Thursday, September 08, 2005

Further In and Further Out

Near the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, Lucy and the faun Tumnus—whom she (and the rest of us) met when she first entered Narnia through the wardrobe—discuss the world through which they are walking. Lucy and her companions have followed Aslan “further up and further in” as He instructed, passing through a series of worlds that resemble Narnia. The Narnia in which they actually lived had been destroyed at Aslan’s bidding, yet each of the worlds through which they have since passed appears to be just like Narnia—only each appears more “real” than the last. Tumnus says the progression is “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

Tumnus’ words are an apt self-referential metaphor for what Lewis succeeds in doing with this last book in the Narnia series, on more levels than one.

First, his story peels the layers of Narnia away as he chronicles the events that will eventually lead to its demise; the story starts very simply, but as it progresses the imagery and narrative become more imaginative and complex.

Second, he skillfully and imaginatively documents the end of Narnia we know, and puts the layers of the onion back together as he describes the new worlds through which the characters pass—and the imagery in the latter part of the book is the most vivid and interesting of the entire series.

Let us first examine the onion-peeling he works in building the story. It starts with great simplicity, introducing Puzzle the donkey and his “friend” the ape, Shift. Shift is a master manipulator, getting Puzzle to do almost any task by turning things on their head, and making it always look like Shift is doing Puzzle a favor.

In this way, for starters, Shift persuades Puzzle to jump into Caldron Pool to retrieve a floating object. What Puzzle nearly drowns for turns out to be a lion skin. Shift convinces Puzzle to go on a long walk even though Puzzle is worn out from struggling in the pool. When Puzzle returns, Shift shames Puzzle into wearing the lion skin as a cloak even though Puzzle worries that it might be disrespectful to the great lion, Aslan.

In the passages describing these events, Lewis writes in a simple prose. The technique is reminiscent of fables in which the characters introduce a dilemma, then go on to solve it and deliver a simple moral message. However, rather than leading to a simple resolution, The Last Battle’s humble beginning avalanches into the eventual destruction of an entire world. Shift, of course, has plans for Puzzle and that rough-sewn disguise—as we soon find out after we are introduced to Tirian, the current King of Narnia.

The King and his best friend Jewel are enjoying a bucolic morning at Tirian’s hunting lodge. They have heard Aslan may be back in Narnia after a long absence, and they are joyously hopeful. But the Centaur, Roonwit, arrives and dispels that notion, warning that the stars tell of no visit by Aslan. At nearly the same time, a Dryad appears, crying out that trees are being murdered—and then she collapses, her own tree apparently also felled.

The tone of Lewis’ prose grows more complex as the causes behind these tragedies unfold. Tirian and Jewel are eager to be off to investigate and prosecute those responsible. Roonwit counsels that Tirian should wait, but Tirian sends Roonwit to Cair Paravel for reinforcements while he and Jewel go off to the forests. They discover that the felled trees are to be sold to Calormenes and that talking animals are helping. What’s worse is that the animals say this is at Aslan’s orders. Tirian and Jewel decide they must go on and “take the adventure that comes to us.” They are determined to do this even though they are crestfallen that all they and their ancestors have believed about Aslan all these years may not be true.

At this point Lewis’ prose even becomes omniscient. He says about their decision to go on that Tirian “did not see at the moment how foolish it was for two of them to go on alone... But much evil came of their rashness in the end.” And much evil did come; but did their actions change the outcome? Not as far as we can see, because Roonwit would soon enough be killed even before he reached Cair Paravel—and Cair Paravel itself, we learn later, was already overrun by Calormenes, and its occupants killed or on the run. So at this point Tirian and Jewel are already on a path leading to Narnia’s demise—going “further up and further in” through the events that will lead to destruction, powerless to change the outcome, though they will fight with every fiber trying to save Narnia. So we must trust that Lewis’ narration at this point is omniscient. The story itself does not convince us that what the narrator tells us is true.

But events are indeed unraveling Narnia. Jill and Eustace arrive to help Tirian and Jewel, who have turned themselves over to the Calormenes, having rashly murdered two of their soldiers. Togther, the party soon confirms that the “Aslan” who has appeared is the donkey Puzzle, dressed in a lion suit and acting as the puppet of Shift who, with the help of the Calormenes, wishes to impose his avaricious whims and desires on credulous Narnians. Jill manages to capture the masquerading donkey—or rather release him, because Puzzle is eager to stop the ruse.

