Thursday, 13 December 2018

Reimer the Ferryman’s Aerial Voyage

[A Christmas Eve tale from Scandinavian Folklore, William Craigie, 1896]

At Ottesund Ferry on Limfjord there was a ferryman whose name was Reimer. He had gone all the way to Copenhagen to get a licence to allow him to ferry over the Sound. It took him a long time to get all the arrangements in place, and it was Christmas Eve by the time he had finished with the Lords of Council. 

As he went off along the street, wishing that he was at home and very upset that he wasn’t, he met a little old man in a grey coat who called him by his name and asked, “Wouldn’t you like very much to get home this evening?” 

“Of course I would, but it’s impossible!”

“O no,” said the little man, “if in return you will do for me a service I shall shortly have need of – and for which I shall also pay you richly – you shall be home this very evening at suppertime, quite unharmed.”
“All very well,” said Reimer, “but first I should like to know just what sort of a service you want me to do.”

“Only this,” said the little man, “that you and your ferryman, one night, will carry cargoes for me from the south to the north side of the Sound. And for that you now have a licence, and permission.” 

 “No objection to that,” said Reimer, “but how are we to travel home? What conveyance do you have?”

“We’ll get on my horse together,” said the little man, “you shall sit behind me; the horse is only a little one but I know how to guide it.” The little horse was waiting outside one of the city gates; they both mounted – and then went through the air like a flash of lightning, without meeting anything until two hours after they had begun their journey, when Reimer heard a clink, as if two pieces of iron struck together.  “What was that?” he asked. “O, nothing except that the beast’s hind shoe touched the spire of Viborg Cathedral,” said the little man. Soon after, the horse touched down in Reimer’s own courtyard. He dismounted, and his guide and the horse disappeared in the same moment.

Glad to be home, Reimer soon forgot his promise; but one evening the little man reappeared and reminded him of it. He made haste then to get all his things ready, and his travelling companion came to him as it was growing dark. “Come now, and bring all your men!”

Reimer’s ferryboats came and went all the long night, and many heavy chests and boxes were ferried over, but they saw no people except the one man.  When all the goods had been carried across, the bergman (for so he was) took a basket, opened one of the chests, filled the basket with chinking coin, gave it to Reimer and said, “Take that for your trouble and goodwill towards one that you know not, but don’t thank me for it. I suppose you would like to know what you have ferried over tonight – there! You can see it!” and taking the cap off his own head, he put it on Reimer’s, who at once  saw the whole beach swarming with thousands of little trolls of both sexes. He pulled the cap off his head, quite terrified, and asked the old man, “And where are you going with all this?”

“North,” said the bergman. 

“Why so?” asked Reimer.

“Because Christianity is pushing further and further up from the south,” said the bergman, “but it will hardly get up to the Ice Sea in my time, so we are going there.”

Picture credit:

Troll by Theodore Kittelsen

Friday, 7 December 2018

Faerie Cities

This wonderful little city stands, as if sprung from the soil, in a neighbour's garden. It reminds me of the medieval French city of Carcassonne, whose name was used by Lord Dunsany for a faerie city in one of his tales, though rather oddly he seems to have picked the name from a reference in a friend's letter and never to have known it is a real place:

Some had heard of it in speech or song; some had read of it and some had dreamed of it. ...Far away it was, and far and far away, a city of gleaming ramparts rising one over the other, and marble terraces behind the ramparts, and fountains shimmering on the terraces. To Carcassonne the elf-kings with their fairies had first retreated from men, and had built it on an evening late in May by blowing their elfin horns. Carcassonne!  Carcassonne!

Travellers had seen it sometimes like a clear dream, with the sun glittering on its citadel upon a far-off hilltop, and then the clouds had come or a sudden mist; no one had seen it long or come quite close to it; though once there were some men that came very near, and the smoke from the houses blew into their faces, a sudden gust—no more, and these declared that some one was burning cedarwood there. Men had dreamed that there is a witch there, walking alone through the cold courts and corridors of marmorean palaces, fearfully beautiful and still for all her fourscore centuries, singing the second oldest song, which was taught her by the sea, shedding tears for loneliness from eyes that would madden armies, yet will she not call her dragons home—Carcassonne is terribly guarded.

Dunsany was brilliant at fairy cities and gives them wonderful names. I'm sure he must have wandered past the same house, in one of his cities, from whose magic casement John Keats leaned to view  'the foam of perilous seas, in faerie lands forlorn.'  How about Bethmoora of the Copper Gates? "To and fro they swing, and creak in the wind, but no one hears them. They are of green copper, very lovely, but no one sees them now. The desert wind pours sand into their hinges, no watchman comes to ease them. No guard goes round Bethmoora's battlements, no enemy assails them. There are no lights in her houses, no footfall in her streets; she stands there dead and lonely beyond the Hills of Hap, and I would see Bethmoora again, but I dare not."
In his wonderful river tale, 'Idle Days on the Yann', the boat 'Bird of the River' comes to beautiful Mandaroon, a city of white pinnacles and ruddy walls, full of incense, and the smoke of poppies "and the hum of distant bells", where all the people are asleep, for if they wake, the gods will die...

And in far-famed Perdóndaris with its temples of silver and onyx, the narrator discovers a massive gate carved from one single piece of ivory: a rash choice of building material! For, "even as I ran I thought I heard far off on the hills behind me the tramp of the fearful beast by whom that mass of ivory had been shed, who was perhaps even then looking for his other tusk." 

Dunsany's cities don't endure, and that is the romance of them. Anyway, my neighbour's little fairy city reminds me of this poem of Kipling's, from 'Puck of Pook's Hill'

Cities and Thrones and Powers
Stand in Time’s eye,
Almost as long as flowers,
Which daily die:
But, as new buds put forth
To glad new men,
Out of the spent and unconsidered Earth
The Cities rise again.

This season’s Daffodil,
She never hears
What change, what chance, what chill,
Cut down last year’s;
But with bold countenance,
And knowledge small,
Esteems her seven days’ continuance,
To be perpetual.

So Time that is o’er-kind
To all that be,
Ordains us e’en as blind,
As bold as she:
That in our very death,
And burial sure,
Shadow to shadow, well persuaded, saith,
“See how our works endure!”


Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Re-reading Narnia: The Last Battle

When I was a child, of all the Narnia books The Last Battle was the one I liked least. I read it perhaps only two or three times compared with countless re-readings of the others; this was because I found it uncomfortable, disturbing. It’s a book in which absolutely everything goes wrong, at least until the very end; and whether the ending truly succeeds in putting things right is open to question. Then too, this is the book in which we are told Susan is ‘no longer a friend of Narnia’. Susan wasn’t my favourite character but I still liked her, and she was one of the four kings and queens of Narnia’s Golden Age. ‘Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen’ – what happened to that? In the other stories Lewis was clear-eyed about his characters’ faults, their jealousies, vanities and quarrels – but he was still on their side, still loyal to them. He had never dismissed one of them before. Something had changed. 

 In the last days of Narnia, far up to the west beyond Lantern Waste, there lived an Ape. 

"In the last days of Narnia... " The bell tolls from the very beginning, and here in the first sentence of the first page, instead of meeting one of the human children who are our avatars (and a sort of guarantee that Aslan has sent them and all will be well), we meet Shift the Ape.

An Ape isn’t the sort of Talking Beast you might expect to find in the northern kingdom of Narnia, for the elephants and giraffes of The Magician’s Nephew seem long ago to have wandered off.  Decades of nature programmes by David Attenborough have taught us to see apes differently, but Lewis was writing within a literary and social tradition which regarded apes as caricatures of human beings. Shift seems a scheming interloper. He wants exotic, difficult-to-get foods like oranges and bananas, his very name suggests someone unstable and sly, and his friendship with Puzzle the donkey, whose name and species suggest simplicity and patience, is a case study in manipulative abuse. 
Puzzle was more like Shift’s servant than his friend. He did all the work. …And if ever Puzzle did try to argue with him about anything, Shift would always say, ‘Now Puzzle, I know what needs to be done better than you. You know you’re not clever, Puzzle.’ And Puzzle would always say, ‘No Shift, it’s quite true. I’m not clever.’ Then he would sigh and do whatever Shift had said. 

