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.
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.
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.’