Having revisited Narnia in its past, in The Magician's Nephew Lewis succeeded in reinforcing its symbology by giving powerful and convincing narrative explanations for such things as the lamppost, the witch and the wardrobe that had appeared in the first Narnian book he had written years before. He was set up, in a way, to replicate what his close friend J. R. R. Tolkien had done - he could now proceed to outline further adventures in the Narnia universe, fleshing out and developing his sub-created world by telling the stories implicit in its history.
But Lewis’s purposes were different to Tolkien’s. The latter had begun his tales of Middle-earth as a private hobby related to his study of languages, a hobby which slowly grew and became more personal and emotional as his early life’s losses and loves wound themselves into it; whereas for Lewis, right from the start writing fiction had had an outward-facing intention: he wanted to produce in others the same world-altering change of perception that reading Dante had produced in him. He was not interested in expanding upon Narnia’s history or geography beyond enhancing its symbolic power; now, as with all symbols, he could still gain momentum from it by destroying it.
For Lewis, the world which the Pevensies had left behind when they had journeyed through the wardrobe was a fictional facsimile of our own, and our own world was Ironic: it contained war, cynicism, betrayal and psychological subjectivity, it lacked holiness, joy, honour and an external God. This was the world of Eustace Scrubb’s parents; it was the world of Experiment House, and in another sense it was Calormen with its slavery and debasement. Through the Chronicles so far, Lewis had used the Narnian world as a counterpoint, a lever to swing the reader round to a new view of reality. What we see in The Last Battle is Lewis’s attempt to consciously and painstakingly drain Narnia of all its symbolic resonance as part of a plan to produce the ultimate revelation for readers.
At the novel’s beginning, Narnia has had peace and prosperity since the reign of King Caspian X. However, in the north of Narnia, Shift the ape persuades a simple-minded donkey called Puzzle to dress in a lion's skin and pretend to be Aslan himself. Through Puzzle, Shift convinces the Narnians that he speaks for Aslan, tricking them into serving the Calormenes. Among many other evil deeds, he has them cut down Talking Trees for lumber, taking the money on the pretext that it will be used for the good of the Narnians.
Readers have grown so used to the world of Narnia being quite different to their own that the expectation is that the Lion will soon return and restore justice, punishing the traitors. But Lewis’s task in this story is to intentionally subvert any of our usual expectations: Tirian and his friend Jewel the Unicorn immediately recognise the deception that Shift has fabricated in league with the talking cat Ginger and Rishda Tarkaan, the Calormene warlord - they particularly perceive the lie Shift and his allies put about that Aslan and the Calormene god Tash are one and the same. But unlike in earlier tales, everything goes wrong for the protagonists, with no sign of hope: when he accuses the ape of lying, Tirian is tied to a tree.
There at last the reader is reassured: Tirian calls on Aslan for help and receives a vision of Lord Digory, Lady Polly, High King Peter, King Edmund, Lord Eustace, Queen Lucy, and Lady Jill, though he does not know who they are. The fact that his prayer is answered is the only strand in the story for some time that gives the reader any sign that this is in fact a Narnian story. Though Tirian’s prayer gets a response, the vision is incomplete - the Friends cannot hear him - and Susan is not amongst them because she has stopped believing in Narnia, thinking it only some silly childhood game she played when she was young and immature. The effect is chilling - Susan was one of the original Pevensies, a Queen of Narnia - ‘Once a King or Queen of Narnia, always a King or Queen of Narnia’, Aslan once said. Is everything breaking down?
Some things are still the same: a few minutes later by Narnian time – but a week later in their time – Jill and Eustace arrive in Narnia, releasing the King and rescuing Jewel. Puzzle, realising his folly, joins them. What follows is reminiscent of the awkward physicality of Prince Caspian: the band are concerned about food and survival and struggle with hard realities for some time. This sense of mechanical dysfunction is exacerbated when they accidentally are present as the Calormene god Tash travels north through the woods. Then the band learn that Roonwit the Centaur and the Narnian army have all been killed in battle. As readers, we sense the ‘death quotient’ is mounting too high: the story edges its way towards an Irony where death rules supreme and meaning is drained away.