There's a neat lesson there about the dangers of accepting someone's low valuation of yourself...  Aged ten, of course I completely understood how Shift manages to make poor Puzzle jump into Cauldron Pool to retrieve the yellow lion-skin floating below the waterfall; like most children, I had known at least one Shift: the person who says, ‘I won’t be your friend any more unless you do.’ Shift made me feel deeply uncomfortable, as Lewis intends. And that lion-skin looked bad luck from the start - a horrible, deathly thing, ‘heavy and cold and slimy’. Once Shift has it tied to Puzzle’s back there’s no way the donkey can get it off by himself. He isn’t blameless, though. He could give the game away any time simply by braying, but he doesn’t. He’s used to doing what Shift says, and Shift has convinced him of his own inability. The scene is set for an immense deception.
We move on. Tirian, ominously introduced as ‘the last of the Kings of Narnia’, is sitting outside the door of his hunting lodge ‘not far from the Eastern end of Lantern Waste’: 

There was no one else with him that spring morning except his dearest friend, Jewel the Unicorn. They loved each other like brothers and each had saved the other’s life in the wars.

As they discuss the wonderful rumour that Aslan, unseen for generations, has been glimpsed in Lantern Waste, they are interrupted. Roonwit the Centaur gallops up to warn of disastrous conjunctions in the heavens. ‘Some great evil hangs over Narnia,’ he says, and while Tirian is still trying to absorb this, a distressed Dryad comes rushing from the woods.  ‘Justice, Lord King! Come to our aid! They are felling us in Lantern Waste!’ But too late! She gasps in pain – 

 – shuddering time after time as if under repeated blows. Then all at once she fell sideways as suddenly as if both her feet had been cut from under her. For a second they both saw her lying dead on the grass and then she vanished. They knew what had happened. Her tree, miles away, had been cut down.

This death of the Dryad, so tragic and so tree-ish, injects a huge spike of adrenaline into the story and is a scene I've always remembered. I was a hundred percent behind Tirian as he exclaims, ‘I will not wait the tenth part of a second!’ and issues impetuous, unwise orders. Sending Roonwit to gallop to Cair Paravel for help, he and Jewel set out alone to discover a party of Calormenes who are not only hacking down trees, but harnessing and flogging Talking Horses to pull logs. In shock and anger, Jewel and Tirian kill the unarmed Calormene carters and rescue the Horses.

Now let's step back for a moment, for there are a number of difficulties to this chapter which I never spotted when I was a child. I was so thrilled to meet a Narnian Unicorn and so caught up in the excitement of what happened next, that it’s taken me until now to pay attention to Lewis’s carefully worded claim that Tirian and Jewel are alone. They’re not really alone. There are servants inside the lodge, for when Roonwit arrives, Tirian calls a pageboy to bring his guest a bowl of wine: kings are never unattended. But the pageboy remains anonymous because, in the approaching emergency, Lewis wants Tirian and Jewel to be powerless, far from help. That’s also why Roonwit is dismissed, even though it’s a terrible decision. Lantern Waste is in the top left hand corner of the Narnian map, about as far from Cair Paravel as you can possibly get. In Prince Caspian, it’s a half-day’s march just to get from Aslan’s Howe to the fords of Beruna. It will surely take Roonwit two days at least to reach Cair Paravel, and more than double that before reinforcements can arrive. When Lewis tells us that Tirian and Jewel have both saved each other's lives 'in the wars', what wars were these? Tirian doesn't seem to have learned anything from them.This chapter is called ‘The Rashness of the King.’ ‘Rashness’ hardly begins to cover it. 

And the presence of a Calormene force, thirty strong, in this remote corner of Narnia poses more problems. We learn much later that they came disguised as merchants, but it’s hard to believe Tirian wouldn’t have been made aware of them as they travelled through. To get here by land, they must crossed the desert and come through Archenland. If they came by sea, they would have had to sail straight past Cair Paravel and up the Great River. Or, landing further north, they would have had to cross or loop around Marshwiggle territory. Narnia is full of Talking Birds and Animals, fauns, dwarfs and dryads, all of them with eyes in their heads. How can the enemy possibly have got to Lantern Waste and begun this destruction undetected and unreported? And what on earth is their strategic purpose? It’s true that Narnia is not an internally consistent secondary world like Middle-Earth; it’s almost (but not quite) a fairytale country: perhaps one can forgive a little fog around the edges. But Lewis was a excellent craftsman; this isn’t mere sloppiness. Most of it is calculated sleight-of-hand, as we shall see.

So far Tirian has acted with an almost complete lack of common sense and he now compounds it, for as he and Jewel flee from the Calormene soldiers he has a crisis of conscience and turns back. ‘We have done a dreadful deed. To leap on them unaware – without defying them – while they were unarmed – faugh! We are two murderers, Jewel. I am dishonoured forever.’ It could be argued that as King, he has no right to place his personal honour above the safety of his people, and that this is an act of dangerous self indulgence. The chivalric impulse however, once lightly touched upon, gives way to a more important consideration: the Horse has said that all was happening by Aslan’s orders. ‘But Sire,’ says Jewel, ‘how could Aslan be commanding such dreadful things?’

This is the core question of the book, vitally important, with implications for nearly everything else that happens. As a believer, what do you do when your God appears to be commanding something that is wrong? How do you react? Some simply say that if God wants it, it must be right. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons, put that view with startling frankness: ‘God said thou shalt not kill – at another time he said thou shalt utterly destroy. Whatever God requires is right … even things which may be considered abominable to all those who do not understand the order of heaven.’ Though very shaken, Tirian and Jewel do not think like that.  

“He is not a tame lion,” said Tirian. “How should we know what he would do? We, who are murderers. I will… put myself in the hands of these Calormenes and ask that they bring me before Aslan. Let him do justice on me.”

“You will go to your death, then,” said Jewel.

“Do you think I care if Aslan dooms me to death?” said the King. “That would be nothing, nothing at all. Would it not be better to be dead than to have this horrible fear that Aslan has come and is not like the Aslan we have believed in and longed for? It is as if the sun rose one day and were a black sun.” 

“I know,” said Jewel. “Or as if you drank water and it were dry water.”

The Last Battle is a book about belief. ‘You will pretend to be Aslan,’ says Shift to Puzzle, ‘and I’ll tell you what to say.’ When Puzzle objects, ‘What would become of us if the real Aslan turned up?’ Shift replies, ‘He never does turn up, you know. Not nowadays.’ 

‘Not nowadays’. If there is a God, why does he not still intervene in humanity’s affairs? If the personal encounters of the Old and New Testaments ever happened, why do they not still occur? Why is it that Aslan never turns up in Narnia any more? Within the sub-creation that is Narnia, readers cannot doubt that Aslan exists. Then why has he changed his behaviour? 

Lewis poses these questions deliberately. In parallel with our world, none of the Narnians of this generation has ever met Aslan in the flesh. They hold beliefs about him – that he is the source of all that is good and generous and nurturing. But that aphorism ‘not a tame lion’ which we first met in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, suggests there is something frightening about him, too. A lion is as frightening as it is beautiful, and all concepts of the divine acknowledge a degree of terror. Lewis places Tirian, knowingly I am certain, in the situation of Job in the Bible, so I hope you will come with me on a small Biblical excursion. 

The Book of Job is a parable which investigates two questions: why do bad things happen to good people, and – given that they do – how do we retain a faith in God? Job is a good and pious man, blessed with a large family and great riches. The story begins like a folk tale: one day in the court of heaven, Satan insinuates that of course Job honours God – hasn’t God given him everything he wants? “But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” To prove Satan wrong, God puts Job to the test. He allows Satan to strip Job of his possessions, then to kill his family, and finally to cover Job himself with boils. (Back in Narnia, Aslan allows Shift to sell Narnia to its enemies with all the suffering and anguish that entails, and to bring King Tirian low.) Will Job still honour God after all this misery? Job hangs in there, more or less. He curses the day he was born, but refrains from cursing God. ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain my own ways before him.’  

