Above Us Only Sky

I may be wrong about this, but I think there is a theological issue that, when we consider the whole sweep of human history, troubled a far higher proportion of the human population from far earlier and for far longer than any single other question. It’s not a question we ask today.

It’s not ‘does God exist?’ – there have always been people who haven’t believed in the gods, but until extremely recently, the vast majority of people have taken it completely for granted that there was at least one god around at some point. It’s not ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ – if you believe in more than one god, it’s because those gods are warring; if you believe in one god it’s because that god wills it; if you don’t believe in gods, it’s a foolish question.

I don’t know this for certain, because we have to look back a long way to see when it was first asked – we have to rely on interpretations of Neolithic art (at least twelve thousand years old), we have to depend on reconstructions of the Copper Age (seven thousand years ago), we have to look at paleolinguistics, the study of how ancient languages spread and developed. It was an idea that it seems was carved into stone seven thousand years before the Ten Commandments were. We know it was a question that was still being seriously considered by at least one major culture until about five hundred years ago. The symbolism survives today, in both Western and Eastern religious belief.

The ultimate theological question is: ‘Where does the Sun go at night?’.

The answer that so many civilisations agreed for so long was: ‘The Sun is driven by one of the gods, and at night it goes under the Earth to fight a battle. There is at least some risk that the god will lose this battle, and so the Sun may not rise tomorrow’. It’s something the human race understood was a cast iron fact before they knew how to cast iron. It survived as the working model twenty-five times longer than the four hundred years we’ve understood the Earth goes around the Sun. It was understood to be the literal truth, not some metaphor or piece of symbolism.

This idea spread with ancient man across the Middle East, India, into Europe. It was a belief – in some form – held simultaneously in Scandinavia, Indonesia and pre-Columbian America. From the late Stone Age, well into the Iron Age, surviving into late Roman, Aztec and, in vestigal form, modern Hindu and Christian belief there was consensus. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, there’s a very exciting sequence where Gilgamesh finds the tunnel the Sun goes down into at night and races along it, with the setting Sun barrelling after him like that giant rock at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This was a religious outlook held for far longer and by a far higher proportion of the human race then living than has ever believed ‘there is only one god’, ‘the god I worship created the universe’ or ‘God’s a paragon of virtue’. It’s a religious belief that can rightfully be said to have been ‘universal’, in the parochial sense human beings use the word. For thousands of years, it appears that all human beings believed it.

The vestiges of this belief still pervade our language, our image of God and to some extent our thought. One of the ways we can see how pervasive the idea was is that it survives in our languages. There are many processes by which languages diverge, but we can see one in action when we ask why Americans call cars ‘automobiles’ and lifts ‘elevators’ … it’s because those are things invented after the split with Britain, so they came up with their own words. Paleolinguistics looks at the similarities and differences between languages and can be used (with due caution) to infer when things are invented – we can see by collating what different languages call them, for example, that ‘wheel’ far predates ‘spokes’, that ‘equine’ predates ‘saddle’ and far predates ‘stirrups’. Some scholars believe we can pinpoint when different types of sword and spear were invented by looking at what different peoples called them. There are some words that are truly ancient – the words for ‘I’, ‘two’ and so on. 

Seven thousand years ago, in what we now call the Proto-Indo-European culture of the Middle East, the God that pulled the Sun through the sky was called something like Dyeusphaeter. It’s a name older than the Sanskrit language, which later rendered it as Dyaus Pita. It’s the origin of the names Jupiter and Zeus, and many other Sun gods in many other cultures – Dyaus of early Indian mythology, Ahura Mazda in Persia (the first monotheistic God), Astwatz, Dispater. In German it was Deiwos, that became Tiwaz – which is where we get the word ‘Tuesday’. The Latin word ‘deus’ – which is the ancestor of the English word ‘deity’ – derives from it, but this isn’t some word English borrowed from Latin, it massively predates that, so that two almost completely unrelated languages, Welsh and Persian, have similar words for God: ‘Duw’ and ‘Deva’. The first half of the name became the English word ‘divine’ (and possibly ‘day’, although that’s disputed), and ‘Phaeter’ became ‘father’, so modern English would render the name as ‘day-father’, which is sometimes personified as ‘Father Sky’.

Many of the gods people worship today share memes with Dyeusphaeter. One of the trendiest religions in first century Rome was the cult of Sol Invictus, ‘the undefeated Sun’, and the main feast day was to celebrate the end of winter, which was also the birthday of the God – December 25th (he was born of a virgin). Sol Invictus had a golden crown, a halo, and it’s possible to track the early Christian iconography and writings as they starting those elements into their own beliefs. It’s not because of Sol Invictus that Christians go to church on Sunday – that was taken from another rival cult, that of Mithras (and the day of the sabbath was the source of much dispute among Christians until the Council of Laodicea in 364).

Traditional images of the Christian God and Jesus himself owe a lot to Father Sky. Day-father was the God of the day, clearly one of the most important and powerful (although by no means the only god or the most powerful), and was associated with all the benefits the Sun brings. But half the time, at night, he wasn’t there. And in many places in the world the days were much shorter in the winter and longer in the summer. This was profoundly troubling – how could the influence of such a self-evidently powerful God ebb and flow like that?

