Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford. Keble College and Christ Church College.

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The tower of Christ Church college.

Another jam-packed morning of my Oxford visit. First, once I’d packed my bag, I took it down to Keble’s storage room, where a friendly man tagged it for me. This left me free to wander without dragging my little wheelie case along with me. Having checked out of Keble, I then headed through town to Christ Church College. The journey was a pleasant one, as I passed through the College’s beautifully kept gardens, noting the memorial to fallen soldiers. I arrived at the entrance to the buildings a little early (it opens at 10am) but there was already a queue – and multiple coach parties arriving.

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Hogwarts at Christ Church.

As I queued, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation of the people in front of me. A Spanish man, who looked to be in his late twenties, was talking to his English guide:        “So, the Chamber of Secrets, is it under this college?” The guide looked perplexed. He replied, “No, the Great Hall was based on the hall here, and the staircase was used for filming, but not the Chamber of Secrets.” The Spanish man seemed puzzled, and asked, “Well which college has the chamber then?” He genuinely believed that one of the Oxford colleges concealed a massive underground labyrinth (accessed by a toilet sink) featuring a massive statue of a dodgy wizard and filled with the bones of a basilisk and everything it had eaten. Bless him. The guide’s polite explanations continued, as he pointed out the differences between film sets of imaginary schools and genuine locations.

 

I paid my £10 and entered a small courtyard filled with the scent of lavender bushes. Moving on (the leaflet I’d been given specified a path to follow, rather than just wandering about) I arrived at the famous ‘Hogwarts’ staircase. (It’s the scene of McGonagall’s welcome and explanation of the house system in the film of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, for example. Harry’s met up with Ron and Hermione there, encountered Filch, and watched Tom Riddle via his diary.)  The ceiling is reminiscent of the decorative ceiling in the Bodleian’s Divinity School. I took plenty of giddy snaps to remember it by, then filed into the Dining Hall with everyone else. You can clearly see how it inspired the film version of Hogwarts’ Great Hall, with its long tables, high roof and large stone fireplaces.The walls are filled with stained glass windows and painted portraits. I filed round, duly taking snaps, but was surprised to find myself a little underwhelmed. I think it must be a personal taste thing, but I preferred Keble’s (far newer and less celebrated) hall. After the hall came a large quad, and the cathedral, which was full of interesting things to see wherever you looked. I particularly liked the Pre-Raphaelite windows.After lighting some prayer candles I wandered back out of the cathedral and through another quad, and returned to the streets of Oxford near Oriel College.Christ Church is undeniably gorgeous, historic and everything else you could want from an Oxford College. I’m not sure why, I just didn’t warm to it in the same way I did Magdalen or Keble. Maybe it was too large-scale for me. I’m a small scale sort of person.

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Leaving Christ Church.

Having some time to spare, I sought of the ‘Tumnus’ carvings, situated either side of a doorway near and old fashioned lamppost (coincidence, I’m sure, but fun nevertheless) and visited the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, which was pleasantly cool and calm. I picked up some souvenirs from the Bodleian shop, noticing the doorway nearby marked ‘grammar and history’. Tailor-made for me!

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Tumnus and the lamppost.
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My favourite doorway.

 

 

Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford. The train journey.

Monday 25 August, 2016

8.15am

So the day is finally here. I’m going to Oxford. Despite the July heatwave, Newcastle Central Station retains its crown – awarded by my family – as the coldest place in the North of England, particularly when you’re sitting on a delightfully modern metal seat with custom draft-holes. For once, however, this is a relief. I’m about to sit on a train for over four hours, so I’d rather not be flustered and sticky before I even begin.

Stations without steam have lost a good chunk of their ‘romance’, but there’s still a feeling of possibility. My fellow travellers and I could go anywhere. Do anything. Escape. Be anonymous.

I’m full of anticipation for the mythical Oxford of my mind’s eye, peopled by characters both real and fictional: The Inklings, Wilde and Bosie, Nicholas Jenkins, Inspector Morse/Endeavour. I imagine gorgeous, otherworldly views of ancient buildings shrouded in swirling mists (based chiefly on my Morse box-set and a guidebook I’ve borrowed from the library).

Of course, waiting at a train station stirs specific Narnia memories; I’m choosing to focus on the events of Prince Caspian rather than The Last Battle. Just as the children were whisked away into another world, hopefully I will be. But I’ll be able to use the buffet service.

My brother-in-law mentioned to me recently the idea that humanity, whether secular or not, often feels the need for a spiritual or emotional quest of some sort. (As discussed in my previous post.) I can’t quite articulate why this visit means more to me than just a sight-seeing tour would. Logically, I understand that standing in a room where Lewis worked on the Chronicles won’t help me to understand or enjoy them more. But still, I long to do it.

8.25am

On the train, I’m awaiting the final whistle. I’ve calmed down a little now, the mundane reality of 21st Century travel overriding my dreamy mood: I’ve not got a window seat. To see out of the window at all I have to lean forward and peek past the seat in front.

8.45am

I was intending to be very grown up and scholarly, by reading one of my books on the Inklings. (If any of my fellow passengers glanced across at me doing this, they’d surely think, ‘What an interesting, sophisticated person she must be.’ Unless they happened to look when I was shovelling jelly beans into my mouth.) Instead I’ve succumbed to the lazy pleasures of the Prince Caspian audio book on my iPod. Childish excitement means I can’t focus on anything properly for more than five minutes. It’s just as well I’ve brought entertainment, as the philistine in the seat in front of me has, without consultation, closed the blind. Hasn’t he heard of the romance of rail travel? How am I supposed to gaze dreamily at blue-remembered hills passing the window now? Curse you, Anton J****, and your desperate need to check your emails every ten seconds. (Yes, I had a good nose at his screen. I’d do it again, too.)

prince-caspian

9.25am

So, I’m sitting here thinking about why Lewis and the Chronicles mean so very much to me. I devoured lots of books as a child, but the only ones which came at all close to Narnia in my affections were Tolkien’s. Even then, the world of Middle Earth felt like it belonged to me and my family – we listened to, discussed and enjoyed the stories together. But Narnia was mine. A private world just for me.

Maybe part of the appeal was of a place where I fitted in. I’ve been thinking about ‘fitting in’ recently. I’m pretty adept at doing so in a variety of situations, with many different people. But when I stop to think about it, I’ve always felt inwardly like I’m a little off to one side. Out of step. Observing rather than being. (A terrible thing in these times of mindfulness, no doubt.) I don’t mind. I’m not sad about it. It just is what it is.

In part, this feeling of otherness may well have been because my interests haven’t always been those of my peers. At primary school, I wanted to talk about knights, castles, chivalry, poetry and military history. The other little girls in my class were less keen, and I learned to keep my passions to myself. This continued into high school, where I spent the day discussing all the usual stuff teenage girls discuss, and the evening devouring as diverse a range of writing as I possibly could. I hadn’t any prejudices or preconceptions. Books were books. I would read anything and everything – from The Way of All Flesh to Trotsky’s autobiography to Sweet Valley High – and would happily spend hours alone in the local library. But I didn’t really mention my reading to my friends. (I was at school long before the ‘nerds are cool’ thing started to gain momentum.) At University I was a little more open, partly thanks to the liberating effect which sharing large amounts of alcohol has on conversation. But as an adult, I’ve generally found myself working in environments where the main topics of conversation have been diet fads, gossip and the triumphs and disasters involved in potty training toddlers. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that, but I’ve not really felt comfortable talking about my love of fantasy stories and medieval history in these places. So whenever I’ve presented a face to the world, there’s always been a part missing.

So here I am, and whenever I read the kindly, paternal narrative voice of the Narnia stories, I feel I’m with a friend who understands me. Nobody in Narnia seemed like they would mind my bookish over-earnestness and complete inability to be ‘cool’. They liked stories, and knights, and all the things I liked.

Travel information:

Journey time from Newcastle to Oxford: 4 hours 5 minutes.

Cost of return ticked booked 12 weeks in advance: £90.00.

