The Last Battle: To Live is Christ

The last battleA line found on more than one character’s lips in The Last Battle is, “All world’s draw to an end, except Aslan’s own country”. Death is not the end but a beginning. This is the moving conclusion to C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. On the last page we read, “And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before” (p767). 

C. S. Lewis’ prose is enviably delightful, but the truth he describes is even more desirable. Surpassing the previous books in terms of darker and adult themes, The Last Battle confronts its readers with death. Jewel’s words to Lucy are not fantasy: all things do draw to an end, even life itself. Towards the close of the novel we learn that the children died in a railroad accident (p743). That was how they came Narnia this last time. Only, once there it becomes apparent to them that there is still something greater to come. Perhaps, like Reepicheep, this explains Roonwit’s dying words, “all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy” (p717). Later, Tirian will face his own demise with similar grit, “His only thought now was to sell his life as dearly as he could” (p738).

This language and themes are predictably biblical. Life is something to spend, because something greater beyond this life is promised. More than that, we owe our life to someone other than ourselves. One of my favourite modern hymns puts it well, “The things of earth I leave behind / To live in worship of my king / His is the right to rule my life / Mine is the joy to live for him.” As the oft quoted line from Paul goes, “To live is Christ; to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). I’ve seen this verse on more bookmarks than Philippians 4:13, which is saying something. But do we properly grasp the truth therein? I think the latter is more easily comprehended (see my post on Reepicheep and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). But what does the first half mean: “To live is Christ”? We could turn up numerous passages to answer that question, but let’s consider the autobiographical passages in Philippians 2.

Shortly after exhorting Christians to emulate Christ’s humble and sacrificial service, we read, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (2:17). Here, ”To live is Christ”, is seen in Paul serving others. His life was gladly spent for someone other than himself. As Tirian faced death by either sword or the terrifying shed doorway he sought sell his life dearly. In light of the inevitable – death, the end of Narnia – he saw his life in a radically different light.

Coming back to Philippians, so too did Epaphroditus, “Honour such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me” (2:28-29). Likewise Timothy, “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (2:20-21; compare 1:27-2:4). “To live is Christ” is not some kind of mystical, esoteric and inexplicable spirituality. It is fundamentally about the imitation of Christ through the service of others, even when that service is costly.

At one point in The Last Battle, Jill says to Eustance, as they wonder and discuss what will happen if they die in Narnia, “I was going to say I wished we’d never come. But I don’t, I don’t, I don’t. Even if we are killed. I’d rather be killed fighting for Narnia than grow old and stupid at home and perhaps go about in a Bath chair and then die in the end just the same” (p720). These are arguably the bravest words spoken by any character in Narnia. What freed Jill from clinging to her life? It was the knowledge that death would be gain. So she too would spend her final moments, before being thrown into the shed, fighting for Narnia and Aslan. Finally, at the close, we read, “Aslan no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were too great and beautiful that I cannot write them” (p767).

I imagine Lewis would agree with me saying: as wonderful as the conclusion to Narnia is, the reality it portrays is indescribable, infinitely glorious and satisfying—all we have ever desired. He describes the new Narnia as “deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know” (p760). For the Christian, death is indeed the most wonderful and incomparable gain. But when truly believe that it will transform how we live, “To live is Christ.” Like Paul, his juniors, and Lewis’ characters in The Last Battle, we must view our lives as things to be spent rather than clinging onto them. One of the clearest evidences that we know death is gain is when we live for Christ. When we pour ourselves out for others. When we die daily, in humble and sacrificial service of others. To live is Christ.

This post brings to an end a series of articles on C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. If you enjoyed this one then please check out the rest:

The Silver Chair: The Perseverance of Puddleglum

Earlier in this series of posts I confessed that The Horse and His Boy is my favourite of Lewis’ chronicles. Therefore it is right at the outset of this post to admit this: The Silver Chair is my least favourite. However, at each rereading my appreciation is heightened, as – perhaps – my understanding deepens. Indeed, textbooks might readily yield information but the truth in stories is not always as obvious. Furthermore, as we saw in Prince Caspian, the stories we prefer are not always true. In this post we will spend almost all of our time with Puddleglum, the undoubted hero of C. S. Lewis’ penultimate episode in the chronicles of Narnia.