Satan smites Job with boils: William Blake, Tate

Job declares his trust in God, but he is not prepared not to ask questions. By declaring, ‘I will maintain my own ways before him,’ he puts God to the test. ‘Let me speak, and answer thou me,’ he demands. ‘Make me to know my transgression and my sin. Wherefore hidest thou thy face and holdest me for thine enemy?’ 

What have I done to deserve this? Why do the innocent suffer? The parable now transcends its folkloric frame: the answer is not going to be, ‘Satan and I had a bet.’ Job flings anguished questions into the void of the Divine and the Divine answers not with comfort, not with reasons or explanations, but with page after page of its own magnificent questions. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me who laid the measures on it? Who laid the cornerstone, when all the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Have you descended to the springs of the sea? Can you draw up Leviathan with a hook?

The Book of Job wrestles with the problem of suffering, which it does not explain as the result of Original Sin, or justice wreaked upon sinners by an angry Deity, or as in some way character-forming or good for you or all your own fault, or any of that crap. It acknowledges straight up that evil is evil, pain is pain. God confronts Job with the beauty and terror of a universe of which suffering is an integral part and says, effectively, It is what is is. I am what I am. This is the only answer. In the end, Job accepts it. You can read this how you like, because the genius of the book is to leave the question open after all. But Job says:

I have spoken of great things which I have not understood,
things too wonderful for me to know.
I knew of thee then only by report,
but now I have seen thee with my own eyes.
Therefore I melt away,
I repent in dust and ashes.  

Job has grappled with unanswerable questions but his integrity remains. He’s not acquiesced. He’s not been made to agree that he deserved any of this, or that the bad things that happened to him were some kind of disguised good. Evil is still evil. And God wasn’t angry with him for asking. He even tried to reply. 

Anyway here’s poor Tirian trying to square the circle and make sense of this suddenly cruel and angry Aslan. Like Job, his first position is trust, not blind trust but provisional trust. He will put Aslan to the test and see what he will do. He is not prepared to believe in black suns and dry water.

What happens next is a charade (including some very unfortunate racial stereotyping to which I will return). Tirian and Jewel give themselves up and are brought before Shift the Ape, who with the help of his Calormene allies is now lording it over a large community of miserable and bewildered Talking Beasts. ‘Aslan’, aka Puzzle the donkey, has been hidden away in a thatched stable outside which Shift sits in bullying state, wearing a scarlet jacket, jewelled slippers, and a paper crown. When one of the animals asks ‘Why can’t we see Aslan properly and talk to him?’, Shift replies, 

‘I’m the only one Aslan is ever going to speak to. He can’t be bothered talking to a lot of stupid animals. He’ll tell me what you’ve got to do, and I’ll tell the lot of you. And take my advice, and see you do it in double quick time, for he doesn’t mean to stand any nonsense.’

Under the new regime, the Talking Beasts are to be shipped out of Narnia to become slaves of the Tisroc, while Narnia itself is to be modernised in the sort of way Lewis deplores, with: 

 …roads and big cities and schools and offices and whips and muzzles and saddles and cages and kennels and prisons – Oh, everything!

Never mind the false equivalences, Lewis is on a roll and knows his audience of children will shudder. As indeed I did, for Narnia is a wonderful, impossible dream where everyone is happy if only they are left alone, and nobody needs schools or offices or prisons – institutions so foreign to Narnia you might wonder how Shift has even heard of them. Now a little Lamb speaks up to ask how Aslan can have anything to do with Tash – a god with four arms and the head of a vulture who demands human sacrifices? And Shift responds that Tash and Aslan are identical. ‘The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing. Tash and Aslan are only different names for you know Who…Tash is Aslan. Aslan is Tash.’ 

No Narnian has ever thought like this: but Shift does, and so does Rishda Tarkaan the Calormene leader who says, ‘Aslan means neither more nor less than Tash,’ and the atheistical Cat, Ginger, who suggests, ‘Aslan means no more than Tash’. For these three, Aslan and Tash have equivalence because for them neither name has meaning, and in their mouths the concept of interfaith tolerance and respect turns to cynical platitude. As for ‘you know Who’ – what does Shift even mean? Though the Chronicles of Narnia a few times refer to Aslan’s father ‘the great Emperor-beyond-the Sea’, there has never really been the concept of a god in Narnia: as befits an animal world, Aslan’s presence is too physical for that. ‘You know Who’ is a banal euphemism, a nudge and a wink at a God so notional and irrelevant as to have dwindled to the level of popular superstition. When Shift says ‘you know Who’, he sounds like someone from our world, just as he did when he talked about roads and offices and prisons. Lewis is cracking the world of Narnia open and a cold wind from our own world is blowing through.

Tirian is dragged off and tied to a tree. As night falls a number of small Talking Beasts arrive to comfort him. They daren’t release him for fear Aslan should be angry, but they wipe his bleeding face and bring him food and drink. After that, the wood is dark and lonely. From his tree, Tirian witnesses the bonfire being lit outside the stable, and the pantomime of the false ‘Aslan’ – a yellow, four-legged waddling thing – being shown to the crowd of frightened animals. The fire is put out. Alone again, Tirian begins to think self-pityingly of the Narnian kings of long ago who were helped by mysterious children from beyond the world, right back to the times of the White Witch, a thousand years ago. ‘That sort of thing doesn’t happen now,’ he thinks, echoing Shift. But then he remembers more.

Aslan had come into that story a lot. He had come into all the other stories too, as Tirian now remembered. “Aslan – and children from another world,” thought Tirian. “They have always come in when things were at their worst. Oh, if only they could come now!”

            And he called out “Aslan! Aslan! Aslan! Come and help us now.”

Until now, Tirian has thought and spoken of Aslan, but never directly to him. This returns us to the question of suffering, why it exists and whether it has a purpose. Considering this in The Problem of Pain, Lewis wrote: ‘God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a dead world.’ While things were easy, maybe Aslan was not much more than a beautiful legend to Tirian. Now in extremity, he attempts an active relationship; for in Lewis’s view you need to petition God before he will come to your aid. There’s a moment in The Magician’s Nephew when Digory and Polly realise that though Fledge can eat grass, they themselves have nothing to eat. Digory grumbles that someone should have arranged this for them.

“I’m sure Aslan would have, if you’d asked him,” said Fledge.

“Wouldn’t he know without being asked?” said Polly.

“I’ve no doubt he would,” said the Horse (still with his mouth full). “But I’ve a sort of idea he likes to be asked.”

This may sound pointless or even petty, but on the run-up to the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus advises people to keep their prayers simple, for ‘your Father knows what your needs are before you ask him’ [Matthew, 6:8], but nevertheless includes a petition for daily bread – perhaps as a daily reminder of God’s bounty, analogous to not taking your parents for granted.

Tirian tries again, begging Aslan to let his voice ‘carry beyond the world’. 

“Children! Children! Friends of Narnia! Quick. Come to me. Across the worlds I call to you; I, Tirian, King of Narnia, Lord of Cair Paravel, and Emperor of the Lone Islands!”

With this stirring cry he is swept into a waking dream, appearing ghost-like before seven people of different ages whom we recognise as Polly and Digory, Peter, Edmund and Lucy, and Jill and Eustace – ‘the seven friends of Narnia’. (Where, I fleetingly wondered, was Susan?) Peter rises: ‘If you are from Narnia… speak to me,’ but Tirian is unable. As the vision melts and vanishes he finds himself back in the wood, still tied to the tree as day is dawning. It’s a terrible moment – till with a bump and then another bump, two children appear from nowhere. Jill and Eustace have arrived!

It was with vast relief I greeted their appearance. I was hardly forty pages into the book, but so many awful things had happened it seemed a lifetime. Now at last things would begin to get better! Jill and Eustace rescued Rilian in The Silver Chair: now they would do the same for Tirian. Never mind that the book was called The Last Battle: at ten years old I had never heard of Armageddon. And never mind that Tirian kept being called ‘the last king of Narnia’; I’d been with Jill and Eustace in dark places before and it had always turned out all right. It was good to hear their nice, ordinary voices as they cut Tirian free.

“I say,” said the girl. “It was you, wasn’t it, who appeared to us that night when we were all at supper? Nearly a week ago.”