 

 

Narnia re-read. Finishing the Last Battle.

Reading this book, after not having done so for some time, really surprised me. I found that my relationship with it is more difficult to define, or even understand, than my thoughts and feelings towards the other books in the series.

Reservations

What struck me throughout the book, particularly up to chapter 12, was the utter strangeness of the mood of the story. This book is a children’s book. Yet it’s full of ‘doom and gloom’. Characters fight desperately on the side of good to no avail. A world which has acted as an exciting escape for the reader, while also being extremely comforting (good defeats evil, people can change, kindness is better than power etc.) has been turned completely on its head. It contains all the most depressing elements of our own world.There’s a real sense of loss and despair in places. I can remember being unsure about this as a child.

Aslan, despite being mentioned (including all the references to ‘Tashlan’) all the time, is absent from the majority of the book. The characters are left to themselves, with no way of knowing if help will ever come to them. He ends the book by taking his ‘other’ form. This follows on from his increasing ‘distance’ in SC, compared with how he is involved in the action in earlier books. I find myself warming much more to the three main human characters instead, with Jill being an excellent example of a clever, brave, strong female protagonist. I felt much more attached to the Aslan of the first three books, or of MN.

I imagine that how you view this book may well depend on your religious outlook. (I know that many Christian commentators online say that this book is their favourite Narnian story.) The other Narnia stories, although they clearly contained references to and parallels with Christianity, could be enjoyed fully without the reader believing in anything specific. (Of course many people enjoyed them without realising the religious undercurrent was there at all.) However, this feels somewhat harder to do with LB. If you don’t see death as the next step in a soul’s journey, but as a simple, final, full stop to existence, it’s difficult to cheer when a railway accident kills the main heroes of your story. (Also, what about the other passengers?) The door to Narnia is closed to you, and you can’t see how to get round this. Another real sticking point for me is that it is also (for now) closed to Susan, as discussed previously. This is the case even more so now that I’m an adult.

Positives

Although the tone and story line are often not my favourite from among the Chronicles, Lewis’ imagination and descriptive power is as strong as ever: the monumental scale of the events of Narnia’s ending; the breathless action of the battle itself; the beauty of the true Narnia-within-Narnia. The descriptions are as vivid and lovely as anything in the Chronicles. The dialogue is also memorable, notably Roonwit’s last words, Jewel’s response to reaching the New Narnia, and Emeth’s encounter with Aslan. These words have the power to involve and move me, still, regardless of my religious beliefs, and I know I’m not alone in this.

The nobility of fighting for a hopeless cause, for choosing what is right instead of what is easy, is most inspiring, and despite my reservations about this book, it is the main thing I take away from it. The main characters’ fight against all the odds, in an utterly bleak situation, always brings to mind this quotation from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

These words could easily be from a conversation between Tirian and Jewel.

Overall, I found this book moving, and beautiful, rather than ‘fun’ to read. I suppose how you respond to it differs from person to person. As Lewis says in MN,

‘What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.’

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter sixteen. Farewell to Shadowlands.

Synopsis: They climb the waterfall, and enter the Western Wild. There they meet old friends, and finally learn what has happened to them, and the true meaning of where they are.

Whenever I read this chapter, the title makes me think of the film made about Lewis and his marriage, which was entitled ‘Shadowlands’. (I’ll be reviewing it in a later post.)

How does Jewel know what to do? Is it an animal thing? A unicorn thing?

Reading this, I can’t imagine that anyone will ever be able to film this book, as they have some others in the series. How would you portray this magical country and the strange things that happen in it? Even animation would struggle.

The clumsy Lewis, who detested sports and found them incredibly difficult, would, I imagine, have liked to suddenly be able to run, swim etc. in this confident manner. Who wouldn’t?

How does Eustace try to frighten himself?

Somehow I’d not noticed on earlier reads just how quickly they travelled, like ‘human speed-boats’.

I love the dogs’ inability to stop barking excitedly, so they keep coughing and sneezing on mouthfuls of water. The waterfall contains images familiar to anyone who has read the Chronicles as positive signs: cool, refreshing water, reflected light and colour, and a combination of potentially conflicting emotions.

Tirian’s reunion with his father is so lovely and tender. I think I even prefer it to the reunions with the favourite characters from previous books. (Fun as it is to see Reepicheep, I’d have loved to hear what Puddleglum has to say about being in heaven. How would he manage to make it sound sufficiently ‘serious’?

Why can’t Ramandu’s daughter ever get her own name?

Have Frank and Helen been sitting in the thrones for long, waiting for everyone to arrive? Do they spend much time like this?

We end the Narniad with Lucy meeting once again with Tumnus, and him explaining the world she is in, and with Polly and Digory ‘flying’ over the Western Wild. Whether you prefer to begin them at LWW or MN, we’ve come full circle in the Chronicles. (We have also come full circle in terms of LB – we are back at Caldron Pool, with Puzzle in the water.)

At this point in the narrative, young me became quite confused by the scale and proportion of everything. How could a world like this be? (I understood old Narnia perfectly because it looked almost exactly like the England I grew up in.) It is still a little odd, but better acquaintance with Plato since my childhood readings has helped me begin to unravel it. The thing that still puzzles me is, if there are multiple Narnias within Narnias, how do you decide which one to go to? And if they keep getting more real and beautiful each time, what’s the point of the outer ones? Is there an end to these Narnias?

I was never keen on the fact that the Pevensies’ parents turned up at this point in the story. I’m still not. They’ve never figured much in the story before, and I don’t want them popping up now. (Particularly because of the horrible implications this has for Susan back in our world.) It just feels odd. Maybe it’s just me being awkward though, because I like the fact that the Professor’s house turns up.

Again, a horn is sounded. This always means something significant in the Chronicles.

Would Aslan really say, ‘No fear of that,’? It sounds a little informal.

After all the mentions of dreams and their significance in every novel in the series, Aslan finally tells us, ‘The dream is ended: this is the morning.’

And so the Chronicles end. For me, not quite as I would like. At the last moment, Aslan begins to turn into something else (i.e. Jesus.) But what I wanted, more than anything as a child, was Aslan to be real, and be Aslan. And for me to find my way to him, and Narnia.

I can’t argue with the beauty of the final paragraph, however. How very Lewisian to explain the idea of eternal life through a metaphor about reading. These books, after all, are our very own wardrobe door into Narnia.

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter fifteen. Further up and further in.

Synsopsis: Emeth tells his story. Puzzle appears. Everyone works out where they are.

Emeth (meaning ‘true’ or ‘faithful’ in Hebrew) clearly learned his tricks of speech and storytelling in the traditional Calormene manner. Emeth only appears briefly in the story, but is one of my favourite characters. He is honourable, courteous and honest. When he realises the truth about Aslan and Tash he freely admits his error and is prepared to take any consequences. Some religious readers have found his story unsettling because of the implications they feel it would have if the idea were translated into this world: God will judge you on your actions, and your desire and love for God, rather than for your belonging to or obedience to a specific religion. They believe that only the followers of their ‘true’ religion could be saved, i.e. people who follow Jesus. Personally, I much prefer the idea that actions and character are what matter, not which building you worship in, what name you call your God or what dietary/clothing rules you follow. Hinduism accepts the idea that different people may have different spiritual paths to take to reach God. What a shame some of the more extreme followers of Abrahamic religions can’t share this open-mindedness.

If it really were the case that ‘vile deeds’ done in the name of God were taken as service to Tash/the devil, there are a lot of people in this world – past and present – who would need to be afraid.

‘My happiness is so great that it even weakens me like a wound.’ I love Emeth’s turn of phrase. I imagine he and Lucy would get along very well. They both have that dreamy, spiritual quality to their character. (The internet being what it is, some people have naturally discussed the potential of this ‘ship’.)

Pauline Baynes’ illustration of a lion-skin-free Puzzle (shown at the top of this post) is delightful. He really does have a lovely face!

