CS Lewis’ Narnia Story for Our Time
(RNS) – The end of the world begins with a scam.
One little lie, told by a little Grifter willing to betray his friends and neighbors for a few little pleasures, leads to another lie and then another, and ultimately to the breaking of the bonds that hold us together.
As the old camp song says, it only takes a spark to start a fire.
It can all happen in an instant, as Christian apologist CS Lewis, beloved children’s author, warns in “The Last Battle,” the flawed final chapter of the Chronicles of Narnia, which I read again in 2020 dwindled to the last few days.
“The Last Battle” is often overlooked, if not dismissed because of its colonialist racism. In 1956 it won the Carnegie Prize, Great Britain’s highest literary prize for children’s books.
According to Lewis, the end of Narnia – a land of speaking beasts and magical creatures invented by the Oxford Don at the beginning of World War II – begins in a time of peace and leisure. Everything is fine in the country. Until it is not.
Things start to fall apart after a talking monkey named Shift trips over the skin of a lion swimming in a pool under a waterfall. Filled with small ambitions – he can never find enough bananas or oranges in the local market and always get his best friend, Puzzle the Donkey, to do all the dirty work – Shift decides to turn the lion’s skin into a costume .
Then he persuades Puzzle to pretend to be Aslan, the Jesus-like Leonine Eminence from Lewis’ allegory that has long been out of the country.
With Puzzles fake Aslan by his side, Shift begins bossing his fellow Narnians around. First he tells them – in Aslan’s name – to collect the nuts he loves. Then, when the false news of Aslan’s return spreads, he orders that the sacred trees of the forest be felled and sent to merchants from Calormen, the empire to the south, whose leaders have long sought Narnia’s prosperity. Eventually, Shift banishes his Narnians to serve as identified servants.
All of this leaves the Narnians confused and heartbroken. You have long venerated the stories of Aslan, a kind hearted leader who always protected the speaking beasts of Narnia. But their love is betrayed with lies and cruelty.
When they complain, Shift claims he’s making Narnia great again.
“It’s all arranged,” he tells them. “And all for your own good. With the money you make, we can make Narnia a livable place. Oranges and bananas pour in – and streets and cities and schools and offices and whips and muzzles and saddles and cages and kennels and prisons – Oh, everything. “
With the help of several English school children who have come to his aid, the King of Narnia eventually discovers Shift’s deception and tries to undo it. But it’s too late. Shift simply claims it was Puzzle posing as Aslan and makes him a mob.
“By adding a little truth to it, they made their lie much stronger,” writes Lewis.
In the end, Narnia is overrun by Calormen soldiers and their citizens turn against each other. Due to Shift’s lies and the false news about Aslan, no one is willing to trust anyone or even seek the truth when it is right in front of their face.
The country is falling apart and eventually the world itself is falling apart.
There’s a lesson in “The Last Battle” for America in 2020, said David Dark, professor of religion and arts at Belmont University in Nashville.
The little things really matter, he said.
“We have to work up a sweat on the details,” he said. “Justice must be sought in the details, if it is to be sought at all. Generalization, as Lewis understands, is the fueling of tyranny. The specificity cuts it off. “
He pointed out what the poet William Stafford calls “many a little betrayal of the spirit” – small illusions quickly add up until we can no longer distinguish right from wrong, truth from lie.
“Jesus of Nazareth warns us in a devastating cryptic way of how easily we can lull ourselves into a certain madness,” said Dark. “He speaks of perception which, when darkened, fills your entire life with darkness.”
Treason big and small haunt most of the stories Lewis tells of Narnia.
A boy betrays his brother and sisters for a few mouthfuls of Turkish delight. Rather than admitting her own defeat, a queen murders her sister – and her people – using a spell called “Unfortunate Word”. An adviser spies on a king and kidnaps his son.
Shift sells its people for a few oranges and bananas and a bunch of nuts.
Almost all of the betrayals the series references are minor acts that have disastrous consequences and may never be rectified. Trust, Lewis seems to be saying, takes years to build and so easy to undo. Every word we say, everything we do, has consequences.
Lewis makes the same point in an essay titled “The Weight of Glory,” based on a sermon he once preached, and warns students not to take those around them lightly.
“There are no ordinary people. You have never spoken to a mortal before. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life to us is the life of a mosquito. But it is immortals with whom we joke, work, marry, abuse and abuse – immortal horrors or eternal splendor. “
“The Last Battle” has problems. The dark-skinned Calormenes are “unmistakable Muslim representatives”, as the writer Gregg Easterbrook once put it, cruel worshipers of a false god. Susan Pevensie, one of the Chronicles heroines, is noticeably absent and dismissed as “no longer a friend of Narnia” for being too interested in “nylons, lipstick, and invitations” – a pang that critics and even fans call sexist deem wrong in harmony with the soul of Narnia.
But its joys are undeniable – for one thing, for a book about the end of the world, it’s remarkably cheerful. The portrayal of what comes after the end of the world – an afterlife in a cool, fresh and beautiful landscape full of joy – is a joy for the eyes and ears. (British actor Patrick Stewart’s reading of the audio version of the book is lovely.)
There are also plenty of surprises, including a reprimand from one of the main characters for “Mansplaining”; a surprising ecumenical twist when a Calormene soldier following the god Tash is greeted by Aslan; and a beautiful scene in which a group of Narnians and English children run up a waterfall and find a walled garden surrounded by a high wall. When they knock on the gate, they find that the goalkeeper is none other than Reepicheep, a brave and brave mouse from an earlier story.
All in all, the book ends with joy and enjoyment – things that are in short supply these days.
But it’s darker warnings about “The Last Battle” that stick with a reader today. The lies a person told for their own benefit undermined the trust that held a once loved country together. And once confidence is lost, it is almost impossible to regain it.
The Narnians learned this too late.
Lewis hoped that by telling their story we would listen and avoid their fate.
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