NarniaAt their first meeting with Puddleglum we read, “His expression was solemn, his complexion muddy, and you could see at once that he took the serious view of life” (p580). If we were reading Lewis in the 1950s we might have labelled Puddleglum ‘positively dull.’ But it is his apparent cynicism that annoys Eustace and Jill, and many a reader, more than his dreariness. When he cautions the children about the Green Lady and the Gentle Giants of Harfang, Scrubb exclaims, “Bother his ideas! He’s always expecting the worst, and he’s always wrong” (p590). From the outset of their adventure, Puddleglum’s voice is one of doubt and seeming despair. He appears weighed down by the heaviness of life and paralysed with at potential dangers—we would not describe him as courageous for he seems to lack conviction.

However, Puddleglum is more than the proverbial wet blanket. Having spoken of his concerns about the party seeking shelter at Harfang, his anxieties are explained to the reader, “Aslan’s signs had said nothing about staying with giants, gentle or otherwise” (p591). After his bold antics and pluck help them escape from those less than gentle giants, they fall into the Underworld. Lost, cold, blinded by the darkness, and confronted by the Earthmen, the children begin to lose hope. But it is Puddleglum who pipes up, “Don’t you let your spirits down, Pole. There’s one thing you’ve got to remember. We’re back on the right lines. We were to go under the Ruined City, and we are under it. We’re following the instructions again” (p617). Puddleglum, unlike the more impetuous children, possesses resolve despite the situation, which rests in the sure words of Aslan.

If you have read The Silver Chair, and I imagine you must have if you have read this far, then you will know what takes place in the Underworld. The children and Puddleglum are spellbound by the Queen, rendered unable to save Prince Rilian or return to Narnia. When all seems lost Puddleglum burns himself in the fire, disrupting the Queen’s enchantment. He then delivers a rousing speech, “I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we haveonly dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones…I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it” (p633). The children are confronted on almost every page by Aslan’s absence, the obscurity of his promises, and are not helped at all by their own weaknesses and doubts. This sense of abandonment by Aslan is nowhere felt more sharply than in the clutches of the Queen. So it is at this point in the story that the unmoved faith of the annoyingly honest Marsh-wiggle is desperately necessary. At no point was he blinded to their task by foolish optimism, and in their most trying moment we learn that that is because of his realism and resolve, both owed to Aslan.

It is as the party, with the addition of the recently rescued Rilian, make their way out of the Underworld that Lewis makes this theme clearer. Rilian notices the Narnian insignia and colours have appeared on his shield and states, “Doubtless this signifies that Aslan will be our good lord, whether he means us to live or die” (p637). What Rilian declares boldly, Puddleglum demonstrates repeatedly. His hopes and confidence are not bound up in his circumstances but the words of Aslan. Because of this when all seems lost he is not downcast but determined. Whereas the children are tossed back and forth by the waves of their emotions, Puddleglum is anchored by the promises of Aslan. One of the remarkable effects of this narrative progression is that while most readers are initially less than fond of him everyone concludes that he is the hero. His heroism is not obvious. In fact, in the end it is nothing other than being persuaded of Aslan’s purposes.

NarniaSaying their goodbyes, Puddleglum raises doubts over the future of Narnia and the abilities of their new king. Jill replies, “You’re a regular old humbug. You sound as doleful as a funeral and I believe you’re perfectly happy. And you talk as if you were afraid of everything, when you’re really as brave as – as a lion” (p658). Towards the end of The Silver Chair we read that Rilian ruled Narnia well, bringing happiness to the land, “Though Puddleglum often pointed out that bright mornings brought on wet afternoons, and that you couldn’t expect good times to last” (p663). It is instinctive, even after our journey with Puddleglum, to quietly resent his pessimism. But I wonder if Lewis concluded this story purposefully making one last jab at those whose confidence waxes and wanes with the coming and going of princes, with the changing tides of fortune. Puddleglum is not so foolish.

This post comes as a long-awaited instalment in our Narnia series, which will hopefully be concluded in the upcoming weeks. If you enjoyed it then please check out the previous articles discussing the theology and themes of C. S. Lewis’ work:

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Leaving Narnia

When Caspian tells Edmund and Lucy of his task aboard the Dawn Treader, he speaks of Reepicheep’s “higher hope” for their voyage: to find Aslan’s country (p433). As the Dryad verse goes: “Doubt not Reepicheep,/ To find all you seek,/ There is the utter east.” Though C. S. Lewis deliberately wrote flawed characters – allowing for the majesty of Aslan to shine incomparably, as well as conveying fallen human nature – many exhibit redemptive traits. Reepicheep, who we met in Prince Caspian, is one such character: imperfect but increasingly drawn to and transformed by his hope of being with Aslan.