The characters are all headed West. However, until now, the general direction of travel for all things Aslan/Emperor over the Sea has been East. Maybe this is because travelling in that direction would require a retread of the Dawn Treader’s journey. It also seems strange to me that by this point, the Emperor hasn’t been mentioned more. He’s clearly very important – we know this because of his relationship to Aslan – but he isn’t referred to at all. I don’t think I even have a fully formed idea of who or what he ‘is’ in terms of this world from the stories.

The phrase ‘further up and further in’ reminds me of HHB’s ‘Narnia and the North!’.

I’m not sure I quite understood the implications of the dogs’ conversation about calling naughty puppies ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ when I was younger.

The idea of the land being the ‘real thing’, the ‘real Narnia’, is explained by Digory. This makes sense as he mentions Plato, whose theories of Forms etc. inform the ideas behind this, and the following, chapter. Lewis is spelling out his idea to us, but until I was an adult I hadn’t actually read Plato, so didn’t know what it meant. I did, however, understand Lewis’ explanation referring to seeing a view reflected in a window or mirror. I often looked for such reflections just because of this passage.

Jewel’s speech, which includes, ‘This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now,’ shows that the characters have finally achieved what Lewis hoped and wished for all his life. They have reached the source of their ‘joy’. They no longer need make do with ‘sehnsucht’ or glimpses, or moments of wonder and pure, unadulterated happiness. The source of their joy is here. Lewis spent his life pursuing this end. This speech strikes a deep chord with many readers, including me. Reading about Narnia, I always felt that I had ‘come home’, too. It was the land my heart desired, without knowing it was going to be found in a book. It still is.

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter fourteen. Night falls on Narnia.

Synopsis: The friends watch Aslan put an end to the world of Narnia. They meet Emeth.

The friends stand on the right side of Aslan. In ‘Biblical’ terms, this shows their importance and place of favour with their leader. (There are a number of other Biblical allusions in this chapter, which are helpfully listed in Ford’s Companion to Narnia. The influence of Revelantions on the entire book is notable, as well.)

One of my favourite scenes in the Narniad is the beautiful creation scene in MN. Here we see it’s opposite: the total destruction of the world. It is a sad but fascinating scene. There is silence instead of music, cold instead of warmth and death instead of life. However, I would love to see the descent of the stars. (I never pictured them quite as they appear in Pauline Baynes’ illustration, which reminds me more of Jack Frost.) Is Coriakin there? Ramandu? Tarva? Alambil? For me, nobody writes this sort of thing as well as Lewis. He can mix clarity of prose with dreamlike mystical elements. His writing about such moments is never arch, or self-conscious, or insincere.

The influence of Lewis’ beloved Norse mythology is present in the ending of the Narnian world is clear. In these myths, Ragnarok is the ending of the world, which sees the gods killed in a huge battle with monsters. A horn is blown to signal the beginning of the end. An eagle is present to witness events. The world is subsequently covered with water and the stars disappear.

Michael Ward’s ‘Planet Narnia’ links LB with the medieval idea of Saturn. (Death, destruction, melancholy etc.) Father time, the old man with the scythe, was based on Saturn. Here he appears, but we are told he will have a new name. We aren’t told what it is. (Ford mentions that this is a reference either to a work of George Macdonald or Revelation 2:17, or both.)

How did creatures like the monopods get across the sea to the door? How did water-based animals reach the door? Did insects have to face Aslan too?  (I suppose this is not the best section of the book to dissect in ‘logical’ terms.) To be fair, the idea of time and reality altering beyond the character’s – and our –  understanding is mentioned by the narrator.

Where did the creatures who entered Aslan’s shadow end up? (Maybe the best guess here would come from reading The Great Divorce.) Are the dumb animals’ fates different from the other beings?

How does Roonwit know what to do? Is it a centaur thing? Is it instinct, or has Aslan given him instructions?

I’m so glad that Poggin, the boar and the others have a happy ending.

Why are the giant lizards etc. necessary? Their entire existence seems very strange: sleep underground in massive caves for millennia, wake up, eat some trees, age rapidly, die, decay. (If the world around them wasn’t about to die they’d make amazing fossils for someone to find.) Do they not have souls to be judged by Aslan?

The red sun and the moon rising in the wrong place is a really unsettling image.

Why does Peter shut the door? Why not King Frank? Or Tirian? (Is this a reference to Saint Peter and his symbolic keys?)

I agree with Tirian – I would definitely cry if I watched Narnia die.

The dogs are delightful to read about here. They add some light relief to the seriousness of what is happening, too.

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter thirteen. How the Dwarfs refused to be taken in.

Synopsis: Tirian and the seven friends of Narnia explore their surroundings. They try to communicate with the dwarfs.

I’m coming to this chapter still annoyed by the Susan situation (see previous post). I’m hoping it will cheer me up.

All the fruit I’ve ever eaten has been mentally compared to the wonderful fruits described – or rather not described – here, and the toffee tree fruits of MN.

I think, although I can’t be sure, that this is point at which I worked out what had really happened to Jill, Eustace and the others. I really didn’t like the idea. The more I think about it the stranger it is. I know that, logically, if you truly believe in an wonderful afterlife which exceeds anything we’ve ever experienced in this world, death shouldn’t be something to fear. But it’s such an odd way for a children’s book to conclude. And many (most?) readers would not feel such a certainty about life after death.

Of course Edmund is the sort of person who ‘knows about railways’.

As a child I had absolutely no idea what a ‘hack at rugger’ involved. I’d always imagined that the Pevensies were still at school at this point, but Susan and Peter wouldn’t have been. I wonder what they were doing. Did they have jobs?

The stable door reminds me of the door made with three pieces of wood in PC. Tirian describes it as a ‘great marvel’, which is exactly the phrase used in LWW when the Pevensies discover the lamppost. In both cases, it is noted that the strange, incongruous items look like they have simply ‘grown’ into place.

The idea of something larger on the inside than the outside would, I imagine, remind most modern readers of the Tardis.

Lucy’s talk about the stable in our world shows that the religious parallels cannot be ignored now. There is a definite, specific link between the way Narnia works and Christianity. As a child, this was uncomfortable for me. I wanted Narnia to be separate from our world, a total escape. Also, I believed in Narnia and Aslan much more, and loved them much more,  than I did anything I’d so far discovered in our world. I couldn’t see the link between Aslan and the stuff vicars talked about in Church.

Eustace’s poor manners serve to explain the story for the reader. Just as in HHB, when Aravis tells her story, a listener is chided for interruption.

Lucy was always kind and keen to help others, and we see that this is unchanged. We also see that she still has a very close relationship with Aslan.

The aside with the dwarfs is, I know, making a point about belief, and faith, and cycnicism. But it leaves me wondering where the dwarfs end up. What eventually becomes of them? Does their situation change when the other living creatures all leave the land of Narnia? Would Tirian be able to kill them in this place? Are they already dead? Do they just sit there forever? Will they, like the lost souls in Lewis’ The Great Divorce, have a chance at redemption?

And then Aslan appears, and it is becoming clearer and clearer who/what he is.

When I eat my way through the food of the Chronicles, I confess that I’m not looking forward to eating ‘tongue’. It’s not top of my list of delicacies to try. I much prefer the thought of Mr Tumnus’ sugar-topped cake.

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter twelve. Through the stable door.

Synopsis: Tirian and the others end up going through the stable door. They are surprised by where it leads and who they meet.

Imagine how Jill would have felt watching Eustace being thrown into the stable. She’s in a different world. Nobody knows where she is. Her only friend from her own world is now presumably dead. And yet she remembers not to damage her bowstring by crying on it.

The dark confusion of this scene is no longer recognisable as Narnia. And we are left without hope now – the ‘last battle’ is ‘hopeless’.

Again, the action continues apace, and we return to seeing things from Tirian’s, rather than Jill’s, point of view.

The saying goes that it is darkest before the dawn, and this definitely applies here. Eustace and Jill have gone into the stable. Narnia is lost. Cair Paravel has fallen. Dozens of good, brave animals have been killed. But the dawn comes with Tirian’s jumping through the door with Rishda Tarkaan.