Instinctively, now, we know that it’s always day somewhere on Earth. We’re so used to seeing, say, live TV pictures from the other side of the planet and if it’s night where we are, it’s day there. I don’t think we need empirical evidence of that, as such, it’s almost instinctive. Just something we know. We must all have acquired the information, but at such an early age it essentially counts as innate. We also know that it’s not ‘the Sun on the other side of the world’, as such, that’s how it appears from Earth. We orbit the Sun, not vice versa. Were people really so stupid in the olden days that they couldn’t work any of that out? We all know that everyone used to think the world is flat. We’re all wrong, as it happens. We all know that the Catholic church were dumb and so blinded by ignorance that they refused to believe the Earth went round the Sun even when Galileo heroically confronted them with science and declared otherwise. Coming to understand why we’re wrong about that, too, why it’s almost exactly the opposite, is pretty exciting and I’m sure I’ll talk about that at some point.

So here’s an interesting question: when did the human race discover that the Sun was simply on the other side of the world at night? And more to the point, when was that discovery widely accepted? That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. I think, bottom line, the person who deduces it first is Hipparchus, in around 135BC. I can’t even begin to work out when it was generally known, or intuitive. Clearly, some remnants of Solar Chariot religions survived beyond that, and clearly earlier astronomical theories dispense with the idea of the Sun crashing into the sea or slotting into a tunnel every night. I can’t answer the question ‘when was the latest someone could suggest a god moves the Sun across the sky without everyone just laughing at them?’. In the West … well … here’s Bill O’Reilly, United States of America, 2011, and he’s not saying exactly the same thing … but he’s not saying something that’s all that different, either. Whether he knows it or not, he believes in Dyeusphaeter’s Solar Chariot, via Aristotle, via the Catholic Church. 

Before we get too smug, none of us have quite escaped the myth. There’s a famous science fiction story that has a character on the Moon, looking at the Earth wistfully noting ‘just to think, it’s Spring back on Earth right now’. It takes most people at least a few moments to see the problem with that sentence – it’s an astronaut literally viewing the whole world, but unable to escape the old, limited worldview.

We know where the Sun goes at night. It’s settled law, now. There will be people who say it doesn’t count as a theological question. But understanding that it was a theological question – for at least three, possibly five, times longer than we’ve had any Christian theology – is important to bear in mind. It’s easy to dismiss the Solar Chariot as primitive superstition borne from ignorance, and to say that it doesn’t need to be studied in any great depth … well, yes. But isn’t that what the Courtier’s Reply says about modern theology? I admire the people who came up with the story of the Sun Chariot. They were trying to explain the world, and their explanation made sense of the empirical evidence. They were extrapolating what they knew and saw. These were not stupid people, they were extremely smart people tackling huge, huge problem. It’s amazing they even worked out where they might begin to try answering. I don’t hesitate to call them wrong, I don’t take the view that they were right in their own way, but they were wrong for the right reasons. They were thinking in what we’d arrogantly call a ‘modern’ way – looking at the evidence. They were wrong.

I admire the people who dismantled the Sun Chariot more. They had the courage to continue asking the questions, and to ask new and reframed questions. It took many thousands of years, but we got to what we now see is inarguably ‘the right answer’. We know that the answer operates on a scale far larger and far smaller than the human, but which human beings could readily understand by observing and deducing a few common, simple processes. That, ultimately, the answer was actually rather straightforward.

And it’s an answer you can use. It leads to further discoveries, to practical inventions. Frankly, the heavens are much more enticing without divine traffic whizzing around like space debris. And we’ve been there now, sent up our own space chariots. We use them every day to see around the world, and to explore a universe that’s a far larger, richer, grander, older and stranger place than the old religions had us believe.

Both groups of thinkers shared the same impulse: they wanted an explanation. Modern theology often seems abstract to the point of distraction, about things completely beyond the human capacity to understand, not just beyond science, but beyond the limits of human thought. ‘Life’ and ‘the divine purpose’ and ‘the greater good’ are so big and seem so confusing and inherently paradoxical that it’s impossible even to expect we might ever understand them. But we have to understand right from the outset that theologians in the past told us the same things about disease, harvests and the weather – equally vast, immensely important parts of our experience (and also all things attributed, for most of human history, solely to the capricious nature of the gods).

I think it’s an awkward fact for theology that, as far as I can see, a lot of theological issues have been conclusively solved, but all of them were solved outside the field. I don’t see this changing – one of the vibrant issues across a number of academic disciplines, including theology, is the very broad area of ‘consciousness’. I very strongly suspect we’ll see key breakthroughs in my lifetime, a real shift of understanding about what constitutes awareness, consciousness, intelligence, how these things can originate, how to define them and so on – but these breakthroughs will almost certainly come from the computer science departments, from the evolutionary biologists. It’s hard to see how they might even come from a theology department.

As Bertrand Russell put it, ‘Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know’. Whenever we find ourselves concluding that a question is just too large to ever answer, I think it’s instructive to remind ourselves that we solved the biggest problem of them all: where the Sun’s hiding at night.

