The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis

The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis

Reason for reading: This is the seventh (and final) book in the Chronicles of Narnia, which I’ve been reading in order-of-publication. I plan on rereading them all in chronological order using Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, by Michael Ward as a guide.

Review
The final book in The Chronicles of Narnia depicts the apocalypse of Narnia. When a shrewd monkey teams up with Calormen to trick the Narnians into thinking Aslan has returned – and they are his spokespeople – Narnia is cut to ruins. Forests are destroyed, Narnians begin to doubt Aslan, and cities fall to heathen invaders. I’m afraid to say this was my least favorite of the Narnia books (though I still liked it quite well!). Intellectually, I know Lewis had to have an apocalypse – whatever begins must also end – but it was still a bit dreary.  So although I understand why the apocalypse had to come, I still liked the other books so much better. Not only because they were much more cheerful, but also because they had more fun-filled adventure.

However, despite my misgivings about uplifting-yet-dreary endings, I want to address Philip Pullman’s opinions about the Narnia series (which I first mentioned in my blog post about The Amber Spyglass). WARNING: This commentary will have spoilers for the Narnia series! In his 1998 article in The Guardian, The Darkside of Narnia, Pullman stated his opinion about the Narnia series: “there is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.”   Pullman is an atheist, and he believes that the being-dead-in-Heaven-is-better-than-being-alive-on-Earth philosophy is “life-hating.” It is unsurprising, therefore, that he feels The Last Battle is “one of the most vile moments in the whole of children’s literature.” Happily, I disagree with his anger at this belief in Heaven. Even though I found The Last Battle to be a bit dreary, I appreciated the message of love and Heavenly gift that Lewis was portraying.

Pullman continues to say:

But that’s par for the course. Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it.  

I agree that Narnia conveys some rather sexist and ethnocentric views, but that’s what English literature of that period was like. Lewis (and the Narnia books) are a product of their time.


I don’t think any of those arguments is strong enough to merit my discussion alone. The reason I felt moved to discuss Pullman’s opinions are in this paragraph (which I unfortunately read before completing the series):

And in The Last Battle, notoriously, there’s the turning away of Susan from the Stable (which stands for salvation) because “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she’d been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win.  

When I read this paragraph, I wondered what Lewis actually did do with Susan in the book. But when I read the book, I interpreted those events differently than Pullman: Susan wasn’t allowed into Heaven at that time. It was made clear that Susan was in one of the silly stages of life, but it was just a stage. She still had a chance to grow out of it. She hadn’t been rejected from Heaven permanently, and it wasn’t her time to die. Susan lived. And Susan had the ability to change (just as Pullman points out). Lewis wasn’t saying that grown-ups can’t go to Heaven. After all, the kids’ parents went to Heaven, didn’t they? Lewis was saying that Susan was in a phase where she idolized material things – and had thus turned away from her spiritual health.

Also, I’m not certain Susan really is the most interesting character. By Pullman’s definition (he-who-changes-is-most-interesting) I believe Eustace’s character developed much more than Susan’s character. Why is Pullman ignoring Eustace?

What do other people think about Susan’s character? Do you think Lewis meant for her to be denied Heaven permanently?

12 thoughts on “The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis

  1. It's interesting to read Pullman's commentary on this, although I disagree with most of his points, including his thoughts about Susan. Though I don't like her (as was meant by the author, of course), I think what she represents is just a teenage foolness and vanity, which is quite normal, and she will definitely grow out of this, she is not really bad.
    For me too, The last Battle has always been the least favourite and very hard to read too. I wouldn't say this book is for children at all!

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  2. I definitely agree with you on all points! I think Pullman's paragraph about Susan misses the point completely and reads a LOT into ONE line spoken by ONE character. I think what Lewis was saying is not that “nylons and lipsticks” are not necessarily bad/evil, but that Susan used them to replace her memories of Narnia and her past. It could have just as easily been something else, but even in the earlier books Susan is mentioned as being the prettiest and concentrating on how she looked a little bit more than the rest of the family, and I don't remember it even being portrayed overtly negatively. And Eustace is by far the character who changes the most throughout the series I would say. He's very developed and the Eustace from the beginning of Voyage of the Dawn Treader would NOT recognize the Eustace from the end of The Last Battle.

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  3. Yeah, I thought Pullman's thoughts were interesting, even if I didn't agree. The problem is he tends to state his case WAY too strongly (and rather rudely). He has a very strong opinion on the Narnia series, and it's blinding his arguments. 🙂

    Still, it's fun to read what other people think!