The description of Tash, combined again with Pauline Baynes’ illustration, makes him suitably unsettling. As a child, I found him very frightening. (Ford’s Companion to Narnia describes Tash’s appearance as the most ‘terrifying’ scene in the Narniad. Interestingly, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – the city where Lewis spent most of his adult life – houses some ancient carvings of multi-limbed, bird-headed gods which look very like Tash. I wonder if he was familiar with them.

Where is Tash’s ‘own place’? Is it hell? Or is there a Tash’s Country just as there is an Aslann’s Country?

Hearing that a voice is ‘strong and calm as a summer sea’ made me think that the speaker would be Aslan. But it is Peter.

Polly, Jill, Digory and Eustace are described as Queens and Kings. Are they royalty in Narnia because of their actions? Or is everyone royalty in this new place?

The Susan Situation.

Of all the passages in the Chronicles, the one which is most often discussed, particularly in negative terms, is this: When Tirian asks where she is, the others (who clearly display annoyance and frustration about the situation) explain that she is ‘no longer a friend of Narnia’. Jill mentions that she is only interested in ‘nylons and lipstick and invitations’. She has broken the Narniad rule of remaining ‘child-like’, and chosen being ‘grown-up’ over Narnia.

My response to the passage, and the issues raised by it, is as follows:

Susan has not come to ‘real Narnia’ with the rest of the children. She is excluded. This really bothered me as a child, and still does now. Susan always got the worst of the plotting and dialogue. She was the least keen to go to Narnia; the least keen to follow the white stag; the most prone to negativity; the least likely to see Aslan; the most easily frightened. Lewis never seemed particularly keen on her. But not to get to Narnia? Why punish her like that? (One worried reader asked Lewis about her fate in a letter, and Lewis replied, ‘The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end . . . in her own way.’) I found this most unsatisfying. I wanted the four thrones to be filled again.

The mention of lipstick etc. is seen by many as evidence that Susan’s exclusion is punishment for her being an adult woman interested in sex and relationships. I don’t quite see it like that. To me it seems more that her superficiality is the issue, not her sexuality. (Although I certainly don’t deny that Lewis had some decidedly 19th Century attitudes to gender roles, I don’t agree with those detractors who say that he hated and feared women, and wrote the Chronicles to reassert his skewed gender values.) A useful (I think) discussion of the accusations levelled at Lewis in relation to this passage can be found at http://www.narniaweb.com/resources-links/are-the-chronicles-of-narnia-sexist-and-racist/

The idea that Susan could possibly forget about Narnia never rang true with me. She was queen of a country filled with mythical beings and talking animals. For fifteen years. How could anyone forget that? She watched Aslan being murdered, then resurrected, and rode through Narnia on his back. If Polly and Digory never forgot the golden colour of Aslan’s mane (which MN tells us they didn’t) how could she possibly forget all this? So, are we supposed to imagine instead that she has not forgotten Narnia, but rejected it? Does she feel betrayed by a world which has shut her out, permanently? Is she fed up of waiting for years for a call that never comes? (She is in her twenties by the time of LB.) I’m unconvinced by the whole thing. Did Lewis even give it proper thought before he cast her aside?

It seems unfair that Susan is excluded when others (Edmund! Eustace! The dwarf who shot the horses!) have done terrible things and been forgiven. I imagine there is a religious ‘lesson’ here about faith, or worldliness, or that hell is of our own making, but I’m not at all sure what it is.

Another problem I have with the gap left by Susan is that it surely means that the others can’t be truly happy and satisfied in this new world. Imagine them sitting in Cair Paravel, trying not to look at the fourth throne, and not wanting to play with the golden chess set. Imagine them repeatedly and wearily explaining to everyone they see that no, Susan isn’t there. It’s depressing.

Finally, the idea of what happens in our world at this point is horrible. We are expected to be happy – as are the others – with a situation where Susan is suddenly, unexpectedly bereaved in the most traumatic way. She is utterly alone. No parents. No siblings. All of them have gone in one single unexpected moment, and she doesn’t know where they now are. I’ve seen people argue that this unimaginable misery is what Susan needs to develop spiritually, so that she can make her own way to Aslan’s country. Really? It seems like overkill to me. Literally.

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter eleven. The pace quickens.

Synopsis: The battle begins.

Despite all the evidence of previous chapters, here, once again, the reader begins to hope that it will all begin to go right. After all, how many books – let alone children’s books – have you read where the ‘good guys’ don’t win in the end? We are unused to the idea.

The green light and bird sounds which occur when Shift is (most satisfyingly) flung into the stable tell us that Tash is probably inside. But how? And what else is in there? What happened to Emeth? It’s still a mystery.

Rishda Tarkaan, the cynic who has just realised that Tash is real, is spotted by Farsight the Eagle. For some reason this moment always gave me the creeps as a child. I think I was worried my beliefs – or lack of them – might one day get me into trouble.

Already teary from the boar situation in chapter ten, the dogs and small animals trying to help is a guarateed tear-jerker for me. Size and strength are not relevant here. It’s loyalty and intent which make these animals so admirable. And the dogs’ ‘dogginess’ makes them all the lovelier. Lewis loved animals, and had pet dogs and cats.

Tirian says here, ‘Since I was your king’. Does he no longer consider himself king of Narnia? Does he not see these animals as his subjects?

It’s so sad to see that the majority of Narnians won’t rally to Tirian. The reader’s hopes are dashed once again.

This part of the book may not be cheerful, but it is unoubtedly fast-paced, action-packed and exciting. Lewis doesn’t glorify war (although it is made clear that fighting for a just cause is noble) and gives us a sense of the fear, confusion and horror of battle. Was he consciously thinking of his time in the trenches here or had it seeped into his subconscious?

Eustace looks around to see dead and injured dogs, and watches the poor, confused bear die in front of him. This is pretty hideous stuff.

The chilling sound of the drum, calling reinforcements, reminds me strongly of the drums heard by the fellowship of the ring, in Moria, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Such a sound would fill you with dread.

The Calormene enemy killing the Narnians is bad enough, but the dwarfs murdering the Talking Horses, for no reason whatsoever, is, I think for me, the worst moment of the entire Chronicles so far. The mindless cruelty of it would be staggering if we didn’t know the nature of such acts from our own world. Again, I have to remind myself that this is a children’s book. Nothing like this would happen in most YA books, let alone those for younger children.

Tirian has had his faults up to now, particularly in controlling his temper. But here, even after witnessing the outrage of the horses being killed, he is calm and noble. He’s a true king, even if his country and his people are no longer his.

Jill wasn’t always the most impressive protagonist in The Silver Chair, but here she shows what she is really made of. She plays an essential role in Tirian’s ‘side’. She is skilful and brave. And Jill, like us, dares to hope the ‘plan’ might work, and then realises with horror that it absolutely won’t.

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter ten. Who will go into the stable?

Synopsis: Narnians and Calormenes start to go into the Stable.

Griffle and his followers are so frustrating. Rishda Tarkaan calls them ‘children of mud’, which is similar to Aslan’s term ‘son of earth’, but clearly pejorative.

I discussed the issue of race in this book in an earlier post. Reading this chapter, I do wonder whether publishers will in future replace the unacceptable term ‘darkie’ with an insult which doesn’t have racial associations. Lewis purists would probably be unhappy but I’d prefer it. It makes for an uncomfortable read.

The idea of bears being essentially good, but a little slow on the uptake (See the Bulgy Bears in PC in particular) continues here. Shift’s spiteful comments to the poor bear are further evidence of his cruelty.

Shift asks the crowd, ‘What’s struck you all dumb?’, which of course is about to be the fate of Ginger.

‘We are all between the paws of the true Aslan,’ are comforting words, but surely they must be especially so for someone like Jill. Tirian has never seen Aslan. Jill has. She’s been to his country. She’s seen him resurrect someone. After that, I imagine thinking of him would comfort you whatever the situation.