Easter: A Good Day To Bury Bad News

There’s a passage in Matthew’s account of the Resurrection (27:52-53) that hasn’t received much attention until relatively recently. At the moment Jesus is resurrected:

“the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”

Christopher Hitchens was among the more prominent people to do a doubletake: ‘These rather conspicuous events, which among other things would seem to make resurrection something of a commonplace, were entirely missed by Saint John, or at any rate unreported by him, and appear not at all in the only written historical record, which was by Flavius Josephus.’.

All four canonical gospels spend a lot of their time discussing the events of the death and Resurrection of Christ (at least a third of their word count), but only Matthew thinks it worth mentioning that ‘many holy people’ emerged from their tombs and walked into Jerusalem, and the quote above is the sum total of Matthew’s description. It does beg a few questions: How many holy people? Who were they? Who did they appear to? What happened to them afterwards?

Matthew is describing one of the most impressive miracles anywhere in the Bible, and not just because it sounds spectacular, dramatic and above all else public, so difficult to dismiss. It’s significant because it’s a miracle that’s not just a conjuring trick, it’s something that should have been extraordinarily informative, with some direct theological implications. Did these holy men say anything interesting? Lazarus did, we’re told, when he returned from the dead. Did they just stand there? How did people recognise them, if they didn’t say anything?

Perhaps a more practical question is to ask where Matthew got his information. Well, the first thing to note is that the author of the Gospel According to Matthew refers to the apostle Matthew in the third person, and that the attribution of this Gospel to him is based on a fourth century source who said Matthew wrote a book of collected sayings in ‘the language of the Hebrews’, then ascribes a Gospel to him that isn’t a book of sayings and most scholars agree was originally written in Greek. There is, as ever, some debate, but no one really argues that the author of Matthew was an eyewitness. He was writing at least one, probably two generations after the event, and he was probably living in Syria. Even if he’d been living in Jerusalem at the time, he couldn’t have been an eyewitness to every event of those days. If he’d seen the ‘many holy people’ who’d risen himself, you might think he’d describe that in more detail.
He based what he wrote on ‘Mark’ (the earliest gospel, most scholars agree); the Q Document, which is not, as Chris Morris once suggested, the book where Christ was issued his Walther PPK and gadgets, but a now lost book of Jesus’ sayings that ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’ seem to have read but ‘Mark’ apparently hadn’t; and some material unique to Matthew, which he’d possibly acquired by collecting oral accounts or referring to now-lost letters, lists or similar documents.

Where did the author learn about the ‘many holy people’? We don’t know. There are – as far as I’ve been able to find out – no other contemporary accounts, either from Christian or non-Christian sources, canonical or non-canonical, that even hint at it. It does seem odd that something so spectacular didn’t rate a mention anywhere. This may or may not mean something. The Romans loved stories about weird happenings, what we’d call Fortean events now. But not everything was widely reported and the surviving written record is fragmentary. It’s entirely possible (and completely impossible to prove) that it was the talk of the town for a hundred years, or survived for a long time as an urban myth.

There’s an obvious sceptical explanation: it didn’t happen. And we can qualify this further by saying Matthew clearly had a pragmatic reason for adding it – his is the Gospel most concerned with reconciling the life of Jesus to the Old Testament and Jewish tradition generally. The early church faced scepticism from Jews who didn’t think Jesus fit the description of the Messiah from prophecy. (Ezekiel 28:24, for example, says that ‘No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbours who are painful briers and sharp thorns’, and a pedant might feel Jesus missed his performance target on that). Matthew does include information that doesn’t appear in the other Gospels but which aligns Jesus with prophecy. There are cynical and non-cynical explanations for why he would do that, but the simplest explanation either way is ‘in order to fit prophecy, the author of Matthew added these couple of lines’. Off his own bat? Possibly, but you’d imagine and hope someone would say ‘er … not heard that before, where did you get this bit from?’. And while there are parts of the New Testament that scholars agree have been, for want of a better word, retconned so that the account of Jesus’ life and actions fits the expectation for a Messiah, it’s not clear which prophecy this ‘many holy people’ rising would be fulfilling.

But the cynical explanation fits the facts as we know them: the author of Matthew (who isn’t the apostle Matthew) essentially made it up, because it helped his case.

It should be noted that there are places in Matthew where he does seem to offer some awkward moments, that his account isn’t some neat whitewash, and that he seems to be engaged in an exercise of writing down what people already believe, rather than making stuff up.

I’ve found precisely one reference to it between Matthew and the present day. [Edited to clarify: by which I mean a reference that’s attempted to elaborate on the risen holy people walking into Jerusalem as historical event and fill in details. Thanks to Kate Orman (see comments), this article demonstrates that many Christian scholars have accepted it and referred to it. The main point of discussion appears to be the story logic of exactly when they were resurrected. Many elide it with some form of the Harrowing of Hell. There is some discussion about what happened to the risen saints – the consensus seems to be that they ascended with Jesus. Again, this begs a question – that would mean that a group of resurrected holy people spent forty days in Jerusalem. Where were they? Apparently they were not doing anything at all worth mentioning. You’d think if they were with Jesus, then they’d feature in some accounts of what Jesus did. When Jesus seeks to reassure Doubting Thomas, for example, he shows him his wounds. Presumably if he had a cohort of resurrected Jewish prophets and patriarchs with him, Jesus would have gone on to say ‘and there’s also these guys’.  Geisler cites Ignatius, writing in the very early second century. Ignatius is a key early figure in Christian history, and must have been a contemporary of ‘Matthew’. It’s interesting, I think, that Ignatius cites ‘Scripture’ to support the account of the holy people rising, given that the only scripture we know that mentions it is Matthew. Presumably appearing in scripture would have made the claim more plausible than if Ignatius said he knew a friend of a friend who’d seen it with his own eyes. Sticking to the evidence we know about, all we can infer from Ignatius is that he read Matthew and accepted it, ‘it’ explicitly including the story of the risen holy people.]

The only source to elaborate on the story as historical event  is The Mystical City of God. Not Augustine’s book, but a book a mid-seventeenth century nun, Mary of Jesus of Agreda, said was dictated to her by the Virgin Mary. This is from Book 6, Chapter 11:
‘In all this glory and heavenly adornment the Saviour now arose from the grave; and in the presence of the saints and Patriarchs He promised universal resurrection in their own flesh and body to all men, and that they moreover, as an effect of his own Resurrection, should be similarly glorified. As an earnest and as a pledge of the universal resurrection, the Lord commanded the souls of many saints there present to reunite with their bodies and rise up to immortal life. Immediately this divine command was executed, and their bodies arose, as is mentioned by saint Matthew, in anticipation of this mystery (Matthew 27, 52). Among them were saint Anne, saint Joseph and saint Joachim, and others of the ancient Fathers and Patriarchs, who had distinguished themselves in the faith and hope of the Incarnation, and had desired and prayed for it with greater earnestness to the Lord. As a reward for their zeal, the resurrection and glory of their bodies was now anticipated.’
This puts a little flesh on the bones, as it were. St Joseph is Mary’s husband, Anne and Joachim are Mary’s parents (their names are nyotas, in this case from the Gospel of James, a book not accepted as canon from the generation after Matthew). It’s a little strange that none of the other ‘holy people’ are named – they would, presumably, have to have been ones entombed just outside Jerusalem. Again, there’s no secular source for where Mary of Jesus of Agreda got this information. Is it a passed down oral tradition? If so, then it’s not left another mark, and it is not part of official Catholic teaching.

‘Immortal life’ here would seem to mean that the risen saints didn’t return to their tombs, that their resurrections weren’t temporary. It’s presumably, though, not meant to imply they’re still wandering the Earth. If they’d ascended bodily to Heaven, as some Christian traditions teach Mary did, that would be worth mentioning. This was the conclusion of the fifth century St Remigius, who said ‘We ought therefore to believe without hesitation that they who rose from the dead at the Lord’s resurrection, ascended also into heaven together with Him’.

Bede thought Joseph was buried in the Valley of Josaphat, eleven miles from Jerusalem. There are various other traditions, and Bulgaria’s National History Museum has relics including body parts. The relics of St Anne have been venerated since the eighth century, and there was a church built over Anne and Joachim’s tombs in the fourth century which survived until the ninth. That would seem to contradict the account in The Mystical City of God, and it also suggests that there’s no prevailing tradition to suggest Joseph or Mary’s parents were resurrected.

Whether you think it happened as an historical event or not, it’s still odd, isn’t it? Why isn’t the story of ‘many holy people’ more prominent in Christian teaching? Why isn’t this a big deal? Have the bishops and theologians really just glossed over it in the hope no one ever invents Christopher Hitchens or blogging? If we take the post-theist approach, that religious narratives are stories, then I think the answer becomes obvious. Surely Hitchens is right that, in story terms, all these other resurrections cheapen the main one that day, or at the very least shift the focus away from the protagonist (note that The Mystical City of God does quite a neat job of fixing this problem by having Jesus actively initiating and guiding the process). I think another has to be that … well, it’s only a couple of lines in one of the Gospels, and they’re oddly offhand. The author of Matthew didn’t seem to think it worth dwelling on, it was 1600 years before anyone else seems to have mentioned it. Logically, we might feel it ought to be important, but that’s not the story being told.

Gray Tradition: The Last Battle

It’s not just me, is it?

The Last Battle is meant to be unsettling, but even as a small child the bits the author delights in creeped me out at least as much as the bits he intended to be disturbing.

The book’s a game of two halves. The first shows Narnia winding down, past its best. The second half moves rapidly from a trippy Blakean apocalypse, in which the whole of Narnia is obliterated, to a section set in, essentially, Heaven. All the children from the previous books show up (with one exception). We learn Heaven is a sunny upland where everyone is young again and reunited with old friends and it’s like real life only more real.

It’s that last bit I find particularly troubling.

The Last Battle is rather a sour book, full of a sense of a world gone wrong. CS Lewis is always accused of smuggling his Christian messages into the books, but I don’t think he does. When he has characters looking at a stable in Narnia and saying once upon a time there was a stable in our world that contained something bigger than our whole world, Lewis is not exactly ‘smuggling’. I don’t think he’s pushing a Christian message, I think he takes religion so much as read that he’d have to actively take it out, rather than actively put it in. This is a man who, during a brief period as an atheist, according to Surprised by Joy, ‘… was also very angry at God for not existing. I was equally angry at Him for creating a world’. Even as an atheist, he believed in God.

Lewis has a very fixed idea of how the world ought to be, and firm opinions on why it isn’t that way. He is, to use a piece of literary jargon, a really grumpy reactionary old sod. As Laura Miller recounts in her survey of the Narnia books, The Magician’s Book, when Lewis and Tolkien taught at Oxford, they lobbied to remove every text written in the last hundred years from the syllabus. And he’s never more of a Meldrew than this book, where various types of Narnians moan and whinge about just about everything, fall for fads, completely deny what is plainly in front of their very eyes and are duped by a sharp conman. In a series of books that have been about childhood adventures, this is a book where seaside holidays were in the past, nice houses you remember have been knocked down and they can’t even run the bloody trains properly any more. Suddenly, after six books where epic battles are oddly bloodless and the baddies are typically bumped on the head or sent fleeing, we get a book where virtually every incident involves a serious risk of death, and even before the end, characters have died left, right and centre.

I like that, though. It’s so easy for a running series to fall into a comfort zone of giving people what they want, and not challenging them. We’re at a point now where long-running series have become consumer driven – the people who make TV nervously watch Twitter reaction, as though it’s somehow representative of anything. You’re not allowed to upset the fans, or do anything to the characters the fans won’t like, you can barely get away with introducing new characters into the mix. There’s no better example than the contrast between the end of The Lord of the Rings (book) and The Lord of the Rings (movie). The end of the movie is an interminable parade of people retiring to where they will be happiest. The book is a troubling ‘you can’t go home again’, with the characters all deeply changed and the Shire in ruins. The movie is more pleasing … and far less interesting.

Lewis doesn’t go for the easy ending, or allow Narnia to go out after a comfortable retirement. He goes out of his way to remind us that Narnia used to be much better than it’s ended up. The first half is as dark a reimagining as any eighties revamp of a beloved children’s character. The sense of things falling apart is palpable, and at the end of the book our heroes don’t save Narnia. There is a Last Battle, but the good guys don’t win it, and we see allies hacked down, Jill’s dragged off by her hair by a group of soldiers (the last time we see her alive), and it’s fierce hand-to-hand combat.

And then we go to Heaven.

Like The Invisibles, or many of Philip K Dick’s books, like many of the books I’ll be discussing, The Last Battle presents a vision of a world beyond ours and more real than ours. Lewis namechecks Plato, and this is the idea the books all work with. We’re shadows on a cave wall. A lot of these books take a step into the cave itself. Like Morrison and Dick it seems clear that The Last Battle is the author’s idiosyncratic account of How It All Works, and it seems equally clear that, bizarrely, while Grant Morrison talks in terms of intersecting hyperspaces and PKD does it using alien drugs, CS Lewis steps out of our world into the larger, richer Cave Itself using traditional Christianity. If the Narnia books were a vehicle to inform children of the Christian viewpoint, that vehicle reaches its final destination here.

It’ll all be better in Heaven, Lewis says. It’ll be Narnia+, with all the good bits and none of the bad ones. He takes it for granted here (although certainly not in his other writing) that there’s simply no problem dividing everything and everyone between purely good or purely bad – children, of course, would tend to agree with this Manichean view of the universe.

Elsewhere, authors like Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman have criticised this last section because Susan is excluded from Heaven. (Neil Gaiman wrote a short story about an older Susan, The Problem of Susan, which appears in Fragile Things). Susan prefers ‘nylons and lipstick and invitations’ over Narnia these days. She’s in her twenties by this point, her only crime seems to be acting like a young woman, not a schoolchild. She’s 21, at a time when the average Englishwoman married at 22. Lewis even concedes that she’s acting her age, which would seem to have the corollary that Peter and his pals aren’t. But that said, while we might not like it, the theology is sound – Susan’s turned her back on Aslan, sees him as a silly story. She can’t share the reward.

It turns out she can’t share the reward for a practical reason. The reason all the other children from the other books are in Heaven is that they’ve all died in England, in a single railway accident. Susan is estranged from the group, so wasn’t on the train – she wasn’t lucky enough to die young.

I don’t have a problem with Lewis bumping off basically the entire major cast of the series more summarily than Douglas Adams did at the end of Mostly Harmless. I actually quite like such a decisive ending. It’s spiky, not the line of least resistance. Ending these sagas is always a little tricky. I always liked the original ending of Return of the Jedi which resembled George Lucas’s earlier American Graffiti: the Empire defeated, the main characters no longer have anything in common, and that’s the last time they’re ever together. It was like a planetary conjunction, but the planets continue on their separate courses. No convenient marriages, emigrations or inheritances. It’s a jolting ending for Lewis to have the kids killed like that, in such an ordinary way, and off the page.