The situation continues to come apart as a succession of plans and hopes comes to naught. They are helpless, and each of them is forced into the stable where all expect to meet their demise either by the Calormene soldier hiding there or by the Calormene god, Tash, who has come into Narnia—unwittingly called there by Tarkaan Rishda. Once inside, though, Tirian, who is last in, is surprised to see that he is in another world lit by an early summer sun; and he is welcomed by all the “friends of Narnia”—Digory, Polly, Peter, Edmund, Lucy, Eustace, and Jill. And at this juncture, Lewis’ prose takes an even stranger turn, as the battle which still rages outside the stable—and the fate of Tirian’s other friends—is wholly forgotten in favor of chuckles, high language and diversions with dwarfs.

Susan is not there, however. The one purely negative critique I have of this story is the narrator’s comments about Susan. I was confused earlier in the story when the “Friends of Narnia” were short a member. In an odd aside at this point, Lewis’ story takes time to explain that Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia. The true “friends” explain to Tirian (and us) that Susan no longer remembers her adventures in Narnia as having actually occurred. Jill says, “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” This aside seems to serve little purpose in the story. It is also a weak mini-critique of how we turn our backs on our childhood and core values as we grow older. Yet what makes this interlude even possible is the increasingly complex narrative layers that Lewis employs.

But let’s get back to the situation Tirian now finds himself in. He and all the Friends of Narnia are clean and in fresh new clothes. Aslan soon greets them, but they stand witness as Aslan directs the end of Narnia.

Lewis’ imagery now gets really interesting. A giant (Father Time from The Silver Chair) rises up and blows his horn. The stars fall from the sky, but remember—in Narnia stars are living beings. The beings fall from the sky and stand among them still glowing, lighting the landscape. Then all the creatures of that world are called and come racing toward them as Aslan stands at the door, casting a great shadow to his left. To his right is entry into the new world. As the creatures approach him, some are fearful or angry and those creatures run to Aslan’s left into darkness, never to be seen again. The others are joyful (if perhaps also fearful of Aslan), and they move to Aslan’s right into the new world.

The powerful imagery continues as a flood rises up that covers all the land. The sun and the moon come up right after each other and the sun engulfs the moon. Then at Aslan’s command the giant throws his horn into the sea and he squeezes the sun until there is total darkness. Everything becomes frozen and Aslan commands Peter to close the door—and at that the Friends and their companions believe Narnia is no more. Of course, they are very sad, Lucy in particular. And here the first phase of Lewis’ narrative layering concludes. All of the layers of the Narnia we have known before have been exposed.

But Aslan is quite happy and calls over his shoulder as he races away, “Come further in! Come further up!” Lewis is about to put the layers back together again in his second narrative phase.

As the Friends and company go further in they (and we) meet up with many old friends from past Narnian adventures. They all gradually begin to notice how this new world looks very familiar—and they realize that this world is just like Narnia, only “more like the real thing.”

They continue into this new world and there is a wonderful image of all of them diving into Caldron Pool and swimming up the waterfall to another land—which is an even more real Narnia. Then they run all the way to the West Mountains where they climb the hill (now mountain) on top of which is the garden that Digory had entered to retrieve the apple in The Magicians’s Nephew. There they find they are not simply in a garden but in another entire world—another, grander Narnia that is yet again more real than all the previous Narnias.

So Lewis and his characters peel the onion of the “real” Narnia for us, and in the end we have all discovered an entirely new Ideal Narnia to inhabit—one that will never be subject to Jadis, Miraz, Shift and the like.

Through his imagery and narrative style, Lewis provides an example we all can follow. We also can find ways to peel the layers of our lives away to find a more real and greater existence.

How often do we find ourselves consumed in our own routine, acting out an extended version of muscle-memory instead of being aware that what we do actually affects our lives and the lives of others? How much more could we accomplish by also going further up and further in?

One of my current favorite musicians is a young Australian artist named Ben Lee. The title song of his latest album is “Awake is the New Sleep.” In this song he cheerfully admonishes all of us who are holding back, just going through the motions, to “wake up and just do it.” Written half a century apart, similar advice from both Lewis and Lee is effective counsel for us all.

“Come further in! Come further up!”
“Wake up and just do it!”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was really good and left me searching for the deeper meaning of the book. However, I am having trouble understanding the piece :“Come further in! Come further up!” and how it relates to us.

12/18/2005 7:30 PM  
Blogger Greg Wright said...

C.S. Lewis, as a follower of the philosophy of Plato, among other things, believed that the world in which we live, though "real," was but a shadow of the real world. So in issuing the call to go "further in" and "further up," he was prompting spiritual inquiry: basically saying, "There's more to life than what you see." Most of us sense this innnately, and many discount it as sentimentalism or superstition. Lewis believed it to be a reality (and so do I). Lewis found that faith in God and Jesus opened the door, so to speak, on true spiritual reality -- in this world, not just in Narnia.

12/19/2005 5:25 AM  

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