What happens to Ginger always gave me the creeps. I know he’s a ‘baddie’ but something about it really unsettled young me.

I didn’t expect to read about the sound of cats ‘making love’. Presumably Lewis means this in the old fashioned sense, rather than how the term is used today.

It explains here that Calormene officers call their superior officers ‘My Father’. This detail didn’t sink in on previous readings, which means I spent a long time believing that Emeth was actually Rishda Tarkaan’s son. I did always wonder how such a character managed to grow up in Rishda’s house.

What did Emeth actually think was going to be in the stable? I can’t imagine he really believed in ‘Tashlan’. And at what point were the Calormene soldiers going to be told the truth, if ever?

Emeth is only a minor character, but one who stood out very clearly in my memories of this book. He’s the very image of traditional ‘knightly’ values.

There are many different parts of the Chronicles which provoke emotional responses in me. How much of this is pure nostalgia, how much the writing itself, is impossible to say. The boar being selected by the utterly disgusting Shift to go into the stable always makes me well up. Shift is flippantly selecting an animal to be murdered, for absolutely no reason at all. It’s the futility, as well as the cruelty, of this action, which gets to me. (And the fact that until Tirian acts, nobody does anything to intervene.) It puts me in mind of times in this world where people have acted like this towards other humans. All the unpleasantness, the violence, the negativity we are familiar with in our world is present in Narnia too. Talking animals can be selfish, cowardly and vicious, just like people.

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter nine. The great meeting on Stable Hill.

Synopsis: Tirian and his companions make their way to the Stable. Shift makes an announcement to the Narnians, which alters their plans. 

Jewel clearly states the fact now that things will not be ‘all right in the end’. Narnia has fallen. Now all they can hope for is a noble death, just as Roonwit foretold. All they can do is, ‘Take the adventure that Aslan sends.’ This is going to be the story of a last stand, rather than a glorious rescue.

Once again Eustace shows us his practical, common-sense attitude. I love that he sticks his hands in his pockets, despite being in Narnian armour.

In PC, Peter wondered what would happen if someone from our world was killed in Narnia. Here this thought occurs to Jill and Eustace.(I have no idea what actually would happen. It’s never confirmed. I suppose I always imagined that you would just ‘disappear’, by not returning to our world.) They both admit their fear quite openly. Being afraid isn’t seen as weakness or some sort of failing in the Chronicles. Characters are often afraid, but they have to continue with what they are doing regardless.  (Peter fighting the wolf; Lucy searching the upstairs of the Magician’s house; Edmund fighting Jadis; Jill travelling through the small cave underground; Eustace fighting the sea serpent.) Jill and Eustace don’t enjoy fighting. (Lewis always makes it clear that war can be just, noble and brave, but the reality of it is frightening, confusing and physically disgusting.) They don’t want to do it. But they know it’s right to try to help.

Eustace gives us our first clue as to the children’s true fate, when he talks about the train giving an ‘awful jerk’.

Tirian and Jewel are really close friends. Lewis greatly admired and cherished friendship. He wrote about it, for example in The Four Loves, where he is as quotable as ever: ‘Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.’ His brother Warnie was his closest friend, but he had very close friendships with others, too, notably the Inklings. Wisely, Jewel regrets nothing. He knows that there’s one path each life takes, and trusts that his is the right one. Regret can’t change the past and makes the present miserable.

Shift’s descent into alcoholism is spelled out here. He’s now the puppet of the others. If event’s weren’t altered by Tirian’s actions in this chapter, I wouldn’t like his odds of surviving for long.

I think the moment when Shift announces to the Narnians that a donkey has dressed as ‘Tashlan’, thereby discrediting Tirian and his friends, endangering Puzzle, escaping justice, and dashing the reader’s hopes, is one of the saddest, most gut-wrenching in the entire Narniad. It still makes me feel annoyed now. He’s a really despicable villain: he’s amoral. He’s a traitor. He’s outsmarted and outmanoeuvred the rightful king and his allies, which goes against all our expectations of how the story should progress.

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter eight. What news the Eagle brought.

Synopsis: The companions see Tash. Farsight the eagle brings terrible news.

I now have to admit just how ‘sensitive’ I was as a small child. The image of Tash – used at the start of this chapter and at the top of this post – terrified me. I was genuinely scared of it. I memorised where it was in the book, and would quickly turn to the next page, skipping it. (Sometimes, if I was feeling brave, I might peel back the corner of the page and peek at it.) In my defence I was only about six. And it is pretty unpleasant.

Tash is like the polar opposite to Aslan. Aslan brings light, a sweet smell and a feeling of happiness with him wherever he goes. Tash brings darkness, the smell of death, and fear with him. When I was younger I used to wonder whether the Calormenes felt cheated by their god. Didn’t they want a loving, lovely god? Aslan is implicitly the ‘god’ of Narnia, but we never hear anything about churches, shrines icons or temples dedicated to him. Tash, on the other hand,  has magnificent temples, altars and priceless statues of himself in Tashbaan.

It is repeatedly impressed upon us that you shouldn’t call on gods and the like unless you really want them to come. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

I can’t decide whether we’re supposed to agree with Eustace’s upbraiding of Puzzle, or Jill’s defence of him. Or both.

The lamb is mentioned again. Does the fact that nobody knows what’s happened to it mean something bad has happened?

The springtime sights and sounds that surround them are like those Edmund and the other Pevensies saw when the enchanted winter ended in LWW.

It appears that Eustace has maintained his interest in biology which was mentioned in VDT.

Jewel explains to Jill – and us – that for most of Narnia’s history, it has been a calm, peaceful place. She has only ever heard stories of the difficult times, as this is when people from our world have been called into it. This peaceful round of tournaments, dances and the like is exactly the Narnia I longed for as a child. We are given tantalising glimpses into Narnian history – or myth: the beautiful queen Swanwhite; Moonwood the hare; King Gale and the Lone Islands. I love the description of the effect of this on Jill:

‘The picture of all those happy years, all the thousands of them, piled up in Jill’s mind till it was rather like looking down from a high hill on to a rich, lovely plain full of woods and waters and cornfields, which spread away and away till it got thin and misty from distance.’

Is this maybe the way Lewis looks at the history of literature?

Jill talks hopefully of Narnia lasting forever, but Jewel sets her right. The only world which can last forever is Aslan’s country. Neither of them know, however, how close the end is.

Farsight’s name reminds me of the way centaurs are named in Narnia: a compound word related to the animal’s nature.

So, after a pleasant springtime walk with talk of past glories, the story takes us traight back to misery. Cair Paravel, the palace I’ve dreamed of for years, is full of corpses. My Narnian dreams are all turning into nightmares.This is hideous. Roonwit’s final words always make me tear up:

‘Noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.’ It’s one of my absolute favourite lines the entire Chronicles. True, sad and beautiful.

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter seven. Mainly about Dwarfs.

Synopsis: The companions free some dwarfs who, apart from Poggin, refuse to join them. They return to the tower.

I had never heard the term ‘manikin’ (as opposed to mannequin) before. Apparently it comes from Dutch, and is a diminutive of man. It is most commonly used to mean those small poseable wooden figures used by artists to help them draw people in different poses. I didn’t know ‘slyboots’ was a real word either, but I like it.

I’ve looked for any reference or source for Tirian’s ‘password’ – ‘The light is dawning, the lie broken,’ – but I can’t find one.

Seeing the woodland creatures frightened and miserable was grim, but the reaction of the dwarfs is somehow more disheartening. I know that the subtext is about religious belief, but that aside, seeing people being so relentlessly negative and self-centred is no fun at all. I find I’m back to not enjoying the story again.The sense of frustration experienced by Tirian is palpable. If we were undecided about Griffle, his rudeness to Jill and ingratitude at the rescue confirms our suspicions about him. Discourtesy is never a good sign in the Narniad.

Tirian mentions his ‘wallet’, but I’m guessing he meant some sort of small bag or coin purse rather than what we would recognise as a wallet.

