Every time we reread a great book, we inevitably get something new out of it. This isn’t because the book changes, but because we do. Meaning is stable, but we grow and mature (at least, we ought to). And as we do, we become attentive to truth in new ways; we have a broader and richer framework that enables us to see more in the books we read (and read again).
This is true even of children’s books. Perhaps especially of children’s books. My appreciation of Narnia, for instance, is no secret. I’ve read the series dozens of times. On my most recent journey through the wardrobe, an important theme in the final book lit up for me in a fresh way. And then my own Bible reading connected with that theme and brought the whole matter home.
“Passions are the impulsive, almost instinctive motions of the soul. They are good, but dangerous.”
The theme is the centrality of the passions in the early chapters of The Last Battle. Passions are the impulsive, almost instinctive motions of the soul. They are good, but dangerous. They are our immediate reactions to reality, such as fear, anxiety, desire, pity, grief, and anger. It’s this last passion that figures prominently in The Last Battle. What happens when our anger, however justified in itself, goes unchecked and becomes rash? And are there any ways to rein it in?
The Rashness of the King
The second chapter opens with King Tirian and his close friend Jewel the Unicorn in a state of reverie over the news that Aslan has returned to Narnia. Aslan’s arrival is the most wonderful news imaginable. Their joy is interrupted, however, by Roonwit the Centaur, who claims that the news of Aslan’s arrival is a lie.
“A lie!” said the King fiercely. “What creature in Narnia or all the world would dare to lie on such a matter?” And, without knowing it, he laid his hand on his sword hilt. (20)
Note the intensity of the King’s reaction. More importantly, notice where that reaction takes him. His hand goes to his sword “without knowing it.” In other words, his impulsive passion moved him to react, apart from the guidance of his mind.
We see the same rashness a few moments later when the Dryad emerges from the forest, crying out for justice over the destruction of the talking trees. When Tirian hears it, he leaps to his feet and draws his sword. There are no enemies present. Nevertheless, the sword is drawn, perhaps again without him fully realizing what he’s doing. His passions are in control.
Anger Invites More Anger
When the Dryad falls to the ground dead, Tirian is speechless in his grief and anger. He then calls Jewel and Roonwit to immediately join him in a journey to put to death the villains who have committed this murder. They are to leave “with all the speed we may.” Jewel concurs, but Roonwit cautions. “Sire, be wary in your just wrath” (22). In your anger, Roonwit says, do not sin. Do not be unwise. Let us wait to gather troops and see the strength of the enemy.
But Tirian will “not wait the tenth part of a second.” His wrath is kindled and steering the ship. He and Jewel set out, with Tirian muttering to himself and clenching his fists. He’s so angry he doesn’t even feel the coldness of the water when they ford a river. His anger has him by the throat and will not let go.
After discovering that Aslan is apparently the one who ordered the felling of the trees, Tirian and Jewel press on toward the danger. The narrator comments,
[Jewel] did not see at the moment how foolish it was for two of them to go on alone; nor did the King. They were too angry to think clearly. But much evil came of their rashness in the end. (25)
This is the issue: they are too angry to think clearly. However righteous their anger at the injustice before them, the rashness of that anger leads to folly. They are impulsively reacting, not intentionally responding, and the results will be great evil and harm.
What Can Check Anger?
We don’t have to wait long for some of that evil to manifest. When the two come upon a talking horse being beaten and whipped by Calormen soldiers, their anger reaches a fever pitch.
When Tirian knew that the Horse was one of his own Narnians, there came over him and over Jewel such a rage that they did not know what they were doing. The King’s sword went up, the Unicorn’s horn went down. They rushed forward together. Next moment, both the Calormenes lay dead, the one beheaded by Tirian’s sword and the other gored through the heart by Jewel’s horn. (27)
“If unchecked and rash anger leads to great folly, evil, and bloodshed, what can check such a passion?”
Over and over, we see the theme of this chapter — from the hand on the sword without knowing it, to being too angry to think clearly, to being so filled with rage that they don’t know what they are doing even as they kill two men. The unchecked rashness of the king has led to great bloodshed.
