A Prison of the Mind: The Skeptical Dwarfs, Conspiracy Theory Thinking, and C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle

The infamy of the Narnian dwarfs is great in C.S. Lewis’ conclusion to The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle.

In a scene filled with much terror and courage and empathy, a group of dwarfs rain down arrows upon some newly liberated talking horses who are rallying to defend Narnia against imperial invaders. The death of the newly emancipated talking horses is unforgettable to most readers. Indeed, within the tale itself, the characters are heartbroken at the death of these noble steeds by a group of archers who want nothing but suffering for themselves and freedom from others. Jill Pole, who has developed into an apt marksman and scout, must turn her face away from her bow so as not to reduce the elasticity in her string by her tears. It is one of Lewis’ most human and compelling scenes; it gives me chills just sitting here writing about it.

It is true that the dwarfs have been betrayed, so that hypocritical leadership has hardened their hearts against true leadership. Much has been done in the name of Aslan that is not merely wicked and selfish, but shameful and monstrously anti-Aslanic. To fight against the last king of Narnia is perhaps a political choice, given what happens in this remarkably complex story for children. That the dwarfs slay the horses out of spite, however, seals in their treachery. Moved as we are by the injustice of it all, I doubt that many of us are remembering how Edmund spoke up for traitors in The Horse and His Boy, giving a chance for forgiveness to a traitor who had senselessly caused the death of many. No, in the moments before we are swept up into the heavenly joy and beauty of deep Narnia, not a few of us as readers might think that a hell of Dantean (or Pratchettian) imagination would be too good for the complicit dwarfs.

Yet, that is not what happens–though the dwarfs do find themselves in a kind of hell. Like the true Narnians and their allies, when the dwarfs find themselves within the stable that is on the site of the Narnian last stand, it is not really the case that they are simply inside a small barn. The dwarfs are brought into the limitless space within the stable, a great realm of natural beauty and expansive light, a world that is bigger on the inside than the outside. Upon finding their way into this new wondrous world within the stable, the various Narnians–and some surprising others–find themselves frolicking and dancing and meeting friends. It is a land of goodness and light, though one that still has shadows of darkness. It is not yet the deepest Narnia, but rather the foothills of great heaven.

Unlike most of the other Narnians, the dwarfs are insistently insensible to the paradisal delights of the Narnian heaven. Believing they are confined to utter darkness, and convinced they were provided only with the typical hospitality of a local cattle barn, their belief becomes their reality. They are righteously resistant to all of this nonsense talk about light and good food and fresh air.  “We haven’t let anyone take us in,” they boast as they drink rich wine that they take to be trough water laced with donkey slobber.

Rather than finding the liberation that they were willing to sacrifice their neighbours to achieve, and rather than enjoying the bountiful blessings of the free table laid before them, the dwarfs’ skepticism has actually led them into powerful self-delusion. As Aslan says a little later in the tale:

“Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and are so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out’” (The Last Battle, 185-6).

Though few feel much compassion for the dwarfs at this point, and I might draw readerly ire for my thoughts here as I going to go against the grain of the text for a moment, I want to provide a cautious, temporary defence of the dwarfs’ skepticism.

The dwarfs’ self-imprisonment comes out of their refusal to be conned, to be taken in by an unfounded idea. This skepticism is, in itself, not a bad thing. In the age of social media and fake news, in a time when troll farms create reams of digital false information to do what tyrannical censorship is no longer able to do in a global age–force people to stop reading things that might change the world for the better–it has become increasingly clear that most of us are not able to discern fake news stories from real ones. This moment has been heightened by echo-chamber thinking, where left- and right-winged messages circulate with exponential speed, often with no connection to outer reality. Conservative pundits, activists, commentators, and evangelists are not alone in this balkanization of thought, though they are pretty good at it in this moment in certain places of the world. On the left, tolerance of intellectual disagreement is getting rarer and foundations for truth are difficult to discern–all the while as news outlets seem entirely incapable of self-critique.

So, thinking with the dwarfs, perhaps it is okay that we adopt a more distant posture from the world.

