine to surrender their fate to the justice of Aslan. Whereupon we encounter “The Ape in its glory.”
I know that this is not directly related to biblical studies or preaching. But if you will indulge me as I share a brief series of reflections on a prescient work of fiction, here are twenty-two eerie parallels to ponder – parallels between Narnia, C.S.Lewis’ day, and even perhaps, our own.
1. A crisis was created and used by the leader of the coup. The felling of trees, the gash in the landscape, the sale of noble tree trunks to the Calormenes, the profound upset of Narnian peace – it was all created by the one who now used that same crisis to wrest control of the territory and to serve his heinous purposes.
2. Death is in the air. In the first chapter Shift cunningly manipulates Puzzle with the notion that he “shall probably die” if he tries to fetch the lion pelt from the pool. Puzzle retrieves it and is “almost tired to death.” In the second chapter the dryad is killed, then two Calormenes. This is a story of death after death so that by the end, all the characters are dead. Multiple characters state that it would have been better to be dead than…, and later on, we see Cair Paravel “filled with dead Narnians.” Death becomes an everyday conversation when societies are taken over by tyrannical forces. Lewis may not have known how accurate his picture was in the Communist east. We may not know all that is swirling in our world today, but it does feel like the subject of death is hanging in the air.
3. Everyone is saying the same thing. The King is struck by the fact that “the Horse said it was by Aslan’s orders. The Rat said the same. They all say Aslan is here.” Even though he had been warned that this was a lie, everyone was repeating the same message. There is a strange power in a common story. It will grow its own legs and generate its own credibility. Sometimes a coup will take over a land by force, but not always. Sometimes it is by stealth and the subjects will carry the tale of their own downfall willingly as if what they say is true.
4. For those that see clearly, it was clearly a charade. There in the clearing, at the peak of the hill, “there was a little hut like a stable, with a thatched roof.” But for those who could not see clearly this charade became their focal point. “On the grass in front of the door there sat an Ape. Tirian and Jewel, who had been expecting to see Aslan and had heard nothing about an Ape yet, were very bewildered when they saw it.” As readers we can see through the whole charade – don’t believe what he says, he is a fancy-dress ape with a dressed-up donkey prop! It is frustrating when others cannot see what is plainly before them.
5. Tyrants always look silly. When the Ape, chewing his supply of nuts, was handed the king’s sword with its belt, “he hung it around his own neck: it made him look sillier than ever.” Did the German population wonder about the short, shouting Austrian tyrant? Did the bigger moustache of Stalin command the respect he may have thought it should? And what of the potential tyrants in our day? If you look carefully, they always look silly.
6. Tyrants are always self-serving. “Now listen to me, everyone. The first thing I want to say is about nuts. . . . I want – I mean, Aslan wants – some more nuts.” The squirrels had already given the Ape more than they could spare. That’s the thing about tyrants: they take everything from the people and lavish luxuries on themselves. Beachfront villas, fine foods, private jets.
Next time we will continue our list . . .
(Illustration by Pauline Baynes)