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.