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  4. Yes, I agree. There are quite a lot of holes in Pullman's criticism. I also think it's ironic that his criticism that the Message in Narnia was too heavy-handed, but his Message in His Dark Materials was just as heavy-handed. Oh well! 🙂

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  5. This is actually one of my favorite of the Narnia books! The first time I read it, I was saddened by the end of Narnia, but the last time I read it, I saw it as not the end of Narnia, but the replacement of the original Narnia with an even better Narnia–the reward for the life-well-lived.

    I really can't agree with Pullman either. He seems to have a very negative outlook! I hadn't quite seen Susan as you see her (in a stage), but rather as being the one to represent someone who has rejected what Narnia offers. I like the idea, though, of it being a stage–there's still hope for Susan!

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  6. That's a really good way of thinking about this book….as the beginning of a new and better Narnia. I guess it is rather uplifting when you think about it that way. 🙂

    I'll see if thinking about it that way helps me to better enjoy it when I re-read the series later.

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  7. Oddly, though it is up my ally in many ways, I have never read “The Chronicles of Narnia”.

    Though I have not read it, I like your commentary on the book. I am a non believer trending towards atheist. I have respect for other people's beliefs. I also really like to explore and try to understand religious and philosophical viewpoints that I do not necessarily agree with. Though I have not read Pullman, I am very familiar with the “belief in heaven is life hating and poisonous”. This viewpoint goes back at least as far as Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps futher. It seems to come up a lot in things that I read. I do not agree with it, at least as it pertains to present times, and find it bit farfetched.

    In addition to all this I like fanciful stories and this series is a classic and sounds very good. I really need to get to these books.

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  8. I really love the other Narnia books, but not so much The Last Battle– I was very disappointed and confused when I read it as a child, but dislike it even more now. Particularly because of what happens to Susan. I interpreted this (maybe incorrectly) as sort of like original sin in the Bible, where Susan is like Eve and unworthy of Heaven. I can see what Lewis was trying to do, from his standpoint, but it's a horrible thing to do to a character. I mean, come on, poor Susan kept out of Heaven because she likes lipstick and eyeliner now!

    Philip Pullman's books are some of my favorites, but I also don't like the last book in *his* His Dark Materials series. Both The last Battle and The Amber Spyglass are too heavy-handed and religious/atheist for me, but they are both great fantasy writers. Really great, thought-provoking review, and I'm definitely a new follower!

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  9. Hi Brian! I, also, enjoy exploring ideas that are foreign to me. I love being able to view issues from many different angles…and the only way to do that is to listen to other people's thoughts.

    I also think the belief that heaven is life-hating and poisonous a bit much. I find others' points of view interesting, but I don't like it when they are rude about it (as is Pullman). It's one thing to say “I don't believe in heaven,” and completely another to be rude about it!

    I know that a lot of intellectuals (both philosophers and scientists) can be rude about religious issues…but religious people can be equally rude! Rudeness kills an argument. It doesn't permit logical discussion.

    If you like fairy tales (especially philosophical ones) then this probably is a good series for you to read. 🙂

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  10. I wouldn't say your “original sin” interpretation is incorrect…I hadn't thought about it that way. IMO, though, I think he covered the issue of original sin in The Magician's Nephew (where the original sinner was Digory – ironically, a male character). I think it's more fitting to suggest that Digory was the “original sinner” since his deviations took place during the creation of Narnia, and he was the one to pluck the fruit from the tree.

    Personally, I don't think Susan was kept out of Heaven because of her interest in lipstick and eyeliner. She was kept out of Heaven because she didn't die. 🙂 I think she still has a chance to get to heaven…but now was not her time.

    The Amber Spyglass was VERY heavy-handed, I agree. The second book was a bit too much for me, but it was the third book that left a bad taste in my mouth. Nevertheless, Pullman is an intelligent writers with interesting ideas.

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  11. I've read Pullman's criticism before and it never made sense to me. Lewis does not definitively deny Susan the chance to enter heaven. He merely states, as you mentioned, that in this point at life she is more concerned with herself–with looking good, being popular, etc.–than she is in giving of herself to others. It is true she has the ability to be a very interesting character, though. She just lost her three siblings, her parents, and her cousin all in the same train accident. What kind of effect would that have on her? Perhaps that's the catalyst that will turn her thoughts back toward God.

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  12. Yes, the loss makes Susan interesting – though unfortunately that part is not covered in the book. People are left wondering. And I think THAT'S what leads to the problem of Susan. We don't know. Many (probably most) people like to have nice stories where they know the ending. Personally, I think the open ending with Susan is more intriguing than infuriating. 🙂

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