Genre: children’s literature, classic, secondary world fantasy, portal fantasy, apocalypse, Christian fantasy
Ideal Age Range: 8+
The Last Battle was pr￼obably the first “hard” book I read. The next time I read such a hard book was when I was sixteen or seventeen and read All Quiet on The Western Front (everyone dies in the cultural apocalypse of the First World War). (To my shame, I came late to The Diary of Anne Frank.)
This cover was the beginning of the problem. A bloody-horned unicorn looks over his shoulder as the sun rises? Sign me up! This unicorn meant business. He was heroic, noble, epic.
I wasn’t expecting him also to be dead.
In the last days of Narnia, King Tirian and his unicorn companion Jewel set off to confront unsettling rumours of destruction at the edges of the kingdom. A monkey and donkey dressed as a lion seems like an unlikely nemesis for the young king, but soon good intentions and impulsive heroics set the apocalypse into motion. Tirian, Jewel, and their British world-crossing companions Eustace and Jill must confront the end of one world and the beginning of another.
Written in straightforward prose with lots of action, The Last Battle is accessible to young readers. It is also notoriously upsetting because of its subject matter (the end of the world). The dread and suspense of The Last Battle emerges not in wondering what will happen (the narrator is quite clear that Narnia is ending) but how characters face their fate. Current Young Adult literature and some children’s literature has increased its engagement with difficult issues, but rarely are endings so final. Young Jill’s hopes reflects a common trope of literary consolation: “Our world is going to have an end some day. Perhaps this won’t” (110). (In children’s literature at large, this translates to: This story has a sad ending so perhaps yours won’t.) Sorry, Jill. Both our world and our fantasy world end. That being said, Lewis does offer consolation and a “happy ending,” but it’s not one many readers find easy to digest.
It’s also worth mentioning that Lewis is canny enough to complicate the orientalist representation of the Calormenes and classist representations of dwarfs even as he show mid-twentieth-century British biases. Current readers might find, in his horror of garlic and onions, grounds for the critique he levels at xenophobic dwarfs — he doesn’t know what he’s missing.
Unicorn/human friendship is at the core of The Last Battle. The last Narnian King Tirian’s “dearest friend” is the Unicorn Jewel and the two “loved each other like brothers and each had saved the other’s life” in times of war (16). The bond between the two seems akin to David and Jonathan’s friendship in the Bible, wherein one loves the other “as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18). If the intensity of the David/Jonathan bond confounds societal norms, so might that of Tirian and Jewel. (The love between David and Jonathan “pass[es] the love of women” and it’s unclear whether that means their friendship is deeper than romantic love or that their friendship is romantic love [2 Samuel 26].)
The relationship is exclusive, meaning that readers are barred from its intimacies (unlike the friendship between, say, Lucy and Mr. Tumnus). For example, when “Jewel lean[s]his snowy white head over the king’s shoulder and the king whisper[s] in Jewel’s ear,” the narrator purposefully bars readers from knowing what is being whispered (194). At other moments, they do “not try to comfort each other with words,” first because the exchange of opinion is superfluous, second because physical proximity offers comfort that language cannot (92).
It is the friendship between two equals which matters, not the union between human and mythological being. Jewel is Tirian’s confidant, but not his mentor or his guide. Despite his blue horn and mythical status, Jewel has no special wisdom or insight into the events that precipitate the end of Narnia. Their friendship blinds them to their isolation and their need to gain the support of more Narnians. The Unicorn does “not see…how foolish it was of them to go on alone” to discover the root of troubling rumours (25). Mirroring each others’ emotions, they are both shortsighted and “rash” (25). Although both Tirian and Jewel instinctively know that the true Aslan would not desecrate Narnia’s forests, Jewel’s “miserable” concession to Tirian that Aslan is “not a tame lion” opens up the possibility that he would (25). Their unwillingness to include others in their decision-making leads to a power vacuum at the heart of Narnia’s political structure.
