Avast! Here there be spoilers…
During the last two weeks or so I reread the Chronicles of Narnia. All seven are still as magnificent as they were when I first read them in the Spring of 1980, my Sophmore year in High School. What struck me most during this reading was the way themes weave all the way through the 7 books: of course there is the Christian allegory, but I was reminded that Narnia is flat, that it is a feudal world, that time flows differently. These are all themes that Lewis works with in other texts.
Lewis was fascinated by huge differences in our world view, our cosmology, as compared to the ancients. This fascination comes to a climax in his final and (for me) most profoundly jarring work, The Discarded Image (1964). I describe it as “jarring” because in reading it I realized for the first time that not only are our times and morals different from those of our ancestors but our entire world is different. Lewis, most assuredly not new age in any way, is realizing that our conception of the world makes reality; or at least profoundly affects it for us.
The ancients lived in a radically different cosmology than we do (even different from those of you who are very pious indeed). To our ancestors, even the pagan ones, the world was built for humanity. The place of this realm of existence in the grand scheme of things was central. The three tiers of reality – heavenly, earthly, and below – all interacted. The realms of reality were not all visible. Lewis goes further and points out that the world for these folks was not “flat” but surrounded by spiritual reality welling up and over us.
Through all of Narnia, as well as his brilliant Space Trilogy, you can watch Lewis wrestle with his sense of being trapped in a modern cosmology. Spiritual powers swoop in on earth from all directions – yet it is they that are showing what is straight up and down and we who are crooked. Morality is always the same, yet its teaching is different. The Incarnation is real, yet it manifests in different ways. The issue is not a flat-vrs-round world. The issue is a living vrs dead reality.
For us moderns, Lewis sees that in all our ways, unlike the ancients, we take a wholly secular world and try to work out how religion fits. We push back, we evangelize, we pass laws, ignore things, etc. We make our lives religious and then try to fix the world around us or else move through the world in a religious way. The ancients for millennia lived in a profoundly religious world. Religious practice was an expression of the reality in which they lived rather than a bandage they placed over reality or a badge of honor to be worn.
Lewis’ exploration of the movement of Time struck me hardest during this reading. If you’ve read any of the Narnia books you know that no matter how long someone from this world is in Narnia no time at all passes here. Likewise, if you’re here, you’ve no idea at all how much time is passing in Narnia. The 6th book in the series tells the story of the creation of Narnia and the 7th book tells the story of the Narnian Apocalypse. The entire millennia-long life of that world falls within the human lifespan of two children from book 6, Polly and Digory. Each time the children return to Narnia it is hundreds of years later or only a few moments. Time moves differently in each world Lewis wrote, if it moves at all: in the Wood Between the World, there seems to be no time at all, and in Aslan’s country it seems to move in all directions at once.
In The Last Battle, as the great Dies Irae falls on Narnia, the entire clan of World-Travelling Children, end up in the magical world to watch the climax of the story. The Last King of Narnia, Tirian, together with a retinue of supporting beasts and two children from our world, fights the Last Battle before a thatched stable in the woods. As each of the “good guys” is defeated he is tossed into the stable as an offering to a demon named Tash. However, once inside the stable, it is revealed that there is a whole other world, sunlit and beautiful. Inside are all the Friends of Narnia from this world, waiting to see what will happen.
It is here that time becomes confused for the reader, I think. Each world has its own time. Those inside the stable speak of “long times” passing between events, even though in the battle itself, in the “outside”, things were taking only a couple of hours. We (the readers) are standing within the stable now, in what seems to be Paradise. What is happening in the outside world? We have no idea. When Aslan comes a few moments later to open the stable door and begin the Last Judgement, the world is already deadly silent. There is no mark, outside of the battle that had gone before. How much time has passed? We don’t know. And as the Four Last Things progress, from the resurrection of the dead to the final freezing of Narnia and the closing and locking of the stable door how much time does it take? The narrator says,
This part of the adventure was the only one which seemed rather like a dream at the time and rather hard to remember properly afterwards. Especially, one couldn’t say how long it had taken. Sometimes it seemed to have lasted only a few minutes, but at others it felt as if it might have gone on for years.