The Magician's NephewIn one of the more peculiar prefaces to an academic commentary (The Prophecy of Isaiah), Alec Motyer notes Reepicheep’s “endearing bumptiousness.” If you were about to look up the word bumptiousness, it means presumptuous and annoying confidence, even pride. We need only cast our minds back to the end of Prince Caspian where Aslan searchingly says to Reepicheep, “I have sometimes wondered, friend, whether you do not think too much about your honour” (p412). This, at times, insufferable decorum is well portrayed in the recent film adaption. Reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader we learn that Reepicheep’s “mind was full of forlorn hopes, death-or-glory charges, and last stands” (p455). Later, approaching the Dark Island, against the uncertainty of the experienced sailors he boldly asserts, “So far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventure” (p507). Prodigious in courage despite his unimpressive stature, Reepicheep is both proud and presumptuous; he is not the hero of Lewis’ narrative. Yet, for all his shortcomings, Reepicheep demonstrates a remarkable devotion to his promised homecoming and an unending future with Aslan.

Upon discovering the remaining three lords, murmurs grow amongst the volunteer sailors. They see their task as completed and think they should set sail for Cair Paravel, back in the west, rather than continuing east. Lucy asks Reepicheep what he will do and his answer never fails to move me: “While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise” (p524). Though decorated with “undying glory” for his exploits in the second battle of Beruna (p430), Reepicheep longs for another world. Caspian and his crew would return from their journey as heroes, immortalised in the history of Narnia, but Reepicheep longed for immortality, beyond Narnia.

The Voyage of the Dawn TreaderWhen Reepicheep says goodbye he attempts sadness, for the sake of the children, “but he was quivering with happiness” (p539). Reepicheep leaves Narnia overwhelmed by joy, at the fruition of his hope and imminent realisation of all he had ever desired. Elsewhere, in Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote this: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Reepicheep was made for another world, and so are we.

Anyone who has read Narnia would have undoubtedly felt the pull of Lewis’ glorious world, brimming with colour, and replete with immense characters. But nothing there outshines Aslan. So Reepicheep points us past Narnia, to Aslan; and this was – as I argued earlier in this series – the hope Lewis wrote into his masterpiece. Narnia is not the world we desire, for there is another beyond it. And merely glimpsing that world, Lucy said, “It would break your heart,” not because it was sad but because it was all she had ever desired (p539). Once Reepicheep disappears over the crest we learn that the children will never return to Narnia. Lucy despairs for Narnia is the only place they have ever encountered Aslan. But he promises they will see him again: “This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there” (p541).

Prince Caspian: Conflicting Stories

Narnia - C.S. LewisSimilarly to The Horse and His Boy, in Prince Caspian we see the uncertain tension of life between Aslan’s victorious death and his decisive defeat of evil in the future, The Last Battle. For those with ears to hear, Lewis is using narrative to evoke in his readers what it feels like to inhabit the Christian story and encounter the Christian God. However, all is not well when we enter Narnia with the Pevensies: the alluring enchantments of Narnia, talking Beasts, and even Aslan have been forgotten as the Telmarines’ reign strangles the once magical lands. Early on in the novel we see conflicting stories being told about the past, as the Telmarines attempt to change Narnia forever, creating it in their own image. “The sort of History that was taught in Narnia under Miraz’s rule was duller than the truest History you have ever read and less true than the most exciting adventure story” (p408).

When Miraz broaches the topic of Caspian succeeding him on the throne of Narnia, the latter wistfully mentions the Old Days of Narnia, “When everything was quite different. When all the animals could talk, and there were nice people who lived in the streams and the trees” (p335). Miraz is quick to dismiss these “fairy stories”, claiming they are for children and not kings. When Caspian reveals that he has heard much about the Old Days and Aslan, from his nurse, she is promptly sent away (though not from the story entirely, see p409-410). Doctor Cornelius replaces her, becoming Caspian’s tutor. And following a far from insignificant astronomy lesson, Cornelius confirms the stories Caspian heard from his nurse but was kept from believing (p338). We also discover that the Telmarines “silenced the beasts and trees and the fountains…killed and drove away the Dwarfs and Fauns, and are now trying to cover up even the memory of them. The King does not allow them to be spoken of.” The stories of old carry great power, and the Telmarines know this.

