The Stable-ity of Narnia
After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven… —Revelation 4:1There is a rather trite saying going around garden stores these days. It can be found on placards made to hang in sheds or atop metal flower bed stakes or even on magnets that are sure to be added to refrigerator doors already groaning from the weight of collected “wisdom,” cherished family pictures, and coupons for cat food. The sentiment?
“Life Began in a Garden.”
In The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis presents us with a child-friendly (if sometimes gruesome) version of the Bible’s book of Revelation. And in this version, the focal point is not a really a garden, but a stable. This does not refute the Biblical truth of life beginning in the Garden of Eden, of course, but instead opens up the larger question of which life is most worth pursuing—eternal life with Aslan in His world, or eternal destruction and separation from Aslan. Just as Aslan uses the stable as the doorway of decision into the real Narnia, God used a stable as the foundation of decision for mankind—the beginning of the end, if you will.
In the Bible, Eden originally became off limits because of the sin committed there by Adam and Eve, which doomed humanity to eternal destruction. However, in an astounding display of love and mercy, God chose a Plan B—the birth of Jesus in a lowly, smelly stable—as the beginning of the story of salvation. According to that story, all who believe in and call on the name of the One born in the stable will be saved and have life forever with God in Heaven.
With pure genius, Lewis also presents the idea that life (eternal life—the only life that matters) begins in a stable, and thus the stable door represents passage from the “shadow of Narnia” into “Aslan’s real world.” The titular Last Battle is not the physical fighting between the Narnians and the Calormenes (which is a very limited part of the story) so much as the individual’s spiritual battle of choice: the stable of salvation or the stable of destruction. The irony is that both buildings are really one and the same, and Lewis uses his characters well to prove this point.
Of foremost import is the fact that Lewis chooses to capitalize the word “stable.” This is a device he uses throughout his writing, both fiction and non-fiction, when he wants the reader to take notice and get a point. It is no accident that Shift, the ape, creates an Anti-Aslan with a lion skin on Puzzle, the donkey, and houses him in a Stable.
Each character or group of characters subsequently represents a response to the invitation to enter the Stable of Eternal Life. The chosen response determines the final destination of the individual—to dwell with Aslan forever or to become fodder for Tash.
First we must deal with Shift. The Apostle Peter has two very clear warnings that pertain to who Shift is and what he is doing here:
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. —1 Peter 5:8
…there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. —2 Peter 2:1The ape is one who knows who Aslan is but defiantly refuses to bow before Him. He creates an Anti-Aslan, but in truth is the Anti-Christ himself. He becomes the lord and “mouthpiece of Aslan,” claiming that he is “so wise that [he is] the only one Aslan is ever going to speak to.” Shift invents “Tashlan” and claims that Tash and Aslan are one and the same. Many Narnians buy into the ape’s subterfuge, but some refuse to believe the blasphemy and are persecuted, imprisoned, even sacrificed for refusing to worship Tashlan and listen to Shift.
In our own post-modern, similarly “enlightened” world, Satan’s most effective weapon has been the promotion of tolerance to undermine the path to salvation. These are some of Satan’s lies:
- Christians are no different than Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, etc.
- Christ is just another man, a great prophet of history, and not the “name under heaven given to men by which [they] must be saved.”
- It is a silly thing to claim that the path to salvation is narrow and difficult and must be chosen. Wouldn’t Christ want everyone to be saved without such requirements? How can modern and enlightened people believe that God, who claims He is love, consigns those who do not choose Christ to eternal death?
- Christianity is an intolerant religion whose claims must be suppressed and refuted.
Shift does not accept the salvation of the Stable but creates his own religion to replace it, one designed very much along the lines of our own contemporary objections. He is an ape who wants to be a man, and misuses a good thing to deceive believers and lure them into apostasy just as Satan today tempts believers to give in to the call of the world.
Puzzle, however, is an Ass: one who has enough knowledge to know there is a difference between good and evil, but one who has not developed that knowledge into a faith that can save him from being used and manipulated. He knows of Aslan but doesn’t have any personal experience with Him. He is the perfect picture of the person who believes there is a God but has not bothered to move beyond that declaration. This type of believer, one that Jesus calls “lukewarm,” is in awe and fear of God’s power to exact retribution for wrongs committed, but has no knowledge of the power of God’s love and His desire to save. The Stable is just a place in which to hide or feel confined. The door of the Stable represents only a path that must be taken—knowing full well that an awful judgment is all that is deserved and all that waits on the other side. Puzzle’s faith is really born when he finally meets Aslan face-to-face and he is saved “as one plucked from the fire.”
King Tirian and his friend the unicorn are both “jewels” in the rough: believers whose relationship with Aslan is not strong enough to give them the “peace that passes all understanding” when conflicting reports come to them. Instead of listening to the wisdom of Roonwit, the Centaur prophet, they easily fall prey to confusion and in doing so act rashly. If they knew Aslan well, they would know Him by His attributes and not just by the description “not a tame lion.” This phrase, repeated often within a few pages, leads them to ignore wise counsel and to act in anger and their own power, bringing them to commit the sin of murdering two Calormenes for beating a Narnian talking Horse—just as the Biblical Moses killed an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave.