“A week, fair maid?” said Tirian. “My dream led me into your world scarce ten minutes hence.”

“It’s the usual muddle about times, Pole,” said the Boy.

‘The usual muddle’ - that’s just what it was! The usual muddle which would now be sorted out, so all I had to do was sit back and enjoy the story. (How wrong could I be?)

Tirian leads the children towards one of his own watchtowers and we learn how they came here. ‘You can’t go [to Narnia] just by wanting to,’ so Peter and Edmund have travelled to London to dig up the green and yellow magical rings which brought Polly and Digory to Narnia long ago. But while on the train to meet Peter and Edmund and collect the rings, Eustace and Jill have been flung into Narnia naturally. As Eustace innocently explains: ‘Aslan did it all for us in his own way without any Rings.’ (We will find out about the train crash later.) Meantime, the three comrades arrive at the watchtower. It has no garrison (so not in fact much use as a watchtower) but is well stocked, and we now encounter another of the improbabilities with which The Last Battle is riddled. 

“That’s funny-looking mail, Sire,” said Eustace.

“Aye, lad,” said Tirian. “No Narnian Dwarf smithied that. ‘Tis mail of Calormene, outlandish gear. I have ever kept a few suits of it in readiness, for I never knew when I or my friends might have reason to walk unseen in the Tisroc’s land. And look at this stone bottle. In this there is a juice which, when we have rubbed it on our hands and faces, will make us brown as Calormenes.”

Tirian is keeping suits of Calormene armour in a tower in Lantern Waste? I reiterate: Lantern Waste is about as far away from Calormene as you can possibly get and still be in Narnia. To be of any use for Tirian’s avowed purpose, that armour ought to be in some tower down on the southern border. It makes zero sense, but when I was ten I accepted it, because things always worked out well for the ‘goodies’ in adventure stories. (When the hero knocks out the enemy soldier and dons his uniform, the uniform always fits.) A sense of narrative familiarity, along with the sheer pace of the story, prevented me from noticing the unlikeliness of this convenient find. 

Does it matter? I'm not sure. It depends how much it bothers you. If Lewis had been made to give the Narnia stories the same attention to detail as his friend Tolkien gave to Middle-earth, they would never have been written. You can feel he just can’t do it that way. Now it’s true the inconsistencies in the other books tend to be things like beavers who own sewing machines in a world without factories, or the appearance of Father Christmas, or the merry mixture of mythologies which made Tolkien wince. These seem of a different order, but perhaps the same logic applies: as a storyteller Lewis ruthlessly pursues what matters. It matters that Tirian and Jewel go off alone, so he makes the pageboy in the hunting lodge anonymous and forgettable. It matters that the story takes place in remote Lantern Waste, and not just because Shift’s treason can unfold there away from the King’s eye. For Lantern Waste is the place where Aslan first brought Narnia to life. Lantern Waste is where Lucy first stepped out of the Wardrobe. And it will be from Lantern Waste that Aslan brings this world to an end. Given all this, do we really care that much how the Calormenes got here?

Disguised and armed, Tirian, Jill and Eustace venture under cover of darkness to rescue Jewel from Stable Hill, planning then to head East in hope of meeting ‘the little army which Roonwit the Centaur would be bringing from Cair Paravel’. You might think Tirian, billed as ‘an experienced warrior and huntsman’, would prefer to find his reinforcements before risking everything on a night-time raid, but no, we are in a high-stakes adventure story, and caution is again thrown to the winds.

Out they went into the cold night. All the great Northern stars were burning above the tree-tops. The North-Star of that world is called the Spear-Head: it is brighter than our Pole Star.

And there you are, Lewis is such a magician, I’m seduced already, objections melting away. Who cares about plot holes when you can steal through the Narnian woods on such a night? And, as so often with Lewis, with a girl out in front.

It was Jill who set them right: she had been an excellent Guide in England. And of course she knew her Narnian stars perfectly, having travelled so much in the wild Northern Lands, and could work out the direction from other stars even when the Spear-Head was hidden. As soon as Tirian saw that she was the best pathfinder of the three of them, he put her in front. And then he was astonished to find how silently and almost invisibly she glided on before them.
“By the Mane!” he whispered to Eustace. “This girl is a wondrous wood-maid. If she had Dryad’s blood in her she could scarce do it better.”

It still makes me glow! Moreover, brilliantly, while Tirian in his Calormene disguise takes the sentry prisoner and releases Jewel who is tethered at the back of the stable, Jill goes inside on her own initiative. Her sudden absence frightens and angers Tirian and Eustace, who can hear the drums of marching Dwarfs approaching –  ‘treacherous Dwarfs, enemies as likely as not,’ Tirian mutters. Then Jill reappears, bringing with her Puzzle the donkey –the false Aslan himself! It’s a great coup.

“As soon as I saw that you’d got the sentry out of the way I thought hadn’t I better have a look inside the stable and see what really is there? So I crawled along… Of course it was pitch-black inside and smelled like any other stable. Then I struck a light and – would you believe it? – there was nothing at all there but this old donkey with a bundle of lionskin tied to his back. … He was very fed up with the stable and quite ready to come – weren’t you, Puzzle dear?”

In fury at this evidence of treachery, maybe even blasphemy, Tirian draws his sword to cut off Puzzle’s head (no!) but Jill prevents him – “He didn’t know any better. And he’s very sorry. And I’ve got my arms around his neck” – and the king suddenly realises that he and his friends have the upper hand over Shift and the Calormenes. They can parade Puzzle in front of the Narnians.

‘Let them see the thing they  have feared and bowed to. We can show them the truth of the Ape’s vile plot. His secret’s out. The tide’s turned. Tomorrow we shall hang that Ape on the highest tree in Narnia.’

It’s a bit of a shock to discover the death penalty in Narnia (two threats in swift succession) but let that pass. For the characters, the relief is palpable. ‘Where are these honest Dwarfs?’ Tirian demands, forgetting his opinion of moments ago.  ‘We have good news for them.’ Things do not go as he expects. 

Narnian dwarfs have never been comedy turns, but stubborn, peppery characters descended from Alberich and Mime of the Nibelungenlied. Obedient to what they believe to be Aslan’s orders, these ones have allowed themselves to be marched off as slaves to work in the Tisroc’s salt mines. On being shown the fake Aslan, the disillusioned dwarfs revolt not only against their Calormene guards, but against Tirian and the real Aslan too. The king’s attempt to rally them – “Tomorrow I will lead you to free all Narnia. Three cheers for Aslan!” – meets with sneers and growls as the Dwarf leader, Griffle, declares independence.

“We’re going to look after ourselves and touch our caps to nobody. See?”

“That’s right,” said the other Dwarfs. “We’re on our own now. No more Aslan, no more Kings, no more silly stories about other worlds. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.” And they began to fall into their places and to get ready for marching back to wherever they had come from.

“Little beasts!” said Eustace. “Aren’t you even going to say thankyou for being saved from the salt-mines?” 

“Oh, we know all about that,” said Griffle over his shoulder. “You wanted to make use of us, that’s why you rescued us. You’re playing some game of your own.” 

I was dreadfully disappointed in these Dwarfs and agreed with Eustace that people who’d been rescued ought to be grateful. Now though, I feel a good deal of sympathy with them. What reason have the Dwarfs to be grateful? Like Tirian, like Job, they have been confronted with a God, Aslan, who has apparently turned against them. That notion of Lewis’s, that the infliction of suffering is God’s attempt to wake us up and make us turn to Him – it’s all very well if it works. But what if it doesn’t? Unlike Job or Tirian, the Dwarfs did not ask questions. They obeyed what they believed to be a divine command: ‘Aslan’s orders. He’s sold us. What can we do against him?’ They represent, perhaps, the body of ordinary people who consider themselves believers without putting much thought into it. On seeing that the Aslan they have obeyed was a sham, they not unreasonably conclude that there is no Aslan. And why should they believe Tirian? On the showing of this book, he’s hardly been a very effective king. His job was to protect and govern his people, and here are the Calormenes invading the country, spreading fake news everywhere and enslaving people. There’s a class thing going on too, made obvious by the dialogue: chivalrous king showing contempt for the workers.