Tirian and his small force try to expose the truth of Shift's deception but find that Shift and Rishda are getting rid of trouble makers by forcing them into the stable to ‘meet Tashlan’, the combined Tash and Aslan. The deception grows, the mood drops: Tirian's group engages Shift and the Calormenes, but most of the remaining Narnians are slaughtered. Things don’t begin to turn around until we get close to the stable door, and that’s when Lewis’s craftsmanship, which may have appeared to be faltering, re-asserts itself: the stable door, set up narratively to be a doorway to death, is portrayed as a kind of ‘reverse wardrobe’: instead of leading to Narnia, it seemingly leads out of Narnia into death.
On a partly-unconscious level, the reader may be aware that the stable door lies on the exact spot in the invented geography of Narnia that the wardrobe door did, the same spot precisely that served as the entrance int into an uncreated Narnia in The Magician's Nephew. Things have come full circle.
This particular piece of narrative magic gains full force when Tirian, having thrown Shift into the stable, and now left alone and fighting for his life, drags Rishda into the stable with him but instead of meeting death as he supposed, stumbles into a vast and beautiful land. Tash appears and seizes Rishda - but for Tirian, Peter, Edmund, Eustace, Lucy, Jill, Polly, and Digory become visible. In the name of Aslan and the Emperor Beyond the Sea, Peter orders Tash away, and the demon vanishes with Rishda in his clutches.
Just as Lucy unexpectedly found wonder through a wardrobe door, Tirian is now staggered by what he sees and is full of questions. The full impact of the ‘switch’ in perception only becomes apparent as Aslan appears to judge and dispose of the Narnian universe. Everyone gathers outside the stable to be judged by Aslan with the faithful entering Aslan's Country and others vanishing. Creatures that we glimpsed underground in The Silver Chair appear to consume all the vegetation; Father Time calls the stars down from the skies into the sea, which rises to cover Narnia. The land freezes over and the stable door is closed.
Narnia has served its purpose. We, along with the characters who remain on that side of the stable door, are now part of a new perspective. As we follow Aslan and go further into the 'one true Narnia', we move up a waterfall and are greeted by Reepicheep and many other characters from the earlier novels.
There is a real England there as well as the real Narnia. Aslan tells the gathered group that the English friends of Narnia and the Pevensies' parents have all died in a train crash.
The reader notes here Lewis’s careful concession to the genre of children’s literature : he could not have the parents remain behind for risk of triggering too many tricky theological and emotional concerns in his young readers’ minds. It is also noteworthy that Susan, who was not on the train, remains in the mortal world as the only surviving member of the Pevensie family - Lewis never makes explicit whether she will eventually make it to Aslan's country later in life.
Lewis is here attempting something highly ambitious. At first Narnia used the symbols that Lewis had dreamed, the Lion, the faun, and so on, developing them and other images over the next few stories into powerful symbols for religious transformation: now he attempts the ultimate ‘flip’ - he tries to actually take the reader into a God-centred reality, removing at last even the most central symbols:
And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. 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.
Lewis ‘cannot write them’ because he has gone beyond fiction: he has attempted the equivalent of a gymnastic double back-flip, bringing readers out of an Ironic culture into a world created from symbols, a kind of preparatory zone for their final leap into the world which the symbols were only ever meant to suggest. Narnia is no longer a destination in itself but a stepping stone - we’re given growing hints of this throughout the Chronicles, and The Last Battle takes any hint away and thrusts us through the doorway, wardrobe or stable.
How we respond depends largely on how we have taken Lewis’s symbols to heart - in this final episode of Narnia, for some of us our grief at their loss is merely a birth-pang.