Eustace’s emotions in relation to fighting and killing the Calormene are similar to how Peter felt about killing the wolf who attacked Susan in LWW. Unfortunately, Aslan isn’t around to tell Eustace to clean his sword, as he was with Peter, so Eustace gets in trouble with Tirian.

Poggin joining the party provides some much needed relief from the gloom.

Poggin cooks using a herb called Wild Fresney. Fresney is a village located in Normandy, France, but this may well just be a coincidence. I like it when Lewis creates little details like plants and fish peculiar to Narnia. It makes the world feel richer and more convincing.

Jewel is described as noble, beautiful, delicate and so forth, but I find myself warming more to Puzzle. He feels more ‘real’, like the horses in HHB.

Shift’s apparent descent into alcoholism is a strange thing to see in a children’s book. Lewis wasn’t a teetotaller (For example, he enjoyed ‘beer and Beowulf’ evenings at Oxford.) and didn’t disapprove of alcohol – if anything, he was suspicious of non-drinkers such as Harold and Alberta Scrubb in VDT. However, I suppose it’s the excess, rather than the alcohol, which is the problem here. Similarly, enjoying food isn’t bad, but Shift is greedy and wants endless fruit and nuts.

Ginger the cat is ready to betray Narnia and Narnians, merely for profit. Lewis leaves us in no doubt about how terrible this is.

We learn that Ginger and Rishda Tarkhaan (and presumably other characters, including Shift) are non-believers. They don’t think Tash or Aslan exist. As we come to the close of the Chronicles, the parallels and ideas which link Narnia to religious ideas from our world are increasingly obvious. I didn’t really think about this when I was very small, but as I got older (and was unsure about what I did or didn’t believe myself) I began to feel a little uneasy in some way. Would I be like Griffle if I were in Narnia? I really hoped not.

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter six. A good night’s work.

Synopsis: The companions free Jewel and discover Puzzle.

Immediately, I find that this chapter, like the previous one, is much more upbeat and enjoyable than the first four.

Lewis clearly intends us to admire Jill and Eustace’s woodcraft. It does make me wonder how long I would be able to survive in Narnia. Or in the wilder places in our world. Could I start a fire? Feed myself? Avoid being tracked?

Why do I feel proud that Eustace and Jill are decent at fighting skills?

Once again, Narnian air strengthens and ‘improves’ people from our world.

Is it true that you can train yourself to wake when you want to?

We are now seeing Tirian’s leadership skills. He plans, he is practical, he seems calmer and more determined than before. He’s passed through despair and rage and is just getting on with the job in front of him.

I always enjoy hearing about the Narnian stars. It sounds a little strange to describe them as burning, but with no light pollution in Narnia, the skies would be crystal clear and packed with visible stars. We learn that Narnia’s equivalent of the pole star is the Spearhead.

We learn that Jill has developed her woodcraft through being a Girl Guide in our world. Guides were (and are) taught lots of practical skills. ‘How the Girl Guides Won the War’ by Janie Hampton is well worth a read on this subject.

There’s quite a typical Eustace reaction when Tirian notes Jill’s skill at tracking. He grudgingly admits it, but says it’s due to her small size. Even though he’s ‘good’, Eustace does tend to default to slight grumpiness. Jill’s really impressive in this sequence. I know Lewis doesn’t always cover himself in glory when it comes to gender roles in Narnia, but I really think Jill is an excellent example of a rounded, real female heroine.

We are told how quiet the wood is: no cheerful creatures, no dancing fawns, no busy dwarfs. The picture of Narnia which the reader has built up in previous books, all the hundreds of little reasons we love the place, are missing. This isn’t our Narnia any more.

We can see how much Tirian has changed since the beginning of the book in his treatment of the Calormene. Instead of killing him in a rage, he apologises for tying him up.

Eustace and Tirian react very differently to Jill entering the stable, but if she hadn’t, the entire story would have turned out quite differently – especially for Puzzle.

As far as I’m aware, the illustration at the end of this chapter (and at the top of this post) is the only use of silhouette in Pauline Baynes’ illustrations of the Chronicles. However, some editions of the books use brightly coloured covers with silhouette images on them.

If I were reading this for the first time, I’m sure I’d be confidently thinking that the tide was now turning for Tirian, and that things were about to start going right. Of course, having read the book many times before, I know this is not the case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter five. How help came to the King.

Synopsis: Eustace and Jill appear. They free Tirian and make their way to a tower.

When Eustace stops mid-sentence: ‘I thought -‘ he is presumably about the refer to the railway accident.

‘Anything might happen now,’ is the second glimmer of hope so far in this book, after Tirian’s vision. However, the reader must remember that Tirian is already known to us as the last king, in the last days. Whatever might happen, it won’t be enough to save Narnia. This positivity is reflected in the birdsong and sunshine which appear.

When Eustace explains who they are, he shows that his inability to tell a story clearly (as discussed in VDT when he was a dragon) is unchanged.

Why was is Digory who felt Narnia’s need for aid, rather than the others? Normally, Lucy is the most sensitive to such things.

Had any of the seven friends ever considered digging up the rings before? Surely the idea must have crossed someone’s mind on a rainy afternoon?

The thought of Peter and Edmund breaking into someone’s garden dressed as workmen is so incongruous it made me laugh.

We are told that all the Pevensies have now left school. I wonder what each one is doing?

Tirian’s keys sound really interesting. I’d love to see them. Who wouldn’t want a set of ‘keys made for opening solemn and secret rooms in palaces, or chests and caskets of sweet-smelling wood that contained royal treasures’? What secret rooms were there in Cair Paravel? Who else had a key to them? Were they the same rooms as those in the Pevensies’ rule? What special treasures are there now? Is there anything like Susan’s horn? In fact, what happened to Susan’s horn? Did anyone ever try to use it again? What about Lucy’s cordial, or Rhindon, Peter’s sword?

It seems a strange thing to say that Tirian was ‘pleased to see that the two strangers had been well brought up’.

Jill is given a hunting knife instead of a sword. I can’t think of any instance in the entire Chronicles where a girl or woman wields a sword rather than a knife or dagger.

It seems funny that Jill and Eustace still refer to each other as Pole and Scrubb. They know each other pretty well by now.

I’ve always enjoyed any opportunities I’ve had to try archery, partly because it seems such a Narnian skill to have. Jill and Eustace have both been practising since their last visit. I think this is the only time we hear about anyone developing skills with their return to Narnia in mind. I’d always imagined that maybe a year had passed (in terms of our time) since the events of SC. However, according to the timeline in Ford’s ‘Companion to Narnia’ (itself based on writings by Lewis) it is 1949, seven years after SC. This would make Eustace and Jill sixteen. This is much older than I’d ever imagined them to be when reading the books as a child.

The lighting of fires, and sitting around fires, is often used to signify cosiness and comfort in the Chronicles. So it is here in the tower.

Jill wishes for tea – how very British.

 

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter four. What happened that night.

Synopsis: Tirian is tied to a tree. Some animals help him. He calls to our world for help, and experiences a vision of the friends of Narnia.

Tirian is tied to an ash tree. Yggdrasil, the world ash tree, is what links the different worlds in Norse mythology. This seems fitting as the Last Battle contains many echoes of Ragnarok, the battle at the world’s end, where monsters defeat gods and the world itself is destroyed.

Tirian, a king who is bound by ropes, is helped by the smallest animals of the wood, including mice. The same thing occurred when mice tried to gnaw away Aslan’s ropes on the Stone Table. The animals’ love for their king, and their fear and despair at Aslan’s orders, is very moving. They risk their own safety, and the wrath of their ‘god’, to help Tirian.

Tirian here feels (understandably) sorry for himself, and compares his misfortune with the lives of his ancestors. This allows us to remember the stories ourselves, of Rilian (SC) and Caspian X (PC/VDT/SC). We are told that Rilian was his great-grandfather’s great-grandfather. If we measure one generation as roughly 25 years, this would mean that no more than two centuries have passed since the events of the Silver Chair. It doesn’t seem that Narnia’s history is particularly long. I always wondered why it didn’t continue for millenia, when our world has existed for millions of years.

