Sunday, June 19, 2011

Further Up and Further In

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.


  1. Jennifer L. said:

    When I first read this post's title, I thought you'd misquoted. I was thinking of Mr. Beaver's words in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, "Further in, come further in".

    As Mr. Beaver meets the four Penvesie children for the first time, he understands the need for secrecy. He encourages them to step behind several trees, where he feels they're less likely to be overheard. Although Lucy had previously met Mr. Tumnus (who pretended to be her friend) this is the children's first conversation with a Narnian who is on Aslan's side. Interesting that Mr. Beaver utters words so similar to the eagle, and so early in the series.

    Ken, you point out, "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". This reminds me of when the children first hear Aslan's name, when Mr. Beaver tells them "Aslan is on the move". The narrator points out that they didn't know who Aslan was, but they each have a particular reaction. The three children who have not met Jadis have positive reactions: Peter feels brave, Susan is reminded of music, and Lucy experiences the (joy? expectation? freedom?) of the beginning of a holiday or school break. Perhaps the virtuous, aesthetic, and emotional recollections they associate with hearing Aslan's name are all glimpses of the True Heaven that we can experience here on Earth.

    Contrast these experiences to that of Edmund, who has promised alliance to Jadis. Upon hearing Aslan's name, Edmund is filled with horror. I’ve always wondered, what’s the source of this horror? Has Edmund realized he’s aligned himself with the Wrong Side? Is Edmund afraid of being found out by his siblings? Is he afraid of what the mysterious Aslan might do to him? Does he realize Jadis might not be on the winning side ultimately, and there’s a chance he might not get the power she’s promised him?

    Although all four children are hearing Aslan’s name mentioned for the first time, their reactions differ. Here I need some help, Ken. I vaguely remember reading (what I think was Lewis's writing) something that reminds me of this. Perhaps it was in The Problem of Pain? The writer suggests that Heaven is a certain environment or setting or relationship. Those who have faith in Christ and have strived to follow him will experience it as positive. Those who have chosen to follow their own will shall experience it as negative. But, Heaven is the same reality to both types of people, just perceived differently. Would this be similar to the children’s first reaction to hearing Aslan’s name?

  2. Thanks for writing, Jennifer! I can think of two similar passages from Lewis; one of them may be what you're remembering. In The Great Divorce, he says "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell chose it." Somewhere in the same book I think he says again that Hell seems like whatever negative life the people had chosen to live on Earth, and that each might perceive it differently.

    Those places talk only about Hell, though. I can't think of any place where Lewis says Heaven could be perceived negatively. (That idea seems odd to me.) But in The Problem of Pain , he says, "A heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined."