The Last Battle: J W Dunne in Narnia

This post is a brief extract from the fuller article in Mythlore:

The seven chronicles of Narnia are without doubt the most famous work of the writer and theologian C S Lewis. In the final volume, The Last Battle, Narnian time comes to an end. But it is not the end for the Narnians themselves. Lewis was an Anglican Christian so it is no surprise that his Narnians should be granted a suitably Heavenly afterlife. What is perhaps more surprising is the extent to which Lewis develops this theme throughout the last four chapters of the book. And what is more surprising still is that hardly anybody seems to have realised how closely he modelled that afterlife on his fellow Anglican and contemporary J. W. Dunne's theory of time, consciousness and immortality. (When I wrote my Mythlore essay, I did not know that Christopher White had noted the last chapter's multiple levels of existence in a lecture to Harvard Divinity School, only the previous year.)

Called Serialism, the theory proposed higher and higher levels of time and consciousness in an endless, or serial, regress. One of its consequences was that, when we die, only the body in the lowest level dies and the rest of our being lives on in the upper levels of time.

In The Last Battle, the beginning of the end comes as everybody inexorably finds their way inside a stable. The heroes of the tale, both Narnian and human, find themselves to be in a new land much bigger than the stable which contains it. As Digory remarks, "Its inside is bigger than its outside." (shades of Dr. Who and the Tardis, but I am far from the first to notice that one)

Narnia itself is emptied, its Time is ended and the stable door closed for good. Roonwit the centaur cries out, “Father in and higher up!” before galloping off. Aslan soon repeats the cry, “Come farther in! Come farther up!” and leads them off into the West.

Presently, everybody discovers that they are still in Narnia, but a higher and greater one, a Narnia which is “as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” Jewel the Unicorn sums it up; “I have come home at last! This is my real country! ... Come farther up, come farther in!” before galloping off after Roonwit. This follows Dunne in painting a sharper picture, of a world more real, lasting and meaningful than before, an immortal world.

Meanwhile the Dwarves are present at a different spiritual level from the others and in a condition which resembles that of purgatory: a fabulous dinner tastes to them like stable muck. The bad Narnians have by now been diverted off into the clutches of the evil god Tash and we hear no more of them.

All this exactly mirrors Dunne's treatment of the newly-dead in An Experiment with Time and other personal correspondence, where he discusses the respective confusion or joy that some people will feel, while he passes perhaps a little embarrassedly over the fate of the damned. This world is, rather obviously, Serialism's second level of time and consciousness.

The limitations of the flesh start to fall away: the others find they can now run fast enough to keep up with Jewel, run effortlessly up a waterfall and a hill crowned with golden gates. Entering, they meet all the characters from the earlier stories, long dead in the lower Narnia. We soon discover too that the humans' physical bodies had died in their own world, in the train crash that brought them to Narnia this time round. Their conscious selves still live on in the immortal levels of being; “The dream is ended: this is the morning.” This expansion of consciousness exactly parallels that envisaged by Dunne.

Presently it dawns on them all that this is yet a third Narnia, greater and more magnificent even that the second. It is “like an onion: except that as you go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.” Their perceptions are now so expanded that they can even see beyond the bounds of Narnia to other worlds, including England. This is of course not the physical England but the idealised third-level England. But to travel there, to meet their own fathers and mothers, the offspring will have to travel once again farther up and farther in, to a fourth level. Serialism is getting into its stride.

Lewis would have been well aware of all these parallels - he owned a classic Third Edition of Dunne's book An Experiment with Time and talked it over extensively with his fellow Inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien, who also had a copy. The parallels are so many and so clear that one cannot escape the conclusion that he was deliberately bringing to life the serial vision of his fellow Christian rationalist.

The two men's beliefs did differ in many respects and Lewis accepted only Dunne's first two levels of time, he did not swallow the whole Serialism thing. Yet that did not stop him from using it as a literary device. The body of detail in which he chose to follow Dunne’s Serialist philosophy in The Last Battle is unparalleled in any other known literary work.

The Last Battle was published in 1956, just seven years after Dunne’s death and one year after his own last, posthumous book on Serialism. It stands not only as the last and most powerful theological imagery of the Narnian chronicles but also as the last and most powerful depiction of Serialism’s immortality that literature has yet seen.

Updated 1 Sept 2021