Moreover, look what’s happened to the dwarfs. Narnia has decayed, the world has moved on. Aslan has not been seen for many, many years, and now there are competing claims for loyalty. And if you think about the book, the entire first half of The Last Battle is structured by deception. Puzzle the ass is duped by Shift the ape. The Narnian creatures are duped by Puzzle and Shift. Shift, the shadow man, is duped by Ginger the cat, shadow king of the beasts. The Narnian cabal is duped, to a certain degree, by their own plan and their allegiance with Rishda Tarkaan. And the Calormene captain was duped by the god Tash, whom he clearly didn’t believe was real until that god showed up to confront the duplicitous and arrogant Tarkaan:

“Thou hast called me into Narnia, Rishda Tarkaan. Here I am. What hast thou to say?”

Rishda Tarkaan is speechless. Actually, that is the pattern. Rishda Tarkaan is speechless before the supernatural powers he was tritely playing with. Ginger the cat loses the ability to speak like a talking beast. Shift sinks from real leadership into the base fulfillment of his desires, spending much of the last part of the action simply moaning. Puzzle is commanded to be dumb as he parades in a lion’s skin around the bonfire. And the Narnian creatures are reduced to whimpers and fear and whispers in the dark.

The entire first half of The Last Battle is structured around deceit. Perhaps the dwarfs were right to be skeptical. They still have their “humanity”–they can still speak–and they use that voice to reject what they perceive to be a giant con: this idea of a bright world within the dark stable.

Fair enough. I have given the Dwarfs some space. Now it is time to press in on their experience a bit.

Skepticism is not simply the statement “No!” or “I don’t know,” but “show me the evidence, and then I will decide.” In one sense, the dwarfs need the right evidence to make a choice to see the light that is apparently around them. But as the story progresses, it is the dwarfs’ inability to assess the evidence before their eyes that is most striking. At first, the dwarfish skepticism gives them an opportunity to have clearer heads than Tirian and Jewel had in their discovery that Narnia had been infiltrated. As time progressed, however, their skepticism actually made it impossible to make good and beautiful choices. Their skepticism isn’t just, “I need to be convinced by the evidence,” but “I will not be taken in, so I’ll just stick with my own kind.” 

And this is the critical distinction of our age and, I believe, will lead to our self-imprisonment. How different from C.S. Lewis’ oft-repeated dictum from Socrates: “follow the evidence where it leads.”

It is this second kind of skepticism, lost in its own echo chamber, that is terribly, terribly dangerous. Today, conspiracy theories abound. It is not inconceivable that someone religious or irreligious, liberal or conservative, could simultaneously be an anti-Vaxxer, believe that President Obama is really a foreign Muslim or that President Bush caused 9/11, and doubt that we are in a period of historically dramatic climate change. As I write this, millions of Americans believe that the Democrats stole the election from President Trump–not because of evidence, but because of a built-in certainty and an inability to see the reality around them. This was far less pronounced in the #notmypresident movement in 2016-17 and the liberal shock around the election of Donald Trump, which shows the growth of a certain Dwarfish mentality that can, as we discover in the text, only lead to darkness.

There is some evidence that conspiracy theory thinking has moved from the outer courts of culture to become, in some ways, mainstream. QAnon and Breitbart are not even the most extreme versions of the American false-media machine, but they are close. I actually had a Canadian–a Canadian!–say to me, “Americans have to vote Trump in because Biden is trafficking children for prostitution and Satan worship.” “What is the evidence?” I asked her. You can probably guess her response.

There is conspiracy thinking in the American liberal community, no doubt. Someone told me the other day that Jordan Peterson was a white supremacist and so he was going to boycott Penguin publications. “Show me the evidence!” I want to cry. You can probably guess what the “evidence” is. The fallacy of “guilty by association” is a temptation for tribal thinking in the left and the right. Journalist McKay Coppins warned us some years ago that in the Trump era and the ascendency of Fox News–who created whom, I wonder?–left-wing conspiracy theory thinking and consumer journalism are deadly to free thought (see the Atlantic piece here).

So I cannot yet tell if it is an historical accident that current American conspiracy theory is driven by right-wing commentators and thinkers. After all, the Republican President was a long-time “birther,” playing publically with the unfounded idea that President Obama was not born in America. I suppose it doesn’t matter if it is true to confederates of Trump’s way of thinking, but I have already confessed I’m not a big fan of “truthiness” as a standard for conversation. Certain kinds of movements are attracted to conspiracy theory thinking, specifically those that resist mainstream cultures like social activists and Christian fundamentalists.