“Do you mean you don’t believe in the real Aslan?” said Jill. “But I’ve seen him. And he has sent us two here out of a different world.”

“Ah,” said Griffle with a broad smile. “So you say. They’ve taught you your stuff all right. Saying your lessons, ain’t you?”

“Churl,” cried Tirian, “will you give a lady the lie to her face?” 

‘Churl’, ‘little beast’: it’s not the best way to talk when you want someone on your side… The Dwarfs march off, but a single Dwarf, Poggin, catches up with the King and his companions and pledges loyalty. Cheered by this addition, the party returns to the watchtower to regroup. 

During the ‘rescue’ of the Dwarfs, Eustace kills one of the Calormene soldiers. No child in the Narnia books has ever killed a human being before, so I now find it surprising that the account is so perfunctory. Eustace slashes wildly with his eyes shut, and opens them to find: ‘the Calormene lay dead at his feet. And though that was a great relief, it was, at the moment, rather frightening too.’ I understand that Lewis is again taking advantage of the adventure-story convention that the deaths of nameless baddies just don’t count, and it’s true the narrative hasn’t room for an exploration of strong feelings at this point. But a few pages later the killing is sanitised into a ‘victory’: ‘Jill … was very impressed with Eustace’s victory over the Calormene, and felt almost shy’. Is the implication that manslaying makes him a man? This makes me wince. And the next morning Tirian inspects Eustace’s sword and finds that ‘Eustace had put it back in the sheath all messy from killing the Calormene. He was scolded… and made to clean and polish it.’ This, with the dead Calormene reduced to a mere ‘mess’ on Eustace’s sword, feels gratuitous and far from the the emotional impact of Peter’s slaying of the Wolf in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Sitting outside the watchtower waiting for breakfast to cook,  Poggin tells how Ginger the Cat and the Calormene commander Rishda Tarkaan are now manipulating Shift, and that Ginger has lied to the Beasts about Tirian’s escape, claiming that Aslan appeared in a flash of lightning and gobbled him up. (None of them seem concerned about Tirian’s actual whereabouts or actions and they have no plan to find or intercept him. Lewis is keeping things simple.) Then a shiver of unease: the day changes, seeming cooler, cloudier. There’s a foul smell. Jewel scrambles to his feet and points with his horn, crying ‘Look!’ 

For Tash has come to Narnia. 

In the shadow of the trees on the far side of the clearing something was moving. It was gliding very slowly Northward. At first glance you might have mistaken it for smoke, for it was grey and you could see things through it. But the deathly smell was not the smell of smoke. … It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, curved beak. It had four arms which it held high above its head, stretching them out as if it wanted to snatch all Narnia in its grip … It floated on the grass instead of walking, and the grass seemed to wither beneath it.

Pauline Baynes’s marvellous illustration shows this sinister demon trailing a stippled shadow that looks like a cloud of flies: you can almost smell the stench. Where is this apparition heading? ‘North into the heart of Narnia,’ says Tirian. ‘It has come to dwell among us.' Resonant though this sounds, the heart of Narnia is south-east of Lantern Waste, not north, and this actually did bother me when I was nine or ten, for I knew the map of Narnia very well indeed. Perhaps ‘Narnia’ and ‘the North’ had become so synonymous that Lewis couldn’t bring himself to write: ‘South into the heart of Narnia’; but to me this looks like a genuinely careless error and one piece of evidence that maybe Lewis didn’t actually think very much about the map… Anyway, as they recover from the sight, the six friends optimistically decide that Tash is more likely to bring trouble to their enemies than themselves.  

“Ho, ho, ho!” chuckled the Dwarf, rubbing his hairy hands. “It will be a surprise for the Ape. People shouldn’t call for demons unless they really mean what they say.”

In a commonsense decision that cheers everyone, they now set out to rendezvous with Roonwit and the ‘little army’ he must be bringing from Cair Paravel: no one wants to go near ‘that horrible bird-headed thing which … was now probably haunting Stable Hill’. (So not to the heart of Narnia at all, then.) The humans remove their Calormene disguises and re-arm themselves with the Narnian ‘straight swords and three-cornered shields’ which Lewis has ever contrasted with the curving Calormene scimitars as if the straightness stands for honesty and the curviness for deceit. Puzzle is still clothed in his uncomfortable lion-skin.

In the two pages of idyllic writing which follow, Lewis bids farewell to the old Narnia. The friends stroll though sunlit woods full of primroses and birdsong and the sound of running water. Eustace and Poggin talk quietly of plant-lore and trees, while Jewel tells Jill of the long, mainly peaceful history of Narnia, full of whole centuries of happiness – full of stories I longed to hear and never will hear – of Swanwhite the Queen, and Moonwood the Hare, and King Gale who fought the dragon in the Lone Islands – 

And as he went on, the picture of all those happy years, all the thousands of them, piled up in Jill’s mind till it was rather like looking down from a high hill on to a rich, lovely plain full of woods and waters and cornfields, which spread away and away till it got thin and misty from distance. And she said,

“Oh I do hope we can soon settle the Ape and get back to those good, ordinary times. And then I hope they’ll go on for ever and ever and ever.” 

It is ominous, this long view, this image of looking down at a beautiful country from a high hill: as if Jill is already standing on Aslan’s holy mountain as she did at the beginning of The Silver Chair and as she will do again at the end of this book. We feel a foreboding that her hope of Narnia’s continuance is vain. “All worlds draw to an end,” says the Unicorn, “except Aslan’s own country.” Moments later, Farsight the Eagle swoops from the sky with terrible news. A Calormene fleet has invaded Narnia, Cair Paravel has been taken, and Roonwit the Centaur is dead. 

“I was with him in his last hour and he gave me this message to your Majesty: to remember that all worlds draw to an end and that a noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.”

“So,” said the King, after a long silence, “Narnia is no more.”

Turning to what can still be done, Tirian tries to persuade the children to return to their own land. Jill refuses – ‘We won’t, I don’t care what you say’ – and Eustace points out that in any case they can’t; ‘We’ve got no magic for doing it!’ Both children now face the fact that they may be killed and Eustace rather boldly speculates about the consequences of their possible deaths in Narnia: as a character he has always been someone who interrogates his circumstances. ‘I mean, what will happen in our own world? Shall we wake up and find ourselves back in that train? Or shall we just vanish and never be heard of any more? Or shall we be dead in England?’ This is an intriguing way for the children to engage with the seriousness of their situation, while also usefully reminding us of that train-journey and the possible significance of the ‘awful jerk’ that threw them into Narnia. Have they had a narrow escape? 

There seems one last chance: to go to Stable Hill, produce Puzzle in his lion-skin and proclaim the truth. Surely some of the Narnians will join them in fighting the Calormenes there? But this plan fails from the start, foiled by a concoction of half-truths put together by the Cat and Rishda Tarkaan. Shift informs the Talking Beasts that Aslan (brilliantly renamed ‘Tashlan’) is angrier than ever. He refuses to come out of the stable and show himself any more, because a wicked Donkey has dressed itself up in a lion-skin and impersonated him! If Puzzle is seen in it now, the Narnians will ‘tear him in pieces’.

By this point my ten year-old self was burning with frustrated fury. It was all so awful, so unfair! It was actually a relief to hear Griffle the Dwarf challenge Shift’s version of events:

“We know why he isn’t going to bring his precious Aslan out. I’ll tell you why: because he hasn’t got him. He never had anything except an old donkey with a lion-skin on its back. Now he’s lost that and he doesn’t know what to do.”

It’s the bare truth, but Shift and Rishda retaliate with an offer. Aslan won’t come out, but anyone who likes may go in – touchingly, the Beasts almost rush the Stable in their longing to do this – but only one at a time. Remember, Aslan is angry! He ate up the King! Who wants to go first? While the Beasts hesitate, Tirian whispers to Jill that in all likelihood what is really waiting in the Stable is ‘two Calormenes with drawn swords’. Then Ginger the Cat speaks up: ‘I’ll go in, if you like.’ We’re sure it‘s a set-up – as Poggin says to the King, Ginger ‘will come out again and say he has seen some wonder’ – but all eyes are on the Cat as he strolls towards the Stable and through the door.