I’d like to bring the rashness of Tirian into conversation with a story from the Scriptures and ask, If unchecked and rash anger leads to great folly, evil, and bloodshed, what can check such a passion?
The Rashness of the Anointed
The biblical story is a familiar one from the life of David. He is dwelling in the wilderness because he is estranged from King Saul, who is in the grip of the passion of envy. David has twice spared Saul’s life and thereby earned a respite of sorts from Saul’s pursuit. Samuel is dead, and David and his men are in the wilderness of Paran, low on supplies.
David sends some messengers to Nabal, a wealthy man who lives close by. Nabal is preparing a feast, and David asks for favor and supplies. This request is not out of the blue. David and his men have been camped near Nabal’s shepherds. Not only have they refrained from plundering his flocks, but they have actually ensured that no one else does either. David and his men were a wall to Nabal’s flocks by day and night (1 Samuel 25:16). Neither thief nor beast ravaged his flock. It is in light of this protection that David makes his humble request, identifying himself as a son and servant to Nabal (1 Samuel 25:8).
Nabal responds with derision and insults. “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants these days who are breaking away from their masters” (1 Samuel 25:10–11). In other words, “David, you are an unworthy outlaw, a rebel against the king. And I will not give my bread and my water and my meat to men from who knows where.”
When David hears of the insult, he responds like the last King of Narnia. “Every man strap on his sword!” (1 Samuel 25:13). In his anger, he and his men immediately set out to avenge the insult. And their intentions are clear — every male in Nabal’s house will be killed (1 Samuel 25:22). As with Tirian, here we have the impulsive passion of anger, a rage that is about to lead to great bloodshed and bloodguilt. But unlike Tirian, it’s about to be checked.
How to Appeal to Anger
The check comes in the form of Abigail, Nabal’s wise and discerning wife. Hearing of Nabal’s insult and the evil that is coming to their house, she immediately prepares a lavish gift of food and wine for David and his men. She brings the gifts and falls on her face before David and pleads for his favor.
She takes responsibility. She testifies to her husband’s folly. She gives David the gifts. But most importantly, she makes two fundamental appeals. First, she urges David to refrain from shedding innocent blood and working salvation with his own hand (1 Samuel 25:26). By doing so, he will avoid the grief and pangs of conscience that will come if he brings bloodguilt by his hand or seeks to save himself (1 Samuel 25:31). Second, she reminds David that the Lord will fight for him, that David’s life is “bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord your God” (1 Samuel 25:29).
These appeals check the rashness of the king. They arrest his rage and wrath and vengeance. They enable him to tame the passion of his impulsive anger. David blesses Abigail for her discretion and courage, because she has “kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand” (1 Samuel 25:34). And he blesses the Lord who sent her to him and restrained David’s hand from doing great evil by harming Abigail and her husband’s household.
And sure enough, the Lord vindicates David. Ten days later, the Lord strikes Nabal and he dies, avenging the insult against his anointed (1 Samuel 25:39). Not only does David spare himself from working evil; he gains the hand of a wise and discerning wife.
Weapons Against Our Anger
So, how might we apply wisdom like Abigail’s in checking our anger today? As we feel the temperature of our souls rising, we stop and remind ourselves — and one another — first, that ungodly anger will only add iniquity to our injury, and second, that the Lord himself has said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Romans 12:19).
These two stories — one fictional and one biblical — issue the same warning: Beware the passions of your flesh. They often wage war against your soul (1 Peter 2:11). In your anger, do not sin (Ephesians 4:26). Remember that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20). Instead, entrust yourself to God (1 Peter 4:19). Look to him to fight your battles and to vindicate.
This doesn’t make us passive; the Lord also fought for and with David when he took up his sling against Goliath. That salvation, like the one with Nabal, was wrought by God’s hand, not David’s. But when we act in faith, we do so intentionally and thoughtfully, not reactively or rashly. We trust that our lives are bound in the bundle of the living in the care of our Lord, that we always live between the paws of the true Aslan.