Since they really do not know whom they worship or why, though they long for Aslan—He has simply become a “great” lion of the past—Tirian and Jewel are easily duped into the despair that comes from discovering that the truth they thought they understood is not the truth at all. This is very much like the believer of today, one who decides that God really intends to take a “hands off” approach and leaves it up to each of us to make decisions and run our own lives. Unfortunately, the danger is that “much evil [comes] of their rashness in the end,” and we have witnessed throughout history the horrors done in the name of Christ by Christians who believe they must take God’s business into their own hands.
The blessing is that Tirian and Jewel do come to understand who Aslan really is through the trials they have brought upon themselves and the errors they have committed. This offers to all believers the hope of complete restoration (despite some wrong turns along the way) and the joy of hearing Christ say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” just as Aslan says to King Tirian. The walk of faith is a life-long process, not an overnight fait accompli.
Tirian discovers that when a person gets to his lowest point and finally calls on the name of Aslan, the Great Emperor-over-the-Sea responds to the prayer of faith—and acts. The result isn’t always what was expected; but then comes true understanding of the phrase, “not a tame lion.” Aslan cannot be manipulated or controlled. Aslan does not act in whimsical and arbitrary ways. Aslan can be trusted to remain true to His character and to be consistent in word and action. Aslan does not change.
What Tirian’s prayer does is to bring Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb back into Narnia. These two characters are the last of the children from the first six books who are young enough to return to Narnia. They have a firm knowledge of Aslan, and an unwavering faith in Him. These are the strengths around which King Tirian and the remaining true Narnians rally. The children’s appearance brings renewed faith to Tirian, and he finds the power within himself to boldly stand up to the lie that has been perpetrated by Shift.
Jill and Eustace embody God’s intention that a primary purpose of a believer’s life is to encourage those whose faith may be faltering. Ask any believer today and he will surely have at least one story of a time in his life when he thought he had hit rock bottom and there was no further hope. His testimony will be that other believers “found” him, encouraged him, and lifted him back to living faith. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem was removed, only that strength was given to remain steadfast and, often, to come through the difficulty stronger in Christ than ever before.
Thanks to the children, Tirian and Jewel (though dreading the dark portal of the Stable and what may lie beyond) have the courage of faith to hope that it “may be… the door to Aslan’s country”—and find that this is indeed the case. Still, Tirian and all the rest still went through that Stable door with imperfect knowledge, going on faith that they would never be alone.
But finally, we must address the dwarfs’ plight, for they are perhaps the characters most to be pitied and mourned. In The Great Divorce Lewis says, “Every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind—is, in the end, Hell.” The dwarfs of The Last Battle epitomize this type of hell. Aslan has been absent from Narnia for so long that the dwarfs (if not complete atheists) are at least agnostic. They feel sorely abused for having been fooled by a dressed up donkey and agree with Griffle who says, “I’ve heard as much about Aslan as I want to for the rest of my life.”
When the dwarfs enter the same Stable as all of the other characters, and when Truth stands embodied in Aslan, they cannot see Him. At Lucy’s behest, Aslan prepares a wonderful banquet for the dwarfs but they think they are eating straw in a stinking stable. “You see,” says Aslan, “they will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”
Wayne Martindale, in his book Beyond the Shadowlands: C. S. Lewis on Heaven & Hell, warns, “The Dwarfs’ case is a warning that hypocrites provide agnostics with a rationalization for not believing anything. A pretender once seen through is a more powerful weapon in Satan’s arsenal than an outright atheist.” An atheist is, after all, actually in the habit of believing in something—a habit that can be turned in a different direction. C. S. Lewis provides himself as a case in point.
But what happens to Shift, Ginger the Cat, and Rishda Tarkaan? None of the three believe in anything supernatural. They create their own god, Tashlan, to manipulate those vulnerable and gullible beings around them in order to assume power. The Tash in whom he does not believe consumes Shift. Ginger loses his sanity. Rishda is carried off by a very real “non-existent” being. In the end, we can only assume that the three finally believe that Tash, at least, is real!
Agnostics, though, as we see with the dwarfs, are very difficult to persuade to believe in anything. “Once burned, twice shy” is an extremely difficult philosophy to break down. The agnostic dwarfs cannot see or comprehend the glory of the Stable and so are consigned forever to the Hell of their own minds. Significantly, this seems no better a fate than that which awaits those who pass into Aslan’s shadow.
The Stable of The Last Battle forces each character to confront what he believes and to act accordingly. The door leads either into the real Narnia (which will exist for all eternity) or back into the “shadowland” Narnia, which is swallowed up into oblivion.
The Stable in Bethlehem on that cold, starry night two thousand years ago welcomed a baby who would transform the meaning of life. When we understand the beauty of that child, and the sweet smell of Jesus’ sacrifice rising to Heaven from the cross, we have truly left the concept of the lowly and stinking stable behind and are ready to accept the invitation to “Come further up, further in!”