At first, Tirian prays for help for himself, (‘Come and help us now.’) Nothing happens. When he prays for a second time, he explicitly states that he wants help for Narnia, not himself, and is even willing to die for this cause. At this point, nothing ‘real’ changes, but he himself feels different, and more hopeful. This is just what happens in VDT. When the ship is lost in the darkness surrounding the island where Lord Rhoop is, Lucy is just as afraid as the rest of the crew. However, when she prays to Aslan, despite there being no immediate change in her circumstances, she begins to feel better.

Dreams have held significance throughout the Chronicles. Here, Rilian feels compelled to call out to our world, then enters some sort of dream state or vision.In Prince Caspian, Lewis showed us what being summoned (like a genie in a lamp) is like, from the point of view of the genie. Here, we are shown what a vision or apparition is like, from the point of view of the vision itself.

Young me was quite jealous of the seven friends of Narnia. I had plenty of friends but none who felt as I did about Narnia (or other stories such as the Lord of the Rings) to talk with about it. I imagined their cosy meals in post-war dining rooms, where they chatted about the stories of Narnia, and maybe discussed their hopes of returning one day. Keeping such a massive secret from everyone else must have made them closer. This is why the situation with Susan, discussed in later chapters, seems so strange to me. Wouldn’t she want to spend time with people who knew who she really was, and what she had achieved?

 

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter three. The Ape in its glory.

Synopsis: Tirian regrets his actions. He and Jewel give themselves up. Shift speaks to the other animals.

I remember quite clearly reading this chapter as a child and willing Tirian and Jewel to head straight to Cair Paravel. I simply couldn’t understand why they would hand themselves over to people who clearly weren’t particularly honourable. (Their lack of honour is confirmed when they claim that, ‘By our skill and courage… we have taken alive these two desperate murderers.’

Since we last saw Shift he has become even worse. His appearance would be comical if it weren’t so depressing. I’ve read a number of different interpretations of what Shift represents: Dictators in general, Stalin, Hitler, worldly ‘sins’ and the Antichrist. As the Narniad isn’t a straightforward allegory (see earlier posts about Lewis’ description of it as a ‘supposal’) I think the answer is that he is a combination of things. Certainly, his role is similar to the Biblical Antichrist:

‘For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.’ (Matthew 24:24)

However, he also seems to represent what happens when greed, selfishness and cruelty take over a person. And in light of Lewis having lived through both world wars prior to writing the stories, presumably such ideas would contain echoes of leaders who subjugated the people they ruled, making them miserable slaves. The idea of the animals ‘working’ for the Tisroc, and their wages being paid to Shift/Aslan for ‘everybody’s good’ is an idea which would ring alarm bells for anyone familiar with 20th Century history. The paper crown shows us that Shift has no real right to rule, he is a mockery of a true king.

‘Mouthpiece of Aslan’ reminded me of Tolkien’s ‘Mouth of Sauron’.

Seeing the ape confuse and belittle and frighten the Narnian talking animals is both frustrating and depressing.

When Shift insists he’s a man, it reminds me of King Louie in the Jungle Book, another ape obsessed with being human.

Shift shows us how terrible his dream of Narnia is, ‘roads and big cities and schools and offices and whips and muzzles and cages and kennels and prisons’. This idea of a miserable ‘modern’ world as opposed to a natural, rural ideal appears again and again in the Chronicles, reflecting Lewis’ own deep mistrust of ‘progress’ and industrialisation.

It is fitting that the innocent question which cuts to the heart of the problem is posed by a lamb, an animal often used to represent Christ, and used as an avatar by Aslan in VDT. When Shift spits at it, it shows us that he really is evil.

I think this chapter is even more depressing than the first two. There’s the utterly reprehensible Shift, selling his own people to slavers. There’s the misery and dejection of the innocent animals. There’s the lies about Aslan. Then there’s the frustration. Tirian isn’t allowed to speak. The animals do nothing. Aslan does nothing. No help comes rushing in from our world.

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter two. The rashness of the King.

Synopsis: Tirian learns that talking trees are being felled and talking beasts are being used as slaves by Calormenes. He and Jewel kill two Calormenes.

Just in case we’d missed the pointers in the previous chapter, here we are introduced to the ‘last of the Kings of Narnia’. This isn’t subtle foreshadowing. We are being told quite clearly that Narnia is coming to an end.

Tirian is sitting beneath an oak tree. Oaks have long been used to symbolise strength, endurance and constancy, all of which Tirian will need. It also has ‘kingly’ associations: the Royal Oak in English history, the links to Thor and Zeus.

Cair Paravel is now described, not just as a castle, but as a royal city. Narnia must have become increasingly urbanised (something Lewis would likely not approve of).

Jewel the unicorn is not as I remembered him. For some reason I’d never absorbed the fact that he had a blue horn. Is this true of all Narnian unicorns? I’d also forgotten that he wore a golden necklace.  Unicorns, since Medieval times, have been used to represent purity, goodness and even Jesus. In heraldry, unicorns are often depicted wearing collars or chains, just as Jewel does. In the British coat of arms, the lion and unicorn are used to represent England and Scotland.

I wonder who Tirian and Jewel had fought wars against.

What were the decorations on the ‘curiously carved’ bowl of wine given to Roonwit?

As ever in the Chronicles, the centaur is depicted as serious, solemn and with a deep understanding of astronomy/astrology. His name follows the usual kenning-style form, discussed in my post about SC chapter 16.

Seeing the beech dryad ‘felled’ is a really poignant moment. The dryads and naiads seem to be like the ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ of the tree, whereas the physical tree itself is merely the body.

Tirian, particularly in the first half of the book, is shown to be very emotional. He is sent into a rage by the news from Lantern Waste, and his words and actions are led more by emotion than by careful thought. He is too angry to pause and take stock of the situation. This subject is discussed with clarity in Ford’s ‘Companion to Narnia’. It is also worth noting that his melancholy in different parts of the story links to the Saturnine character of the book. Michael Ward’s ‘Planet Narnia’ explains this link between the book and the pre-Copernican imagery linked to the planet Saturn with exhaustive detail. As mentioned on a number of occasions in these posts, it is a highly convincing theory, with an abundance of supporting evidence. In short, themes associated with Saturn include: treachery, disaster, and death, penitence and contemplation. All of these are explored in The Last Battle.

Just as in LWW, the importance of caring for your sword is mentioned here.

Tirian and Jewel are horrified by the thought that Aslan, who they have loved and longed for all their lives, might not be what or who they thought. The words of the story at this point continue the theme of endings, sadness and pain: ‘miserably’, ‘evil’, ‘rashness’ and so on. The seriousness of the situation is shown in this exchange:

‘Horrible thoughts arise in my heeart. If we had died before today we should have been happy.’

‘Yes,’ said Jewel. “We have lived too long. the worst thing in the world has come upon us.’

The description of the wood’s desecration, and the talk of holy trees and the Tree of Protection remind me very strongly of Tolkien’s woods, particularly Saruman’s treatment of the woods around Orthanc.

Tirian and Jewel kill two Calormenes, but not in battle. It could be called a murder (although there was certainly provocation. Two chapters in and the reader has had nothing remotely positive to enjoy. On reflection, this story is quite depressing so far.

 

Narnia re-read. The Last Battle Chapter one. By Caldron Pool.

Synopsis: Shift and Puzzle find a lion skin. Shift persuades Puzzle to wear it.

The very first line of this story sets the tone of doom and dejection: ‘In the last days of Narnia…’

We are taken back to Lantern Waste, which was our first point of entry to the Narnian world in LWW.

