“In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”
C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle is one of my favorite books of all time. It is the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia and if you haven’t read it, you must. I probably should warn you that this post likely contains spoilers, though I don’t think that this book can be spoiled; it is just that good.
To understand why this book makes my list of 35 things that have shaped my life, you must understand the picture of heaven and eternity with which I grew up. I imagined a state of being, “place” would be too strong, that all those who believed in Jesus would ascend to after death or after his return. Our bodies would be resurrected, but in some unknowable glorified state. Eternity would be spent singing and praying to God in his throne room. Whether or not we would recognize people from our temporal lives was uncertain. Even if we did, those relationships would pale in comparison to our relationship with God. They would be unnecessary. Heaven seemed like a big cosmic church service, for all eternity. I didn’t look forward to heaven. My belief in Christ was as much to avoid hell as it was to attain heaven, if not more so. Heaven just seemed a boring way to spend eternity, but hell with its never-ending burning, pain, and torment seemed much, much worse.
When I first read The Last Battle, I was moved to tears. It depicts a vision of eternity that resonates much stronger (and is much more biblical) than what was planted so firmly in my mind. The book charts the rise of Shift the Ape, who wants to rule Narnia, and Puzzle the Donkey, who Shift deceived into dressing up as Aslan so he could claim that he spoke for the Great Lion. Things quickly spiraled out of control. King Tirian, the last of the Narnian kings, mounted a small resistance to Shift, culminating in a battle outside of the stable where the false Aslan is kept. Tirian threw Shift inside the stable, where Shift was eaten by Tash, the four-armed, vulture-headed Calormene demon-god that Shift had invoked and foolishly thought he could control.
At the height of the battle, Tirian grabbed Rishda Tarkaan, the captain of the insurgence, and pulled both of them into the stable. Tash emerged from the darkness and scooped up Rishda, who was then on the verge of meeting the same fate as Shift. Tash then turned one of his beady eyes on Tirian and just then a voice called out, banishing Tash in the name of Aslan, the Great Lion, and Aslan’s Father, the Emperor-over-the-sea. Tash and Rishda vanished and, standing behind them, was the High King, Peter, and six other Kings and Queens of Narnia. Tirian looked around him and realized that he stood not in a stable, but in a vast, rich land, blue sky overhead, grassy country spreading out before him. The stable door was still behind him, but Tirian was no longer in the confines of the stable. He was in Aslan’s Country.
Also in Aslan’s Country were about a dozen dwarves. They were huddled together though, feeling around as if blind. Tirian, who was upset with the dwarves because they chose neither the side of Narnia nor the side of Calormen, instead to fending only for themselves, soon understood that the dwarves thought they were still in the darkness of the stable. He tried to help them see, but they were unable to see because they refused to believe in anything beyond what their senses could perceive. Aslan then appeared. Queen Lucy, ever compassionate, begged Aslan to open the dwarves’ eyes, to which Aslan responded,
“I will show you both what I can, and what I cannot, do.” He came close to the dwarves and gave a low growl: low, but it set all the air shaking. But the Dwarfs said to one another, “Hear that? That’s the gang at the other end of the stable. Trying to frighten us. They do it with a machine of some kind. Don’t take any notice. They won’t take us in again!”
. . . “You see,” said Aslan. They will not let us help them. They chose cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”
Aslan roared again and the door flew open. Creatures of all shapes and sizes, from all corners of Narnia, made their way to the door. As they came nearer the door, their eyes grew wider and wider until, one by one, they each looked Aslan in the face.
And when some looked, the expression of their faces changed terribly–it was fear and hatred: except that, on the faces of Talking Beasts, the fear and hatred lasted only for a fraction of a second. You could see that they suddenly ceased to be Talking Beasts. They were just ordinary animals. And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, his left, and disappeared into his huge black shadow . . . But the others looked in the face of Aslan and loved him, though some of them were very frightened at the same time. And all these came in the Door, in on Aslan’s right. There were some queer specimens among them.
All those who’d entered through the door travelled together, further up and further in to Aslan’s Country. Peter shut the door and they all left it, and the dwarves still trapped in a prison of their own making, behind.
As they travelled, they tried to figure out where, exactly, they were and where they are going. Peter and Lucy noted the similarities to Narnia but that it was somehow richer and deeper than Narnia, “more like the real thing,” is how Digory put it. He continued,
Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as in our own world, England and all, is only a shadow copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as a waking life is from a dream.
Finally, they are met by their old friend Reepicheep, the mouse who, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, chose to enter into Aslan’s Country rather than return to his home. All of their friends from the previous books, those who’d died naturally or through war and violence, all of them rushed out to greet them. There was a great celebration of reunion. Lucy looked around at the beauty of the land and noticed that she could see all of Narnia and the lands beyond, but they showed no effects of the wars that had been fought in them. She looked harder and could see England but, as the Faun noted, that England is the real England inside England, the England in which nothing which is good was destroyed.
Lucy and Peter then see their father and mother, waving at them from across a deep valley. Tumnus explains,
“That country and this country–all the real countries–are only spurs jutting out from the great mountains of Aslan.”
At that, Aslan appeared, leaping from rock to rock as he descends from higher on the mountain. He noted that they do not look as happy as he wants them to by. Lucy replied that they are afraid of being sent away, sent back to their own world, to which Aslan said softly,
“The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
Lewis then writes,
[F]or 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.
I cannot tell you the way my heart soars when I read the closing chapters of The Last Battle. It is everything I hope that eternity will be. While I don’t quite agree with Lewis’ appropriation of Plato’s Cave, I do so resonate with the idea that our lives, right here and now, are the prelude to something much grander. The Apostle Paul says that we see through a glass darkly. All that is good and right in this world, in this time, is a foretaste of what is yet to come. We are not destined to some eternal church service in an unimaginable kind of existence where our memories are wiped and our relationships don’t matter.
This world and this life are heaven covered in wet tissue paper. Every now and then, we see tears in the tissue paper, the Kingdom of God breaking into our world. One day, we will look Aslan in the face and either enter into his country through the Door, or else depart from him forever. The choice is ours. Some, like the dwarves, will refuse to see what could be because they can’t get past what is. Others, like Susan (the only Pevensie child not to enter Aslan’s country), will simply write off Aslan’s country as childhood fantasy.
I, however, will be pressing further up and further in. Will you join me?