No … what disturbs me most is that they’re all so damn happy to have died. We don’t learn exactly what’s happened at first, but the children discuss why they’ve ended up where they have. They were on a train, there was a lurch, then a noise, then they woke up in brightness in fine Narnian clothes. Here’s Edmund’s description:

‘And I felt not no much scared as – well, excited. Oh – and this is one queer thing. I’d had a rather sore knee from a hack at rugger. I noticed it had suddenly gone’

Being in a train accident is exciting and doesn’t hurt, it actually fixes your gammy knee. At the very end of the book, the children are still not quite sure what happened, so Aslan helps them out. By that point, I think the reader has guessed. For me, the horrifying thing is the children’s reaction. It’s not that they don’t want to go home (the imperative in the books is the save Narnia, not to find a way home – that’s perhaps the major change made for the movies):

“Lucy said, ‘We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.

‘No fear of that,’ said Aslan. ‘Have you not guessed?’
Their hearts leaped and a wild horse rose within them.
‘There was a real railway accident,’ said Aslan softly. ‘Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead.’”

There is something really unpleasant about a story for children where children learn that they’ve died, their parents have died and it’s brilliant.

Heaven is better than Earth. That’s kind of the whole point, I understand that. It’s a perfectly conventional Christian sentiment that if you have God’s favour (and only if you have God’s favour) when you die you will gain an eternal life of ease that’s too wonderful to put into words. So far, so good. But it’s only half the message. Unless you stress the importance of living a good, full life this is life-negating, a view of how the universe works that can only alienate you from the people around you, one that concentrates entirely on the heavenly reward and dismisses any earthly consideration. This is suicide bomber logic.

So, the story’s set in Heaven. Edmund’s got his 72 virgins. Talking of which, the children aren’t the same age they were when they died, but they are all still children. One of the odder things about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is that the Pevensies stay in Narnia for fourteen years, grow to adulthood, then return to England and revert to children. They remember everything, that’s established in the latter books. Susan might be forgiven for acting a little old for her age, given that she’s lived 27 years by her thirteenth birthday.

A modern version of the story might concentrate on the psychological impact of growing up, then physically regressing while retaining adult memories, but life in Narnia is clearly easy to compartmentalise. We learn in the last book that the various ‘Friends of Narnia’ – the kids from all the books, minus Susan – regularly meet up. It’s hard not to imagine it being a little like a support group. At the risk of bringing in an author’s biography, Lewis had fought in the trenches in the Great War (as had Tolkien, as had most young men of their generation), and I can only imagine that Lewis’ experience in peacetime was something akin to this. A journey to another world, which ran to a different logic, where boys had to act like men, where only people who were there would ever understand afterwards what you went through. It’s striking that during the last battle itself, the narrator makes confident assertions about what it’s like when you’re in a battle, how it feels, but the battle is a hand-to-hand swordfight, one where individual heroes band together, where bravery is usually rewarded. This can’t have been the wartime experience of the author.

At the end of The Last Battle, the children are resurrected in the afterlife. Most Christian commentators who’ve considered the matter assume that in Heaven we’d take the form of some idealised age. Elsewhere, commenting on Paradise Lost, Lewis has Adam and Eve as being created to look like they are in their early thirties – Christ died at 33, and so perhaps that’s the ‘ideal age’. Diggory was born in 1888, so he’s 12 in The Magician’s Nephew, and (a particularly doddery) 52 in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Here he’s a young man with a golden beard, with some of his older mannerisms. Tirian can’t decide if Jill looks older than before (she should be sixteen). They’re all clearly – and presumably, now, perpetually – older children, not quite adults. To me this doesn’t sound ideal, rather it’s an appalling denial of growth and potential. When Peter Pan doesn’t grow up, we understand that he’s missing something, that however wonderful childhood is, it has to end. This won’t happen to our heroes. As Philip Pullman noted, Peter is denied the chance to become a parent himself.

It gets worse.

Escaping the dying Narnia, the population of men and talking animals and other creatures files past Aslan. Everyone looks the Lion in the eye and either feels great joy or great terror. Those who ‘looked in the face of Aslan and loved him’ go to Heaven. The talking animals who feel terror lose their sentience, and then walk into Aslan’s shadow. The narrator says no one ever saw them again and he doesn’t know what happened to them. Oblivion, I think, there’s no suggestion they are heading to Hell, but surely having your reason stripped from you is an horrific punishment. In any event, none of the people who pass the test seem in any way troubled by what happened to those who didn’t – Lucy even comments later that it’s impossible to feel worried any more, even if you try.

As we see the selection process, there are some oddities among those who make the grade:

“Eustace even recognised one of those very Dwarfs who had helped to shoot the Horses. But he had no time to wonder about that sort of thing (and anyway it was no business of his) for a great joy put everything else out of his head”

An honourable Calorman, Emeth, who has dedicated his life to the monstrous Bird God Tash, is resigned to his fate but Aslan spares him. He points out that he knew about but didn’t worship Aslan, he specifically rejected the doctrine that Tash and Aslan were one and the same. Aslan says that he did good, and all good is done in Aslan’s name, so Emeth gets to go to Heaven.

