This morning I finished reading The Last Battle, the final installment of the Chronicles of Narnia (no matter which ordering you're used to). Even on this third reading, it moved me physically as it has before. It has me pondering, crying, and worshiping all at once. And now I'm writing about it. Wordsworth famously defined poetry as an expression of "emotion recollected in tranquility," so I should be cautious about writing before my emotions become tranquil. But then I remember that my goal is not to write anything like Wordsworthian poetry, so I press onward.
The book is one of remarkable contrasts. Three fourths of it take place around a small stable on a hill (with a couple of excursions to a nearby tower), yet the final quarter unfolds as a race across an infinite land, large beyond imagination. The story starts with an ugly, lying ape and ends with a beautiful Lion Who is Truth Itself. And along the way people make choices of the starkest contrast. They find that, no matter what their apparent religion or irreligion, in the end they all serve one of two masters: the good, glorious Aslan or the evil, hideous Tash. Actually, we discover that even Tash serves Aslan, although unwillingly, so that those who live for this dark, baroque copy of the Master err partly in worshiping a subordinate. They don't look past the creature to the Creator.
This idea of subordinates and copies fills the latter portion of the book, where all the good children and kings and Talking Beasts go "through the door" into the new Earth and the new Heaven. From their safe position next to Aslan on the bright side of the door, the children watch life disappear from Narnia and then see the world go dark as the stars fall to the ground and the sun and moon are extinguished. But they turn around to discover that the new bright world they're standing in is Narnia, too -- an even better Narnia. And yet it also reminds them of the best childhood memories they have of England. A professor explains to them that the England and Narnia they knew were only copies of the true lands. And sure enough, from one high vantage point, they see all of the true Narnia laid out below them: the same as the old and yet bigger and more colorful and better. And then they look across a great valley (with new eyes able to see detail even at the greatest distances) and see the true England where "no good thing is destroyed."
The long passage gives the most vivid demonstration of what is perhaps C. S. Lewis's greatest idea: the argument from desire. Lewis explains in several books an experience he calls joy, a sense of delight in an earthly thing that nevertheless raises a desire for something transcendent. Other human desires are directed to existing objects, he points out: hunger, for instance, tells us we need food, and food exists to satisfy the hunger. This desire for the transcendent, he argues, must also point us to something real. Every time the children in the Narnia series have seen something in either England or Narnia that was good or beautiful, they were seeing a copy of Aslan's true land, a copy that made them long for the reward they enjoy at the end of The Last Battle.
We need the earthly things -- the copies -- to stir up the desire, and the Narnia books do just that for me. The Last Battle is an earthly thing, but it makes me long for a heavenly land. I want to be in Narnia, even at 52. And yet the good professor in this book tells me that Narnia itself is only a copy of something even greater. And the children learn as they go through Aslan's true world that its paths always lead upward to realms even truer. The children mystically rise through a waterfall that casts two rainbows, an image that reminds me of Dante ascending through the different colors of light in the heavens of Paradiso. At the top, the river leads them to a walled area with golden gates, but when they pass through they find a world even bigger than the one that contains the wall. Every world is larger than the one that contains it, again much like the heavenly circles in the Divine Comedy.
And that is the part that excites me the most: even after the children see Aslan's face, their story isn't over. A flying eagle keeps urging them to go "further up and further in," and the farther they go, the more they find that the worlds get bigger and bigger. Aslan, it seems, has an eternity of blessed, growing service for all his followers. By this progression to infinity, Lewis wonderfully raises in me a longing for things beyond my powers of comprehension. I want to go through those golden doors, so surely something like them exists. But until I find out what they are and what worlds lie behind them, I will have to take what adventures Aslan sends me.