Since Jill’s already been into the stable and seen nothing special, what happens next is a shock. With ‘the most horrible caterwaul you ever heard’ Ginger streaks from the stable and dashes up a tree. ‘His tail was bristled out till it was nearly as thick as his whole body: his eyes were saucers of green fire: along his back every single hair stood on end.’  Worst of all, a thing of horror and terror – he is no longer a Talking Beast. 

This is magnificent, edge-of-your seat writing. All this rapid bluff and counter-bluff, all these plans formed and re-formed, and failing as soon as formed – it’s like watching blades flicker in a sword-fight. No wonder Tirian is ‘dazed with the horrors’ of the night, and it isn’t over yet. Emeth, a young Calormene knight steps forward and asks  permission to enter the Stable himself. On Rishda’s hasty refusal (‘Thou hast nothing to do with this stable. It is for the Narnians’) Emeth replies:

“Thou hast said that their Aslan and our Tash are one. And if that is the truth, then Tash himself is in yonder. And how then sayest thou that I have nothing to do with him? For gladly would I die a thousand deaths if I might look once upon the face of Tash.”

With the Dwarfs jeering and hurling racial abuse, the Tarkaan can no longer prevent Emeth from going in. As he walks shining-eyed towards the Stable, Jewel whispers to Tirian, ‘I almost love this young warrior… He is worthy of a better god than Tash.’ 

Of course I liked Emeth. But I now find it very difficult to accept what Lewis does with him. From the beginning he is depicted as not typical but exceptional. This must be the case given Lewis’s presentation of Calormenes throughout the books. We first encounter them in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where they are slave-traders on the Lone Islands. In The Horse and his Boy we visit the bustling southern city of Tashbaan with its hierarchical society of slaves, peasants and princes, and its cruel and degenerate ruler. In The Last Battle the Calormenes who take Jewel and Tirian prisoner are a crowd of ‘dark men… smelling of garlic and onions, their white eyes flashing dreadfully in their brown faces’. Even in the 1950s ‘race prejudice’ was a recognised thing, yet Lewis seems relaxed about using racial slurs and has almost nothing good to say about this Orientalist culture of his own creation. More of this later.

Emeth enters the stable. Moments later, the door re-opens and a man falls out, dead. Rishda claims the body is Emeth’s, but Tirian and his six friends can see it is an unknown Calormene warrior. Believing this death to have gone according to plan, Shift gloats and jeers, picking out the Talking Boar as the next victim. 

When Tirian saw that brave Beast getting ready to fight for its life … and no one going to help – something seemed to burst inside him. … “Swords out,” he whispered to the others. “Arrow on string. Follow.” Next moment the astonished Narnians saw seven figures leap forth in front of the stable, four of them in shining mail. 

Rishda Tarkaan leaps back, calling his men. Shift is not so quick. As he squats there staring, Tirian grabs him, and shouting to Poggin to open the stable door, hurls the Ape into darkness. ‘A blinding greenish-blue light’ shines out from inside the stable, followed by an earth-tremor and a monstrous bird-like cackling. The Beasts cower in terror, Rishda Tarkaan changes his mind about Tash – and all the Talking Dogs in the crowd come dashing to Tirian’s side, followed by the Boar and the Bear. Mice and squirrels scamper to gnaw through the ropes of the Talking Horses, tethered down the slope.

But Tirian gazed around and saw how very few of the animals had moved. “To me, to me,” he called. “Have you all turned cowards since I was your King?”

“We daren’t,” whimpered dozens of voices. “Tashlan would be angry. Shield us from Tashlan.”

Confused victims of fake news and toxic propaganda, the Narnians have accepted the cynical invention ‘Tashlan’ as their god. Dry water and black suns: I well remember the anguished, helpless fury of reading all this when I was ten. But you know what? I feel the same way now; I recognise it: the horror and helplessness and bewilderment of witnessing a society broken down, divided and in conflict – with a fatuous, self-serving caricature in charge, broadcasting falsehoods and claiming them as truths and calling upon powers of darkness and violence. This is a parable with relevance for our times. Tash walks through our world too.

Tirian orders his small force, and the Last Battle begins.

The Calormenes’ first attack fails. Jill’s arrows and Jewel’s horn have done their work, leaving some Narnian traitors dead, but at cost: three Dogs are dead and the Bear is dying. The Dwarfs jeer the retreating Calormenes but refuse to join Tirian’s side: ‘We don’t want any Kings. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs. Boo!’  Now comes the worst atrocity. As the Calomene war-drum beats to call up reinforcements, and the great wave of Talking Horses gallops up the hill to Tirian’s aid, the Dwarfs shoot them down. I’d been crying already over the death of the Bear. But this! ‘Little swine!’ Eustace shrieks, and I was ready to shriek with him. ‘Horse after Horse rolled over. Not one of those noble Beasts ever reached the King.’ 

Why do the Dwarfs do it? What are we meant to think? It’s more than selfishness – more like anarchy. Lewis seems to suggest that, loosened from an unexamined and purely conventional belief in God, the Dwarfs now have no moral compass and no anchor. Remember, they didn’t ask questions when it seemed Aslan was acting as a tyrant rather than a guardian. Now they will have neither tyrant nor guardian. They will have nothing. Only themselves. Shown a black sun, they have chosen to disbelieve in any sun. (Shades of the Green Witch’s attempt at gas-lighting in The Silver Chair.) The end comes quickly. Jill is in the forefront, twenty feet out from the others, shooting  arrows to cover her friends as they try to reach the protection of a white rock away from the stable. The Eagle helps:

Very few troops can keep on looking steadily to the front if they are getting arrows in their faces from one side and being pecked by an eagle on the other. […] The Unicorn was tossing men as you’d toss hay on a fork. The Dogs were at the Calormenes throats.  Even Eustace seemed to Jill… to be fighting brilliantly…

‘Tossing men as you’d toss hay on a fork’ – has there ever been a better description of a Unicorn fighting? All in vain. More enemy troops arrive. Eustace is captured and thrown to some unknown fate in the Stable. There’s a brief lull for our friends as the Dwarfs turn their bows on the Calormenes – ‘They wanted Narnia for their own’ – but their arrows cannot pierce the Calormene mailshirts. They too are overcome and thrown alive into the Stable as offerings for Tash: ‘There was no nonsense about “Tashlan” now.’ In the final onslaught, the friends go down one by one until Tirian is fighting Rishda Tarkaan in the very door of the Stable itself. With a sudden move –  

He dropped his sword, seized his enemy by the belt with both hands, and jumped back into the stable, shouting: “Come in and meet Tash yourself!”

There’s a terrible bang and flash. The soldiers outside scream and slam the door shut. Rishda Tarkaan falls on his face as Tash appears and ‘with a sudden jerk – like a hen stooping to pick up a worm’ tucks him under one arm. The demon turns its bird-head sideways to fix Tirian with one glaring eye – and a voice speaks out, ‘strong and calm as a summer sea’. It is Peter the High King.

“Begone, Monster, and take your lawful prey to your own place: in the name of Aslan and Aslan’s great Father the Emperor-over-the-Sea.” 

Tirian turns. Seven Kings and Queens stand before him ‘in glittering clothes’, and he recognises the two youngest as Jill and Eustace. Kissing him on both cheeks, Peter welcomes Tirian and makes courtly introductions to our old friends Polly and Digory, Edmund and Lucy. But someone is missing. ‘Has not your Majesty two sisters?’ asks Tirian. ‘Where is Queen Susan?’ 

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

And here is where Lewis finally ditches Susan to make a theological point. At the very end of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Ignorance, who has been following the hero Christian from the City of Destruction (the world) to the Celestial City on top of Mount Zion (heaven), is refused entry. Instead of following the King’s Highway, he has been taking by-ways, dodging the hardships and not learning the lessons, so when he comes to the gates he has no passport. 

Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. 