Again, the theologic is impeccable: Aslan is the perfect judge. Who are we to challenge him? But it feels deeply arbitrary, to the point of circular logic. You are good if Aslan finds you to be good, regardless of your actions, your beliefs or even your desires. What about all the great things Susan did? Does wearing lipstick really cancel out her actions as protector and High Queen? Clearly Aslan demands faith – it can be faith in Tash, but there has to be faith. Faith above action.

So I object to children celebrating their deaths like they’ve just passed their Eleven Plus, but the root of my problem, the reason it’s always disturbed me, is the way we’re told not to question anything, not to worry. The talking animals who fail Aslan’s test are stripped of their reason … but if the people who pass the test find they don’t have the time or inclination to ask reasonable questions, then what’s the point of having reason in the first place?

Part of it, surely, is that Lewis is straining to depict something more wonderful than it is possible to imagine. He wants to get across that things are indescribably lovely, but for me it comes across as a simple failure to describe.

‘What was the fruit like? Unfortunately, no one can describe a taste … If you had once eaten that fruit, all the nicest things in this world would taste like medicines after it. But I can’t describe it.’

And this is particularly disappointing, because I think in every Narnia book there’s a scene where a thirsty or starving character has managed to find a drip of water or scrap of food and it’s seemed ‘like the most wonderful meal they’ve ever tasted’. There was an example just a chapter before, when the main characters, besieged by a vast army, find a trickle of water running down a rock and take turns to drink from it. In Aslan’s Country deliciousness is intrinsic, unearned, the default value. Every meal from now on will be the most delicious one they’ve ever had. How … sad.

But this isn’t just some technical problem coming up with concrete descriptions of transcendent concepts and beauty. These are the new rules. In a lot of fairy tales, you have to be careful. In The Magician’s Nephew, Diggory is smart enough not to eat the fruit when Jadis offers it to him. He sees the trap. Here, when the children are offered fruit:

‘It’s all right,’ said Peter, ‘I know what we’re all thinking. But I’m sure, quite sure, we needn’t. I’ve a feeling.’

The concerns we have melt away in the afterlife. The issue I have with the children being stuck at one age? Well, ‘age’ doesn’t mean the same there. Everyone died? Only in our terms. OK … so what does that mean? Answer: we can’t conceive the meaning, not unless we’re lucky enough to go there. Again, it’s theologically sound, but extraordinarily dissatisfying because it’s not an answer, it’s the infinite deferral of all answers. We’re told how calm and certain and perfect and meaningful everything is, but not what that meaning is:

‘The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you get there, you will know what I mean.’

The children, who’ve been smart and resourceful and independent and curious for seven books now fall into blind acceptance. We die, and from that point everything’s all sorted for us, don’t worry about it. Earlier in the book, when a Lamb speaks up against someone claiming to represent Aslan, the Lamb is dragged away and punished, and it’s one of the parts of the book where you see true evil at work. Now Aslan’s making his proclamations, and the entire (chosen) population of Narnia runs after him, joyfully and unquestioningly. This feels like a betrayal of what the Narnia books have been about until now – the spirit of keep calm and carry on, make do and mend, of being practical and thoughtful, of not taking the easy route, or the selfish route, but working out individually and in groups what the best course of action is, what the right thing to do is. It does make me yearn for a story where Lyra from His Dark Materials meets Aslan. Not necessarily with the subtle knife concealed up her sleeve (although if that was to happen, I wouldn’t bet on the lion), but just because it would be nice to have someone go ‘hang on a minute …’.

Many of the books on my list are utopian. They offer the prospect of a more wonderful world, and make us think about how we could make our world more like it. These worlds are often transcendent – they require not just an advanced-to-the-point-of-magic technology, but much more importantly a shift in human attitude and sense of perspective.

Narnia itself isn’t a utopia. It’s pretty, and it’s the sort of place that would be wonderful to visit, but it’s always depicted as a fairly small, slightly silly country. In metafictional terms, it’s not transcendent, it’s more like a toybox with all sorts of odd things rattling around together – Greek myth, vaguely Turkish soldiers, medieval romance, ogres, dragons, sea monsters, Wind in the Willows, even Father Christmas. It’s clearly a shadow of our world, not vice versa.

What brings it alive is that the talking animals are deeply pragmatic, practical people. They have to fetch firewood, cook meals, avoid trouble with the law. And they’re curious, thoughtful people. Lewis is playful and almost postmodern about all this. We’re told one of the reasons so many of the animals have abandoned Aslan in The Last Battle is that he never shows up when there’s trouble – half a dozen times in thousands of years, some kids from a strange land have materialised to sort things out, but Aslan’s appearances are far rarer. It’s a moment when we realise that we only see Narnia at times of crisis, and we see it as the English children see it. Aslan often appears to them, but barely appears at all to the Narnians. It’s a nice moment, and although Lewis is clearly scolding these Narnian Dawkinses, he is presenting their side of the argument, and you can’t help but see their point.

