One of my aims for 2010 was to read all of C. S. Lewis Narnia books, so it seems appropriate that my final book for 2010 was The Last Battle (I apologise for being so behind with reviews; Christmas and New Year are not terribly convenient times for spending time on the computer). Although I was already vaguely aware of what happened in the books and have dim recollections of the old BBC series, I’ve really enjoyed discovering the books properly and I’m sad to see it end.
In The Last Battle, all is not well in Narnia. King Rilian, whom we met in The Silver Chair, is greeted with the disturbing news that the dryads’ trees are being cut down, talking Animals are being used as beasts of burden by the brutal Calormenes and all this appears to be happening at Aslan’s orders. Meanwhile, Jill and Eustace, travelling back to school on the train, suddenly find themselves jolted back into Narnia where they join with King Rilian and the loyal folk of Narnia in fighting for survival against the Calormenes.
Unfortunately, I think that this book was the point at which C. S. Lewis’ interests and my own completely diverged. Never before have I wished so much that I had read these books when I was young enough not to notice that I was being beaten around the head with the baseball bat of allegory. What started out as subtle nuances and echoes of Christianity which worked well within the framework of the story became the story. As I read the Narnia books for their stories, I was disappointed by this turn towards outright preaching, particularly as the ending which illustrated C. S. Lewis’ idea of Christianity wasn’t what I would have envisaged as a satisfactory ending on a narrative level. I understand that this was his motive for writing the books and that my disappointment is because of my different priorities, but I do wish that he’d been able to (or more likely chosen to, I have no doubts about his writing capabilities) blend the two aspects of the book, fantasy adventure story and religious message, as seamlessly as he did in the previous books.
However, although I found the message a bit heavy handed, there was still much about this book that I loved. I thought that the descriptions of the battle itself were very well executed: they convey both the tension and nervous excitement of waiting for things to happen and then the frenzy of confused activity as an attack takes place. Considering this action takes up about half of the book, I was impressed at how Lewis sustained this level of intensity and it makes the book an easy one to whizz through. I also thought that the introduction of Tash, the cruel god of the Calormenes, was an interesting touch and the image of him passing through Narnia is a chilling one.
It seems that in every book there’s at least one wonderful new character — Mr Tumnus and the Beavers in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Bree in The Horse and his Boy, Trumpkin in Prince Caspian, Reepicheep in The Voyage of the Dawntreader and Puddleglum in The Silver Chair – and in The Last Battle for me it was Shift the Ape and Puzzle the Donkey about whom I most enjoyed reading. The dynamic between the two, Puzzle innocent and eager to please, Shift controlling and cunning, is established from the very beginning and it manages to be amusing even though it is quite dark and swiftly becomes one of the obvious references to Revelation. This double act provides a light introduction to a book which develops into something quite serious and I thought it created a good contrast to the book’s later seriousness.
All in all, I’m sad to leave Narnia but, as a non-Christian, I wish I hadn’t left it so late to read and so had been able to enjoy the books without the religious message intruding on the stories. Most of the time this wasn’t a problem, but The Last Battle was just a bit too overt for me to really enjoy it.
The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis. Illustrated by Paula Baynes. Published by Diamond, 1996, pp. 172. Originally published 1956.