Susan is made an example of by Lewis to illustrate this same point. Susan’s ‘sins’, according to her friends, are (a) regarding Narnia as a childish game, (b) being interested in nothing but nylons and lipstick and invitations, and (c) wasting her time at school wanting to reach ‘the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can’. Only the first (in the context of the books) is serious (and may not be an attitude set in stone for the rest of her life): the rest is merely an attempt to get the young reader to lose sympathy for her. It worked (a bit) when I was a pony-mad ten-year old with no conception of ever wanting to use lipstick, but it’s specious. As I wrote in my essay on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, this po-faced disapproval is directed at worldliness, though why a liking for lipstick and nylons should be more worldly than Lewis’s own taste for tobacco and beer, or less laudable than wearing, as Tirian currently finds himself wearing, clothes ‘such as he would have worn for a great feast at Cair Paravel’, I do not know. It is shocking to find Peter, Eustace, Jill and Polly – Susan’s family and friends – lining up to criticize and dismiss her. Have they no feeling for her any more? 

“Well, don’t let’s talk about that now,” said Peter. “Look! Here are lovely fruit trees. Let us taste them.” 

Till now, we have had no impression of Tirian’s surroundings: everything has been has kept in close-up so we don’t have to take in too much at once. Gone is the narrow dark stable. They’re in the open air, under a blue sky, near a grove of trees covered in delicious fruit with which they refresh themselves (as Christian and Hopeful refresh themselves in the ‘goodly orchards and vineyards’ below the Celestial City). Eustace asks Peter how he and the others came here, and it becomes apparent that there really was some kind of railway accident in England: Peter and Edmund saw the train coming in far too fast, and then with a roar and a bang ‘– we were here.’ (I still thought that maybe by coming into Narnia, they’d escaped.) And the next thing that happens is that Tirian sees the Door.  

The stable-door by which they all came in from Narnia is now shown to be a portal, something already hinted at when from the outside Tirian described it as a doorway to death. The last time we saw anything like it was in Prince Caspian, when Aslan opens ‘the door in the air’ – two uprights and a lintel – to let the Telmarines pass from Narnia to their place of origin (which is our own world, on somewhere like Pitcairn Island). That doorway led from one mortal world to another: this leads from the mortal world to the eternal. 

Over the next few pages Lewis provides a much-needed respite from direct action as Lucy tells how the Battle of Stable Hill looked from the point of view of those inside. Very significantly, Lucy has been silent so far. We are informed this is because she has been ‘too happy to speak’, but personally I think Lucy has been left silent because Lewis couldn’t find a way to write convincingly about her likely response to 'the problem of Susan' and the criticisms of the others: I cannot imagine Lucy not speaking in defence of her sister. She now tells of the Calormene sentry positioned to kill anyone who came in, the appearance of Tash to the terrified Cat, the fight between Emeth and the sentry (Emeth has wandered off ‘like a man in a trance’ looking for Tash), and the reappearance of Tash to peck up Shift. 

“And after that,” said Edmund, “came about a dozen Dwarfs: and then Jill, and Eustace, and last of all yourself.”

The Dwarfs. Sitting together in a close ring, facing inwards, backs turned, they are blind to the ‘reality’ around them, seeing not sky and trees and flowers but a ‘pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable.’ As Lucy and Tirian unsuccessfully try to persuade them that their perceptions are false, Aslan appears at last. 

A brightness flashed behind them. All turned. Tirian turned last because he was afraid. There stood his heart’s desire, huge and real, the golden Lion, Aslan himself. … Tirian came near, trembling, and flung himself at the Lion’s feet, and Lion kissed him and said, “Well done, last of the Kings of Narnia who stood firm at the darkest hour.”

He deserves this praise. Tirian has been steadfast: he has grown during the course of the book. 

Readers may still have questions about Aslan’s own role in all this: why hasn’t he appeared before? With a record of previous intervention in Narnian affairs, why hasn’t he done so again? The answer of this book is going to be that all worlds end, and Aslan has much better in store for all his beloved:  implicitly we are asked to apply this explanation to our world too. But not everyone will be saved. Aslan cannot alter the Dwarfs’ perceptions. When he places a banquet before them, the delicious food and wine tastes to them only like dirty water and raw turnips. As Mephistopheles explains in Dr Faustus, Hell is not a location but a state of being: 

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, but where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.   [Sc.2. 118-120]

This scene with the Dwarfs is a brilliantly clear elaboration of the concept reiterated by Milton's Satan ('Myself am Hell') that damnation is not a sentence prescribed by God, but something you do to yourself. There is no hope for the Dwarfs precisely because they have abandoned hope. And Aslan now has other work to do.  

He went to the Door and they all followed him. He raised his head and roared, “Now it is time!” then louder, “Time!”; then so loud it could have shaken the stars, “TIME.” The Door flew open.

The chapter ‘Night Falls on Narnia’ defies paraphrase and you should really just go and read it again yourselves. In a night so deep you can barely see ‘where the dark shapes of the trees ended and the stars began’, a vast black shape rises against the sky: ‘the shape of a man, the hugest of all giants’. It is the giant Time, who long ago Jill and Eustace saw sleeping in the deep caves under the northern moors. 

[T]he great giant raised a horn to his mouth. They could see this by the change of the black shape he made against the stars. After that – quite a bit later, because sound travels to slowly – they heard the sound of the horn: high and terrible, yet of a strange, deadly beauty.
Immediately the sky became full of shooting stars.

Of course there are allusions to the Book of Revelation here; specifically 6: 12-15, and 8:7 (even to the burnt grass). The stars keep falling, emptying the sky till blackness spreads across it. 

Stars began falling all around them… showers of glittering people, all with long hair like burning silver and spears like white-hot metal, rushing down to them out of the black air, swifter than falling stones. They made a hissing noise as they landed and burnt the grass.

With all the stars now serried behind us, we see miles of the Narnian landscape violently flood-lit, with huge dragons and lizards crawling down from the northern moors into the woods. Driven out by these monsters, ‘by thousands and by millions,’ every living thing in the Narnian world comes racing up the hill to the Door and each one looks in Aslan’s face. Depending on their reaction to him – love or hatred – they come in by the Door or swerve away into shadow. Amongst those who come in are ‘some queer specimens’ (even one of the Dwarfs who shot the Horses) but more especially Jewel and Roonwit ‘and Farsight the Eagle, and the dear Dogs and the Horses, and Poggin the Dwarf’. It’s a joyful reunion – but on the other side of the Door, the monsters and lizards eat all Narnia’s vegetation, leaving it barren. Time speeds up, racing to its end, and they too die. A giant wave rises from the Eastern sea and crashes over Narnia, levelling it. Here for the last time is the Atlantean image from E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet which Lewis read in childhood, the image he uses in his autobiography as a metaphor for the death of his mother. The correspondences are striking:

Across the smooth distance of the sea something huge and black rolled towards the town. It was a wave, but a wave a hundred feet in height, a wave that looked like a mountain…

The hills around were black with people fleeing from the villages to the mountains. And even as they fled thin smoke broke out from the great white peak, and then a faint flash of flame. The earth trembled; ashes and sulphur showered down; a rain of fine pumice-dust fell like snow on all the dry land. The elephants from the forest rushed up towards the peaks; great lizards thirty yards long broke from the mountain pools and rushed down towards the sea… 

“Oh, this is horrible,” cried Anthea, “Come home, come home!”
[The Story of the Amulet, Ch. 9]

Nesbit’s children are able to escape through the portal of the Amulet, just as in this book the children and their friends are able to look in safety through the Door. The sun rises, red and dying. ‘Make an end,’ says Aslan, and, memorably, the giant Time stretches out an arm 'thousands of miles long' to squeeze out the sun. ‘Peter, High King of Narnia,’ says Aslan, for it is of course Saint Peter who holds the keys of Heaven, ‘Shut the Door.’ Peter obeys.

It scraped over ice as he pulled it. Then, rather clumsily (for even in that moment his hands had gone numb and blue) he took out a golden key and locked it.

Narnia is gone.

Though Aslan goes all playful, lashing his tail and shooting away crying to them, ‘Come further up! Come further in!’, Lucy is in tears and the other humans are pretty subdued as they walk away from the Door and the hapless Dwarfs. But the Dogs pick up a scent and lead them to Emeth, sitting beside a stream of clear water indicative of spiritual refreshment: 'Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God'. (Psalm 42).  Emeth rises to greet them, and tells his story.