But while there is overlap between those kinds of movements and conspiracy theory thinking, dwarfish skepticism is a cultural phenomenon today–and one that is deeply and immediately threatening during a pandemic. Long before the USA incurred so many COVID infections that, if gathered together would be the 7th largest state, after Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, Rhode Island, Montana, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Idaho, West Virginia, Nebraska, New Mexico, Kansas, Mississippi, Arkansas, Nevada, Iowa, Utah, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon, Kentucky, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, Minnesota, Colorado, Wisconsin, Maryland, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Arizona, Washington, Virginia, New Jersey, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio (not to mention DC and the 5 populated US territories), long before lockdowns–I argued that there will be a dwarfish fake skepticism that would abound, a pattern of conspiracy-theory thinking that could be literally deadly. The data is old, but my piece “Why the Logic of Prevention will Always Fail for Some: Steady Thoughts in Response to COVID-19” shows why 1/3 of a million people have died of COVID-related illness in the US (which, by the way, is more people than these state capitals: Montpelier, Pierre, Augusta, Frankfort, Juneau, Helena, Dover, Annapolis, Jefferson City, Concord, Olympia, Charleston, Harrisburg, Carson City, Cheyenne, Bismarck, Trenton, Santa Fe, Albany, Springfield, Lansing, Hartford, Topeka, Columbia, Jackson, Salem, Providence, Tallahassee, Little Rock, Montgomery, Salt Lake City, Des Moines, Baton Rouge, Boise, Richmond, and Madison).

I have argued elsewhere that media intolerance for disagreement and their reliance on bully pulpit reporting helped turn a health evangelical skepticism into unhealthy climate change denial. But Lewis’ picture of dwarfish self-delusion is a powerful one for our particular moment. The responsibility for responding to today’s mainstream scientific claims of climate change lies with individual evangelicals and leaders of evangelical movements, as it does with conservative pundits, social justice warriors, policy researchers, and public thinkers like me. In the end, Fox News and CNN are businesses who need to earn a profit, and will sell their story to the biggest set of readers. We cannot hide behind the media in dwarfish self-delusion, unwilling to see what is right in front of our eyes–what is right under our noses.

How remarkably the times have changed since Lewis wrote his stories while living in a media-suppressed age and writing from the quiet of his study in a small academic enclave. And yet, dwarfish thinking still abounds. I know people want to draw a lot of theological ideas from the text about heaven and hell, and Donald Williams’ point that the dwarfs lack “openness to revelation” is a good one (see Williams’ Deeper Magic). But as a cultural critic–and Lewis is always and ever a cultural critic–the warning from The Last Battle is clear. It isn’t simply that in dwarfish self-delusion, the dwarfs miss out on fine wine and wind in their beards.

At a much deeper level, conspiracy thinking enclaves, ideological thought turbines, unsearching skepticism, talk about “us” and “them”–“the dwarfs are for the dwarfs” is the cry in the text again and again–and all manners of dwarfish thinking lead to one basic reality: if we have shut our eyes to certain kinds of evidence we are in danger of becoming insensible to the truth.

And, it seems to me that from the text, there is a possibility that a loss of truth leads also the loss of a voice–and, indeed, the loss of what makes us human.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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30 Responses to A Prison of the Mind: The Skeptical Dwarfs, Conspiracy Theory Thinking, and C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle

  1. donalddivelygmailcom says:

    Good read (though I’m partial to anything Narnia).

    On Wed, Nov 25, 2020, 11:08 AM A Pilgrim in Narnia wrote:

    > Brenton Dickieson posted: “The infamy of the Narnian dwarfs is great in > C.S. Lewis’ conclusion to The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle. In a > scene filled with much terror and courage and empathy, a group of dwarfs > rain down arrows upon some newly liberated talking horses who a” >

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Tessa Weiss says:

    I last read that book over 50 years ago, but I have never forgotten the scene with the dwarves in the stable. One of Lewis’s best ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. George Tarabulsy says:

    Many thanks for this post. Very interesting and well structured. I think the Dwarf metaphor for our current time is absolutely pertinent. I also think it is derived from Green Witch kind of thinking, where truth is a very subjective thing that can be manipulated to get what you want. If you are confronted with too many Green Witches, you may end up a Dwarf. To face truth, you need to believe it is out there and, somehow, remain vulnerable to its possibility. However, remaining vulnerable to truth implies the danger of remaining vulnerable to deception. Hence, the Dwarfs. Thoughts as I read you fascinating text…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I see Jadis and the Green Witch as having a kind of utilitarianism of control, where all serve her ends. The Green Witch has a subtlety, though, in how she suggests that all is darkness, but things we see are copies not the real things.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. robstroud says:

    Well written, as always. An interesting application of one of the Chronicles’ most powerful images.