Then this happens:
The Dragons and Giant Lizards now had Narnia to themselves. They went to and fro tearing up the trees by the roots and crunching them up as if they were sticks of rhubarb. Minute by minute the forests disappeared. The whole country became bare and you could see all sorts of things about its shape—all the little humps and hollows—which you had never noticed before. The grass died. Soon Tirian found that he was looking at a world of bare rock and earth. You could hardly believe that anything had ever lived there. The monsters themselves grew old and lay down and died. Their flesh shrivelled up and the bones appeared: soon they were only huge skeletons that lay here and there on the dead rock, looking as if they had died thousands of years ago. For a long time everything was still.
At last something white—long, level line of whiteness that gleamed in the light of the standing stars—came moving towards them from the eastern end of the world. A widespread noise broke the silence: first a murmur, then a rumble, then a roar. And now they could see what it was that was coming, and how fast it came. It was a foaming wall of water. The sea was rising. In that treeless world you could see it very well. You could see all the rivers getting wider and the lakes getting larger, and separate lakes joining into one, and valleys turning into new lakes, and hills turning into islands, and then those islands vanishing. And the high moors to their left and the higher mountains to their right crumbled and slipped down with a roar and a splash into the mounting water; and the water came swirling up to the very threshold of the Doorway (but never passed it) so that the foam splashed about Aslan’s forefeet. All now was level water from where they stood to where the water met the sky.
And out there it began to grow light. A streak of dreary and disastrous dawn spread along the horizon, and widened and grew brighter, till in the end they hardly noticed the light of the stars who stood behind them. At last the sun came up. When it did, the Lord Digory and the Lady Polly looked at one another and gave a little nod: those two, in a different world, had once seen a dying sun, and so they knew at once that this sun also was dying. It was three times—twenty times—as big as it ought to be, and very dark red. As its rays fell upon the great Time-giant, he turned red too: and in the reflection of that sun the whole waste of shoreless waters looked like blood.
Then the Moon came up, quite in her wrong position, very close to the sun, and she also looked red. And at the sight of her the sun began shooting out great flames, like whiskers or snakes of crimson fire, towards her. It is as if he were an octopus trying to draw her to himself in his tentacles. And perhaps he did draw her. At any rate she came to him, slowly at first, but then more and more quickly, till at last his long flames licked round her and the two ran together and became one huge ball like a burning coal. Great lumps of fire came dropping out of it into the sea and clouds of steam rose up.
So this happens. But How Long Does it Take? As the Children are standing outside of time it seems to them to happen “minute by minute”. But how long was that in Narnia? How did Narnia’s sun get to Heat Death? Are we be watching Narnia go through the normal, billion-year death of a universe? Did Lewis want us to see that?
The Creation Story in The Magicians Nephew could be much the same way. Lewis had accepted the story of man offered by evolution and in that light, the action of Aslan in Narnia, the calling of some beasts into “reason, memory, and skill” could be seen as the parallel of our own evolution from the lower primates. Are these two books, the Creation and Apocolypse, far more modern than they seem? Rather than childrens stories of a magical lion are they mythological tellings of a “normal” history? Is Lewis writing a perfectly modern story set in a magical, premodern cosmology? Is the allegory far deeper than we’ve come to expect?
A Log of Questions
So I found myself wondering what Lewis was offering us to meditate on in The Last Battle. Where does outside of time come into our Apocalypse? I realized that normally it doesn’t come in at all.
If God is outside of time… when John is caught up into heaven, does he have any idea of how much time is passing on earth? When there is silence in heaven for about a half an hour, what is that in Earthly Time? John seems to see things from before the Creation, and during his own life, and during the last days of Earth. What can be said to happen chronologically in heaven where there is no time?
Did Lewis open a meditation on our final judgment? How much time passes between an individual death and the Apocalypse? Is that a correct question for moving beyond time? Mightn’t your body experience discomposure and composting over the course of history whilst for God it’s but a blip between your death and the Last Judgement? Are we creating unnecessary complications when we project all of human history as a buffer between ourselves and the Heaven or Hell? How does our timestream interact with what goes on around the heavenly throne? Do all of the saints, dancing there, see all of our time as God does?
The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the closest answer we have, for at Mass we stand not on earth. Gathered around the Altar we stand with the heavenly hosts before the Throne. There is only one eternal offering of Christ to the Father from the Cross through eternity and we are there at every Mass. But we don’t “do it again”, it is always only one happening now. The elevation of the Body of Christ in the hands of the priest is the one lifting up from the earth that will draw all men to Christ.
So, is it possible that we confuse things without need: that time is obliterated in death?