If Susan’s apostasy is meant to illustrate that ‘there is a way to hell even from the gate of heaven’, Emeth is here to illustrate Lewis’s on-the-face-of-it generous belief that there is truth in all religions and they all get something right even if Christianity gets top marks. (It is a concession dangerously close to condescension.) In a letter of January 1952 he wrote, ‘I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god … is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know Him.’

This would be all very well if there seemed to be anything good or true about Tash. But there isn’t, he is presented as entirely evil and loathsome, and to the best of my knowledge no world religion has ever worshipped a being like that. Visually, Tash is close to a Sumerian eagle-headed guardian spirit, whose likeness is to be found in the British Museum. E. Nesbit used the same figure in The Story of the Amulet, treating it with respect as an awesome but benevolent 'Servant of the Great Ones'. Tash's additional limbs are borrowed perhaps from Hindu symbolism. Neither religion deserves the connection. Polytheisms include gods which may look fearsome to the uninformed monotheistic observer, because they interpret the universe holistically. The many gods of Hinduism are aspects of one great all-pervasive God who encompasses and transcends all things - fundamentally not so different, perhaps, from God's response to Job. In The Horse and His Boy, possibly in an attempt to differentiate Calormene from the Islamic culture of The Thousand and One Nights which it otherwise resembles, Lewis made Calormen a polytheistic country. Aravis speaks of ‘Tash and Azaroth and Zardeena Lady of the Night’. The Last Battle forgets about Azaroth and Zardeena and focuses on an Aslan/Tash dichotomy which is effectively Christ v Satan. How can Emeth possibly have found in Tash anything worthy of worship? 

And sadly, on this re-reading I find that in spite of his courage and his courtly speech I don’t like Emeth very much after all. If you actually read what he says, he comes across as a warlike, aristocratic snob guided largely by the rules of chivalry. At least on actually seeing Aslan he recognises the Lion as good and glorious, but his previous devotion to Tash remains inexplicable. Faithfulness to a truly detestable god suggests blinkered adherence to custom rather than a genuine desire for knowledge of the divine – and is a rather low bar for Aslan’s approval. But this whole difficulty is entirely of Lewis’s own making. 

A comic exchange with the Dogs ends the interlude, and with Emeth one of the party, and picking up dear old Puzzle along the way, they all walk westwards, sensing a strange familiarity about the landscape. Those hills and mountains look very like Narnia… Farsight the eagle takes to the air and sweeps around. ‘Kings and Queens,’ he cries, returning to the ground,

“From up there I have seen it all – Ettinsmuir, Beaversdam, the Great River, and Cair Paravel still shining on the edge of the Eastern Sea. Narnia is not dead. This is Narnia.”

Digory – the Lord Digory, the Professor of the The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe – launches into Lewis’s favourite Platonic explanation: the old Narnia was but a ‘shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here… And of course it is different, as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.’ 

Here is Lewis as Apologist and Enchanter. Alas, his 'Farewell to Shadowlands' doesn’t work for me and it never has. And I’m not sure he’s convinced himself either, or not as an artist, for he tries a second time, comparing this transfigured landscape with the depth and mystery of a reflection in a mirror. And then Jewel the Unicorn proclaims it once more. It seems protesting a little too much, and it’s a relief when Jewel breaks into a gallop, neighing ‘Further up and further in’ – and they all follow, running faster and faster, swimming wonderfully and impossibly up the Great Waterfall with much comedy as the Dogs ‘swarm and wriggle’ and bark and get water in their mouths. If as I suspect, this watery episode parallels Christian and Hopeful's plunge into the River of Death, it's a most lovely and joyful take on that awesome experience. And much of what happens next is clearly modelled on Christian’s approach to the Celestial City. I italicise the correspondences: 

…the city stood upon a mighty hill, but the pilgrims went up that hill with ease, because they had these two men [shining angels] to lead them by the arms: they had likewise left their mortal garments [their bodies] behind them in the river; for though they went in with them, they came out without them. They therefore went up here with much agility and speed, though the foundation upon which the city stood was higher than the clouds; they therefore went up through the region of the air, sweetly talking as they went… 

[The shining ones tell them:] There you shall enjoy your friends again that are gone thither before you; and there you shall with joy receive every one that follows into the holy place after you. 

Now while they were thus drawing towards the gate, behold a company of the heavenly host came out to meet them

Leiws tells how they run ‘faster and faster till it was more like flying than running’ until, facing a smooth green hill crowned with a green wall and orchard trees that we recognise from The Magician’s Nephew, they charge up a slope steep as a house roof and find themselves facing great golden gates. A horn blows from within the garden, the gates open, and out comes to welcome them – 

…a little, sleek bright-eyed Talking Mouse with a red feather stuck in a circlet on its head and its left paw resting on a long sword.

Reepicheep! And with him come Tirian’s father, and Fledge the Flying Horse, and as they pass further into the garden, just about everyone you’ve ever heard of, right back to ‘the two good Beavers, and Tumnus the Faun’, while in the centre of the garden under the Tree of Life sit King Frank and Queen Helen, like ‘Adam and Eve in all their glory.’

It’s a glorious reunion. And yet I was not really happy. I didn’t like it – I still don’t – when Lucy, with her new telescopic vision, realises that the garden is itself another whole Narnia, and that there is ‘world within world, Narnia within Narnia,’ infinitely replicated one within another – ‘like an onion,’ says Mr Tumnus, ‘except that as you go in, each circle is larger than the last.’ 

The effect for me was to make each one of them seem less – diminished, discardable, disposable. In which Narnia should one stay? Which is 'real'? Are some of them empty? Does what happens in one, happen in all? And – here was a bit I absolutely hated – Lucy suddenly sees, joined to Narnia, another penisular jutting from the great, encircling mountains of Aslan’s country. England! And there is her mother and father waving at her as if from the deck of a big ship coming in to port. And then Aslan tells Lucy and the others the truth. They can stay here forever, because – 

“There was a real railway accident. … Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

My emotions as a child went like this: They’re all dead? And that’s supposed to be good? And nobody cares even a tiny little bit about Susan? Don't even her parents care? And Narnia has turned into this complex onion-ring thing which connects to Britain? Worst of all, Aslan isn’t even a lion any more: “For as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion…”

I didn’t like the new improved Narnia. I didn't want it and I didn’t want to believe in it. I wanted the old Narnia, thankyou very much, the same as it had always been. As for Lewis’s assurance that the 'things that happened' next were ‘so great and beautiful’ he couldn’t write them, I could see perfectly well that what he really meant was there weren’t going to be any more stories. Nothing would happen. The adventures were over. If I wanted any more, I would have to write my own.

Maybe for some of you, perhaps for many of you, it does work. I can only report how it felt to me, how it still feels. Lewis’s glimpses of Aslan’s country have always worked best when they are just that – glimpses. The silence of the holy mountain with its bright birds at the eastern end of the world. The paradisal garden on the hill. The tingling smell and sound carried by the wind from beyond the great wave on the rim of the Silver Sea. The spell only works at a distance, because distance is the essence of that longing, that disturbance of ‘unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction’ which Lewis calls Joy. 

In the earlier books, storytelling took precedence. I could feel the mythic and emotional power of Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe without at first the slightest notion that it was meant for a version of Christ’s passion, and when eventually the connection dawned on me, I did my best to forget it. Because to say that Aslan is Christ is reductive and spoils the story. Aslan is not Christ: even Lewis said so: his story is different in detail and affect: that is what fiction is. In The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis imagined a Creation story with a lyrical and often even comic touch which owes little to Genesis. The Last Battle – though it is richly, densely allusive, though it contains many powerful passages, though the chapter ‘Night Falls on Narnia’ has stayed with me all my life – is not so successful. Lewis is a genius at making ideas accessible to children. But in this book he pushes the message too hard. At the end he becomes a catechist rather than a storyteller, and for me at least, the spell breaks.

I spent half my childhood longing for Lewis’s wonderful, magical, unattainable world. Not even he can tell me Narnia is a Shadowland.

Picture credits:

All artwork is of course by the wonderful Pauline Baynes, except for the William Blake engraving of Satan striking Job with boils, which is in the possession of the Tate.