    Sadly, the dwarfish extremes–on both sides of the political spectrum–seem to be growing, rather than shrinking. Those on the conservative extreme are more visible, due (I believe) to their crassness and general lack of sophistication. On the left, the liberal/progressive extreme is just as deceptive. They, however, successfully mask much of their agenda with dispassionate communication and refined political skills. They pose as the civilized (versus, in their model, the ignorant barbarians).

    May God save us from both of these extreme camps. Each has created their own reality, and it is nearly impossible to get them to open their eyes to the truth that they are not huddled in a barn of their own making.

    Liked by 1 person

    • On twitter it isn’t terribly refined! Interesting use of “mask” there.
      I don’t know that centrism is any magic cure or special place. I simply mean to say that these extremes of thought help us to consider how we think about the world. I know the lure of conspiracy theory thinking, and it could become more and more a reality today.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. joviator says:

    An excess of skepticism would lead people to believe too few things. I would prefer that problem to the current, opposite situation.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. On this day of American Thanksgiving, I am thankful for a wonderful community of Lewis scholars generously sharing their incisive analysis!

    I remember in the first few days after the election, when we were in the midst of the “Red Mirage,” my husband and I crying ourselves to sleep (really. We should have bottled them up and sold them on the Internet) even though we knew the results would change once more populous counties were counted. I would rant and rave to him about C.S. Lewis’s lifelong support of objectivity and how this is what happens when we allow people to just believe in what “feels right.” I am not against conservatism per se—heck, I used to be one—and society always needs healthy debate in order to progress, but I am most concerned by Trump and his administration’s (admittedly crude) attempts to distort reality, tactics also used by anti-vaxxers, anti-GMO folks, TERFs, and far, far left Communist activists that suppress critical thinking and refuse to acknowledge data. On the right, far too many people voted for Donnie, which either leads me to believe that I’m either surrounded by people incapable of critical thinking or in favor of authoritarianism, and I’d almost prefer the latter because the former speaks to a catastrophic failure of American democracy.

    I’m introducing my husband to The X-Files for the first time. He is a skeptic and enjoys many skeptic podcasts (for those interested, we enjoy Oh No Ross and Carrie!, which is a very lighthearted podcast hosted by two former fundamentalist Christians; they treat religion very respectfully). There is a great line in the third season finale where the series’s villain, Smoking Man, imprisons and confronts an angel/alien who has been using his powers to heal people. Smoking Man sneers that even if the alien revealed himself to the public, he wouldn’t believe in his miracles because they were too blinded by cynicism and science, worshipping the combination almost like a religion. I think this exchange really illustrates why Scully, a sceptic with the capacity to believe, is the true hero of the series.

    Of course, the series unwittingly shows why conspiracy theories are ultimately ridiculous. It would be so much easier for “them” to just kill Mulder, but of course “they” won’t because the whole point of a conspiracy is to think that one is important enough to attract the attention of some all-powerful, shadowy organization. Also Mulder is a whiny incel who is totally unworthy of Scully and she totally should have ended up with Reyes but there’s no point complaining about a show that ended 20 years ago.