Shift’s name is a clue to his nature. His nature is ‘shifty’, and as the story develops he will ‘shift’ the Narnian’s focus and belief from Aslan to Tashlan. Meeting Shift, and being told about his relationship with the hapless Puzzle, is confirmation that something is rotten in the state of Narnia. He’s thoroughly unpleasant: wheedling, selfish, patronising and cruel. I was a little frightened of him as a child, although I wasn’t entirely sure why. His pretence at being offended, emotional manipulation and constant complaints, make me wonder whether he was based on a specific person from Lewis’ life or was just the embodiment of certain traits.

I’ve always had a soft spot for donkeys, and Puzzle turns out to be lovely, but he is immensely frustrating here. I used to wish he would stand up to Shift, or that someone else was nearby to have a quiet word with him.

How did the lion skin end up in the river?

Is there really a place in Narnia called Chippingford? It sounds like a commuter town somewhere in the Home Counties. (Chipping is a common prefix in British place names, derived from the Old English for a market or market square, and Puzzle does appear to be going there to buy goods, so I suppose it makes sense.)

Where would Narnians get hold of bananas and oranges? Presumably they couldn’t be grown in Narnia or Archenland. Are they imported?

We guess that Shift has something unpleasant in mind from the moment he realises what the lion skin is, but our suspicions are confirmed when he is sewing the coat. He is anxious that the talking animals don’t see him, so we know he must have a plan in mind, and it must be one which is dubious in some way.

Puzzle clearly believes in Aslan. He sees all lions as ‘rather solemn’ by association. He is horrified at the suggestion that he might be mistaken for him. He views the thunder and earthquake as signs of godly displeasure. Shift clearly does not believe in Aslan as a living being, although he may think he existed at one time in the past. Of course, the reader knows the truth, having read the rest of the series.

This chapter as a whole is a strange one, when viewed in isolation as the first chapter in a children’s story. It’s quite grim. Two animals in a dying land are in some sort of abusive relationship. Even when compared with the other Narnia books, it’s still quite odd. There are no humans, from our world or the Narnian world. We don’t meet any characters who could be described as admirable or heroic. I have no idea what it would be like to read it with no prior knowledge of Narnia at all, but I’m not entirely sure that the casual reader would definitely want to read on.

 

Narnia re-read. Beginning The Last Battle: issues of race.

 I felt that before I began my re-read of this book of the Chronicles of Narnia, I had to make a post addressing issues of race, in relation to the story. I did this with HHB, but The Last Battle is the Narnian story I have the most problematic relationship with.

 

Points of view and opinions about the work of C. S. Lewis tend to divide quite sharply between devoted lovers of his work and staunch detractors. This can make it difficult to find objective opinions about certain aspects of the Chronicles.

People who love Lewis’ writing are often heavily invested in the writer himself. This particularly applies for certain groups of people, who see him as a mentor in terms of their religious faith. Because of his skill at making his reader feel like they know him, that they have common ground, that they have a relationship with him, they can become very defensive about him. And because his religious writing has given many people comfort and inspiration, there is sometimes a tendency for him to be presented as someone ‘saintly’. This attachment to these readers’ idea of Lewis can lead people to be very sensitive to any criticism of him.

On the other side of the argument, those who are (very definitely) not fans of Lewis can be quite vitriolic in their dismissal of the man and his works. They see his writing as a series of defences of the indefensible: racism, sexism, inequality, bigotry and ‘the system’. Because of this, they see the Chronicles as unsuitable for children, due to it being full of cruel, out-dated and hateful messages.

I hope that I fall into neither camp, but can see the points of view of both. So I’m trying to look objectively at The Last Battle. (Hopefully without offending anyone myself.)

The reason this subject is relevant to this story (as it was with HHB) is the prominence of Calormen and Calormenes. The country of Calormen, its people, and how they are described, is where the problems lie. Some of the accusations levelled at Lewis are, I believe, justified, some are inaccurate, and others can be explained but perhaps not excused.

Accusations I believe are justified.

Mention is made of the ‘dark’ skin colour of the Calormenes, which is contrasted with the ‘fair’ Narnians. Throughout the book the reader is left in no doubt as to which nation is the ‘better’ one. This is a generalisation, as the race of characters doesn’t determine their qualities, but is noticeable nevertheless.

Something which never occurred to me as a child reader, but which struck me as an adult, is the part of the story where Tirian, Eustace and Jill use ‘juice from a stone bottle’. They rub it over their skin, and it makes them ‘as brown as Calormenes’. This is basically ‘blacking up’. It’s not something I’m comfortable with and made me feel uneasy when I read this passage.

The worst part of the story, for me, is when a dwarf uses the term ‘darkies’. I know there are plenty of people in our world who use such poisonous terms, but Narnia was always supposed to by my (and presumably many other peoples’) refuge from such ugliness. I wish I had an excuse or explanation for this but I don’t.

Accusations I believe are not correct.

It has been suggested that Lewis used the Calormenes as a Narnian equivalent to Muslims. I really don’t believe this is the case. The Calormene religion is not monothestic: Tash is the god mentioned most often, but Azaroth and Zardeenah are also worshipped. Sacrifices are made to these gods in secret rituals. This is most unlike Islamic worship, either in the Mosque or during daily prayers. I personally see no link between Islam and the Calormene religion. I imagine it to be more of a ‘mish-mash’ of ideas Lewis picked up from multiple sources. (Similarly, the habit of saying ‘may he live forever’ after the Tisroc is mentioned is inspired by E Nesbit’s ‘The Story of the Amulet’ rather than copying PBUH)

Explanation and exploration (not justification) of some points.

Lewis was a product of a particular place and time: the British Isles of the early Twentieth Century. He only left Britain/Ireland twice (once to go to war). He lived a ‘stuffy’ life, working in the closed world of academia, surrounded by other men, and immersed in texts from much earlier times. This was not an ideal breeding ground for ‘modern’ or progressive thinking on such issues as race and gender. Lewis doubtless had, and expressed, prejudices and opinions which we would find wrong today. In fairness, this was the case for the majority of men of this time. Naturally, we wish that the opinions of authors whose work we enjoy mirrored our own, more enlightened ways of thinking, but it is difficult to apply our standards to the world Lewis grew up in. (He was thirty before women gained full voting equality, for example.) This doesn’t necessarily excuse some of the things included in his work, but does help to explain them.

Lewis did, however, revel in his ‘fogeyish’ ways. He liked large helpings of plain food (without the garlic which Calormenes enjoyed). He drank ale, was boisterous in pubs and smoked heavily. He was self-consciously nostalgic and pined for an idealised  pre-industrial world which had never truly existed. He sought out the company of other middle-aged men to smoke, drink and be boisterous with. Lewis, who thought so long and so deeply about so many things, didn’t seem prepared to spend too long thinking about how he was portraying the Calormenes to his readers: were they to be judged partly on their skin? Was their ‘darkness’ bound up with the aspects of their culture which are shown to be wrong, such as tyranny and slavery?

Having loved the Chronicles in my childhood, I feel sad that this issue is contained within them. Narnia was always the place I would escape to when our world seemed unjust and unfair. (I didn’t notice anything about race in them as a child, to be honest – it sailed right over my head, along with many of the religious allusions. Plus, even thirty years ago, our awareness of such matters was much less widespread.) I think what bothers me most is the thought of a child reading the stories and feeling that Narnia is for other people, people whose skin is fairer than theirs. That wardrobe doors are selective about who they let in. I don’t know if people do feel this when reading this book, but the thought isn’t a pleasant one. I wish I could wholeheartedly endorse the Chronicles to everyone, without any hesitation or reservations at all, but am not entirely sure I can. There are always going to be provisos.

On the positive side, when I read the story I see hopeful points as well as the ones mentioned above. Characters of both cultures are shown to have weaknesses and strengths, to be good or otherwise. And in a world where Aslan knows and sees what is inside people – their thoughts, their fears, their hopes – he doesn’t judge them by their appearance but by their actions. Emeth is the most obvious example of this.

On reflection, I would say that I would still read the story with children, but also have a discussion about it with them to ensure that they were clear on certain points as and when they arose. As a child I was fascinated by descriptions of the Calormene world, without absorbing any of the prejudices held therein. Hopefully this could be the case for others.