Prince CaspianMore than being weary of the old stories, the Telmarines create new ones and distort others to keep people from knowing the truth. When Caspian is told that he must flee the castle through the Black Woods he baulks for fear of what lives there. Cornelius assures him, “Your Highness speaks as you have been taught. But it is all lies. There are no ghosts there. That is a story invented by the Telmarines. Your Kings are in deadly fear of the sea because they can never quite forget that in all stories Aslan comes from over the sea” (p340). We might draw a parallel with the Tarkaans, in The Horse and His Boy, who speak about Narnia as, “Chiefly inhabited by demons in the shape of beasts that talk like men, and monsters that are half man and half beast [and] a demon of hideous aspect and irresistible maleficence who appears in the shape of a lion” (p258). Young Caspian has grown up hearing conflicting stories, as we all have. These stories are fashioned to counter and discredit others, functioning as powerful vehicles of persuasion. But which stories should we believe, which contain the truth?

I have answered that question elsewhere, discussing philosophy, but in the Narnian narrative Lewis’ characters are wrought with uncertainty, embodying a variety of positions. Some abandon hope and selfishly favour evil power instead, such as Nikabrik (see p392-4); others, like Trumpkin, dutifully follow orders though full of disbelief (p360); and still others remember the stories of old rooted in their past and full of effective promise, like Trufflehunter (p352, 359). As readers we are drawn into this milieu of conflicting stories. But we are invited to do much more than merely observe the characters’ struggles to make sense of their own world, for Lewis wants us to consider our own world and the stories we believe.

Narnia - C.S. LewisAs approach the end of Prince Caspian we are meant to hear a note of tragedy amidst the mirth at everything being put right, as a son of Adam is enthroned as the king of Narnia in submission to the High King of Narnia (p411, 416). The poignant note is Aslan permitting the Telmarines to return to their own world (p415-7). They had inhabited Narnia, encountered Aslan, and experienced the old story’s triumph but in the end choose to leave it all behind, suffering the consequences of deeply ingrained stories that kept them from believing another. It is true that some of the younger Telmarines entrust themselves to Aslan and pledge allegiance to Caspian, the new king of Narnia, but the Telmarines that return to our world reveal the dangerous power of stories to keep us from knowing the true story. Listen to Aslan, earlier in the series, full of regret and deep sadness, “Oh, Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good” (p98).

Some Dangers of Theological Study

Theological studyI applied myself more than usual, and had an article posted at IX Marks challenging pastors who have a low evaluation of theological study and highlighting the importance of systematic theology for Bible teaching and local church ministry. In this post I want to briefly touch on some dangers inherent to theological study, both at college and in local church. My reason for doing this is balance: I may not undervalue theology, but could find myself at the other pole, where theology is self-indulgent and fails to serve God’s people. Another reason for writing this post is because, as Helmut Thielicke notes in A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, love and truth are seldom combined when it comes to academic learning. And this cannot be the case for those who are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

In an old post reviewing my recent reads, I joked that I could be accused of loving books more than people, and I fear the same could sometimes be said about my enjoyment of theological inquiry. Though I do not share his sentiments, Dr Manhattan, from The Watchmen, unwittingly expresses the dangerous lure of theology, “I am tired of Earth, these people. I’m tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives,” only instead of an ivory tower he retreats to Mars. Theology is an enriching pursuit, which should be undertaken by every Christian, but we must be aware of the ease with which it can become an escape. I cannot deny the pleasure of sitting down with a cup of freshly brewed tea and Herman Bavink’s Reformed Dogmatics, but I can work hard at directing my studies to equip me to better teach and train other Christians. As former Archbishop Michael Ramsey wrote, in The Christian Priest Today, the church’s hold on the faith is dependant on its ministers’ ability to develop their own theology. Christian theology should never be disconnected from life, for it is the means of understanding it.

