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Lipstick and Nylons

On the end of Narnia.

I came to Narnia as an adult. When I was a child I did not need or want it. I was one of those English suburban middle-class boys who attended austere boarding schools, to prepare me to govern or defend an empire which (though we did not grasp this) had already vanished from the earth. I found the Pevensie children tiresome (I still do) and all-too-familiar. I thought that if I met them, I should not like them, or they me. In any case I resented being a child, and vigorously pushed away childish things. I did not then see the charm in Pauline Baynes’s cover designs and illustrations. And around the time I might normally have found my way through the wardrobe, I had been introduced by a friend to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, not then the vast cult it later became. I have never escaped from it since, pleased to find later in life that it was now respectable as a work of literature. It was not till I had children of my own, and so began to read the Lewis stories out loud, that I grasped their brilliance. I still do not like the Pevensies. In fact in the end I think they will become such impossible anachronisms that they will make the books more or less unreadable for the children they are aimed at. I have always thought that The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy were the best of the series, partly because the 1950s children were absent.

The above, I should add, is not totally true. Towards the end of one boarding school term, when our trunks were already packed, order had begun to break down and sensible teachers had abandoned their lessons, one such teacher read to us from The Last Battle. She got as far as the appearance of the Calormene deity Tash, and I recall being thrilled and terrified by the passage—in which the sky darkens and the day grows chilly before the filthy monster passes, amid a charnel stench, across the clearing. I thought at the time and think now that Jewel the Unicorn would have been wiser to whisper than to cry out “Look!” to his companions. What if the thing saw them and turned on them? In this case Miss Baynes’s pen drew one of the most frightening images I have ever seen, a credible representation of a demon as it might actually be, compounded of flesh and smoke. The great M.R. James tended to be coy about his horrors. We never quite see them fully face to face, catching sight of them before fleeing from them at full pelt or perhaps fainting as they creep up from behind or put their slimy arms around us. The thing in the tomb at Barchester cathedral is only ever glimpsed, though the black mark of its mouth is seen all too clearly. The creature which Count Magnus brings back from the Black Pilgrimage is always shrouded, though we see what it does to those it catches. And so on. But at the first appearance of Tash, author and illustrator are both specific and entirely successful. I carried the picture and the description in my head for decades until the stories came round again, and it was my turn to be reading, rather than to be read to. And eventually I came again to The Last Battle.

Here I must acknowledge a debt to a brilliant and captivating study of the Narnia books by Katherine Langrish, From Spare Oom to War Drobe . Her deep love for the stories she first read at the age of nine has led her to investigate the detailed mythical, biblical, and literary origins of all the Narnia works, from Spenser and Bunyan to Edith Nesbit. It greatly enriches any reading of them, and I had longed for years for someone to write such a book. She does not really like The Last Battle, and I suspect her surgical analysis of it has intensified my own doubts. I hate the way it opens with the words “In the last days of Narnia” and we are soon told that Tirian is also the last king of Narnia. I am not even sure this is good storytelling. For pages we meet nobody who is not either up to no good or, if good, is not hopelessly tricked by the wicked ape Shift. Everything, it is plain, is going to go wrong, and it duly does go wrong in Narnia and in England too, though there is a strange moment at which Lewis writes that much evil came of Tirian’s rashness. It seems to me that all the evil in the book (and there is a great deal of it, much of it very distressing to an adult as well to a child) is foreordained and would have happened anyway. I am pretty certain that I fought back tears the first time I read it. It is there to open the way for Lewis’s very risky attempt to end the Narnia chronicles by explaining the Apocalypse, the Last Judgement, and eternal life. 

At every point where we might begin to hope—the release of the dwarfs, the rescue of the talking horses, the exposure of the false Aslan—hope is instantly dashed. The Pevensies cannot save Narnia even though Tirian begs them to do so. Not even Professor Kirk and Polly, still apparently available, can help. Aslan himself allows many horrible events to take place before he appears, and his allies do not prosper even when they act in his name. Tirian and Roonwit the Centaur are allowed to utter some sentiments from the lost age of chivalry, some of them very moving, especially about a noble death being “a treasure which no man is too poor to buy.” Jill is commanded to weep if she must, but to keep her bowstring dry even so. But the story sags, over and over again. Before now, even in the account of the death of Aslan on the Stone Table in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, all the stories have allowed the forces of goodness to triumph in battle or in some other way. But not here. Even the final physical victory over the Calormenes, and the despatch of Tash, are spoiled by the refusal of the dwarfs to see that they have been redeemed.

As for me, Aslan’s proclamation that “The term is over! The holidays have begun!” has always been an embarrassingly banal way of attempting to explain the passage into eternal life. For that tiny part of the human race which attended British boarding schools in the age of the suet pudding and the hard dormitory bed, the end of term was indeed a moment of rejoicing. But the holidays were never quite as delightful as we had hoped, for what anticipated pleasure is? It will not really do. We know as adults that heaven and earth shall pass away, and that we shall return to the dust from which we came. Though many children do not really believe this, Lewis himself knew it with painful certainty, after the terrible death of his mother. And it is hard (as Jill rightly finds it hard) to bear the loss of the known and loved in return for an unspecified promise of unknown joys. I will not even try to encompass or discuss the deaths, in an English railway accident, of the Friends of Narnia, or the condemnation of poor Susan to eternal darkness thanks to her liking for lipstick and nylons, though Katherine Langrish has much that is interesting to say about all this. The real trouble is, that once you have read The Last Battle, all the other books are affected by it. In this, as in so many other things, I would rather not have known the end.