If Tirian and Jewel model an ideal friendship that is intense, mutual, and spiritually sustaining, they are paralleled by the corrupting and unequal “friendship” between Shift the Ape and Puzzle the Donkey. At the apex of Narnian society, Jewel and King Tirian represent legitimate (inherited, Aslan-given) authority the cooperation and love between humans and Talking Animals (though, critics might note, with humans in the ultimate position of authority). Puzzle, by contrast, is in an abusive relationship with the ape Shift. As the narrator notes, “you might have thought Puzzle was more like Shift’s servant than his friend” (2). Shift is not content with his and Puzzle’s equal status as Talking Animals—he dresses himself in human clothing and a crown, while outfitting Puzzle in a lionskin and the role of a humbug Aslan. By dressing as a Man, Shift creates a hierarchy of humans above animals; because Shift does not believe in the true Aslan, Puzzle in his Aslan outfit is doubly inferior. If the weakness of Tirian and Jewel’s friendship is that 1) they are too similar in both their nobility and rashness, and 2) they do not seem to need other people (human or animal), then the opposite is true of Shift and Puzzle. The Ape and Donkey are unlike in personality, intellect, and force of will. Whereas Shift is greedy and cunning, Puzzle is good-natured but too weak to use his observations to form moral clarity. Moreover, whereas Tirian and Jewel are happy in isolation, Shift is only satisfied when he simultaneously isolates Puzzle from the rest of society and uses Puzzle’s seclusion to elevate himself above the rest of the Narnians.
Despite his disastrous role in destroying Narnia, Puzzle is treated with sympathy by the novel’s heroes, especially by Jewel. In the midst of calamity, the unicorn shows he is the “noblest and most delicate of beasts” by insisting on his likeness to the donkey and “talking about things they could both understand, like grass and sugar and the care of one’s hoofs” (95). It is this empathy which breaks Jewel out of his solipsistic bond with Tirian. (Tirian engages in a parallel act by befriending young Jill and Eustace.) The similar trajectories Tirian and Jewel follow in making their dream team more inclusive leads them closer to salvation.
As Tirian and Jewel’s fall is simultaneous, so is their redemption. Faced with “our last night on earth,” because King and Unicorn reflect on both their “great joys together,” they gain moral clarity about their lives and their upcoming deaths (123). Thus, during the Last Battle, they come to the realization of the stable door as a portal almost simultaneously. Tirian describes the stable door as a “mouth” while Jewel wonders if it “may be for us the door to Aslan’s country” (161). In the next world, King and Unicorn are reunited and are truly indivisible.
While Jewel models the elevating power of friendship, he also provides another function, namely making concrete the philosophy on which Lewis relies to create a happy ending. Once the main characters pass through the portal of the stable door, it is Jewel who explains the Professor’s ratehr cryptic statement that “It’s all in Plato” (212). As they walk through a perfected version of the world just destroyed, Jewel translates the Professor’s grown-up hint into terms that the child reader can understand: “The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this” (213). In the next life, the characters have access to the ideal Narnia in which all potentialities are fulfilled. It’s no coincidence that it is in this intensified Narnia that a mythological creature like a unicorn announces “I have come home at last, This is my real country. I belong here” (213). [Note: Tanith Lee makes a similar move in Black Unicorn.]
On the flip side, Lewis grounds grounds Jewel’s characterization is his shyness at meeting Polly and Diggory’s pegasus, Fledge (222). Readers of the full heptology will remember that Fledge was once a lowly London cab-horse named Strawberry. Thus, Jewel the mythological creature who feels “real” in the afterlife is humbled by a horse belatedly given wings.
While Jewel is represented as one half of an indissoluble masculine friendship that is based both on battle and emotional tenderness, Lewis also pays a sneaky tribute to the “girly” side of unicorns. Though the narrator formerly describes Jewel as “noblest and most delicate” (95), the narrator takes on Jill’s breathless and slightly ungrammatical enthusiasm in thinking Jewel is “the shiningest, delicatest” of animals (109). His courtesy towards Jill nearly erases the fact that alongside being “delicate” in appearance, he is “fierce and terrible…in battle (109).