When we were younger, my mom covered the pictures of Tash. Those were dark to us.
The Last Battle starts, interestingly enough, with the clearest depiction of manipulative abuse I've ever seen in print. If I were counseling someone going through that issue, I would probably pull out that chapter as an example. It takes the danger signs and puts them to living flesh in the dialogue of an evil monkey: "Now Puzzle, I understand what needs to be done better than you. You know you're not clever, Puzzle." From the beginning Shift makes Puzzle do the dirty work, railroading over all his protests. He sends Puzzle into a dangerous, cold pool, sends him to the market for bananas (making him think he wants a walk when he doesn't), and forces him to put on a lionskin costume when he's tired. It's easy to see that Shift is bad from moment one. And Puzzle has believed Shift for so long that he really does believe he isn't clever anymore: a tragic sign of an abusing relationship.
Throughout the story, Puzzle is rescued from Shift and lifted from his captivity. C.S. Lewis, through Eustace, points out that believing lies does damage. "If you'd spent less time saying you weren't clever and more time trying to be as clever as you can--" Jill, of course, shuts him up, though I think it's an interesting point that lies we believe about ourselves contribute to the unhealthy power an abuser can exercise, denoting that we bear some responsibility for our own actions. (Though certainly not at all for theirs.) I also thought of a danger signal earlier in the book: "There were very few Talking Beasts or Men or Dwarfs, or people of any sort, in that part of the wood, but Shift had one friend and neighbor who was a donkey called Puzzle." That sounds a knell of concern. An abuser with one friend, far away from anyone else who could challenge him or tell Puzzle what was really going on. It's so sad. Puzzle had no help. He was stuck on his own, and it's easy to get stuck on your own. We all need people to help us. But while it's sad, thankfully it also has a good ending: Lewis gently depicts the healing that came when Puzzle found precious, true community and Aslan.
Another thing that struck me in the book was how important remembering history was in dark moments. In chapter four, after a captive King Tirian sees a strange, harsh Aslan appear on the hill near him, he is left in cold and darkness. At that moment, he sets his mind back to remembering. "He thought of other Kings....He thought of his great-grandfather's great-grandfather King Rilian....Then he went further back and thought about Rilian's father, Caspian the Seafarer....And then he remembered (for he had always been good at history when he was a boy) how those same four children who had helped Caspian had been in Narnia over a thousand years before." Remembering gives Tirian the tool he needs to cry out to Aslan and the four children from the past. It's impossible not to draw the parallel: time and again in Scripture, remembrance of God's acts of deliverance gives hope for the future.
Later on in the book, in chapter eight, King Tirian is walking with Eustace, Jill, and their tiny band of survivors in one of the happiest scenes in that bleak middle. They're in the midst of a beautiful wood when Jill says "It's a pity there's always so much [misfortune] happening in Narnia." In that moment, Jewel the Unicorn says that she's "quite mistaken". He tells her more ancient Narnian history than we've probably heard in the series thus far, covering the time between The Magician's Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Swanwhite the Queen. Centuries of dances, feasts, and tournaments. King Gale, who delivered the Lone Islands from a dragon. While this isn't used to draw out hope, it's a fascinating moment in the story.
It's a story of high emotion: a great epic at the end of a tale for children. It twists your heart in the reading of it from Jill's tears in battle, to the bear's heartrending confusion in his moment of death (which my sister pointed out to me), to the dwarves' rejection of truth after Shift used their religion to lie to them. Throughout the dark moments, Tirian's personal demeanor and relationship with Jewel the Unicorn give a feeling of courteous, chivalric knighthood in a way I noticed differently from the other tales. (For some reason, I don't know why, King Tirian was one of my favorite kings.) King Tirian and Jewel's iconic stand by the white rock is a fitting climax to the seventh story in Narnia. I won't spoil the ending for those of you who haven't read it. But in the midst of the darkness, Tirian's steadfast faith gives comfort: "Courage, child. We are all between the paws of the true Aslan."
Skip just this paragraph if you don't want a couple of spoilers. The only thing that struck me as a little off (and I'm being too perfectionist, I'm like, this is Lewis's story, Schuyler, it's OK) was the spiritually-blind dwarves still sitting in the middle of the grass when other animals have streamed off into Aslan's shadow. Why is this cockroach in my salad? Aslan's country is supposed to be perfect. Secondly, I know it's slightly rebellious and perhaps theologically questionable, but I was always glad that Emeth got to Aslan's country. Perhaps not right, but it is how I feel. And lastly, I was also glad when a friend sent me a quote she found about Susan from C.S. Lewis: "The books don't tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan's country in the end--in her own way." ~C.S. Lewis, letter of 22 January 1957
Later in the book another beautiful quote pops up: "Tirian said they could come with him and take their chance--or as he much more sensibly called it, 'the adventure that Aslan would send them'." In Aslan's hands, there is no chance. His sovereignty still reigns, and he still cares about his people in this story: the confused mice who don't know if they should help Tirian. The bear who "doesn't understand." Puzzle, in the grip of an antichrist figure. Tirian, bereft of Cair Paravel. And Jill and Eustace, who can't quite remember how they left home. Even in the midst of fire and Calormene drums, of gathering enemies and the fear of being shoved through the stable door, the High King reigns in Narnia. And that squeezes my heart because through a story it washes us with the truth that God is taking care of us. Even when we don't understand, and the enemy is stronger, and our fears draw closer and closer to hand, God is taking care of us.
*slight spoilers follow*
This story is hard and sad, but it is also glorious and hopeful. The contrasts are sharp, leaving the light bursting bright. I am glad to have read it. Of course, I want to read the rest of the chapters that go on and on, "each one better than the last." I never want Narnia to end.
So, even though I don't get to read them, I'm glad it never will.