    All of which is to say, I am reminded of a recent episode of the Wade Center’s podcast where they played clips of Lewis reading aloud from That Hideous Strength and discussing the novel. Dr. Crystal Downing said she was fascinated by the character of MacPhee, as he represented the ability to be good and true—in other words, to embrace the universal truths Lewis called the “Tao”—without believing in Christ, and the importance of surrounding oneself with people who don’t always share the same beliefs. We can act as checks and balances on each other without ever being cruel or dismissive. Ultimately Lewis feared conformity more than most other evils, and it’s easy to see why: groupthink leads to siloing oneself, burying true desires for the sake of complacency. I think there’s always been the joke that pornography always adopts to the latest technology, from cave painting to moveable type to VR, but people spreading misinformation are also early adapters. It’s up to us to remain ever vigilant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is a strong confession, Ceci–and could be an article in and of itself. However, as much as I can sympathize with your position re: DT and Republicans, remember that it is progressives, liberals and Democrats that have failed to win people to their ideas–the very people they claim to be “helping.” It’s a point that we–and people on the left–pass over too quickly. In 2016, enough Americans trusted Trump over Clinton to give him a shot. That says a tremendous amount about progressive, liberal and Democratic policy that people on the left have been unwilling to face.
      And I have begun to wonder if some of that is the hint in liberal thought that anyone who things like that can’t be __________. Fill in the blank to what that is. You said “critical thinker,” but others intimate “can’t be really human.” The “basket of deplorables” in 2016 was not a slip but something that liberals have in their hearts, said out loud.
      So though God will judge Trump voters in 2016 and 2020, I judge liberal thinkers and social media pundits and the like who should know better, but continue to destroy the bridges to their ideas for people in the world.
      I don’t mean this as a rebuke to you, but if I were an American Democrat, I would be urging the party to consider deep self-reflection before what appears will be a devastating mid-term loss in 2022. And in 2024, when a black woman is on the Dem ticket, will Americans believe that Democrats believe that real people are worth their time? We’ll see. But it will take the kind of time-in-the-desert the democratic party has had to experience in the past. In this way, the Trump era was wasted on Democratic politicians, I think–who never got over the rage and shock of 2016. Seeds of distrust sown by liberals now have borne fruit of dissension in this election cycle.
      But it need not be this way, I believe. I have little hope in the Democratic party, but I am a big believer in Americans.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hannah says:

    Thanks for this post! The past months also have often reminded me of the dwarfs, wondering how reality may break through into those echo chambers – that they may see e.g. the huge differences between Biden and Trump.

    Further to your texts: “………And this is the critical distinction of our age and, I believe, will lead to our self-imprisonment. …….It is this second kind of scepticism, lost in its own echo chamber that is terribly, terribly dangerous. How different from C.S. Lewis’ oft-repeated dictum from Socrates: “follow the evidence where it leads.”
    Lewis did follow that evidence himself! “That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Joe Christopher says:

    If I’m not mis-remembering things, the radio bands in the U.S. originally had a rule that the newscasts had to give both sides of controversies, but eventually Congress repealed that, so different news shows could be one-sided. I think it was a major error, however it seemed “good” politically.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hannah says:

      Before the election some social media temporarily changed their algorithm recommendations, so that more moderate main stream sources came up. I can’t find the article I read about it then, but this also seems a good one:
      https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/27/social-dilemma-media-facebook-twitter-society , with a quote from Neil Postman in his 1985 book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ “In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
      And this remark: ““Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” Left unchecked, the algorithms will feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform”

      Liked by 1 person

      • These are smart questions that I don’t have full answers to–though From and Postman and a few others make relevant reading today. And Huxley and Orwell–and a bit Lewis wrote during the war.
        I’m not convinced, personally, that divisiveness is the issue, but truthfulness. In the past, states and business could suppress information and ideas. Today, they overwhelm us to create a censoring effect, following us with misinformation. The flood of strange right-wing mis-info was not largely generated in this election cycle by Americans, but from without, to destabilize a democracy. It is, I think having no way to discern was is true that will defeat America–not the fact that there is division.
        But your point, Hannah, is cool. And Joe, I think a lot of the problem is people only believe the media they believe.

        Liked by 1 person

        • hannahdemiranda3 says:

          It sure is very complex, “having no way to discern was is true”, or if there is such a thing anymore, also has to do with it – part of Trump’s years long campaign to undermine it, so that people will blindly follow him – trade mark of an autocrat – pied piper leading them over the Covid cliff.
          I have just started Doris T. Myers “CS Lewis in context” – is it true that Lewis did not read newspapers? That “would suggest that he shared the WWI disillusionment with language that replaced public idealism and excitement after the war – all the propaganda to persuade young men to volunteer for military service’.

          Liked by 2 people

    • Cecilia Zeichner says:

      I think that cable news stations–CNBC, Fox, MSNBC, whatever Fox’s business channel is, etc.–are exempt from FCC rules mandating showing “both sides.” This is why those channels tend to have more “cult of personality” shows.

      Liked by 2 people

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