Theology cannot become a pursuit in itself. In his essay Learning in War-time, C. S. Lewis quotes from the Theologica Germanica, where the anonymous author warns against becoming lovers of knowledge – or our knowing – above the thing (we might add person) known. There are two problems with this; both are incongruent with Christian theology. Firstly, developed and deep studies can puff up, causing pride. There is a tendency amongst the learned to become condescending. This is a travesty, since true theology cannot but create humility as we reflect on our creatureliness, God’s glorious holiness, and gospel of unmerited grace. Secondly, theology can become idolatry if we love our knowing more than what is known, our Lord and God. As Lewis says, the intellectual life is not the only pathway to God, it is a treacherous path beset with dangers to carefully consider. What does it profit a theologian if she authors numerous works, earns a tenured professorship, and is awarded more PhDs than he can fit on her office walls, if she loses her soul?

Dr ManhattanAbove, I mentioned Thielicke’s unassuming but profound book. One of my lecturers at college encouraged us to read and reflect on it annually, and I am grateful for his counsel. In fact, I am tempted to say the book is worth owning for Martin Marty’s introduction alone. In it, he makes a few painfully incisive points about studying theology. He challenges the alienating piety of those who claim to know more than any reasonable finitude allows, and calls out the abstraction and aloofness that characterises many theologians and their relationship with the local church. But, in my opinion, his best point is on the odium theologicum, “The pettiness of little men who care much about big issues.” As I conclude, let us remember that theological study is when little creatures claim to understand an infinite God, let alone big issues. We can barely afford pettiness, must learn humility, and are failing if our knowledge does not move us to worship God and serve his people.

Doodle: “No One is Told Any Story but Their Own”

The Horse and His BoyI concluded my previous post on Narnia by briefly touching on Aslan’s refusal to tell people any story but their own. The characters in The Horse and His Boy need to learn this important truth: Aslan is at the back of all stories (p302), yet he will only tell people their story and not someone else’s. Only Aslan can reveal to us what we really are – both glorious and tragically fallen creatures – but he will tell us no more than this. To borrow Aslan’s words from Prince Caspian: “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve. And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth” (p416). In The Horse and His Boy, it is Aravis who struggles most in seeing her true self by hearing her own story. But before we get to her let us set the scene, as C. S. Lewis did.

When Shasta finally meets Aslan it is a wonderful revelation for he learns that behind his entire life, and even its most painful events, sat an author who longed to meet him. As Shasta learns that there was only ever one lion pursuing them throughout their journey he realises that it was Aslan who inflicted the terrible wounds on Aravis’ back, during their flight to the Southern March (p281). Asking after the reason he is told, “Child, I am telling you your story, not hers, I tell no one any story but his own.” A little later, when Shasta pleads with Edmund and insists he is not a traitor, despite overhearing their council in Tashbaan, the King of Narnia alludes to this truth that everyone must learn: “Try not to hear what’s meant for other ears” (p288). Now we can get to Aravis’ story and Lewis’ point.

The Horse and His BoyRowan Williams believes that this repeated idea reveals every human’s desire to be distracted from their own story, the parts we ignore and find unbearable. He writes, “We need to know what we have done, in all its dimensions.” We need to fully grasp the reality about ourselves, the dark truths we find it easier to forget. When the Hermit explains Aravis’ wounds he says: “Though they smart they are no more serious than if they had been the cuts of a whip. It must have been a very strange lion; for instead of catching you out of the saddle and getting his teeth into you, he has only drawn his claws across your back” (p273). Aravis considers it luck, but the Hermit says that in all his years he has never met any such thing as luck, adding, “There is something about all this that I do not understand: but if ever we need to know it, you may be sure that we shall” (p274). At this point in the narrative, Aravis is yet to meet Aslan and hear her story. And when she does, her wounds help her accept the harm she caused; along with the depths of herself she refused to plumb.

Enter Aslan, whose words are more smarting than Aravis’ wounds: “The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like” (p299). Little mention is made of her stepmother’s servant, but on first meeting Bree and Shasta, Aravis recalls her escape and coolly dismisses the beating that it would result in for the drugged slave, stating that she deserved it (p224). Shasta is sympathetic for the slave, claiming that her suffering was unfair, and Aravis snaps at him, for she does not do anything to please him. However, as we approach the end of Lewis’ narrative it is clear that Aravis has been changed. Not only has her pride softened and her temper waned, but also through her wounds she becomes aware that her actions reach far beyond her own desires. Anxiously, she asks if any more harm will come to the slave and Aslan responds, “I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”