There was a similar sentiment in Prince Caspian. It’s probably my favourite of the books, because it subverts so much, both in terms of story and structure, it’s practically a spoof of a Narnia novel. Narnia has been occupied by human invaders, who’ve been there generations by the time the book starts, and who have banned all mentions of talking animals, mythological creatures and Aslan. So the dwarfs have to pretend they’re just small people. And the actual talking animals huddle in their burrows, like members of the French Resistance in a war film, plotting small acts of sabotage. There’s a nice, telling bit where one dwarf suggests they give up on Aslan and try summoning the White Witch, because she was definitely real ‘and was good to the dwarfs’. Again, the guy’s clearly wicked and wrong, we’re meant to reject his idea … but we’re also encouraged to understand why we’re rejecting it.

Narnia’s always been a place where most people have that virtue that Lewis admires most of all: they are sensible. That all goes out the window in the afterlife – everyone just bounds around and oohs and ahhs, and the narrator and Aslan defer every explanation and offer no justifications. There don’t seem to be any practical limitations.

So this is utopia? Is this perfection? I’m pretty confident that Lewis thinks so. He’s describing his interpretation of the Christian Heaven, give or take. But it’s not a utopia we can aspire to. We’ll get there if we look Aslan in the eye and, in that moment, feel love instead of terror. There is inevitably something totalitarian about utopias – something I’ll discuss when I talk about the Culture novels – and fictional utopias are, as the etymology of the word suggests – impossible places. We can’t meaningfully aspire to make Earth like the Culture anymore than we can aspire to be Superman. But the Culture represents a best case scenario for human progress: thousands of years of good decisions, in the universe as we understand it, governed by the laws of science and politics and people. People like us built it. Aslan’s Country is just there. We get our golden ticket if we mean it when we tell the gatekeeper we love him, and we’re not to ask any questions once we’re inside.

Brrrr.

I’d rather step into the shadow than go to that Heaven. If I felt terror, I wouldn’t get a choice. However, if I looked Aslan in the eye and loved him but knew that I wouldn’t be able to ask about what’s happened to those who don’t, that I would never have another troubling thought, I’d like to think I’d have the courage to walk into Aslan’s shadow myself. I would genuinely prefer oblivion to Lewis’s utopia. I wouldn’t trade my capability to ask a question for the ability to jump up waterfalls, or want to spend eternity with a group of people who all would.

Applied to the real world, I think the last section presents a terrible message for children and an infantilising one for adults. If the end is solely to be judged as fiction, though, if we don’t try to apply it to the real children reading, it’s great stuff. For seven books, Lewis has had his cake and eaten it as to whether Narnia is ‘real’ – there’s a bit in Voyage of the Dawn Treader where something preposterous happens and the narrator says he heard it from Lucy herself, so far be it for him to say it’s not true. He frequently says something like ‘if you’re lucky enough to go to Narnia one day’. But at heart, up until now, Lewis has been at pains to say this is all made up. Aslan isn’t Jesus, he’s a fictional representation of the same divine will in a Narnian setting. The Narnia books have always been stories – the narrator, an intrusive one, even by the standards of children’s fiction, has often said as much. The Magician’s Nephew starts with the line ‘this is a story’. Lewis has been very clear: this is fiction. Next time, I’m going to try to codify some of the characteristics of the books I’m talking about. One very important one is that they don’t equate ‘fact’ with ‘true’ and ‘fiction’ with ‘false’. But when, say, Grant Morrison says that fictions are ‘real’, he doesn’t mean that fact and fiction are the same. I think Lewis makes that category error – he wants us to consider Aslan’s Country as being as true for us as it is for Peter. And that’s a real shame, because while I think it’s an appalling message for real people, there is no better or more fitting Heaven for fictional characters than the one alluded to by the poetic last line of The Last Battle: ‘for them, it was only the beginning of the true story, which goes on forever, and in which every chapter is better than the one before’.

Further Reading!

Instinctively, it’s hard for me to believe that the Narnia books come after the early Disney cartoons and the Wizard of Oz movie. Lewis was influenced by them, not vice versa. The Last Battle was published in 1956, it’s a product of the rock and roll years. It was published after James Dean and Jackson Pollock died, after Lolita was published, after Heartbreak Hotel got to number one. It’s the same year The Wizard of Oz was first shown on television in the US. I mention this because another thing that creeped me out as a child for reasons the creators didn’t intend, as well as for the ones they did, was the 1939 MGM cartoon Peace on Earth. While he certainly doesn’t lift anything explicitly from Peace on Earth, and I can’t be sure if he even saw it, I do wonder if Lewis took some inspiration from it. It was remade in 1955 (although I think the original is more powerful), and so the remake was released while Lewis was writing his book.

At the other end of the spectrum, try Michael Ward’s magnificent Planet Narnia, a convincing theory that Lewis based each Narnia book on one of the planets of classical cosmology.

Laura Miller’s book The Magician’s Book is a personal response of an adult who loved the books as a child and who returns them more sceptically. I just used the word ‘book’ three times in one sentence. I’m going to hell. Or, at least, Aslan’s shadow.